Two options for when to decide on genre.
Many people advise you to consider genre at the very start of your writing process, and that’s good advice if you’re a plotter—one who plots their stories in detail from the start. Then you can be clear on what kind of story you’re writing, and you can write specifically to suit that market. Excellent. Problem solved. All you have to do is make sure that your story has all the elements to satisfy reader expectations.
The problem with this approach is that it doesn’t work for those who discover a story somewhere in their creative mind and then write it down. Such stories often don’t fit into clear genres. Nor does it work for those who like to write their first draft without concerning themselves with where it’s going (pansters). In these cases the author may not know exactly what it is they’ve written until they’ve written it.
Looking back and seeing what it is that you’re trying to achieve with a story is something you do at the second draft, and that’s when you need to consider your genre because it will help shape it.
Why knowing the genre is important.
You need to know where it fits in readers’ tastes so you can pitch it correctly if you’re submitting to publishers, get the right cover if you’re self-publishing and market it to the right readers.
There are a lot of sub-genres and the differences between them are subtle but important in terms of satisfying reader expectations. If you market to the wrong people, they won’t be happy and their reviews will show it.
When your story could go several ways.
It’s easy to get it wrong when you’re playing with a multitude of different elements in a story. And those with more literary or multi-genre approach will find themselves in this situation. It’s sometimes hard to know which elements to emphasise, and what you emphasise in a story will determine the genre you market it as.
It wasn’t until a beta reader pointed out that romance readers would be dissatisfied by my latest novel that I realised that I wasn’t writing a romance. And making that decision was both a relief and an inspiration.
Why wasn’t it a romance?
Romantic elements don’t make a romance, just as elements of suspense don’t make it a suspense.
I thought that because Dispossessed had strong romantic elements that it was a romance, but I discovered after looking at a book on the romantic structure, that romance has only two leads and two points of view, one a male and one a female. Dispossessed has two men and one woman with all their points of views included and the woman has sexual relations with both men. This would work for erotica if they had a threesome—but my three don’t and I’m very clear that I’m not writing erotica. It would also work if the woman was trying to choose between them, but my lady has no choice with one of the men. She’s his slave. So it doesn’t quite fit that format either. To make it even more non-romance genre specific she also has feelings for both men, and there is a lot of politics—state and gender—and spirituality in it. And when I tried to fit it to a romance structure, it didn’t quite fit. Almost, but not enough, and changing it to fit would kill the story as I see it.
Choosing categories for multi-genre books.
The central story in Worlds Within Worlds is a thriller, but it also has a fantasy story thread, a past life thread, and dream and memory threads that are not thrillers. I would be silly to market it as a thriller because thriller readers would hate the other threads. I could be called literary fiction, magical realism, metaphysical fiction, psychological fiction and Buddhist fiction. I market it different ways at different times and places, but Amazon gives you only two categories.
For them I had to choose the genres whose readers would most appreciate the book, so I chose Metaphysical & Visionary, and Literary with the other genres as keywords.
The Locksmith’s Secret is likewise a mix of genres, and its central story is romance, but I’m not marketing it as romance because it has all the same elements as above including a steampunk thread. It also has a big female emancipation thread, so I chose Contemporary Women’s Fiction and Metaphysical & Visionary Fiction as the categories. Magical realism, romance and steampunk are keywords.
Women’s fiction is a good fit for these books, but they aren’t just for women, and their themes are not just for women, which is why I also market them more widely.
The trouble with metaphysical fiction is that though my books do fit it well, it’s a small market and that title gives airy-fairy-wishy-washy feelings to some people—and my books are not that, so it important to get my second category right.
How to check if you’ve chosen the right genre.
- Tune into your gut feelings: I wasn’t comfortable with writing or marketing a romance, but that’s what I thought the story of Dispossessed was—see my cover creation process for more on that. I have nothing against romance, but this story is more than just a story about two people falling in love. By pushing it into the romance genre, I was limiting it. I had a nervousness about it this book which went when I decided it was a romantic metaphysical fantasy, not a fantasy romance.
- Ask yourself if you’re comfortable with the genre you’ve chosen. If you’re not sure, try calling your story different genres and see how they feel. Ask yourself not what you think is right, but what feels right. What are you comfortable with?
- Research the genre you’ve chosen: Find out what defines it and what readers expect from it. Ask yourself if your book would satisfy readers of that genre. Does it have everything they’d look for in it? If I’d done that earlier, I would have realised earlier that the book didn’t fit neatly into the romance genre. I thought it would satisfy them, but actually I didn’t know enough about the genre to be able to make that call. I only realised it after I looked into the genre.
- Clarify the central point of your book: Discard any ideas of genre for a moment and ask yourself why you’re writing it, and what you’re trying to communicate with the book. Is the chosen genre stifling your ‘message’? Using a timeline to check plot points also helps in the clarification process.
- Do you read that genre? If you don’t read the genre you’re writing in, you may not fully understand, or even like, the genre, so are you sure that really is what you’re writing.
- Ask your beta readers.
So Dispossessed is not fantasy romance, but romantic metaphysical fantasy. However, for Amazon categories, where what you can choose from don’t match the search terms in the store, I’ll go with Fantasy/Paranormal (there’s no fantasy romance option, but paranormal usually has romance in it) and Visionary & Metaphysical, so it will appear as metaphysical fantasy in the store. Keywords (based on the ebook store search categories) will be romance, coming of age, steampunk, royalty and aristocrats, women’s fiction, literary, and psychological.
Knowing this allows me to focus more on the psychological, metaphysical and inspirational aspects of the story, which are the areas of most interest for me, and less on the sexual aspects of the relationships. I’m much more comfortable with that, and my present readers will be as well.
Would you read a romantic fantasy? Or would you be more inclined to read a romantic metaphysical fantasy? How about a romantic psychological fantasy? What do these terms mean to you?