Some readers will simply select a book by a favorite author, regardless of the genre of the book. I bought a book the other day by Stephen King, the noted ‘horror’ writer, and it was a ‘crime novel’, titled ‘Joyland’. Rather than genre, most people will pluck a book from the shelf (or online) based on subject matter, such as ‘murder’, ‘love / sex’, ‘vampires’, ‘zombies’ or ‘witches’, and so on.
Advertising helps, too, of course. If a new book is being sensationalized in the media, or happens to be the Number One book on the New York Bestseller list, then it attracts a lot of attention, and people might purchase it to see what all the fuss is about. Think of the marketing behind such books as the Harry Potter series, Dan Brown’s latest novel, Inferno, or Fifty Shades of Grey and so forth.
Occasionally, folks will buy a book after seeing a movie (or vice versa in many cases). After watching the movie, “World War Z”, with my wife, Mandy, I bought the book. Somebody had told me that the book was better than the movie, and as I enjoyed the movie so much, I decided to read the original novel. I’m not usually a ‘zombie’ fan, but I found the movie, “Legend”, quite a thrill as well, as it also encompassed an ‘end-of-the-world’ scenario – a theme I find fascinating.
However, afterwards, one can then consider what genre or category of fiction (or non-fiction as the case may be), their story fits into. Why is this so important? One word: marketability. It might be fun to write a crime novel, which suddenly turns into science fiction. However, it might be impossible to find a publisher willing to publish it, and even if you publish it yourself, very few people might buy it. Why? Because an avid reader of crime fiction is perhaps not interested in science fiction, or a fan of horror might bristle at the inclusion of ‘romance’ in the story. People who like ‘action’ books (by such authors as Matthew Reilly and Clive Cussler, for example) may not want to read about vampires and witches.
To further illustrate this conflict of genre, allow me to tell you about a movie I once saw. I’m a huge fan of Quentin Tarantino movies. I felt in the mood for an action movie or ‘crime thriller’ at the time, and so I decided to watch ‘From Dusk Till Dawn’. [Spoiler alert: don’t read further if you haven’t seen this movie yet – rather, please continue straight on to the next paragraph.] This story stayed in the ‘crime/action’ genre until half way through the movie, when it suddenly changed into a vampire flick!
It was an abrupt shock and momentarily I felt cheated. My friend suggested we walk out. But we stayed and actually found it to be an extremely entertaining piece of cinema. It wasn’t what we expected but we enjoyed it nevertheless.
However, it’s a lot easier to put a book down, or throw it away, than to walk out of a cinema. And if the reader feels cheated by the author, due to the writer unexpectedly introducing a genre other than what has been suggested by its marketing, then often they may ditch the book. And as soon as word of mouth spreads, others may choose to avoid it as well. This is why publishers rarely accept a book that changes genre half way through the story. In fact, publishers have fairly strict definitions of what constitutes a particular genre, and there are generally accepted rules within those genres for writers to follow. Hence, if you want your book to be published, and to be popular with readers, then it’s advisable to find out what those guidelines are and to follow them.
So what is genre? In the Oxford American Dictionary, the noun ‘genre’ is defined as ‘a category of artistic composition, as in literature or music, characterized by similarities in form, style or subject matter.’
With regard to literature, as anyone who has been to a library knows, books are first and foremost divided into fiction and non-fiction. Non-fiction is further broken down into (auto) biographies, history books, reference books, and so on. But for the purpose of this article, I will focus on the genres within fiction.
On Wikipedia, I came across this definition of ‘genre fiction’:
‘Genre fiction, also known as popular fiction, is plot-driven fictional works written with the intent of fitting into a specific literary genre, in order to appeal to readers and fans already familiar with that genre.’
It goes on to list various examples of genre fiction as: Crime, Fantasy, Horror, Mystery (or Detective), Romance, Science Fiction, Western, and Inspirational. It intrigued me that ‘action/thriller’ wasn’t included, as I think this is a widely popular genre in fiction today, and it’s the genre by which my novel, Gold of the Rising Sun, is best categorized. (My novel will be ready for publication in 2014).
Within those genres may exist some sub-genres, as well. ‘Horror’, for example, has various sub-genres such as Gothic Horror, Alien scenarios, Paranormal or Psychological Horror, Erotic Horror or Horror Comedy, to name just a few.
Each genre has its own conventional structure, and it would be wise to learn what the structure of a particular genre is, if you are writing a book in that category. While I won’t go into further detail on this here, I can recommend various e-books on Amazon by writing guru Rob Parnell, with his ‘how to’ series on Horror, Fantasy, Thrillers, Romance, and Crime Fiction, among others.
Another consideration for writers whose books fall into a particular genre is word length, and this is especially important for first time writers who want their manuscripts accepted by an agent or publisher. Established writers with a proven sales record can often ignore this. On average however, a piece of genre fiction should range from eighty thousand to a hundred thousand words.
There are always exceptions of course, and one should consult online writing resources, as well as agents’ websites, and there are also some excellent books on the topic, such as Writer’s Market (from Writer’s Digest Books). One good example of a blog on this specific topic of word-length-per-genre is The Swivet.
Readers of course know exactly what they want, but my advice to beginning writers is to initially write your book from the heart, focusing only on the characters and plot. Then once it is finished, consider what genre your story and/or theme most closely typifies. Following that, research the accepted norms, guidelines, structures and common word length of books in that same genre, and then self-edit your first draft accordingly. Hopefully, this will give you the best chance of success when submitting to agents and/or publishers.
See you on the shelf!
ⓒ Chris Ryall 2013