Tuesday, January 24, 2012

What genre is it, anyway?

This week's guest blogger is the wonderful Ryder Islington. I took an on-line class with Ryder last year and  I have to confess that when I read her book, Ultimate Justice, I kept thinking about a really powerful scene she'd submitted for the class, and stressing over when this awful thing was going to happen to the characters. I shouldn't have worried. The scene  was from her next book. Meanwhile, I hope you'll all check out her post here, and click the link to the right to check out Ultimate Justice. It's an atmospheric, character-driven mystery that I know you'll enjoy.

I can’t tell you how many times I’ve heard a writer ask this question. “I’ve written this book, and it has suspense and romance and comedy in it. What genre is it?” And so many times I’ve heard this response: “Just write the book you want to write and then figure out what to call it. It’s probably the same kind of book you like to read.”

We do have to write the books that are in us. But honing the genre is important when it comes time to send out prepare a synopsis, send out queries and actually sell your story. Agents and editors represent certain genres, bookstores shelve according to genre, and readers choose books according to genre. There are blended genres, like historical romance, romantic mystery, romantic cozy, or women’s historical fiction.

Sometimes a new writer deliberately tries to create new combinations, to be unique, and sometimes it just turns out that when the first draft is completed, it has elements of mystery, romance and drama, or some other combination. Or it doesn’t seem to fit into any genre. I tried really hard to write an historical romance and ended up with a western. The subject of genre can be confusing even for experienced writers.

So how do we solve the problem of how to fit our wonderful stories into some category seemingly created to make our lives harder?

When I started writing my debut novel, Ultimate Justice, A Trey Fontaine Mystery, the plan was for it to be a thriller. Then it took a turn as an element of romance was introduced. But wait, wasn’t it really about the main character, Trey Fontaine, the FBI agent, and two homicide cops, which would make it a police procedural. After twenty or so revisions, I realized that the most important element of this story was the mystery.  The mystery affects every character in the book.

I am now of the opinion that while we are writing our first draft, we need to just write the story that is in us. And then when that first creative burst is over and it has been stashed away for a week or two, it’s time to read it fresh, bearing in mind that if it is to be sold in the current market, it has to have a main category.  What is the major plot about? Who is the main character and what makes that character change throughout the story? What is the strongest element in the story?  Chances are that if you write fiction, you read fiction, so you know about genres.

Go to the bookstore, or to Amazon.com, (or in my case, to the five hundred or so books scattered about my home) and look at some categories. Are there any authors whose work reminds you of your own? Don’t fall into the trap of comparing your skill with another writers’. The question is not about the skill, but about the style, theme, pace, etc. Read some books in the genres you think your story fits into, and analyze it. Who is the major character, and what happens to him/her? What do you see as the most important part of the plot?

Read books by authors whose work feels like yours and just see if maybe your book fits into that genre. For me, the best example is Greg Iles. What feels similar between his writing and mine is the character development. We both like to delve into characters.  And we both write at a medium pace. Turns out he writes more in the thriller genre, but with a mystery. Whereas my book is a mystery, with a little thriller genre thrown in. Don’t get me wrong—I’m not professing to write as well as Greg Iles. But as I compared my story to the stories of my favorite authors, I found a familiar feel in his work.

So when writers ask me how to place their stories into genres, I try to give them some direction that actually helps solve the issue. What genre is it? That’s an important question for every writer. I found a way to answer the question for myself. I hope my methods help others too.

Ultimate Justice, A Trey Fontaine Mystery is receiving rave reviews from readers. http://www.ll-publications.com/ultimatejustice.html

The small town of Raven Bayou, Louisiana explodes as old money meets racial tension, and tortured children turn the table on abusive men. FBI Special Agent Trey Fontaine returns home to find the town turned upside down with mutilated bodies. Working with local homicide detectives, Trey is determined to get to the  truth. A believer in empirical evidence, Trey ignores his instincts until he stares into the face of the impossible, and has to choose between what he wants to believe and the ugly truth.

A graduate of the University of California and former officer for a large sheriff’s department, RYDER ISLINGTON is now retired and doing what she loves: reading, writing, and gardening. She lives in Louisiana with her family, including a very large English Chocolate Lab, a very small Chinese pug, and a houseful of demanding cats. She can be contacted at RyderIslington@yahoo.com or visit her blog at http://ryderislington.wordpress.com


  1. Great post! I think for the most part, I don't have a problem deciding what genre it is. (something I love about self-publishing is being able to publish in ANY genre). Except for my first book. It's about a 19-year old. It COULD be YA. But I think it's also women's fiction. But a very good post, and I agree.

  2. (From email communication with Shannon O'Brien, after the internet fairies wouldn't let her leave a post.)
    "Wonderful post! Liv and I have been discussing this issue for the past couple of months. The book I'm wrapping up is a melting pot of genre's and I'm having a hard time narrowing it down before promoting it. It's a mixture of Dan Brown pace/thriller, Anne Rice supernatural horror, and Rosemary Rogers tortured romance. Ack!"

  3. April - the ability to self-publish has really turned things around and given a lot of people more flexibility. Thanks for checking out the post!

  4. Great post! Oh my. What genre am I? I'm gonna say: comedy, drama, romance. Because that's the tag I got off "Love Actually" and I'm kind of like that!