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When Your Book Crosses Genres

Genre is the category publishers and bookstores use to define and sell your book. Examples are mystery, romance, SFF or more general fiction. While not categories in bookstores, genres also include techno-thrillers, domestic suspense, or magical realism.

I’m always surprised at how difficult it is for authors to claim a genre. I get that it’s hard to judge our own writing. But it’s truly the rare book that is everything and, frankly, why would you want it to be? You wouldn’t be thrilled with a chef who gave you pasta primavera that was also carbonara, that also included pesto and marinara. I don’t even think Bobby Flay could pull that off.

No book transcends all genres and succeeds by being all things. By assuming it does you don’t impress an agent, you give the impression that you don’t know the market you’re targeting. It says that you aren’t reading in the current market and don’t understand the business.

A reader asks,

I have a query-related question about genre. I’ll call my novel Book X. I initially considered this book a romantic comedy, but life isn’t simple or formulaic and neither is Book X. This prompts the question: Can a query blend genres? I’ve come to think of Book X as upmarket fiction with a strong element of magic realism (i.e., the Universe). I expect it to clock out at 85,000 to 90,000 words – too lengthy for rom-com. 

In keeping with rom-com, the book’s complex characters reach satisfying and often-unexpected conclusions related to love in its many forms. In keeping with upmarket fiction, the book’s several threads and three intersecting plots are followed to this conclusion, but with complications and plenty of sexual tension. It doesn’t take long for the Universe to be uncloaked as a pompous idiot.

My target audience is the senior single woman too repressed or uninterested in reading a bodice ripper but keen on reading a book that makes her laugh at fictional characters “just like me” or “someone I know” – but dorkier.

A book can definitely blend genres and, frankly, most of them do. I’ve read plenty of romance novels with elements of mystery. It’s the rare mystery that doesn’t also have an element of romance. Heck, it’s the rare book that doesn’t have a romance. But pitching your book as everything doesn’t help me, or the publisher, know who your readership is. It also doesn’t help the author understand what the book is going to be about.

The point of claiming a genre is to give your reader an easy idea of what they will expect. Will they expect a romance? or will they expect magical realism? Will they be looking to read Michelle Hazen (romance) or Heather Webber (magical realism)?

Choosing a Genre

If you are unsure of where your book lands you need to be reading. Frankly, the use of the term “bodice ripper” indicates to me that you don’t understand the rom-com or even the romance market. Romance comes in many shapes and sizes and bodice ripper is not a term most authors feel respects their work. Also, there are plenty of dorky characters in romance.

And as for word count, it’s not really as high as you might think for romance or any genre really. That being said, if your word count is too high for a specific genre the answer isn’t to recategorize the book. The answer is too edit. Word count isn’t just about what a publisher wants. Readers have certain expectations too and length is one of them.

Upmarket v. Commercial Fiction

So what makes upmarket versus commercial fiction? It’s the level of writing. To really know whether your book is one or the other you need to be reading books considered upmarket or “book club” fiction. As well as those considered commercial.

I can’t tell you what your book is. What I can tell you is that it’s unlikely it’s both upmarket and commercial (which is where rom com falls) and that magical realism would likely be upmarket while rom com could have magic without being magical realism.

Read, study the genres, and find where your book fits and where you want it to be. That’s will make a stronger query.

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6 comments

  1. Thank you for this post. It came just in time. As with the book above, mine crosses genres – but deliberately and with the understanding of that complication. As with the description above, my book is upmarket rom-com with a generous measure of magic realism. Because it’s upmarket, it clocks in at 95,000 words. Should I drop one of these intertwined elements?
    I chose the word “upmarket” (rather than literary) because the book offers a high level of fun and dorky situations, but with a high level of fun and two subplots.
    Love and life can be complicated, and my book reflects that. beginning with the quirky birth of my central character, dipping into her odd childhood, delving into the Full Dorky of her adult life, watching her start to “grow up” while remaining funny, and closing shortly after her death at 93.
    My target audience is and has always been single senior women – a slice of the marketplace I know extremely well. My “back flap” blurb pitches to that market, as well.
    I’ve read Heather Webber’s book. She nailed the “deep South” atmosphere beautifully, and the blackbirds are a great literary device for magic realism. I enjoyed her book very much!
    I believe in the magic of love and laughter. Do you think I should strip away the word “upmarket,” let the writing speak for itself, get on my knees and finally, FINALLY submit? My synopsis is in progress … Should I wait for that to be done?
    These aren’t easy questions: I value your experience and wisdom. Inquiring minds urgently need to know!

  2. Further to my note above … I gave some thought to bookstores and to categorizing my book as I wrote it. If I had to categorize the book in a bookstore, I’d definitely slot it as a “romance.” That’s clearly what it is – with more roadblocks and hilarious complications than most people in the “real world” tend to have .
    Thank you so much for your excellent blog! It’s the first thing I read each morning!

  3. I have the opposite problem: I know exactly what I am not writing, but the “literary fiction” that’s left sounds so pretentious – am I/my writing “good enough” for that?

    Defining genres for your own writing is hard…

    What I would love to see is a list of genres with a decent explanation that makes sense to people who haven’t got a PhD in literature. Especially for the less obvious genres.

    commercial fiction: Easy going page turner with great plot and wonderful characters. Everybody wants to read it or see the movie. Will make you rich and famous over night. Authors of cf are prone to buy a private island to get away from it all. Alternatively, they start on booze.

    literary fiction: Explores the deep questions of life, universe and all the rest in nested sentences and words hardly seen outside a 17th-century dictionary. Won’t sell a single copy outside of your immediate circle of friends, literary critics, and equally dorky people. If you keep it up for long enough though, you’ll get a Nobel Prize when you’re 90.

    women’s fiction: Deals with important milestones in life that no man could ever experience. You know, stuff like married life, children, unresponsive spouses, death of parents, sagging body parts… However, if most of the book centers on that sculpted piece of man-meat that just moved in next door, you’re probably writing erotica.

  4. Genres can be tricky when you have a blend in your story. That’s why in your query letter put the genre/admin after your blurb so you don’t turn an agent away if you’ve got the genre wrong (sage advice from the Query Shark).

  5. I read somewhere that genres aren’t set boxes that books have to with fit into or try to straddle.
    They are a part of an author’s tool kit, light and versatile. Full of descriptions, suggestions and endless possibilities. Always ready for the author to dip in and out of as they wish, mix if required.

    I love this idea, especially when it comes to crossing or mixing genre. I think of it as trays of different coloured paint, if added to many different colours and shades. All you’ll end up with is a confused mess.

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