Choosing Your Genre

  • By: Jessica Faust | Date: May 07 2008

What genre would ‘ghost story’ belong to? I know paranormal would apply on one level, but what other factors determine its true ‘nature’? There can be arguments made for mystery/thriller/suspense/horror/romance depending on the storyline, I suppose, but when deciding which agents to query it can get a little confusing, especially for a first time author. In my case, for example, there is no romance, possibly a mystery in that the MC is trying to determine who/what/why is haunting her, but not a mystery in the traditional sense. I hope there is suspense, and a few thrills, but I don’t think I’d consider it horror, although I could be wrong. Hence my confusion!

An interesting question, since I really have no idea what a ghost story would be, other than those creepy tales we told around the campfire as kids. I suspect your book belongs in general fiction, but for anyone who isn’t sure where their book fits in bookstores, my advice is to do your research. Whose writing would you compare yourself to, and most important, what individual books or stories would you compare yours to. Who would buy this book? Readers of what authors would be interested in your story? When you do this exercise, I urge you not to look at any author who was published more than five to ten years ago or any author or book that has become a New York Times bestseller. The market is a very different thing than it was five years ago, it’s very different than it was two years ago, and going too far back in time taints your research. Books published that long ago might not even be considered in today’s market and it might not be shelved in the same section. Bestselling books are no longer one of the masses. They are now celebrity books and can’t be compared to a title written by a new author. The genre of Stephen King’s titles, for example, is Stephen King. He’s a genre all on his own, as are Nora Roberts, Janet Evanovich, Tom Clancy, and any other authors who are regulars on the bestseller lists.

If all else fails, label your book fiction with paranormal elements. It gets the idea across.

I’m curious to hear from readers. Because I get asked so often how a book should be categorized I’m curious to know how you decided on a label or genre for your book.


25 responses to “Choosing Your Genre”

  1. Personally, I base the genre of my book on which authors and books have inspired me the most when writing it. Being British, we tend to classify books differently, I think.

    When I was in New York, I found one of my favourite authors under mystery rather than horror where I expected it to be. In the UK, most bookshops won’t even have a mystery section and would classify it as crime or horror or fantasy depending on the elements of the book.

  2. Good question. I hear chick lit is dead but Evanovitch is so popular-aren’t the Plum novel’s chick lit?
    I think people will always love the light hearted feel of chick lit. I doubt it will ever die-they’ll just rename it.
    Sometimes I’m surprized at which authors I find in certain sections of the bookstore.
    After I write a book I have the hardest time with the genre lable. I think there should be a chart or something to help us figure this out.

  3. Avatar beverley says:

    Mine own genre is a cakewalk but I’d like to address this ghost story issue. I would have to agree with why they might not consider it a paranormal. A fine example would be ‘Sixth Sense’ and ‘The Others’ (two of my all time favourite suspense/ghost stories ever! I definitely didn’t think of it as paranormal, definitely a suspense/mystery with perhaps paranormal elements. Hmm, is there such a sub-genre?

  4. Avatar Tammie says:

    I love the topic of which genre. I’m waiting for the book publishers to start using Dramedies as the film industry does.

    When I see an agent specifically says women’s fiction, I use that one but if they don’t and I still see books they’ve represented similar to mine, and they only call it commercial, then I use that in my query.

    Other than the hard rules for say chick lit or romance and maybe sci-fi you can fall under many genres.

    I’d be more worried about a manuscript that someone couldn’t nail down to any label.

    I’ve seen some agents go as far as asking for works that cross/combine the literary AND commercial.

    It can make your head hurt sometimes.

  5. Avatar nlnaigle says:

    This is a tough one for me too, because the “go research your favorites” doesn’t get you to the level that is expected in those query letters. There are so many genres that are all booked on the Romance shelves, but if I just say I’m writing a romance that doesn’t tell the agent much, does it.

    That being said, I’ve personally started relying more on my tagline to convey the genre because I’m comfortable that gets the point across.

    As for chicklit — you are so right…I’ve had the very same thoughts as “Aimless Writer”. They are being booked in the Romance sections in the bookstores — are those being lumped under women’s fiction these days??

    It’s a complex world 🙂

  6. Avatar Joe Moore says:

    Amazon does writers a favor, even unpublished ones. If you are wrestling with a choice of genres to base your pitch on, look at books that are similar to what you write. Amazon lists what other books were bought by the same readers. Checking a few of your admired authors and what other books their fans chose will help you qualify your genre question.

  7. Avatar Mark Terry says:

    So Stephen King’s son, writing as Joe Hill, writes a “first novel” called “A Heart-Shaped Box” and even though the editor supposedly didn’t know he was King’s son until later, front-lists this ghost story and it becomes a bestseller (Probably deservedly, it’s a hell of a book).

    So then International Thriller Writers, Inc nominates it as Best First Novel as a thriller.

    Is it a thriller?


    Is it a ghost story?





    If that’s where the publisher wants to place, it, why not?

    The whole damned thing seems like breakfast cereal. Let’s put this stuff here, it’s for adults. This stuff here, it’s for kids. This is supposed to be good for you, shelf it over by the adult stuff. Generics go on the bottom shelf unless it’s the store chain’s own brand, in which case it goes at eye level.

  8. Avatar Just_Me says:

    Ghost stories could go many places. I think it depends on the overall theme and tone of the book. If you’re book is just about why the MC is being haunted, general fiction. If the book is creepy enough to give people nightmares, horror. If the MC sleeps around while ghost-busting, romance. And if the MC is clumsy and haunted by her own silliness, comic.

    If you’re looking where to query this book I suggest querying darn near everyone. Anyone who hints they take mainstream or fiction of any kind is fair game. The absolute worst they can do is say, “Not right for me.” You can probably even slip around identifying the genre during the query of you write it well enough.

  9. Avatar hldyer says:

    Figuring out the genre was much harder than writing the novel. *snort*

    Mine is upmarket women’s fiction. But that took me months to figure out. I posted a discussion with an English teacher friend about it on my blog about a month ago.

    I didn’t consider genre when I was writing. When I finally turned my thoughts to marketing, I polled my test readers (~100 or so) for genre. Which was no help whatsoever. They all had very varied opinions.
    “It’s mystery/suspense.”
    “It’s a romantic thriller.”
    “It’s whatever Jodi Picoult is.”
    (Actually, if I had paid more attention to that last suggestion, which came up several times, I’d have been on the right track sooner.)

    So, I researched online and read agent websites and blogs. My novel is definitely a book club sort, so I embraced the term “upmarket”. But the “women’s fiction” label was a little more difficult to decide.

    When researching agents who represent women’s fiction, the books I initially found as examples were mostly flirty and fun. Those characters buy shoes while my protagonist uncovers brutal family secrets.

    But when I began specifically researching “upmarket women’s fiction”, I finally found my peeps: Jodi Picoult, Maeve Binchy, Ann-Marie MacDonald, Nancy Pickard.

    Once I figured it out, it seemed obvious. But it was a struggle to get there.

  10. Avatar green_knight says:

    The options that remain on the table are paranormal thriller (fast-paced, danger to protag, mainly in the real world-with-added-ghost; mainstream/literary (if the ghost is more allegorical, and depending on the style and overall story shape) or fantasy (if the supernatural element is ‘real’ and integral to the story).

  11. Avatar writeidea says:

    Mine was easy. It is an urban fantasy. It involves tango, vampires and dryads, so I knew that was what I was writing from the beginning.

  12. Avatar Natalie says:

    When trying to figure out the genre for my book, I started really vague. I knew it was YA since my characters are teens.

    But then where do you put a zombie protagonist that falls in love with a living person and destroys the Underworld’s ruler? Zombies are traditional horror, but I don’t use them like that. The book has romantic elements, but not quite enough that I would consider it romance. Undead lore could be considered fantasy, but it’s a smaller branch.

    I started researching. Amazon was a big help, as was wiki for definitions. I heard urban fantasy being thrown around a lot and looked it up, read several hot books in the genre. My book wasn’t quite that, but close.

    On wiki they had related genres and I found contemporary fantasy, which fits as best as I can manage for my genre bending piece. So YA contemporary fantasy it is.

  13. Avatar Ulysses says:

    I agree with just_me: genre depends on what’s happening, not whether there’s a ghost involved.

    I suggest taking a look at the central conflict: what’s the protagonist’s goal? What’s opposing their progress?

    Knowing those things would make genre determination easier.

  14. Avatar Robena Grant says:

    My last completed ms. had a ghost in it (also a psychic) but I labelled it romantic suspense with a paranormal thread. The suspense aspect (abduction, murder, physical attack) occurred on the pages more frequently than the ghost did so I thought that was most appropriate.
    I’ve only put it out to one editor through a conference request. It made it all the way through to full ms. request but then got rejected. I think it’s going to be a hard sell because it’s such a “stew” so I’m letting it sit for a while. This time around I’m going simple. Straight romantic suspense … forget the ghosts.

  15. Oddly enough, I don’t have trouble of identifying the genre of my own work. If it can’t fit cleanly in one genre, usually at least one is strong enough that I feel comfortable labeling the book as that. Then again, I tend to write in genres that are a little more “fixed” in terms of classification.

    Where I have trouble is identifying authors/books that mine is similar to. Many of the books that inspired my piece read so differently that you can only see the influence if you squint- I know it’s there, but either my philosophy or my prose ends up radically different from the other authors’. Of course, there’s also the issue you mentioned, of not wanting to compare yourself to a massive bestseller or a book that’s too old. I suppose I’ll just need to read more books to remedy this problem.

  16. Avatar C.J. Redwine says:

    Interesting question. My first novel was easy: I set out to write romantic suspense and so I did.

    My second novel, however, is trickier. I wanted to incorporate paranormal elements without using any of the usual suspects (so no werewolves, vampires, witches, etc. for me!). It took five months of brainstorming to come up with the idea and I’m calling it a paranormal thriller with a side of comedic relief….

    There’s a shelf for that, right? 😉

  17. Avatar Chumplet says:

    My first two novels were straightforward romantic suspense, but my third straddles a couple of genres in that half of it is in present day male protagonist’s POV and the other half is in 1970’s (don’t cringe) teenage girl’s POV. I suppose I’ll call it Women’s Fiction until told otherwise.

    Maybe I’ll just label it commercial.

  18. Why don’t you just call it a “ghost story?”

    “Dear Agent, I am seeking representation for TITLE, a 90,000 word ghost story about blah blah blah…”

    Problem solved.

  19. Avatar Wordsmith says:

    I’m having the same problem with mine. It’s contemporary fiction, but it has a strong paranormal / ghost story element. I started off calling it paranormal chick lit — you can imagine how that went. LOL!

    It’s more realistic than urban fantasy, it has no fairies, pixie dust, gremlins, etc. The protag lives in contemporary society. But it does have a ghost or three, all with their own, often anti-social agendas.

    But it’s got a sense of humor, So it’s not a traditional horror either. It’s just a story about a girl, her gay best friend, her more-unlucky-than-he-thought boyfriend, and a talented toad as they pit themselves against a disembodied enemy who’s not constrained by the laws of physics.

    The characters are fun, the action ranges between Murphy’s Law type complications and truly spooky and I have no idea which genre label is most appropriate. Any ideas?

  20. Avatar Angie Fox says:

    The last ghost story I read sounds like what you’re describing. It was categorized as a mystery, even though there was no actual mystery. It was called The Harrowing by Alexandra Sokoloff. Check it out and see if it’s like your book. If it is, that might be your answer.

    But I really think the lines do cross. I’ve heard Sokoloff described as a mystery author, a “dark suspense” author and, heck, I discovered her and her books at a conference called Malice Domestic, which highlights the cozy mystery genre. So there you go.

    If you look at similar books and still can’t decide, you really can’t go wrong following Diana’s advice and simply calling it a ghost story. Let them decide. Your query description would give an agent some ideas as well.

    Good luck!

  21. Avatar Clare2e says:

    I’m writing a ghost story- possibly young adult- with a comic book tie-in. It isn’t horror though. It’s fantasy like Tim Powers is fantastic: weird elements knitted in with otherwise realistic ones. The ‘woo-woo’ is usually hidden beneath or occurring in parallel with the current events of whatever era he’s covering. Mine’s like that, but with more humor, like Christopher Moore if I can swing it, since I’ll never manage Terry Pratchett.

    Ghosts for me are a bit like romance as a description. It’s a start, but it’s the AND that matters, and that AND is whatever other tone or premise the story has whether historical, criminal, romantic, comic, etc. A gothic ghost story set in the Vienna of 1872 will be an entirely different experience (I hope) from one about a single Manhattanite and the hungry ghost of a supermodel who used to sublet his condo. Just ghost story doesn’t tell me enough.

    However, when accurate, the ‘for-readers-who’ author comparisons help me a ton. I use them since I also like that they dodge the pitfalls of using last week’s terminology inappropriately today. I think the advice about choosing medium-level, recently-published authors is great. I’m like Melville meets Mary Higgins Clark!

    Anyone straddling enough genres to confound description gains clarity, I think, by identifying established writers who aren’t necessarily perfect matches (who could be?) but whose audience would occupy the overlapping Venn bubbles with one’s own dream readers.

  22. Avatar Conduit says:

    Interesting post. My novel, which I’m just finishing revisions on, has a strong paranormal element in the form of ghosts, but it took other readers to make me see that it’s very firmly a thriller. For a while I tried to fudge it, trying to create a mystery as to whether they were really ghosts or just the protagonist cracking up, but the readers made it clear that didn’t work.

    It took a while to see it, but it’s a thriller. It just happens to have some dead folks walking around in it.

  23. Avatar superwench83 says:

    Where I have trouble is identifying authors/books that mine is similar to.

    That’s my problem, too. I can point to several authors with whom I have things in common, but it’s stretching it, really, because in other ways, our writing is very different. So I’ve stopped trying to find ways to work that sort of thing into my queries. Better to be straight and just tell what the story’s about.

    Genre was simple for me. I write historical fantasy. I have ghosts in one of my novels, but the fantasy elements definitely dominate the plot, so I really doubt that the story could be considered paranormal.

  24. This is an interesting post because I’m struggling with the same problem. My first two books were straight-up fantasy, no problem there, but my WIP is a paranormal set in the Civil War. It’s historical fiction, but the paranormal element makes it genre.

    But which genre? My first guess is horror, what with the summoning of the occult beastie with human sacrifices and all, but I’m afraid there isn’t enough splatter and grue to satisfy a lot of horror fans. I could call it historical fantasy, but that makes it sound too light.

    Historical dark fantasy? That sounds right, but I’ve never heard that term before. I plan to submit it to agents who do both horror and fantasy and see what they think.

    It’s funny how adding a paranormal element overshadows everything else when it comes to marketing. Essentially the story is about fatherhood, but if you throw in human sacrifices you can’t really call it a “heartwarming tale about fatherhood”. Mmmm, warm hearts. . .

  25. Avatar Nancy Beck says:

    This is so funny. I just figured out in what genre my story is.

    I originally figured it was a time travel novel, since the MC goes back in time…

    But the time travel aspect is only used twice: To go back in time, and then to go, um back to the future (heh :-)).

    After perusing Wikipedia, I finally figured it out – historical fantasy! (MC goes back to 1942 Los Angeles, and that’s where 90% of the book takes place.)

    Sometimes we’re too close to the book to realize in what genre it belongs.