Genres or How To Figure Out What You’re Writing

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This past Saturday, I joined Faith Hunter, Kalayna Price, Rachel Aaron and John Hartness for the Fantastical Mystery Tour event in Columbia SC. It was a wonderful evening – standing room only! During the panel discussion, I was talking about the novel that I’ll be continuing to write as soon as the Kestrel’s Dance rewrites are finished, and I told the gathered throng that it was a weird western. Faith pointed out that the genre is now actually being known as historical urban fantasy. In the space of a few seconds, my genre had changed.

When you’ve finished your manuscript and are ready to send it out into the world, one of the most important things to know about it is what genre it belongs to. Once upon a time, if a book had magic in it, it was fantasy. Period. Tolkien was fantasy, Tim Powers was fantasy, Glen Cook was fantasy. That’s no longer true. Genres have split and split and split again, becoming more and more specialized as the audiences demanded. Where once agents said they read fantasy, now they say they only want comic paranormal romance, dark epic or dieselpunk. Which puts the writer into a quandary – how do you know what you’re writing?

The best way to know is to read in all the subgenres, as much as you can. I’m a big fan of using the library. At mine, you’re not limited to what’s in our inventory. Once you’re a patron, you can log on to the website and look at the inventories of thirteen other counties across the state. And if none of those libraries have the book you want, the librarians can use InterLibrary Loan (which at my library is free of charge, and doesn’t take long.) But you don’t have to spend all your time buried in novels – there are a number of exceptional magazines (in print and online) from which to choose. Not only will you have shorter options, so you don’t spend every minute of your time reading and never write your own words again, but the magazines feature lots of genres. You could easily see three or four different genres in one issue. You can start with Intergalactic Medicine Show, Realms of Fantasy, Bull Spec and The Magazine of Fantasy and Science Fiction, but there are tons of other great magazines in existence, and I imagine folks will share their own favorites in the comments.

“But Misty, I’ve done some homework, and I’m still not sure what makes a genre a genre.” I understand…the distinctions can be subtle. Over the next few weeks, I’m going to attempt to explain, and give you some examples. Today we’ll start with an easy one – high fantasy. This is the subgenre you’re most used to seeing on the shelves. In high fantasy, the worlds tend to be pre-industrial. In the 70’s and 80’s, they resembled medieval Europe more than anything, with class hierarchies that included kings and courtiers not unlike those of historical Europe. These days writers have branched out and mined non-Western cultures in their world-building, which is wonderful. High fantasy focuses on the struggle of good against evil, and usually involves a quest of some kind, in which the good characters (who are the heroes of the tale) must risk life, love and limb to achieve whatever will save their world from the looming evil. The protagonist is usually someone who wasn’t expecting to have the fate of the world laid on his shoulders, and has to come to terms with that responsibility while he is questing. Generally he’s an average guy, someone who’s already planned out his ordinary life and is taken by surprise by the job he’s handed. He’ll have a mentor of some kind, someone older and wiser who can guide and train him to complete his destiny. Much of his trouble will be related to the political machinations of the world, a game he hardly understands because of his humble beginnings. There’ll be a large cast of characters, from all walks of life. And there’s magic…oh, there is magic. The protagonist might have magical ability, or he might have a companion who can cast spells. The evil antagonist has magic on his side as well. And the item they’re both hoping to possess, if there is one, is just oozing with magic. Most of the time these stories are long, with more than one book required to tell the full tale, and when that’s the case, “epic” is added to the genre title. I’ll be honest – if you hear something called epic, you can bet it’ll be a book big enough to kill a small dog (hence the tag “chihuahua killer”). Some examples of good high epic fantasy are Tolkien’s The Lord of the Rings, David Eddings’ The Belgariad, George R R Martin’s Song of Ice and Fire or David B Coe’s Winds of the Forelands.

So there we have it. If you recognize your work in what I’ve said, you’re probably writing high fantasy. But wait a second – high fantasy breaks down into further subgenres, and I’ll get into those next time. I’ll also be getting into urban fantasy and all the ‘punks, because those can be confusing. If you’re not entirely certain whether you’re working in high fantasy, feel free to ask questions in the comments. If I don’t know the answer, I’ll make up something really good.

Because, you know…writer.

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30 comments to Genres or How To Figure Out What You’re Writing

  • Great point, Misty. I’ve only recently come across the Weird Western tag and thought it meant things like Firefly (which is futuristic, not historical), so I guess the new term clarifies things. I confess to feeling unsure of my own genre for the Will Hawthorne novels. I sometimes call it comic fantasy, but I hate that name because it sounds (to me) frivolous. The comic element of the books is just in the narrative voice. The stories themselves are quasi historical/alternate world fantasy adventures. Or, as Polonius would say, tragical-historical-comical-pastoral… Any suggestions, anyone, as to how I should answer the “what kind of fantasy do you write?” question?

  • As a bit of a speculative fiction omnivore… I wonder more and more these days whether all the fuss over sub-sub-sub-genres is really more important to the process of obtaining agents and a publisher than it is for the actual end-readers. When I go to a bookstore, typically, there aren’t separate sections for each microcosmic sub-genre. There’s “Fantasy” and there’s “Science Fiction” – heck, in most book stores those two genres are filed in the same place. More recently I’ve begun to see “Paranormal Romance” broken out separately to house all the Twilight-clones. That seems to be a genuinely new and unique market, actually different from the market for the old speculative fiction categories.

    But outside that area, I can’t say I’ve ever met anyone who only reads “Dieselpunk” or only “Urban Fantasy” or only “Dark Fantasy” or so on. I’ve heard tell that there’s a community of “Hard SF Only” and other sci-fi-sub-genre die-hards, but, again, I’ve never met any of these mythical beings. Maybe I’ve just led a sheltered literary life, but most of the speculative fiction fans I’ve ever known have been very open in trying the many different flavors of the genre.

  • Misty, which I like the way we can blend our own genre titles. For instance yours could be historical-weird-western-fantasy. Or weird-western-historical-fantasy.
    Or even weird-western-historical-urban.

    I have a pal whose work should maybe be pushed as Regency-fantasy.

    And AJ, how about: alternate-historical-fantasty. Or (grins) though I know it isn’t Shakespearian… How about:
    Alternate-Shakespearian-world-historical-fantasty.
    Or alternate-historical-quasi-Shakespearian-fantasty.
    Or high-concept alternate-historical-quasi-Shakespearian-fantasty.
    This is fun! And yes, Will is hard to describe quickly.

    Because I know Misty is at work, I’ll comment to Stephen, if I may. I think the tag is important so we know how to describe our work in terms of marketing. Marketing to the agents and editors and also to the marketing department of a pub. Also how to respond to people who ask, “What do you write?” Or “Tell me about your book.” If we scratch our heads in confusion, it’s embarrassing. And yes, I’ve done that before.

  • Hepseba ALHH

    My attempt at AJs genre: Satirical High Fantasy – which isn’t quite right but does imply that voice is the important issue.

    I have terrible trouble with genre for my WIP. I usually just tell people I’m working on a fantasy, but the magical element is actually EXTREMELY minimal, though ‘mystical’ could probably be applied to some of it – maybe.

  • This is a challenging topic and one that I would be too intimidated to take on. Thanks, Misty, for tackling it. I usually define my early work as epic fantasy, sometimes high fantasy, often alternate-world epic fantasy. Thieftaker is historical urban fantasy. My newest stuff is contemporary fantasy, or contemporary urban fantasy, which is purposefully vague, since I haven’t yet decided how to market it. A.J., I think that, speaking in the broadest terms, the Will books are high fantasy; I also think they are different enough to defy easy classification. I’d call them “Intelligent High Fantasy.” Or, given Will’s voice, “High-Snark Fantasy…”

    I’ll also respond to Stephen by saying this: It seems to me that many of your comments here on MW tend in this direction — you like to draw a distinction between “the writing” and what we do to market and promote ourselves and our careers. And I fully understand that impulse. In this case, you’re probably right: the sub-genre distinctions are more important at the business end. Readers are looking for a good story, without the concern about where it fits in the subgenre listing. But even if a person self-pubs, eventually that person has to market his/her work to the public, be it through a store or through Amazon. And those who sell the books WILL care about this stuff. I think you’ll find, as success finds you and your career progresses, that separating “the writing” from “the marketing” is an artificial distinction. Professional writers find a way to write for themselves AND for the market; we don’t have the luxury of making the distinctions between the two. You can ignore the marketing/promotion concerns OR you can be a successful pro. You can’t do both.

  • Misty has to gone and opened a Pandora’s Box with this one, methinks. :)

    I rather like the term, Wierd Western. I think it captures what it covers really well. I have heard it called, Alternative Western as well.

    AJ>> How about Shakespeare-Punk? Afterall, Shakespeare has Drama, Comedy, Action, and Magic all meshed into one story. That about covers the Will books, I think.

    Stephen>> I haev ran into Hard SF folks. They largely annoy me because you have to have a degree in Astrophysics in order to write a book. They nit-pick everything.

  • So, in explaining what I mean, I realize I’m ending up with something of a rather long-ish explanation… I think I’m going to have to repost this on my own blog… But here it goes:

    I don’t mean to imply that the marketing is not important. In my self-defense, I recently wrapped up work on my MBA, with a minor focus in marketing, so I do know a few things about marketing. I’ll admit that I do see a bit of a dichotomy between the art and the business of writing – it’s a dichotomy I suspect I’ll have to keep to approach this sanely, if for nothing else. I do think about how I want to market what I’m writing, but that’s a very slightly different hat than the one I wear when I’m actively writing it. It’s sort of a meta-hat.

    What I’m questioning in this particular instance is at what level the genre distinction is important for marketing. Is it only important at the intermediary stages when trying to market your way through the publishing industry, or does it actually matter to end-readers – to the public at large? One of the foci of my marketing education in my MBA was on data-driven approaches. There seems to be some “data” that this level of abstraction is important within the industry. And I don’t discount the importance of effective marketing in this particular case – if not done well, you won’t be able to sell your work to the right individuals. Given the structure of the industry, marketing in this way requires one to be very careful, and I can see how genre labels in this sense do matter.

    But while I have only anecdotal evidence (which, I suppose, strictly speaking is not data), it seems that this level of genre-specificity as a componnent of marketing may not always be pertinent when approaching the public-at-large.

    I suspect that genre does matter to the general reading public, but at what level of detail? If bookstores sell things in broad genre categories like “Fantasy” and “Science Fiction”, and that meets the public need, is more detail really needed? I honestly don’t know for sure. It’s possible the answer is “yes”, and the reading public is not well-served by going into a bookstore and seeing only these broad genre labels. But since I and most of the speculative fiction readers I know are a little more omnivorous within these larger categories, I just don’t know if that’s the case. I can’t say I’ve ever seen data one way or the other about it. I would be genuinely interested to see actual data on reader preferences, if it exists/existed… I’m kind of a data geek on the side.

    But for myself, I don’t fret or get stumped when asked what I write. Generally I just say “Fantasy”. And it seems lke most people know what that means. Some people default that to meaning “high fantasy” or “epic fantasy”, which wouldn’t bother me since mostly my work is in those sub-categories, but generally I find people are familiar with the idea of “stories with magic in it” as a catch-all definition for Fantasy. If particular work is in some other specific sub-category, I may label it specifically as “contemporary fantasy” or whatever it is. Usually though, with most people I find I have to explain what that specific sub-category is, because people are more familiar with the broad-level categories than with the narrow, specific categories. At a certain level of hyper-specificity, however, I start to feel silly. Saying that a story I wrote is, for example, “contemporary pastoral/rural ironic fantasy” seems a little excessive and requires far too much explanation as to what each of the qualifiers means, and in marketing terms if I have to start explaining what I mean by that to a reader, I fear I’ve already lost the battle. The attention span of your average consumer doesn’t last that long, and categorizing a work in a hyper-specific genre label is probably too mentally taxing when you’ve got something like 10 seconds to make a positive impression. So I believe that simple, easy-to-understand and slightly broader genre labels are more useful in a marketing-to-consumer context – something more likely at the “Epic Fantasy” level than the “Urban Epic Fantasy/Steampunk Crossover” level. That’s my gut instinct, anyway.

    In a professional setting, if I was asked what I write, say by an agent or an editor or somesuch… well, I’ve never yet been in such a professional setting. Presently I would say I predominately write “Epic and High Fantasy”. If I’m talking about my novel-length work that would be true – or at least that’s how I think of what I write, though of course it’s easy to swap out genre labels on the margins, and some of what I’m working on lies close to the margins between genre labels.

    So, I guess that’s where my thinking is: not to discount the potential importance of these labels within a specific context, that of the process of marketing my work within the industry, but that I believe that the level of specificity needed is different depending on which customer I’m worried about. Industry insiders may need one level of specificity. General reading public may need another (with, I suspect, substantially less specificity than the former group needs). And so I think how you answer the question of “what do you write?” may be different depending on who’s doing the asking.

    Man… that was way too much wordiness on my part for this subject. Sorry about that. Does it at least make sense?

  • I’m only echoing David, but I wanted to follow Stephen with something succinct. Readers generally don’t care about sub-sub genre distinctions. When you’re writing, you don’t need to be thinking about sub-sub-sub genres distinctions. When you’re SELLING your work–whether it’s to an agent or an editor or the public at large–you HAVE TO know where your work fits in the grand scheme of things. Period.

  • Stephen, you are over analysing all this. You are a writer trying to sell a book. You gotta know where it fits in with the existing marketing. You gotta know how to tell readers/reviewers/VIPs what you write.

    And yeah, that was quite a mouthful you wrote. If I may remind commenters (and myself, as I tend to get long-worded too) let’s keep the comments short. Think of it as an exercise in managing word count. Ask yourself, “Just how much does the reader need to know for me to make my point?” Ususally about a fourth of what we want put in there.

  • Faith and Edmund are spot on. Stephen, I do see what you’re saying, but I agree with Faith. In this case less is more — don’t overthink it. Write your book. But then figure out how to market it by, among other things, knowing where it fits in the genre.

  • Sorry. I got long-winded because the short version didn’t seem to convey my point properly. Seeing as how this is a post about very specific genre category labels, I thought maybe being a little more specific about what I’m saying would help clarify.

    I disagree that I’m overanalyzing, though. Agents and Editors and Publishers and other industry insiders, I think, really are a different audience than general public readers. And thinking about how I interact with one audience as being different than how I interact with another audience could be important.

    All that said, I’ll be interested in seeing where Misty takes her series of genre definition articles. For all the long-windedness in supposing that hyper-specific categories don’t matter to some people, I’m still a geek. And as a geek, categorizing things is interesting to me. :)

  • Young_Writer

    Thank you, I didn’t realize how important genre is. I understood you need to know what genre you’re writing in to find an agent or publishing house. But I never focused on sub sub sub genres. I’m going to figure out mine right now.

  • Unicorn

    My story is set in an alternate world with knights, the protagonist has humble beginnings, and the antagonist has lots and lots of dark magic on his side. Oh, and the protagonist has a mentor. Two mentors, in fact (I was feeling kind). I think that pretty much qualifies for high fantasy. But it’s also young adult fantasy. Young adult high fantasy. Does that sound right?
    Thanks for the post, Misty. I need to challenge myself a bit. I write nothing, ever, but young adult high fantasy (if that’s even what it’s called). Time for some urban fantasy or something. Hey… hey, what would you do if you saw a unicorn galloping down the middle of a street in New York City? :)
    Unicorn

  • Beatriz

    I’m not a writer; I don’t even play one on tv.

    I am, however, a reader, and maybe it’s because of the company I keep, but I am aware of the differences between weird western versus steampunk versus dieselpunk versus epic high fantasy versus– you get my point.

    I like knowing what’s what because while I may read across the fantasy genre, when I want weird west I don’t really want a high fantasy. I may want that high fantasy later in the week but tonight my tastes are set for a good weird western. I can look for the buzz words that attach themselves to that sub genre and increase the odds that I’ll find a book that meets my current hunger.

    Does it matter that the bookstore categorizes it that way? Nope. But I’m betting some reviewers will use the words I associate with with that classification. And when I’m singing the praises of my current faveorite books to another fantasy reader I might references some of rhe sub genre buzzwords so they get a feel for what I’m describing.

    This is also where I think book covers play a role. A high fantasy cover will NOT look the same as an urban fantasy. As a reader I can get a flavor for the book’s style just from the art IF the publisher has done a good job.

    Just my opinion. I could be wrong.

  • My cohorts are all correct – the point of sub-genre is not so much to attract readers, although there are plenty of people who do read only one genre or the other and search desperately for books of that ilk, but for marketing. Publishers want to know that you can identify your book, because if you don’t know what you wrote, they don’t want to have to guess. Remember, you’ve created a product you want to sell. No point in making the sale harder than it has to be.

    They are also right in saying you shouldn’t overthink the labels. Write your book, then figure out what it is. Chances are very good that it’ll fall into some relatively definable category, once you have enough story down. And if it doesn’t, you can always make up your own sub-sub-genre later. 😀

    Uni, yes, there is such a thing as YA high fantasy. It becomes YA by virtue of the language you use and the age of the protagonist, among other things. Some really great YA high fantasy writers are Hilari Bell, Kristin Cashore, Megan Whalen Turner and Christopher Paolini. Yes, I know a lot of people don’t care for Paolini, but he appeals to many young people, who move on to more fantasy after having read his books. So I’m putting him on the list. 😀

  • And dang it, I hit submit too early. Beatriz nailed it about the covers. Someone on the hunt for urban fantasy is going to be drawn to the book whose cover features a bare-midriffed woman with a weapon in her hand and a tattoo on her back before he’ll buy the book with an armored man riding a dragon.

  • I see an awesome cross-genre here… a bare mid-drift woman with a knife and tattoo… riding a dragon. I’d buy that.

  • If categorization is important, it must be documented somewhere, right? Where can I find a list of the “official” genres and sub-genres that have enough standardization to be meaningful to publishers and readers? I read and shop for books constantly, and have never even heard of “dieselpunk” or “weird western” until today.

    I would argue that, if the subcategories of genre are NOT documented, or if there is no standardized definition for them, they can’t possibly be important. To suggest otherwise is to say that being able to report your proper sub-genre is like some kind of shibboleth required by the gatekeepers.

  • Mark: To take that further, give her a cowboy hat and spurs. And maybe a Winchester strapped to the dragon’s saddle.

  • Well, DR, that’s a good question. If there is one standardized list of all the subgenres that exist, I haven’t found it. Lots of lists online, of course, but not one that includes every single known subgenre. Scholars are still arguing genres that have been out of fashion for a century, so I really can’t imagine that one definitive list will ever be made, to be very honest with you. Which is partly why I wanted to discuss subgenre here on MW for a while.

    The point of knowing your subgenre, as has been said already, is for marketing. Eventually you may want to sell your work to a major publisher, and the marketing department is going to want to know what it is so they know how to sell it. They see lots of good writing all the time, but if they don’t know where to put it, your chances of selling are reduced.

  • When I’m a reader (rather than a writer, which is yet another artificial distinction, but go with me here) I DO care about sub genre to a point. If I didn’t say “I like UF” or I couldn’t because there wasn’t anything but fantasy, I’d be saying “Well, I want stuff like Faith Hunter’s Jane Yellowrock.” That’s a lot more words than “Urban Fantasy.” I know I don’t want hard sci-fi, I don’t want steampunk, I don’t want war-porn. Maybe tomorrow (as Beatriz says) but not today. Of course a as a writer trying to go the trad. NY route, I care about genre so I can tell an agent in 60 seconds (or 150 words) or less.

    And DR, just because you’ve not heard of genres doesn’t mean they don’t exist both in marketing depts. and in reader’s minds.

    A question: Where do genre’s start? I mean, obviously they start with the writers–whether they’ve got a genre in mind or not–I doubt LKH thought “I’m going to create Urban Fantasy Today!” but, she did. :) So, beyond the writer, does it start with marketing, with readers, or both? I mean “chick lit” came from dismissive critics, right? Or was it repeated by them? Just a thought…

  • Misty: Thanks for your response. I totally get the marketing value of telling your publisher what kind of book you are giving them. I’m just saying that it would be helpful if I knew what terms were meaningful for them. If there’s no way for me to find those terms or to get standardized definitions for them, I’m basically guessing based on anecdotal evidence.

    As @pea_faerie was so quick to point out, my experience may not include the very term those publishers are looking for. I never meant to suggest they didn’t exist or that they aren’t important. I’m just looking for way to find out what they are!!!

  • So what, exactly is “Dieselpunk?” Or, cyberpunk, steampunk, any punk…
    Most of what I write, an read, is fantasy, except for when I write or read science fiction, horror, and alternate history. But then, if I really think about it, most of the horror I write is psychological horror. Most of the science fiction I read is “soft.”
    The fantasy I write falls, I think, mostly in the high fantasy neighborhood, except that sometimes it won’t have a super-villian antagonist with tons of evil magic, or a war, or kings and knights or casts of thousands. Sometimes there is almost no magic; sometimes the magic is part of the physics of the world. There may be gryphons, or robots, or wizards, or guns, or talking lizards who think they are dragons. Always, the story is about characters overcoming – or coming to terms with – something. The genre (while I’m writing) is just the scenery the story demanded.
    All that said, I don’t worry about classifying what I’m writing until I’ve finished writing it. But like Misty, Faith, David and others have said, I do agree that it needs to be identified and classified (after it is written) in order to target the right audience, whether that audience is an agent, an editor, a publisher, or a reader.
    And Mark – if you have your midriff topped, booted, cowboy hatted, tattooed, rifle-toting dragonrider soaring past a spaceport…

  • I promise, I’ll be focusing a post on the ‘punks very soon!

  • I like Lyn’s question because it highlights another reason sub-genres matter. As a reader staring at a shelf full of books I haven’t read I may not know where to start. I don’t have all day to systematically skim the shelves. But if someone says, “Hey, been reading too much UF lately? Try some Genre I’ve Never Heard of Before,” then it expands my reading possibilities. It helps keep me from getting into a rut and helps me choose new books. It also helps me distinguish between “I don’t like Author X” and “I don’t like this genre,” which is a pretty important distinction. I know people who say they don’t like fantasy based on one Terry Pratchett novel or their 13 year old LoTR experience even though they loved something else that is a sub-genre of fantasy, but wasn’t presented to them as such. Having a convenient jargon helps us keep the conversation going.

  • Beatriz

    Sub genres are great for the elevator pitch, be it to an editor, publisher or reader

    When I’m at cons and stop by an author’s table to browse, I’ll ask the author about his/her book.

    If they can’t give me a good elevator pitch, I’m almost always moving on. A solid understanding of your sub genre will help me as a reader place it and might just intrigue me.

  • Unicorn

    Thanks for the reply, Misty! At least know I know what on Earth it is that I’m writing… well, kind of, anyway…
    Unicorn

  • Ryl

    Let’s see, genre/category as elevator pitch? Okay, I’ll play:

    Multi-volume epic high fantasy Bildungsroman with whiffs of Mary Stewart and William Goldman and Fritz Leiber, yet cheerfully bereft of Tolkienesque trappings.

    Hmmm, maybe I ought to work on a haiku of that,…

  • […] recent post got me thinking about Genre.  In it, fantasy author Misty Massey begins a series of […]

  • I’m looking forward to your post on urban fantasy.