Trans-Genre’d

This reminds me of hot summer afternoons, lying on suburban lawns and watching the clouds drift by. These are from sunrise this morning, though, thus the pink, and I was never up that early in my teenage summers.

Things change.

Irene Goodman, described as a “leading literary agent in New York who has has many New York Times bestsellers,” which means she’s one of the hottest agents out there, authored an article for the September Romance Writers Report. (RWA’s industry magazine.) She titled it “Common Mistakes by New Authors” and lists five mistakes. Of those, three are related to genre:

1. They don’t pick a genre and stick to it.
2. They choose uncommercial subjects.
3. They choose genres that are out of style.

(The other two are about plot and conflict/tension.)

This article immediately annoyed me. I can see her points, sure, but I think the article could be better titled “How to approach your writing like a product.” To me, this is something for the agents to think about, not the writers.

I could be wrong, but hear me out.

Genre is a marketing thing. It’s a false line drawn to give bookstores and libraries a way to shelve books. It’s intended to give readers a way to find the kind of book they love best. Music and movies are divided up the same way. And we have all had that experience, as readers or listeners, of vainly searching the shelves for a particular author or movie, only to resort to the teenage cashier with a slow computer.

“I think this movie is drama, but clearly you guys don’t.”

“Oh! That’s in comedy, actually.”

I have had this conversation any number of times. I’m sure you have, too. And who knows? Maybe the writer and director absolutely believed they’d made a comedy and I’m the odd one focusing on the drama. Or, maybe they made a drama and the marketers said, look! right there, someone laughed! and stamped the nicely selling “Comedy” label on it.

I’m seeing a lot of this from agents lately, that we as authors should know what genre our book is. They consider it fundamental. Irene says that we should pick a nice, fashionable and commercial genre and write exactly that book. This completely ignores the fact that most writers aren’t writing genres, we’re writing stories. Once we’re done, and we’re writing up our queries, we tilt our heads at it and say, “well, it’s got an urban fantasy premise in a non-urban landscape with high fantasy elements and also contemporary romance… I’ll call it dark fantasy.”

Yeah -all you agents out there (I fantasize that you read my blog – I have a rich imagination) are clutching your heads in despair. We’re sorry. We really are. But you knew we were doing this, right?

Fact is, I have two writer friends with books coming out soon, who were coached to revise their books towards one genre or another, after they had the publishing contract. I suspect this happens a lot. And really, both were fine with it. Shape it in this direction? I can do that. Plan it that way to begin with? That means you’re planning a product, not spinning a story. To me, as a writer, the two come from very different places in myself.

I’ve been president of the Fantasy, Futuristic and Paranormal chapter of RWA for almost two years now and a frequent topic of debate is which genre to sandwich a story into. We’re obviously a polyglot of a chapter, with writers of Science Fiction Romance, shape-shifters, time-travel, vampires, swords & sorcery, ghosts, everyday magic. Really, if someone writes anything kind of weird, they end up with us.

I absolutely understand that this is something that publishers, editors and agents have to think about. That’s their business. I suspect it’s an interesting aspect of the business for them. I would think they’d have to get really good at it, to succeed.

However, I think it’s a mistake to exhort writers to get on board that wagon.

And let me say, right here and now, that I do believe the agent/author relationship is a partnership. You have to work together for mutual success. Maybe it’s just me, but it’s very difficult for me to look at my story, which is this great swirling mass in my head of faces and feelings and conflicts and desires, and slap a label on it. If someone else looks at it and says, well, with a few tweaks, it would fit nicely here, I would be grateful.

To me, that’s part of what an agent brings to the relationship. You wrote it, now I’ll help you sell it.

Finally, the other day I watched Oprah’s interview of JK Rowling on You Tube. (It’s well worth watching and broken out into segments so you don’t have to commit to the whole thing at once.) At one point, Rowling talks about signing the publishing contract for the first Harry Potter and how her agent said, congratulations, but you’ll never make any money writing children’s books.

Of course, Rowling is now the only billionaire writer in the world.

I totally don’t hold this against her agent. Harry Potter could be slotted as a children’s book and they didn’t make money at that time. They were uncommercial and unfashionable. But if you walk into a store today, to buy a Harry Potter book – do you head for the children’s section?

Yes, I know Harry Potter was an unpredictable phenomenon. Like Twilight, like a bunch of others we could name. They broke new ground, because they were new stories. Genres lines are bent to accommodate them.

Things change.

I wonder, if those new writers had followed Ms. Goodman’s advice, would they have written those books? Of course, 99% of us will never become phenomena like them, so maybe it’s good advice for the working writer. And yet, I think most of us write, not to churn out a product, but because we become obsessed with a story.

Of course, we’d love to sell it, too. Have patience with us. Help us out here.

Maybe it’s really a High Paranormal Fantasy?

16 Replies to “Trans-Genre’d”

  1. Great post. I particularly like the point about sticking to one genre, which for me, is like taking me to Baskin Robbins and telling me I can't try all the flavors.

    I write because I like to tell stories. I like crime stories, science fiction stories, romantic stories and YA stories. How can I possibly pick only one?

    I want to write across all genres.

  2. It's ridiculous to try to write to the market, because you can never know what the next "hot new trend" will be. You'd spend your whole time trying to play catch-up. Don't think that would make for very good stories. 🙂

    BTW, love the title of this post. 😉

  3. I wrote my first manuscript, finished it, polished, researched how to write a query and was stopped dead in my tracks on the genre issue. It took me several months just to figure out it was indeed a romance. So, now I know it's romance. Well, there are vampires, so now what? More research. Ok, paranormal. Then I join FF&P and realize even paranormal is broken down into light and dark. I'm definitely dark.

    I'm and avid reader and always have been, but I had no clue these subgenres existed, or that I was supposed to know where my work fell. When you go into the bookstore there are only a few fiction sections: general fiction, sci-fi, romance, western, mystery, teen. These subgenres only exist on the agent/publisher level most of the time. It makes the whole thing very frustrating!

    I totally agree, we write the stories, someone else should be around to help guide us as to where they will be marketed without judging us for not already knowing.

  4. I am with you on this all the way. I have a story clammoring to get out. I can't think about genre right than. I just want to get my story into words that can be read.

    Friday is not a day for thinking but this is an excellent post!

  5. Patty – to be fair to Irene Goodman, she did mean not sticking to one genre in the story. But who doesn't like the triple scoop with three different flavors?

    I agree Linda. The advice struck me as chasing the market. Glad you liked the title. I almost called it "Kiss My Genre," but I decided that sounded a little too aggressive. 😉

    Kristin, I think we've all done exactly that same thing. We all started as readers and had no idea the publishing end drew such fine lines. I think we're all willing to define the genre of our stories, but yes, it's difficult for us.

    Succinct and accurate, Crystal!

  6. If a writer is selling on the synopsis, the I suppose it makes sense to know what your genre is before you send it off. But then, if you're selling on the synopsis, you already have an agent, a publisher and a track record.

    But I'd go once step further and say the genre label needs to comes from the market place, not the author.

    I write historicals with light paranormal elements. When I first sold three or four years ago that classification didn't exist, although a lot of people were writing historicals with paranormal elements. I queried it as an historical. My publisher called it paranormal.

    Now historical paranormals are a hot sub-genre. In my opinion the market sorted that one out.

  7. Thanks lots for this post, Jeffe. I'm nearly going crazy trying to pigeon-hole my newly completed MS. Glad to know I'm not struggling alone. Thanks for your support of all us kind of weird folks.

    Marsha

  8. Darling Jeffe, if I didn't love you already I would now. Bless you for writing this post, and reminding me that I write for the sake of the story. If I can mold it into a box that the agents and public will love, that is the icing on the cake. But icing is pointless without something to spread it on.

  9. Interesting. I've always known what genre each of my stories has been. Not because I thought I needed to – I just knew. However, it wasn't until I ended up writing in the genre that was correct for *me* that I sold a book. So this comes right back around to Jeffe's point. Write your story. Write the story you love. Don't worry about genre until third or fourth round edits, when you can see the finished form of the story emerging. Then make your critique partners tell you what it is. 😀

  10. I think that's right, Keena – the marketplace sorts it out. The rest of us are just guessing at what that might end up being. Not a comfortable place to be…

    Ha, Marsha! Yes, all weird folks are my tribe.

    Kerry – you know it's partly our querying struggles that prompted this post. I like the icing analogy. And Allison/Mynfel, I think you're a perfect example of someone who moved her story into a genre slot with the help of an amazing editor.

  11. Jeffe, this is a wonderful post! Le sigh.

    I kind of already knew I was going to write paranormal because that's what I'm interested in and always have been. Then, I learned about Urban Fiction and Light Paranormal, Dark Paranormal, Steampunk, Futuristic, Sci-Fi (which seems to be the same thing to me, but apparently isn't?) and any number of splits in the "paranormal" category. Then you have the mishmash genres. It's confusing!

    I think we should just write the best story possible and sort out the genre once it's ready to be presented to agents/editors. As you said, a good agent could help steer the book in a logical direction.

  12. It's a shock, isn't it, Danica? You think, oh, I'll just write this different twist on being stuck in fairyland and THEN you find out there's all these shades of grey…

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