What’s My Genre, Anyway?

by Erin Brown

Illustration by Jennifer Paros - Copyright 2010

Illustration by Jennifer Paros - Copyright 2010

One of the main questions I am often asked by first time authors is, “How do I define my genre?” I always think it’s incredibly obvious until I realize that perhaps I take genre definitions for granted because I spent so long in the publishing business. So I’m going to include an easy guide for picking your genre. Sure, it’s a bit tongue and cheek, but it’s definitely true as well.

Autobiography/Memoir: You wrote this book, about your life. If a person with a typewriter and/or laptop has been following you around for years (with or without your knowledge) and has now written a book about your life, that is a biography

Mystery: Also known as the detective novel, the characters in this book run (or walk) around trying to track down vital information, with the final puzzle piece usually revealed in the climax. You can also call this the ol’ whodunit. I personally like the term whodunit because it’s more fun to say. A cozy mystery is a subset and features no or low gore, no explicit situations, and usually takes place in a quaint village or town. For some reason, there’s often tea involved as well. Cozies frequently evolve into a series and feature a theme: cozies for dog lovers, food lovers, cat lovers, nature lovers, quilt lovers, lovers of love—the list goes on and on. If you thought there wasn’t a market for people who love antiques, cartography, and mysteries set in tiny New England towns, you would be dead wrong. 

Horror: I’m too afraid of this genre to define it. Okay, I will be brave and say that this genre endeavors to stir up fear, disgust, and/or eternal nightmares in readers. The king is Stephen King. 

Romance: The largest and bestselling genre in America. This is a very broad category, but overall, involves a couple falling in love and ends happily. Erotica is a genre found within romance, but it is much more explicit. I call it “too much information” or “TMI.” Of course, you also have historical romance (Hello, Mr. Hot Highlander with rippling biceps in eighteenth-century Scotland.), comedic romance, romantic thrillers, and many, many more.  

Historical Fiction: Fiction that takes place in the past. Duh. 

Action-Adventure: Traditionally aimed at males, this genre involves fast-paced action and often violence, set in forbidding locales such as jungles, deserts, mountains, places with rocky soil, and/or the New York subway system. 

Science Fiction: Includes extrapolated or theoretical future science and technology, and is often set on other planets or on a future version of Earth. It is usually written by guys who live in their parents’ basements. I am totally kidding on that one. This is a well-respected genre and the authors have had plenty of dates, I’m sure. It’s also appreciated by smart people—people much smarter than I am, it’s safe to say.

Western Fiction: Is there a horse and/or a cowboy hat? Tumbleweeds? Is someone called a lily-livered varmint? Western Fiction. 

Literary Fiction: This focuses more on style, characters, and the writing itself, versus plot and narrative (the focus of more commercial fiction). It is often thought to be “more serious fiction.” Seriously, no smiling allowed. Authors think they are total hot sh*t in comparison to the rest of us. We hate them. 

Fantasy: Stories set in fanciful, invented worlds, an alternate and more fantastic version of our own world, or in a legendary, mythic past. Fantasy fiction stories generally involve magic, mystical elements, or supernatural creatures. Bring on the three-legged, blue-furred Walfiffery!!! 

Women’s Fiction: This is a very broad category, but overall, if it centers on friendship, a girl searching for love, any sort of gathering and kvetching about boys over cocktails, a heartbreak, or a young, sassy publicist trying to find the right guy in the big city, it’s women’s fiction. 

I hope that this list helps all of you aspiring authors define your genre so that you can better present your novel and/or work of non-fiction in query letters. However, use a broader category if necessary, and your agent, if you should find one, will help you define it more clearly. An editor at a publishing house, and even more realistically, the sales department, will surely have an idea as well. If you still have absolutely no clue what your genre is after perusing this list, you’re probably not doing enough reading in your spare time. So hang out in your local bookstore—but not long enough to get escorted out by security—and study the authors and books in the clearly delineated sections. Then, grab a few titles from each section and get to reading over a nice cuppa hot tea. Of course, if you’re writing or reading romance, perhaps a glass of a cooler beverage would keep your quivering loins and heaving bosom in check.

Erin Brown worked as an editor in New York City for over eight years. She recently left Manhattan to start her own freelance editorial business. To learn more about Erin, visit her website at www.erinedits.com

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