Romancing the Genre
Hold on to your hats, ladies, gentlemen and cicadas. Today we’re discussing genre. Since I have this problem TYPING genre where my finders want to insert a d after the n and switch the e and r, we’re in for a wild and wooly ride.
I was going to start a series today on how to make a book “real”. “Real” is a quality you can embue your fiction with, mostly by not relying on cliches for how a situation is described, but also by reaching deep in yourself to when you experienced a similar situation.
However I realized I had another post on my mental list, which I hadn’t ticked out yet, and which, judging by some of the newby discussions I eavesdrop in, on FB, is desperately needed.
If I had a dime for every time someone approaches me and says “My erotica/romance/science fiction/fantasy isn’t selling and I can’t tell why.” And/or “I keep getting these really weird comments, like they’re angry at me for not being what I say it is.” I’d be buying a castle somewhere in England, as we speak.
And almost everytime I look into the matter, my answer is something like “But that’s not an erotica/romance/science fiction/fantasy.”
I will say right here that most of the time the problem is that people don’t read the genres they’re identifying their books as. They just heard of them, and think that must be what they are. This also explains all the people who assure me I write romance (rolls eyes) and that’s why they won’t read Darkship Thieves, or Witchfinder, or…
Because there is a romance in the book, somewhere, and they think that’s what the romance genre is.
It’s time to get this figured out, okay?
Genre is like cover: it’s a way of being able to market your book. When you’re classifying your book, you’re telling people who’ve read other books like it in the past “You might like this.” You are not giving a complete and full description of you book, just like in making a cover, you’re not representing a scene (or the majority of scenes in your book.)
One of my favorite cover stories from ya’ll is from a gentleman who has since become a friend, who had a picture of a roadside forest on the cover of his space opera, and when we asked said “Well, there’s this world in the book that has a forest.” He was right about that, of course, but what that cover signaled was “travel log”. I.e. “Visit lovely Oregon and hug the trees.”
You guys often do the same with genre. Because any halfway decent book, longer than 10k words is going to have romance, mystery, adventure and that’s just to start. It might also contain science fiction, fantasy, historical scenes. So, how can you tell what you should put it under?
I’m going to try to give you a handy dandy guide. Some of them I’m not thoroughly convinced on, but it seems to work.
We’ll start with EROTICA because for some bizarre reason you guys are really hot on the trigger with this one – In EROTICA the driving factor of the plot (if it can be said to have a plot, which sometimes it doesn’t) is sex. The progression in level of seriousness is through kink. A good 50 to 80% of your book will be sex scenes. Even if you have that but the main drive is Romance, it might not count as erotica. (I have issues with this one, but Amanda Green tells me it’s so, and I think it’s right.)
If you label a book Erotica because somewhere two people have a conversation about sex, even kinky sex, it’s not going to sell and you’re going to get scathing reviews.
Next up: ROMANCE – In Romance, the main driver of the book is relationships. Almost every book, from fantasy to mystery (at least these days, but going back all the way to Heinlein and Christie) has some form of romance in it. There is a couple doing the dance somewhere on the periphery of the adventure. BUT — this is very important — in Romance, the plot is about the relationship and the emotions, not the magical disturbances, not the new planet, not anything else, but the emotions.
For instance, I recently read a romance where the woman character was an accidental art forger (really, trust me with it) and her love interest is the investigating agent for the crown. Because the romances I like have a really strong mystery component, I was expecting him to discover she was a forger, put her in jail, etc, before the whole thing was revealed. I was, in fact, expecting a mystery plot. In the romance he finds out she is the forger he’s chasing, but he’s so worried she might have lied to him about her sexual experience that it’s barely a side mention. Now I don’t find that particularly realistic, but that’s how romance plots are driven.
Oh, the other thing is in ROMANCE there is sex. Not as much as in erotica, but usually 2 or three scenes per book, lovingly described.
If your romance has no sex, it might be a:
SWEET ROMANCE – Think Price and Prejudice. Same as above, the entire driver of the plot is the relationship, but there are no sex scenes on the page, and often no implied sex scenes. Kisses are big deals. You might want to note this on the cover/description or some reader will be very upset.
MYSTERY – In Mystery a crime has been committed. The mystery is usually the story of its being solved. The reader knowing in advance who the culprit is and just watching the chase is optional. BUT there must be a crime, and the crime and its solution is the main driver of the plot.
Now, for me, a mystery isn’t real unless it’s a murder. I don’t know if it’s that way for other people. YA mysteries are often about theft of kidnapping, but we’ll cover YA in another tab.
Mystery has subheadings:
Gritty or Noir – the world is a bad place and then you die. Think lots of gunplay and tough guys.
Police procedural – If you do this one, really research. people get funny about it.
“Genius Private investigator” think Rex Stout. With or without action, these mysteries are about the cerebral action of solving the mystery, not the emotions or the physical evidence, or any of it. The mystery is a puzzle, and the great detective solves it. Holmes falls under this category.
Cozy – the emphasis is not on the corpse or what horrible things were done to it, but on the milieu. It is about relationships between a small group of people that led to the murder, and which lead to a solution. Think Agatha Christie’s Miss Marple. Craft mysteries are a subset of cozies, in which the detectives knowledge of whatever the heck the craft is helps solve the murder. Cozies are at least as much about the people as about the crime. So they tend to have quirky or interesting characters.
THRILLER – In the thriller it’s all about the chase. Either the bad guy’s chase for victims, or the detective’s chase trying to stop him. You usually start with a stark demonstration of how bad the bad guy is, and then you’re off.
This often has characteristics in common with noir or police procedural and the pacing should be fast and relentless. Characters are often broadly sketched, though dark and brooding is definitely on the cards.
A subset of THRILLER is WIP — Woman in Peril — and depending on how you put in your emphasis, this can shade to/qualify as romance.
SCIENCE FICTION: Science fiction is set in a future that has elements of plausibility or that purports to be possible. The fact that 1984 couldn’t happen precisely that way, not worldwide, not even if the tech hadn’t gone past it doesn’t matter. Within the book, there’s an effort made to make the future plausible.
Science fiction = living in the future.
It can be the near future, in which case, if you have enough of a name people will try to protect you from the horrible charge of having committed science fiction.
Science fiction has sub-genres:
Hard science fiction – is all about the development/new tech, whatever. Often not more likely to happen than the others, but the tech is lovingly described, and is the main plot driver. Characters are often incidental and head-hopping is common.
Space Opera – We’re in a future of some description, and the whole point now is to figure out how people are doing in this new world, with the new tech and all. Emphasis is on the people. Note the title “OPERA” — it often involves (or should involve) bigger than life characters and situations. For is it not written “If I just wanted a story about crossing the street against the light, I’d be reading mainstream?”
Military SF – It takes place or has a strong component of military setting.
Post Apocalyptic SF – The World has ended, and now we’re dealing with it.
Science Fiction Romance – Yes, you’re in the future, but the important thing is not how the humans have adapted to aliens among them, but how your main character is going to get the love of that cute android. There will be some sex scenes.
Science Fiction Erotica – Yes, you’re in the future, but the important thing is how your main character will like the alien’s extra, prehensile penis. There will be mostly sex.
Fantasy – Some element of the story is patently impossible in our world. To be precise that element will involve super powers, psi powers, magic, the existence of magical creatures.
High Fantasy – Think Tolkien. You’re in a pseudo-medieval land. There are magical races. Often there is a lost heir and a search for restoring the throne.
Contemporary fantasy/historical fantasy – the setting is realistic, save for these powers/events that have no place in reality.
Urban fantasy – There is a character, male or female, who for some reason is designated to square off against the forces of magic and evil. Often the end of the world is impending. It’s set in a big city.
Paranormal Romance – No it shouldn’t be under romance. It’s a subset of Urban Fantasy, only the forces of evil are sexy and sex is a major driver of the plot, and often lovingly described
Historical – Historical can be any of the things above, except possibly science fiction, and even then, if you’re talking parallel worlds or time travel. Or Steam Punk. And I’m not even going to describe Steam Punk but think science fiction set in the Victorian age, about a future they could foresee.
Main Stream – It’s about contemporary people, doing contemporary things, and it’s generally a label slapped on something gatekeepers decide it’s “worthwhile” or “important.”
Literary – Tries to immigrate books assigned in school. It can be any sub genre, but it will try to distinguish itself by more convoluted language, and an emphasis on what the author views as social problems.
Horror – is any of the above, but the emphasis is on the horrible stuff, and we all die screaming. It’s the literary equivalent of a meaty skull painting, with snakes going in and out of the eye sockets. It can be subtle and psychological or heavy handed and splatter heavy. In the end the emphasis is on the horrible stuff, though.
I said every book has a bit of almost everything, and this is true, but remember that genre is not what is in there — it’s a marketing qualification.
I just read something that purported to be a mystery. It kept me reading to the end despite being present tense, but it would have put off 99% of its readers. The main driver of the plot were supernatural events, and the ultimate killer is a demon. Most mystery readers would wall that book so fast it would leave a dent.
The true readership of that book would be looking for it under Urban Fantasy, even if historical.
So, like this: most mystery readers don’t want supernatural in their mysteries. It’s okay for the investigator to have a dream about who the real killer is. BUT if he then sends his spirit body out to catch the murderer, you’ve gone too far. In fact most mystery readers aren’t really fond of science fiction in their mysteries, either, though they might forgive you if it’s REALLY near in time, and the future aspects are discrete.
The same by and large for romance, though there are subsets where people accept either magical creatures or spaceships. BUT if you’re writing your average romance, tread lightly on the magic/murder/spaceship. It’s not what the people are there for.
Oh, a note I promised on YA: YA= your protagonist is under 18. Yes, if you’re doing it, I’d also make sure there isn’t explicit heavy sex, but note that’s because I’m a prude. No one doing YA these days observes that rule.
But — you say — your novel is complex and you refuse to have only one genre. And it really IS a romance/mystery despite all the spaceships, and…
Look, guys, this is not a definition of your book. It’s a label that allows readers who’ll like it to find it. If you’re really invested in thinking your steampunk romance is mystery, classify it that way. Just be aware you’ll be losing sales.
Next week – Keeping it Real.