How to Figure Out Your Book’s Genre

colorfiles“How do I know what genre my novel fits into?”

I see this question a lot.

It’s not that authors aren’t familiar with genres — although with the proliferation of sub-genres cropping up daily, it’s hard to keep up — but often it’s because they feel their books could fit more than one genre.  They don’t want to be pigeon-holed.  They don’t want to miss a potential audience.  At the same time, picking a genre is expected.  What to do?

First:  get familiar with what’s out there.

One of the easiest ways is to look at a bookstore, whether it’s online or bricks-and-mortar, and see how they classify fiction.  This changes a bit over time.  (Anybody else remember when they had a “Chick Lit” section at Borders?  Hell, anybody remember Borders?)

Here are some of the most common umbrella genres.

  • Action/Adventure — stories including epic journeys, lots of conflict, high stakes, some violence.
  • Erotica — stories of sexual exploration.
  • Fantasy — stories usually involving magic, other worlds, mythological/mystical figures.
  • Horror — stories that invoke fear.
  • Literary Fiction — stories with a focus on the quality of the prose over the narrative arc.
  • Mystery — stories that involve solving a crime, usually a murder. 
  • Thriller/Suspense — stories of high tension that can involve either action or mystery.
  • Romance — stories about love/intimacy.
  • Sci-fi — stories usually involving technology, aliens, science-related alternative worlds.
  • Westerns — stories taking place in America’s “Old West,” often with focus on justice. 
  • Women’s fiction — stories about women experiencing emotional growth.  Primary emotion:  hope.

There are obviously lots of sub-genres for most of these categories. Also, I’ve left out Children’s/YA/New Adult fiction, simply because you can have these same umbrella genres within those categories — it’s more about the age of the protagonists rather than the subject matter, and the targeted age of the reader.  So you can have YA paranormal romance, or Middle Grade sci-fi, or what have you.

Next, look at the “genre qualities” of your book.

Did you have a genre in mind when you wrote it?  If not, given what you’ve just learned about the genres, and what readers expect from each genre, where might it possibly fit?

Most importantly, which of the above audiences would be the most happy with what you’ve written?

Example:  Jennifer Crusie’s Welcome to Temptation

It’s a book about two sisters who go to a small town to make a film.  It involves a love story. There is also a mystery.  There is also a decent amount of sex.

That said, it’s not really a mystery, despite the dead body and various machinations as the murderer is discovered. It’s not that difficult to solve, and it’s not the primary focus.  Mystery readers, who are driven to figure out “who did it?” will not be satisfied at the dilution of the mystery with elements that they’d see as secondary: the love story takes up way too much real estate.

It’s also not an erotica.  While the sex is steamy, the focus is more on falling in love and emotional intimacy than sex as a vehicle of character development: there are character development scenes with the heroine and the hero’s child, for example, or the sisters discussing their past.  For someone looking to read erotica, this would seem extraneous, and possibly slow-paced or boring.

It is definitely a love story.  The mystery elements and the sex both serve to reinforce the growth of the love between the protagonists.  So the genre that makes the most sense is romance.

Another example:  Jim Butcher’s Dresden File series.

The protagonist, Harry Dresden, is a detective, solving cases that usually involve murder on the mean streets of Chicago.  He tackles a lot of epic adventures, giving it elements of Action/Adventure.

That said, he is also a Wizard.

They are definitely mysteries, taking a page out of the classic noir novels.  It would definitely satisfy a lot of mystery readers… if they were also amenable to the magical/mystical features of Fantasy, which many might not be.  Same with the action/adventure reader set.

Fantasy readers — specifically Urban Fantasy readers — would be very satisfied by the other-worldly aspects, the world building, and the magic and mystical figures.  The action, adventure and mystery all work with the fantasy element.  Harry shoots things with fireballs and magic spells as well as shotguns.  He solves mysteries that may or may not involve fairies, necromancers, or mythological gods.  It’s immersive, with world building so thorough that you are completely drawn in.  Urban Fantasy is the best fit.

Finally:  identify why you want to know.

There’s a difference between choosing a genre for a potential agent, for example, and choosing a category for a self-publishing listing.

When you’re writing a query, you want to show the agent that you have a sense of who your target audience is and where your book would most likely sell.

You might think “but isn’t that the agent’s job?”  and indeed, said agent may have some opinions on how to better position your work.  But if you don’t have any clue, and you just dump a book in his/her lap with the expectation that they will read through it and glean the positioning, it’s a harbinger of things to come.  Tacitly saying “but that isn’t my job” when it comes to something as relatively simple as genre choice suggests that you’re really going to balk when it comes time to actually  market and promote the thing.

For an agent, choose the most likely readership. 

As I mentioned, mystery readers could enjoy Jim Butcher’s Dresden Files. But they aren’t the most likely readership.  An agent will want to know what’s the most likely readership — who is the mostly likely to seek out this particular type of book, buy this type of book, and enjoy this type of book.  Not someone who stumbles across this book and decides to give it a try on a whim, enjoying it more than he expected.

For self-publishing, you’re looking for the most likely category, and the least populated fit.

When uploading a digital self-published release, you’re allowed to choose several categories/genres for your novel.  These are pretty fluid: bookstores like Amazon change their listings of sub-genres all the time, so it’s a bit of a moving target.  But what you want is to choose a broad genre that fits your right reader’s expectations, just like you’d choose for targeting an agent.  Then, you’re also going to choose a niche, preferably one that isn’t heavily populated, that also fits your novel.

If you have a mystery that involves a police detective, you could pick “Mystery, Thriller, and Suspense” as a category.  Looking it up under Kindle Books, however, you will notice that it has 107,974 results offered — that’s how many ebooks use the same category.

The odds of you getting in the top 100, where many readers look for new authors, or anywhere near a “category bestseller” that will kick on the Amazon Recommendation Engine, is pretty paltry.

Look at the sub-category “Police procedurals” and  the number of books specifically categorized as such drops to 4,844.

To really get specific, if you had a “cat sleuth”?  The number of books drops to 23.  You’d be in the top 100 by default!  (Remember, if you don’t have a cat sleuth, don’t select it just to get a better category ranking.  Getting bad reviews from dedicated niche readers who feel mislead isn’t worth the ranking boost, in my opinion.)

Remember, you can generally pick two categories.  Try to hit one broad category, and one narrow niche.

It’s more art than science.

There isn’t a hard-and-fast way to figure this out, but hopefully these tips will give you a simplified approach to looking at what emotional satisfaction your work provides for genre audiences, and how to move forward.  Don’t be afraid to take a stand — and don’t worry if you have to amend your stance later!

What do you think about the genre listings?  How would you categorize your work?

Please leave a comment — I’d love to hear what you think!

Every Scene is a Story

Without getting too terribly esoteric, I’ve been seeing a lot of holographic patterning in my Year of Cruise.

To display both my geek and hippy-dippy tendencies, I mean “holographic” as in “whole in every part.”  If you cut a hologram in two, each half will still hold the whole picture.   Cut those in half– same thing.  Which is frankly fascinating to me — I am a big fan of patterns and seeing micro/macro relationships — but probably not as fascinating to, say, all of you.

What I’ve noticed that is actually applicable, and hopefully of interest, is that your story essentially works the same way.  Sort of.

Each scene is representative of a story.

Ideally, each scene is set up like a story.  It has a goal.  That goal is motivated.  There is an obstacle to achieving the goal.  There’s a POV.  And finally, there’s an arc.

Let’s take a popular example.  I’ll use the opening scene of Turn Coat, by NYT bestseller Jim Butcher.  It opens with a bang:  our narrator and hero Harry Dresden opens his apartment door to see Morgan, a frenemy who has often wanted him dead, bleeding and half-unconscious on his stoop.  “The Wardens are coming.  Hide me, please,” he asks, before promptly passing out.  (Hell of a hook, incidentally.)

Considering their history, Harry could just as easily shut the door, leaving the guy to his fate.  But Harry’s a hero, and he’s terminally curious and generally has a worse relationship with the wizard communities police force (the Wardens) than most, so he takes the guy in and calls a friend, a medical examiner, to help patch Morgan up.  They patch up Morgan as best they can, but it doesn’t look good — and now it looks like whatever trouble Morgan is in will no doubt rope Harry in, as well.  Like, this-could-get-him-killed trouble.

This is the Inciting Incident — the day something changes. It sets the story goal:  will Harry find out what’s going on and keep himself, and Morgan, out of trouble?

Right from the jump.  Frickin’ brilliant.

What about the “filler” scenes?

That’s the thing.  There are no filler scenes.

There is a little “scenelet” right after a crucial character — Anastasia Luccio, Dresden’s girlfriend and Morgan’s boss — discovered that Dresden is harboring the “fugitive” Morgan.  She’s angry, because Dresden lied.  Morgan is shattered, because he had been in love with Luccio for centuries and didn’t realize she’d hooked up with Dresden.  The prior scene ends painfully.  The next mini-scene is a sequel, a reaction scene, where Luccio talks to Dresden.  She explains what had happened between Morgan and herself.  She then asks what Harry’s planning on doing.  Harry believes Morgan is innocent: despite the fact that he may die, his character will not allow him to back down and leave a true traitor on the loose while a good man dies.  Despite many misgivings, she tentatively agrees to help.  By helping she, too, may condemn herself to death.

In a nutshell, it’s a choice between doing what’s safe, perhaps even smart… and doing what’s right.  Which, in a nutshell, is the crux of the book.

The little not-quite-a-scene, and its expository dialogue, is really the wrap up of the previous scene.  It acts as both a breathing space (things have been pretty damned exciting up to this point) as well as a quieter echo over the overall theme.  Best of all, even though it seems completely perfect, natural and in-place, if somewhat tangential… it sets up something later, showing something crucial.

Make the causal seem casual.

Again:  the scene is a microcosm of the whole novel.  It shows theme.  It sets up something key.  That’s a lot of heavy-lifting for something that’s just a few pages long.  And there’s no feeling of “uh-oh, signpost ahead:  this information is going to be important.”  It’s just a nice little scene that plays out into something bigger down the line, something that makes a turning point twist.

Every scene should do more than one thing, but it should absolutely support the story.  It should hold the dynamic, the essential question, of the story at the forefront at all times… either from the external, or internal, GMC.

How to actually use this esoteric information.

Well, if you’re using Rock Your Plot or you’ve taken one of my classes, you know that I put a lot of emphasis on scenes, as well as the interplay between scene and overall story structure.

When you know where the story needs to go, you can lay out scenes.

When you know what the scene needs to do, you can load it and layer it with elements of the story as a whole.

This is the purpose of revisions.  That’s the tweak, the dialing-in.  The glorious, torturous, necessary element, whether you’re a plotter or a pantser.  This is where the gold is.

A conversation with my Muse.

Year of cruise: relaxing. 

Creative block:  not so much.

I have a history of creative blocks… usually right after I sign a very ambitious contract.

I am writing the first, second and third books in a new humorous urban fantasy-ish series.  They’re all due this year. (Cue shivering feeling of anxiety.)  They will all get done.  And two will be released in the fourth quarter, almost back-to-back, both digitally and in print.

So there’s that.

Being anxious about contracts does not fit into my Year-Long Cruise.

I love these stories, I love this publisher.  I’m calling each book due date a port of call.  I want to party my ass off at these ports of call.

Working the metaphor.

So far, January has been about orientation.  I haven’t been on a year long cruise before, and I certainly haven’t been on this ship before.  So I’m learning where things are, what time things happen.  I’m setting up my state room the way I like it.  I’m developing my sea legs.  And yes, I’m fighting the seasick feeling of doing something utterly new, and possibly insane.

So I decided to meet my Muse, and ask her what’s up with the creative block thing.

My muse picks fights in bars.

Since I interview characters all the time, I decided to have a little conversation with my Muse.  It happened at a Starbucks, since it turns out we both like it there and she considers it a safe haven.

I learned she’s a she.

I also learned that she’s sort of sharp looking — thin and pixie-ish, ears like an elf, sharp features and huge hazel-brown eyes.  She’s dressed in Ragged Woodland chic, like Peter Pan as interpreted by Alexander McQueen.  She’s got wings that are thinner than plastic wrap, and iridescent as a gas slick.

She’s rough and tumble and looks like she just kicked Tinkerbell’s ass.  In a knife fight.  She’s quite a bit awesome.

She is also apparently pissed at me.

Having a conversation with my Muse.

I won’t transcribe the whole thing in detail.  She didn’t want to sit down with me to start with, but once she was at my table, she gave me an earful.

In a nutshell, she didn’t like the way that I didn’t make time for her.  She didn’t like that I was basically expecting her to show up when it was convenient for me, and she didn’t like the pressure I was putting on her to pay bills.  Like it didn’t matter what she did, which is be creative and amazing and beautiful.  The only thing that seemed to matter was what she could do for me.

She did not like that one bit.  And I’ll admit, I felt like a heel.

Her wings were sort of tattered, and they were quite gossamer to begin with, so I was really hurting her.

I told her I was sorry.  I promised to make dedicated time for her, and to value her what she does.  That I’d love her just for being herself, not for how much cash she could come up with.  She’s still a bit pissed, but I’ve been writing more… and I’m happy with what she’s come up with.

My Muse Is Not Your Muse

I used to get my back up when I read other blogs and articles that basically said:

“I write for art.  I don’t even care if anyone buys it.”

I’m not saying that.  Because personally, I do care.  I think there’s a business side to my art.  That the business side can be an art form in and of itself.

If nothing else, I believe that writing is a form of communication.  Writing that never sees the light of day is, essentially, talking to yourself.  Not that there’s anything wrong with that, but it’s like sex — nothing wrong with flying solo, but it’s more fun with someone else, in my opinion. 🙂

That said, there’s a difference between approaching my writing like a business, and treating my writing like a workhorse, or slave labor.

There’s a difference between the positive of valuing my work (enough to get paid for it, say)  and the ugly, desperate negative of writing out of fear (of not making income, of being a failure, etc.)

If you’re pursuing contracts or writing to deadline as a way to stay out of a day job, I respect that.  All I know is, my muse is not working with that mindset.

And no matter what other people’s Muses are doing, or how their careers are doing, I have to work with the pixie I’ve been given.  Otherwise, I have the sneaking feeling she’s going to kick my ass.


Artwork by Olatz Garcia Relloso.  Isn’t she amazing?


The Experiment.

As I cryptically referenced in the last post:

I’m going to be documenting this experiment on the blog in the coming year.  I may be absolutely nuts, but if anybody has ever said “follow your bliss” and “things will work out” — well, here’s the clinical trial, baby.

But what exactly does that look like?  How can you follow your bliss, practice extreme faith, and not go completely, uselessly bonkers?  And if this is a clinical trial — what, exactly, is the experiment?

No goals.  Now what?

Having been a recovering Type A, er, type, I discovered that not thinking in terms of goals can be confusing. “What, I’m just supposed to be for an entire year?  Navel gaze for twelve months?  Then what?”

Besides that, there are external factors at work.  I’ve got five books coming out in 2012… and three books contracted to complete.  And I sincerely doubt my publisher’s going to be sunshine & smiles if I suddenly declare “oh, I decided not to have any goals this year.  You’ll have it when it’s done.  And I’m promoting in a sort of when I feel like it manner.  But it’ll work!  Byeee!”

So how can I do what I feel needs to be done (like pay bills, and teach classes, and write books and promote them) without some kind of pressure?

Mind your metaphors.

Most of you know I am a huge fan of Havi Brooks over at The Fluent Self.  One of her things is the power of metaphor.  If the story you’re telling yourself about something doesn’t work, you change the story.  For example, she absolutely detested the idea of staff meetings.  Envisioning it (and actually calling it) a Drunken Pirate Council, on the other hand, works like a charm.

Since we’re writers, we of all people should be able to recognize the power of words.  Actively using metaphors to… well, write our lives, makes perfect sense to me.  (As does altering our own POV — but I’ll be blogging more about that later.)

Obviously, I had an issue with goals+pressure+burnout=getting shit done.  I had the wrong equation.  I saw it as a rat race, of sorts.  While I had some healthier and more authentic metaphors for me (like tribe vs. platform, and gift/contribution vs. pushy-used-car-sales) I still kept looking at the numbers.  How many followers?  How many sales to hit bestseller?  Feelings are well and good, but what are the numbers?

And there was that whole driving into a wall thing.  *Shudder.*

Welcome to the Cruise.

Okay, this is one of the crazier things I’ve tried — and after four years in Berkeley and a decent stint in the clubs of L.A., that’s saying something.

My metaphor for 2012 is a luxury cruise.

I knew that my biggest problem was focusing myopically on accomplishment, benchmarks, milestones.  Like one of those tours, where you have to see eighteen countries in about two days.  This is the Eiffel Tower!  This is Luxembourg!  Back on the bus!

Instead, I wanted an experience of relaxation.  There would be stops, stuff to see, sure… but the whole point is really just being on the cruise.  I always imagine a cruise being a sanctioned place to hang out on a deck chair and read, so right there, I knew I wanted more of that.

You can hang out with other people who are presumably there because they like the whole experience.  Or you can just hide in your stateroom.

And at the end of the cruise, you go back to where you started from.

Experience for experience’s sake.

Another chestnut.  Ever heard “live like you’re dying?”  As in, if you only had a year left to live, what would you do?

I can agree with the sentiment, but really — if you could run up your credit cards and tell the company to go screw itself, if you could bare your soul and if it all went wrong well, hell, you’re dead! — it’s easier to say.  It’s saying “live like you won’t have to deal with the consequences.”  And yes, that’s simply my problem with the metaphor.

Instead, I’m looking at it as “live like you’re on a vacation.”  (Assuming, for the moment, that you’re not a Type-A workaholic with a surgically attached iPhone or an aforementioned tour nazi.  I actually had a tour guide once snap at me when I complained about our pace: “You’re not on holiday.  You’re on tour.”)

When you’re on vacation, you slow down.  You’ve got options, but you could theoretically just chill out and read if you’re feeling exhausted.  It’s about replenishment, and being curious about things, and having fun.  And usually, horrible things that happen simply become fodder for the stories you tell to non-vacationeers later.  “So nobody spoke English, it was four o’clock in the morning, we couldn’t get a taxi!  And we wound up staying out all night!”

So, now that I’ve flown my freak flag…what about you?

If you had a metaphor for your writing life… what would it be?  And do you like it?



How to Find Time to Write and Promote.

I’ve seen a lot of people wrestling with this issue lately. I’ve been juggling quite a bit, myself, and being a bit time management challenged in the past (read: overbooked and incapable of triage/saying no) it’s a topic that’s close to my heart.

How do you find time to write and promote?

I haven’t perfected the system. I don’t think anyone ever does.  But here are the steps I used to get into the groove that currently allows me to offer my services, write this blog, write my novels, and grow my audience… all while raising a five year old.

1.  Start small.

You guys know how I feel about author platforms. Promotion is crucial: pushing sucks.  The key is to be connected — to be social, but at the same time, making conscious choices.

I choose to comment on two blogs — the same two blogs — every single day there’s a new post.  Because I’m a writer and I run a writing site, I have a bit more than that, but this is how I started.  Just two blogs.

I then chose to post one Facebook status update and one Tweet every day.  Just one.

I did that for a month or two.  Then, I added blogging consistently:  once a week.  Just once.  No post over 1,000 words.  Technically, it made my social media posts easier, but I wound up simply adding a tweet instead of replacing one.

2.  Make it a routine.

The first time I drove a stick shift car, I thought my head would explode. Or that the engine would.  I was already frazzled trying to simply get the gas vs. brake thing down while steering and paying attention to my surroundings. Then I had to add a clutch and shifting while the engine’s whining and the gears are grinding?  Seriously?

Fortunately, my instructor had me learn the basics on an automatic first.  When it was time to switch to stick, I stuck to parking lots where I could go slowly and I wouldn’t need to shift up too often.  Little steps.  It became second nature… in steps.

Finding time to write and promote works on the exact same principles.  Small steps.  For one whole month, time permitting, write every day.  Just one page, if necessary.  And mark on a calendar or keep track some other way.

Once you start doing that every day for at least a month, add one social media thing.  Post on your media of choice, once a day, every day.  Already doing that?  Blog.  Just once a week.  (If you haven’t set up a website, then break that down into steps, and every day, tackle one baby step toward that goal.) Do something small every day.

They call your creative self your “inner child.”  I am learning the hard way: children need, and secretly crave, routine.

3.  Look at what you’ve got.

This absolutely sucks rocks, but I hate to admit, it’s the only way I know that actually works.

Write down what you do every day for a week.  I mean everything.  Start with the time you wake up, then document everything you do while you do it.  Don’t wait until the end of the night and try to remember it — that never works!

Do this for a week, and you’ll see where your time is really going.  I fought against this kicking and screaming, but when I finally broke down (thanks to a cool new planner and an even cooler time management advisor) I was amazed at what I did with my time.  I had a lot more of it than I thought — but I was also basically draining my battery in ways I hadn’t realized.

Once I saw what I had to work with — both from a time and an energy standpoint — I was able to make better choices.

4.  Put replenishment first.

If you’re carving out time but not refilling the well, then you’re trying to run a marathon on a Hershey bar.  That wall comes up fast and you hit it hard.  Worse, you’re probably going to berate yourself for not meeting your goals.

When you look at the time you have, and you’re looking at building your routines, make sure that self-care is the first routine on the list.  Before the page-a-day, before the tweets and posts, pick one small but effective energy pick-up.

Keep in mind: you need to see if it’s really sustaining.  That one-week documenting practice will show you what you’re trying to do to pick yourself up vs. what actually works.  If you’re getting your ass kicked on a day job, and then you’re coming home and unwinding by diving head first into a pint of Karamel Sutra ice cream and a Mad Men marathon, perhaps you might wonder why you continue to feel exhausted despite two hours on your couch.

Your small step might be a fifteen minute walk.  Or a big glass of water.  Or — God forbid — meditation.  Something that is possibly irritating as hell going in, but you know in your gut will actually fuel the engine rather than simply let it cruise on fumes.

Simple, but not easy.

These are not glamorous, not sexy, and not fun.  They seem painfully simple, and probably stuff you’ve read before.

But think of it this way.  All you need is about fifteen minutes a day to start building your platform.  You can write a page a day and have a 365 page manuscript ready for revision.

And a bonus tip:

5.  Get an accountability buddy.

You can’t do this alone.  I have the most supportive friends in the world, but I still feel guilty as hell when I have to tell them I didn’t do what I told them I would.

Look at what you’ve got.  Pick a little goal.  Tell somebody.

I’m thinking of starting a Twitter hashtag, like #RYW #smallsteps, or some other way of staying accountable and reporting in.  If it’s something you’re interested in, could you put it in the comments, or email me?  Sometimes it’s hard to find writer friends who understand, and who will cheer you on (or hold you to things.)

If you know of anyone that this post might help, please re-tweet.