(Here’s the first in a series of tips for writers by Philip Martin, one of the instructors at the 2012 Novel-in-Progress Bookcamp.)
Know Your Genre!
Although J.R.R. Tolkien wrote, “Affixing ‘labels’ to writers, living or dead, is an inept procedure . . . a childish amusement of small minds” – this is not sound advice for a writer trying to get a book published and out into the marketplace.
A genre label can in fact be your best friend. There are two reasons to know your genre well:
1) knowledge of the genre’s traditional form will help you in your writing.
2) knowledge of the genre will help in marketing and selling your book.
Let’s look very briefly at each of those.
Knowledge of Form
In short, the more you know about your book’s genre, the better you can succeed in two very important things. First: follow the genre’s pattern well enough to satisfy your readers. Second: offer something new that other books in the genre haven’t offered to readers. A long time ago, a successful writer summed up the job of any good writer: “to make new things familiar and familiar things new.” (William Thackery, author of Vanity Fair)
If you are writing a romance novel, you want to have enough of the normal shape, flow, and enjoyable elements that romance readers have come to love in romance novels. Let face it, readers consume a lot more books in their favorite genre than they do of books that mix and cross and test the boundaries.
However, you also want to be able to deliver some new stuff as well, some original take on a love scene or a character aspect or a setting or . . . [fill in the blank!] that will make readers happy to read and recommend your book.
Help in Marketing
Although you might think it’s wonderful to mix genres and write a “hey, it’s hard to catagorize” hybrid, say a Science Fiction/Romance novel . . . this is a red flag to many literary agents and publishers and bookstore owners and readers. You might want to pause to consider this: a mixed genre probably won’t bring in readers from both fields. It typically will just appeal to the much smaller intersection of those two circles, to the people who already like both.
As noted before, there are much bigger markets for books that are clearly set within a genre than for books that jump back and forth between several. Even if your work is indeed hard to categorize, do it! Pick the genre that is most central to the work. Of course, you can still let people know about the other elements of the story found within . . . but without confusing them about the core genre that the work falls within.
(Here’s a longer blog post on the importance of genre I wrote on my own blog, The Writer’s Handbook.)
Summary of Tip #1 for Aspiring Novelists
Don’t overlook the value of identifying the core genre of your book. You may, of course, have a romance within a science fiction book. But labeling it as primarily Science Fiction (or primarily Romance) helps everyone know what kind of book it is at its core. And as a writer, you’ll likely write better if you decide at the beginning just what that genre is.
Yes, you can break this rule if you must . . . but understand that it will make your job as a novelist harder and somewhat less likely to succeed.
While Tolkien might call this labeling “childish” from a literary academic perspective . . . I’d call it a professional trait that most successful writers learn to use to their advantage.