Reading outside your genre

Reading outside your genre

Gwynn Scheltema

My last post was about defining what genres we write in. Which got me to thinking about what genres we read. And the value of reading outside our usual genres.

Books that move me

I love language and wallowing in words. I love to reread evocative passages, to stop mid story to share a sentence with my husband that I find particularly beautiful or thought-provoking. I like skilled play with fiction forms. Consequently, I often gravitate to literary fiction. Story is important to me, but plot is not. I prefer internal character struggles rather than thrilling events, or fast-paced action. I’m happy to spend time in people’s heads, seeing the world from their perspectives. Recent reads (which I highly recommend) have been: The Orenda by Joseph Boyden. All the Light We Cannot See by Anthony Doerr and Cutting for Stone by Abraham Verghese.

I also like the books I read to be set in exotic places, in other cultures, and affected by political or natural turmoil that I am never likely to be faced with. I like to learn about other customs and occupations. The Bonesetters Daughter by Amy Tan (historical fiction), Three Cups of Tea by Greg Mortenston (non fiction/memoir) and In the Shadow of the Banyan by Vaddey Ratner (historical fiction) fit that bill.

Broadening my reading horizons

But I’ve also had to spend a fair amount of time this year away from home, and have found myself reading books passed on to me or chosen for me by others, books I likely would have walked right by in the bookstore.

I learned a lot in the process. Reading time is limited and with the books I have to read for a variety of reasons, the time left for reading for enjoyment is really limited, but I was reminded that broadening my reading horizons was a necessary—and enjoyable— part of being a well-rounded writer and editor.

What I learned from the books that found me

Of the books that found me, let me tell you about just three of them. Turns out, I enjoyed them all, and reading as a writer, I learned a lot too:

The first one: Spud by John van der Ruit is a YA humorous coming-of-age story set in a fictional private boys school in South Africa in 1990 around the time of the release of Mandela. It’s written in a diary style like The Secret Diary of Adrian Mole.

Apart from bringing back a lot of memories of my own schooling in an Anglican Church School in Zimbabwe, Spud reminded me that humour is a great foil for addressing tough and often brutal circumstances. This book tackled bullying, attempted rape, mental illness as well as the usual problems of growing up, boarding school and relationships. It showed me that sometimes less is more, and that young boys and girls face many of the same problems. Structurally, the diary format allowed much to be said without embellishment or long drawn-out scenes. It allowed room for things to be left unsaid.

The next: The Casual Vacancy by JK Rowling, listed as a contemporary mystery thriller, is a multi-voice fiction about a seemingly ordinary small-town and what really goes on behind closed doors.

Rowling’s dialogue in this book is superb. She handles the dialogue of different ages, cultures and socio-economic characters in way that their speech and dialect is distinct, authentic and utterly believable. I had a hard time getting into the book because there is an enormous cast of characters, and Rowling “head-hops” a great deal, but once in, I was hooked. From this book, I learned that multiple viewpoints can work well as long as each voice has their own story not more or less important than the others.

And the third: Some Girls, Some Hats and Hitler is a memoir by Trudy Kanter, an Austrian Jew who used her connections as a hat designer to escape events in World War II and find safety for herself and her husband Walter. Like Spud, this book handled grave situations with humour. What really struck me though, was how Trudy spent a lot of time talking about hats and fashion and parties and décor and other things that at first seemed frivolous and inappropriate for the dire war situation and terrible and frightening circumstances she was facing. But then I realized that that was Trudy’s coping mechanism. It got me thinking about the different ways different people use to handle a given situation. Just because I might handle a situation one way, my characters (and readers) might do something completely different.

Other reasons to read out of your usual genre

Stephen King famously said, “If you don’t have time to read, you don’t have the time (or the tools) to write. Simple as that.”

Yes, you should read extensively in the genre you write to become familiar with it on all levels, but reading on a regular basis outside your genre, outside your comfort zone, makes you a better well-rounded writer. It clears the cobwebs away in your creative brain. Gets you out of a rut. New perspectives, new craft approaches and new possibilities. Same-old-same-old in your reading leads to same-old-same-old in your writing.

Who knows, you may discover a new genre that really speaks to you. Perhaps that coming-of-age story you’ve been struggling with as an historical romance might be better reworked as a dystopian YA. But you have to read some dystopian YA to find out.

And not just different genres, but different writing forms: short stories, poetry, plays…  Each form can teach you different writing skills that will help with your novel. Plays are excellent for studying dialogue, poetry can remind you about image and metaphor and the economy and power of words.

So take the plunge, be adventurous, make a pact with yourself to include a new genre or new form when you pick up your next book. You’ll be glad you did.


Ruth and Gwynn are off to the Niagara Region this month to deliver a workshop that explores writing in different styles and genres, called What’s in Your Writing Closet. If your group is interested in this or any of our workshops, explore our on demand workshop options.



What Genre do You Write?

What Genre do You Write?

Gwynn Scheltema

Seems like a simple question, but increasingly these days it can be confusing. Genres not only have subgenres, but subgenres have sub-subgenres: Steampunk is a sub genre of science fiction (or science fantasy) but steampunk itself has sub genres like steamgoth, gaslight romance, clockpunk and dieselpunk.

Then of course, you have the age cross-overs and cross-genres like paranormal romance, crime fantasy, or action comedy.

The mind boggles.

Why does knowing your genre matter?

Initially, it doesn’t matter. When you begin your first draft, story is key and the story will land in the genre it fits best. But once that draft is done, knowing your genre is important. You’ll need to know so you can fine tune your manuscript and pitch it to the right agent or publisher.

It’s a marketing issue. How many places will your book fit? Knowing your genre shows a better understanding of the market, which can only help your submission. If you don’t know where your book fits, you’re saying you don’t know your target audience.

We all like to think that our book is unique, but the reality is, if we can correctly categorize it, readers can access it and agents and publishers will know immediately whether it potentially fits their market.

Genre and editing

And because knowing genre is a marketing issue, it becomes an editing issue, so you can mould your submission to fit publishing needs and reader expectations.

Let’s take the crime/mystery genre as an example and the typical “dead body”. In a cosy mystery, your readers will expect to spend a few chapters meeting the inhabitants of a cosy community and getting to know the protagonist and her friends before the “dead body” is discovered. The actual killing will be off stage. In a police procedural mystery, the “dead body” is there by the end of chapter one. Readers may even witness the murder. It will be important to follow real police investigative and forensic procedures.

Some publishers have well-defined expectations that can help tremendously at this editing stage. Harlequin, the world’s largest publisher of romance, provides clear, detailed guidelines on their website for each of their genre imprints, from the word count to the level of sexual content.

So what is my genre?

Genre definitions are constantly changing and evolving, but you have to start somewhere.

1. Prepare a book jacket blurb

Once the first draft is done, prepare a book jacket blurb (the paragraphs on the back cover that entice readers to buy because they answer the question “What is this book about?”.)  Writing the jacket blurb helps to distill the thrust of the story: the conflict, the stakes and the character arc.

It also helps define what genre it is, because it focuses on the main thread of the story.

2. Define the main genre

With your book jacket blurb in hand, you have your main dominant story thread. Use that main thread to define the main genre. For instance, if your book involves a mystery and a romance, is the dominant story thread a classic “who done it” with a bit of romance thrown in for character growth? (mystery) Or is it really about a relationship blossoming between two people who happen to be solving a mystery together? (romance)

Here’s a list of some of the main genres to get you started:

  • Action/Adventure — epic journeys, lots of conflict/pursuit, high stakes, some violence.
  • Crime/Mystery — stories that involve solving a crime, usually a murder.
  • Fantasy —magic, other worlds, myths and mythological/mystical figures.
  • Historical — fictional characters and events in an historical setting
  • Horror— stories that invoke dread or fear.
  • Thriller/Suspense — harm/danger about to befall a person or group and the attempts to evade the harm/danger, high tension.
  • Romance —love/intimacy/relationships.
  • Sci-fi —impact of technology, aliens, science-related alternative worlds, often futuristic
  • Women’s fiction — stories about women experiencing emotional growth

Once you have your main genre, you can explore subgenres. This link on the definition and characteristics of the main genres is worth looking into.

3. Define your reader

Nail down the age group your book is aimed at: children, young adult, new adult or adult. If your manuscript appeals to more than one group, you have an age cross-over. (Think Harry Potter (children/adult) or Hunger Games (YA/adult).)

Imagine your ideal reader. If you were that reader looking for your book, where would you look? Again, focus on the main narrative thread. Is your ideal reader looking for a romance with a bit of mystery thrown in, or are they problem solvers who like mysteries and might like some relationship stuff thrown in?

Ask your beta readers where they would expect to find your book. Ask your critique group. Tell other writers your blurb and then ask them, “What section of a bookstore would you look in to find my book?”

4. Visit a book store

Go to a bricks & mortar bookstore or hop on the Net. Identify half a dozen books similar to yours and find where they are shelved. Go to Goodreads and check the Listopia recommendations for your main genre, like “Best Science Fiction.” That will lead you to the sub-genres like “Best Steampunk Books.” Read the blurbs on the back covers. Does your book jacket blurb follow a similar pitch?

One way to do this is to have two windows open, one on Amazon and the other on Goodreads. Read the blurb on Goodreads and then search the book on Amazon to see its classification.

I always like the section below the “purchase” button with the phrase “People who bought this also bought….” It’s a great way to find other novels that are categorized the same way. Could your book fit here?

Still not sure?

You’re fine as long as you know your main genre and reader age. Agents will be able to spot a crossover even if you haven’t mentioned it. If your query letter has a good hook and good comparables, the sub-genre will be apparent to them.

However, the time you spend on defining your genre will help you make a better connection between your story and your reader. And your well-crafted blurb will be ready for those moments when someone (maybe an agent or publisher) asks “So what are you writing?”


Vicki Delany, our guest at this year’s fall retreat, Turning Leaves  2017, writes in several subgenres of the crime/mystery genre. As  Eva Gates she writes the cosy Lighthouse series, and as Vicki Delany she writes a Police Procedural series featuring Constable Molly Smith.

Here Be Dragons: Plot and character in fantasy fiction

Here Be Dragons: Plot and character in fantasy fiction

with Heather M. O’Connor and Anne MacLachlan

Choose your own adventure–and who to take along for the ride–in this four-week workshop on plot and character in fantasy. Through hands-on activities and discussion, you’ll learn how to:

  • craft nuanced, believable heroes and villains
  • follow the Hero’s Journey to chart their path and yours
  • explore fantasy’s many subgenres and archetypes
  • discover online resources to continue your quest

Excellent companion to The Many Worlds of Fantasy.

The Many Worlds of Fantasy

The Many Worlds of Fantasy

with Heather M. O’Connor and Anne MacLachlan

Date: Wednesdays, March 18, 25, April 1, 8, 15

Time: 7:00-9:00 pm.

Location: Trent University, Oshawa Campus

Fee: $125 ($110 for members of WCDR, SOH, WCSC, WCYR and other writing organizations)





Explore the worlds of fantasy, both fictional and professional, in this 5-week, hands-on workshop.

Learn how to create convincing fantasy settings. We’ll use world-building techniques and activities to:

  • discover a brave new world
  • layer in realistic depth and detail 
  • build your world, week after week
  • extend your new realm around the corner and across the seas

We’ll also explore the fantasy writer’s world. Discover a treasure trove of:

  • markets and publishers
  • conferences, workshops and networks
  • writing resources

To register:

  1. Select your workshop using the Add to Cart button.
  2. Find Your Shopping Cart on the right.
  3. Click on the yellow Check out with PayPal button to pay securely using a credit card or PayPal account.

$125 – The Many Worlds of Fantasy

$110 – The Many Worlds of Fantasy (members of writing organizations)

Excellent companion to Here Be Dragons! Plot and character in fantasy fiction. Register for both workshops and save $20.

$220 – Register for The Many Worlds of Fantasy and Here Be Dragons

$190 – Register for The Many Worlds of Fantasy and Here Be Dragons (members of writing organizations)