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.

Book Club Confidential

Book Club Confidential

Ruth E. Walker

The first book club invitation I received came from Sharon, a co-worker. She’d read Living Underground and wondered if I might come to her book club while they discussed my book. Holy poop! I thought. Be there while they dissected my characters, found holes in my plot, puzzled over themes I didn’t know I had in there?

Absolutely terrifying. So naturally, I said yes. I figured it would be my one and only. I was wrong.

Sharon's book club Toronto
Sharon’s book club Toronto

My book was published in 2012, and Sharon’s lovely invitation was only one of many I continue to receive. I’ve travelled all over southern Ontario to libraries, pubs, living rooms, coffee shops and even an office boardroom. I’ve accepted book club invites to Virginia and Michigan. I was with a seniors’ group in London Ontario recently and in September, I’ll meet readers in Niagara-on-the-Lake.

For authors, book clubs are a wonderful opportunity to meet with people who read your book. But you should be prepared before showing up. Each club has its own structure and set of expectations — some are social with wine and nibbles; others are prepared with note pads and questions. Remember: you want to be a welcome guest who adds value to their reading experience.

Here are some pointers for attending book clubs.

Do your research. Ask questions before you go:

Coffee Shop Book Club Whitby
Coffee Shop Book Club Whitby
  • what is the format and what do they expect of you? (if they’re not sure, you need to be prepared with suggestions. Consider preparing a book club guide/questions to provide in advance)
  • will a member lead the evening or is it more free-flowing?
  • what time are you expected to be there? (sometimes, you’re asked to show up after the meeting starts to let the group settle before you arrive) and when you should leave? (they can’t talk about you if you are still in the room…)
  • what is the address? (you may think this is a silly question but you need to know exactly where you are going — front door, side door, meeting room on 2nd floor & not the main floor…)
  • what are the contact phone numbers? (and give them yours in case of last-minute changes)

Set out your parameters:

  • let them know if any question is out of bounds for you (in my case, I am clear with book clubs — they can ask me anything at all about the book & they can’t offend me with opinions or questions)
  • time limits, if you have them

Be the guest author, not the wannabe member:

A Lunchtime Book Club
A Lunchtime Book Club, Queen’s Park
  • avoid the social drinks; stick to water or tea/coffee (I like wine but not at a book club; I’m there to answer their questions, not join their group.)
  • similarly, go easy on the nibbles (eat dinner before showing up)
  • dress professionally (it’s not a white tie event; however, know that your ripped jeans and sweatshirt is only great for writing marathons and not a book club)

Bring copies of your book:

  • book clubs have usually already bought your book but it is helpful to have copies on hand (be discreet because it’s not about selling the book; you are there to appreciate your readers)

    Stafford Virginia Book Club
    Stafford Virginia Book Club

Be prepared to hear negative comments:

  • reading is an individual experience and not everyone will love your book (p.s. – really, it’s no longer YOUR book once you send it out to readers; it becomes THEIR book that you wrote)
  • practise the following:
    • Thank you for letting me know.
    • That’s interesting. It wasn’t what I had in mind when I wrote that scene but I appreciate knowing your response to it.
    • I appreciate your honesty.
  • I always let the organizer know the following:
    • Your members can ask me anything at all. I’m a writer and I’m used to critiques and rejection. They can’t hurt my feelings even if they didn’t like anything about my book. (and I repeat this at the beginning of every book club appearance — it helps break the ice for some readers.)
Third Thursday Book Club Whitby

Remember to say thank you:

  • What a terrific compliment; the club members picked your book to read. If you think about it, what better validation of the crazy passion we have for writing than to have readers engage with your book?

    "Red Sails" London Chapter
    “Red Sails” London Chapter