Genre limbo

All I’ve been hearing is that agents can’t figure out what genre my book fits in.

If your work isn’t easily identifiable for any particular genre, this tells me you’re not pitching it correctly. There are queries that left me scratching my head, wondering about the genre because the author didn’t tell me. I’m a five-year-old at times; I need to be told. YA vs. Adult? Inspirational vs. How To? Historical fiction vs. Fantasy? That’s a pretty big difference in audiences.

If the author tells me their work is intended for YA or inspirational, then I read the work with that audience in mind. Now, that’s not to say I won’t feel the work would be better suited in a different genre, but at least I had a launching point.

I remember rejecting a work because the pitch and first pages gave me the impression it was historical fiction. Not interested in historical fiction. Unfortunately for me, the author was one of those authors who behave badly and ripped me a new orifice.

How DARE you call my work historical fiction! It’s a memoir, you effing moron!

Coulda knocked me over with a feather. If Mr. Snooty Pants had told me it was a memoir, I would have read it from that perspective. It’s not my job to play 20 Questions. I take comfort knowing that I would have rejected it anyway. Note to self: tell the beagle to buy a better brand of tinfoil for my hats.

But the point of all this is that you aren’t just the architect of your stories; you’re also the sales team as well. No one knows your work better, and it’s your job to put on your metaphorical shiny shoes and bright smile and sell the hell out of your work. If  your manuscript saunters into our offices looking all sassy and cool and says, “this is the best damn medical fiction you’ll ever read” [even though your doctor character is a time traveler from the 1920s], I’ll believe you. I’m going to notice the SF references when I read it, and I’ll consider whether the time travel bit plays a big enough part to classify it as SF.

If SF is a very strong element throughout your book, then you need to decide which audience will be more forgiving. Are readers of medical fiction going to enjoy the strong SF overtones? Probably not. They want a traditional medical story that takes place on terra firma. On the other hand, will the SF readers be more forgiving of a SF story with a medical setting. Probably – because SF readers are used to seeing all sorts of different settings.

The author cannot afford to say “I just don’t know how to classify this, so I’ll pitch it as one of those books that live in genre limbo.” I feel my hand quaking for the rejection letter. And please, for the love of all that’s holy, don’t classify your work as a genre bender. It’s a cop-out.

Look at it this way. Let’s say you go to the mall and there’s a great looking salesman standing in front of a yellow box. He’s hot. So hot, your buttons are melting off your shirt. He winks at you. Your knees weaken. Oh hell yes, you think. I am so buying whatever he’s selling…just as soon as you figure out what it is he’s selling. Hey, cute buns, you say in a low voice. What’s up with the yellow box? His smile gets even wider. He adjusts his collar so you can see his little chest hairs popping up. Sigh. And then he answers you in a deep baritone:

“I have no freaking idea.”

[sounds of the needle skipping across the record album] You scratch your head and shove your carnal plans into your backpack. Um, if you don’t know what it is, then how can you sell it? And why would I want it?

“Hey, come on,” he says, his voice brimming with confidence, “you have to admit it’s a really pretty shade of yellow. Come on, take a chance and buy it.”

And this is basically what authors do to agents and editors when they don’t choose a genre. I understand there are times when it’s really hard to decide which genre your story fits in. My recommendation is to look at the overall story and see which genre is stronger. Analyze which readership will be more forgiving of the other genre’s elements. Choose one and pitch it. Trust that we’re not complete dolts, and we’ll see if your story would better fit in a different genre. But do give us an initial shove off the pier.

Don’t be a yellow box.

3 Responses to Genre limbo

  1. Julie Rowe says:

    Lynn, this is the best explanation I’ve seen for why a writer needs to nail down what they’re writing. Lots of them think they can get away with something like: this is a paranormal thriller romance with medical elements.

    (cough) Ah, no.

    Thanks for the great post!

    Cheers, Julie

  2. Bob Truppe says:

    Bang on again Lynn, the author should not be posing questions about the work they created. This is a great post.


  3. Lynn, thank you so much for your post. I got instant clarity reading this and I’m going rework my pitch right now.

    My first novel fits very clearly into my intended genre and I just assumed I would be stating the obvious by mentioning it.

    Being new to the writing game, I had never really considered the importance of defining it for others. I won’t be making that mistake again.


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