Is your project a cross-over genre, a blend, or hard to categorize? As a writer, I thought a lot about this over the weekend. Here’s why:
Saturday evening I went to see Pippin at Artis Naples (formerly The Phil) with a friend. I knew the basic storyline from the 1970s Bob Fosse musical. (Pippin, a young man from Charlemagne’s court searches for purpose in his life. The journey takes him from war to wandering to love and home again.) This revival, which just closed on Broadway in January, takes on a surreal telling that blends the excitement and showmanship under the big top with dance and song, acrobatics and illusion. During the opening number I was stunned, not expecting the overwhelming display of costumes, different activity (from dance to acrobatic stunts) and music that blends circus and nightclub with jazz and Burlesque. It was not what I’d expected but I was definitely entertained. In fact, I immediately wanted to see it again because there was so much going on around the stage. One number even included a sing-along complete with projected chorus lyrics and the bouncing dot to help the audience keep up as we participated.
Throughout the show I laughed my “arse” off but was also moved nearly to tears. I watched in awe at illusions and knife-throwing routines. I also gasped at trapeze and acrobatic stunts. It had something of everything it seems.
At the end of the show my friend and I discussed the overwhelming blend of entertainment. “How would you classify that?” I asked. “I don’t know how to explain what I just saw.”
Now I know where the term “entertainment extravaganza!” comes from. We both agreed that we were glad we attended the show. We were definitely entertained. And, like the promise of the circus announcer during that opening act, we did see feats that would haunt our dreams, that we would never forget.
As I thought about it all, I considered how the “hard to categorize” quality might work for this show, but not for our writing. (Actually, this revival initially received flack that it detracted from Bob Fosse’s vision with the original.) Unlike writing, the audience for this performance is clear: if you regularly attend the theater, attend musicals, like comedy and spoof, appreciate all types of dance and music, and are mesmerized by illusion and the strength and skill that go into acrobatics, then you would enjoy Pippin. (The couple next to us did not return after intermission.)
But as readers, genre–the classification of the writing–helps us find and select our next reading material. We tend toward a genre–a specific type of writing, a category within fiction to aid in narrowing our selections. Bookstores and libraries are set up to display books grouped by category and topic.
I always assumed that a writer who read voraciously would pick up on the categories and sub-categories (or genres) within each type of writing. The story’s plot and key events are different when the detective is a cop vs. a private eye (hard boiled detective) vs. an amateur (cozy mystery).
But after teaching and coaching writers for several decades, I have come to realize that may newer writers don’t think about genre details. They simply write the story. I guess they assume that the decision about where to file it is up to the publisher or bookseller.
How wrong they are. Knowing the category or genre is important when you’re ready to submit a manuscript to an editor or agent. Like knowing our audience, writers need to know where the idea fits and then mold the story to fit the genre. (I will admit, I often do this during the revision stage, but it is a consideration.)
When you’re subbing a story, being able to state the genre provides info to the editor:
- It shows you’re serious enough a writer to: a) know that there are sub-genres or sub-categories; and b) have taken time to learn about the craft (and industry) of writing.
- It makes their work easier. You’ve sent historical fiction but their list (the books releasing soon and/or previously published) is inundated with historical fiction. You’ll receive a “thanks, not at this time” form rejection. Likewise, if they are seeking books in the genre you’ve submitted, they’ll give your manuscript a closer reading.
- It will be your job if you plan to self-publish. In this case, identifying the genre and sub-genre is even more important. Without an accurate classification, how will your readers find the book among the tens of thousands (or hundreds of thousands) out there?
Apparently, writers aren’t hitting the target, at least based on the tips some editors shared recently on the Writers in the Storm blog. Chuck Sambucino provided tips and insights in a guest post, “Agents Explain Book Genres” which is worth a look. In it you’ll find comments from agents about mystery v. thriller or high fantasy v. urban fantasy. What is crime fiction or the different types of romance.
This whole issue gets trickier when you write genre fiction (as opposed to literary fiction ) because the genres are broken into sub-genres (or types of fantasy, types of mystery, types of romance). Then there’s the issue of “cross-over” where the main story is one genre but a subplot crosses over into another genre. For example, you might have science fiction or urban fantasy or mystery with romance elements.
Yes, especially for new writers it can become overwhelming or cause confusion. But, if you read, especially in the genre you want to write for, you’ll begin to distinguish the differences. Begin to notice how the books you read are categorized. Read blogs and books about writing craft, too. And, if you’re in the Southwest Florida area, I do teach a mini-course called “Genre Details.” Two are upcoming, April and May 2015. Check out my class listings for details. (Or, let me know if you’d be interested in an ecourse.)