The Great Genre Debate

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The Great Genre Debate

Post by oldhousejunkie » July 7th, 2011, 10:16 am

Is anyone else out there struggling with their genre?

I recently discussed my woes on my blog and was wondering who else might be having the same trouble. My conundrum arises from the increasingly fluid definition of historical romance. Traditionally, the genre was relegated to the romance aisle at the local bookstore, but more and more I have seen these books popping up on the main fiction shelves. A love story is central to the theme of these books, but historical events play into the story as well. Most importantly, there is nary a mention of heaving bosoms and throbbing members. Since my own MS lacks these things as well, I don't think it counts as a traditional historical romance. Maybe "upmarket" historical romance, but since I made that up, I can't exactly use that classification in my query. Right now, I'm using "historical fiction with romantic elements" as my genre.

I know that some of you are probably having the same debate--maybe not over historical fiction vs historical romance--but perhaps your MS blends two different genres. How are you handling it when you query or pitch to editors? Is it easier to make comparisons to other authors to clarify exactly where your MS lands in the market? How are you targeting agents?

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Re: The Great Genre Debate

Post by JustAnotherJen » July 7th, 2011, 12:12 pm

I don't have anything helpful to suggest (sorry) because I'm in a similar predicament and haven't figured it out yet either. My WIP is some sort of YA contemporary fantasy romance adventure thingy. Definitely won't be putting that in a query! :) Anyway, I just wanted to say that, while it doesn't help you label your genre, I love reading books like this! I think many of my favorite books are ones that don't fit neatly into one box.

The only help I can offer (and I'm just echoing others) is that I've read in a number of places that publishers like comparisons (as long as they're accurate). It gives them a broad glimpse in a few short words. Gone With the Wind meets Twilight. That kind of thing. Of course, that only helps if you feel there are comparisons that work for you.

Sorry I'm not much help. I look forward to others' suggestions as well.

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Re: The Great Genre Debate

Post by polymath » July 7th, 2011, 1:07 pm

Carefully define the personal purposes of a query, not what an agent, per se, wants to see, what you think the query ought to contain. Then consolidate that with a general set of guidelines for what any given or particular agent wants.

What is a query letter? A typewritten business correspondence. That's the standard business block format. A standard business letter should be no more than one page, ideally no more than several brief paragraphs, with ample white space, margins, page sink, and page rise wrapping the text body. The same applies to e-mail queries. The shorter the better. Say, no more than 250 words, ideally 50 or 100 words less.

A query's main purpose is as a letter of introduction introducing a novel or other book project to an agent. No more, no less, that's it. Dear Ms. Agent, Introducing Matt, discoverer of fractyons, and his love interest, Genna, slave queen of Hannia, a distant world where slaves manage government affairs and the rich enjoy farming the forrests.

In that introduction there should be a short one-liner pitch opening of up to 25 words relating the situation and main dramatic complication, and a plot summary of a 100 or so words, maybe more, without giving the plot away, and a brief paragraph giving any other pertinent details that add information, like maybe a basic genre categorization, if that's not abundantly clear from the pitch and the summary. If it is clear, then a one- or two-word description of the genre might be on point.

Historical romance wouldn't in and of itself add much. The pitch and summary should say it all. However, historical fiction might say enough, just to demonstrate the writer knows the historical aspect is the emphasis, which is an added pertinent detail. On the other hand, instead of saying historical, another description that adds information to the pitch and summary might say, prehistoric romance, regency romance, colonial romance, Renaissance romance, Postmodern romance; in other words, the historical period's category, again, adding a pertinent detail or two.
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Re: The Great Genre Debate

Post by cheekychook » July 7th, 2011, 1:29 pm

I am extremely familiar with the not-quite-in-one-genre debate.

I can answer some of your questions.

When targeting agents, do your best to find agents who rep all the genres your book might fall into---very few agents rep only one genre, so try to find those who might be interested in (or have clients who write in) whatever genres you think encompass your novel.

Romance is a genre with very strict guidelines. There are usually defining features that a novel will or won't have that will make it a romance or not a romance. First and foremost, romance REQUIRES a happily ever after ending. Additionally the romance part of the plot must be the main feature of the plot. Most lines also require that the hero and heroine are not involved with anyone else, or married to anyone else, during the entire course of the story.

A book that has romantic elements is not a romance, it's a whatever-genre with romantic elements. You can say that to an agent "historical fiction with (strong?) romantic elements".

Some agents like (or even require) comparisons. Others have a pet peeve against them. Check each agents likes and dislikes as best you can. You can avoid direct comparisons by saying things like "It will appeal to readers who enjoy the historical accuracy of books like...." (or something along those lines).

ALL agents want you to put the genre along with the length, title, and whether or not the manuscript is complete, so don't ever leave a genre classification out of a query. Even if the agent later reads the manuscript and disagrees with the genre you used to classify the story, they still want you to name the genre in the query.

If you're really not sure, it's better to be vague than too precise. Call it commercial fiction (to distinguish it from literary fiction). Let the description of the story speak to the description of the genre as much as possible, but know that it won't define the genre on its own. The distinction between commercial and literary fiction is a big one---make sure you at least indicate that. If you feel you fall between the two, that's when you use the term "upmarket", but then you need to find agents who are seeking upmarket work.

Not sure I answered all your questions. Good luck----I know how tricky this part is!

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Re: The Great Genre Debate

Post by Sanderling » July 7th, 2011, 9:08 pm

I don't personally have this problem, but one of my favourite authors does. Susanna Kearsley (, if you haven't heard of her) writes books with strong central romantic plots that are usually set in contemporary times/locations, but with supernatural elements and historical subplots/elements. I heard her lecture once, and she commented about being a marketer's nightmare. I can't recall if she said what the publishers end up marketing her books as (or where they end up in stores) but you might be able to Google to see if she's done any interviews or anything where she says.
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