If you happen to go to Wikipedia and look up ‘List of Writing Genres’ you’ll find something on the order of 179 of them. That number is rough because my eyes sort of glazed over as I was counting down the list. Nevertheless, there are a lot.
Do genres mean anything? In some cases they do. Clearly there is a difference between, say Hard Science Fiction and Historical Romance (I hope) but within something like Steampunk, how much difference is there between Clockpunk and Dieselpunk? There may be some but I doubt people who enjoy Steampunk in general would bother to differentiate. Genres are a reasonably good means of starting a search for a book you may enjoy, but they’re probably not fully representative of what you are about to read.
For example one of my books might be classed as Detective Fiction – except it might also be classed as Urban Fantasy – so if one wanted to read something along the lines of Mickey Spillane, this book would be sub-optimal. Likewise it doesn’t have much in the way of elves or goblins wandering about – a few werewolves maybe but no elves. However it still would miss the mark if a category of Detective Fiction and Fantasy could be created because it’s primarily humour – a little on the dark side perhaps but humour all the same.
The problem for the writer is that it’s far too easy to be pigeon-holed or to pigeon-hole oneself. In fact, I’ve encountered cases where an author used a pen-name when deviating from the genre most often used because readers had come to expect work of a certain type and it was assumed that they wouldn’t be thrilled if they suddenly found themselves reading something entirely different. So should writers be specific when classifying their work or should they choose the most general genre that might apply?
I publish through Smashwords.com and they allow two general classifications and a number of sub-groups and I usually make use of them. After all, if people are going to stumble across my works because they searched within a category I want as many keywords as possible to direct them to me. It doesn’t seem to help much – I certainly don’t have a line-up of readers waiting to buy my books – but it can’t hurt either. I also prefer to use general genres where possible so I would prefer Fantasy to Epic Fantasy or Low Fantasy. Plus the only difference that I can see between Low Fantasy and Urban Fantasy is that the characters might occasionally wander outside city limits.
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In my opinion genres do have a use but possibly not the one intended. There is a technique for formulating business strategies that has likely gone out of fashion at the moment. You take a bunch of individuals, remove them physically from the office so that they won’t be interrupted, and then have them problem-solve using a parallel universe.
Well, you don’t actually immerse them in one but phrase the issue along the lines of, ‘Suppose we were ants. How might we perceive this issue?’ or, ‘Suppose we were living on Mars, how might we …’ etc. This approach has possibilities for authors. Consider taking some of your characters and moving them to an entirely different genre. Suppose your romantic heroine and her vampire lover were transported into the genre of a western. How might they react?
Well within an actual western you don’t get vampires so you would need to work with those characteristics that are transferable. He’s pale, handsome, quite sophisticated, very strong and he has some rather unusual dietary preferences. He’s also subject to really, really bad sunburns. The objective isn’t to actually write such a story. The objective is to visualize your character in circumstances that are so removed from the norm that you may learn things about him or her that will be useful when writing the story that you want to write.
In order to accomplish this it is necessary to read widely but I have yet to encounter an author who didn’t like to read. Sometimes, however, it is difficult to stretch one’s reading to less accessible genres. For example, I have read the occasional romance novel and while I didn’t find them to be really unpleasant, I cannot say that romance novels are high on my list of favourite reading.
Nevertheless, there are things to be learned from even stories that are not particularly appealing. I recently read Single, Carefree, Mellow by Katherine Heiny a series of eleven short stories mostly on the theme of adultery. Most were okay but I really disliked the first one. On thinking it over, however, it occurred to me that the reason I didn’t like it was that the protagonist was shallow, vapid and pretentious.
Still, a character with those characteristics could be quite useful in some cases and placing some of my characters in that role – however briefly – can provide me with a better understanding of what they are, what they are not, and what they might be. Therefore consider occasionally crossing genre boundaries as a means for generating new approaches to your writing. It might just pay off.
This guest post was contributed by Doug Lewars. Doug is not necessarily over the hill but he’s certainly approaching the summit. He enjoys writing, reading, fishing, and sweets of all sorts. He has published eight books on Smashwords.com. Alternately titled “Well It’s … I’m Not Exactly Sure.”