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Querying: Part 2 - Determining Your Genre

WARNING: This post is very long, guys, sorry! But it is incredibly detailed and includes a sort of pick-and-choose checklist you can use with your books. Okay, anyway... So part 2 of this series on querying was supposed to be about writing a killer query letter, and that post is still coming, but I had a comment on my last post, Querying: Part 1 - Finding a Literary Agent, and I'm going to be answering it today as part of the series. If you want to read part 1 of the series, click here. The comment came from "S", and they said, "I hope you will write something about determining your genre, there is so much crossover! Is mine romance, women's fiction, adventure, literary, ....?" Great question! As I said in my last post, determining your genre is absolutely critical to writing a great query letter and securing the right agent for you. And even if you aren't going the traditional route (self-publish, send to a magazine, or whatever path you're taking), knowing your genre will help you put your writing in the hands of the right audience. And the right audience is key to helping you grow and succeed and reach more readers. Thank you so much, "S", for this question. Let's begin...

Step 1: Who is your protagonist?

- This is the broadest division in literature. First, you have to decide which category your work falls under. Generally, here are the age groups for each:

0-8 is BOARD BOOKS for infants through tots, PICTURE BOOKS for young children, and CHAPTER BOOKS for kids in the first few grade levels of school; the MC will be young and discovering the world, having adventures, and learning new things, like children of a similar age are; try to keep in mind things that children of that age can grasp, and things they like (for example: board books will be exploring colors and animal names, while picture books are often funny/cute or sweet and educational)

8-12 to 14 is MIDDLE GRADE. Now this range varies, because some kids at the younger end may not be ready for middle grade, while older kids may transition into young adult; with the mature content of most YA books today, however, the age range is a little higher, around 14 or so; the MC is also within this age range, and these books are moving out of learning and exploring and starting to develop more complex plots and character arcs; they include adventures, but leave out the profanity and mature romantic content of many YA books

14-18 is technically YOUNG ADULT, because that is the target range; however, people in their twenties and even a great many adults read this age category, and it is currently one of the most highly-read and largely-published age divisions; even so, keep in mind the target range; the MC is usually 16-18 or 19 years old, and will be dealing with serious and mature issues like loyalty and love and loss; they will make mistakes and suffer realistic and sometimes brutal consequences; romantic content and language are present, but censored

18-early 20s is NEW ADULT, and this has more mature content and an older protagonist; the MC will be dealing with things that young people experience once they become adults; depending on the genre, that could be college, a serious relationship or marriage, or a more raw and honest outlook on the world (even a made-up one like in fantasy or sci-fi). I don't read this genre, so I can't offer a real deep insight. Sorry guys!

20s+ is ADULT, and the MC is older, usually with a job or family. They are often experiencing some kind of trauma, like a break-up or old love for romance, or an intricate and dangerous plot for thriller or mystery. These books are geared towards adults, and the writing style is usually different, as the voice has changed and matured.

Okay, so once you've determined what umbrella category your books falls into , you can determine the genre. Genre is based upon content, not age, and there are a wide variety of genres, so I'll go over as many as I can and describe them. First, you have to decide whether your book is non-fiction or fiction, contemporary, fantasy, sci-fi, or historical. Confusing, right?! I'll break it down...

Step 2: Is it real?

Most people can determine this one easily, but I'll put it anyway.

Real: Factual or true stories, books about a certain subject (like a book about whales or a person who actually existed) are NON-FICTION. The material is true, based on evidence, research, fact, or experience. This can include biographies & autobiographies.

Made-up: Anything made-up, even if it takes place in the real world or is about a real person, is FICTION. If the events didn't happen, or don't have evidence saying they actually happened... if it's in a made-up world or a real world with made-up characters and events, it's fiction.

That's pretty simple. For now :). Let's break it down further.

Step 3: When does it happen?

Modern-day Earth: If your book takes place today somewhere on Earth, and includes a society like the one we live in, with modern technology and such, it's CONTEMPORARY. Ask yourself, "Could this actually happen to someone?" Harry Potter might be set in today's world, but it's still a fantasy, because magical schools for witches and wizards don't exist (I know, all the Harry Potter fans are saying We wish it did!)

In-the-past Earth: If the setting is 1900s Europe, the medieval palace of an English queen, or any other time and place that actually existed, it's HISTORICAL.

Future-Earth: If the setting is Earth, in a war-torn or otherwise wrecked/altered world, it's probably DYSTOPIAN. This genre is most popular in YA.

Anything else is a fantasy or sci-fi, and we'll cover that next...

Step 4: What is the world like? - Fantasy vs. Sci-Fi (skip if not one of these)

Advanced technological elements: If your world has elements that are based on scientific advancements (like light sabers, hover-crafts with capabilities we don't have yet, etc.), takes place in space or some other intergalactic setting, or is on a world that seems less magical and more scientific, it's SCIENCE FICTION.

Magical or otherwise fantastic elements: If your world includes elements of magic, supernatural abilities, a medieval-like ruling system, or any other fantastical elements, it's a FANTASY. There is also urban and medieval fantasy, which you can include if you want, but they aren't necessary. Urban is a more modern-esque style fantasy world (like in The Shifter by Janice Hardy), whereas medieval takes place in a world with palaces and royals and such. If it includes werewolves, aliens, vampires, and other related beings, it can also be classified as PARANORMAL, which can take place in either a fictional world or on Earth.

Step 5: What is the focus of your book?

A romantic relationship: If the focus of your plot/story is on falling or being in love, it is a ROMANCE.

Something that needs to be solved: If your main character is trying to unravel some kind of plot, crime, or other of the sort, it is probably a MYSTERY.

High-stakes: If your MC is in danger, running for their life, or some other issue that makes the readers heart pump a thousand times faster than it's supposed to, you've probably written a THRILLER.

If there isn't a super-specific genre division for your book, just leave it out. These are only further sub-genres to tell an agent or reader what the main focus of the book is. I'll include some illustrations below, so keep reading...!

To bring up some of the genres you mentioned in your comment, "S", LITERARY refers to a type of book that focuses more on the word choice than the plot. It includes beautiful language, makes you think about the human condition, and often includes a type of political message. Most of the classics like Great Gatsby are literary, and that is why they are so heavily studied in high schools, since the language itself is being analyzed.

"Women's fiction" is less of a genre and more of an umbrella term, like you would find in a bookstore. It has to do with books that explore a women's life or journey, and are broader than a focus on just a romantic relationship, like in a romance. It relates less to a query and more to actually categorizing books. The agent should be able to surmise from your query if the book would fall under women's fiction. For example, if your book was about a young woman falling in love, that would be a romance. But it can fall under women's fiction.

ADVENTURE = Indiana Jones.

Okay, there are other adventure movies/books, but that's just the one that sticks out to me! :) Treasure Island is another example. Adventure is about a quest or journey to find something, and usually includes lots of action and travel, or journeys to far-off places to find something. If the main plot is a journey or adventure, then your book is an adventure book. But that genre produces a very specific expectation for readers, so if your book is about a woman's travels, that might not necessarily be what a reader sees as "adventure".

Step 6: Deciding which of the dozen above-mentioned genres your book actually is.

Now comes the really hard part - deciding which your book is. In order to help with this, I've included some samples below of a one-line movie or book description, followed by it's genre break-down. Now remember, it's not about what your book includes. Lots of YA books include romance, but not every YA book is a romance. It's all about the focus of the story. Hence the term "cross-over", which commenter "S" mentioned in her question. Crossover is so tricky and hard and makes you want to scream, but let's look at 10 examples to illustrate:

  1. A seventeen-year-old girl (YA) must travel to an enemy kingdom (medieval fantasy) when her village is burned to the ground. - My first book, CONCEALED, a YA Medieval Fantasy

  2. In a future Chicago (dystopian), sixteen-year-old Tris (YA) must choose a faction. - DIVERGENT, which also happens to be classified as a sci-fi

  3. A fifteen-year-old girl (MG) in a made-up world must hide her power of shifting pain between bodies (fantasy). -THE SHIFTER by Janice Hardy; notice it includes some kind of supernatural power (shifting pain)

  4. A middle-aged astronaut (Adult) is stranded on Mars (sci-fi) in the year 2035 and must survive. - THE MARTIAN, which could also be labeled dystopian because it takes place in 2035. However, dystopian generally deals with some kind of significantly ruined or altered world (like following a war or catastrophe).

  5. After a middle-aged man is wounded and suffers amnesia (Adult), he must discover why several groups including the CIA want him dead (thriller). - THE BOURNE IDENTITY

  6. Ten adult strangers (Adult) are brought to an island mansion in England (contemporary) and then killed one-by-one by an unseen presence (mystery). - AND THEN THERE WERE NONE by Agatha Christie

  7. In a fictional town (fiction) in 1940s Germany (historical), a young girl (YA) recounts the events of the war while stealing books in a time when reading is banned. - THE BOOK THIEF

  8. A young couple (Adult) falls in love (romance) on the doomed Titanic (historical fiction). - TITANIC

  9. Two teenage cancer patients (YA) fall in love (could be romance) in modern-day Indianapolis (contemporary). - THE FAULT IN OUR STARS

  10. A teenage spy (YA) for the Allies (historical) is captured and writes out her confession, detailing her friendship with the assumed-dead pilot. - CODE NAME VERITY

Whew, done! Now in all these examples, there are other aspects in the novels besides just thriller, sci-fi, or whatever elements. DIVERGENT has romance, as does pretty much every book listed above. But it's not the focus. If the plot revolves around the romance, it's a romance. If the plot revolves around the high-stakes mystery or thriller, that is the genre. Like in THE BOURNE IDENTITY, the whole plot revolves around him trying to find out who he is and why they want him dead.

Sometimes, it's better not to put every genre down in your query. Imagine if you sent this to an agent, or posted it alongside your self-published book online -

I am sending you/ Please read my 80,000 word YA historical fiction romance thriller.

I mean, it's highly possible you have written a book about a teenager that takes place in a historical time period, includes romance, and revolves around a high-stakes plot. But the agent is just going to think you have no idea what your book is really about, and the readers will be unsure what genre it actually is and won't know whether they like that sort of thing. Romance lovers will pick up a YA contemporary romance in a heartbeat. The same for fantasy or sci-fi lovers.

The novel I am currently querying is classified as a YA sci-fi fantasy. It doesn't really fit strictly into either science fiction or fantasy, so it is a crossover. There is no magic, so it's not fantasy in that sense, but it takes place on a fictional planet with some advanced technology. Is there romance? Yes. Does the plot revolve around it? No. If I took it out, could my story continue strongly? Yes.

Ask yourself this question - If I took that part out, would my story still function? This is why Twilight is a romance. Because the plot is basically about her love triangle. (I've never actually read them, guys, so I'm just going on hearsay).

If you take out the relationship between your main character and her love interest, does the book fall apart? If you stop trying to find out who killed the ten strangers in And Then There Were None, the book is empty and plot-less (another word I just made up).

To finally squash that horribly confusing word "cross-over", determine what the focus of your book is, and determine what type of audience you are writing for. Of course, every writer wants a large audience, right? But the truth is - not every child, teenager and adult will love a romance, thriller, mystery, contemporary, fantasy, sci-fi book. So keep your target audience in mind.

If you actually made it to the end of this post (wow, you're dedicated!) and this is all still terribly confusing for you - don't worry - feel free to leave a short blurb about your novel (like the ones above) in the comments and I'll try to help determine your genre. "S", I hope this answered your question.

Next time will be Writing the Killer Query. If there are any more questions or posts about querying you'd like me to write, feel free to comment below. I respond to every comment on my blog! You can also visit my Facebook page and like this post or leave comments/questions/post requests there. You can click here to visit my author page or use the plugin on the sidebar. See you next time!

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