Kickstart Your (Popular Fiction) Novel Step One: Know Your Genre

Before you start writing, you gotta know your reader's expectations

Photo by Lucas Faragoza on Unsplash

Photo by Lucas Faragoza on Unsplash

When we go into a bookstore for a pop fiction novel, we often know which section we’re going to head to first. We might head to Sci Fi/Fantasy, or Mystery, or the Romance section. Sometimes we’re confounded when a popular fiction writer like Stephen King or Dean Koontz are allowed on the (often centralized) shelves labeled simply FICTION. But for the most part, because people know what they want to read, bookstores are laid out to help us find it.

This is why, if you want to publish a popular fiction novel, you have to know where your book would be shelved in a bookstore. Agents look for specific books to sell to editors, and editors acquire specific kinds of books depending on the imprint they work for and the market, at that time.

For example, here’s the link to my own agent, Rebecca Strauss of DeFiore and Company. Like all agents, Rebecca narrows down what she’s looking for: “literary and commercial fiction, women’s fiction, fantasy, science fiction, romance, mystery, YA, pop culture and select non-fiction.” Part of what she does as an agent is to articulate to editors exactly WHY a work she’s representing is marketable and HOW they’ll market it. They want books that sell, and she can tell them why a particular work is particularly commercial. Consequently, if she’s not clear how a manuscript would be marketed, she might pass on it, even if it’s otherwise brilliant.

So the first thing you want to do, if you’re interested in writing a marketable popular fiction novel, is to figure out your genre. Do you want to write a mystery? A romance? A fantasy? Next, drill down from your broader genre to your a sub-genre, if you can. If you’re not sure what sub-genre you’re writing, Google, for example, “Mystery sub-genres.” You will get a million hits. Sub-genres can have enormous, genre-making or genre-breaking differences. For example, a cozy mystery featuring a plucky dog-walker turned sleuth might be shelved directly next to Silence of the Lambs, but they have very little in common. And, like chalk and cheese, you can enjoy one or the other; not both together under the same cover.

Ideally, you have already about 700 books in your chosen genre/sub-genre. Let this paragraph serve as a warning to anyone who reads an article about the newest publishing trend and thinks, “That sounds easy; I can do that!”, despite never having read that much at all, let alone in that genre.

I’m not saying you can’t learn how to write a new genre, but most readers can tell when a book comes from a cynical place. And most people new-to-a-genre can’t really “get” the genre in a way that writing it requires.

This is because part of what readers of popular fiction want is to have their particular genre expectations fulfilled. This is why so much of genre fiction is dismissed by those who don’t read or write it as “formulaic.” Some genres have more genre expectations than others, but none of them are really formulaic. Indeed, you might know exactly how most romances proceed, for example, but this doesn’t mean you can write a good romance novel. There is a difference between reader expectation and formula: in the former, you know and love the genre and can anticipate, as the reader you are, what other readers would love to see happen. In the latter, you think of a genre like it’s a new recipe. But it’s a recipe you’ve never even tasted, so you can’t really understand how and why the ingredients work together.

The first thing I did as I sat down to write my first published novel, Tempest Rising, was to figure out what I was writing. I was living in the UK at the time, and I had a bunch of books that were shelved under Dark Fantasy at the local Waterstones (in America we now call this sub-genre Urban Fantasy). While this was not a genre-title I recognized, the books were much like ones I’d gobbled up as a kid. They had a little romance, a little mystery, a little fantasy—but all set in today’s world. I was most inspired by the Southern Vampire Mystery Series by Charlaine Harris, which later inspired HBO’s True Blood. It reminded me of Mercedes Lackey’s Diana Tregarde series, Emma Bull’s War for the Oaks, and the work of Charles de Lint, which I probably read and re-read dozens of times growing up.

I thought about what they all had in common, in terms of characters, settings, and themes. I looked at how long they were. I looked at how long their chapters were, and noted which POV they were written in. I thought about what I liked best about each book, and what I could live without. Finally, I thought about what I could bring to the genre, that was unique to me and my worldview.

These musings tempered my project. For example, when I sat down to plan my protagonist, I knew I wanted a non-kickass heroine (which at the time was rare). I knew I wanted a heroine who would grow into her power. I knew I wanted her to be magical, but not too magical just yet. I wanted someone easily dismissed by her enemies. And so, when I started linking up mythologies to characters, it was really obvious to me what sort of creature Jane might be: a selkie, or seal shape-shifter. No one thinks a seal is going to be much of a foe; she could have all sorts of weird needs and powers that got her in trouble at the same time she could have passed as human for a long time; and she could be magic without being very strong.

Jane was my first protagonist, created for the first book I ever wrote, but I brought to her creation all the love for and knowledge of my chosen genre. I think that helped this book land me an agent, and eventually be published by Orbit Books.

So before you ever write a word, you want to really think about what you’re writing, in terms of genre and sub-genre. And think through how everything you know about that genre can help you create a book that fits alongside your favorites on a bookstore’s shelves. If you can envision it there, because you know your genre and you know what readers like yourselves want, then so can an agent or editor.

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