Questionable: How Do I Know What Genre My Book Is?

Judy asked:
I have written a novel and I am having trouble determining genre. It’s a romance for sure. It has suspense for sure. But it also has ghosts. No other paranormal elements- just ghosts. It doesn’t have that goth somber flavor. Is paranormal romantic suspense a genre? If so can it be paranormal when the only thing supernatural is ghosts?

So let’s talk about genre. Genre means “kind,” so when you’re deciding on what kind of book you’re selling (not writing), all you’re doing is slapping a label on it.

Why do you need to label it? Well, while you’re writing it, you don’t, you just write the story that you need to tell. But when you take the story to market, your story needs a label the same way cans of soup need a label: so people know if they want to buy it. Getting people to buy things is called marketing, and your publisher will have an entire department of people to do that. First of course you have to get it to an editor, and you can say in your cover letter that this is a paranormal romance or whatever, but I’d stick with “novel” and then do that paragraph/blurb that describes the book in such a way that she’ll want to buy it.

Why not specify a genre? Because it limits you. True story: My agent Meg once repped this wonderful romance about a woman who meets the love of her life while swept up in a mystery. She sent it to an editor she thought would love it, but she did not say, “This is a terrific romance.” Which was good because the editor called her and said, “We love this mystery!” and Meg said, “We do, too!” and the author is now a multiple Edgar winner. Let the people who are going to sell it decide what to call it. They’re good at that.

If you’re going to self-publish or you feel you must specify a genre, make it as vague as possible. So I’d say your book is a romance. Romance is always a good label, the stuff sells steadily no matter what. Paranormal is evidently on the way out and suspense seems to be weakening, too. but romance? Never going away. Every descriptor you add after that is a reason for somebody to reject it. (ETA: If you’re selling online, you can add tags for other genres, but unless those other genres are primary, don’t use them as the major descriptive category.)

43 thoughts on “Questionable: How Do I Know What Genre My Book Is?

  1. Ooh. Kate (George), didn’t this happen to you? What you wrote as romance got sold as mystery?

    I agree that type of novel is not important to the writer, only the potential reader.

    And then, once I’m reading, I only care if it hits my needs – characters to empathize with, a good plot, generally third-person, and no cliffhanger.

    There’s a question, what’s the opposite of a cliffhanger ending? A wrapped ending?

    If it’s a romance novel, I prefer sexy times on the page or get out-of-here with-that watered down love story. 😀

    1. A cliffhanger is an ending that doesn’t resolve the major questions of the story. Like who killed JR.
      A good ending is one that answers all necessary questions. It’s okay if small plot points are left somewhat unsettled, but a good end returns the characters to stability, so all important questions are answered.

      1. I enjoy the sort of endings where they answer all the questions you had but it just leads to more questions you had never thought of. I don’t mind game-changing cliffhangers at all. Satisfying and exciting.

        1. I think it depends on the questions. Wondering about what happens to the characters in general after the book ends in one thing (are they happy? did supporting character whosis connect with whatsis? did his mother ever accept her?), wondering about a specific plot question is another. If something happens at the end that ruins the stability of the ending, it feels like a come-on to me. Buffy never did cliffhangers and I’ve always that was a sign of Whedon’s confidence. He didn’t have to intrigue and tease viewers to come back, they were coming back regardless to visit that world. Some of my HQ fiction had sequel cues planted in the plots, but they still had stable endings, which is a damn good thing because my relationship with HQ blew up after I’d submitted the proposals for two (three?) of them and I never did the sequels. (Somebody’s going to ask so the sequels were Cake Love with Jessie and Will from Manhunting, Jane Errs with Charity and the brother from Anyone But You, and Newton the Rat with Women from What the Lady Wants. No, I will never write them.)

          1. The Ambermere series. Damn, I love the world, I love the characters. But I have tons of questions and he only wrote the 3 books.

      2. I know what cliffhangers are, since I dislike them so, I’m wondering on what’s the terminology on a non- cliffhanger ending. Your reply here suggests the antonym for “cliffhanger ending” is “good ending.”

        1. Oh, sorry.
          I’m not sure there is a word for non-cliffhanger. The word for ending is usually “climax,” but it doesn’t imply non-cliffhanger.
          I hate cliffhanger endings.

    2. I’ve run into more and more “endings” that leave nearly all the questions unanswered, and I don’t like it. I am apparently in the minority.

      For instance, The Raven Boys. Enjoyed the book until the end, which is so not an end that I went back to see if I missed something. I know people here loved it, and my daughter assures me it’s worth reading all the books. Still…

      And Maureen Johnson’s Truly Devious. Book 1 answered none of the questions, leaving me feeling tricked and unwilling to move to Book 2.

      Maybe it’s because I read paper books and can’t just hit “buy” or “borrow” to jump to the next installment.

      1. Yeah, the Raven Boys takes four books to end. It does end, and I do read digital so it was just a very long book for me to read instead of four books, but I absolutely agree that the first four books don’t end the major plot. They do defeat the antagonist in each one, but it becomes increasingly clear that those antagonists are minions. And by the time I found the main antagonist, I was reading for the community anyway. It was one of those stories where the main premise is kind of dumb–high school kids searching for a tomb to get a wish–but the character change and the story of the search were worth it.

        But yes, you’re right. If the first book is just a tease for a second book, if it doesn’t end in a satisfying way, the book fails. Bob and I used to argue about the most important part of a book. He said it was the beginning because if the beginning doesn’t hook the reader, he or she won’t read the book. I said it was the ending because if the reader gets to the end of the book and isn’t satisfied, he or she won’t read that author again. Better to have a book not be read than to have a book spike all your other stories.

    3. Yep. I wasn’t really writing a mystery. I mean Yes, there was a mystery, but it was more about the chemistry between the characters. I never know what the heck I’m writing. An editor recently told me that Glimmer Girls is Up-Market Women’s Fiction with a touch of paranormal. Go figure.

  2. If writers don’t know what genre they’re writing – and they will earn a label as a genre author – pity us poor readers, who don’t know which genres we like, but often know which authors we adore.

    I once wrote an essay on the topic. It started off as a simple blog post, stating my preference for Science Fiction, with a side of Techno Thriller (Tom Clancy’s Ryan novels) and maybe other thrillers (John Grisham). Okay, and maybe themed mysteries – there were these Diane Mott Davidson and Joanna Carl books on my shelf, and some really old Rabbi Calendar books.

    But no fantasy! I drew the line. I read Tolkein in the sixties, and vastly preferred the Harvard Lampoon’s Bored of the Rings. Oh, and Heinlein did write Glory Road and Magic, Inc., and Poul Anderson did write Operation Chaos and a sequel and a slough of other fantasy novels (he was a co-founder of the Society for Creative Anachronism – that medieval stuff came naturally to him.) But none of that vampire or werewolf crap!

    What about Buffy? Okay, there are exceptions to every rule. And I owned up to Esther Friesner’s books, too. I even admitted to (shudder) Romance as more than a sub-plot in another genre. How I got there… See, I read three straight-up romances while I was on submarines, and I ran out of SF&F, Westerns (I was desperate!) and my other preferences. I read all the romances in the “ship’s library.” Betty Neels. You know the ones – the doctor/lawyer/professional whose wife or relative has died leaving him with two children, so he hires a nanny/fake wife with an iron clad no hanky panky contract. She falls in love with the kids, then with the dude, they miscommunicate a lot, end up married for reals, fade to black.

    One was amusing. Two were boring. Three were dire. Romance? NOT my genre.

    Except… Eric Flint kept sprinkling romance cooties in his books. In 1632, the main protagonist, Mike Stearns, meets and falls for Rebecca Abrabanel. A secondary character, Jeff Higgans, rescues camp follower Gretchen Richtor and her family. He marries her, then they fall in love. There are romance cooties in every book in the series. And they discuss it in the 1632 Tech forum of Baen’s bar. Co-author Virginia DeMarce is also active in Lois Bujold’s Miles to Go forum, where Lois’s romance preferences get discussed, and she and Virginia steer me to… dah da-da DAH! Jennifer Crusie. And Susan Elizabeth Philips and Georgette Heyer and others. The discussions comparing and contrasting A Civil Contract with A Civil Campaign were amazing.

    By the end of my essay, I was counting over twenty genres or sub-genres I found desirable and others that were acceptable. My next post/essay was about favorites.

        1. I think it’s been too long since I read 1632. That all sounds familiar but it doesn’t bring the characters to life in my mind.

          1. Thanks, Gary. I have attempted to download it to my kindle. If that doesn’t work, I’ll read it on my iPad.

      1. Should I add rosemary-garlic croutons and grated parmesan cheese. Oh wait. That’s romane not romaine.

    1. I love fantasy, for a while it was about all I read. But I’ve never made it through Lord of the Rings. I’ve tried maybe three times? And never made it to the end. I haven’t even watched the third movie – and I live in New Zealand, where it’s kinda compulsory. If you want a good Peter Jackson movie, I recommend The Frighteners.

      So yeah, I wouldn’t judge fantasy on LOTR.

      1. I read ‘Lord of the Rings’ fast, as a treat after finishing my A level exams (so
        I’d just left school). Enjoyed it; but then studied Old and Middle English so could see where he’d got a lot of his ideas and language from, and didn’t feel like rereading it. Tolkein did rescue me in my first year at Oxford, when I was feeling out of my depth, with his essay ‘Beowulf: The Monsters and the Critics’. I was fond of his bust, on the stairs of the faculty library.

        I thought the films were bad. They inflated everything so that I didn’t believe the story at all.

        1. I was in New Zealand just as the first LOTR film came out and my friends said I had to see it as part of the Kiwi experience. I tried to read The Hobbit when it was first published and was too unimpressed to finish that , so I really had no desire to to read a trilogy by the same author. But seeing the movie did add spice to the 2 road trips I took later on. It was fun to try and guess where some of the scenes had been shot.

          1. I tried to read Lord of the Rings in high school when all my friends–whose taste I usually shared–were raving about it and hit the wall about two chapters in. I did manage to plow through the Hobbit. Then twenty years later I tried LoR again and finished it all and thought it was excellent. But I have never been moved to reread it or the Hobbit. I came to fantasy from science fiction which I started reading before I was nine.

  3. Jenny thanks. I was feeling pressured from outside to pick a more specific genre than romance. It’s a relief to let that go.
    Now back to editing this sucker so I can do some query-ing!

  4. The one class on writing fiction that I ever took required us to define what genre we were writing in and to identify an author our stories were similar to. The purpose of this was to give an editor or publisher a way in to the story.

    We were also told which genres to avoid at that time because they were losing popularity. Further, the teacher said that Stephen King’s books simply get assigned to the most popular current genre. That confused me.

    I was miserable in that class.

    1. It’s really difficult to game publishing that way. Unless you pay close attention to publishing gossip, which is really difficult if you’re not in publishing, you have no idea of what’s hot or not, and it doesn’t matter because you can only write what you can write. Every piece of conventional wisdom you hear becomes worthless about five minutes before you hear it. That’s why you let your agent figure out how to sell it. That’s what she’s getting her 15% for.

  5. So… what genre is bok choi? I was in Food Lion, thinking I might get some hot cooked chicken wings and potato-cheese barrels, and my mind asked, “What about stir fry?” So I bought a head? of bok choi and some red and yellow peppers and green onions, some Uncle Ben’s brown rice, some thinly sliced beef. I have tamari as of yesterday and some minced garlic in oil I need to use. What else do I need? And seriously, is this Fine Dining or Food Porn. Either way, I’m blaming/crediting it entirely to you.

    1. Bok choy is part of the cabbage genre. Get some ginger and mince it and make your stir fry. Oh, and with the green onions, chop the white and light green parts and put them in early, and then slice the dark green parts and use them for garnish along with sesame seeds. Same with the bok choy: slice/chop the white parts and add the dark green leafy stuff at the end. It’s all good for you.

      1. You shouldn’t have told him the “it’s good for you part” until after he decides if he likes it.

        1. Too late. I ran back (well, drove, actually) to Food Lion for Ginger, there being none on my shelves. Got the powdered kind. Minced ginger will be another trip.

          And good for me is kind of the point. Jenny eats low salt buy eating fresh. I need to do that.

          1. There should be fresh ginger in the produce dept. You scrape the skin off with a spoon, and then chop it. It’s lovely stuff and really good for you.

        1. I have a microplane extra fine grater (Note: Jenny does not like these if I remember right) that makes fine chopped garlic and ginger a piece of cake. If you cannot use a microplane grater without grating your fingers, this is probably not for you. Of course, I do not understand how you can use a really good chef’s knife to chop garlic if you aren’t quite able to use a good grater. This is not something I can bend my mind around, probably a defect in my understanding.

          1. I love my microplane. And my chef’s knife.

            Gary, I have to admit to reading previous descriptions of your diet with incomprehension and awe. But then I love vegetables, and have been a vegetarian for the past seventeen years.

        2. Fresh ginger also makes excellent tea – good for digestion, headaches, colds, etc. Just put two or three slices in a mug and pour boiling water on them. It’s naturally sweet. My favourite tea.

          1. I was thinking just yesterday that I need to get ingredients to do this. I like to steep cinnamon sticks, cardamom, nutmeg and lemon peel in there, too (I do a big batch so I can enjoy it all day). I swear it helps ward off at least one winter cold a year!

  6. I am perfectly fine with a cliffhanger ending IF I KNOW IT IS COMING (don’t mean to yell but I don’t know how to bold my text).

    If I read a book and I know that it is part of a series and that things are not all going to wrap up, I can take a lot more ambiguity at the end. I still agree that it is best if the main story line wraps up, but I’m more forgiving.

    But there has been more than one author that I did not pick up again after reading one book that completely left me clinging to the ledge. I do not like that at all.

    “Sequel cues” is not a term I’ve heard before but I can recognize them when I see them, and I love those!

  7. Sequel cues I can deal with. Unfinished story gives me rage. I will happily read three or more books all about the same characters as long as the main story for each volume is wrapped up within that volume. If you (rhetorical ‘you’) get me all invested in some characters (for me it’s always about the characters) and especially if their main story is a romance I want to know, within that book, that those characters get at the very least a HFN. I will never go buy book two if you leave book one with one character in Mortal Peril and his/her beloved in jail. Just make the damn book longer and FINISH THE STORY.
    (What came to mind during this rant was KJ Charles’ Magpie trilogy. Each of those books has unfinished business but the central romance story reaches a resolution each time. I bought all three because I wanted more of those characters, not because I had to in order to know what happened.)
    ((what in the heck does any of this rantification have to do with genre?))

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