Monday, January 4, 2016

Categorizing Your Novel - Genre Definitions

You wrote a book (hooray!). It’s got a little bit of everything and will appeal to multiple audiences, so it’s absolutely, positively impossible to categorize into one genre. Sound familiar? Getting your book into the hands of your intended audience can be quite tricky, so it’s important to understand how to properly categorize your book before you begin querying an agent, or share your self-published novel with the world. Check out this high-level snapshot of popular fiction genres, including info about average word count, protagonist age, and common themes:

Chick Lit: These books strictly appeal to chickens. Just checking to see if you’re paying attention. :) Chick lit is about all things girly. We’re talking dating woes, romance, climbing the career ladder, finding your passion, and personal antics. The protagonist is usually in her 20-30’s looking for the right ________ (fill in the blank). Career. Man. Attitude. These stories are fun, quirky, and entertaining. You’re good to go in the 70-80k word range.

Commercial Fiction: Full of face-paced, high-concept hooks and plots which will attract a broad, mainstream audience, commercial fiction has strong narrative story lines and usually falls into multiple genres. Stories contain lots of events, high stakes, and dangerous situations. Think Stephen King, Dan Brown, and John Grisham. 70-90k words is ideal; however, there are exceptions. There are no hard and fast rules about the protagonist’s age, but they tend to be adults. Book titles are straight to the point, perfectly encapsulating what the novel is about.

Fantasy: One of my favorite genres! Magic, supernatural powers, strange kingdoms, sorcery, other worlds, spells, talking animals, fairies, wizards, dragons, goblins, mythical creatures, and monsters are all common elements in fantasy stories. Themes usually include a quest for something or battle against good and evil. Think Harry Potter or The Lord of the Rings. There are dozens of sub-genres such as urban, historical, epic, and dark fantasy. Word count varies from 70-120k. The protagonist’s age will vary largely based on your sub-genre.

Horror: Boo! The goal of a horror novel is to scare the reader. This can be accomplished with blood and gore, graphic violence, monsters, crime and murder, psychological terror, supernatural elements, or even something innocent like children or dolls. Think H.P. Lovecraft, Bram Stoker, and Stephen King. There are tons of sub-genres like dark fiction, dark fantasy, cutting edge, erotic, extreme, occult, gothic, psychological, supernatural, paranormal, etc. The horror genre often incorporates folklore and fantasy to create manifestations of evil. 80-100k words is a good rule of thumb. No strict rules about the protagonist’s age.

Literary Fiction: Appeals to a smaller audience and can fall into any sub-genre such as literary thrillers, mysteries, or epics. Notable qualities of literary fiction include excellent writing, style, multi-layered themes, descriptive introspective narratives, complex characters, and originality. These are books you might've read in high school like The Great Gatsby or To Kill A Mockingbird. Literary fiction ranges anywhere from 60-120k words. Covers and titles tend to be more obscure or artistic. Just like commercial fiction, there are no rules for the protagonist’s age.

Middle Grade: The protagonist is typically 10-years-old for a younger MG novel, and up to 13-years-old for older, more complex books. Themes are generally broad like trying to fit in or save the world, with the protagonist’s mindset on friends, family, or the immediate world. Word count is generally in the 30-50K range, although this can vary based on your theme/sub-genre. There shouldn’t be any profanity, graphic violence, or sex. Voice is usually in the third person. Examples include The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe and Charlotte's Web.

Mystery: Mysteries focus on solving a crime, usually murder, rather than the details of the crime itself. The puzzle behind the crime is central to the plot with the climax usually occurring towards the end. The protagonist is usually a witty investigator or detective thirsty for justice. Common sub-genres include cozies, spy, detective, hard-boiled, and supernatural. On average, word count ranges from 70-90k. Check out Mystery Writers of America to learn more.

Young Adult: The protagonist is in the 12-18 range and deals with adult-like problems such as grief, revenge, death, or love. Themes include the hero discovering how they fit into the world beyond their immediate surroundings (friends, family, etc.) and reflection on what happened to them and why. The voice is usually internal, and some swearing and minor violence is acceptable. Word count is generally in the 50-85K range. Sub-genres include fantasy, historical, LGBTQ, mystery/thriller, steampunk, mystery, paranormal, and contemporary. Popular YA books include Harry Potter, Divergent, The Hunger Games, and Lord of the Flies.  
Science Fiction: Incorporates scientific and technological elements into the story’s setting, characters, and their challenges. Scientific rules are bent or defied in some way. 100-120k words is standard; however, there are exceptions. There are dozens of sub-genres such as apocalyptic/post-apocalyptic, cyberpunk, time travel, science fantasy/future fantasy, etc. No rules about the protagonist’s age.

Remember, these are general guidelines and agents/publishers may categorize differently depending on their needs/wants. Regardless of which publishing route you choose; my advice is to write the story you have to tell. If it ends up being a little bit longer or shorter than your intended genre but you’ve given it your all, then accept it and go for it! You may be an exception to the rule. Also, ALWAYS get feedback from your friends and family before you share your book with the rest of the world. For example, if you think that your book falls into the YA category, give it to your friend’s teenage daughter to read and ask for honest feedback. If she says it was boring, maybe you’ve got a MG book instead.

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