I’ve heard it said that one of the issues novice writers face is figuring out to what genre their writing belongs. This very question makes a lot of assumptions: that a writer will stick with one genre; that her book will fit neatly into one genre; and that genres have any meaning at all for regular people who just want to read a good book.
Genres have always been important to marketing books, so many writers write to a genre. They want their books to fit well into a BISAC category (which classifies your book and helps determine things like bookshelf location and Amazon categories), so booksellers know where to put it and readers know where to find it.
Then there are those of us who write the book we want to write and have more than a little trouble figuring out where it belongs. It’s an adventure story with literary ambition, drama, humor and a touch of romance, for instance (is it literary? upmarket? general fiction? or simply adventure?). That’s how I’d describe my first novel, “Funnel Vision,” but a description like that doesn’t much help a writer choose one genre. Problematically, no matter what genre you choose or how you market a novel, readers are going to have their own idea of what the book is.
Science fiction means a lot of things to a lot of people, from speculative tales to hard-science space epics. “Women’s fiction” is a loaded term, given that some folks (like me) don’t want to see women placed in some sort of literary ghetto, but then again, maybe it’s a good marketing tag. At least you know it’s not going to be about machine guns or explosions; it’s going to be about relationships. And romance is an amalgam of so many different genres these days, I’m amazed the category is still so well-defined. But one thing I’ve learned from interviewing various romance authors is that books placed in that genre are still expected to have one essential ingredient: the HEA, or Happily Ever After, in which Girl A and Guy A end up together (unless it’s three creatures or something, which is really outside my reading experience).This concept is really important to people who expect the HEA when they pick up a novel labeled Romance. I recently read a review of my novel that was filled with frustration, partly because “Funnel Vision” didn’t follow the conventional romance path. Well, that’s because it’s not a romance. I’ve resisted marketing it as such; I call it an adventure. It has strong romantic elements — it has relationships — but they are part of a larger story, and the ending, which I hope is a satisfying one, may be unexpected.
Complicating matters: Some of the kind people who have reviewed the novel on Amazon have called it a romance. And some of those folks are not regular romance readers, and don’t know about the HEA rule, and see the relationships and sensual scenes and figure, well, that’s a pretty good descriptor. As a writer, all I can do is sit back and wonder (a) whether I don’t know what genre my book is in; or (b) if the romance genre should be a lot wider than currently defined.
I’ve always been a big fan of what used to be called Romances — romantic adventures with strong chivalric elements, such as Dumas’ “The Three Musketeers” — which had tales of love but were more driven by adventures and characters than whatever the ending “had” to be. Don’t many of the best stories have great love stories without being labeled romances? And don’t many of those stories conclude with tragedy or bittersweet partings? The kind of ending filled with longing that makes the heart ache at least as much as any neat-as-a-bow HEA? Would “Casablanca” have been what it was if Rick and Ilsa had run off together? Would “Gone with the Wind” resonate so much if Rhett had actually given a damn and not walked off into the fog?
And would you call these stories romances? Maybe. I’d call them great stories, period, with great characters and great writing (movie or book). Romance — that is, love or lust or longing — is such an important part of life, and such an important shaper of character, that it’s vital to any story that involves people interacting with one another. So I suppose I’ll keep writing what I call adventures, with romantic inclinations and actions I draw from the characters, whose lives are not all that tidy.
I have no beef with HEA romances. They’re great fun and wonderful escapism, and after years of pretty much ignoring the genre, I started reading a smattering of romances a couple of years ago, inspired by all the smart, talented local authors I’ve met. They’ve written terrific stories. I think we even share some of the same sensibilities. But I’m a sappy romantic and a cynic wrapped up in one, with an inclination toward satire, and my books reflect my slightly twisted view of reality. You’ll see that approach even more emphatically in the pending sequel to “Funnel Vision,” “Tornado Pinball.”
Writing to a genre may help you find a traditional publisher or cash in on popular categories as a self-publisher, but one beautiful thing that comes along with self-publishing is the freedom to write the book you want to write, write it well, and damn the rules. As a writer of fiction that defies categorization, all you can do is pick the best genre for your book and hope readers are willing to forget definitions and preconceptions and go along for the ride. And if you’re not sure, there’s always Fiction / General, even if that’s a tall mountain to climb on the Amazon charts.