The Importance of Genre

GirlOnTheBrinkCoverOne of those writing clichés tells aspiring authors to “write the book you want to read.” That may be true, but make sure your book fits into an accepted genre or no one else will read it.

As I was writing my noir thriller Skin of Tattoos, I never gave a thought as to what kind of a book it would be, as in what genre it fell into. After all, a good story is a good story, right? Not quite. As I later painfully discovered, genre is critical. It is how publishers market your book. If your book doesn’t fit neatly into a category, they don’t how to sell it and guess what, they won’t buy it.

Luckily, genre didn’t seem to matter in getting a literary agent. After much querying I landed a good agent, after first signing with a bad one. But then the agent had to figure out how to pitch the book. Was it noir, which involves telling an inside crime story from the point of view of the criminal? Well, yes. My novel is set in the gang underworld of Los Angeles and is told in first-person by a gang member protagonist. Or was it a thriller, which involves escalating tension between two characters as they battle over high stakes? That also loosely applied to my book as Mags, the narrator, is in a power and revenge struggle with his rival homeboy Rico for leadership of the gang.

Then there was my style. Amid the gang slang, Spanish phrases and occasional profanity, there was a lot of lyrical prose that wasn’t the usual style for a thriller, plus Mags’s character has an arc. In the end, the agent described it as a “literary thriller.” Although I hadn’t thought of myself as a thriller writer before, I thought that was an accurate enough description and out the book went.

The rejections rolled in. There was high praise for the writing, story elements, originality, and so on but the most pervasive comment was “who would be the audience for this book?” In other words, “literary thriller” wasn’t cutting it, especially coming from an unknown author. My agent consoled me, saying these were rejections based on “business decisions,” which was much better than having the book rejected for story reasons. Still, I saw that my book was too different, too original. I lamented that to my agent, who responded “publishers do want original stuff, but at the same time they want the same stuff. The same, but different.” Not very helpful.

Eventually, she ran out of places to submit and I got my manuscript back, but I wasn’t going to give up on it. I knew it was a good book. Top publishing editors had said so. I just needed to find someone to take a chance on it. I revised it yet again, cutting out about 13,000 words, including stuff that both agents had me add and that I now saw went nowhere. In fact, the additions didn’t make much sense and simply made the manuscript too long.

I sent the tightened version out to small publishers that accepted unagented submissions. The same thing happened. It was praised, but it didn’t fit in their lists. I started to despair then a publisher, Martin Brown Publishing, offered me a contract on it.

Skin of Tattoos finally was released in August and has been well received. Several readers told me the book is “unlike anything I’ve read before.” I take that as a compliment, unfortunately the mainstream publishing industry doesn’t.

I had another genre problem with my second novel, a YA called Girl on the Brink. I was calling it a “contemporary romance,” but it’s not a romance because it’s about teen dating violence. Romance novels must have a happy-ever-after ending, which mine does not. But then the genre gods blessed me. I discovered my book did have a built in category: “contemporary social issues.” Since it contains a lot of suspense and escalating tension between the protagonist and the guy she fell for, I also describe it as a “romantic thriller,” which sounds like a less heavy read.

As for my third book, I’m making it a thriller after another discovery: I have to have an author brand because I’m expected to keep writing the same genre to build readership. So although I never set out to write thrillers, that’s now become my brand by default. Moral of the story: Know your genre.

3 comments

  1. Stephanie Gayle

    Yes, genre can sting you. I wound up cutting the second biggest character from my m.s. because the supernatural elements she added didn’t work for traditional mystery, and certainly not for a series in which she’d only be part of book one.
    Good advice, Christina!

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