Friday, August 26, 2016

The Problem with Genre

There are a lot of things to be thinking about when embarking on a journey that hopefully ends with your work being published. How do you write a query letter? Which agents should you submit to? Should you get beta readers? Which writing community should you try? How can you attract more readers? Questions, worries, more questions, and more worries. While I've been worrying about these questions on my own journey, I was blindsided by a problem I'd never considered - genre.

As an English teacher, I work with genres all the time. Sure, I teach genre lessons, but mostly when I'm talking about genres, I'm trying to help my students find a book they will like. A lot of students (and adults, like my sister and mother who both read James Patterson almost exclusively) get stuck in a pattern. They read a science fiction story they like, and they'll go from Star Wars to Ender's Game to A Wrinkle in Time. Or they'll read a mystery they like and go from Howliday Inn to The London Eye Mystery to Agatha Christie. I read the same way (mystery and crime junkie) until I started teaching. As a teacher, I challenged my students to leave their comfort zone and try a new genre. "Who knows," I told them. "You may find a new genre to love." How could I ask my students to try different genres if I wasn't willing to do it myself? And because of that, I've opened myself up to all sorts of amazing books, both fiction and nonfiction, that I love.

Literary agents are no different. They want to work with genres they enjoy reading. After all, if they don't love your book, how are they going to convince a publisher that other readers will also love it? So I've found through my agent searches that a lot of agents only list a few genres. This isn't necessarily a bad thing. If your book is a thriller, and the agent you're looking at only reads thrillers, then they're probably experts in the genre, and will know a hit when they read it. That's good. However, I've also learned that what one agent considers thriller, another considers suspense. What one agent considers suspense, another considers adventure. What one considers adventure, another considers a coming of age tale, and so on. And therein lies the problem with genre.

My genre problem is all about the paranormal. Or supernatural. Or horror. Or something else. Let's start with the story shall we? Wolfhowl Mountain, is, at its barest description, about a haunted house. (Don't let that bore you; there's a twist on the old haunted house plot that I obviously won't spoil for you.) So when I first began sending out queries, I labeled it paranormal. However, when I met face to face with two agents at a conference, one agent told me that I shouldn't call it paranormal because most agents will think about vampires and werewolves when they hear paranormal. (Thanks Twilight.) Instead, she said, call it supernatural, or maybe Gothic horror. Okay, sure. She's the expert here, so followed her advice. I go to the second agent with my Gothic supernatural pitch, but she told me she wasn't sure if she would like my story because she wasn't a big horror fan. When did I say horror? Oh wait, I didn't.

Obviously, I didn't have as good of a grasp on genres as I thought, so I decided I needed to look more into paranormal genres to make sure I'm sending my work to the right agents... but that didn't help me very much. All I've managed to learn is that all these genres run together:

Gothic stories are basically a damsel in distress seeking the help and affection of a brooding hero while dealing with a threat, which might be natural or supernatural. The only part of this genre that fits my book is a supernatural threat. So not Gothic I guess.

Horror stories want to scare repulse readers through either supernatural or psychological means. Again, all I've got here is the supernatural bit, but while I don't want to repulse you, I do want to scare you.

I won't define mystery for you because you know what it is. And although it's not like the other genres I'm listing, it does fit into my story. There is a mystery behind the 'haunted house', and it's a mystery that must be solved if the main characters are to survive. However, you won't find anything supernatural or paranormal about most books listed in the genre. Paranormal mystery is a genre, like paranormal romance, but there's no crime in the story and I think a lot of people expect a murder or a robbery when they hear mystery.

Occult is all things dealing with supernatural phenomena and paranormal elements. However, any time I've looked at a book in this category, it's about possessions, witchcraft, or satanic cults. There are no Ouija boards in my story, so I think I can cross this one off the list.

The paranormal genre includes ghosts as well as vampires, werewolves, psychics, and so on, and the story is set in the modern day. That's me! Or at least, I thought this fit my story until I actually met with an agent.

The speculative genre basically includes sci-fi, fantasy, and horror - all those stories that require a good imagination. If it can't happen in today's real world, then it goes in this category. I suppose this includes a take on the haunted house plot, but I don't think it's the best fit because most of the action is set in a real world (Maine) in modern times (2007), and there are no fairies, elves, or space ships.

The supernatural genre is defined as fiction that uses "contradictions of the commonplace natural world and materialist assumptions about it (including the traditional ghost story)." (Guide to Literary Agents 2016). So me? Not so fast. Remember I told you there was a twist on the haunted house plot? It's not a traditional ghost story. However, so far, this sounds like the best fit next to paranormal. I don't suppose I could call the story a "supernatural paranormal mystery"? Probably not.

Suspense, like mystery, is different from the other genres I've discussed. But the whole point of suspense is to make the reader anxious about the outcome of the story, and I spent a lot of time making sure my reader will feel exactly that. Why shouldn't I call it suspense? Because none of the suspense novels I've read have supernatural elements. Fooey.

Ditto the thriller genre. It's different than the others, but again, this genre is defined as a story that is intended to create suspense. What? How can this genre be about suspense if suspense is itself a genre? Well because thrillers are supposed to be about spies and sex and intrigue apparently. Think James Bond. Definitely not my story, but like I said, I have built plenty of suspense into my story.

So where does that leave me when I'm pitching to an agent or writing a query letter. Have I been able to narrow down the genre? Nope. If anything, I've further complicated it. What I have is a paranormal suspense mystery with supernatural elements. But I can't go to an agent with that because that would send the message that I don't actually understand my own story or my own writing, and that's a big fat no-no. Right now I've decided to tailor my query letters more specifically to the agent I'm querying. If the agent lists paranormal, then I'll call it paranormal. Or if the agent lists mystery, I might call it a paranormal mystery, and so on. It's the only solution I've come up with that makes any sense, but I don't know if it's the best solution. Feel free to check out my story yourself (Wolfhowl Mountain). I'd love to have some feedback on what actual readers think the genre is. One of the reasons I went to the trouble of posting the story on Wattpad is in the hopes of not only attracting more readers, but also attracting more feedback from real readers.

Comments welcome below!

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