How do you write a book that people are already dying to read? You choose an existing genre. Do you know how to choose a genre?
Readers generally want to read the kinds of books they already like. Romance readers rarely go into the horror section of the bookstore.
If you’re trying to write a romance novel for people who hate romance or a sci-fi novel for readers who hate sci-fi, you’re doing it wrong. Books are divided into genres and subgenres because readers want to know what kind of book they’re buying.
Each genre has its own rules, which are also called genre conventions. When readers buy a book, they have certain expectations for what kind of story they will be reading, and the genre communicates those expectations.
No one wants to read a romance novel where the guy and girl never get together or an epic fantasy where the dragon defeats the hero. People don’t want to read a mystery if they already know “who done it.”
How to Choose a Genre
But how do you choose a genre and follow the genre rules that make readers crave a book?
Since there are so many genres, how do you know which one to choose?
In this interview, Karin Beery gives us a tour of various fiction genres. Karin is a multipublished author and editor. She runs her own editing business, teaches writing and editing classes online and at conferences, and edits for Iron Stream Media. She writes hopeful fiction with a healthy dose of romance.
Why is choosing a genre important?
Thomas Umstattd, Jr.: Why is genre important?
Karin Beery: Genre is important because it’s a promise to the readers. When you say you’re writing in a specific genre, you promise the reader that your book will have certain elements. Each story’s characters, settings, and circumstances will be different; but specific genre requirements will also be met.
You make promises with your genre the same way you promise your punctuality by saying you’ll arrive at 7:00. If you don’t show up until 8:00, someone will be annoyed with you.
If you promise that your book is a romance but don’t follow the conventions of the genre, romance readers will be annoyed.
Thomas: Romance is one of those genres where people often say they’re writing romance, but they’re actually writing something else with a romantic subplot.
What do readers expect from a romance novel?
Thomas: What’s the difference between an actual romance novel and a mystery where the private eye falls in love with the damsel in distress?
Karin: A romance novel must center around the boy and girl getting together. That’s the point of the story. Circumstances will force them together and pull them apart. They’ll have doubts, questions, and conflicts; but the boy and the girl need to fall in love, whether they’re looking for it or not.
Some publishers may even require a marriage proposal or wedding at the end , but that’s not always the case. Nowadays, publishers just want a “satisfactory ending” where readers know the couple is committed to each other.
If you remove the romance elements from your mystery and still have a great story, then you’ve written a mystery. You haven’t written a romance.
People like to jump on romance because it’s the bestselling genre. It sells during lockdowns, recessions, and depressions. Sometimes people will call their book a romance so that it will be listed on Amazon as such. But readers who pick it up will be annoyed because the author hasn’t given them a romance novel at all.
If you’re wondering whether you’ve written a romance or something else, ask yourself, “If I take the romance out, do I still have a story?” If you still have a story, then you’re writing something with romance in it. If you take the romance out and you’ve just got people floating around on a page, then you’ve got a romance novel.
What are the conventions of a mystery?
Thomas: What makes a novel a mystery? You can include mysterious elements in any genre, so what makes a mystery unique?
Karin: I don’t focus on mystery in my work, but I know enough to talk about the genre.
In a mystery, there is either a crime or a murder that happens within the first chapter. The crime happens early in the book, whether it’s a detective story or a cozy mystery where the baker arrives at her bakery only to find a dead body.
After the crime, everyone’s wondering, “Who done it?” The rest of the story is spent trying to figure out who the bad guy is. If we already know who the bad guy is, it’s not a mystery.
If the story is about a woman opening a bakery and things go wrong, but, eventually, you find out she has faulty wiring, that’s not a mystery. That’s the story of a woman opening a bakery where something unusual happens.
A mystery has a question that must be answered. You want your reader to try to figure out the answer before the hero does.
Thomas: Mystery is an interesting genre because it’s interactive. Readers want to participate in the story and guess “who done it.”
My wife loves Agatha Christie mysteries. We’ll occasionally read them aloud instead of listening to an audiobook because we can pause and discuss who we think committed the crime and debate about who had the motive.
On Amazon, mystery, thriller, and suspense are clustered together. Because the genres are grouped, that category actually outsells romance, but it cheats because it includes three different genres.
What is the difference between mystery and thriller?
Thomas: In a thriller, you know who the bad guy is. You know “who done it,” and they keep doing it.
For example, Jack the Ripper kills somebody new in every chapter. People are trying to stop him, but some scenes are from Jack Ripper’s perspective. There’s less mystery and more action.
The mystery genre includes cozy mysteries, where someone dies in the first paragraph; and there’s no violence until someone is arrested on the last page.
Karin: In a thriller, the hero works against a clock or a time constraint. It can be a metaphorical or real clock. If the world is going to end in 48 hours, the hero has to beat the clock.
In Jack the Ripper, the characters are trying to stop him before he murders someone else; and that’s the metaphorical clock.
Identifying the bad guy isn’t as crucial to a thriller as stopping the bad situation.
A mystery provides clues to help you figure it out. In a thriller, you don’t have to figure it out. You just want to know if they’ll beat the clock, and normally they do.
Readers participate in a thriller by holding on for dear life. It’s less interactive in that way.
What’s the difference between sci-fi and fantasy?
There are many ways to differentiate between sci-fi and fantasy, but how do you know which genre to choose?
Many people believe sci-fi is set in the future and fantasy is set in the past. Others say, “If it has swords and dirt, it’s fantasy. If it has a spaceship, it’s sci-fi.”
One good point of differentiation is that sci-fi often has ambiguous morality, whereas fantasy clearly identifies the good and bad guys.
In the sci-fi genre, the two alien races have pros and cons and you can see the conflict from both perspectives. You’ll often find a political element there as well.
Older sci-fi novels focused on speculating about what would happen if a certain technology developed. It explored the political, moral, and sociological ramifications of developing technology.
Fantasy tends to have good guys who are clearly good and bad guys who are clearly bad.
Some famous “sci-fi” stories are really fantasy stories at their heart. Star Wars is a story with knights, wizards, and clear moral boundaries. It’s a fantasy story in space.
Other stories may be sci-fi, but they take place in the distant past. Brian Sanderson’s stories are often that way.
Karin: For me, the distinguishing characteristic has always been whether the book has a magical element (fantasy) or a technological element (sci-fi).
The old movie Cowboys and Aliens is sci-fi because it deals with aliens and technology, whereas C.S. Lewis’s and Tolkien’s stories have that magical element.
I’ve always considered Star Wars to be the oddball out because of the magical force in addition to heavy technology.
I always guided my authors to determine the genre by looking at the elements that make it speculative rather than the theme. Is it speculative magically, or is it speculative technologically?
Thomas: Within sci-fi, there’s a distinction between hard sci-fi and soft sci-fi. Nearly all soft sci-fi has some magic that happens outside the laws of physics. A warp drive or wormhole that can transport people is magical. So the question becomes, how much more magic does the story have?
Hard sci-fi like The Martian Chronicles operates within the limitations of physics. They can’t travel faster than light.
Karin: Most people won’t notice the differences in physics. They’ll see the spaceships and fancy computers and think sci-fi.
Thomas: Some sci-fi subgenres are written by scientists for scientists. They lean into the science of science fiction. Other subgenres are space operas.
Star Wars doesn’t get into the physics mumbo jumbo that Star Trek pretends to know. Star Trek is always “reversing the polarity” and “running level-four diagnostics.” Those phrases don’t mean anything, but to a nontechnical person, they sound scientific.
If you’re wondering how to choose a genre, you must consider which audience will find you credible.
If you aren’t a scientific person, but you’re trying to write for hard sci-fi readers, you’ll get in trouble quickly. Actual scientists will push up their glasses and say, “That’s not how the science works.”
What is the superhero genre?
Some genres have an aesthetic or a look. Sci-fi has a space aesthetic.
The superhero genre also has an aesthetic, and yet Marvel stories succeed because they take the look of a superhero story and use it to tell other kinds of stories.
You might watch a superhero movie where the main character tries to figure out who’s in the secret organization behind Shield. Perhaps you’ve seen a superhero spy movie that’s a heist. In the beginning, they lay out the plan and follow all the genre conventions of a heist, but superheroes carry out the heist.
Marvel has vast experience mixing genres, but authors can get into trouble when they don’t know how to choose a genre. They end up mixing genres. It can be done, but I don’t recommend it to beginning authors.
Can you mix genres if you don’t know how to choose a genre?
Karin: When you mix two genres, you have to honor the requirements of each.
If you’re writing romantic suspense, your suspense storyline has to be as strong as the romance storyline.
A plot with a heroin who falls in love with the US Marshall guarding her is a suspense with some romance. If you don’t see romantic conflict throughout the story, then the romance readers who thought it was a romance will be disappointed.
You are free to write a mystery with a bit of romance. There might be a kiss, or the characters might confess their love to each other. But if their relationship isn’t the point of the story, just call it a mystery.
You can say it’s a mystery with some romance in it.
I call my fiction “hopeful fiction with a healthy dose of romance.” I’ve written some straight romance stories, but my first one was women’s fiction with some romance. If I take the romance out, I’ve still got a story; but I do honor many of the romance genre’s requirements.
In the same way, your historic thriller must honor the thriller requirements, but your history also has to be spot-on. Readers who love historical novels will notice if one of your characters uses a 20th-century phrase in 18th-century Britain. They’ll lose confidence in you as a historical writer.
Thomas: It’s difficult to mix genres and do it well. Many writers believe that if they mix two genres, they’ll double their audience. But if you don’t know how to choose a genre and you mix two, then you have twice as many opportunities to make genre-related mistakes and twice as many people to potentially irritate.
To mix genres and grab readers’ attention, you must be the best in both genres. Readers don’t want the second-best book.
Mixing Genres Decreases the Audience Size
Karin: Some authors I’ve worked with believe that their romantic suspense novel with a speculative element will hit three audiences. But I’ve had to tell them that’s not the case.
Romantic suspense with speculative elements will only thrill people who like all three genres. Instead of tripling your audience, you’re cutting it down. The more genres you add, the smaller your audience will be.
I encourage writers to focus on one genre. It’s easier to write to one audience than to appeal to five or six at the same time.
Thomas: When you add unexpected elements to a genre, you irritate certain readers.
My mother-in-law has no tolerance for anything speculative. She won’t watch superhero, sci-fi, or fantasy movies. She doesn’t like anything that doesn’t follow natural laws because she can’t suspend any disbelief and finds those genres boring.
If she’s enjoying your book and you suddenly add an impossible speculative element, she’ll bounce right out of the book.
Karin: You never want to disappoint your audience, but you don’t want to startle them either.
I was recently reading a general-market book that was pitched as women’s fiction with women’s empowerment. About three-quarters of the way through, I discovered it was about witchcraft. It was shocking. I completely lost respect for the book and the publisher and never finished it.
I’m curious about how it ended, and I love speculative fiction; but I was not prepared for witchcraft. It completely disappointed me. I probably won’t read anything by that author again because I don’t know what she’s actually writing.
Thomas: You choose books based on your mood the same way you choose a restaurant based on your mood.
If you choose to eat at IHOP, you’re not in the mood for a burger. You want pancakes. If IHOP brings you a hamburger, you’ll be disappointed even if you like hamburgers because you wanted pancakes.
When you sneak one genre into another, it’s like bringing the reader a hamburger when they want pancakes. It’s a violation of trust.
Your book cover will signal the genre. You wouldn’t have felt betrayed if that author had put a witch on the cover. If you were in the mood for an empowered witch using magical powers, you might have enjoyed it because you knew what to expect.
What about visceral genres like horror?
Thomas: People read horror because they want a physical reaction to the story. They want the book to make them feel afraid.
The difference between horror and thriller is in the agency and visibility of the characters.
In horror films, you don’t often see the scary guys because the more you see them, the less scary they become. The threat of impending doom tells the reader that the bad guy is somewhere outside of the cabin, trying to get in.
Normally you want your protagonist to move the plot forward; but in horror stories, the protagonist is trying to escape, and the evil is moving the plot forward.
The other difference is in the agency of the characters. The video game Doom has demons, blood, and monsters. Visually, it’s very scary. But it is not a horror game because those demons fear you. They’re not chasing you.
The player is blowing up the demons, so the human playing the game is the scary force bringing the righteous wrath of God against Hell. That’s the premise of the game.
On the other hand, in the game Five Nights at Freddy’s, the human player is a security guard at Chuck E. Cheese. The animatronic creatures come to life, and your goal is to hide from them. They’ll jump out and eat you if you turn the wrong way, so you’re trying to escape to survive.
The difference between the two genres lies in who is taking the initiative.
As Christians, we don’t like it when we don’t have the initiative, so theologically it doesn’t make sense.
We’re supposed to stand against the enemy. The only thing we’re supposed to flee is temptation, which isn’t a good horror creature because it’s too nebulous.
I think horror struggles in the Christian market because of its fundamental theological flaw. We don’t handle the enemy by trying to escape. You have Christ in you, so you’re not supposed to be afraid of demons. In Christ, we’re the ones with power. Christ empowers us to take the initiative against evil, rather than running from it.
In the Christian market, Christian horror doesn’t really exist. Some Christian supernatural borders on horror, but it’s unique and not popular in our market.
What are some subgenres of romance?
Karin: Romantic suspense and historical romance are the main subgenres, especially within the Christian market. Love Inspired has a romantic suspense line, and many historical romance opportunities are out there. In these subgenres, it’s important to make sure you’re honoring both genres.
The romance can’t simply be two people who are attracted to each other. In the movie Speed, two people survive a harrowing bus ride. They’re mildly attracted, and they kiss at the end. That’s not a romance.
In good romantic suspense, the relationship and the suspense are developed.
Terri Blackstock expertly combines the two genres. There is no good place to set down a Terri Blackstock book because it goes from one suspenseful element to the next, or the boy and girl are starting to realize their feelings.
She layers suspense on romance beautifully. If you’re not reading the next chapter to find out whether the good guys are catching the bad guys, you’re reading to find out if the couple will profess their feelings to each other.
When you pick up a good historical romance, you are pulled into the period and location. For example, British characters in the 1900s wouldn’t discuss social justice because it wasn’t a thing back then.
As horrible as it sounds to say, the characters in a historical novel know where they belong in the societal pecking order. At that time, women had specific roles.
Some women stepped outside of societal or family norms and made an impact. But when readers see female characters on the prairie in the 1850s doing everything independently with no help from anyone, they lose confidence in your writing.
Many of the great historical romances are based on a specific event, such as the Kansas Land Run or a specific event from World War I. The details come from history, but the story also has a great romance.
Women’s fiction is often confused with romance. In romance, your main character is typically female, but women’s fiction does not need a romantic ending. It doesn’t even need romance.
Women’s fiction emphasizes the female character arc and how she changes. It may include romance, but it doesn’t have to. At the end of a women’s fiction novel, there may not be a profession of love or an engagement. Instead, the female character has had a revelation and is walking in a new place.
In romantic women’s fiction, the girl and boy discover they are soulmates by the end of the book.
Knowing what your readers want will help you know how to choose a genre.
Thomas: One of Tom Clancy’s books had a 20-page section where one character explained to another how to make a nuclear bomb.
People who don’t read Tom Clancy thought he should have cut that part. Other people thought it was illegal to describe how to make a nuclear bomb in exquisite detail.
When he wrote the book, there was no Internet where people could research the process. But Tom Clancy did the research and included it in his book.
His faithful readers loved it. It was a fascinating piece to certain readers.
Karin: I don’t criticize that because I know the primary readers of that genre will love it.
I’ve read and reviewed several young-adult books; and since I’m not the target audience, some parts were a little boring to me. But if my ten-year-old nephew read those parts, he would eat it up.
I don’t leave bad reviews for those authors. I know I’m not the target audience. Nor am I in Tom Clancy’s target audience.
If you read outside the genre you like, don’t judge a book based on your genre preferences. Consider the conventions of the genre you’re reading because it might be a fantastic women’s fiction book but a horrible cozy mystery.
Getting Feedback From Readers of the Genre
Thomas: That’s a great reminder to be careful when you get feedback from people who don’t read your genre.
Steve Laube was once pitched a great military sci-fi book. He loved the first three chapters; but when he received the completed manuscript, it was not good.
He found out the author had implemented feedback from a bunch of romance authors who didn’t think the book was good because it didn’t fit their genre expectations.
Whether you’re choosing an editor or beta readers, choose people who understand genre differences.
Beta readers typically can only tell you what they liked and didn’t like. If they advise you to cut 20 pages of nuclear bomb explanation because it’s boring, they’re telling you the truth. It was boring to them. But if they’re not your target reader, their feedback could be poisonous to the success of your book.
Karin: I also advise authors to find critique partners, critique groups, or beta readers who are currently active in the publishing industry.
Someone who’s been retired from publishing for 20 years may not know what has changed in two decades. They might know what worked 20 years ago, but it may not be perfect for today’s markets and audiences.
“But my book doesn’t fit in any genre!”
Thomas: Some authors try to choose a genre and conclude that their book doesn’t fit in any of the genres. Instead of adapting their book to fit the genre people already want to read, they try to invent a brand-new genre.
What do you say to an author who wants to invent a new genre?
Karin: I’d ask, “Who is the audience for the book?”
If they can’t identify the audience, the next step is to help them realize that if they can’t identify who or where the readers are, then they can’t sell books to that nonexistent audience.
Creating a genre is difficult if you don’t know who to target or where to find them.
I encourage authors to find the genre that’s most like their book and follow those guidelines and conventions.
Thomas: Most genres are planted the same way most churches are planted in the States nowadays.
Churches are often planted because there’s been a church split. First Baptist has a fight, and one group leaves to plant Second Baptist. A preexisting community realized they didn’t fit where they were, so they left to start a new church.
It’s not one pastor with three people in his living room starting a church. It’s 100 people leaving another church; and on the first Sunday, 100 people attend.
New genres emerge in the same way.
A group of romance readers becomes disgruntled because the romances are too clean. They want something spicier with vampires. So, they all leave for a new vampire romance genre.
Unfortunately, many authors go into the wild by themselves and shout about their new genre, but no one is around to hear them. In truth, that author wrote a book they liked and didn’t want to change it to fit a genre.
That’s not how you choose a genre or create a new one.
Karin: Amazon is full of hundreds of thousands of books by authors who’ve done that very thing. The average annual income for authors on Amazon is about $1,000.
If you want to do it your own way, you absolutely can. But if you want to make some money and reach a larger audience, research the subgenres, and see which one you match up with best.
Proficiency Precedes Permission
Thomas: You have to earn the right and learn the skills to create something new. You won’t create a new genre with your first book.
You must learn how to write for an audience. Then, if you want to break out and create your own genre, you’ve at least mastered the fundamentals of scenes, characters, dialogue, pacing, and plotting.
Once you’ve mastered those skills, you might have permission to create something new.
Karin: When it comes to trying new genres, it’s easier to ask for forgiveness than permission.
For example, if Karen Kingsbury decides to throw a speculative element into a story, she might annoy a lot of readers. But her fan base is so big that they’ll forgive her. Most of them will say, “That one was weird, but I’ll read your next book because we have a relationship.”
But if an author says, “Hey, you don’t know anything about me, but I want your permission to create this,” that is a hard sell.
Do your research to learn how to choose a genre, and then stick with it until you’ve mastered one genre. After you’ve established your credibility in one genre, you’re more likely to be able to succeed in another genre.
To connect with Karen Berry and learn more about her services, visit her website at KarinBeery.com.