Why Knowing (and Respecting) Your Genre Matters

isn't it cozy?Another musical analogy: young bands call their music “like nothing you’ve ever heard” so often it’s a cliche.

Really? Klingon opera has some similarity to music I know. Hey, Ornette Coleman’s free jazz has similarities to music I know, and that’s more of a reach than Klingon opera.

When I tell folks my music sound like Bob Dylan meeting David Gray for drinks at Roger Miller’s house, that doesn’t diminish my artistic individuality. It just gives potential listeners an idea what they’re getting. It prevents lovers of Klingon opera or free jazz from showing up for my living room concert and smashing up the furniture because they don’t like the music, thank you very much Igor Stravinsky.

But if they show up and don’t witty lyrics, a country feel, and occasional darkness or melancholy, they’ll have every right to riot because I set expectations I failed to meet.

Genre Labels Market Your Book for You

I used to wear Hawaiian shirts instead of a suit and tie to new client meetings. I figured me in a suit and tie at a business event made as much sense as a barbecue joint calling itself Vegan Delight. These days I lean more toward plaid flannel shirts with my jeans, but it’s still a valid picture of the kind of business advice you’re going to get: no frills, commonsense stuff that works without requiring an MBA to understand it.

I came up with the phrase Chandleresque cozies to describe my mysteries: the convoluted plots and damaged people of Chandler, but free of sex, profanity, and gore like the cozy mysteries perfected by Agatha Christie.

Nobody who reads that description should be surprised by my mysteries. Whether they like them or not is all about my skill as a writer. But after the age of three nobody likes surprises. Avoid them by being clear about your genre.

Telling potential readers your genre doesn’t have to mean you’ll sound like everyone else.

Do you think anyone hears about Sean and Johnny’s unicorn westerns and says yeah, been there, read that?

It’s a western. Except the hero rides a unicorn. A talking unicorn.

Any confusion about what to expect there?

Is your book a historical romance time travel story? Scifi for children? Neolithic political thriller?

In one breath, give potential fans something they can grab ahold of and show them why it’s uniquely yours.

Bonus: word of mouth, the very best kind of advertising, depends almost entirely on a memorable tag like “Chandleresque cozy” or “unicorn western” in order to spread.

What’s short phrase identifies the genre whose expectations your book fills, and at the same time shows why you fill those expectations in a way no other writer has?

5 thoughts on “Why Knowing (and Respecting) Your Genre Matters

  1. Unicorn Western? Nice! Now I dont feel so bad about writing my novel about North American native indians getting in their canoes and invading Europe in the 1400s, thus changing history as we know it.

  2. I think it is possible to characterize literary fiction in a phrase or a couple phrases. I’ll try for the last widely-read book I read: a literary exploration of environmental activism, love triangles, and loss. Anyone recognize Jonathan Franzen’s “Freedom?” Or: three backstories woven around the last twentieth century like a Havdalah candle and lit with fury by the end. No one recognized “3 Through History: Love in the Time of Republicans,” because other than an unknown cop who investigated a break-in at my house (“You’re the writer, aren’t you? I think I have your book”), nobody knows about it.

    Regards from a long-term fan.

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