Thursday, July 15, 2010

Special Posts - Genre Definitions, Part II

What Am I Writing, Anyway?
Part II

This is a two-part post I worked up for Go Teen Writers, where it's also up today.

Yesterday I introduced genre breakdowns and talked about those for young adults and younger and historicals. Today I'm covering contemporaries and few of the big categories.

A contemporary novel is anything set after World War II through the present. Futuristic, science fiction, and fantasy are grouped under the title of “speculative”–I imagine we all know what those are.

The most widely read genre is Romance. And yet many of us (myself included) have no idea when we set out that Romance has a few musts. First, the love story between hero and heroine must be center stage. If it shares equal billing with another element, it is most likely a cross-over genre like Romantic Suspense or the like. Hero and heroine need to be apparent from the get-go, and usually they must meet within the first few chapters. Hero and heroine must have some issues, must work through them, and must find a happily ever after (a.k.a. HEA) by the last page. Usually this means either marriage or the promise of marriage.

Now, having a book where you don't know who the heroine will end up with can be an excellent story—but it's mostly likely not a strict romance. Having a book where the heroine doesn't meet the hero until the last ten chapters—the same. A book where it ends with the hero and heroine not together—not a romance. These can be love stories, they can be women's fiction, they can be some other genre. But romance readers have expectations, and if you don't meet them, an editor is most likely not going to touch you. And you know, that's for a purpose. When I picked up a book by an author I knew wrote great romances and discovered that she killed the heroine two-thirds of the way through the book, I didn't finish reading it to figure out how the hero picked up the pieces and raised their baby. I wanted a happy ending, and I wasn't interested in a “satisfying” ending at the time. Had I been, I would have picked up a different type of book, one that did NOT say “Romance” on the back.

I mentioned women's fiction, which is what many books are that have love stories but don't fit the strict Romance definition. Authors like Nora Roberts are billed as women's fiction writers, even though most of her books are romance. Some defy the conventional definition, so there you go. Other women's fiction includes the books about a group of four friends who each come into their own, the story about a woman finding a second chance after a divorce, the wife dealing with infertility, with unfaithfulness, the woman whose mother has Alzhiemers, etc. These are books geared at women, which are dealing with women's issues. They can have romance, but don't require it. I have a manuscript right now that has a love story, but just as key is the facing-her-past story. I could take the romance out and still have a book. This is women's fiction, not romance.

There's a thing called Love Story, which is what Nicholas Sparks says he writes. It's again not something a publisher will use a label, but it's something readers and writers toss around. Basically, it's a story where the romance cannot be removed, but which does not promise to follow Romance guidelines. Maybe it stretches all the way until death, like Sparks' The Notebook. Maybe the hero dies saving the heroine. That sort of thing.

Other contemporaries include:

Mystery—a whodunnit. Usually murder, but there are “cozy mysteries” that are often about a less gruesome crime. A mystery has an amateur crime-solver as the main character.

Suspense—one of those stories with high stakes, danger, intrigue, and a professional as a main character. Think 24. Jack's a federal agent, not an amateur. Military stories are usually suspense. The ones about police officers tracking down a serial killer. That sort of thing. (A Romantic Suspense is a story where the romance and the suspense are equal.)

Chick Lit—light and comedic, generally but not always in first person, may or may not have romance. Chick Lit is currently out of fashion. I suspect it'll make a resurgence under a different name soon.

I'm sure I'm overlooking some, and feel free to chime in with other examples or questions about how to break these things down! They're tricky—published authors can sit and debate this stuff to no end. But subtleties aside, you have to know what it is you're pitching to an agent or editor. And most of them will roll their eyes if you say, “It's a historical mysterious romance that takes place in 1980.” What they'll take from that is that you haven't done your homework and don't know where your story fits.

So—anyone need help figuring out what it is they're writing? =)

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