Genre is a difficult word as many authors resist being ‘put in a box.' But the reality is that, when you self-publish, you have to choose three categories for your book. And if you want a traditional publisher, they will have to put you somewhere too.
So I tend to think of genre as category these days. The problem is … which do you choose!
As J.F.Penn, I write across the boundaries of supernatural thriller, action adventure, dark fantasy, and crime with an edge of horror. When I first started out writing fiction in Australia, I met Alan Baxter, because he writes books that I enjoy with similar cross-genre themes. In today's article, Alan explains how we can make the most of writing genre-mashing.
I am unashamedly a genre writer. But I find it hard to answer when people ask what genre.
Generally, I tend to write speculative fiction, which is the umbrella term for science fiction, fantasy and horror. Most of my stuff is dark urban fantasy and horror. But it’s rarely only those things. I include a lot more than just SFF tropes in my stories. I’m a huge fan of crime, noir, mystery, thrillers – in all honesty, I’ve never met a genre I didn’t like.
I’ve written a weird western ghost story, a novella that turns sweltering Sydney into a noir landscape where supernatural beings are dealing with mental illness, a historical pirate yarn with a cosmic horror threat looming over the world. My novels are paced like thrillers, dive through realms of crime and mystery, but are thick with magic and monsters and mayhem. And often a lot of martial arts, as I’m a martial arts instructor too and that’s the only other thing I’ve been doing as long as I’ve been a writer.
So how do we genre-mash without our stories becoming a mess? Here are 5 tips that I like to keep in mind:
(1) Write the stories you want to read
The reason I like to mash genres together is because they’re the kind of stories I like to read. And you should always write, first and foremost, what you want to read. That’s where your particular passion lies.
The beauty of a genre mash is that you surprise your readers. If they go into a story thinking, Ah, this is a police procedural! but they come out of it thinking, I was not expecting a monster and sword-wielding Gregorian monk to appear! then you’ve really done your job well. (Note to self: Write a police procedural that’s solved by a sword-wielding Gregorian monk.) So don’t think about what genres you want to mash. Instead think about what crazy stories you’d like to read and then use whatever genres are required.
(2) Don't mash for the sake of it
Any time we do something for the sake of doing it – in this case, cramming in tropes because we want to genre mash – it comes off hackneyed and try hard. That’s a terrible way to tell a story. But if you start by deciding what kind of story you want tell and then make sure you’re not averse to any strange occurrence coming along, you open yourself to all kinds of possibilities.
So take a step back and look at what you’re really doing. If you want a story about a magic-wielding urban mage, but you need him to go on a quest, find yourself a catalyst. Entanglement with an organised crime boss, maybe. Or on the run from the law. Or a vengeful ex-lover. Take those other tropes and slap them onto your urban fantasy and see where it takes you.
(3) Never only tell one story at a time
Some of the best writing advice I ever got was, “The best stories are the ones where something else is happening.” Unpack that advice and it means don’t only focus on your protagonist and their current predicament.
Look at what else is happening. Maybe they’re going through a divorce at the time. Maybe they’re fighting a law suit. Perhaps they’re trying to be there for a terminally ill friend while not telling that friend about battling demons from the Ninth Plane of Hades. Layers happen when you tell more than just the one central story, and sometimes you have to cross genres to do that.
(4) Everyone is the hero of their own story
This is another piece of invaluable writing advice and it’s particularly important for antagonists and villains. Don’t make them cardboard cut-out evil-doers. They have a history, they have personal motivations, they have things happening in their lives that are real and important to them.
So follow those up, think about what part of their story you want to tell and then have a think about what genres that might open. Horror? Mystery? Romance? It’s all there for the taking.
(5) Don't write for an audience
This is a bit of a return to the first rule, but there’s more to it than that. While you should always tell the kind of stories you want to read, you should also avoid being swayed by what’s currently hot. Especially so if you’re in traditional publishing, as that can move so slowly that by the time your book is written and in front of editors, the current hot trend is over. Even for indies who can move fast, you might miss the peak of the trend.
But more importantly, if you’re writing for a genre trend, you’re not writing your passion.
Don’t blinker yourself. Just because there’s not currently a trend for a hard-boiled detective investigating crimes that can only have been committed by a shapechanging alien, that doesn’t your book won’t find readers. And maybe your crazy, exciting, interesting genre-mash might just be the start of a new trend in publishing.
There are no boundaries except those you impose on yourself. Be free and create!
Do you have any genre-mashing tips or questions? Please do join the conversation and leave a comment below.
Alan Baxter is a British-Australian author who writes dark fantasy, horror, sci-fi, crime and pretty much everything else. He rides a motorcycle and loves his dog. He also teaches Kung Fu. Alan lives and writes among dairy paddocks on the beautiful south coast of NSW, Australia, with his wife, son, dog and cat. He’s the award-winning author of the Alex Caine series, the Balance series, Dark Rite, and over sixty short stories and novellas. So far.
Read extracts from his novels, a novella and short stories at his website – www.warriorscribe.com – or find him on Twitter @AlanBaxter and Facebook, and feel free to tell him what you think. About anything.
michael gallagher says
My latest reflection on this issue: My books are cross genre and I get loads of comments about that as a problem from people who review. Also, it causes problems in selecting categories and keywords. Any reaction?
You’ll always face those troubles, but try to focus on the most relevant keywords. I usually call my novels dark fantasy thrillers, for example. Bookstores hate trying to shelve them though!
Writing cross-genre isn’t so much a writing problem as it is a marketing problem. I’d love to read articles about how, specifically, with step-by-steps, that someone has successfully marketed cross-genre books.
Joanna Penn says
It’s the same as any other book. Create things that you like, share things you like and you will attract the audience who likes those things too. I write cross genre – and one example would be sharing pictures on Pinterest of the aspects of my books which are not genre specific.
Agreed! And direct your marketing – sell the horror aspects to horror fans, the thriller aspect to thriller fans, etc.
My story has a man finding a time machine to enable him to travel backwards 1,000 years to find his ancestors, A lot of it in the 1800s where he decides to live for a while to learn about the era. He brings back a woman from 1841 to 21st century who, through what he learns on other trips to the past turns out to be is six-time great-aunt. A villain from the 25th century tries to steal the time machine for his own use. Another antagonist stabs his wife and is saved by transporting her to the 25th century by “Traveller’s” who have been observing them trying to apprehend the 25th century villain. There’s also a lot of underlying romance.
So Science Fiction/Time Travel, Romance, Historical drama, Crime.
How should I categorize it?
Joanna Penn says
If it has a time machine, I’d say it’s Sci-Fi 🙂
I’d sell that as science fiction/crime to genre fans and as SF/romance to romance fans.
Icy Sedgwick says
I’ve done weird Westerns and my other series of books is a weird mash up of horror (classic monsters like mummies) and fantasy (people can use magic) but it’s set in a weird Gaiman-esque landscape that’s part Victorian London-part Venice! It’s often precisely the things that make stories difficult to categorise that makes them most popular with readers – most of my reviews reference the world-building in some way! I do think categories are more for marketing than they are for readers, and luckily indie publishing makes it easier to reach more readers by not being so strict 🙂
Categories, really, are mostly for bookshops!
Excellent advice. I’ve always had a problem with genre-naming. Why can’t it just be fiction or non-fiction? If I have some romance in my book, I still don’t want to call it romance. If I have suspense, I know it’s more than just suspense. Then I’m told to use the term romantic suspense, but that turns off the readers who don’t like romance, or who don’t like suspense. And I HATE the term ‘women’s fiction,’ as if only women will enjoy stories about relationships/family/’life.’ Sigh. I’ve had agents tell me I need to write ‘more romance’ in there so they can sell it as romance, or ‘more mystery in there’ so they can sell the book as mystery. No, I write the book I want to read and that speaks to me. I just read a ‘fantasy’ book that I never would have read because it was billed as part of the fantasy genre. I read it to support another blogger and LOVED it. Never would have if I just paid attention to how it was defined.
Sharon Joss says
Thank you for this timely post. I have a hard time coloring between the genre lines, and I’ve always been a bit defensive about it, but I write stories I like to read, and I guess that means that mystery, suspense, urban fantasy, supernatural horror, romance, and a touch of wry humor will always be part of my books.
I just rebranded my first series with urban fantasy covers, but based on the rankings, it’s selling best in the paranormal romance category. The reviews are gratifying , but nearly every reviewer comments about how surprised they were by the books and how different it was from their expectations–and most importantly (and gratifying to me), how much they enjoyed them.
I’m down with genre-mashing. But I still haven’t figured out the trick to brand it, except by trial and error (and universally fabulous covers). Not sure if that’s a problem or one of the privileges of being an indie author. At this point, the paranormal romance mystery series with the urban fantasy series covers is doing pretty well.
Sam Flint says
I’ve written my first cross genre novel, science fiction with a political power play that explains how we got to this. I describe it to puzzled friends as `Tom Clancy meets Michael Crichton’ and the light goes on, but it is a bit reductionist. How do you get over the problem of describing a cross genre novel?
Denise Yoko Berndt says
I particularly like the tip that the antagonist is the hero of his/her own story. Once I realised that it helped me a lot with adding another layer to my current work in progress.
Thanks for the encouragement! I’m three novels into a cross genre series. I’m of the opinion I should have three to four in the pipeline before launch, so I am close. I was motivated in a similar fashion. I couldn’t find very much of what I wanted to read, so I am writing it now. I hope there is an audience for it. I was a James Bond junkie as a kid, and graduated from the films to Fleming’s novels. But I always wanted Bond to encounter the supernatural. So now I have a counter-intelligence operative confronting terrorists who are vampires with geopolitical ambitions. I call it Vince Flynn meets Anne Rice. Surely there’s an audience for that.
Steven M. Moore says
Joanna and Alan,
I saw a summary of this on Goodreads, so I’m taking the opportunity to comment here.
I’ve written blog articles for some time mentioning genres directly or indirectly. Here’s a summary of points I think are important: (1) I’ve always considered them artificial constraints and only conveniences for book retailers–they really have nothing to do with storytelling per se. (2) I write mysteries, thrillers, and sci-fi according to most pundits, but I’m really just a storyteller. One YA title could be considered a sci-fi mystery, and I have several books that could be called sci-fi thrillers. My latest novel could be classified a mystery/thriller–it begins like a Christie-style mystery and ends a thriller as events almost overtake the sleuths, if you will, but it’s all one story. (3) Genres are dangerous. My new book was found in the Art section at a bookstore: the title is Rembrandt’s Angel, the person doing the shelving just focused on the title, and s/he didn’t even bother to read the blurb on the back.
Good discussion. (And I apologize for using my own books as examples. I know them better than other books, of course.)
Thank-you Joanna for the useful article. Although, you have discussed fiction here and my work is nonfiction, I believed you could still give me a suggestion as a writer.
I am quite confused about my book’s genre. It is nonfiction, self-help, spiritual/religion, transformation. I believe it is creative/narrative nonfiction as my style in the book is not technical, or academic.
It is my personal story of losing my mother to cancer and what I learnt from it. As I am Life Coach, it has self-help lessons shared as learning as I move forward with my story. It is spiritual as it focuses on the inner-self/soul and religious as I have references in between from scripture (Quran) just to solidify my own reflections. The target audience is any Believer in God.
With such a mixture, what is the best way to describe it for a Review Query.
Your help is much appreciated.
Joanna Penn says
The way you write it will determine what type of book it is.
“A personal story of transformation” could be a memoir if the book is your story.
But if you use your story as a way to specific write self-help sections that will help others, as I have done in The Successful Author Mindset, then it can be self-help.
You need to decide yourself where it fits!
Thank-you for your help.
P.G. Sundling says
I’ve had a lot of trouble describing my book because it crosses so many genre boundaries. I entered a contest in the “Cross Genre” category and won it, as part of my plan to try to convey what my book was.
In person, I describe my novel, The Internet President: None of the Above, as an “Action-adventure, comedy, drama, romance with elements of suspense, science fiction and a whole bunch of politics. It has actionable political ideas and a chapter on how to improve the education series wrapped in a genre-bending narrative that builds to an action-packed climax. It’s like no book you’ve read before.”
That’s quite a mouthful, but I think people get the idea. I wish there were BISAC codes for cross-genre and more reader awareness of those of us who draw outside the lines.
P.G. Sundling says
I’ve been thinking, it’s possible to actually propose new BISAC codes. One of the requirements to do so it to include a lot of examples of books that fit the label. I thought of Cloud Atlas as a good example, but they get around it by calling the book “Epistolary Fiction.”
If we can crowdsource a dozen other books that fit the criteria, perhaps we can actually get a real category for “Cross Genre” books. I think Wikipedia says 2 or more genres, but I think the bar should be 3 or 4. If we work together, perhaps we could make such stories more visible.
Really interesting article and comments here thank you. I’ve just had my wip assessed by an editor who said it’s a mixture of three genres and I need to choose one or I’ll never get an agent. So disheartening. I like cross genre novels and I don’t want to fit in a box but I understand that if an agent is not clear on where to position it they will say no thanks. The advice was ‘make more of a deal about the potential love interest’ and you could say it’s a romance. I don’t want it to be classified as a romance and it’s not the main thread of the story. Change the ages and make it a YA – as there’s a little bit of magic. I don’t want to write a YA. Or position it more as a family saga as the MC is tracking down the father she’s never known. It’s so tricky trying to write the story you want to write but then realising there are these very old constraints that still exist in the publishing industry…gah!
Wonderful and very interesting article. If the book is valid, it will discover a crowd of people that is intended to understand it. An author is somebody for whom composing is more troublesome than it is for others. Thanks for sharing your thoughts!
Authoress Michelle says
Thank you for your post, I know it will be beneficial to me. I particularly write erotica, fantasy, harem, and hospital romance.
What I have in mind is different, i want to write erotica and Mystery and it will be under erotica because that’s what readers want.
I also learnt something. Always write what you want to read, I love that.