Book Genres: Sifting Through That Mess (Part I)

You’ve written your book. You’ve revised, edited, polished, tightened, and shined it. It gleams like a crystal in the sunlight. Now what?

Now you look for literary agents. You pull up a website or get out your current copy of Writer’s Market and flip through the agency descriptions. You see that a typical entry for an agency includes contact information, recent sales, terms of working with them, and what they represent. Of course, you want to make sure they represent the type of book you’ve written, so you scan that section first. A typical one looks like this:

Represents: action, adventure, crime, detective, hi-lo, glitz, family saga, feminist, gay, humor, literary, mainstream, psychic, satire, regional, sports, supernatural, suspense, thriller, chick lit, lady lit

If you’re lucky, you already know what genre you were aiming for, and wrote your story accordingly. If not, at this point, you’re probably thinking, “I don’t even know what half of those are, let alone if my book falls into that category.” Never fear, young Skywalker! (Sorry, my nerd is showing…let me just tuck that back in there…) This blogger/writer has scoured the internet and compiled a list of genres and their descriptions for your viewing pleasure.

This is the first post in a series that will give genre descriptions. My goal is to do a couple that are more popular/self-explanatory, and one that isn’t (like hi-lo) in each post. So here goes.

First for the basics:

LITERARY VS. COMMERCIAL  

Literary fiction focuses on style and technique as well as subject matter and is more serious. It’s all about the writing and it’s more intellectually challenging. [Examples: Barbara Kingsolver, Toni Morrison.] Whereas, commercial fiction is about reaching as many people as possible. Commercial fiction is sometimes referred to as genre fiction because it often fits nicely into a specific category (western, romance, mystery, horror, historical, etc.) [Examples: John Grisham, Danielle Steele]

MAINSTREAM

Okay, this one is a little difficult because people can’t agree on what it is. From what I can tell, it has several definitions. The first is that it expands out of its genre. In other words, it becomes so popular, people who normally wouldn’t read that genre will pick it up. Stephen King, for example, is so well-known that he can attract readers that normally don’t read horror. The second is that it’s genre fiction that breaks conventions. In other words, you write a mystery, but it’s not quite a mystery. The third is that it’s neither genre fiction or literary fiction, but falls somewhere in between.

In general, this category is broad and basically contains universal subject matters that appeal to the masses. People can relate to it. The setting is in the 20th or 21st century. Most of the stuff that ends up on the bestsellers lists is considered mainstream. Got it? It’s a little confusing.

MYSTERY

This is one of the most popular categories, and also one of the most well-known. At the core of a mystery is a crime, usually murder. The story is essentially a detective (not necessarily a real detective) running around trying to solve said crime. The solution is revealed at the end, and twists are normally thrown in. These aren’t to be confused with thrillers, which involve more action. Subgenres of mystery include crime, spy, detective, cozy. I’ll get to these in a later post. [Examples: Arthur Conan Doyle, Sue Grafton, Elmore Leonard]

HI-LO

Hi-lo stands for high interest, low reading level. It’s for kids who are considered reluctant or struggling readers. The high interest part means a subject matter that would appeal to the age group you’re aiming for. To write in this genre, you have to keep up with what the kids are interested in. A shorter book is also preferable, because it gives the reader confidence at the get-go that they will be able to finish it. Plot, story line, and characters must all be straightforward. No long descriptions, no POV switches, shorter sentences/words. [Examples: Cressida Cowell, Eugie Foster]

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