As writers, we can do anything we damn well please. We can write a short story set in 19th-century San Francisco from the point of view of a Chinese railroad worker in the morning, work on a novel set in the vast depths of an alien ocean in the evening, with a little afternoon poetry-session complete with plenty of highbrow literary navel-gazing in between. That is one of the benefits of doing what we do: we are not limited to any one type of writing.
So when I talk about Finding Your Genre, I want to make it clear that I am not saying you must limit yourself to one genre and one genre only. But it’s worthwhile to think about the kinds of genres we are drawn to and why, and perhaps explore our sometimes vague ideas through the lens of those genres.
A little background: I am a fantasy girl, through and through. I cut my teeth on tales of knights and wizards, elves and fairies, and even though I branched out into other genres as a young woman, I always found myself returning to my mother-genre. When I began writing, it would have been natural for me to turn to fantasy, but for some reason I didn’t. Instead, I struggled with my voice, trying to write (for some reason) contemporary teen novels. But it just didn’t feel right.
Somewhere in the midst of all that angst and failure, I had a vague story idea that I jotted down in my notebook. It sat there for some time without blossoming into anything, even though I worried at it constantly, trying to make it work. Then, one day, I decided to try giving that idea a fantastical twist, just to see what happened.
Suddenly I was filled with a manic creative energy, working with a drive I didn’t know I had. It was as if the book was writing itself, my hand flying across page after page trying to keep up with my brain. I was home. I had found my genre.
So, let’s explore the various genres (and there are a TON), and see if we can find yours.
First, it’s important to know the difference between form and genre. “Form” relates to the physical shape your writing takes: short story, novel or novella, drama (play or script), poem or song, graphic novel. It dictates the length of your work, the method of storytelling, the style of writing. For example, short stories and novels are very different (I can bust out a novel no problem but can’t write a short story to save my life, much as I would love to do both). There are things you can do in a graphic novel or a screenplay/film that would be very difficult to handle in a traditional novel. Consider what kinds of ideas you have and what forms would suit them best.
“Genre” relates to the content of the story. What is the book about? What kind of world is it set in? Post-WWII Britain, or an alien planet dominated by a non-humanoid species? The former could be historical or literary fiction, the latter science fiction or even possibly horror. (I mean, you could write a horror novel set in Post-WWII Britain, too…)
*Genre vs. Literary Fiction*
We also have to distinguish literary fiction from genre fiction. Wikipedia told me (and I had to look it up because although I instinctively know what literary fiction is, it was harder to put it into words) that literary fiction “is a term used to distinguish certain fictional works that possess commonly held qualities to readers outside genre fiction. Literary fiction has been defined as any fiction that attempts to engage with one or more truths or questions, hence relevant to a broad scope of humanity as a form of expression.” The Huffington Post goes a little further in separating the two: “The main reason for a person to read Genre Fiction is for entertainment, for a riveting story, an escape from reality. Literary Fiction separates itself from Genre because it is not about escaping from reality; instead it provides a means to better understand the world and delivers real emotional responses.”
Now…I would argue that Genre Fiction provides a means to better understand the world and delivers real emotional responses as well. However, for literary fiction, that is sometimes its sole purpose. Genre Fiction does double-duty of being entertaining escapism while at the same time trying to work in some larger truths.
“What do you mean, SOME? I thought this whole freaking POST was about genres, and you’re not going to tell me all of them?”
No, dear reader, and here’s why: The list is enormous. Don’t believe me? Check out this Wikipedia page:
I don’t even think they covered them all. It’s insane.
That’s also why you should never, ever feel limited or “boxed-in” when you choose to write within a specific genre. There are so many sub-genres and sub-sub-genres that you could probably take a single idea and work it in 20 different ways within a single genre.
For example, say I want to write The Next Great Horror Novel. I can narrow it down to: body horror/splatterpunk (if I like a lot of gore), erotic (if I want to mix scary with sexy), Gothic/Southern Gothic (if I worship on the altar of Edgar Allen Poe, Bram Stoker, and Mary Shelley), psychological (if I want to explore the darker side of the human psyche and play upon my readers’ emotional vulnerabilities), supernatural/paranormal (if I like me a good ghost story), monster literature (if I want to write some towns being destroyed and unsuspecting humans getting torn apart)…etc. And my idea will take very different shapes depending on which one I choose. Take Stephen King and Shirley Jackson. Both wrote “haunted house” novels–King with “The Shining” and Jackson with “The Haunting of Hill House.” Although both involve a haunted building seeking to possess the main character, they couldn’t be more different. Read them back-to-back if you don’t believe me how unique two books within the same genre can be.
We have “main” genres that most people are familiar with: Drama, Comedy, Romance, Science Fiction, Fantasy, Horror, Historical Fiction, Mystery/Crime, Adventure, Western. There are even more than that, but those categories are pretty broad and can categorize most genre fiction if you try hard enough. (I guess “YA” can be considered it’s own genre? With a breakdown of genres underneath, since YA is handled much differently than the “adult” versions of these genres…)
Then you have sub-genres. Every genre can be broken down into sub-genres just like I did with Horror above. Science Fiction alone can be broken into: hard science fiction, soft science fiction, space opera, alien invasion, post-apocalyptic, dystopian, military, parallel or alternative universe…there are even a gazillion categories branching off of the “-punk” sub-genre: Steampunk, atompunk, dieselpunk, cyberpunk etc. The list literally goes on and on and on.
*Finding Your Genre*
Now think of these genres as they relate to you. What kinds of stories do you like reading? What kinds of stories do you like writing? What kinds of ideas do you typically have, and what genre do they tend to fall into?
If you aren’t sure, you can begin by thinking very generally. Say you like reading history. You don’t have any one favorite time period, but simply like researching historical events. You are obsessed with documentaries on The History Channel. Now, you can try straight-up historical fiction. You could either write a story about a real person during a real event, or you can make up a person and place them in a real setting in a real historical context (such as a made-up nurse character living and working during World War I). Maybe you’ve always wanted to write a whodunit. Why not mash your two loves together and create a historical detective novel, like S. J. Parris did with her Giordano Bruno series (of which “Heresy” is the first….it is truly wonderful, so check it out if that’s your jam). If you harbor a passion for both history and fantasy, however, you could go the historical fantasy route, such as George R. R. Martin or Jacqueline Carey. Martin’s “Song of Ice and Fire” series inhabits its own world, but uses the politics behind the War of the Roses as inspiration (and some childhood pets, but that’s another story). Jacqueline Carey uses our world as the basis for her alternate fantastical history, but makes it a place where gods have walked the earth, populated a nation, and have a hand in shaping history by using their scions to their own ends.
The possibilities are endless.
Explore. Take an idea that isn’t working, and look at it through the lens of a completely different genre or sub-genre than the one you were using. See where it goes when you take it from literary fiction to Southern Gothic. Write three short stories in three different genres this week and see which one flows best. Where do you feel most at home?
You can always change your mind and switch to another one. We’re writers, after all. We do whatever we damn well please.