Right now, I am reading a wonderful book called Angels in the Darkness: A Family Triumph over Hitler and World War II Berlin: 1935-1949 by Lisa Farringer Parker. It’s a true story of the hardships and victories of Jutta Bolle and her family as they struggle to stay alive through the rise of Hitler, the war, and the Russian occupation. It’s an excellent read, but if I didn’t know it was based on a true story and, thus, written much like a diary, my authorial temptation to examine every book for good plot structure and other elements might get in the way of savoring this read.
Genre plays a crucial role for both readers and writers. Simply knowing the genre of a story can alter a reader’s experience. A reader who usually enjoys romance might be greatly disappointed in a book like The Soldier’s Wife by Margaret Leroy, which has a romance and a good one at that, but which does not adhere to romance genre expectations. Regardless, it’s still a great read.
Each genre comes with expectations and tropes. Some genres must adhere to certain characteristics to qualify as that genre: romances must have happy endings, fantasy must have something outside our reality. Some genres are expected to following a strong plot structure and others, like literary fiction, are given more leeway. Regardless, all genres come with reader expectations that influence their experience and enjoyment of a story.
Thus, as a reader, it’s helpful to know the genre of the book you pick up. Often this isn’t a challenge at all as you’ve gone to a specific spot in the bookstore to find your latest read. But sometimes, if you get the book another way, say from a friend, the genre is not always immediately clear. If you have a strong preference for certain genres and their tropes, it can save you grief to know whether or not the book you’re about to read fits your expectations.
Conversely, writers must keep genre in mind because of how it influences readers’ experiences and purchasing choices. It also is a necessary tool for booksellers and publishers to be able to organize stories. The first things agents and editors want to know in a query is usually genre and word count.
Now, I know some writers may hiss in derision at the notion of allowing genre to have such power and influence. After all, aren’t we all supposed to write a story as it is rather than trying to make it fit a mold? Yes, in many ways that’s true, and I highly recommend that approach while writing the first draft. However, genre is an inescapable dimension of the publishing industry. When it comes to consecutive drafts, querying publishers or preparing a book for self-publishing, and marketing that book, genre is essential. It is one of the first things a reader usually wants to know about a book.
Be aware of genre, how it influences you as a reader, and how it impacts stories as a writer. It’s much like grammar, an inescapable element of modern fiction, but once you understand the rules, you can then knowingly and wisely break them, fully aware of the potential impact.
Be sure to swing back by on Monday for the next chapter of Diana Gabaldon’s Outlander and more writing tips.