Notes from An Alien

~ Explorations In Reading, Writing & Publishing ~

What Is A Genre & Should You Try To Write In One?

“Genre” simply means a kind or type of writing.

Some folks have even criticized the whole concept of genre.

If you look the word up in Wikipedia, you’ll see a questioning of the genre of the very article about genre:

“This article is written like a personal reflection or essay and may require cleanup. Please help improve it by rewriting it in an encyclopedic style.”

Wikipedia supplies a list of genres and there’s a much more extensive one here.

So, do writers sit down and think about all the genres and choose a particular one to create within?

Some do and some do it well. Still, some “genre writers” get stuck in the form and fill it with less than original content.

Many writers say they first meet or create their characters and that helps determine the genre. Yet, a book can begin to be written in one genre and end up turning itself into quite a different genre.

And, to include an edit of this post after it was written and published, one could explore mash-ups, where an idea from one genre gets recreated in a potentially jarring genre. Take a gander at Roz Morris’ post on literary mash-ups!

Sometimes a writer finds a plot first but almost any specific plot can happen in a number of different genres.

Also, you don’t have to look far for arguments against genre-writing by folks who try to compare it with “literary” writing–as if a book written in a particular genre automatically becomes non-literary…

You can also find arguments like:

“…even good genre…is by definition a constrained form of writing. There are conventions and these limit the material…If you are following conventions, then a significant percentage of the thinking and imagining has been taken out of the exercise. Lots of decisions are already made.  So it follows that genre tends to rely on a simpler reader psychology.”

But the article that contains that quote goes on and extols good genre writing.

So the question of whether a writer should try to write in a particular genre could become completely moot.

What matters most is good writing, creative writing; even writing that pushes hard against genres and rules and conventions–steps up to the literary plate and belts one out of the authorial park :-)
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37 responses to “What Is A Genre & Should You Try To Write In One?

  1. Catana February 12, 2011 at 3:22 pm

    Very apt, since I just decided it’s time to settle the nagging question of genre for my current novel. It’s more a matter of helping readers figure out what kind of novel it is than fitting it into a specific genre. It has elements of several genres but doesn’t belong unequivocally in any of them. Whether I like it or not, genre has meaning for readers, so I’m going to be pounding my head against the wall today until I figure it out. At the moment, I seem to have only two choices: refuse to succumb to genre and let the chips fall where they may, or shift the emphasis in one direction or another.


  2. Alexander M Zoltai February 12, 2011 at 3:31 pm

    Well, Catana, instead of banging your head against the wall bang it against this link from the post with the most extensive genre list I’ve ever seen :-)


  3. Catana February 12, 2011 at 3:56 pm

    I looked at the list. It didn’t help. A list is one way to identify a genre you may not have been aware of, which might be helpful in some cases. But if you’re working in a subgenre that readers may not recognize, then all those subgenres are meaningless. And less than meaningfull if the book still doesn’t fit anywhere. Mashups are currently popular, but a book that naturally contains elements of several genres isn’t a mashup.

    What do you do when the story takes place in an alternate universe, but isn’t either fantasy or science fiction? And it’s a psychological study of a power struggle, and also a love story, but the love story doesn’t become apparent until halfway through and it’s not erotica? Not to mention that the characters are men, but it’s not a “gay” story?

    Any ideas? I’m not too proud to take suggestions. In fact, I’m probably going to be blogging about it because readers sometimes come up with amazing insights.


    • Alexander M Zoltai February 12, 2011 at 4:10 pm

      Well, Catana, there really is the mental option of not even worrying what genre the book belongs in. Perhaps you’re creating a meta-genre book–one that soars above any classification?

      My WIP could be easily called science fiction but I don’t think it is. It happens to happen 12 light-years from here but it’s really more of a history. Then, there’s the issue of whether the book is fact or fiction…

      I even created a prologue that deals with that last issue. Here’s a snippet:

      “My name is Sena Quaren and this book is a story of my People—a story told in notes, like a journal or diary; though, at times, it may seem like a novel.

      “This is a tale that spans a large tract of time: from the horrific 500-year war to the immaculate peace—a peace we feel will never falter since we so often stumbled, fell, and rose again on the road we had to create to find that peace.

      “What I say next may or may not be believed but, either way, this story is true—true as fact or true in the way fiction can rise to heights unattainable by mere facts.

      “I am a woman from a star system about twelve light-years from Earth. If you choose to believe me, my story is a history lesson—how to achieve unity and peace—a lesson that Earth desperately needs. If you choose to not believe I’m real, my tale is a science fiction story about how to achieve unity and peace—a lesson that Earth desperately needs…

      “I’ll proceed on the premise that I am real.”


    • cmmarcum February 12, 2011 at 5:15 pm

      I’m just guessing on Catana story–could be wrong–but it sounds like a little bit like a space-opera.


    • Once February 13, 2011 at 8:16 pm

      I had a warm smile on my face, Catana, reading everything you feel your book isn’t in order to determine just what it is. I have that difficulty when choosing tags and categories for a specific poem. I have the feeling we’re all in the same boat when it comes to determine just what anything is these days in consideration of what was so certain and sure in the past. The former president of Egypt certainly found that out in the past twenty days or so. I am still not sure about tags and categories for poems even now. The principle of Occam’s razor might help in simply picking one genre and going for it; the simplest choice with the least number of possibly obscure, new, or even confusing aspects that would ensure the greater attention to actually reading your book. I remember a time not long ago when the cellphone was science fiction to me.


      • Catana February 13, 2011 at 11:57 pm

        Once, I’m still working on that, figuring out what my book isn’t. It might sound silly, but it’s actually been a very useful exercise. By eliminating what it isn’t, I get closer to what it might be. I don’t think there’s such a genre as gay slave romance, but that’s the closest I’ve come so far. And with that focus, I can see areas where I can push the text in that direction without harmng it at all. It won’t be a romance that will fill most reader’s expectations, but it that might be all to the good. Why not broaden the boundaries?


  4. Catana February 12, 2011 at 4:19 pm

    I like the idea of a meta-genre. The question is: even if it soars, will it fly? :-)

    Science fiction that’s more a history. Makes me think of Olaf Stapledon’s Last and First Men. That’s a fascinating book, in its own way, but very hard going.


  5. cmmarcum February 12, 2011 at 4:58 pm

    Viva la difference!

    Some people will tell you that literary fiction can only be a realistic story. I say, ‘Poo-ha-ha.’ Literature is defined by the quality of of the writing. I’ve read many genre stories that catapulted me just as far as any literature, maybe farther.

    As a writer, I do NOT think that one should be concerned about genre, until it’s time to market the work, and that’s all it is–a marketing question of where to put the book on a store shelf, where will it sell best and who will buy it.


    • Alexander M Zoltai February 12, 2011 at 6:36 pm

      C. M., while I agree with you in principle about genre being a shelf-space concern, many folks think that picking the genre for the work before writing it can assure that the writer is really “speaking” to the audience; some folks even saying marketing is more effective if the work is shaped for a particular genre-audience…

      Even though there are successful examples of these things, I feel they can only occur when readers are “educated” in what to expect from certain books–brainwashing may be too strong a term………


  6. Simone Benedict February 12, 2011 at 5:52 pm

    Genre is an interesting topic. As a reader it is helpful to me to know a book’s genre, but I also avoid several genres while seeking out others. What is a genre? Good question!


    • Alexander M Zoltai February 12, 2011 at 6:39 pm


      Certainly, if someone likes a particular genre (like I used to be somewhat stuck in Sci-Fi), they’ll appreciate genre information in making their buying decisions.

      Thing is, that very genre-full searching can lead readers to completely miss other books they may like even better :-)


  7. Catana February 12, 2011 at 6:24 pm

    “I’m just guessing on Catana story–could be wrong–but it sounds like a little bit like a space-opera.” I have to laugh. Not at you, of course. I just didn’t give enough information to eliminate that possibility. Not remotely space-opera. It’s more like a contemporary character-driven novel, but set in a slightly different universe. In fact, I’ve finally decided that it doesn’t fit science fiction at all. Except that it allows slavery, the setting is almost irrelevant. I’m moving toward gay slave romance, though that has its own problems. I’m just glad that Smashwords allows tags and extended descriptions.

    Simone, you’ve pinpointed why I need to figure it out. If a novel’s genre isn’t chosen wisely, the reader will overlook something they might have enjoyed.


  8. Alexander M Zoltai February 12, 2011 at 6:43 pm

    This is one of the top reasons I *love* blogging!

    This fascinating discussion folks generate :-)


  9. Simone Benedict February 12, 2011 at 7:03 pm

    I love cmmarcum’s idea for a genre, space opera!

    There are times when certain genre books make their way into the literature section in bookstores. Typically, they are the older works that have stood the test of time.

    Although several authors come to mind, I definitely think of Ann Rice in this discussion. I’ve never been able to get into her books because of the vampire/fantasy writing. That’s merely personal preference in my own reading. However, a few years ago when she wrote something different, I enjoyed it immensely. That makes me think how well-established a writer is also determines a book consumer’s choices.


    • Alexander M Zoltai February 12, 2011 at 7:24 pm

      “…how well-established a writer is also determines a book consumer’s choices.”

      Been very true for a long time but I’ve been reading lots about this here digital-book-revolution and some o’ them new big-shots are predictin’ that the content and reader reviews will be the new drivin’ force for sales……………………….


      • Simone Benedict February 12, 2011 at 8:24 pm

        The revolution will be interesting to watch. As a reader, I do see where I have prejudices in my habits to overcome. Perhaps the revolution will change some of that.


      • cmmarcum February 14, 2011 at 3:36 pm

        Now, here is a really important discussion. In the past the costs of producing and distributing a hard copy caused publishers to ‘book’ their money on big names. The rules are changing. Important steps for the modern writer:
        1. Blog
        2. Publication in existing online magazines, which–at the moment–are short stories, poems and prose.

        But what is step three????


        • Alexander M Zoltai February 14, 2011 at 3:46 pm


          I’d add a 1b: comment on other blogs.
          1c: guest post
          1d: blog tour

          and, I guess step three would be: Facebook and Twitter activities.

          Step 4 might be doing things off-line that help folks look online……


  10. Catana February 12, 2011 at 7:42 pm

    “I love cmmarcum’s idea for a genre, space opera!”

    Simone, I don’t want to take any credit away from someone else, but space opera is a long-established subgenre of science fiction. Now why does that make me think you’re not an SF fan? :-)

    I do like Rice’s vampire fiction, though it varies in quality. But my favorite of her books is Cry to Heaven, a historical novel about the castrati.


    • Simone Benedict February 12, 2011 at 8:35 pm

      Yes, Catana, I apologize that was my feeble attempt to make a point. The subgenre of space opera should become a genre.

      I’ll have to admit I’ve only read one of Rice’s non-vampire books. I still respect her as an author and see her use of social media and marketing as astounding.


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  12. Once February 14, 2011 at 1:23 am

    Catana, I suppose, when it comes down to it, it’s part of the “fun” built in to creativity, that the novel or the play, the poem is yours and yours, alone! There is something wonderful about the idea that something in this world is yours to name, yours to classify, yours to do whatever you want with it. One cannot compare the process with having a baby, but there is something to be said for that moment when a mother or a father gets to that point when someone asks, “What name have you chosen?” So, while there may be marketing and publishing considerations to think about when it comes to your work, still, when the moment of choice comes around, it’s yours to call.


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  24. Roz Morris @Roz_Morris March 30, 2018 at 5:47 pm

    Yay! Thanks for adding me to your essay!


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