Genre, please?

For writers beginning their querying career, one of the key questions you will be asked is this: what genre is your book in? However, as you may surmise, that’s a rather loaded question.

Perhaps your tale takes place both on Earth and in another medieval world, features new mythical creatures, and your protagonist is at the wonky age of 19. How on earth do you categorize this? High fantasy? Urban fantasy? New adult? Adult?

First, let’s start with a few definitions.

Genre vs. Category

Genre is a classification system to help readers easily identify novels that are written in a particular style, on certain topics, with a specific set of characters. Did I lose you there? Genres are those overarching terms that you see in the bookstores above the bookshelves: adventure, romance, fantasy, science fiction, historical fiction, and so on.

Category, on the other hand, is really just the age group of the intended readership. This is a critical marketing tool so you know who your readers are.

Category: At Its Simplest

One of the easiest ways to determine the category of your book is to look at the age of your protagonist. Depending on their age will depend on some of the life issues they will face. It will also affect their personality, how they view the world, etc., which (in turn) will impact what readers are interested in learning more about this character.

I simply adore the way that Susan Brooks describes this in “The Importance of Genre Specific – Part One”: “… kids read up (they want to read about slightly older kids), and the themes and topics of the book will shift depending upon the age of the target audience.”

You will hear some differing opinions on exact ages for each of the varying categories. But, to simplify things, categories are typically broken down as follows:

Picture Book:

  • Ages 3-8
  • Ideal word count range: 500-600 words (aim for less than 1,000)
  • According to Writer’s Digest, the “standard is text for 32 pages”

Chapter Book:

  • Ages 6-10
  • Ideal word count range: this differs depending on who you ask. However, I have been told from varying sources that 2,000-5,000 and 4,000-10,000 words are a good range (*depending on the age).

Middle Grade:

  • Ages 8-12
  • Ideal word count range: 20,000-55,000 words

YA (Young Adult):

  • Ages 12+ or 14+ (*depending on who you ask)
  • Ideal word count range: 55,000-69,999 words

NA (New Adult):

  • Ages 18-25
  • Ideal word count range: In general, this should follow the same guidelines as adult (which varies by genre). However, a very general word count range that would be acceptable is 80,000-90,000 words.

Adult Fiction:

  • Ages 18+ (this overlaps somewhat with NA)
  • Word count depends on genre* (check out my previous blog on word count)

So, what does all of this mean? Well, typically readers like to read about characters their age or a little bit older. Therefore—and especially if you’re writing for younger readers—you will want to select your category and word count based on the age of your protagonist (or the other way around).

As a literary intern at Corvisiero Literary Agency, I have found that the number one reason a submission is rejected is word count. If, for example, you write a YA novel that’s 100,000+ words, agents will (almost always) automatically reject this submission, as it significantly exceeds the word count expectation for this age category. In addition, not clearly identifying an appropriate age group (category) and genre often leads to a swift rejection. How do you avoid this? Know how to market your story.

Breaking Down the Genres

There are countless genres and subgenres any book can be broken down and categorized into, but the following list identifies some of the most commonly seen genres in literature.

Fantasy

  • Genre: Fiction that takes places in an otherworldly setting and can have/has otherworldly characters
  • Word count: Unlike the rest of fictional books, the word count for fantasy tends to run a little bit longer. According to Writer’s Digest, an excellent range is 90,000-115,000 words.

Historical Fiction

  • Genre: A story that follows the tale of fictional characters in a historical setting.
  • Word count: Aim for 80,000-89,000 words.

Horror

  • Genre: A fictitious story that evokes fear and dread in both the characters and in the reader.
  • Word count: Aim for 80,000-89,000 words.

Literary Fiction vs. Commercial Fiction

  • Genre: Commercial fiction is written with the sole intent of reaching the widest audience possible (example: Obsidian Butterfly by Laurell K. Hamilton). On the other hand, style and technique are as important as (or even valued above) subject matter in literary fiction (example: Moon Tiger by Penelope Lively).
  • Word count: Aim for 80,000-89,000 words.

Magical Realism

  • Genre: According to the Oxford dictionary definition, magical realism (or magic realism) is a “literary or artistic genre in which realistic narrative and naturalistic technique are combined with surreal elements of dream or fantasy.” (Think One Hundred Years of Solitude by Gabriel García Márquez.)
  • Word count: Aim for 80,000-89,000 words.

Mystery

  • Genre: According to Writer’s Digest University, mystery can be defined as “a form of narration in which one or more elements remain unknown or unexplained until the end of the story.”
  • Word count: Aim for 80,000-89,000 words.

Non-Fiction

  • Genre: A story based on real people and events that is written in novel form.
  • Word count: Writer’s Digest says that a memoir should aim for 80,000-89,000 words, like that of any other novel. However, other sources say that non-fiction, generally, should be 70,000-110,000 words.
  • *Note: Most agencies want a full proposal (including a sample chapter) for non-fiction submissions (rather than full, completed, polished manuscripts—as is expected for fiction).

Romance

  • Genre: A story that follows the romantic relationship between two people, wherein romance is the overriding element of the story. Typically, the man meets the woman (or man meets man/woman meets woman) and they fall in love. They then encounter a conflict that hinders their relationship from blossoming, and the conflict is eventually resolved at the end of the story and the two end up together.
  • Word count: Aim for 80,000-89,000 words. However, some sources, such as Harlequin, make mention of stories as short as 55,000 words being acceptable. For mainstream novels, I would try to stay within the 70,000-100,000 range.

Science Fiction

  • Genre: According to Writer’s Digest University, science fiction is “literature involving elements of science and technology as a basis for conflict, or as the setting for a story.”
  • Word count: Unlike the rest of fictional books, the word count for science fiction (and fantasy) tends to run a little bit longer. According to Writer’s Digest, the ideal range is 100,000-115,000 words.

 

Thriller

  • Genre: A story that is driven by suspense, which can focus on things such as illegal activities, international espionage, and so on. Think: a kill-or-be-killed situation.
  • Word count: Aim for 80,000-89,000 words.

Western

  • Genre: This tale is typically set in the late 1700s-1800s in the American Old West frontier.
  • Word count: Aim for 50,000-80,000 words.

As I mentioned briefly above, when you submit your work to agents and begin the querying process, make sure your book is good and ready. Agents expect your fiction manuscripts to be polished. What does ‘polished’ mean? Edited, workshopped, and glorious works of art that have been worked through hundreds of time until it gleams. I know finishing draft one of your manuscript is a very exciting moment, but—whatever you do—don’t start sending queries to agents just yet. Let your work settle, edit it, get some other eyeballs on it, and then consider submitting your work.

What to Do If Your Book is Mixed Genre

This is another one of those huge “oopsies” I see in queries—writers tend to categorize their manuscripts as a paranormal thriller or fantasy romance. However, when you pick a genre for your manuscript, you must pick only one.

For my creative genre-benders whose writing cross over multiple genres, pick one primary genre, such as romance or thriller, and say “with elements of [secondary genre].” Ideally, you should have only one secondary genre (two at most).

To learn more, check out the following links:

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Meg LaTorre-Snyder- starting your novelMeg LaTorre-Snyder is the editor of a magazine and has a background in journalism, medical writing, and website creation. She has written for online publications and local newspapers on a variety of topics, including nutrition, healthy living, startup companies, and local politics. She has authored an adult fantasy manuscript and is working on several other manuscripts. In her free time, she enjoys reading long novels, drinking tea by the bucket, participating in musical productions, playing basketball, and reading nutrition textbooks. To learn more about Meg, visit her website or follow her on Twitter.

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