We’re thrilled to have Cathy Yardley return as our guest today!
Cathy Yardley is the author of seventeen traditionally published novels. She is also a developmental editor and writing coach through her website, RockYourWriting.com. Sign up for her free e-course Jumpstart Your Writing Career, and receive helpful hints on pinpointing where you might be stuck – and how to get back on track for a successful fiction-writing career.
Why Genre Matters
I view reading with the same gusto that I view eating.
Genres are my “food moods.” Sometimes, I want the comfort of a keeper read, a funny romantic comedy. Sometimes, I want the caffeinated buzz of a twisty thriller.
I consume it like a glutton at a buffet: a plate full of women’s fiction with a side of cozy mystery, then a helping of literary fiction nestled next to a generous scoop of sci-fi. Finish off with a few petit-fours of Regency romances, chased with a few stiff shots of horror.
(If you’ve ever left the library with more than an armload of books at a time, hopefully you can understand the obsession.)
“What difference does genre make?”
I’ve met quite a few people who feel their work crosses genre – or in some cases, “transcends” it. They don’t want to be pigeon-holed. In a digital world, does it really matter? Do you really need to label your novel?
In my opinion: yes. Yes, you really do.
Why? Because it’s not about you. It’s about your readers.
Your reader wants to find you – and in a digital world, full of information overload, readers are drowning in a sea of options. You want to make it as easy as possible for your reader to narrow down her choices. Genre is the first broad stroke in that attempt.
Here’s an analogy. Let’s say you had a restaurant, one in a row of restaurants. They’ve all got their signs out: D’onofrio’s Fine Italian dining, Los Cabos Mexican eatery, Liberty Bell Philly Cheesesteaks, Pho Sure Vietnamese.
Your sign says: FOOD.
How many people do you think are going to be stopping by?
Perhaps that’s too reductive. Let’s say the name of your restaurant is Oblique.
Your potential diner is curious. He wants to know more about you.
Your menu, however, says something like: Food for the discriminating diner. Evocative notes of summer childhoods, shot through with the sophistication of jazz-filled evenings at a smoke-filled club. More importantly, each meal purchased helps support local wildlife and sustainable farming. No allergy concerns here! Plus, every meal comes with accompanying kid’s sundae!
So… what is it?
The “discriminating diner” bit, paired with the “summer childhoods/jazz club” aspect, makes it seem like it’s going to be fine dining. The local wildlife/sustainable piece makes you wonder: is this a vegan restaurant? No allergy concerns – does that mean gluten free? Nut free? And then free kid’s ice cream? Does that mean the dining area is going to be swarmed with screaming tots under age six?
What the heck is this place?
Odds are good you’re going to keep moseying on down the row. When unsure, especially now, most people tend to steer clear. There are too many other options.
“But genre fiction is so formulaic and boring!”
Yes, genre fiction follows a format. But it’s simply a structure, like a sonnet. Within those constraints, you can create something memorable. In fact, creativity can often flourish because of the constraints.
The reason why so much genre fiction is cliché is because writers don’t study the format and look to enhance it. Consequently, it becomes predictable. Readers can see each twist and turn because, frankly, the author is simply going through the motions, following the playbook without thinking about why the play is there in the first place.
Some authors then decide the only way to be exciting, interesting and relevant is by abandoning the conventions altogether. It’s anything but predictable, true, but it runs the risk of being confusing and disappointing.
When genre works.
The true beauty of genre is to work within the structure, to fulfill the reader’s expectations and natural storytelling rhythms… and yet do so in a way that not only follows the form, but still manages to create true surprise, engagement, and tension in an otherwise jaded audience.
Look at George R.R. Martin. He knew that readers would make the normal genre assumption that the favorite character, the hero, would somehow figure a way out of his troubles by the climax. He then killed off the protagonist, causing a tizzy that readers still talk about. If the protagonist could be killed, all assumptions would be up for grabs. I’d say he still follows the general rules – his series still fits in the genre, and it still largely follows a three act structure, albeit a sprawling one – but he breaks expectations.
In short: it’s not the genre’s fault. Any predictability or boredom is a failure on the part of the author.
“Does that mean I should – or have to – write in strictly one genre to be successful?”
No, of course not. You can write several genres. You can indulge in cross-genre mash ups to your heart’s content. If you really feel strongly about it, you can abandon labeling your work or create some entirely new form.
That said, if you don’t recognize readers’ use and understanding of genre, you may find yourself in for a fairly rough road. And if you can’t respect genre, you may be missing a creative challenge that will raise your writing game immeasurably.
Thoughts on genre? The floor is yours.