How to Determine Your WIP's Genre

Photo credit: Send me adrift. on Flickr
Oftentimes, I’ve seen agents talk about receiving queries for manuscripts pitched with three or more genres, which is a problem because it shows that the writer isn’t really sure what the genre is.  

Determining your genre can, at times, be tricky, especially if your WIP has crossover elements (that is, elements that would appeal to other genres or categories). But long before you begin querying, it’s very important that you have a solid grasp on what your WIP’s genre and category are.

That being said, here are some steps to take when determining your manuscript’s genre and category.

  1. Understand the difference between genre and category. Genre and category are not words that can be used interchangeably—they refer to two very different categorical labels.

    A book’s genre refers to the type of subject matter, that is, Fantasy, Contemporary, Adventure, Thriller, Horror, Sci-Fi, etc. Within a genre there are sub genres—Paranormal Fantasy, Urban Fantasy, Space Opera, Dystopia, Steampunk, etc.

    The category, on the other hand, refers to the age group, such as Picture Book, Middle Grade, Young Adult, New Adult and Adult. Within each category is a wide range of genre possibilities—Middle Grade Adventure, Young Adult Sci-Fi, New Adult Paranormal, Adult Thriller, etc. For your WIP’s purposes, you’ll want to know the category and genre (or subgenre, if applicable). One of each. There’s no such thing as a Middle Grade Young Adult Adventure Contemporary Romance Fantasy. Got it? Ok.

    For a slightly more detailed look at category vs. genre, take a look at this post.

  2. Narrow down to whatever genres you think your WIP might be. If you’re going through this process, it’s because you’re not entirely sure what genre or category fits your book best. That’s ok, like I said, it can be tricky sometimes. Write down whatever genres and/or categories you think may fit your book, then move on to the next step. 

  3. Get to know those genres/research. This is the step that will take the longest. The only way to really determine what genre best fits your manuscript is to get to know those genres. Read books in the genres you’re considering, get to know the tropes that exist within the genres and do some research online. Read, research, repeat until you’re comfortable with the genres. 

  4. Ask yourself, “Which genre is closest to my manuscript?” Now this, to me, is the trickiest step. The thing is, there’s a lot of variety within every genre. For example, the Twilight series is extraordinarily different from The Coldest Girl in Coldtown, even though both are YA Paranormal dealing with vampires—and both are markedly different from Ink, which is still Paranormal but doesn’t have any vampires at all. Matched is not the same as The Hunger Games even though both are YA Dystopias and Across the Universe is very different from The 5th Wave even though both are YA Sci-Fi.

    The key is not to look at every element your WIP has. Just because there’s romance doesn’t mean you’ve written a Romance novel, and just because you’ve written a futuristic Sci-Fi novel doesn’t mean you’ve written a Dystopia.

    What you want to focus on is what the main elements of your WIP are and decide what genre best embodies those elements. The Shatter Me series, for example, has many paranormal elements, but the prevailing main element is fighting the oppressive Reestablishment, which is a dystopian-type government in a very dystopian setting, and thus is mainly categorized as a Dystopian novel. The Mortal Instruments series has vampires, werewolves, fairies, etc. but is categorized as Urban Fantasy because of it’s very urban NYC-setting. Across the Universe has a heavy mystery element, but is categorized as Sci-Fi because the main elements involve a spaceship and technological advances like long-term space travel and cryogenics. 

If your WIP has crossover appeal, that’s definitely not a bad thing, but it’s not an excuse to slap three or four genres on your manuscript, either. Choose the category and genre that fits your manuscript best and let your book (and the summary of your book) reveal the rest.

Have you had difficulty determining a category or genre for your manuscript or a book you’ve read? How did you figure it out? 

Twitter-sized bites: 
“If your WIP has crossover appeal…it’s not an excuse to slap three or four genres on your MS…” (Click to tweet)  
Struggling to determine your WIP’s category or genre? Writer @Ava_Jae shares four steps to figuring out your genre. (Click to tweet


RoweMatthew said...

I specifically set out to break genres so my genre descriptions are normally long and multifaceted. I don't want them to lose their individuality.

Ava Jae said...

Hmm...I would argue that you don't lose individuality from categorizing your work into a genre/subgenre—they're more set in place for purposes of marketing and shelving, and so readers know some of what to expect when picking up your book.

Ava Jae said...

Ok, I understand that. I think on the other hand, however, by classifying your work as Urban Fantasy, you may also attract readers who really love UF. So while you may lose readers who think "I don't like Urban Fantasy" (and to be honest, I tend to think that's their loss then, for not being willing to try something new), you may also gain some enthusiastic readers who love the genre. No?

RoweMatthew said...

True, but it's urban fantasy only in the sense that it's not real and it's set in a city. I think Urban Fabtasy fans may actually be put off if they pick up my book expecting the usual fair.

Ava Jae said...

Well...yes and no. I tend to think, like I said in the post, that because there's so much variety within a single genre (or even subgenre), that people don't usually make sweeping generalizations about what your book is going to be like. If it's Urban Fantasy, for example, they'll expect some sort of fantasy element (whether it's elves, fairies, trolls, mages, or something else entirely) with a city setting. Otherwise, the sky's the limit. If there's humor, awesome. If there's an element that could be Sci-Fi-ish, great. Genre isn't really about putting restrictions on something as it is about loosely categorizing a book so people know some of what to expect with your main elements. What do you think?

RoweMatthew said...

Maybe your right, I don't actually talk to many people about their expectations for books they pick but I would expect the opposite: people want a certain something and are disappointed if they don't get it. I've had a number of reviews to that extent

Ava Jae said...

I think that's why it's important to really understand the genres that you'd potentially be publishing in—so you understand what the expectations are and whether your work would meet them or if you'd even want your book to meet them.

Medvekoma said...

The thing that helped me the most with my current project was asking myself: "On which shelf, beside which books can I imagine mine inside a library?"

Ava Jae said...

That's a great way of figuring it out. Thinking of other books that could compare to yours can be very helpful.

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Elizabeth Foster said...

I guess my ms would be categorised as YA fantasy but it is light fantasy rather than epic, and with a heavy mystery element. I was thinking of pitching it as part mystery/part fantasy, but based on your tips, perhaps that will just be confusing. Tricky.

Ava Jae said...

You can definitely just say YA Fantasy. Fantasies aren't assumed to be epic fantasies unless you say so. :)

MK said...

So happy to have found your genre post, I knew you'd have one! You're the best.

When you have a chance, I have 2 questions for you:

1. My first manuscript I was querying as "YA mystery infused with history, romance, and magical realism". Now I've stopped querying to rewrite yet again, so when I start querying again, you think it's best to just shop around as "YA mystery" and done?

2. As I rewrite, a shiny new idea is bouncing around in my head. I'm thinking it will take place in a world with queens and kings and peasants and villagers, like in a medieval world, but I don't want to do historical fiction because I want to completely make up all the characters and events. But I don't foresee there being magic of any kind in this. What category would this be? Does fantasy have to include magic? Can it be a completely made up world with the same rules of earth and still be fantasy? Everything I've read that takes place in a made-up world includes magic, I think...

Thanks in advance for any input!

Ava Jae said...

Thanks, MK!

1. Yes. lol

2. IMO, this still sounds like fantasy to me...I think. Or it might be an alternate depends on your world. If it's basically Earth with a different timeline, then I'm not sure, but if it's a completely made up world with made up places and made up history, then I think it'd still be fantasy. I'm trying to think of some comparable novels...but nothing's coming to mind right now. But I do think that would still qualify as fantasy.

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