[Guest Post]: Choosing your genre–or Letting Your Genre Choose You

 

Jennifer Willis ValhallaSome writers can write anything. They’ll decide one day to sit down and bang out a Western — because they’ve never written a Western before — and POW! They’ve done it.

Okay, I don’t know too many people like that — any, really — but I know lots of writers who think of themselves that way.

But it’s not so easy to just pick a genre and immediately start writing. Even if the genre you choose is one you read regularly, it might not be the best fit for you as a writer. For instance, I know a writer who just eats up mystery thrillers and romance novels, but what she writes are stories of magic and lore.

I’d never heard of “urban fantasy” when I started writing, so I had no idea how to classify my work. My stories were weird and funny, with a decidedly paranormal bent. But when people asked me what kind of tales I wrote, I had to give the synopsis of each manuscript in question rather than just being able to point to a known genre.

I’m not sure exactly when I heard the words “urban fantasy” for the first time, but it was a revelation. Instantly, I knew where I fit. Witches, wizards, ghosts, vampires, old Norse gods, all doing their thing in a modern, real-world setting. Yep. That works.

I started shopping around my urban fantasy manuscript, Valhalla, and was thrilled to have some early interest from agents. But I was stunned by the feedback I was getting. It went something like this: “This is really good! But it’s reading as Young Adult. Can you make some changes so this fits more firmly in this genre?”

Young Adult? But there was no way my manuscript was YA.

I admit now that my immediate — and negative — reaction was rooted largely in the fact that I didn’t really understand what “Young Adult” meant. I’d assumed the agent was talking about children’s books, or at best mid-grade fiction. I didn’t know how the age groups broke down into different categories — nor what they were called — and so I had unintentionally been lumping them all together.

I went to an author friend (and neighbor) of mine, David Ward. He took a look over the first few chapters and said, “Yes, this is definitely Young Adult.” He must have read the look of confusion and dismay on my face, because he then elaborated for me: “Teenagers. High school kids, and into college. That’s who this is written for.”

Relief washed over me. I’d been afraid I was being asked to write for eight-year-olds — something I have no clue how to do. Teenagers I could write for. Those years were some of the hardest and most brilliant of my life, and I often find my thoughts straying to that period.

I thought about some of the movies I enjoyed most — “Night at the Museum” comes immediately to mind, as well as action-adventure comedies — and I knew I had a firmer handle on the genre than I’d realized. I don’t like writing about deep psychological trauma, complicated political maneuverings, or horrific violence. My fiction is quirky and punchy, tinged appropriately with darkness and angst, and generally quite “clean.”

So I went to work on rewriting Valhalla as a YA title. The biggest change I made was in the character of Sally. If you can believe it, she was originally written as a middle-aged church secretary, but once I re-imagined her as a sixteen-year-old solitary witch, everything else fell into place around her. There’s definitely a strong cross-over between YA and mainstream, so I have about as many adults as teenagers reading Valhalla right now, and I have no complaints about that.

My genre most definitely chose me. I’d previously tried action-adventure, historical drama, horror, and romantic drama, but YA urban fantasy was what reached out to claim me. While I did have to spend some time learning about — and making peace with — what YA means, I’ve found that if I write to entertain myself and strive to keep both the story and the writing process appealing and interesting to me, this is what comes out.

If you’re trying to figure out where your own writing fits, my advice is to let your material choose your genre, rather than the other way around. It is helpful to write with a particular audience or “ideal reader” in mind, but instead of using of formula for what you hope will be a guaranteed best-seller in this or that trendy genre, take a hard look instead at what you’re producing when you’re writing in your strongest and most authentic voice.

About the Author:

Jennifer Willis AuthorJennifer Willis is an author, essayist, and journalist in Portland, Oregon. In her non-fiction work, she specializes in topics related to sustainability, spirituality/religion, history, and health. Her articles have appeared in The Oregonian, The Christian Science Monitor, Salon.com, The Portland Tribune, The Writer, Ancestry Magazine, Aish.com, Skirt!, InterfaithFamily.com, Vegetarian Times, Spirituality & Health, and other print and online publications at home and across the globe.

In fiction, she focuses on urban fantasy and playful mayhem. Her new ebook, Valhalla, is available at Amazon, Barnes & Noble, and Goodreads.

Comments

  1. I love the cover for the book. It stands out and grabs attention.

    I read mostly horror and classics. I read some YA books (which is the genre I think (broadly) fits the book I’m working on).

    Looks interesting

  2. As a long time “Old Adult” 🙁 reader of Fantasy and Science fiction it has struck me how many of the books I picked up and enjoyed over the last year or so are officially classified as Young Adult. I don’t really know what it means and I guess I don’t care as long as I enjoy the stories. Admittedly the awful awful teenage Vampire phenomenon has soured the YA genre for many but if you discount literature written for hormonal teenage girls there is quite a bit a interesting fiction coming under the label of YA.

    In some ways F&SF appeals to that part of me which never grew up so YA fiction is entirely appropriate but I would hate to see the supply of more mature F&SF dry up if everybody jumps on the YA bandwagon. I want at least some of the books I read to have more developed adult characters and all the complexity that allows.

  3. mbp: That’s been one of my challenges in writing for Young Adult. I, too, read a lot of what could easily be classified either as YA or mainstream (adult), and I expect that some of my future books will skirt this line by being focused on more “grown-up” characters.

  4. Oh, Jennifer, I feel your pain trying to get the genre thing straight. Years ago I pitched a novel about a smart-mouthed zombie reporter. The agent just gave me a blank stare and said, “How the hell am I supposed to classify that to marketing?” LOL I was so naive!

    Valhalla sounds like a ton of fun!

  5. prenden2

    Congratulations on having the dedication to finish such a mammoth undertaking!

    I like how you described your work as “weird and funny;” that seems right up my alley as a decidedly-weird, and self-titled funny guy.

    I know that I probably sound like a broken record when I say this (I’m constantly evangelizing the guy) but Dan Simmons is a prime candidate for the type of author you mention in the first paragraph. He’ll sashay from Space Opera (Endymion) to historical fiction (The Terror, Drood); he’ll jump from Proust tribute (Ilium) to horror (Carrion Comfort); and he’ll most definitely follow hardboiled fiction (The Joe Kurtz novels) with an ode to the lost Indian tribes (Black Hills). Oh, and I must mention his magnum opus, Hyperion, a tribute to The Canterbury Tales, featuring 6 completely different novellas in one gigantic tome.

  6. Congratulations to Austin James for winning the ebook of VALHALLA!

    Thank you all for reading and entering. And a big thanks to Jennifer for providing the book and the post!

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