The Importance of Genre

  • Guest post by novelist/journalist and member Christina Hoag

One of those writing clichés tells aspiring authors to “write the book you want to read.” That may be true, but make sure your book fits into an accepted genre or no one else will read it.

As I was writing my noir crime novel Skin of Tattoos, I never gave a thought as to what kind of a book it would be, as in what genre it fell into. After all, a good story is a good story, right? Not quite. As I painfully discovered, genre is critical. It is how publishers market your book. If your book doesn’t fit neatly into a category, ie. which shelf to put it on in the bookstore, they don’t know how to sell it and guess what, they won’t buy it.

Luckily, genre didn’t seem to matter in getting a literary agent. After much querying I landed an agent who loved the book, but then she had to figure out how to pitch it to publishers. Was it noir, which tells an inside crime story from the point of view of the criminal, when the main character goes from the rock to the hard place? Well, yes. My novel is set in the Los Angeles gang underworld and is told in first-person by a gang member protagonist who gets deeper and deeper into bad shit.

Or was the book a thriller, which involves escalating tension between two characters as they battle over high stakes? That also applied to my book as Mags, the narrator, is in an ego-driven power and revenge struggle with his rival homeboy Rico to be the gang shotcaller.

Then there was my style. Amid the gang slang, Spanish phrases and occasional profanity, there was a lot of lyrical prose—not the usual style for a thriller, plus Mags has a character arc, albeit downward through epiphanies and great crashes of realization about his lifestyle. In thrillers, the main character is generally static. It’s all about the plot.

After much back and forth, the agent ended up describing the book as a “literary thriller” and out the door it went. The rejections rolled in. There was high praise for the voice, story elements, originality, but the most pervasive comment was “who would be the audience for this book?” In other words, “literary thriller” wasn’t cutting it. There was no such shelf in Barnes & Noble.

My agent consoled me, saying the rejections were based on “business decisions,” which was much better than having the book rejected for story reasons. Still, I quickly realized that my book was too different, too original. I lamented that to my agent, who responded “publishers do want original stuff, but at the same time they want the same stuff. The same, but different.” Frankly, not very helpful.

Eventually, she ran out of places to submit and I got my manuscript back, but I wasn’t giving up on it. Top publishing editors had said it was a good book. I just needed to find someone to take a chance on it. And while I wished I’d known more about genre and worked the plot to emphasize angles that would’ve made it a better genre fit – more of a cat-and-mouse thriller or an outright crime story that revolved around the commission of one big crime, I’d already spent several years on the manuscript. I wasn’t about to rework the whole thing. Instead, I revised it, cutting about 13,000 words, including stuff that the agent had me add and that I now saw went nowhere.

I sent the tightened version to small publishers that accepted unagented submissions. The same thing happened. It was praised, but didn’t fit their lists. I started to despair then a small press, Martin Brown Publishing, offered me a contract on it. Skin of Tattoos finally was released in August 2016 and was well received. Several readers told me the book is “unlike anything I’ve read before.” I take that as a compliment. Unfortunately, the mainstream publishing industry doesn’t.

The genre issue with my second novel, a YA called Girl on the Brink, was an easier solve. I was calling it a “contemporary romance,” but it’s not a romance because it’s about teen dating violence and does not have a HEA (happy-ever-after ending in romance parlance) in that the boy and girl don’t end up together. (She ends up very happy to be by herself, thank you very much.) But then I discovered my book did have a YA category: “contemporary social issues.” Done! And I will say that book has been much easier to promote and market than Skin of Tattoos, although I think SOT is the better book. Sigh. But I learned my lesson. Now with my third novel, I’m sticking to the YA contemporary genre with a story that also involves a social issue. Same but different.

So think about your genre as you sit down to write. It can mean the difference between a book staying in the drawer or landing on the shelf.

Christina Hoag is the author of two novels, Skin of Tattoos (Martin Brown, 2016), finalist for the Silver Falchion Award for suspense, Girl on the Brink (Fire & Ice YA, 2016), named to Suspense Magazine’s Best YA list, and co-author of the nonfiction book Peace in the Hood: Working with Gang Members to End the Violence (Turner, 2014). A former journalist for the Miami Herald and Associated Press, she reported from Latin America for Time, Business Week, Financial Times and the New York Times, among other media. She’s been a member of theOffice for 3 months.