Writing a Novel #2 : Choosing a Genre

What do I write?

You’ve got your space all set up, or you know where you’re going to go to write. You’ve got your supplies. You sit down and you look at the blank page…and you blank. What do you write?

This is the first big challenge. A lot of people claim they want to write, but when it comes to actually doing the work, they back off. They don’t have a clue where to start or what to write. The blank page, whether paper or a computer screen, can be intimidating.

One of the first things you need to figure out is what genre you want to write in. There several major genres and dozens of subgenres to choose from. Let’s start with some of the main ones (Note: since I’m talking novels, I’m talking strictly fiction here)(second note: this is by no means a comprehensive list):

  •  Adventure (aka Action-Adventure) – these are stories where the main character does something risky in order to obtain something. Examples include Indiana Jones, Die Hard, Jackie Chan
  • Comedy – something inane, lighthearted, witty, designed to make the reader chuckle. Examples: Marx Brothers, Lucille Ball, Jackie Chan (an example of a combination of two or more genres)
  • Fantasy – contains magic and/or supernatural beings/devices. It is magic based and not technology based. Dragons, sword and sorcery, witches, etc. Harry Potter, Lord of the Rings, etc. (C.S. Lewis, J.R.R. Tolkien, J.K. Rowling)
  • Horror – a story meant to shock or scare the reader. Anything by Stephen King fits this genre, but the father of all is Edgar Allen Poe. Also check out Mary Shelley, Dean Koontz, Anne Rice.
  • Mystery – focuses on a problem, usually a murder, to be solved. Includes many subgenres like true crime, crime and cozies. Agatha Christie books, James Patterson, Mary Higgins Clark, Perry Mason, Carl Hiaason, Elmore Leonard – all good mystery writers.
  • Romance – a story about the relationship between two main characters. Though romances run the gamut of subgenres (romantic suspense(mystery), futuristic romance, paranormal(fantasy), sweet, snarky, etc.) the main focus of the story is the development of the relationship and not the underlying genre. Norah Roberts, Susan Wiggs, Katie MacAllister, Kathleen Woodiwiss, Beatrice Small and more.
  • Science fiction – uses technology. If there is no science, there can be no science fiction. You might have a dragon – but you’d better have a plausible, science-based reason for it being in your world. It can include apocalyptic, post-apocalyptic, dystopian, alternate history, alternate universes, aliens, genetics, plagues, military, social science fiction (concerned less with technology and more with society – think 1984), space opera, cyber-punk, steampunk and more. Examples: Star Wars, Avatar, Wild Wild West, Star Trek, Firefly
  • Thriller – usually something that involves spies, espionage, dark crimes, disasters, etc. where there is a constant sense of impending doom or physical threats. Silence of the Lambs can fit this as well as any Tom Clancy book, Ludlum’s Bourne series, etc.
  • Western – any story set in the American west, usually involves ranches, cowboys and girls. Authors include Zane Grey, Louis Lamour.
  • Literary (also known to some as “Women’s Fiction” – though I might argue with this) – usually have strong female protagonists (heroines) overcoming personal issues. Not always with a happy ever after ending. Authors include Fannie Flagg, Nicholas Sparks, Anne Rivers Siddons, and more.

Each of these can be combined with each other or with other sub-genres to make dozens of different types of stories.

For instance, in mystery, you can have cozy mystery (think Murder She Wrote) where there is a body (or two, but rarely more), an amateur detective (someone who is not a cop/detective/etc.), and a mystery to be solved. There is rarely gore or violence. They are light, quick reads. On the other hand, a straight crime mystery usually has a professional detective or cop as a lead character, the possibility of multiple bodies, violence, gore. They are edgier and darker than a cozy. Both of these can be set in contemporary times, but they can also be combined with science fiction for a futuristic mystery, or placed in a past century for a historical mystery. Or they can be westerns, or psychological, or urban…you get the idea.

Action/adventure can be science fiction in nature (Terminator movies). Urban fantasy takes place in the here and now. You can pick any one or combination of them to write what you want – just be forewarned that not all sub-genres will sell well so if you want to write something marketable, keep this in mind.

Most writers tend to write in the genre which they read the most in. And you’d better be reading! So what do you love? What kinds of books take up the most space on your shelves (or in your electronic reading device)? That will probably be the genre you are most comfortable writing in.

Homework for this week:

Decide on a genre and make notes on what is needed for that particular area.

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