Crossing The Line: What happens when you don’t fit neatly into one genre?
OK, it’s a story that has robots, mutant monsters, gunslingers, wizards, demons, giants and witches. It happens in a post-apocalyptic world neighboring our own which is accessed by a number of portals and gateways including the ultimate gateway; death. There’s time travel, Beatles music, psychic stand-offs, six-shooters, sorcery and action galore. Oh, and did I mention that the Emerald City of OZ makes a guest appearance? So you tell me – what genre does this fall into? Can I muddy the waters a little more and mention that the writer is renowned “horror” author Stephen King?
If you haven’t guessed it by now, the work described above is King’s Magnum Opus, his seven (soon to be eight) volume Dark Tower Series. This is just one of many works in our ever expanding literary universe that fails to fall neatly into one genre category. And to be honest… I love it.
As a writer, I sometimes find that my own work is a little hard to pin down to one specific genre, especially when I am trying to describe it to someone, query an agent, or post it in an eBook outlet. The best I have come up with is “speculative thriller”, but I wonder if I am doing the work justice or potentially shooting myself in the audience-grabbing foot.
Name any literary genre and you probably have specific images come to the forefront of your mind. Horror = blood, fangs, monsters and things that go bump in the night; Sci-fi = Space Ships, laser guns and aliens of every shape and size; Thriller = Lawyers, spies, evil corporations and plenty of twists and turns for our every-man or every-woman hero. If you dive down into the sub-genres, you get even more specific and, dare I say, more pigeon-holed; Sword and Sorcery, Gothic Fiction, Steampunk etc.
As an author, you want to find your audience by quickly indentifying your work in the market-place by genre. On the other hand, you don’t want to alienate potential readers who may overlook your work because they don’t identify themselves as “that kind” of reader, nor do you want to displease readers by luring them into your book under false genre pretenses. So I pose the following questions; 1) How do you accurately determine the genre (or genres) that your story, novella or novel fits into, and 2) How do you describe it if it fails to step in line with any one particular genre or another.
As a case study, I offer up my most recent novel ONE WAY (available on Podiobooks, iTunes and wherever fine eBooks are sold). Here’s a breakdown of the plot:
ONE WAY follows Barry and Jenny Griffith on the night of his would-be murder as they try to escape not only two serial killers, but destiny itself. It also alternates timelines to follow a newly widowed Jenny Griffith from the morning she learns of her husband’s murder through her journey of learning how to cope with the death of her true love. Along the way she meets a demure grief counselor who teaches her how to slip the bonds of time and “chrono-locate” back to the dark night her husband was taken from her. Will she be able to stop of pair of serial killers bent on torturing and murdering on the highways late at night, or is the past unchangeable?
So we have time travel, romance, and heart-pounding chases from demented killers. How would you classify this based on this brief description? (No, seriously, I am looking for suggestions here).
Let’s start with the time travel, a classic science fiction trope dating back to the H.G. Wells and beyond. Although I would say that this story happens within a window of four years of our “modern time”, so people expecting to see a bright, floating-car laden city or travel back to the old west and beyond will be disappointed. Other than the time travel this book bears no resemblance to its laser gun wielding, hyper-space jumping cousins in that genre. Would I be leading people astray to put it on the sci-fi shelf?
How about horror? Serial killers, chases through the snowy Maine woods (like King, I am a “Mainer” myself), knives, guns and plenty of blood to spray around would certainly put one foot into that dark, cold literary landscape, right? But no monsters, vampires, hockey masks or other familiar symbols of the genre show up. Not to mention this one is admittedly a little “soft-core” by some standards and may not satisfy the bloodlust of some horror fans. Beginning to see my conundrum?
Let’s try one more; romance. A loving wife goes through hell and back to be reunited with her husband in an attempt to change his fate so they may be live a long, love-filled life together. I certainly added enough mushiness and lovey-dovey stuff to convey a love story. However, there is no bodice ripping, love-making by roaring fires or rose petals to be sure. Plus, not many guys I know would openly peruse the romance rack at a book store (bricks & mortar or on-line).
Soooooooo… What do you think? I would really like to hear from readers and writers alike on how important genre categorization is to you and whether you think all this “line crossing” is a help or hindrance to a writer trying to market their work. In the mean-time, I think I am going to stick with “Speculative thriller about a woman who travels back in time to save her husband from serial killers” and see how far that gets me.Jeff is the author of This Paper World and ONE WAY (both available as eBooks and free podcast audiobooks), as well as numerous short stories and a forthcoming novella Crush Depth. He also occasionally writes for the blog LaneBrain.net. You can find out more about Jeff by visitingjefflaneaudiobooks.com. Twitter: @writerjefflane
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