May 30, 2011

What's In A Genre?

I’ve been reading about constructing paranormal novels. It’s interesting, but to be honest I haven’t learned a ton – yet. One thing I did learn was in order to be a paranormal novel, the element of the paranormal must be so integral to the story that if you took it out, you wouldn’t have a story.

Well duh. *Face-palm*

This isn’t exactly breaking news right? I mean, ANY novel you write must have the main element of the genre woven tightly through the plot. What’s Harry Potter without the magic or The Shining without the ghosts?

So, my question of the week is about balancing your books elements and how far you can skew that balance before your book becomes something other than your intended genre.

Case in point: Twilight

Before you throw Oreos at your screen (I know who you are), stick with me. Answer this question:

What genre is Twilight? Go ahead and think about it.

I've seen Meyer's books be lumped in with Fantasy, Horror, Paranormal, Paranormal Romance and Romance.

Meyer's book is an interesting case study to me because it crossed reader (and generational) lines. I know women who would have NEVER picked up a book about vampires (or any other paranormal type romance much less horror or fantasy), but they are DIE HARD Twilight fans.

In fact, Twilight continues to be the only vampire book they have ever read. These women prefer sweet romance, chick-lit, rom-coms and women's literary titles. Bodice rippers are too much for them. Reading Twilight didn't send them to the bookstore with their money clutched tightly in their hands looking for more vampire/human romances. Why? Because these women know that 90% of the time vampires are creepy and the concept of being in love with someone who bites the heroine whenever they get turned on (and the heroine likes it) isn't appealing to them personally.

So, how did Twilight manage to sneak it's way onto their nightstands? Is it possible the paranormal elements were softened enough for non-paranormal fans to accept?  Perhaps Twilight isn't so much about the fact that Edward is a vamp, but about the development of the all encompassing romance via Beauty and the Beast.

If Edward weren't a vamp, but a hunky underdog/loaner vying against Jacob the personable jock for Bella's attention, would the story still work?

To be fair, I'm not accusing Meyer of manipulating her story for maximum exposure. In fact, based on an interview posted on Amazon's website, it appears that she doesn't normally watch TV, movies or read books about vamps, which might explain a lot. She didn't try to write a bestseller. She wrote what was in her heart and got lucky when a gagillion other people thought it was pretty cool.

I don’t have answers (sorry). It’s just something cruising through my mind as I analyze the books around me. I want to hear what you think. Am I off base? What am I missing? How do you categorize your book? Would you pare down specific genre elements of your book to gain larger readership?

33 comments:

  1. Genre, target audiences, categorization and-- in the final analysis-- so much fragmentation that both authors and story become woefully pigeonholed before they're out of the gate is a largely modern invention. And a very bottom-line, profit-oriented one, at that.

    What astounds me is that we, the writers, don't take more authority over the dictates of the marketplace-- as dictated by the marketers, *not* the consumers.

    Ah, my dear Kari Marie, I feel myself going on a rant and not even coming close to answering your question.

    Okay. If I were to categorize my books, I would say Contemporary Women's Fiction/Rock Opus with a dash of Magical Realism. Hows' that?

    Obviously, a thought-provoking post. :)

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  2. This is a really thought-provoking post. Genres can be extremely limiting and sometimes misplaced. Twilight is actually a really good example of how transcending genres can create something with broad appeal.

    As for me, I'm writing a young adult urban fantasy with science-fiction and action/adventure elements!

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  3. I'm with Stephanie on this. I'm not after target audiences. I write my story for myself first and then I'll try to get it published.

    Luckily I have a good enough sense of genre to know what I'm writing.

    Fantasy, but with enough other elements to make it a wide read. So here's hoping that I can get into people's hearts too. ;-)

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  4. I don't watch a lot of television or movies either, and I know from reading her website that she had limited knowledge of vampires, werewolves,... I think you have to be aware of the genres, but I also think you just need to write what you want because you love and want to do it. The rest tends to fall into place. Case in point: Stephenie Meyer.

    Great post, Kari. Thought-provoking!

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  5. Well, I only read the first of the Twilight books. I'd met the agent at a conference just as the book was coming out and everyone was buzzing about it, so I picked it up out of curiosity.

    I don't read vampire novels, and I didn't particularly like the book for various reasons, but I was drawn to the romantic elements of the story. The tension between the two main characters was strong enough to hold the story together until the end for me.

    So, to somewhat answer your question, I think the novel might have found a niche audience with romance readers even if there were no paranormal aspect to it. But having the male lead be a vampire made for an interesting hook. It provided the high concept element that made the novel a smash hit. Whew. Long answer, and just my opinion . :)

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  6. Cool, thought-provoking post! There are definitely those books that aren't really genre-specific, and they still fly. It makes me happy, because some of my novels aren't quite traditionally genre-specific. I was writing magical realism (contemporary with one magical/odd twist) long before the genre came into existence, and there was a "place" for it.

    The trouble is, publishers have slots to fill for certain genres, and it's difficult to squeeze a not-quite-in-that-genre book into those slots sometimes!

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  7. The one genre I never understood Twilight getting lumped into is horror. But the other ones, I never noticed it, but there is elements of all of it in Twilight, so it is pretty impossible to define.

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  8. Good observations. Learn the rules and then don't worry about them. Just write from the heart! Great post.

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  9. I think there is a lot of crossover not only for Twilight but a lot of books. Interesting to think about. I'm just writing too -let it fall where it may.

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  10. Some stories aren't clearly defined, as you've pointed out beautifully with the Twilight series. Some are. I'm thinking of memoir, which I write. However, mine began as an autobiographical novel, but then when I saw it wasn't working--I was avoiding some things I really didn't want to talk about, and my editor kept sending me question marks--I decided to switch to first person and tell the "whole truth"--as I remembered it--and then it worked. BTW, I'm not a vampire/fantasy fan or a chick-lit fan, but I do like Edward and Bella.

    You've written an excellent post, Kari Marie. A fine analysis of the Twilight books. I agree with you conclusion that it's romance via Beauty and Beast.
    Ann Best, Memoir Author

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  11. I'm working on a YA Dystopian with Steampunk and Paranormal elements. Yeah, I think I broke the genre lines with this one. LOL
    Great post, Kari.

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  12. Suze - Your book genre(s) sound like an interesting combination. I guess the best we can do as writers, is write what we love and READ what we love. That's the best kind of voting there is.

    Miss Cole - A YA Urban Fantasy fan myself, your book sounds fantastic!

    Misha - I admire her for writing what she loved. I try to do the same - forget about the rules and just write.

    Alison - I'm a big fan of writing by heart. :)

    LG - I like your comment about the Hook of Edward being a vampire. We didn't really get to see a lot of his inner conflict surrounding that particular issue, but I read her excerpt from Midnight Sun. It added a lot more depth to the character for me. You are right though, what Meyer did well was to capture the tension of that "first love" experience.

    Carol - I like that you mentioned it makes you happy. It does kind of give folks hope doesn't it?

    Jenna - I kind of squinted at horror to. Really? Same category as Stephen King's Salem's Lot or Pet Sematary or It? Not in my head.

    Sylvia - You gotta now the rules to break them correctly.

    Holly - I think it would be impossible to time the market. I wouldn't want to spend time writing something that fit into a niche I wasn't interested in. I'd rather write something for myself and enjoy it. It does go to show you though that if a publisher sees potential, they will pick up your book, regardless of how it fits.

    Ann - Interesting how sometimes switching POV changes things (although in your case, you were also making a more monumentous decision). I'm a sucker for Beauty and the Beast every time.

    Ciara - Again, another fascinating combination of genres! I say cross the line and enjoy it. Life is short.

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  13. See how you are? I get all the way to the end and you don't have an answer for me!? Sheesh. ;)

    Well, first I don't write to please the masses. I write for me.

    BUT THEN, if building this element or that would help me market my book better? Heck yeah, I'd do it. :)

    I learned that from Stephen King. :P

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  14. nope, I think that's the key. You just have to write what's in your heart, and your passion for the story sells it.

    Good luck, honey! :o) <3

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  15. Great post Kari. You know, I think it was Mandy Hubbard's post recently after BEA on trends where she said that the industry is totally after "genre bending" books - ones that tend to blur the lines between different species of novels. I always thought that made a book a tough sell - if they couldn't pigeonhole it, but maybe not!

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  16. Well I sure don't have an answer either, but you sure made a good point. Of course genre has to be everywhere in your story. Perhaps that's why I have so much trouble in my writing. I'm writing a story, not specific to a genre. I hoped to have it figured out when it's done.

    Damn it! Now I have to think.

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  17. Good question. I think you're on to something with the Beauty and the Beast sentiment rather than the vampire thing. I think what made Twilight work was her characters and the setting. It hadn't been done this way before where the vampires were good, other than Interview with a Vampire and Louis's desperate attempt at staying civil. She put a fresh spin on the vampire idea and Edward was the quintessential bad boy... even tho most times he seemed better than Bella. Everything about the story worked and the market hadn't been saturated by paranormal yet. She hit the jackpot... which is why they say don't write for the trends, write what's in your heart and maybe, just maybe, when your story gets out there, it will be the right time. And if Edward wasn't a vampire, the story would've been blah.

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  18. The Twilight books are what got me onto the whole young adult scene. I didn't even know the term YA existed before that! I always loved fantasy but I hadn't realised you could mix romance so thoroughly with it that it actually turned out to be a romance novel too.

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  19. I honestly think the old days of hardcore, cut-and-dried genre labels are beginning to fade away. You still have to have a basic idea what group would be drawn in by a certian type of book...but truthfully, I think more and more readers are being drawn to those blends of stories (like Twilight) where it isn't clearly one thing or the other.

    Yes, I realize this comment wasn't terribly helpful for learning anything, but whatever.

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  20. Why would ANYONE waste Oreo cookies like that?

    Just kidding...

    I know it's a knee-jerk reaction to hate Twilight (or at least claim to).

    This post makes an excellent point; it seems to me that if you can write a novel that crosses the genre boundaries, you logically increase your audience, like Twilight did.

    Or a country singer who can sell pop.

    Yes. I'd like to be the Carrie Underwood of authors.

    I wrote a YA novel that wasn't "dark and edgy" enough for today's market; and now I'm working on a novel I suppose would be called "chick lit" or women's fiction?

    But I'm going to start figuring ways to cram more genres into my book immediately.

    (or maybe just eat some Oreos. ;-)

    Sigh.

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  21. Twilight is an interesting example to have chosen. Yes, I think she appealed to a lot of people by dumbing down some of the genre stuff, but I also believe she alienated people as well. Clearly this hasn't been a bad thing, given the crazy success of those books, but I know a lot of fans of vampire fiction who can't stand the Twilight series, in part because it is so wishy washy in terms of genre.

    Interesting discussion topic!

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  22. Ali - Sorry for the teaser post! I'm too "new" to be able to even consider writing for the masses. I'll stick with writing for me and hoping someone else likes it too. For now.

    LTM - I'm all for writing from the heart. It's more fun.

    Lindsay - Sounds like you got the scoop on the latest trend! That's interesting news and it supports the genre mashups I've seen around the blogosphere. Good news for writers who want to branch out!

    MC - Oh no, I think what the comments are showing is that genre mashing is in! Write your story the way you see it. I like the concept of the genre being well interlaced though. What that means to me is in today's market, there should be purpose to it any element you include - no matter how many there are.

    PK - I think LG mentioned that the vamp aspect gave the story extra kick - which you are both right about.

    Rachel - I can't say I read much YA before Twilight either, but the combination was appealing.

    Tracy - You might be right. Mixed genre books appear to be taking hold. Maybe that's because the publishing companies are trying to maximize their sales, or maybe readers are ready for something fresh. Either way it's good news for writers who can now be as creative as they want and hope someone takes an interest.

    Julie - Personally, I would never be caught wasting Oreos. I voted...ahem...I like Carrie Underwood. Genre mashing might be in, but I do think it comes down to writing what you love. If it doesn't work out? Well, there's always the Oreos and a rousing version of Before He Cheats.

    Meagan - I get where you are going. By bending the rules of the vampire genre, her world was a turn-off to some folks. That's another post - how far can you tweak the "rules" of a genre before it loses its identity?

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  23. I wonder these same things! I read Twilight, but was surprised that I loved it. I'm the rom-com mom you mentioned, and I never read fantasy books (if that's what it is). But I loved the romance angle. I wish I had answers too!

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  24. I wasn't into vampires either, and resisted the urge to read Twilight for a long time. Eclipse had just come out when I took the plunge (out of curiosity). I hadn't even finished Twilight when I rushed out and ordered the other two in the series. After that I was hooked. I read a few more vampire series, but only Vampire Academy grabbed me till the end of the series.


    I write YA contemporary, but it's not your standard contemporary. I weave a lot of romance and danger into it, but not enough to make it romantic suspense.

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  25. This is a interesting point. I only write what comes to me so if it's not what is up and coming then, oh well. I've always loved vampire novels so I was curious about the whole fascination with Twilight. When I read the series, I couldn't let it go. Mainly, the romance and the whole vampire aspect made me giddy.
    It does blur the whole genre line which is quite interesting.
    I write young adult scifi/paranormal romances. I can't seem to just write a romance without a paranormal or scifi element and vice versa.
    Thanks.

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  26. What a great discussion. :) I didn't expect to enjoy Twilight, but I did, because it captured that first-love angst so perfectly. The vampire angle gave the conflict a nice twist, but the first-love is what kept me up late to finish the story.

    I hope that the boom in e-publishing will make people more comfortable with cross-pollination of genres. :) I'd hate to miss out on good books that can't be confined to one classification.

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  27. Great post! So many books cross all kinds of lines. I like my books that way. I like a bit of romance in everything I read, I like sci fi, fantasy, suspense, mystery, paranormal, ... so when they blend them up, I'm usually pretty happy!

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  28. Great genre discussion ... it can be so murky at times!

    Hi Jan,

    I really stopped by to say 'thank you' for your support during my A-Z blogging month. I've created a fun "no strings attached" blog award for you and all of the other awesome bloggers who offered feedback and encouragement.

    You can view the award and my thank you note here:
    http://the-open-vein-ejwesley.blogspot.com/2011/06/im-back-bringing-love.html

    Hope you are well and that I see you around in the future!

    EJ

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  29. yeah, you just never know when something will take off with it's own momentum. too bad we can't all be stephenie meyers. ;)

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  30. You know what, I think you're right about Twilight. I'm one of those people who happily read Twilight but never picked up another vamp book, for exactly the reasons you mentioned. So for me, the appeal of Twilight wasn't specifically the paranormal elements but the "forbidden" love story and the threat that it was doomed from the start that kept looming.

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  31. I think you're right about Twilight - it's not your classic vampire book. And there are people I know that are die-hard fans of it for other reasons.

    Genre - I'm surprised it's not a 4-letter word. :) I'd categorize my own writing as "magical realism", which I take to mean a contemporary story with magical elements. But, you hear some many different things. I've heard that I shouldn't use magical realism and just lump it as fantasy. Then again, I've heard that fantasy is too vague and might be misconstrued as traditional dragons-princesses-castles type fantasy.

    Where do you draw the line, really? Still - I write the stories closest to my heart and never keep "genre" in mind when I'm doing it. Good or bad approach? We'll see... :)

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  32. Oh, and I tagged you on my blog today! :)

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  33. Julie - I think it's one of those moments when an author hit a sweet spot with her writing and blew everyone (and the market) away.

    Stina - I was like you. I was 30 pages in (and had already seen the first movie) and ordering the other books - with 2 day shipping no less. I read the first in the Vamp Academy series and it was good, but I didn't have that undeniable urge to read the second one. Of course, I'm a bit of a fickle reader, sometimes I'm yearning to read something different. The timing could have been off for me.

    Christine - I can't seem to write a book without a romantic element. I just have to be careful to conrol how HAWT it gets. (I can get carried away).

    Donna - She did seem to nail the experience of first love for a lot of people!

    Jemi - I like to get a little of everything in my books too. :)

    EJ - Genre's these days don't seem to have lines anymore - it's kinda cool (at least I think so). Thanks for the blog award. You rocked the A to Z.

    LB - I'm not sure I'd want to be Ms. Meyers. With the fame comes the drama!

    Elle - Truthfully, that's one of the elements I found appealing as well. I always did love the bad boys. *sigh*

    Donea - I think writing from the heart is the best approach! At least you will know that you loved doing it. Thanks for the TAG!

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