One of the things I struggled with when preparing the framework text for query letters/emails, was genre. I’m a marketer in my current day job, so I understand perfectly well why it’s helpful for agents and publishers to be able to classify a book according to what category or categories it falls within. Amongst other things, genre (and, by the way, sub-genre and sub-sub-genre) will point to a likely audience, set expectations as to the content and style, and drive decisions on cover design, marketing and promotion.
Knowing your genre means you can pinpoint authors whose books bear similarities to your own – although whether you indicate same to agents in your submission material is a matter of fierce debate here and there on the interweb. Either (i) do it because it helps the agent figure out where you might sit in their talent stable or (ii) don’t do it because it makes you seem cocky and pretentious and you should let them be the judge. No help there then.
Inevitably for every mainstream genre, there are gazillions of sub-genres, and sub-sub genres, and it’s up to you how far you navigate the tributaries, to arrive at a label which adequately categorises the novel you’re writing.
What follows here is not some great rambling on the whys and wherefores of genre – if you’re looking for guidance in categorising your own writing, Google is your friend. There is already more help out there than you can possibly need in an entire literary lifetime. This is about me and my genre, and how I got there.
The first issue was the question of literary vs commercial. Commercial books – apparently – sell in large volumes to an audience which may not be sufficiently discerning – apparently – to mind that books in this category may – apparently – not be all that well written. In commercial fiction – apparently – the plot is the only thing that matters. Everything else (characterisation, setting, sensory detail, realistic dialogue, linguistic style, grammar…) is inconsequential relative to the plot. It may therefore have been thrown together and served up as a literary and linguistic dog’s dinner – and – apparently – nobody minds.
Literary fiction, on the other hand, is all about the quality of the writing, and how poetic, evocative or mesmerising it is. And the plot? Who needs plotting when the writing, line by line, word by beautiful, witty, well-chosen word, is such a sublime joy to read. Apparently.
For those of us who fall somewhere between the sublime and the ridiculous (no, I’m not getting drawn on which is which, thank you very much) there is a wealth of options for that first level categorisation, amongst which Quality Commercial, Mainstream Literary, Literary-Commercial Crossover, Book Club, or even more specifically, ‘Richard & Judy’, and my personal bête noir, LitLite.
I vacillate between Quality Commercial and Book Club for Singled Out. Books which end up on book club reading lists tend to offer plenty of scope for discussion around moral dilemmas, character qualities or shortcomings and so on – and I like that. And Quality Commercial? I don’t see what’s wrong with cherishing the vision that I’ve written something which might be simultaneously popular/saleable and well-written. An agent or publisher will probably put me straight one of these days.
Next, there’s the subject and content of the story. At the high level, is it a romance or a thriller? Is it science fiction or magic realism, chic-lit or crime? Is it humorous or historical, fantasy or satire, politics or parody? Is it erotic, domestic or dynastic? And… breathe. Yes, if you’ve looked into this, you’ll realise as I did, there are myriad ways to slice-and-dice for genre. There’s a crime in my story, but it’s not, technically speaking, a crime novel – there’s no mystery (well, not much mystery) and no police (ah, almost no police). There is a little romance and an erotic moment or two (no sniggering at the back please), but not enough to make it a romance and certainly not enough to position it on the same shelf as Fifty Shades of Naughty.
Having read several (too many?) blog posts and articles, I think I’ve got there. The genre I’ve concluded best fits Singled Out is Psychological Suspense. Theoretically this is a crime fiction sub-genre – but that’s as close as it’s going to get to crime.
The elements which characterise psychological suspense include the following:
- Psychological suspense may use crime as a pretext for investigating psyche and personality, but the story is about the context of the crime, rather than the crime itself.
- There’s often no mystery as to who committed the crime – what psychological suspense is interested in is not whodunnit, but whydunnit.
- Psychological suspense is about the mind of a criminal – and the other people involved. There will be insights, observations and reflection, from all sides of the house.
- Psychological suspense stories are often told from multiple points of view – from inside the minds of protagonist and antagonist alike.
- The overarching mood is one of dread or malignity – a sustained suspense embedded with moments of heightened tension, rather than a build-up to one massive peak.
- Psychological suspense stories often feature psychologically damaged central characters such as sociopaths, or people with weaknesses, phobias, a tragic past, the weight of guilt or shame bearing down.
- The reader can see what’s happening before it happens – they watch, seemingly helpless. I liken it to the reader banging soundlessly on a window, trying to attract the attention of a character, who walks innocently towards some terrible scenario or event, content in the company of the person the reader knows to be dangerous.
- Interestingly, psychological suspense is often ambivalent when it comes to ethics and justice. There are moral ambiguities, few happy endings or easy solutions; and the baddies don’t always get what they deserve.
I’m fascinated by stories like this – they’re the ones I go to when I’m looking for a good read, and so it felt good to be writing one, even though it’s not what I set out to write. I started out to pen a wry dissection of the comings and goings on a singles holiday. But when I realised this amounted to not very much and would bore a readership to tears, the landscape shifted. And that’s when I begun to learn how much I loved writing about bad stuff happening and dark, damaged psyches.
Hey ho, happy days.