Novel Boot Camp – Lecture #18: Identifying Your Novel’s Genre


Whether you’re perfecting your query letter or trying to figure out how to market your self-published novel, identifying your novel’s genre is important. Unless you write right down the center of your genre, you’ve probably spent a lot of time debating whether you’re writing thriller or horror, women’s fiction or romance, literary or mainstream.

“What’s my genre?” is one of the most common questions aspiring writers ask, especially as they’re nearing the end of writing or editing their novels.

So how do you identify your genre? Here are some tips that will help:

Genres are About Marketing

First things first – before we get into the tips and tricks for identifying genre, let’s discuss what the genre is used for: marketing. The genre allows publishers to determine where to place your novel on store shelves. This means that choosing the genre is often more about where the book will make the most money rather than what genre it technically fits into.

No doubt, you’ve seen science fiction novels in the “mainstream” section of a book store. This is because if a book has wide appeal, it won’t necessarily be shelved with its actual genre.

No doubt, you’ve also seen books that didn’t really fit any genre very well. It wasn’t quite fantasy, wasn’t quite contemporary, or perhaps it spanned a long period of time or seemed to touch on too many topics to number.

The goal of identifying the genre is to figure out marketing, so that your book gets in the hands of the best readers for your individual story. Getting a million people to read your book is disadvantageous if the story really only appeals to hard science fiction fans.

If you market to everyone, it will lower your rating and result in negative reviews. The key in choosing the best genre is to get the right people, not the most people, to read your book.

For querying purposes, just do the best you can at determining the most marketable genre. If you’re wrong, your agent or publisher will adjust the genre as they see fit.

Think About the Book Store

One of the simplest ways of determining your genre is to think about the book store.

If you walked into a book store right now, where would you go to find your book? The science fiction section? Fantasy? Women’s fiction? Romance?

It’s all well and good to call your book “urban women’s fiction fantasy/scifi mashup with a historical setting” but where on earth will it be placed on the shelves?

Remember that there is no “science fiction contemporary women’s issues horror” section of the book store, and you can’t you build a marketing plan off of such a crazy genre. Agents and publishers want to know what shelf the book will be on. That’s all they really need to know.

Which Readers Would Like it Most?

Hitting the largest amount of readers will not help your novel if the average reader wouldn’t find the story appealing. It is better to focus on the readers who would love your novel the most.

If you write a book with elements of multiple genres (for example The Time Traveler’s Wife), you need to decide which group of readers is more likely to enjoy the book. With this example, is it romance readers or science fiction readers? It doesn’t take too much thought to realize that the story is much more appealing to romance fans.

What is the Primary Emotion the Novel Elicits?

You may need a beta reader to help you with this question if you haven’t put a lot of thought into it (though you really should). The primary emotion experienced in the novel can be a great way to peg which genre it fits into.

For example, if the primary emotion experienced is fear or disgust, then you’re probably writing horror.

If the primary emotion is anxiety and tension, you’re probably writing a thriller.

If the primary emotion is hope and love, you’re probably writing a romance.

Look at Comparable Titles

Who do you write like? What books have similar plots to yours? Make a list of the top five or ten novels and then go on Amazon and Goodreads to see what genre those novels are listed under.

You may also want to look at reader reviews, which may indicate whether readers agree with the genre placement of this particular story.

Keep it Simple

If you’re writing a query letter, keep the genre as simple as you can. It’s okay to list subgenres, but don’t go crazy. Remember that the agent has just read (or is about to read) a summary of your novel that will touch on subgenre elements. This eliminates the need to list out every subgenre your novel fits into.

For example, if your query makes it clear that your novel is set in the past, but the novel does not fall under the genre of “historical,” there’s no need to call it a “Paranormal Historical Romance.” Just show in the query that it isn’t set in the modern day and list the genre as “Paranormal Romance.”

As a general rule, it’s best to keep the genre at a length of two words (give or take one if you absolutely have to).

Homework: Ask for Advice

We’re going to have an interactive homework assignment today (“Yippee! Woohoo!” The Boot Campers go wild!).

If after reading this article, you’re still not sure what your novel’s genre is, ask for help in the comments. Post a summary or explain why it is you’re confused or uncertain about your genre and let your awesome fellow boot campers guide you towards the answer.

And don’t forget to help others identify their genre as well!

Connect with Other Novel Boot Camp Participants

Need a writing friend? Got a question? Need a shoulder to cry on? We’re there for you!

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I will be answering writing and editing questions on our Twitter hashtag as time allows. Due to the insane volume of emails I’m receiving, I cannot provide free advice or assistance via email. Thank you!

What is Novel Boot Camp?

Novel Boot Camp is a free online novel writing course focused on identifying and correcting problems in your novel. Learn more about Novel Boot Camp and find past (and future) posts here.

11 thoughts on “Novel Boot Camp – Lecture #18: Identifying Your Novel’s Genre

  1. Julie Griffith says:

    Yay! Finally! This is what I’ve been waiting for. I know it’s YA, but after that I have no idea. I originally thought my novel was dystopian, but on closer inspection of the definition and characteristics of dystopian novels, I think it is not. Sci/Fi kind of fits, but it’s not “classic” Sci/Fi material. I think speculative fiction is more fitting, but I don’t see that as a genre often–okay, pretty much never. There are elements of romance, too, later in the novel (think Divergent, where there’s romance, but it’s not the whole story). Here’s a blurb. What’s it sound like to you? I know it starts out sounding like one of those hilarious Honest Movie Trailers, but I’m still working on it, so forgive me.

    In a world where pandemic viruses threaten to plunge mankind into extinction, you’d think having the ablitity to fight off any virus within hours of exposure would be a good thing. Not so for seventeen-year-old Trig Conners. He’s subjected to painful tests and dangerous experiments as scientists struggle to discover how he’s able to do this. Sure, this information could save lives, but right now Trig’s main concern is his own life, and he’s determined to do whatever he has to do escape from their grasp and have a normal life.

    • jennfs10 says:

      In keeping with Ellen’s rule of Keeping It Simple, I would say this reads as YA Sci-Fi. It reminds me of James Dashner’s Mazerunner books. It might be helpful to check how those books are categorized.

      • Julie Griffith says:

        Thanks for your input. I think I will take the advice to look at comparable books and see what genre they are.

    • Ellen_Brock says:

      Is this set in our world but in some future version?

      I think you could market this as straight “science fiction.” I don’t think it really needs a subgenre.

      I like the idea, by the way!

      • Julie Griffith says:

        Exactly, our world in the future. I believe I’ve cured my case of genre confusion now. Thank you! I put this one on the back burner a while back mainly because I was intimidated by it–it felt too big for a beginner–but I’m excited to finish it now that I’ve learned so much.

  2. amcasselman says:

    Oh, this makes it so much simpler 🙂 I always wondered about this and because of being a new writer, I worried I would classify it wrong. Thanks so much!

    • Eliza says:

      That’s an impressive list, but there aren’t that many categories in a book shop.

      Is YA a genre, or is it better to focus on the specific category within that, like sci-fi or mystery?

  3. Ella says:

    My novel started out as middle-grade, and although there’s still no objectionable language and no sexual content, there are a few situations that seem a bit too scary or suggestive of violence for MG. First, a fifteen-year-old girl accidentally drinks hemlock meant for someone else; after a few hours of vomiting (I allude to this but don’t dwell on it) and paralysis, she does pull through. Later, a different fifteen-year-old girl is narrowly saved from the dagger of a vengeful lord. (There’s no suggestion of sexual violence.) On the other hand, it’s more similar in tone to old-fashioned children’s lit (Victorian and somewhat later) than to YA, and there certainly isn’t much of the introspection and ‘angst’ common in YA novels. Can I keep it as MG, or does it sound too scary/violent at these points?

    Besides this, I’m not sure what the genre is! It’s certainly neither historical fiction nor alternate history, because although I’ve altered the real-world timeline, it’s by no means the focus of the story. I usually refer to it as fantasy, but really the altered timeline and an imaginary European country are the only fantastic things — no magic or dragons. The tone is generally one of lighthearted girly adventure. Any suggestions?

    • Darnika Zobenica says:

      I think you’re fine with MG. Those scenes might be a bit graphic if seen in a movie for example, but in a book, especially if touched as gently as described, they aren’t too much. Look at first few Harry Potter books. They’re having quite a lot of death and violence, but they don’t describe it as such, it doesn’t even seem too bad. I think it was listed MG until the 4th book and then YA.

  4. Julie Griffith says:

    I don’t think any of that sounds too scary for MG–not these days, anyway. But I noticed the age of the two characters you mentioned is 15, and doesn’t MG fiction usually feature characters in the range of 9-12? The older characters might make it YA, I think, unless there are also younger characters that play a big part in it. As far as genre goes, it’s hard for me to give my opinion without knowing a little more about the story, and I’m not sure what altered timeline means. Hopefully someone else will be able to help with this.

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