Novel Boot Camp #15: Questions About Genre and Writing Rules

8496675799_052ce087cc_oToday I’m going to answer questions about following “writing rules” as well as questions about genre. In the comments section, feel free to ask your own questions if determining genre is something you are struggling with.

Please don’t forget to offer critiques in our last peer critique session. You can find the excerpts available for critique here and here.

Writing Rules

I think you would all enjoy reading this blog post: Writing Rules Do Not Exist. It gives a clearer explanation of what writing rules are and why they may (or may not!) be important for your novel.

Is there a certain number of paragraphs or pages that can contain information or facts? I read your piece about information dumping. I have a lot of technical facts that I need to inform the reader  early in the book so I am trying to mix 3 pages of action with about a page of facts. 

I can’t tell you whether you’re doing too much info dumping without reading the pages in question. There is no hard and fast rule about how much information you can give the reader. How well telling (rather than showing) works in a novel depends on a lot of factors, such as the strength and style of the voice and whether the information is inherently intriguing.

If you have the sense that there is too much telling (which I’m guessing you do since you’re asking about it), then there is most likely too much telling.

Hi Ellen, could you please list the filter words that should never be used (in third person limited POV), and which ones are maybe ok to use sometimes, if necessary. And I read somewhere that some of the filter words are: touch, feel (feel like), realize, can, be able to, decide, know, experience, wonder. But then how do I rephrase “he touched smth” or “he believed in smth” or “he wondered about” or “he knew this would happen” or “he couldn’t do smth” or “he felt like” or “he decided to”? Some quick examples would help. Also, are “want” and “wish” filer words?

I think you’re worrying about this too much. The reason to avoid filtering words is because it creates unnecessary distance. But you have to keep in mind the context. If it hurts clarity to cut out a filtering word, then leave it in.

There is nothing wrong with describing the action of touching, smelling, etc. He felt the dog’s thick fur. He leaned over and smelled the cake.

What you want to avoid is relying too heavily on the character’s senses when describing situations because it makes the reader feel farther away from the action. An example of too much filtering would be something like: He smelled the musty old air and felt the soft wooden board beneath his feet. He felt a shiver run through his body.

This could be rewritten without filtering words: The air was musty and the boards beneath his feet were soft. A shiver ran through his body.

The rewrite pulls the reader closer to the action.

The advice I’ve had is “get in late and out early”, i.e cover a short period of time. My novel covers well over a century. I’ve tried to trim that down, but I can’t do so with my theme/vision, so I’d have to drop the whole project and try to come up with something completely new. I’m loath to do that because I’ve got all my other ducks in line with best advice. But I guess the pain of the amputation will just get worse if it has to be chopped off sooner or later.

The advice to “get in late and out early” does not refer to the length of time a book covers. That bit of advice is intended to get you to start as close to the meat of the story as possible. In other words, it’s an attempt to get the writer to start when things are getting good rather than writing a slow and meandering beginning.

So long as your story genuinely needs to cover a long period of time, it doesn’t matter if it covers a century or the entire history of the world. Keep in mind though that it takes a very strong writer to keep a reader interested when characters come and go.


Genre seems to be a struggle for a lot of writers so feel free to ask additional questions about genre in the comments section.

How do you know that you are writing  for your intended genre?

I assume you’re asking how a writer can know if their book is marketable in the genre they intend. If you read novels in the genre, you should have a pretty good sense of the expectations. So long as you’re hitting the major requirements of the genre (horror must be scary; mystery must have a mystery) you’re probably doing fine.

You’re more likely to be rejected because your novel is too similar to other books already published rather than that it’s too dissimilar. If your novel is getting rejected and it is unique, the execution is probably lacking.

Is it possible to write  a good  novel utilizing several genres?

Of course! There’s nothing wrong with blending genres, but I think a lot of writers believe they are blending genres when they aren’t. All books have elements of other genres. For example, a mystery novel might have a romance and a few action scenes, but the novel is still a mystery (not a romance mystery action novel).

For querying purposes, focus on the genre that is most prominent in your novel. For example, Stephen King’s It has heavy fantasy elements but would just be queried as a horror novel. Another way to look at this is to ask yourself: Which genre’s readers are most likely to pick up my book?

If an editor does not like the genre you write in, can he or she still give good feedback and critique your work?

Other editors might disagree on this, but I would say yes. The majority of my clients are struggling with characterization and plotting issues. Enjoying the genre is irrelevant to fixing these problems.

When it comes to smaller writing issues and marketing, an editor unfamiliar with the genre won’t necessarily be able to help you stand out in the market.

What differentiates an “adult” from “young adult” novel? Is it the characters, the writing style (easy to read), the subject matter  or a combination of these?

A young adult novel will always have a teenage protagonist facing issues that are relevant to teenagers. Note that the “issues” aren’t the superficial conflicts but are the underlying emotional conflicts: Who am I? What do I want? Where do I fit in?

Since most adult novels don’t have a teenage protagonist, it’s fairly clear why most would not be considered YA. I assume you’re asking why some books with teenage protagonists are considered adult novels. Usually this is because the subject matter is not relevant to the average teenager. For example, a novel about a teenage serial killer isn’t going to key in on any of the big questions teenagers grapple with.

How important is it to get the genre of your story right when querying ?

You should be able to narrow down which shelf the book would sit on at a book store. If you can’t do this, the primary problem is that you won’t be able to target the right agents. If your book is horror and you’re calling it fantasy, when you send it to fantasy agents they are likely to reject it as being “too scary.” The same novel might have been accepted by an agent who takes horror.

The other problem with not knowing your genre is that it looks unprofessional. If you list your genre as “Dark SciFi Fantasy Romance Mystery” you look like you don’t know what you’re doing and the agent may assume that your novel will reflect that lack of understanding.

14779520072_914171dbb7_oDiscussion Question

Do you need help deciding your genre? Feel free to post a brief synopsis below to get feedback.

15 thoughts on “Novel Boot Camp #15: Questions About Genre and Writing Rules

  1. Philipp says:

    Genre’s a question that’s been dogging me for a while. I submitted my scene for peer critique under the heading “YA Fantasy,” but I doubt that’s the right description. The only reason to call it fantasy is that the story definitely occurs in a world that’s not our own: here the Roman Empire did not “fall” nor become Christianized, though little hints imply major political changes (naturally) over time; there is no magic or other obvious element of the fantasy genre (in particular, there is none of the heavy ironizing of differences with the real world that is essential to alternate history). It might be a kind of gaslamp fantasy, but unobtrusively; the aesthetic is thus closer to historical fiction, but I would expect in that case both a real and a precise historical period, which the story obviously does not have.

    Now, is it Young Adult? The protagonist is a young man, a university-student of eighteen or nineteen at the beginning of the story (which ends three years later), who has some of the obvious young-person’s problems—a bit of angst over love, worries about his future career, uncertainty about how to relate to the influential young men in his college—but all of those are shaped by the setting: the last problem, for example, is not really one of popularity (say), but of how to relate to aristocrats as a man of respectable but middling provincial family. Not, I think, a typical issue of YA fiction, which seems often (perhaps I am wrong) to demand characters who approach their situations essentially as a modern teenager would, even at the expense of anachronism. Furthermore, the protagonist’s overarching questions, into which his career, social, and romantic anxieties are eventually interwoven, are about the order of the universe (geocentric or heliocentric), the true philosophy (pursuit of virtue alone or some spiritual experience in addition), the nature of the divine (one God or many; divine or merely created stars or bodies), and the proper form of religion (traditional Roman, mystical, or Christian). Now, many teenagers certainly do have such profound questions, and I have seen even middle-grade stories that brought them up, but I doubt these are specifically YA problems. Where that leaves the story I am not sure; perhaps “mainstream,” especially as I cannot envision readers of any specific genre as the ideal target audience, but perhaps I am overlooking some important consideration.

    • English Tim says:

      In my opinion there is little question your novel is Historical Fiction. Your setting is a parallel history and the name of your protagonist, Marcus Quintilius Aethelwulf, implies a composite of two real historical figures, one a Roman rhetorician at the time of Christ, the other an English King of Wessex from 800 years later. Hope that helps.

      • Philipp says:

        Rather, it is just a plausible Romano-Saxon name–he is in no wise a fusion of any historical figures. I’d like to be so certain that this is (e.g.) historical fiction, but again, there is no real historical period in view; if I saw such a book shelved as historical fiction, I would think that a mistake had been made.

        • English Tim says:

          Well, there is a sub-genre called Alternate History Fiction and apparently this can fall under Literary, Historical or Science Fiction, depending on the novel. I had assumed Historical, but you will know which is most appropriate. All the best.

    • Ellen_Brock says:

      Hi Philipp,

      This is definitely not YA. Alternate history is a recognized genre and you can probably find agents specifically interested in that type of novel. Whether it would be considered fantasy, literary, or mainstream depends on the overall approach (especially the voice) as well as the “point” of the story. If it has general appeal, I think it would most likely be classified as mainstream. I hope this helps!

      • Philipp says:

        Thanks! As I said in the original post, I’m certain that this is not alternate history, at least not in the ordinary sense of the term, as it lacks any explicit point of departure from the real time-line and never foregrounds the differences between the fictional and real worlds. In any case, it is good to know not to represent it as young adult, something with which (as I said) I was becoming increasingly uncomfortable.

  2. Robert Buchko says:

    Similar issue to Philipp’s. I submitted under YA Historical but, as Philipp rightly pointed out in his critique, it’s not strictly historical. In fact, I think we’ll be seeing less historical elements than I’d originally thought. Plus, while most of it will take place in the “real world”, some will be in a sort of pocket dimension. I’m thinking “semi-low fantasy” might be a better label for it. Is there a library shelf for that?

    YA doesn’t seem to fit any more, based on your description. Erik is a teen, but the core issues are far from typical ones teens face: fate vs. self-determination, can murder ever be justified, etc.

    If I think about it from target reader perspective, Adult Fantasy will most likely be the right fit. I don’t think there will be enough period scenes to justify targeting historical fiction fans, and while it will include some sci-fi elements, the majority of its “science” will be fantastical.

    I think deep down I knew Adult Fantasy fit, but I shied from the label since it’s so bloated lately. Seems like every other book that comes out is part of an epic fantasy series.

    • Ellen_Brock says:

      Hi Robert,

      Just because the issues are heavy doesn’t mean it’s inherently not YA. Teenagers do grapple with bigger questions, like whether murder can be justified. Obviously they don’t face it head-on in their life, but it is something teens could be thinking about as they form their worldview.

      “Semi-low fantasy” is too complex. It sounds like it is just fantasy to me, but I don’t have a really solid understanding of the plot so I could be wrong. I hope this helps!

  3. allisonnewchurch says:

    Oh Ellen, you are a champion. Can you confirm that this is ‘Women’s Fiction’ please. Up until I wrote this, I’d never taken much notice of genre, I just knew what I like. Bit like art, I couldn’t tell you what’s impressionist, baroque or anything else, I just knew whether I liked it or not.

    My synopsis:

    Charlotte ‘Charlie’ Jeffreys lives in the shadow of an abusive husband. When Kyle threatens their seven year old son, Owen, she has to act. Together they flee to her grandfather’s farm to seek refuge.

    Charlie’s grandfather, Tobias Patton, has enemies who now have Charlie in their sights.

    She is attacked at knife point by Michael and Bernard Raybuck, sons of a neighboring farmer. But the attack is foiled when someone approaches. Michael threatens Charlie that unless she keeps quiet Owen will be their next target.

    Charlie’s greatest enemy is Annie Farrell. Annie’s grandmother became pregnant to Tobias during an affair, but he rejected her, condemning her to a life of poverty and prostitution. Annie has kept secret her relationship to Tobias, biding her time as she plots revenge. But now Charlie’s in the way.

    Annie also hates Charlie’s best friend, Lucy, who Annie believes stole her boyfriend. She poisons Lucy and vandalizes her business and puts Charlie in the frame. But Annie’s plan goes awry. Not only does Charlie’s friend survive, but Michael Raybuck confronts Annie, claiming he knows she did it. He offers to keep quiet in exchange for sex. They meet by the river where Annie knocks Michael unconscious and drowns him. She sets the scene to appear accidental.

    Bernard Raybuck senses something amiss. He finds evidence which leads him to suspect Annie’s involvement in his brother’s death and he informs the police. Annie is arrested and charged.

    During the investigation into Annie’s murder of Michael, police find evidence of her relationship to Tobias Patton. Charlie becomes aware and visits Annie in jail, offering her support. Annie becomes angry and aggressive, telling Charlie to leave her alone, later hanging herself in her cell.

    Charlie begins dating Tom Stratford, the detective who had accused her of attempted murder. The two become close, but Charlie can’t bring herself to tell Tom of her history with Kyle.

    Kyle’s search for Charlie has paid off at last. He’s found her and vows to make her pay. In the early hours of one morning he enters the house and attacks Charlie, beating her unconscious. Owen has tried to escape and Kyle goes after him punching him in the head. Owen drops to the ground, unmoving.

    Believing Owen dead, Kyle returns to Charlie, beating her before raping her.

    Owen returns, bearing his great-grandfather’s rifle. After many hours spent learning to shoot cans, his aim is true and he shoots his father, killing him.

    In the aftermath, Charlie telephones Tom who rushes to her side. While they wait for police and ambulance to arrive, Charlie tells Tom about her violent marriage, finally realizing she is free from the shadow of Kyle Jeffreys.

    • Ellen_Brock says:

      Hi Allison,

      Sounds like women’s fiction to me! It could also be marketed as mainstream fiction because bookstores don’t really differentiate between the two. I hope this helps!

  4. Eliza Worner says:

    I wanted to ask a question about genre, but I’d already written 2 questions. My story sets up the expectation of a post-apocalyptic novel but it’s not. The tone remains the same and the story gets darker and more foreboding, so I don’t feel readers will be disappointed, but at the same time I’m wondering what an agent or publisher would have to say.

    • Ellen_Brock says:

      Hi Eliza,

      If your query letter is clear, the agent/editor shouldn’t be confused, especially if it’s revealed fairly quickly that this is not a post-apocalyptic novel. I think this is a circumstance where relying on the book blurb or query letter to clarify genre is totally fine since the tone is consistent throughout the book. I hope this helps!

  5. seracross says:

    I’m struggling with YA differentiation, as well. What would you say distinguishes YA from New Adult? My MC is 19, but naive; a large character arc is her seeing the world in all its facets (social unrest, war, etc). This coming-of-age is certainly YA, but I’ve read YA agents/publishers prefer the age to be pre-college.

    • Ellen_Brock says:

      If the character is out of high school, then it is not YA. If the novel is not a romance, most publishers won’t consider it New Adult but simply “contemporary” or “mainstream.” Hope this helps!

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