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.