Q: Genre - it gets confusing.
Should I be labeling my work 'urban fiction', 'paranormal thriller', 'paranormal mystery'? I've read a few agent blogs where they mention not labeling it the correct genre gets a query the ol' form rejection.
How do we make sure we're getting it right?
I know it can seem daunting, but these words do actually all mean something specific. If I were you, I'd spend some time in the bookstore and figure out where your book really fits in. Meantime here's a glossary - keep in mind that these labels might mean slightly different things to different people, and some work is crossover, and some of the differences are made by marketing alone. Like, the difference between Historical Fiction and Historical Romance can be as simple as the color of the book jacket. So just get it as close as you can and then don't worry about it anymore.
PLEASE NOTE: YA, MIDDLE GRADE, PICTURE BOOK, GRAPHIC NOVEL, FICTION, NON-FICTION & BIOGRAPHY ARE NOT GENRES. THEY ARE CATEGORIES. "Genre" is a further classification beyond category. If I were to use a Biology class analogy (bear with me, I had to go to summer school for Biology) I'd say that in the taxonomic hierarchy Kingdom-Phylum-Class-Species, "Kingdom" is book, "Phylum" is format of book (electronic, hardbound, paperback), "Class" is category (YA, fiction, etc), "Order" is big-genre, "Species" is sub-genre. (And yes, there are even-more-specific sub-subgenres, but you don't need to get into that unless you are hardcore.)
DYSTOPIAN - These books are concerned with an end-of-the-world, or life-as-we-don't-know-it post-apocalyptic scenario. There might be mutants or bizarro creatures, but the stars are always humans struggling to survive in a terrible future-earth. Dystopian (aka "dystopic", which sounds terrible to me so I never say it) can have romance, but it doesn't have to. IF your book is NOT about a bleak futurescape, it is NOT DYSTOPIAN.
FANTASY is set in a different world from our own (sometimes VERY different) and the weirdness there is generally MAGIC, and creatures are MAGICAL. This world can certainly be earth, but it will be an earth that operates under different rules than earth and society as we understand it now, or set in a community on earth that "normals" can't see. (Hogwarts or Xanth, for example). Wizards & Witches are generally considered creatures of Fantasy, though they are human/humanoid, because they have magic. Fantasy can definitely be funny and fun, and romantic too!
HIGH FANTASY is usually set in a TOTALLY different world, and very often involves quests, swords, and people with unusually strange and strangely punctuated names. There is often a serious or "legendary" tone to High Fantasy. Lord of the Rings, for example, is High Fantasy.
HORROR Is your story scary? REALLY scary? If it was a movie, would there be blood on screen at any time, and would people scream and cover their eyes while watching it? That's horror. Horror can be paranormal or fantasy or realistic or historical.
PARANORMAL means that it is filled with human or humanoid creatures or human-something-shapeshifters in an essentially human or human-esque world, but they have extra SUPER-human abilities or powers. IE, psychics, telekinesis, pyrokinesis, kids who draw things that come to life, ghosts, visions, etc, are all paranormal phenomena. Vampires and Werewolves are arguably mythical creatures and therefore fantasy, but I'd call them paranormal actually, since they are humans that have changed into something else through some set of circumstances, not magic.
Some things are sort of on the border between "paranormal" and "fantasy" - in that case I'd pick the one that you feel is the closest match.
PARANORMAL ROMANCE - Does your story have smoking-hot werewolf sex, or a vampire/human love that defies the boundaries of time and mortality, or a ghost who makes out with his living girfriend in the school locker room, or forbidden incestuous desire discovered while fending off demons? That'd be Paranormal Romance.
SF/SCIENCE FICTION/SPECULATIVE FICTION- Sometimes confused with Fantasy or Dystopian, but IS NOT THOSE THINGS. SF generally seeks to answer a "what if" question, extrapolating things we know about our world and where future scientific development might go, or what might have happened if something was different in the past. Like, time travel. How would we do that REALLY, not using magic? What if in twenty years there was really a way to travel through time, and it was accessible to even high school students? Stories about space travel, aliens, time travel, faster-than-light travel, alternative history (ie, "What if England had colonized Mars?") fall under the SF banner.
STEAMPUNK Steampunk concerns itself with alternative history, usually in a Victorian (or Victorian-esque) setting where steam power and clockwork are used, but featuring anachronistic technology & fictional machines. So like, if your story has clockwork beetles with razorblade teeth who try to bite you to death onboard the dirigible you've hijacked, but you put on your goggles and spray them with your special Aether Gun... that's steampunk. Jules Verne or HG Wells were the original "steampunk" writers, though I am pretty sure they just called them Stories. There is much popular steampunk - think of LEAGUE OF EXTRAORDINARY GENTLEMEN, or the new (Robert Downey Jr) version of SHERLOCK HOLMES, or Scott Westerfeld's LEVIATHAN, for just a few examples.
URBAN FANTASY is always set in a city, and features um... FANTASY scenarios. For example, faeries that are addicted to drugs and live in the subway system. Or trolls who hang out in clubs and impregnate human chicks. Or whatever. If you haven't written a dark and gritty fantasy set what we would recognize as a human-style city, you haven't written an urban fantasy.
A mystery is by definition... mysterious, and often involves a crime or problem and a "whodunit" question. Mysteries can be either historical, or contemporary; realistic, or fantasy, or even paranormal. Something can be just a mystery, of course, but sometimes a book falls into a subsection of mystery, like one of the following:
COZY Cute mysteries, usually in series. Sometimes there is a theme to the books, like a cat solves the clues, or each book includes crossword puzzles or cookie recipes or similar. Sometimes the main character is a nice older person who lives in a cute town where trouble just seems to follow them around (think Father Dowling, or Jessica Fletcher from MURDER SHE WROTE), though modern cozies often have younger, hipper characters. Cozies may include crime or murder, but there is likely to be little to no bloodshed "onstage" and little to no sex, violence or profanity.
LOCKED DOOR MYSTERY A sleuth is given a set of circumstances that seem impossible - murders have happened in a sealed room, inaccessible to anyone, and the only possible suspects are ruled impossible, etc. Like MURDERS IN THE RUE MORGUE and similar. These stories are usually historical or just old (see "traditional mystery")
POLICE PROCEDURAL/FORENSIC/LEGAL A species of crime/detective novel that involves... well, POLICE, and how they go about solving a crime or crimes. Sometimes the perpetrator is known at the outset of the story and the book is more about the profiling, dna testing, forensics, and "manhunt". Anything where there is a crotchety old captain who is counting down the days to retirement, and a rookie wise-ass who doesn't want to ride a desk for the rest of his life... well, you get the idea. SUB-SUB-GENRES: If there is a lot of forensic or autopsy type material or a medical examiner at the heart of the story, it is acceptable to call it a "forensic" mystery. If there is a court case at the heart of the story, you can call it a "courtroom drama" or "legal thriller."
THRILLER is a fast-paced story usually with a mystery/crime element that is inherently THRILLING, often involving a hero who must solve a problem, or find clues, generally via adventure, daring, escapes, karate, CIA training, etc. Thrillers can be legal, or forensic, or historical, or true-crime, or actually of these CAN be thrillers, because extremely fast pacing is what really makes a thriller. (Cozies and Traditional Mysteries cannot be thrillers.)
TRADITIONAL MYSTERY like Agatha Christie or similar - a sleuth (Poirot for example, or Maisie Dobbs) who is given a crime and a set of suspects and clues, often with a specific location (train, Italian Villa, girl's school, etc) and a time frame (the end of the train ride, the end of the holiday, the end of school term) in which to solve the crime, and everything is wrapped up neatly at the end (possibly with all the suspects in one room, red herrings discussed, and villain apprehended.) "Traditional" mysteries of this sort do not necessarily have to be historical, but they often are, or they are just literally old books, and were contemporary in the 20's or whenever they were written.
TRUE CRIME This is actually non-fiction but is often shelved next to mysteries in a bookstore. Nonfiction about, well, A TRUE CRIME (duh) - but written in such a fast-paced and compelling manner that it could be fiction itself. Like DEVIL IN THE WHITE CITY, or the new to paperback DOGTOWN, or HELTER SKELTER.
If you don't think your book falls into ANY of these categories, but it is fictional... you can just call it fiction.
CHICK LIT This term is so out of fashion at the moment that if your book IS chick-lit, you'd probably be better off finding a different way to describe it. But basically, chick-lit is aspirational, fun, usually comedic and romantic, often a romp, often featuring a girl aged 20-38 and her search for the perfect guy. And perfect shoes. And mis-steps along the way to both. I happen to really like these books, but I think they were overpublished earlier in the decade. If your book could have shopping bags, heels, or a diamond ring on the cover, it is very likely chick lit (or another type of fiction wearing chick-lit clothing.) I would personally prefer to call these stories Romantic Comedies.
HISTORICAL Come on, you know what this is. Historical is stuff set in the past. YES, the 80's count as the past and are historical. YES, that means you are old. Historical can be romance, or fantasy, or mystery, or just fiction.
LITERARY FICTION - A term I hate! How pretentious sounding. And my first definition was very cranky. But it really is a term that people use all the time, no matter how much I personally don't like it. So I will use the words of genius Nova Ren Suma, who says, "Hard to define, but to me litfic has more of a focus on language, often voice—sometimes to the detriment of plot. It's often about HOW the story is told or crafted rather than simply the story, the action, itself."
MAGICAL REALISM Is your story basically realistic, but with one or just a few elements that are gently magical? Like for example, everything is like normal in your big huge family, except when Auntie Rosita makes her special stew, people fall in love, and when Uncle Pedro strums his guitar, watch out, because children start to dance on air... literally! Magical Realism is usually somewhat romantic and has heightened language, and is most associated with authors like Isabel Allende and Gabriel Garcia-Marquez, though certainly the books/movies CHOCOLAT, LIKE WATER FOR CHOCOLATE and BABETTE'S FEAST are good examples too.
URBAN FICTION Urban Fiction is always realistic or at least semi-realistic fiction, often featuring hot sex, violence, thug life, gang themes, corrupt bajillionaires, gold-digging women, drug use, people doing time, etc. Often there are cars, legs, dice or guns (or some combo) on the covers. If you haven't written a book like this, do not call your book Urban Fiction.
WOMEN'S FICTION Whoa do I hate this term. I think ALL fiction is women's fiction. But this is a real marketing term, and this is the world we live in, sooo... "Women's Fiction" can be translated to mean "Fiction about Middle Class or Wealthy People and their Families and Relationships (and/or obsession with romantics of another era), usually with pastel umbrellas or rainboots or daisies or a hat on a hook or some other cutesy thing on the cover, favored by certain types of book clubs." "UPMARKET WOMEN'S FICTION" is the same thing, but more likely to win an award and/or sell a ton of copies.
I hope that this has made things MORE clear instead of less. If there are genres I am missing, let me know and I will add. If you would like more clarification, I can edit. This is a work in progress.