Thursday, October 21, 2010

The Big Ol' Genre Glossary

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.

"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. (PARANORMAL ROMANCE is a little different, see "Romance" section).

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.

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.


Here's the thing that separates ROMANCE from all other kinds of fiction: It is literally ABOUT the romance. It doesn't have to be about SEX, mind you -- just romantic relationships. If you took the relationship(s) out of the book, there would be little, if anything, left. PRIDE AND PREJUDICE is a romance, because if you took Elizabeth and Darcy and all talk of marriage and love and related machinations out of the book, there would be . . . like three scenes of annoying girls talking about hat trimming. Feh. There are about a million sub-sub-genres of Romance, but I am just going to hit the highlights.

CATEGORY ROMANCE, aka SERIES ROMANCE: These are books often found on supermarket or Target shelves, usually published by Harlequin in the US with a very similar look to them. New books come out in these series monthly. They are generally short and cheap. They might be sweet, they might be Inspirational-Christian-themed, they might be sexy, but whatever they are, it will be VERY clear from the cover, title and description, exactly what you'll be getting.  For example, Harlequin American Romance will generally feature small towns, everyday women, Cowboys and Navy SEALS, and storylines like "surprise baby." Harlequin Medical Romance is about Doctors and Nurses finding love.

If a romance novel is NOT part of one of these types of series, it is often called a "Single Title Romance" -- which means generally longer, more complicated, and less "cookie-cutter-esque" -- and though yes, most popular authors expand their "single titles" into series set in the same family or world, that still doesn't make them "category" or "series" romances... Just trust me on this.

CONTEMPORARY ROMANCE: Do I really have to explain this? Romance, set in the here and now, with zero vampires, spaceships, etc.

EROTICA: It's allll about the sexytimes. If your book does not feature A LOT OF SEXYTIMES, it is not erotica.

HISTORICAL, aka REGENCY ROMANCE: Lots of people call all historical romance with ballgowns "Regency Romance" (I am guilty of this myself) -- but if course that is wrong. These books might be set in Victorian times, Edwardian times, Revolutionary War times, etc. And if you are talking to somebody who has WRITTEN a book set in Victorian era, they will probably get irritated if you call it Regency. The fact is, these are all sub-sub-genres of Historical.

True "regency romance" in the classic Georgette Heyer, "inspired by Jane Austen" sense probably doesn't have sex in it. Modern "regency romance" and historicals tend to have lots of steaminess and sexytimes. Personally, I'm just in it for the tempestuous heiresses, ballgowns and banter, and I'm fine with calling ALL of this "Historical" despite the fact that probably actual history had way fewer Hot Crime-Fighting Dukes and way more Hot Cases of Syphilis.

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.


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.


  1. I've heard the term up market women's fiction lately as well - how is this different from women's fiction?

  2. Thanks for this. Sometimes, I've been given slots for genres that mine never seemed to fit into. (ie: paranormal is new and not always on a drop-down menu). It's nice to see where some of the lines are drawn.

    BTW: It's kind of scary to think of the 80's being "history" though.

  3. Thank you for a great list of the genres. Horror and Suspense can intermingle, just as other genres can. When someone writes in two very different genres, what would you suggest? If someone wrote Horror and romance, or Supernatural and Childrens. What about 'literary fiction?'

  4. How incredibly helpful-- consider it bookmarked, printed, and highlighted!
    Thanks very much!

  5. You are such a dear to remember that question from last night! =)

  6. Anonymous9:12 AM

    Can you elaborate on the difference(s) between a paranormal set in a city versus an urban fantasy? Does it call come down to what creatures are being used?

  7. And here I thought I knew what I was talking about - great post, one that I'm sure I'll come back to again and again.

    Except for the fact that I'm officially historical.

  8. Great post - one added question: Does a Western have to be historical?

  9. weird. So my book isn't "urban" fantasy, because it's set in the country? Even though it's "real world"? Would that make it "Contemporary fantasy"? Or do people use this term anymore?

  10. Thanks so much for that! I thought I was writing a YA Urban Fantasy, now it transpires that it's a YA Paranormal Romance. Phew! The blushes you've saved me. ;)

  11. Steena:
    Edited to add Women's Fiction.

    Anon 9:12:
    Urban Fantasy and Paranormal Set in a City are pretty darn close, to be honest. I don't know - I think that if magic and magical creatures (as defined by Fantasy), it is UF. If paranormal phenom, then Paranormal. But if it is seriously hard to tell, don't fret, just pick one.

    Draven, what would I suggest in terms of what? This is just a glossary of what the terms mean, not suggestions on what to do with your career. Am I missing the question?

  12. Anonymous9:35 AM

    Excellent list. Thanks for the breakdown.

  13. for Monica:

    FURTHER NOTE: The basic building blocks of fiction "genre" are SF/F, MYSTERY, ROMANCE and FICTION. In other words - while a bookstore MIGHT have "paranormal", "historical" or other specific genres broken out, they might also not. While an agency website form MIGHT be specific, it might not.

    So just so we are all on the same page: Paranormal, Fantasy, SF, Dystopian, Urban Fantasy and Horror all count as SF/F in the broader sense. Mysteries and Thrillers and Suspense all fall under Mystery. Magical Realism, Urban Fiction and Women's Fiction all go under Fiction, unless they are super-romantic or erotic, in which case, Romance.

  14. HAHA I've been following you on twitter forever but couldn't make the connection between @literaticat and your blog. Great post. Thanks

  15. Question. My WIP is definitely YA historical, but the main character time travels back and forth between 2005 and the 1790s... there really isn't any other 'sci fi' elements other than time travel. Would I still call it YA historical/sci-fi or just plain ol' YA historical? If I leave out the sci-fi/time travel element though, it doesn't convey what the novel really is.

    Thanks for posting this glossary!

  16. Thank you for posting this! Very helpful. I've sent the link to my crit groups already.
    You're awesome, thanks!

  17. Thank you! I think my book is paranormal! I have wondering what to call it for awhile now and didn't want to get it wrong!

  18. Okay, I hate the term "literary fiction" too, because I'm an English professor and the idea that some fiction is literature and some is not makes no sense. All books are literary because they are made out of writing.

    BUT the way the commercial industry uses the term (not the proper definition) is something else again and I must take issue with "probably dreary." Seriously? That's sooo not fair. In the same breath as "appealing to awards committees" you make it sound like award-winning books will necessarily be dreary. Maybe I have "dreary" taste, but Toni MOrrison, (for example) is one of my very favorite writers. And now that Emma Donohue is up for the Booker, do I have to stop finding her books impossible to put down?

    I realize that in the industry, people throw around "literary fiction" in a distastefully snobby way, but don't go all 180 and be a reverse snob.

  19. I Love this list. Very helpful, without being boring. I laughed out loud when you explained what literary fiction was. Ahahaha... That's what I always thought is was.

  20. Thanks for the guide. I was calling my MS fantasy, but now I think it fits more with the dystopian genre!

  21. Lilysea, you are quite right. I was hungry and cranky. (Though to be fair to ME, I did say that it was a BIASED definition.)

    Am editing.

  22. I always said "literary" was an adjective, just as "commercial" is. You can have literary fantasy novels, literary horror novels, literary [insert genre here] novels, etc.

    For me, the adjective "literary" calls attention to itself, meaning I think literary fiction is written in such a way as to draw attention to craft and language and the process of writing.

    Or, in LOLspeak, usually litfic makes me go "I SEE WHUT U DID THAR".

  23. S. Kyle - why can't it just be fantasy?

  24. It can, as long as that doesn't read "high fantasy" to the agent/editor in question. Plus urban fantasy is cool right now, I like being trendy (just kidding).

  25. I think literary fiction tends to be more about characters than plot. An inner, personal journey rather than one driven by action.

    But maybe that's just me...

  26. I think we should dispense with the term "literary" as a sub-genre of books. It's the only one that implies a certain quality rather than actual information about what's inside.

    General fiction should cover it.

  27. Ah, now I know what people mean when they say paranormal. I was kind of confused on that one.

    I've always heard that High Fantasy has elves and other races in it. Is that not the case? Is it really just subject matter and names? My book has strange/made-up names, but no elves or other magical creatures. It is also kind of serious and deals with world saving. Would that make it high fantasy, despite the lack of elves and dwarves, or just regular fantasy. I was just wondering about that.

  28. Love, love, love this post, Jennifer. Your entire blog is super informative. Thank you! <3

  29. This is awesome! Thanks! Gonna post a link on my page to it soon!

  30. Thank you, thank you, thank you!

    I have been trying to figure out if my Sprites in a YA are Paranormal or Fantasy... you answered it very clearly for me!

    Thank you again, love your Tweets too!

  31. JJ & Kate, & lilysea... yep to all of you.

    Kathy - it can have elves and other races in it, sure. I don't think it absolutely HAS to. It is more of a tone thing than an elf thing. But if you are in doubt, just say "fantasy" - that will cover it either way. :)

  32. What a fantastic post. I often find myself thoroughly confused about genres. I just write whatever comes into my head and sometimes am not sure which slot it fits into.

    Still wondering though, what in the world is 'steampunk'???

  33. Anonymous12:50 AM

    Hmmm, for me literary means a book that's a one of a kind. There can't be a sequel to a literary novel because the story is complete.

  34. Thanks for this! Although, darn, I'm sorry I missed your original take on litfic... ;)

  35. Seeing the phrase "thug life" in this post made me chuckle.

    Great list you've got here. Tks for sharing!

  36. m/m romance, a sub-genre with a large audience of hetero women, both writing and reading.

    Nice blog!

  37. Anonymous7:42 AM

    You are a genius! (But we knew that already!) :) Great post! (miss you!)

  38. Rebecca: Edited to add steampunk.

    Anon 12:50 - but there are sequels to some Literary Fiction books. Like John Updike certainly wrote literary fiction, and he wrote lots of sequels....

  39. So would it be preferable to say my novel is simply fantasy instead of 'contemporary fantasy' (as I've been calling it)? The reason for the modifier is to separate it from high fantasy, because when I think of 'fantasy' in general, I mostly think of high fantasy, and I'm afraid agents will do the same.

  40. Abby, sweetheart, you're overthinking this.

    I don't think an agent would automatically assume something was high fantasy unless you called it high fantasy.

    I personally think that "contemporary" implies "real world right now" - but I can see that I could be alone in that, and when paired with "fantasy" I understand that you don't mean "realistic". I will edit the post. You are fine with calling something contemporary fantasy if that is what it is.

  41. Thank you for the perspective, Jennifer! I do tend to overthink things (but sometimes don't realize it), so thank you for calling it as you saw it.

  42. Fantastic! Thanks so much for this great great list!

  43. 'Literary fiction' is fiction plotted around the development of a character, rather than a series of events. It's often concerned with the use of language, because it requires a certain set of narrative skills and an adeptness with the subtleties of language to describe the development of character as though it was a series of events; enough of a plot to keep the reader engaged and invested in 'what happens next'.

    Personally, I think it's a bad label for an individual genre, as any genre can be written with a 'literary voice'. 'Magical Realism' is often written with a literary voice, although that's not what defines the genre. Historical, horror, commercial; any of it can be written with a literary voice and in a way that focus is on the development of the character(s).

    "The Road" and "Handmaid's Tale" are both Dystopians, but written with the plot focus on the changes within the characters, rather than in a series of events. They are both literary fiction. "Atonement" and "Crimson Petal and The White" are both historical novels, but they too are 'literary fiction'.

    It really is a crap label that does nothing more than give you a hint at the quality of the writing. In a perfect world, every good novel would have both an interesting and unique plotline of events as well as natural growth and development of the characters, written skillfully enough to bring both into relief throughout the narrative.

  44. Thanks for adding steampunk. I almost asked you to yesterday but was embarrassed to admit I may be the only one left who didn't quite know for sure what the heck it was. This was helpful :-)

  45. Thanks for a great list! I think I would place cartoons in the genre of humor.

    The "marjorie-cartoons" have been called "Thurberesque" by a noted Kerouac scholar. Is that why they are on their way to becoming an internet viral sensation?

  46. Thanks so much for summing them all up, I actually know what I write now!

    Very informative post, great idea.

  47. Anonymous6:45 AM

    "Both thrillers and mysteries can be either historical, or realistic, or fantasy, or paranormal."

    Can you expand on 'realistic'? Would that be 'traditional' or maybe contemporary? My WIP could be a cozy except my mc has quite a mouth on her.


  48. This comment has been removed by the author.

  49. Anon 6:45 - Anon 6:45 - Of course a mystery can be contemporary (that just means it is set in the here and now), and isn't historical, or on a spaceship, or whatever. It sounds to me like what you've got is "A contemporary mystery." Or just "A mystery."

    "Traditional" has a different implication, which I have added to the glossary. :)

  50. Anonymous7:49 AM

    FYI, cozy mysteries being written today are rarely about "older" women. They're about women in their 30s and 40s. I read this type of book more than any other and haven't come across Jessica Fletcher-style characters in years. Cozies are young and hip.
    -Laura (no blog, sorry!)

  51. Fair enough Laura - I did say "often" not "always" - but I have amended the post.

  52. How do I love thee? Let me count the ways!

    Thank you so much for this post. I've been trying to define my first YA WIP for two years. I'd never head as "Urban" as a genre, and that is exactly what it is.

    You're a lifesaver!

  53. Great list. I had a hard time placing my novel in a genre for the longest time. Originally, I said paranormal romance, but romance wasn't always the driving force. Later, I thought Urban Fantasy, but it wasn't set in the city. Someone pointed me in the right direction, and I found the term Contemporary Fantasy.

    It's nice to see other writers searching for a name for their contemporary fantasies also.

  54. I was just wondering, since you do represent Magic Under Glass - does that officially qualify as steampunk? I've seen it recommended sometimes when YA steampunk referrals are requested, and I've done a fair bit of referring myself (I own the book and love it. :))

    But nowhere on the book back flap or anywhere mentions steampunk, and most bookseller websites don't mention steampunk either. I'm a bit confused at how steam-y steampunk has to be until a book can declare its steampunk genre loud and proud.

  55. Thank you for this! A couple of days ago, I broke down the thriller genre on my blog. It is very helpful to know the various classifications. All best!

  56. Loved this post, really helpful and clear distinctions, (especially between classes and genres and sub-genres within). I'm curious about the "women's fiction" label. Is what you're describing like Debbie Maccomber books?

  57. Valerie6:32 PM

    Thank you! This was very helpful. I had NO idea what steampunk was, and figured I was just too old...

  58. Ivae - sure, Magic Under Glass has a couple of "steampunky" elements, like the clockwork guy. I think I called it "steampunk-flavored" or something in my pitch. So it certainly might appeal to some fans of steampunk, but really, mostly it is a fantasy; stuff happens because it is magical and the characters are warlocks and fairies and have MAGICKED stuff, but the actual machinery is not really a point of focus.

    Sort of like, if you have a big old Victorian house done in the period style, but you put in a modern kitchen... that doesn't change the fact that you've still got a Victorian house.

  59. ALSO Ivae: Think about it this way. There are a lot more fans of fantasy in general than there are of steampunk specifically, no?

    I think that when you get super-narrow in your definitions, you can limit yourself.

  60. Gina: Yep. But it is actually a vast umbrella that could arguably cover probably half of the regular fiction shelves, including stuff like THE HELP, Nicholas Sparks, Jodi Picoult, etc.

    What they have in common: realistic, generally about families and friendships (sisterhood, parenthood, etc), generally with at least a certain amount of drama. These may be romantic, but they are not romantic comedies.

  61. I know you don't represent nonfiction. But you said nonfiction and biography are categories, not genres, so are there genres of nonfiction and biography? Or just subjects?

  62. Nancy - I guess there are sort of genres in nonfic - true crime, adventures, etc. But basically I'd assume that in a query for nonfiction you just say what kind of book it is. Like - nature? science? pets? political science? sports? cooking? etc.

    There may be more specific genres within these topics, but I'm afraid I don't know enough about it to say.

  63. "What if the Napoleonic War had been fought with Dragons?" I'm not sure how this fits into SF, even though it's what you broadly call 'Alternative History'. Dragons are purely mythical/fantasy creaures, they have no basis in science other than the Komodo variety, which would not be much use in an epic naval battle.

  64. Paul, I am sure you know that I was thinking specifically of HIS MAJESTY'S DRAGON by Naomi Novik. It has been a long time since I read it, but to me, it felt like history, not magic. They were just THERE, like horses were there, they weren't weird or anything.

    However, you are quite right that Dragons are inherently creatures of fantasy.

    I don't know, I am still on the fence about this one. But I am perfectly willing to edit the post.

  65. Good golly you did a lot of work laying this all out like this.

    BTW, I call all my fiction Urban Fiction.

  66. Great post! I'm wondering what genre anthropomorphic novels fall into? Fantasy?

  67. Well of course they weren't weird to the people in the story, but talking dragons are extremely weird to us. You could of course argue that the stories are set in an alternate reality, which would bring them under the mantle of quantum physics and thus SF, but to me historical novels with dragons fit more comfortably into Fantasy, regardless of the lack of magic.
    Much of the science in SF novels is effectively 'magic' in that it has no basis in scientific reality, but is just a construct of the authors imagination. Some fantasy novels (ie set in a world different to ours) don't contain any magic.
    Don't edit the post, there will always be grey areas in a list like this & anything which sparks intelligent debate is a good thing IMHO.

  68. I categorized myself as historical romance, but have been criticized as being more historical fiction + women's fiction. My newest query markets it this way in spite of strong romantic elements.
    Is there a place for novels that straddle genres? And are there agents who will even look at them?

  69. Anonymous10:21 AM

    I work in the film industry, I decided to give writing a try as I believe I have a phenomenal idea (We'll see) and don't have the disposable millions to produce it. Thinking I know enough about communicating story, and writing being just a different media- How hard could it be?
    I'm stumped even working out what to label it?
    I believed I was writing - A Book, is the label 'Fiction' unmarketable? It feels literary genre titles have become infected by a form of purple prose?
    My WIP is nothing like Star Wars but how would you classify something like that if it was argued to be our own past? My WIP is set in the present but I include backstory set "a long long time ago" in an age very futuristic in feel. There is 'magic' believed to be Miracles to the uneducated but is shown merely to be science. It's always felt to me to be a species of Fantasy, due to the wielding of 'power' but there are no magical or supernatural creatures, it's set in todays times in a city. Without the drug addled fairies impregnating trolls in nightclubs or whatever, its not Urban Fantasy is it?
    The driving force behind all the action that unfolds is love, in the end the MC gets the Girl. Yet I dont think this warrants a Romance tag. I am not giving up on my WIP But it seems I cant even describe it in 250 words -sigh-

  70. I've been struggling with what genre my work-in-progress goes under because I originally thought it was Urban Fantasy--because it's set in the city--but then realized it could probably just be Fantasy because someone said that if it's set in another realm, it's not Urban Fantasy.

    My work-in-progress has other realms in it, and my characters visit them throughout the book, but what's happening with them isn't actually set in the realm. The realms are there for other, necessary reasons. So would I still classify it under Fantasy? I would say so just because Fantasy is such a broad category and I wouldn't screw it up, but I want to make sure.

    The glossary was great for clarifying what genres my other works-in-progress go under. Thank you!

  71. Great post, Jenn.
    Elissa Haden Guest and I taught a writing workshop yesterday at Stanford Continuing Studies on Writing the MG and YA Novel. For "extra credit" we encouraged our students to take a look at your very useful Big Ol' Genre Glossary. Thanks!

  72. C L Hill3:35 AM

    I think I'm more confused than before in terms of 'chick lit' and 'women's fiction.' One of my stories is about a late 20s woman, struggling to figure out if she should carry on in a long-term relationship, or if it's time to start focusing on her own goals in life irrespective of men.

    It's not about shoes, fancy cocktails, getting someone to propose to her, shopping, and (thank God) definitely not about working in advertising/journalism in New York.

    So by those terms, I don't think it's what most people think of when they hear 'chick lit'. But at the same time, you say 'women's fiction' is bad. So what on earth do I call it?

  73. C.L. Hill - I never said that Women's Fiction is bad. I said that the TERM ITSELF makes ME PERSONALLY uncomfortable - but it is a real term, and everybody else uses it anyway regardless of my feelings on the subject, so oh well.

    I also hate the word "moist" - it hasn't yet been outlawed.

    It certainly sounds to me like you have written Women's Fiction. Or if you prefer - just Fiction.

  74. What's mainstream literature? I've heard people say it's anything that's popular... is it in anyway different from the other genres you've mentioned?

  75. ROFL, I'm so with you on the word 'moist' :) Thanks for such an informative post. I write MG and I often see the term 'adventure' - can you tell me what would be the difference between, say, an 'historical adventure' and an 'historical thriller'? Thank you!

  76. Now I wish I could subscribe to blogger sites via wordpress!

    Very informative- thanks for posting this!

  77. This is very helpful, but I was wondering if there is a genre known as "suspense" or anything similar, or if that would fall into another category? I'm having trouble placing my books.

    One is rather realistic, aside from two people having a specific, special power, so I would assume that is paranormal?

    In another wip, I'm even more confused. I always labeled it suspense, but I don't think it's quite as fast or intense as "thriller." Any advice?

  78. becca you are way overthinking it.




    If you think it is suspense, say suspense for crying out loud!

  79. Would you classify Supernatural along with Paranormal? I see there is no mention of supernatural. Thanks

  80. Julie Frayn6:19 AM

    Being an over-thinker, here's what I am way-over-thinking... My novel sounds like it fits urban fiction (drug use, sex, child abuse, rape, murder) but parts have a rural setting. Categorically, it is about teenagers, though is not YA - it is a love story, but not a romance novel. Gak! Can you clarify?

  81. What is wrong with calling it "fiction"?

  82. Julie Frayn7:26 AM

    Is that specific enough in a query? and thanks...

  83. Anonymous5:18 PM

    Thank you for this blog, as well as the great post! It's really been helpful. As far as MG, is that the industry's name for what I grew up calling kid's books? What would I call the Ramona Quimby books, as far as category and genre? Or something like AFTERNOON OF THE ELVES, which deals with heavier issues but with young children? Thank you so much for the help!

  84. hmm.. I'll have to give this some thought. I've written what I (and others) call dystopia.. but it's not necessarily bleak.. it's just that there's a very strong, very controlling government.. and the MC is acting contrary to what the government would suggest. Are you sure the bleakness is an essential element?

  85. Nice article, and it's handy for people who are wondering how to query their novels.

    I don't think there's any unanimous agreement about what HF is (as opposed to fantasy that's simply set in a second world with magic). Some say it should have elves and other "traditional" fantasy creatures and tropes (but how many second world fantasies written in recent years have had elves and dwarves in? Very, very few, and those are mostly by writers who have been at it for decades). Some say it's about the scale or scope of the story and stakes, but that's really more the definition of epic fantasy (and some stories, like LoTR, can be said to be both HF and EF). I've even been told a story isn't really HF unless there's a certain elevated tone or language to the piece. I've given up on trying to decide whether my own novel qualifies as HF, or epic fantasy, and am going to query it as fantasy, I think.

    There's sword and sorcery fantasy as well, though it's less common today.


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