Sunday, September 09, 2012

On Categorization

A couple of years ago I wrote The Big Ol' Genre Glossary. This blog post was intended to be "the last word" on the subject of genre identification, etc.  Ha ha, is all I have to say to that.

As you might know if you ever go on internet writing fora, there are some genres and sub-genres that are just fuzzy, and there is a lot of overlap. Five different people might have five very different ideas about what constitutes "paranormal" versus "supernatural" versus "urban fantasy" versus WHATEVER. People can get very anxious about how to categorize their own work. I've had writers say to me, in tones of deadly earnestness, that they know agents will look for any reason to reject, and if they get the sub-genre of their own work "wrong," they will never be taken seriously and agents will hate them. That getting this bit of information "wrong" will be cause for an auto-reject.

Yes! Those terrible, dragon-like AGENTS. Always keen for any small reason to run writers through with a pike and roast them alive, the better for the feasting! Oh you didn't know we get younger every time a writer screams? Yes! Your agony is our elixir! Our blood is thrumming with your pain!

Oh, the guild tells me I was not supposed to say that last part aloud. Please strike it from the record. Also disregard the cackling. Now. In all seriousness.

For the most part... Agents are just people. People who love books, and who want to help facilitate the making of books. People whose job it is to advocate for authors. (That FOR is quite important!). We work with a lot of authors. We LOVE authors. We recognize that authors can sometimes be neurotic. We are not trying to drive authors crazy (or crazier, anyway).

This drama that the internet has cooked up about agents declining you because there was a typo in your query, or because you formatted an email query letter as a business letter complete with home address (or failed to do so), or double-spaced when you meant to single-space... or because  you said "dark fantasy" when you meant "urban fantasy" or "paranormal" when you meant "supernatural"? Is just not true.

* First of all, as I mentioned, there is a lot of overlap, and different people have different definitions. If an agent was to decline your work based on that alone? They are not somebody you'd want to work with.

* Tying yourself in knots because of this kind of minutia may be keeping you from looking at the bigger picture, and at things that actually WILL cause agents to accept or decline your work. Things like having a killer pitch and tight, great, polished writing in the actual ms. This is truly what the agent cares about most.

* Some of the most interesting books defy easy categorization. If you have a book that is gorgeously written but also highly commercial, that is a GOOD THING. If as a genre it is something that lies on the crossroads between mystery, romance and fantasy (or whatever) -- that too is probably a GOOD thing, not a bad thing.

* If you have a magical story and you just call it "fantasy" I won't even blink an eye. The default "big category" of Fiction, SF/F, Mystery or YA is actually sufficient information. If you want to get more specific, that's fine.  But if you go nuts with it and decide to make up a genre like "high-urban-splatter-steam-rotica"...well if it seems like you're joking, I'll chuckle. If it seems like you are being serious, I'll roll my eyes. But if the book sounds interesting, even that bit of silliness wouldn't stop me from continuing.

* IN fact I'll go further and contend that "overcategorizing" is self-limiting. If you've written what you consider to be "high-urban-splatter-steam-rotica"... you'll never find an agent who reps that, no matter how much research you do. If you consider your work a "Steampunk inspired paranormal-mystery" you might find a couple of agents who rep all of those categories. But if you just call it FANTASY, wow, suddenly you have a ton of potential people to query, and you can pick and choose who seems like might be the best fit from this larger pool.

* So sure, absolutely, give categorizing your best shot. But if you find yourself freaking out over which sub- or sub-sub-genre your work falls into, understand that this is of little concern to agents at the query stage. They care that the story sounds cool and the writing is excellent. And that is where you should be putting your energy.


  1. Thanks for this! I know agents are good willed people as a whole, or at least I like to think they are, but this and the query letter in general have been a subject of stress for me.

    I'll take your advice and go for the broader category and just call mine YA SF/F. Though I've been told by so&so and whosit my MS cannot be called fantasy because there are aliens and it can't really be sci-fi because there's not enough science in it.

    Whatever, I'll let the agents and editors figure it out. Hopefully they'll be bitin' at the bit to read the thing and won't worry about what category it falls into.

    Now if I can only figure out how detailed my synopsis should be, b/c THAT actually gives me nightmares. How the hell do I fit a 92,000 wd novel onto one damn page?

    1. Yeah in that kind of case I'd just call it YA. Good luck!

      (And I don't think many people expect a synopsis to be one page, do they? Most that I see are more like 2-3.) (But I am not a synopsis expert because I hate them.)

  2. I had not thought of sub genre until I read this. So I am glad it is not something to worry about. There is enough out there to bring on the shaky sweats without adding to it. Thank you for sharing this, it was a interesting read and prepared me for the just in cases.

    1. Sorry didn't mean to give you anything new to worry about! Delete it from your memorybanks!

  3. Lots of fun reading this, Literaticat. Considering my first submission ions ago, a four-thousand word story replete with illustrations, which I labeled "a picture book," it would have been tempting to say it was rejected because of this 'trivial' faux-pas.
    But I never went there. I learned.
    As to typos, they're a fact of typing. Any editor or agent that dismisses a query when they spot one will probably miss a whole lot more. Or maybe not. We should be roasted with BBQ sauce for that.
    So onward, everybody. Just do good work.

  4. Thanks for the de-dragonification of agents ;) And the demystifying of genre tags.
    Will pass this along.

    1. And by you passing it along, I got to read it and see that this humorous agent reps picture book authors and that perhaps I just might submit to her! It seems it would be to anyone's advantage to have an agent with a sense of humor.

  5. Great post, the only thing I am worried about these days is polishing my novel so I beat the odds so to speak, and yes I did print put the list of various genres, sub-genres that was awesome of you to do so, it helps me when I start a new project.

  6. Ten points to anyone who visits their local bookstore today and asks where the high-urban-splatter-steam-rotica is shelved. Bonus points for keeping a straight face.

    Thanks for this great post, Jennifer. "Agents are people, too"- how novel!

  7. Definite relief to those of us with a high concept fantasy - especially when we are told it's the most misunderstand/misused term around. I can breathe a sigh of relief and just stick to fantasy. :P

    Thanks so much for a lovely post - it's true, agents are human and you find that out from their blogs and following them on twitter (and they have some very funny stories to tell sometimes, too).

  8. Anonymous9:20 AM

    Thank you for making me feel ever so much better about my neuroses. I only wish you would rep high-urban-splatter-steam-rotica.


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