“Genre” is French for “kind, sort, category”: nothing more. Using it judgementally, pejoratively, is someone else’s decision. ‘”Oh, he writes genre fiction,” she sneered.’ You can change sneer to gush or boast without any lack of realism. Except that the term “genre fiction” doesn’t make much sense: every piece of fiction can be shoehorned into one genre or another. But it’s often used for “anything not mainstream or literary fiction.”
Shoehorned it will be, since a decision on genre is a marketing tool, whether yours when selling it to a publisher, the editor selling it to the editorial board of the house, the publisher’s catalog selling it to bookstores, or the bookstore clerk putting it on a shelf.
Admit it: you check out certain genres first at the store, whether literary or mystery, Western or romance, thriller or inspirational. You know you’ll most likely find something you like in that area. On-line publishers break down catalogs by categories, too, only they can put a book in two different pages. So right there you see it working as a sales tool to put your novel into the hands of your best audience.
My advice is always to just write the story in you have in your head and worry afterward about hunting a genre label for it. You can tweak it later — which is now, at revision time. Knowing what templates you’re working with can speed up and target the revision process.
I can hear several of you in the beginner rows declaring, “Oh, but my novel crosses all genre lines! It combines six or seven!”
Like novels with twelve equal protagonists, this is something few but beginners would want to write. Multiplicity is not a sign of instant genius revealed. It’s more likely simple ambition without understanding that point and clarity are valued over tossed fruit-salad. You don’t have to break all the rules to get sold, nor to convince people you’re brilliant. Anything that ornate is probably beyond a beginner’s ability to write. We don’t expect fourteen-year-old footballers to play the pros to win, or second-year ballet students to go on point. Writers shouldn’t expect to go straight to the wildly difficult as a beginner, either. Trust me: if it’s at all salable, it can be shoved into one pigeonhole or another.
Besides, if it “crosses all genre lines,” it will be sold as litfi or fantasy, guaranteed. It will fit there.
When you start revision for a second draft, you should make some genre decisions. This will guide you in what you should emphasize or delete. You can also see then that you may have changed your mind about where this fits. You can start writing straight historical fiction and wind up in steampunk science fiction. You can start writing romantic suspense and wind up in mannerpunk fantasy, or vice versa. Anything is possible when you really start channelling your Muse, the part of your mind that creates wonderful things if you just let it.
Now, let’s look at what choices you have in genres.