What If You Don't Fit Neatly Into One Genre?

If you're not sure what genre your novel is, read this post by agent Jennifer Laughran. It's a fantastic breakdown of the (current) standard genres agents are looking for when they read your query.

So what if you don't fit neatly into one?

(An aside: The post on name pronunciation has been updated with the correct answer. Not surprisingly, most of you got it wrong. Don't worry, I still like you.)

Not fitting neatly is kind of my problem. Not just with Air Pirates, but with most things I write. I like to straddle the line between sci-fi and fantasy (apparently). Everything I've written so far--and most of my future story ideas--take place in the real world, but different. Sometimes there are time machines and immortal beings that can travel outside time. Sometimes there are steam-powered airships and stones that tell the future. Sometimes there are Burmese refugees that start fires with their minds. Sometimes there are mechs and dragons.

I generally fall back on fantasy, but that's potentially misleading. There isn't always magic, and what "magic" there is usually has some sort of science behind it (even if I don't always explain it). And only one of my stories has mythical creatures. (Although Beneath Ceaseless Skies is a fantasy magazine, so I guess Air Pirates counts).

They're not science-fiction because they're not strictly about technology or a "what if." In fact, most of them feel like fantasy (what with the dragons and overall low technology).

They're not dystopian because, although many of the worlds are in the future, it's a future that's not terribly bleak. (Though I guess the lack of food and the oppressive dictator would put Travelers in that category).

I would call them science fantasy, but that's not on the list and nobody really knows what that is.

I call most of them steampunk (for the mixture of technology in a low-tech society), but they're way out on the edge of that subgenre. There's nothing Victorian about these worlds, and I never use the word "corset."

Technically, it's all speculative fiction, but I've always found that term too broad and boring.

But I certainly can't say it doesn't fit into any genre, or it's a genre all it's own, because that's pretentious (and wrong).

People are more interested if you can give them a precise genre. I read Perdido Street Station because I heard it was steampunk, but it's a little bit of everything. I'd rather pick a genre that's close enough than have an agent skip it because they don't know what it is.

Have you ever had a problem categorizing what you write?


Susan Kaye Quinn said...

I feel your pain.

That's a great article (by Jennifer Laughran). I thought I used to know what genre was, but I'm starting to wonder if I really do. After all, what is it used for? Shelf placement? In YA there's only one YA shelf (maybe that will change in the future), unless you're online and then you MAY have Science Fiction, Fantasy, and Horror all smushed together. So, if not shelf placement, then what? Agent preference? Keywords to find a fit between agent and writer? Maybe...but if I call it Paranormal and it's really Science Fiction, does that mean you won't like it?

I had a teen boy over the weekend who I pitched my next novel to - when I said paranormal his eyes glazed over, but when I said science fiction he perked up. So, it's audience then?

Still figuring it out...

Sarah McCabe said...

Sounds like you're closer to paranormal than fantasy, judging by the definitions in the post you linked.

Victoria Dixon said...

All the time! I plan for most of my novel length material to be historical fantasy, but fantasy in the sense that they're alternative history. There may or may not be much of anything fantastical woven in at all. The current one has a ghost, but I've got one novel in the works that has nothing fantasy-oriented about it at all.

Matthew MacNish said...

It's so difficult sometimes.

There's no sci in my fi, but sometimes I don't know whether it's more fantasy, more magical realism, or more fantasy. What do I do?

I call my novel a YA Rural Fantasy. Because, well, it is.

Sylvia said...

I understand where you're coming from because I love the science fiction, but not too much on the tech side, more fantasy, but not epic fantasy. I write steampunk, but I want it also to be set in other historical times.

It's certainly a difficult conundrum, to which there's no easy answer. To my knowledge, there's steampunk and dieselpunk (set around WW1 kind of era), but maybe there should be futurepunk too, which may describe what you're writing.

All the while, what you really want is a sub-genre title which will reflect where your market is.

Adam Heine said...

@Sarah: I dunno. To me, paranormal is like ghosts or vampires or telekinesis, and Jennifer's list defines it as humans with special powers. While one of my novels definitely falls into that, the others don't really.

@Victoria: I think alternate-history-without-fantasy is just historical fiction, yeah? But if it's got a ghost, I'd go with historical fantasy :-)

@allie: I would like a sub-genre for myself, but that's the problem. I can't just make one up, else agents don't know what they're looking at.

Nancy Thompson said...

I'm thriller all the way, but there are many different kinds of thrillers. Mine is a psychological thriller. I guess that would the sub-species.

Whenever I've read about your work, it always struck me as steampunk. Perhaps fantasy steampunk might work?

Sarah Ahiers said...

i fall into the fantasy umbrella. Like you, there's not always magic, but none of my setting are earth and there's usually something fantastical.
I attend a yearly Fantasy conference in MN and we've had long discussions about how Fantasy is the overall umbrella and sci-fi falls under it. Either way, as long as your query and pages are good, you can fiddle with the genre label later

Sarah Ahiers said...

oh, forgot to mention that i popped over here from QQQE per matt's suggestion

Nicole Zoltack said...

It's not always easy to figure out where your story belongs.

Steampunk doesn't haven't to be set in a Victorian world, it can be set in other time periods.

Scott Stillwell said...

Hi, Adam. I'm a new follower wandering over from Matt's QQQE blog.

On my first abortive attempts at writing a novel, I bounced back and forth between genres. Now, I feel like I have finally settled on science fiction, which I love to read and write in equal proportions. Unfortunately, I appear to be settling on comic science fiction, which is only slightly less marketable than a popup book.

Steampunk sounds like a good fit based on what you've described.

L. Diane Wolfe said...

Yes! My published series is classified as YA, but it crosses over into adult halfway through the series because the characters age.
Coming to see you from Matthew's blog.

Jemi Fraser said...

Jennifer L has the best articles!!

I popped over from Matthew's blog - nice to meet you! :)

Genre straddling is tough - I've written a few that could fit in 4 or 5 places...

Kristen Pelfrey said...

I agree that JL has great points here. She also is one of the funniest tweeple I know.
I am posting a comment here because Matthew MacNish has this awesome idea. I mignt not jump off the pier if Matthew said so, but I'd think about it.

Charlie N. Holmberg said...

Ever read Dan Wells? He couldn't pick one genre to save his life. ;)

Adam Heine said...

LOL. I have, CN. That's a good point.