Genre Dilemma

Writing Process

I write character driven stories. I always have and not for any other reason than that’s just how I connect with things. I don’t come to a story through some really cool plot idea but I come to it through characters. This is my comfort zone and while I’ve really been trying to challenge myself lately with my most recent WIP, the fact is that it just isn’t going to be some fantastical thrill ride with a bunch of bells and whistles.

And here is my dilemma. This story isn’t quite realistic fiction but it isn’t quite fantasy or magical realism. It centers around a girl whose illness forces her to live in a kind of alternate reality and while this aspect is obviously significant to the plot, her daily struggle as a teenager trying to manage her illness is just as important. So my question is this: How important are genre conventions these days?

Because I have two options. I can alter this story to fit into one of the above genres, giving readers something they expect and maybe even something they’re sick of reading. Or I can tell this story how I see it in my head and potentially confuse a lot of readers by not giving them exactly what they’d expected while at the same time possibly giving them something better.

It’s a toss up really. Someone will be disappointed regardless of which route I choose. But aren’t they always? Because we can never please everyone. Never. And while identifying a clear genre has always been essential in traditional publishing for marketing purposes, I’m not sure if the current categories are inclusive enough of all the non-traditional stories that are finding a readership through indie publishing.

There is a plethora of untapped potential out there, of stories too alternative and too unique for traditional publishing. But does that mean we don’t write them? Or are readers ready for more experimental fiction? In my opinion, and speaking as a reader myself, the answer is yes. They’re ready and they’re open. And not just specifically for something experimental or even something different. But something unique.

So here is my hope–that my unique perspective will yield a unique story. That voice trumps genre conventions. That good stories can be recognized regardless of how they’re packaged. And that I can keep writing stories my way and that will be enough.


15 thoughts on “Genre Dilemma

  1. Fuck genre. My novel doesn’t fit cleanly either – set in an alternate Briton but the ‘magic’ isn’t strictly magic. Almost everything I really really like is a bit of a hodgepodge of inspirations. I think that’s what innovation is really about. Good writers invent trends, not follow them 🙂

    1. Amen! I’ve been fighting my way through revisions for this story and I think the reason I was having such a tough time is because I was trying to make it fit within these invisible parameters that it was never meant to fit into. It wasn’t until I stopped trying to control every aspect that it finally came together. I’m coming to terms with the fact that what I write is not necessarily mainstream but that doesn’t mean it can’t find an audience. My identity as an author will be determined by how I deviate from the norm, not by how well I follow it.

  2. You have to write the story your character tells you to write, whether it’s on one genre or another … or even if it doesn’t fit into any genre at all. I love character-driven stories. And I think I’m already in love with your new protagonist.

    1. Thank you! I just started working on her sequel, which I think means she’s starting to grow on me a little bit haha. And I think you’re right. This is her story and I’m not going to impose circumstances on her that don’t feel natural. Staying true to her story the way I imagine it is the only way to really stay true to myself.

  3. First of all, your story sounds really compelling; I love the idea of balancing a fantastical world with the unavoidable consequences of reality – there’s so many ways that could go! Most importantly you sound like you have a really clear idea of what its identity is, and even if that’s not something genre-friendly it already has its own sense of self.
    I have the same anxieties about sticking to genre conventions or being forced to abide by them by a publisher in order to be ‘bankable’, but also like you I think that us readers are more than ready for something new. And at the end of the day, even if we do stick to the conventions and try and keep up with the latest trends, we can’t ever be sure if we’ll have a product anybody is interested in, so we may as well make the product that we know for sure that WE want.

    1. You’re so right!!!! It’s definitely a crap shoot either way and in that case I guess the writer should always have the final say. We’re the ones who spent hours pouring our heart and soul into the story and we of all people should be satisfied with the final product. And thank you! It’s my foray into something not so contemporary/realistic but obviously old habits die hard. Every time I tried to push for the magical realism, it came off as just that–forced. But I think as long as I can craft some strong characters, maybe readers will root for them regardless of what kind of story they’d expected it to be.

      1. Go for it! It’s always good to step out of our comfort zones as writers and see what of ourselves we can bring to something entirely new to us. And I definitely think banking on the characters is always the way to go, whether or not we’re writing within the confines of genre; I already want to know more about your protagonist so you’ve got my vote!

  4. I always had problems with genre. Sometimes I write stuff that does not fit any strict definition. So what? I still keep writing. Character driven stories are the best ones.

  5. Follow your heart on this one.
    I have been sending out query letters for a book, and I was forced to label it as something. I went with dystopian/fantasy. In truth there is only on fantastical element and it is more post-apocolyptic than dystopian. I have heard back from agents saying dystopian is dead, no thanks. And I’m like, IT’S NOT REALLY DYSTOPIAN. So it is so hard trying to label something.
    I say write the character driven story you are passionate about and it will sell itself.
    Good luck!

    1. When I tried querying my first book I had such a hard time describing it as well. What I really hate though is when they ask you to list a few other books that are similar and I’m like…well…nothing. I’ve never read anything like it, hence why I felt compelled to write it! I understand what they’re trying to do but it’s time that we stop trying to fit art into these pre-packaged boxes and just let it be. I’m definitely going to just follow my gut on this one and hopefully my beta readers will see the story for what it is and not for what they think it should be and judge it just on that.

  6. I used to feel I might be plot deficient, but when I look at books I love they focus on the characters more than the plot. One critic did remark that the “romance was not developed” in a A Place in the World, but then that was not the main theme.
    When asked to choose the genre I listed “mainstream ” and “literary” although, under pressure, I did add “romance” and “adventure” … with some qualms about disappointing fans of those genres who who may feel the story is not the typical fit.

    1. Thank you! It’s so funny that you commented on this post because I was just thinking of it today. A beta reader got back to me with some feedback on this very story and while I thought it was pretty much finished, she advised that I go back and change quite a few things to better define its “genre”. But I’m like you in that I don’t want to place labels on it that might mislead readers and I don’t want to change the story so much that at its core, it’s no longer the story I originally set out to tell. Luckily, since I’m planning on self-publishing it, I think the sort of hybrid genre might work in my favor and I plan to just go with my gut on this one.

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