Here’s how to spot a lit-snob: if you see their eyelids flutter shut for a brief moment as their upper lip begins to curl a G softer than a French je ne sais quois soaked in Lenor and wrapped in a cashmere sock, they’re about to drawl ‘genre fiction’ with nauseating contempt. (I saw you just stuck your upper lip out curling a soft G. Me too.) Meanwhile, the rest of us are clutching our tatty old James Pattersons and Helen Fieldings, wondering what on earth the difference is. Or, more importantly, how do we write genre fiction?
So what is genre fiction?
Genre has been around for a long, long time, until literary fiction splintered off into its own category: arty, experimental and serious.
Left behind, genre fiction became an umbrella term for everything else: specifically, an ever-expanding tree diagram of categories, genres and subgenres.
As with anything interesting, there’s a big grey area of overlap: a book about a cowboy could be either, but if the cowboy is on a long soul-searching voyage across Death Valley to find the man who might be his stepfather, it’s probably literary.
If he shoots a lot of two-dimensional bad guys, kisses the girl, and makes puns along the way, you’ve got genre. A wild oversimplification, but there it is.
So, how do to you write genre fiction?
If you want to start writing genre fiction, the first thing to do is to pick a genre.
No matter what category you decide to write in, broad or narrow, there’s a genre to suit you, all the way down to steampunk sci-fi, dinosaur romance and feminist political thrillers.
Next, read widely — but if you love genre, you’ve probably done this already.
Don’t just read books: read articles, watch TV shows, follow Facebook groups and blogs, connect to people and share your love of whatever you’re into. You’ll get more ideas, and find a tribe of people ready and willing to devour your work when it’s ready.
Writing for young adults
Young Adult fiction – or YA for shorty – is one genre that’s exploded in a bright nebula of subgenres in recent years.
Its expansion has occupied a rare place in the front row of popular culture, with Hollywood getting in on the trend by realising dystopian nightmares like The Hunger Games, love stories like the Fault in Our Stars and fantasies like The Mortal Instruments series make perfect blockbusters.
Blogger, freelance writer, and social media manager Grace Latter writes about her love of the YA fiction across the spectrum. She says:
“YA started as a quiet and slightly awkward younger sibling of general ‘adult’ fiction. Then over the past few years, it’s come into its own and become not only a whole genre and prominent section of every bookshop, it’s also now read by people of all ages — and they can all relate to it.”
The key to writing success: formula
Therein lies the key to genre fiction’s enduring success, and how to write a great one: no matter how gory, romantic, shocking, formulaic or schlocky you go, genre is — and should be — relatable.
At their heart, both genre and literary fiction tell the truth about live, love and ourselves. Only the wrapping paper is different.
But for genre, the wrapping paper is nearly always folded the same way.
Formulas lie at the heart of good genre: not just in the classic Hero’s Journey, but in intricate networks of conventions and rules unique to each subgenre. For example:
- In romance novels… the lovers always end up together after a series of misunderstandings, complications, comedies or tragedies.
- In haunted house horror novels… the new house doesn’t feel right, so the mother has a library research montage and discovers a past tragedy. As the bumps in the night get worse, she confronts the monster and it’s vanquished forever — or is it?
- In crime noir novels … an embittered detective/forensic investigator with a painful past is reluctant to take on one last case: his biggest challenge. A deadly game of cat and mouse, the bodies pile up — and the killer is shot, arrested, or scared off… until the sequel.
(Those are just a few to get you started, natch.)
And it doesn’t stop them all being original, wonderful, innovative works of fiction.
Done right, genre is freedom within cosy limits: endless variations on a theme.
But genre doesn’t suit everyone, so as always, the best advice is always the same — write what you love.