Writers love knowing genres, and they absolutely love understanding what genre they fit into. It gives them, I think, a sense of belonging, and lets them find a familiar ground or even models for their own work. There is nothing wrong with availing yourself of multiple genres, looking for your "best fit". It's a lot like trying on new shoes, try a few pairs at the store to see what holds your foot the best.
The problem I see is that once people find a pair of shoes, or a style of shoe that fits their feet, then every other shoe goes out the window. And....that's not necessarily bad, depending on the type of action you're taking, but just as with shoes, one is not enough.
I really mashed up those metaphors into a sweet pulpy mess, didn't I? Let's try again.
Just as you have different shoes for different outfits, so too do you have different genres available to you for different pieces of writing.
If you're writing the next great epic romance between a human and her.......glow-in-the-dark were-ostrich, you're probably not going to find a lot of help in iambic pentameter or haiku. And while those two types of poetry would completely make you marketably unique, it's difficult to produce the work you intend under those conditions. But you can try it....who knows, maybe haiku captures the essence of their spectral flightless bird romance.
Now as far as specifics go, I don't know exactly how many genres there are. If that somehow makes me a bad writer, then I don't care. But I'll list a few here: Western, Historical Fiction, Contemporary Fiction, Horror, Thriller, Biography, Memoir, Mystery, Science Fiction...now under each of those there are sub-genres like Transgressive Fiction, Steampunk, Alternate History, Erotica, Supernatural Romance, Satire.....
See how diverse that list is? I start naming sub-genres, and you can argue that any of them are their own main genre. It's not about the quantity, it's about the classification.
There are specific elements that define the genre, and that are inherent in all works of the genre. (For instance, all mysteries contain an unknown element that needs to be solved and all thrillers contain pacing that encourages movement of characters and audience). Knowing what they are (which you can discover by reading work within the genre and some decent google-fu) is somewhat expected of you.
Now, either for reasons of great arrogance, caprice or accomplishment, let's say you can't find a genre that really speaks to you. The next logical step in the progression is to define your own...but before we get talking about that, let's make sure you're clear on what's going on:
1. You do understand that not every genre is for every story, right? No one story is exactly and only 100% one genre only, and that a lot of the best stories ever take handfuls of elements from multiple genres and appeal to broad audiences for a lot of reasons. You do know that no one (except maybe you) expects a story to be exactly and totally one genre, right?
2. You've done more investigating than just one genre, yes? You didn't just stop after looking at two romance novels and conclude there's not a genre on earth that can contain your wit, did you? Not doing your homework isn't going to make your writing suffer, but it will put some egg on your face when you get to marketing.
3. This isn't you trying to be better than other people, is it? You're not doing this to get attention or feel special or make your work standout because you feel you don't normally get a second look from people, right? You're clear as to why you're building your own genre, yes? Please don't be an obnoxious knob about this. What you're about to get into needs to be done for purely craft reasons, and should in no way support (nor will it) your monstrous and troubled psyche and ego. If you're not sure you're connecting with Planet Earth, I'd double-check all your fuses before you go down this road.
Now, having said all that, let's build you your own genre. Here's what you need.
- A finished piece of work
- An explanation of that work (a synopsis)
- A list of themes/ideas/concepts found in the piece (I like to write these down)
One piece does not a genre make! Although many snobbish hipsters and too-cool-for-the-room critics may say that a piece IS the genre, they're only saying that because there's more than one piece to evaluate and judge (and hipsters LOVE to judge).
So we take our concepts (which are not plot points or unique little bits of description, but those core elements that we want the audience to walk away with) and by listing them we see where our genre stands. Perhaps your genre speaks to the audience in a very damaged way, where the narrator always gets victimized and traumatized in the story. Maybe in your genre stories are dismissive about matters of class and social structure, blending everyone together into some bland association. Maybe in your genre you just love to have people engage in sex acts with food products --- what we're talking about your defining characteristics here, so fly that freak flag as needed. Get your ya-yas out. Live it up.
You may find that by listing your themes, you share a lot in common with other genres (this is a good sign). Now this mutual connection can serve a few purposes: (i) It can tell you that in fact you're part of that other genre (ii) It can give readers a starting point for their context.
Giving them a starting point is critical and hugely advantageous, because they're going to need a frame of reference (or comparison) to stick with your writing. Often, people will look for a kind of equation to describe things, so they know if they should plunk down the cash. An equation looks like this (totally made up on the spot)
Melville's symbolism + Butcher's fantasy + Kripke's dialogue + Rowling's length. (Don't get mad at me that I picked the dialogue from a TV show....)
See what I'm getting at? Based on my description of components, people know what to expect. Hopefully you'll forge a better equation out of your components that illustrate and earmark your work.
Your birthed creation, the monster to your Frankenstein, needs a name. I encourage you to pick an adjective that you can easily tack onto the word "fiction" (transgressive fiction, science fiction, feminist fiction), but you may also pick a title that speaks to your style (minimalism, trendy horseshit, etc). If the title does not match or clearly speak about the work (meaning it paints a poor picture of what lies ahead for the reader), consider a name change.
Yes it needs a name. Don't think for a minute that you can get by thinking that your work is so genius and so unique that it defies labels. If that's your thinking, two things will happen: (1) Critics will name it for you, most unflatteringly (2) Fewer people will read your work than you think, because people can sniff out arrogance a mile away.
There will be some genre discussion in my group on the 28th, but feel free to continue the discussion here.