Know Thy Genre/Category Classification

We come across some pretty creative genre/category match-ups in queries. Chick lit with a gruesome murder in it. A middle grade about patent law (I am not making that up). These are extreme examples, but their ilk is not entirely uncommon. Queries like these demonstrate a complete lack of knowledge about categories and genres. It means the author has no idea about what defines certain genres and what’s appropriate for different categories.

In order not to get ahead of ourselves, my definitions are as follows*:
“Category” references the audience of the book: is it a middle grade (10-14-year-olds), a young adult (15-19), an adult book? “Genre” is a description of content. So you can have a book where the category is middle grade and the genre is fantasy. A MG Fantasy. The combination of category and genre tells booksellers where to shelve your bastion of literary greatness.

You should know where your project fits in the category/genre morass even before you’re finished with the book, and certainly long before you start querying. Obviously, don’t obsess. Good writing trumps all. But if you don’t know where your books fits on the shelves, it will be hard for you to know a lot of other things. Like to whom to pitch and what to say when pitching.

Know what’s out there, and know what’s similar to your book. If there’s something out there like your project, don’t panic. You're still way out on the publication timeline, and an agent will know how to position you. Embrace the similarities between you and the published work. It won’t be identical, so mention (briefly--remember that a query must say what your book, not another one, is about) what makes yours different. You can mention these comparable titles in your query.

Note: You should not, when discussing other works, say anything remotely like “There’s this other, totally crappy book out there soiling bookshelves, readers’ minds, and, unbelievably, the Times list. Mine is vastly superior.” Statements like this are among the most maddening things you can do in a query. Comparisons are only useful when 1. not hostile 2. the referenced work(s) is(are) compatible with your project and 3. they've done well. But that’s a whole other blog post. Seriously. Comparisons are not easy. Beware. Pitfalls lurk everywhere.

BUT! Help lurks everywhere too. There are resources out there that will help you with queries and with defining genre. Once you’ve figured out where your project fits, you’ll be in an infinitely better place as far as knowing who to query and how.

Once you’ve decided where your book fits, put that info in your query. I think queries should start right in on telling me what’s going on in your kickass book, so I think that The Facts (word count, genre, category, title) should go at the end, before any bio paragraph you might choose to include:

Dear ______,


My (number) word (category/genre—e.g. YA Fantasy), (title—in all caps) is complete and ready to send.


…Or something like that.

Check back here in the next few days for some more talk on comparisons. Because I think that's a pretty opaque topic for a lot of people. And we can talk about any questions you pose in the comments.

*These, like the query format, are my opinions and are not considered law, no matter how many tantrums I throw.

**Don't be crazy and really say this.

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Josin L. McQuein said...

I'm so glad you posted those age parameters. My WIP's MC is 14 and I was afraid I was going to have to class it as YA when its tone is MG. "Everyone" said that "Teen = YA". (Of course, it's scientifically been proven that "everyone" is an idiot.)

I do have a question on the drawing parallels thing, though. If a MG book has a similar concept to a YA book, then is it best not to mention the parallel since the age groups are different?

Unknown said...

Thanks for clarifying the age for Middle Grade. I was bumping my head against that one too.

Janet Johnson said...

LOL! Love the asterisks. :)

Meredith Barnes said...

@Josin Yes! As in, No, no comparison there! A book is either MG or YA. It can't be both. It's like comparing a WIP to both a thriller and a piece of chick lit. Not compatible = Don't do it.

Mike Koch - Protect The Risen said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Mike Koch - Protect The Risen said...

Funny, I let my wife read a small bit of my manuscript the other night and the first thing she asked me was "what does ilk mean." Heh, how does someone go through life not knowing that word. We should all use it in our everyday dialogs. So kudos to you for that.

Additionally, I want to thank you for the generic framework of a query. Its quite similar to others I've seen in the industry.

Josin L. McQuein said...

That's weird, Mike. Last week, I had something similar happen to me over the same word.

I let someone read a chapter I'd written and they highlighted ilk with a question about whether I'd meant "like" and typed it wrong because they'd never heard of it. (and, IMO, the context was pretty darn clear, too.)

*bashes head on trusty dictionary*

Abby Minard said...

I've always wanted to write YA fantasy. I grew up reading the classic fantasies, and now I'm wondering if there is still interest in that! I see so much paranormal and magical realism nowadays. I was happy when Graceling became so popular because I thought the "classic" YA fantasies had kind of been pushed to the side. Thanks for the tips!