Long before a potential reader lifts your book to read the blurb, before they even spy your cover, they have to navigate the maze of bookshelves to find where your book is nestled. So before you even start to doodle cover art, you need to answer a fundamental question about your book: What genre is it?
Sometimes you start out writing with a specific genre (“I’m going to write a Victorian era romance”) or trend in mind (“I’m going to write a book like the Hunger Games“).
But other times, you’re crafting your story first, and it just happens to have magic or murder or robots.
When Robin Dempsey commissioned us to peck at her blurb, the first thing we zoomed in on wasn’t the story, but her description of it. Who is the audience? we asked.
“People that enjoy myths, legends, realistic fantasy, adventure, and history will probably also enjoy LeyLines…For genre, I have called it a “Mythic Mystery” because in narrative structure it does not fall into a fantasy genre.”
Mythic mystery, though a lovely alliteration, may be a bit too confusing for a main description. We didn’t know what it really meant. So we dug deeper.
The world Robin created was sprawling and original, filled with its own pantheon of gods and beliefs. Magic, political intrigue, and warring countries faced off across the LeyLines geography. Yes, there were myths and mystery, but as readers, the first thing we told Robin was to zoom out.
Writers, when talking about genre, take a step back and think big. One of the biggest pitfalls we face is our tendency to focus on the details; we want to be as specific and accurate as possible when describing our story.
But genres are like road signs for the reader. We first need to get to a city before we start looking for a street and house number. More than being about mysteries or myths, a story such as the one Robin crafted was Fantasy. The story might not be generic fantasy, or a fantasy that we’ve read before, or even fantasy that we’re used to, but by stating the generic genre first, you can attract the interest of the right crowd.
Every genre type creates an image in the reader’s mind. Call a story a detective novel, and we’re thinking Sherlock Holmes, long legged blondes, smoky industrial offices, and Humphrey Bogart’s raspy drawl. Claim something is mythic, and we see ancient Greece, Norse gods, King Author legends and Percy Jackson hacking at a baddie. Romance? Scantily clad swooning maidens sprawled across the cover and the arms of a swarthy highlander.
LeyLines has the hallmarks of Epic Fantasy–the sprawling world, a Tolkien/Jordan-like attention to world-building (including unique cultures, languages and religions), and several parallel plot-lines. It was not generic fantasy, but that didn’t matter. What mattered was that the “fantasy” label (Quest Fantasy, Adventure Fantasy, or Epic Fantasy–or even Action/Adventure) was what the readers would be putting into google when looking for just this kind of story.
Just a few days ago, Robin emailed us:
“Remember how I had described the story as a “mythic mystery” and you had cautioned against that? Well, I decided to put the theory into action in my first series of advertising tests.
I used the banner attached (you’ll note one of the phrases you suggested for a pitch in there) and picked four sites — Two which were epic fantasy, one which was urban fantasy, and the last which was urban mythology.
Guess which did best?
The high fantasy sites, by far, yielded the most clicks on the ad. Meanwhile the urban mythology site returned 1/4th the response. Validation! Man, am I glad you set me straight before I went about with a bunch of banners that would have netted me a whole lot of nothing.”
The take-away message from this article? Genres will never describe your story perfectly, but pick an already existing category anyway. Your best bet is to pick a genre that matches most closely the kind of readers you want to net.
The reader must first look up the book before he can discover what it’s about. Something as specific as “mythic mystery” is perfect for use for author interviews, when discussing the story and your influences more in-depth. The people who’ve already found and fallen for the story will love the uniqueness of the phrase.
But the key is, they have to find you first.