[ Pitch Slapped ] The Importance of Genre

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.

12 thoughts on “[ Pitch Slapped ] The Importance of Genre

  1. Pingback: Pitch Slapped! | Ley Lines

  2. What’s assuring is that there is a huge fan base for high fantasy, the genre I want to most write for 🙂

    However do you think this means there is less interest for urban fantasy? This is the genre my novel is being written in.

  3. I completely agree with you, CanaryTheFirst. Even slipstream spec-fic can be called fantasy, even if it has a literary bent to it and has zero swords or dragons. It just depends on who the general target audience is. Authors should make it clear which broad genre their book is in first, then elaborate on the specific sub-genre after.

    And remember, there is more to fantasy than Tolkienesque fantasy. I run a spec-fic blog, and secondary world historical fantasy is one of my favourite sub-genres, but I’m not interested in Tolkienesque fantasy. I’m always looking for wildly different settings, especially non-Western settings. In fact, when an author compares their setting to Tolkien, it’s a turn-off for me. Even though I’m open to different settings and different narrative structures, in the end, I’m still looking for “fantasy”.

    • I find myself reacting much the same way to Tolkienesque fantasy. I’m generally okay with most types of books that could be placed in “epic fantasy”, but mention the big T, and I shrivel up into flashbacks of trekking across New Zealand in real time. I loved the Hobbit as a child, but the LotR trilogy–not for me.

      It’s actually one of the reasons why I also often find myself cautioning writers against comparing their writing to another author’s. Tell me what you think:

      “…brings these characters together in this sweeping, Tolkiennesque fantasy.”
      “…brings these characters together in this sweeping fantasy that will appeal to fans of Tolkien and _______.”

      I’d definitely be slightly less inclined to dismiss the second. What do you think?

      • I agree with you on the second, but I still advice authors to be careful on which authors they compare themselves to. The bigger the author, the more skeptical the reader will be. And it’s important to use these comparisons because they’re actually helpful (i.e. readers actually make that comparison) instead of just comparing oneself to famous authors just because they’re famous, especially if the similarities aren’t really there.

        I really like epic fantasy, but I actually *dislike* both Tolkien and Robert Jordan. If an author pitched me a book comparing herself to both those authors, I’d give it a pass. If the book isn’t actually that similar to LOTR or Wheel or Time, then that pitch had just shut down this door when it didn’t have to.

        Also, when authors compare themselves to other famous authors, they risk appearing derivative and trite (especially if they use the adjective, “Tolkienesque”). I consider myself a genre reader, and 90% of the fiction I read is SF/F, and I’ve been reading in this genre since I was eight years old. I want to read books that cover new territory. It makes sense for authors to be inspired by SF/F greats, but it’s important to have the pitch show how the work is different or innovative in some way.

        If an SF writer says “people say my story is just like Asimov’s”, then why should I read it? I already have read my share of Asimov. But if this same writer instead says “my work gets compared to Asimov because of X element, although there is more to it than that”, then I am more likely to be intrigued. Is that distinction clear to others?

Chirp! What do you think?

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