Adventures in genre writing…Lesson One

By Jeanne Stein

Welcome, everyone. Let’s have some fun.

I suppose most of you looked at the topic question and shrugged. Genre is everything that’s not literary, right? It’s what Rocky Mountain Fiction Writers is all about, right?

But the subcategories of genre books have both expanded and tightened in the last few years. An example is Urban Fantasy.

Until around 2002, all paranormal works (and I’m using this term to refer to the type of book in which science or technology do not play a major role in the story) were categorized as fantasy, horror, or paranormal romance. Each was specific in its content and readers knew what to expect when they picked up a book from Carol Berg or Robin Owens (fantasy), Anne Rice or Stephen King (horror), J. D. Robb or Christine Feehan (paranormal romance.)

Paranormal romance, in particular, was (and is) a hugely successful genre. However, there are rules to be followed in any romance category. The most important is that by the end of the book (or story arc if it’s a series,) the hero and heroine MUST end up together. Happily-ever-after is not only expected, it’s demanded. The romance is the driving force of the book whether the characters are human, otherworldly, or a mixture of the two.

Into this mix came a new type of book. Edgy, contemporary, set in an urban (or suburban or rural) setting, generally written in first person with a kick-ass heroine who does not depend on a male partner for protection or to save her when the going gets tough. The biggest distinguishing factor, however, is that at the end of the book, there will most likely be NO happily-ever-after for our protagonist. She may have a lover, may even find herself in a committed relationship, But in urban fantasy, that relationship will be constantly challenged and will not define who our heroine is or how she lives her life. The romance, if it’s there at all, will play a minor role in the story.

The tag “Urban Fantasy” was coined specifically to differentiate these stories from paranormal romance. The interesting thing, however, is that readers of paranormal romance made the shift to UF in record numbers. Not in place of paranormal romance but in addition to it.

The same could be said for the mystery genre. We now have contemporary mystery (Marcus Sackey), historical mystery (Josephine Tey), suspense (Lee Child), thriller (James Patterson), crime novels (Lawrence Block), police procedural (J.A.Jance), the private eye (Robert B. Parker), cozy (Agatha Christy), legal (John Grisham)…the list goes on. Like Urban Fantasy, each has its own characteristics and a reader knows going in what to expect.

As do the agents and editors. Which is why it’s so important to properly classify your book. It’s not enough to tell an agent I’m writing a romance. You have to tell them the kind of romance you’re writing. Is it contemporary (Nora Roberts), historical (Catherine Coulter), erotica (E.L. James), category (meaning the type of lines put out by Harlequin or Silhouette—RMFW’s own Cindy Myers fit here), Regency (Elizabeth Michels), Fantasy or Paranormal (Christine Feehan), Time Travel (Diana Gabaldon), Gothic (Mary Stewart), Suspense (Jayne Ann Krentz).

So here’s your first assignment. Categorize your WIP. And if you have a well-known author whose work contains the same elements of yours, the first line of your query might be: Fans of John Grisham will love my legal thriller (BLANK). Share if you’d like.

In the introduction I mentioned a list of authors who will be adding their own particular spin on genre tags and how it affects their writing. One of the most popular is Charlaine Harris. Charlaine began writing straight mysteries—the popular Aurora Teagarden and Lily Bard (Shakespeare) series. It was Sookie Stackhouse, debuting in 2001 that made her a super-star. The popular Southern Vampire Series caught the imagination of the reading (and now television) public in a huge way. In its last season, True Blood is wrapping up. But on the horizon her cozy series, the Amanda Teagarden mysteries, has been picked up by Hallmark. Her latest work, Midnight Crossroads, is a paranormal mystery set in another fictional town, Midnight, Texas.

Here’s what she had to say:

1. You are often included in lists of Urban Fantasy Authors. How do you feel about the tag and do you like it? Why or why not?

I write Rural Fantasy, as anyone who’s read my books will appreciate. But I’m always lumped in with Urban Fantasy authors. I don’t mind. My work suits that tone, though it’s distinctly not urban. I’m not a tag lover, but at least when you say “He/she writes Urban Fantasy,” there’s a general understanding of what that comprises.

2. What makes your books fit in the UF genre?

Supernatural characters, a blend of humanity and the fantastic, and the dark workings of the magical world affecting the mundane world of regular humans.

3. Did you set out to write UF?

Ha! That term didn’t exist when I began to write the Sookie Stackhouse books. There was Laurell K. Hamilton, and there was me, at least as far as crossover writers went. Some straight science fiction writers had been writing works that would now be classified as UF, but I wasn’t familiar with them.

4. Why do you think UF is so popular with readers?

I think almost everyone would like to believe there’s more. They’d like to believe that even if you have to pay your electric bill and worry about your kid’s grades in school, there are werewolves around the corner and vampires in the bar.

_________

Next lesson, we’ll get into the nuts and bolts of genre writing—determining point of view, setting and world building. Think about your characters—whose story (or stories) you want to tell—and their relationship to the world.

Any questions? Put them in remarks.  Want to share your log line? Share away.  See you in September (egad!!)

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About jeannecstein

Jeanne Stein is the award winning, national bestselling author of the Urban Fantasy series, The Anna Strong Vampire Chronicles. Anna Strong was named one of Paranormal Fantasy’s Top ten Ass-Kicking Heroines by Barnes and Nobles’s reviewer, Paul Goat Allen in 2013. Jeanne also has numerous short story credits, including the novella, Blood Debt, from the New York Times bestselling anthology, Hexed. Jeanne lives in Denver, CO and is active in Rocky Mountain Fiction Writers (where she was honored by winning the Writer of the Year award in 2008.) She has taught at numerous conferences and on-line academies. Her newest venture, The Fallen Siren Series, is paranormal romance written in collaboration with Samantha Sommersby under the pseudonym S. J. Harper. The first book in that series, Cursed, debuted last year. A prequel novella, Captured, is available free on Amazon and the second book in the series, Reckoning, will be released October 7.

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