Ask the editor: Is it OK to cross genres?

Q: Is it ok to write a book that crosses genre lines, like a mystery with time travel, or a romance with extraterrestrials?

A: The short answer is “Yes, absolutely!”

That’s the truth, despite the fear that agents and publishers will avoid a book that falls into more than one genre.

But since this question comes up so often, let’s take a close look at the importance of genre in the book business today.

Scroll down for suggestions on how to cross genre boundaries successfully

A long-standing practice

“What’s your genre?” is a question every author gets, right? Authors in classes I’ve taught recently and others who have consulted me as a developmental editor have been seriously concerned about crossing forbidden boundaries that might offend the gatekeepers who stand in their way.

Categorizing a book by genre is a long-standing practice in the book business. It’s a convenient label for agents to slap on a book ahead of pitching the project to an acquisitions editor. It’s also the way bookstore clerks decide where merchandise goes in the store. And it’s how buyers browse and find books.

Categories are breaking down

The hegemony of genre categories, however, is gradually eroding. A book may well wind up on more than one shelf. Popular young adult books, for example, may also be shelved in adult fiction. And now that so many buyers research and purchase books online, they may not know or care about what genre the publisher labeled the book.

Not only that, many very successful bestselling books clearly cross the boundary from one genre to another, with terrific results.

Bestselling cross-genre books

From the New York Times bestseller lists, Stephen King’s 11/22/63 is a science-fiction political thriller that takes its hero back in time to prevent the assassination of JFK. Also on the list is Death Comes to Penderley by P.D. James, which merges a murder mystery with a sequel to Jane Austen’s literary masterpiece Pride and Prejudice. A classic example is the Fahrenheit 451, one of Ray Bradbury’s most famous and bestselling works that crosses from science fiction to a political diatribe on literary censorship.

Similarly, Judy Blume has been crossing highly literary fiction with young adult books about serious stuff from racism (Iggie’s House) to teen sex (Forever) since 1970. She paved the way for many other current cross-genre YA writers like Suzanne Collins’ Hunger Games, which takes place in a post-apocalyptic future with romance, violence and politics.

And of course there’s the humungous success of Harry Potter, which includes several genres, including fantasy, YA coming of age, mystery, thriller, adventure and romance. Not to mention Stephanie Meyer’s vampire romance Twilight Saga and Amanda Hocking’s My Blood Approves paranormal romance series.

So why not write a literary coming-of-age novel about a young girl who just happens to be a wood fairy? Or a mystery where the killer is found through past life regression. It’s been done and if this is where you’re headed, you can do it, too, no matter what you’ve heard.

How to cross genre boundaries successfully

Here are some suggestions that I recommend to my author clients who are intending to mix genres.

Pick the alpha element as a tag

When you’re starting out, choose a label that’s easy to understand and sell. Pick the alpha element in your story — romance, mystery, paranormal — and give your book that tag to provide the marketplace with an initial perspective on where you’re coming from. The other elements in the story, whatever they may be, will remain evident and eventually create the context of your brand identity.

After you’ve established a successful track record your brand will be you, your name. That’s one of the reasons Suzanne Collins, Stephen King or Amanda Hocking can combine and meander through more than one genre at a time with impunity.

Build your own bandwagon

Any mixed genre story needs to come from your heart rather than from strategic calculation. Avoid the distraction of trendy fashions like Micro, the posthumous cross-genre technoscience adventure bestseller by Michael Crichton and Richard Preston, where the half-inch tall grad students get carried off by sadistic beetles. Shades of Gulliver’s Travels and Fantastic Voyage.

Be consistent

Sustain the integrity of the world you’ve created, however unique and unusual it may be, without jumping into any off-the-wall devices. Don’t pile one genre on another for the sake of cliff-hanging thrills or bravura embellishment. If your romance has elements of the supernatural, don’t unnecessarily slip in a murder just for good measure. Use the style and elements of more than one genre only in service of the story and its authentic characters.

Never take no for an answer

Don’t quit if the door is slammed in your face. Try another way to get that agent’s attention, like in a blind date or pitch session at a writers conference, or through a mutual friend. Be sympathetic to the agent, publisher, or retailer’s plight. From their perspective, genre purity makes a book faster and easier to sell.  Be persistant and convince them that you’ve got a great story.  That’s your best ammunition.

Don’t worry

Genre is a convenience, a traditional device that the conventional process of commercial publication has been using awkwardly for centuries.  But it didn’t stop cross-genre authors Nathaniel Hawthorne and Charles Dickens all the way up to Alice Sebold (The Lovely Bones) and Audrey Niffenegger (The Time Traveler’s Wife).

We all have to live with this outdated artifact.  At least for now.

What about you?

Are you working on a book that crosses genre lines? Are you concerned about it? Have you met up with opposition from agents or editors? Has it been resolved? We welcome hearing about your experience, and I’ll watch for any questions here in comments.

24 Responses to Ask the editor: Is it OK to cross genres?

  1. Wyndes

    I actually self-published in large part because my novel crossed so many genre lines. I was an acq editor for a decade, so I understand the importance of shelving but even I had no idea where I’d put my book. It’s definitely got a romance but the characters are wrong for the romance genre. Their attitudes are better for chick-lit, but it’s not that: no shoes, no city. It’s got mystery elements, in that a puzzle unfolds, but there’s no villain, so it’s not really a mystery. One reviewer compared it to Stephen King, so someone at least thought it was horror, but it’s not really scary at all. It’s definitely paranormal, but not in the sense of any typical paranormal: my heroine is not kickass and there are no vampires or werewolves. It’s not urban fantasy, because it’s not urban. It’s not YA, because even though there are a couple of young adults, it’s not about them. And it’s definitely not literary. Which leaves…?

    If I was the editor thinking about acquiring it, I would have said, I love it, can you re-write it so that the main characters are the teenagers? Since I didn’t want to do that, I self-published it. It’s been fun to get people’s reactions via reviews, and the one thing I’ve definitely learned is that readers don’t care. Of course, I have no idea how many people haven’t tried it because they haven’t been able to pinpoint the genre, but no one has complained about its lack of genre distinction!

  2. Kelly Boyette

    As usual, Alan, you are so timely. I was just perusing Publishers Marketplace and had this very conversation with myself. While selecting genre for search criteria, I wanted to create a new category of paranormal memoir on the non-fiction list. Perhaps someday a more integrated approach will replace this system of genre as an instrument for the sales channel.

    Most of us don’t fit neatly into those categories any longer, but I do appreciate the role of the gatekeeper agents who work so hard for their authors. Your advice about alpha element as tag is a great key to open those gates. I want to give an agent the tools they need to be successful in our partnership without sacrificing my voice or the integrity of the story.

    You always know the questions to ask, Alan – here on your blog and in your role as editor. I didn’t get any resistance about my blurred lines from you when you were helping me develop my outline or editing the manuscript. But then again, your thoughtful and sometimes tough questions helped bring it (and me) into focus.

    Thanks for your words about perseverance. In this wildly subjective business, we all need you as an advocate.

    Kelly Boyette

  3. Alan Rinzler

    Wyndes,

    Your experience provides us all with another great solution! Excellent. Self-publishing is growing exponentially for a variety of reasons: The author is in charge, it’s faster, you can make more money in the long run, and, as you point out, you don’t have to hassle with conservative gate keepers who want you to compromise your artistic integrity.

  4. Linda Adams

    One of the problems I’ve always had when submitting is even figuring out what agent to submit the story to. I cross just enough genre boundaries that I’ve had a hard time finding anyone who reps something similar. In the past, I’ve received a few comments that suggested agents weren’t quite sure what to do with it. I think I’m in the same boat as Wyndes. My current book is a Contemporary Fantasy/Action-Adventure Thriller. I started out as urban fantasy because I could not quite figure out where it fit, but I didn’t have any snarky heroines, vampires, werewolves, or paranormals. It is set in a modern setting, though a fictional country. The protagonist is male and his sidekick is female — I have humor but no snarkiness. Lots of action, political conspiracies, and the ticking time bomb of thriller. I’m also going the self-publishing route later this year. I looked at the possibility of submitting it to agents, but I kept coming back to the fact they wanted different but the same, and I’m just different.

  5. John Stanton

    As a writer for so many years, I cursed the whole ‘genre label’ thing.
    “Hey man! I’m an artist! Don’t put me in a box!!”
    Much of my work didn’t fit cleanly into a genre so I was always struggling to categorize it. I felt like each work had a life of its own that transcended genre and I resented a system that forced me into a pigeon hole.
    But now I’m working with an indie press and when meeting people at promotional events, the first thing I ask them is, “what kind of books do you like?” They always answer with a genre and I send them to meet one of our writers based on that genre. I send them to meet a romance writer, a mystery writer or a sci-fi writer. I no longer look at genre labels as a necessary evil just as necessary.
    As a writer and publisher, I’m finding that tags and keywords are the genres of e-publishing. However, selecting 3-5 random words to categorize your work can be just as challenging as trying to fit into one of the predefined boxes of genre.

  6. Alan Rinzler

    John

    You’ve made a wise decision to look at genre labels as necessary and not evil, but you’ve also brought up a whole new skill that writers who are e-publishing need to master.

    Selecting keywords and tags to describe your work can be quite a challenge. Picking the right words can definitely help attract readers searching for a book like yours. But if you have too many or the wrong words you can go beyond the limits of accuracy.

    A writer’s work is never done!

  7. George Hamilton

    Thanks for an informative and timely article, Alan. I asked a similar question on a number of book threads recently: “How soon should an author change the genre of their novels?” My first published book is in the literary, drama, historical genres, while my second falls into literary, drama, thriller, suspense. I was considering completing something which has a strong comedic element next, but wondered if it was too early to shift genres. The responses I have received are varied. But what you have said about picking the alpha element as a tag until your brand is better know has been a great help.

  8. Maggie Secara

    But doesn’t nearly every genre novel cross genres? I mean, say you are writing about events leading up to the sinking of the Titanic. Okay, it’s historical, yes. But it’s a novel, not a documentary, so it has characters to whom things must happen. So there may be a love story, probably some suspense, possibly some kind of mystery, certainly elements of a political thriller. If the main character is under 21, is it a YA? If two of them fall in love, is it a romance? If one of them falls over board, is it a thriller? A mystery? Or is it just a How could it possibly be just one thing? The trick, I think, is to stop fretting about it. Nail the main element: fantasy, romance, murder mystery, whatever, and just tell the story. Let your agent refine the pitch for each editor (they know the editors’ inclinations better than you do). Then tag your blog posts etc with everything relevant.

    In my new book (The Dragon Ring, March 16, Crooked Cat) the main characters have a job to do for the king of Faerie (fantasy) which takes them into the past (time travel, but not sci fi). I can’t call it a historical fantasy because half the story is in the present. They have to overcome various dangerous obstacles with swords as well as magic (action/adventure). And the MC has to learn something important about who he really is (literary?). I’d go nuts trying to put all that into a pat hyphenated phrase. It’s enough, I think, to call it a fantasy. The rest is tags and keywords. Shelving in the electronic age is getting less and less relevant when a book can be on more than one at the same time.

  9. Racheal McGillivary

    I have one novel finished that I am finishing edits on and I am about to send it out to the agents. I am a tad bit concerned for various reasons. I feel that YA fantasy/ paranormal romance has been played too many times. However, I feel that my story is much more unique. It involves mystery as well, as the main character tries to catch a killer. I don’t want the abnormality of the mixed genre to throw off an agent but I am hoping it will intrigue them nonetheless. I have also just started a second novel that crosses MG fiction with adventure and science fiction, not to mention comedy. that seems like so much for one book, but it honestly works. my beta readers were laughing and intrigued the whole time. I just hope an agent can look past the nontraditional ways and consider my novel.

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  11. Alan Rinzler

    Racheal,

    My advice is to choose the “Alpha” and in all these cases it’s the largest and easiest to understand: Young Adult.

    Then find a smart and flexible agent to whom you can write “…but of course there are also elements of….”…and hope she laughs too, at not only the book but also the thrill and creative stimulation of crossing genres successfully.

  12. Emily McDaid

    Hi Alan,
    Great article, thank you. I’ve just started sending my first book out to agents and I’m struggling with the genre label. It’s a thriller, but no one is killed, maimed or abused. It’s a crime novel, but it’s only white-collar crime. It’s mainly about the media, but it hinges on technology, too. But it’s set in the past, and there aren’t any robots, so technothriller doesn’t sound quite right. I’m left wondering if I can “make up” a genre called “media thriller.” The most obvious recent example would be elements of Stieg Larsson, though I’m not saying I’m the next him, just that my book is reminiscent of his style: his expose on the media, it’s inner workings, limitations, vulnerabilities. Do you think it’s a bad idea to point out in the query letter that you feel your work crosses genre boundaries?
    Cheers, Emily

  13. Liberty Speidel

    I’ve been working on 3 cross-genre books for over 3 years, so it doesn’t concern me. While my first love is mysteries, I have a deep affection for space/sci-fi, so it seemed a natural extension to do mysteries with a sci-fi bent. So far, they’re the most fun I’ve had writing since I don’t necessarily have to stay within the confines of mysteries (unless for some reason, I want to.) My only concern is the fact so many of the agents I’m querying currently for my cozy mystery book don’t rep sci-fi, and I wonder if that will be a concern down the line when these other projects are ready to see the light of day.

  14. Alan Rinzler

    Emily,

    It’s always a good idea to be clear when approaching agents, publishers, retailers, or readers about the important elements of your story, whether they cross genre boundaries or not. It’s not a good idea to be defensive, however, or to make up a new category. In your case, pick the “alpha” or most prominent category, which sounds like “a novel about the media”, since you have no special need to cover all of your bases.

  15. Alan Rinzler

    Liberty,

    First get an agent and then worry about down the road. Most agents will want to continue selling any book from a successful author.

  16. Liberty Speidel

    That’s my plan! :) But, in the back of my mind, it’s still a mild concern. Of course, I don’t fit the strict “cozy mystery” guidelines with my cozy, either, since most cozies I read happen in small towns, and I’ve chosen my setting as a major metropolitan area. Go figure. ;)

  17. RCO

    Alan

    Your blog, in which we get to interact with you, represents the best aspects of the Internet. Thank you!

    In what genre or category would you place Tom Wolfe’s Bonfire of the Vanities?

    thanks as always for what you do,

    RC

  18. Judith Briles

    This is an excellent and interesting topic. I agree. Genre are simply a tradition in the book business and indicating a single genre creates a safe spot for your book. However, it may not always be the best move. Readers these days are intrigued with more controversial and out of this world stories but let’s just say, don’t overdo it.

  19. Emily McDaid

    Thanks so much for the advice, Alan!

  20. Alan Rinzler

    RCO,

    I loved Bonfire of the Vanities, and would call it “literary fiction”, though of course it’s much more.

  21. Alan Rinzler

    Judith,

    I’m advocating a single “alpha” genre as a strategy for getting an agent, not a limitation on what you can write.

    But I agree with your warning not to overdo it. Always a good idea.

  22. Carmen Anthony Fiore

    If your passion is sincere, I think you can get away with anything, when it comes to writing novels.
    My private-eye mystery-suspense series books staring Tony Avanti are always about more than just solving a crime. I crowbar in family matters, ethnic concerns, society’s ills, romance, pet peeves, etc. to make the story lines more real, more human, and not just for solving crimes in robotic fashion. In my last novel of the series, Italian Interlude, I even have Tony get involved in a family feud concerning his Italian relatives with another family in their southern Italian hill town where he, his parents, and his lady friend are vacationing. I spike up things by making it the vacation from hell, from certain aspects. And I’ve just made it available on the Kindle e-book reader, and it’s already been discovered and downloaded.It’s always satisfying to an author when his/her readers find the work and appreciate it. That’s what we really live for; success, royalties, fame can all come later. First, we want the recognition. Psychologically, writing is an aggressive act that always remains as an underlying reason, and it doesn’t have to be considered a negative one, just a realistic admission is required to clear the air and to help us move on to bigger and better creative endeavors.

  23. David Kubicek

    It’s great that books which mix genres are becoming more widely accepted. I’ve always considered a good story a good story, no matter what genre it was in. Because of that belief, many of the stories I’ve written and continue to write blur the genre boundaries, which I’m sure made it difficult to publish some of them in the early days of my career, and the ones that found homes were published in off-beat publications, such as the anthology THE NEW SURREALISTS, which published my first story.This greater acceptance of books that combine genres allows writers the freedom to let their creativity soar.

  24. Bonnie Ferrante

    A publisher asked me to turn a short story into a novel. It was a historical coming of age with a touch of fantasy. I submitted the first few chapters. He loved them so I kept writing. Then he changed his mind because another history/fantasy he had published wasn’t doing well.I finished the book, and love it, but I haven’t found an agent and am now looking for a small publisher. I did received an Ontario Arts Council grant to finish the book though, so that feels good.

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