Thursday, September 18, 2008

From the Desk of Lucienne Diver: Genres and Subgenres and Memes, Oh My!

Every convention I've been to in the past year has had at least one panel dedicated to the defining and blending of various genres and subgenres. Where are the lines drawn between urban fantasy and paranormal romance? Is it possible to have urban fantasy in a rural setting? When does suspense become romantic suspense? Can I get fries with that? (The answer is yes, but this is somewhat trickier if you're writing historicals.)

My belief is that all fiction is more or less on a continuum…more than one really. One graph might extend from love stories to novels completely lacking in romance, though it's hard (but not impossible), to find books in any genre completely without romance. When determining what goes on the spine, what matters is the focus of the story. Another continuum might be magic versus non-magic with magical realism falling somewhere in the middle. Or maybe that same continuum extends into the science fiction field so that magic is on one end facing off with technology on the other. In that case urban fantasy might be the median. Anyway, without a bunch of charts and graphs, let me see if I can shed some light on various genres and subgenres and how they're defined.

Fantasy (epic fantasy, historical fantasy, urban fantasy)

Epic fantasy: Epic implies sweeping in scope and epic fantasy surely is that. The stakes are high – world-changing in fact. The world-building is so detailed that the place actually exists for reader and writer alike. The cast of characters is broad enough to deal with different aspects of what's going on and how to stop or facilitate it, even if it's sometimes told from a single point of view. (Think Lynn Flewelling, Robin Hobb, George R.R. Martin, Carol Berg, David B. Coe, Diana Pharaoh Francis, Melanie Rawn.)

Historical Fantasy: Much like epic fantasy, only set in our own history, though with magic, of course. The novel might be set in a Roman Empire or ancient Egypt that never was. (Think Marion Zimmer Bradley, Judith Tar, Naomi Novik's Temeraire series, Sarah A. Hoyt's Magical British Empire series.)

Urban Fantasy: Generally our modern world but at a slant. Maybe vampires and werewolves really exit. Maybe it's weather wardens or demons or shifters. Whatever they are, they're here and we just have to deal with it (or a kick-butt hero or heroine and her Scooby gang do anyway). And no, urban fantasy doesn't have to mean it's set in a city. Look at Charlaine Harris' Sookie Stackhouse series! (Think Laurell K. Hamilton, Rachel Caine, Jim Butcher, Faith Hunter, Lilith Saintcrow, Charlaine Harris….)


I'm listing horror on its own here, because it's been called a lot of things – psychological or supernatural suspense, dark fantasy, etc. – it doesn't really have subgenres so much as multiple designations. Part of the reason for this is that after the horror boom there was a serious crash of the market and for a while you couldn’t give horror away, though you could sometimes sell it as something else. (Examples: Stephen King, Dean Koontz, Thomas Disch.)

Science Fiction (social science fiction or space opera, hard science fiction, alternate history, cyberpunk)

Social Science Fiction or Space Opera: Star Wars is maybe the ultimate example of space opera. There are worlds at stake and people willing to fight for them, whether it be with intrigue or weaponry. It's generally pretty swashbuckling. (Did I mention Star Wars? How about Lois McMaster Bujold?)

Hard Science Fiction: This genre is very much about the technology and extrapolating problems and plots from the use, misuse or just generally cutting edge concepts that come along with it. Sometimes this is set in a near-future earth, sometimes the distant future. The main thing is these folks have their science down cold and can blow your mind with it. (Examples: Peter Watts, Isaac Asimov, Robert Sawyer, Catherine Asaro, Larry Niven and Jerry Pournelle.)

Alternate History: Take events from our history and postulate that something went differently that changed everything thereafter. (Harry Turtledove is a prime example.)

Cyberpunk: You don't hear this one used very much any more, but it was typified by William Gibson, Neal Stephenson, Phillip K. Dick and others and involves the disenfranchised or underground portion of a dystopian society that we'd created through our own foibles or misuse of technology and in that way seems almost a part of hard sf.

Mystery (suspense/thrillers, cozies, traditional, police procedural)

Suspense/Thrillers: I can't tell you the difference exactly between suspense and thriller. Is one more psychologically intense and the other more action-packed? I sort of know it when I see it. They're both page-turning, pulse-pounding, heart-in-your-throat sorts of books that tend to have some pretty high stakes and up them as the book goes on. And within these genres, you've got some sub-subgenres, like legal thrillers (ex. Scott Turow) and medical thrillers (ex. Tess Gerritsen), international intrigue, and even, as mentioned above, supernatural suspense (think Douglas Preston and Lee Child).

Cozies: One of my authors, Diana Orgain, just spent an entire blog post ( trying to define cozies. Basically, they're the kind of books you'd like to read curled up with a cup of tea and a cat. (I may have borrowed that from someplace, but I can't think where at the moment.) There's murder, of course, and mystery and suspense, but the violence is generally off stage…or anyway not terribly graphic. The detective is almost without fail an amateur. In other words, you're not going to find fingerprint analysis and trace evidence unless the hero, or more often heroine, has a friend on the force. Historicals generally fit in here as well. (Think: Diane Mott Davidson, Sarah Strohmeyer, Sarah D'Almeida's Three Musketeers mystery series, Nancy Martin's Blackbird Sisters series.)

Traditional: Your P.I.s and investigative reporters fit in nicely here. Nero Wolf, Sherlock Holmes, Hercule Poirot, Kinky Friedman, Gideon Oliver (and on the noir side, Sam Spade, Lew Archer, Mike Hammer) are all prime examples of traditional mystery heroes.

Police Proceedural: This genre depicts officers and other law enforcement agents conducting an investigation the way it would really be done (or, in the case of CSI, how it would be done if there really was a same-day turnaround on DNA evidence and a lot more money in the budget). (Ed McBain and Joseph Wambaugh are prime examples.)

Romance (romantic suspense, paranormal, science fiction/speculative fiction/futuristic, historical, romantic comedy, contemporary)

Romantic Suspense: I find that this genre runs a continuum itself, from books where the designation truly applies, in which a romance is integral to the story, even if the main focus is on the suspense, to novels where there's very little romance really. In the latter case, maybe romantic suspense seemed the closest designation or maybe the label was decided because the author started out writing romance and those who decide on marketing chose the designation for reader continuity. (Think Nora Roberts/JD Robb, Suzanne Brockmann, Kay Hooper, Roxanne St. Claire.)

Paranormal Romance: Vampires, witches, shifters, skinwalkers, demons, sorcerers…what am I missing? Romance involving paranormal elements of some kind, but still with the balance of the narrative tipped more than 50% toward the romance. (If it's tipped less than 50%, you might have urban fantasy, though there are still some novels that fall through the cracks dividing the two.) (Examples: Marjorie M. Liu, Susan Krinard, Nalini Singh, Gena Showalter, J.R. Ward.)

Science Fiction/Speculative Fiction/Futuristic Romance: Romances set on another planet or a future earth, often with very alpha heroes and heroines and great action. (Think Linnea Sinclair, Patti O'Shea, Robin Owens.)

Historicals: Westerns, Regencies, Medievals, Victorians…they all take us back to another time (and generally another place) where the men might be arrogant, but the heroines were women enough to handle them. (Mary Jo Putney, Roberta Gellis, Debra Mullins, Kathryn Caskie, Kasey Michaels.)

Romantic Comedy: Romance with laughs. (Think Susan Andersen, Vicki Lewis Thompson, Jennifer Skully.)

Contemporary: I've never quite gotten the hang of what counts as single-title contemporary romance that doesn't fit into romantic comedy, paranormal or science fiction romance, or romantic suspense. I put this up here because contemporary romance comes up a lot. Anyone have any examples to give?

Women's Fiction (chicklit, lady lit, general women's fiction)

There's been some argument about whether or not women's fiction is a genre separate from romance. I think it is. The term women's fiction, like mainstream fiction, can be pretty all encompassing and therefore hard to define, but I'd describe it as a genre primarily for, by and about women. Not necessarily their loves, though this might play into it, but their trials, their relationships with their families, with each other, how they encounter and overcome adversity and emerge stronger and generally differently than when they began. Chicklit and Ladylit are both women's searches for self, at different times in their lives, and generally told with a wink and a nod. Other women's fiction would be family sagas, Southern women's fiction, like that of Joshilyn Jackson, or simply mainstream fiction told with a feminine bent. (Think Jodi Picoult and Rosamunde Pilcher).

Whew, all that and I'm not even trying to tackle children's, middle-grade, young adult, non-fiction, narrative non-fiction, self-help. The list could go on and on!

I hope my long and winding post has been helpful, and I look forward to hearing what y'all have to say. (I've always said y'all, frankly, but now that I'm a Southerner…more or less…I have an excuse!)



Blogger Kristen Painter said...

Great post, Lucienne!!

Thursday, September 18, 2008 at 9:12:00 AM EDT  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

I really appreciate the informative posts. I don't check your sight quite as much as I do some of the others, but this one really helps me. Keep up the good work.

Thursday, September 18, 2008 at 10:29:00 AM EDT  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

This is very interesting. So you wouldn't apply a women's fiction categorization to a historical romance? I've written and am querying an historical romance (victorian) but the first half of the book is decidedly the growth of my femme protag. I've wondered if I should only write that it's historical romance on my query (which to date I have) or if I should write that it's got women's fiction for the first half of the book.

Thursday, September 18, 2008 at 2:55:00 PM EDT  
Blogger Lucienne said...

If a book is women's fiction for the first half and romance for the second, you might have to make a decision of which you want it to be and make both halves consistent. (Not that women's fiction can't have a romance to it, but the love story can't suddenly steal the focus.) Otherwise, you may have trouble placing a book that's neither fish nor foul.

Thursday, September 18, 2008 at 5:11:00 PM EDT  
Blogger Crystal Jordan said...

Heeeeey, where's the dirty romance category? I'm so unloved!

This is an awesome post, though. Thanks, Lucienne! You named off all my favorite authors as great examples of their genre...which just proves I have excellent taste. I love when that happens!

Next time we talk on the phone, do you promise to "y'all" me? Because that would totally make my day!

Thursday, September 18, 2008 at 9:35:00 PM EDT  
Anonymous Dayna Hart said...

A couple questions :)

1) How important is it, when an author is querying, that they get the genre label right? (suggesting they get it close, or perhaps too broad - they say UF instead of Paranormal romance, or they just say 'fantasy' but don't classify which one. Not to say they're calling their epic fantasy a romantic suspense ;) )

2) Is there a label yet for "Women's fiction fantasy" (most of the Harlequin Luna's I've read are billed that way by their authors - stories which focus on the journey of the heroine, but are fantasy stories.)

3) Do you think there's a limit to how many (sub)genres a book can cross?

Um. Yes, that's all. For now.
Thank you! And thank you for the fantasy definitions. I'm tired of reading ones which don't make sense!

Thursday, September 18, 2008 at 9:41:00 PM EDT  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Sorry to pester you with questions.

One more, what if the romance can't happen until you've been through the trials and life experiences of the femme protag?

I think I'll avoid mentioning WF and just let the story suck agents/editors and readers alike into it's dark depths! I'm sure if the story is compelling enough it just won't matter what genres the writer straddles.

Thanks so much for answering my question and for your help.

Friday, September 19, 2008 at 7:54:00 AM EDT  
Blogger Lucienne said...

Hey, Crys,

How could I have left off erotica and erotic romance, D'oh!

Friday, September 19, 2008 at 8:55:00 AM EDT  
Blogger Lucienne said...

Dear Dayna:

1) How important is it, when an author is querying, that they get the genre label right?

A. I'd say that if you're not sure, going broad is the way to go. Let the pro decide where he or she thinks it best fits. They'll be the ones who know where the market is most likely to be based on the material. I'm not sure I'd have difficulty with someone calling something paranormal romance that read more like urban fantasy (or vice versa, since it's sometimes a fine line), but someone telling me they don't write science fiction (or sf romance) when the novel involves aliens....

2) Is there a label yet for "Women's fiction fantasy" (most of the Harlequin Luna's I've read are billed that way by their authors - stories which focus on the journey of the heroine, but are fantasy stories.)

A. I don't think you have to say when a fantasy is male or female focussed. The material will speak for itself.

3) Do you think there's a limit to how many (sub)genres a book can cross?

A. I don't know that there's necessarily a limit, as long as the elements blend seemlessly into a whole and can still be billed as a particular genre. (Publishers have to put something on the spine and decide where best to place books based on likely audience.)

Friday, September 19, 2008 at 9:02:00 AM EDT  
Blogger Lucienne said...

Dear Anonymous,

If the romance can't happen until later in a book once the heroine has passed trials, etc., what you're writing is probably best described as women's fiction rather than romance.

Friday, September 19, 2008 at 9:03:00 AM EDT  
Anonymous Kyle Rob said...

Hi Lucienne!

Very informative. I love this site!

I do have a question about "epic fantasy." My wife and I are nearly finished with our first novel, and I was a little nervous at first about the fact that we have told our story from different perspectives throughout the book. After reading your post, I feel much better! But I still would like to ask which is preferable: telling the story through multiple perspectives or trying to stay just with the one main character in epic fantasy?

Thank you so much!

Friday, September 19, 2008 at 9:29:00 AM EDT  
Blogger Lucienne said...

Dear Kyle,

There is no one right way. Single perspectives or multiple are acceptable, though you don't want too many POVs - five is probably the maximum. It's all in what's necessary for the story. However, readers and critique groups are invaluable for letting you know if all the storylines and voices are necessary and intriguing.

Friday, September 19, 2008 at 10:44:00 AM EDT  
Anonymous Dayna said...

Thanks, Lucienne!

I'm quite happy to have someone else slap labels on it all for me. I just want to write the things.

New slogan for me: go broad or go home.
(hush, Crys!)

Friday, September 19, 2008 at 11:36:00 AM EDT  
Anonymous Kyle Rob said...

Lucienne --

Thank you for your response. We'll certainly heed the "five maximum" advice!

Friday, September 19, 2008 at 11:44:00 AM EDT  
Anonymous Cassandra said...

This is a valuable post! Thank you. Regarding suspense/thriller -- I'm not widely read in this area, but I thought that the distinction was based on two factors: one, that "suspense" is character-driven, hence as you say psychological, while "thriller" is plot-driven; and, two, that in a thriller the reader knows all along, or nearly, who the bad guy is. So or not so?


Wednesday, September 24, 2008 at 3:04:00 PM EDT  
Blogger ccallicotte said...

This is a great post - thank you!

Thursday, September 25, 2008 at 12:05:00 PM EDT  
Anonymous Aimee G said...

Now for the million-dollar question:

Where's the line between paranormal chick-lit and urban fantasy?

Like the guy from the Tootsie Pop commercial said, "The world may never know. . ."

Monday, September 29, 2008 at 10:05:00 AM EDT  
Blogger Stacey said...

What is "Commercial Fiction" I have seen that a lot on lists of things that agents accept and I have seen several definitions...

I trust your judgement on the issue (since I love reading your blog). So can you help us out there?

Also, could something simply be considered YA Romance without being a suspense, fantasy, sci fi, contemporary (or would that be contemporary?).

Wednesday, October 1, 2008 at 4:03:00 PM EDT  

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