WHAT IS GENRE?
GENRE: Genre is defined by my Random House Dictionary as:
A class or category of artistic endeavor having a particular form, content, technique, or the like.
Romance, science fiction, horror, fantasy, thrillers, historicals, mystery, and westerns are generally considered to be genre novels—and there’re more. And there are sub-genres: adult westerns, fantasy, gothic romance, regency romance, etc., etc.
Who determines genre? The market and a lot of preconceived notions. Editors who buy novels and guide them to finished form, and readers who buy them to consume. Readers expect such a novel, a western for instance, to be written a certain way and, because of those reader expectations, if it isn't written that way, editors generally won't buy it—because they believe it won't sell and their sales department, cast from the same mold, believes they don't know how to sell it. They'll say, "It falls through the slots."
If you want to sell your work to the established publishing houses, the first thing you have to realize is publishing is a business. Like other businesses, publishers want products that sell.
The editor's first obligation to the publishing house is to stock the shelves with the standard product, the proven sellers. Only once in every hundred books they edit will they reach out. And remember, they've probably read or partially read five thousand manuscripts to get those hundred they bought—the reality is that a million manuscripts a year get submitted and 3,500 published in mass-market fiction, numbers that are constantly changing. The odds against a truly unusual book getting to the market are huge. But when they do, they are sometimes the huge sellers. Take Fifty Shades of Grey as an example.
Jonathan Livingston Seagull, among the all-time best-selling novels, and the most translated novel, bar none, from the English language (at least when I wrote this, I’m sure this has changed), was turned down twenty-eight times before it found a home. It was a short, unusual story. Now it's a short, unusual story translated into more languages than any other novel ever published.
But if you want to get comfortably published, don't try to reinvent the wheel. Write to the market. Make it easy on the editors. Give them a product they're used to, one they can get on the shelf with little effort on their part or that of the copy editor. One that sells and makes money for the publishing house.
I once spoke at a college seminar on writing where the renowned science fiction writer Ray Bradbury was the featured speaker. After speaking to my small portion of the seminar, I attended Ray's keynote address—and found myself being berated for giving the exact advice above. Write to the market, although it had been related to him in a different manner than I’d represented. “I also said, write from the heart.” And “money isn’t everything.”
Bradbury, who sold his first brilliant novel, Fahrenheit 451, at the ripe old age of 21 or so, believed that all writers should be like him, brilliant, and merely write a brilliant novel and go on to fame and fortune. Thank you, Ray. But some of us have to grind it out the hard way, and would like to make a little money, and get a few pats on the head, along the path. Now that you’re gone, I truly hope you’ve found a place in heaven…which will only be heaven to you if there’s a word processor at hand.
Yes, if possible, write a brilliant unorthodox novel and be rich and famous—but the odds are you'll languor and slip away from writing when you find a pile of rejection slips building window-sill high beside your desk (or toilet). Many who might evolve into brilliant productive writers will go by the wayside if expecting, and being disappointed by, the lack of fame and fortune from a first novel or from not selling a first, or second, or third novel. Many now productive and successful writers did not sell a manuscript until they had written a half-dozen novels. I remember a story about Danielle Steel. It was reported that she sold her first novel, only to receive rejections on her next five. That would be even tougher in many ways than not selling your first.
Editors look forward to receiving their paychecks regularly and if they don't stock the shelves with products that sell, paychecks stop coming because they are looking for another job. They look for product to fill the slots they have open. Tried and true genre product that fits the slot.
But back to genre.
Romances end happily: girl gets boy and vice versa. Mysteries drip clues, and you don't know the solution until the last chapter. Sci-fi is about aliens and outer space, or inner space, including inside the body or the center of the earth. Horror better scare the hell out of you. Since I'm concentrating on the western and the historical, I'll zero in on them—and by the way, what's good for the western is generally good for the western romance, novels of the west, and historicals set in the old West. Most of it, of course, is common to all genres.
If I seem to be stuck on westerns, remember the same basics can be applied to all genres.
WHAT'S A WESTERN? WHAT'S A HISTORICAL? As its eighth definition of the non-capitalized word, Random House defines western as:
A story, movie, or radio or television play about the U.S. West of the nineteenth century.
It defines an historical novel as:
A narrative in novel form, characterized chiefly by an imaginative reconstruction of historical events and personages.
Let's look at those definitions as they apply to western/historical novels. And remember that a western romance may have different guidelines than those for a straight western or straight historical.
As appears on the paperback racks in thousands of book stores, truck stops, supermarkets, and drug stores, and now online, a western is a fictional story of forty five to sixty five thousand words. This is a rule. Rules are made to be broken, and the word-limit rule, like all rules in publishing as well as most other businesses, is broken often. One of the finest western novels ever written (in my opinion, and the only Pulitzer Prize winning western novel ever written) is much longer. We'll talk more about Lonesome Dove a little later.
Again, so much for rules.
The point I'm trying to make is, nothing is hard and fast. But if you want to sell your novel, it's the accepted beginning, accepted length, accepted subject matter, accepted time frame, accepted style, and accepted ending that will sell quickest. Don't fight city hall.
Get one sold, get famous (or at least established), then you can break the rules.
Stephen King wrote a three word chapter in Misery. Thomas Wolfe wrote a four hundred word sentence in Bonfire of the Vanities. Both were (silently or at least in low tones) chastised by New York editors for "grandstanding." But they can pull this kind of stuff because they are Stephen King and Thomas Wolfe.
Consistently put a few novels on the top of the NYT or the PW lists, and you can grandstand.
In the meantime, write fifty to sixty thousand words for your short genre or one hundred thirty thousand for your long one—or better yet, follow the guide lines of the publisher to whom you wish to sell.
Later, I'll tell you how to count words in the old and new ways so you know how long your work is.
But any work of fifty to eighty thousand words does not a western make. What makes the western a western? Stay tuned....
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