Wednesday, August 29, 2012

Genre Bending

by Mindy McGinnis

There are certain questions that make writers of all stripes both frustrated and frightened at the same time. What is it about your book that's so special? What distinguishes you from the rest of the crowd, either in the slush pile or on the store bookshelf? Is the market for your WIP over?

To my mind all of these questions are related, and boil down to the same word—genre. More specifically—your genre and how you've taken a small corner of it to claim as your own.

I recently had three separate but related online interactions that spawned this post. I'll tackle them each one at a time and draw them back together for the firework-inducing full-circle conclusion. Or at least a steepled-fingers-move from my reader and a thoughtful monosyllabic grunt.

Interaction #1—A Goodreads reviewer commented that Not a Drop to Drink sounds more like a post-apocalyptic Western than a dystopian, which is both astute of her and also very gratifying to me, as that's how I felt about it from the beginning.

Interaction #2—One of my Saturday Slash participants (a query critique on my personal blog, Writer, Writer, Pants on Fire) asked if they should change the genre for their query project from "dystopian" to "post-apocalyptic," as they were afraid that dystopian was "over." My response was that I didn't think it made a difference. Agents and readers know that the terms can (for the most part) be swapped for each other fairly easily. To my thinking it's no more different than calling chick-lit "women's literature." I told the Slash participant to go whichever way they liked, but it didn't matter. A rose by another name, and all that.

Interaction #3—Instead of re-hashing it I'm posting a screen-cap below of a Twitter exchange between myself, my fellow Friday the Thirteeners member Elsie Chapman, my critique partner R.C. Lewis and her fellow Hyperion author Tess Sharpe.

Tess's reaction to the simple re-phrasing of my genre spoke volumes to me. Even though she already felt like DRINK had a new angle for the dystopian genre, the idea of it being more akin to a neo-western than its dystopian brothers and sisters were the equivalent of "magic words" to her.

And this reaction had me re-thinking my answer to the Saturday Slash participant.

She's not the first person to mention to me they think the dystopian ship has quite sailed, left the harbor, and perhaps already sunk. And if this is the case I'm going to cry a lot when next fall comes around, and that would be a very bad thing. I am not fond of crying.

So what if I do start referring to DRINK as a neo-western? Will that appeal to more people? Will it lift the ever-present curse of it's-been-done?

Quite a few people in my Book Pregnant group of debut authors write what's referred to as Women's Literature. And they write it well. If their mss were marketed as Chick-Lit would they have died in their agent's inbox?

And what if my Slash volunteer chose the phrase "post-apocalyptic" to describe her ms instead of "dystopian?" Would the D-word close doors whereas "post-apoc" might leave room for a foot in the door?

I don't have the best answer to these questions, and I'm willing to bet that the answer changes depending on who you ask.

So what's your opinion?

Mindy McGinnis is a YA author and librarian. Her debut neo-western, NOT A DROP TO DRINK, will be available from Katherine Tegen / Harper Collins in Fall 2013. She blogs at Writer, Writer Pants on Fire and contributes to the group blogs Book Pregnant, Friday the Thirteeners and The Lucky 13s. You can also find her on Twitter & Facebook.


Jean Oram said...

Good luck trying to convince an agent that chick lit is the same as women's fiction. They catch one whiff of the voice (chick lit has a distinctive voice) and they send it back to you saying it is chick lit and the genre is flooded and they can't sell it to save their life. And yes, I've tried it. That was awhile ago so things may be a bit different, but you aren't going to fool an agent. If they rep it, they can see it a mile away.

To me, a neo-western would be the new West with cowboys, etc.

Mindy McGinnis said...

Good call on chick-lit Jeano! That world is alien to me, so it's very possible that's one place a slight genre-bend won't be helpful.

Matt Sinclair said...

An interesting set of questions. I stand by the tenet that if the voice and writing are strong enough, the work will sell and find an audience. But I know it's not always that simple. Books need to be marketed and in the super-saturated markets we have now, labels DO matter -- both at the query stage and at the publishing stage. In the meantime, I'm hoping that the post-apoc/dystopian audience hasn't fallen to a plague. Frankly, I think they're doing just fine, oblivious to the inevitable end of that world.

E.B. Black said...

Dystopian is over with agents, but you've already sold your book, so it doesn't matter. It's not over with readers in my opinion. The only dystopian I've read so far is the Hunger Games and I plan to read more. So dystopian would appeal to me, personally, more because I don't read westerns.

I honestly think you should refer to it as both interchangably because the combination of the two words is what appealed to me the most. Dystopian is a genre I'm interested in and Neo-Western makes it sound fresh and new!

Myrna Foster said...

Neo-Western tells me why I'd want to read it.

Tracy Bermeo (A2Z Mommy) said...

I think that using a genre description such as neo-western would separate a query or a book from "all the rest." I love old westerns and the idea of a new kind of western, especially as a story, would be something I'd want to pick up and read. The name alone creates a unique visual.

Bethany Crandell said...

I'm a poor, boring contemporary writer. Dystopian (or not) is so far out of my wheelhouse that I wasn't even sure what to say. I love reading it--but to differentiate between the two is sort of lost on me.

So, rather than make myself sound like a fool any longer, I'm just going to say that I firmly support exactly what E.B. had to say. Agents may be done w/it--but readers definitely are not. Whatever you call it--if it's well written, it'll find a home.

Jean Oram said...

I did try though. I also called chick lit "romantic comedy" and that seemed to go over a little better. But at the end of the day... it was still chick lit and chick lit was still a swamped market. Wah!

Mindy McGinnis said...

Matt - I certainly hope they're doing fine. DRINK won't be out for another year yet. I NEED the world to not end, yet have everyone still be fascinated by the possibility.

EB - Thanks! Yes, I agree that while dystopian is still roaring with readers getting one by an agent or an editor is a tough sell right now. It was a tough sell for me when I was on submission and that was a year ago.

Tracy - Agreed, that little twist seems to have made a difference, and I've got crit partners and readers to thank for helping me make the distinction.

Bethany - Whew! At least I can count on you to read DRINK :)

Jemi Fraser said...

I don't know if dystopians will ever go out of style - although I can see the name changing now and again. When I was in high school we read Fahrenheit 451, 1984, Brave New World, Chrysalids... but I never heard the word dystopian :) Back then it was all just science fiction. No matter what you call it, I'm looking forward to Drink! :)

Mindy McGinnis said...

Thanks Jemi! I'm looking forward to your opinion :)