What’s in a genre?

Labels can be useful.

Is this parsley? Or is it thyme?

Is this a middle school? Or is it a high school?

Labels can also be useless or, worse, counterproductive.

Is he a nerd? A geek? A poser?

Is he a future success story? Or a failure waiting to happen?

As a writer, I’m struggling with labels right now. Is my first novel, The Monster’s Daughter, YA? Or is it horror? I’d put it squarely into the category “YA horror,” no matter how I envision it as a coming of age tale, but the categories available don’t allow me this designation.

tmd one year collage

I’m left to choose between “Teen: monsters” or “Horror.” I personally feel the latter fits somewhat better, but it also makes my novel virtually invisible in searches. The former doesn’t fit quite as well but opens my book to a much wider audience.

Then again, many adult women readers have told me that their husbands—and even a couple of their dads!—have picked up and enjoyed the novel.

I hate being forced to apply a broad label that will, in just a word or two, set a reader’s expectations, perhaps incorrectly. My livelihood is contracts. I crave precision.

And yet, as my BFF points out, it should be my instinct that guides me. Some will bemoan the novel’s inclusion as YA because it—gasp!—alludes to sex. Others will complain that it’s more aptly counted as YA because its protagonist is a teen facing some very teenager-appropriate concerns.

When I sat down to write The Monster’s Daughter eight years ago, I wrote a YA novel. I will always see it as a YA novel. Between then and now, though, I’ve had the benefit of other peoples’ insight. That insight leads me to believe there are many labels I can rightly apply to my own novel, regardless of other peoples’ perceptions about what is or is not a perfect fit.

Ultimately, I wrote the book for myself but published it in the hopes that it would be read. The same goes for the novel I’m editing now. Which means my conclusion is this: If there are two appropriate, imperfect labels that apply to any book I write and one enables it to reach a wider audience, I’d just as soon go for the one with the wider reach.

As most of us learned in high school, after all, there is only so much information any one label can express, no matter to what—or whom—it is applied.

What imperfect labels have been applied to you?
What imperfect labels have you applied?

  1. December 3, 2012 at 5:33 pm

    This is tough, Deb, but, by far the least productive label applied to me was “mentally ill.” Don’t know that that does anyone any good, unless it helps them seek treatment. Great question. I agree with BFF–go with your instinct.

    • December 4, 2012 at 5:04 am

      Your comment prompted me to think back on my experiences with my mom. While I often describe her as having a mental illness, actually calling her “mentally ill” troubled me. This was for the same reason I could never call her “crazy,” and had a very negative response to people using that word. In most cases, the moment someone called my mom “crazy,” I was done interacting with them emotionally; in only one that I can remember did true friendship remain intact.

      I actually had a doctor use the word “crazy” to describe my mom. That led to a verbal altercation. “As a doctor, shouldn’t you of all people be sensitive to the medical and general uselessness of that word?” Ugh.

  2. December 3, 2012 at 5:43 pm

    Oh, I’ve had some nasty ones applied – “slacker” was a common one, ’cause I could get to answers without showing the work in between. “Brainiac” was another, that made people think I know everything about everything – while I DO know a great deal about a lot of things, I have FAR from a perfect memory, especially post-health-crash. I think the one that annoyed me most was “flake”, because I know about a LOT of things – jack of all trades, master of none. I could never do something for a job that I like, because of timetables and outside demands I can’t control. So I did what I barely liked, but was good at (computer programming), and studied history and farted with cars as hobbies.
    I did once label a lady I didn’t know as “cold”, because she seemed very prim, proper, and aloof. Then she belted out a swear-filled exclamation in a bar, and I realised I had shot WAY wide of the mark. (I’ll tell the story in an upcoming post, so stay tuned! 😉 )

    • December 4, 2012 at 5:07 am

      The moment I saw your name, I realized I’ve definitely applied some labels to you–“funny” for starters! You can bet I’ll stay tuned for that post . . . and all your others, too, even if it takes me a little while. 😀

  3. December 3, 2012 at 5:51 pm

    If a book is labeled a specific way many will pass it by, this is really true when you get into the YA label. But then Twilight was YA, look how many read that. Harry Potter was YA also I think, adults clambered for the next book.

    I think, go with your instinct.

    As to what I have been labeled, I would not every use those words on your blog. Not ever. I adopted some of them for myself over the years, mostly to build a wall. They worked. Now, well I am trying to be shed of some of them, but some I don’t know maybe I will keep.

    • December 4, 2012 at 5:17 am

      Your final paragraph makes me both sad and hopeful. I’m glad you’re working on shedding them and hope you’re able to with these efforts. I’ve adopted a couple of those flung my way, but have been happy to discard most of them.

      Twilight and Harry Potter had marketing machines behind them; in my case, I have the blog, my online presence, and book retailer search engines. Right now, it’s only available on one search engine, and the category chosen has a huge impact on how/whether it’s returned in search results. This means we’ve got my own internal designation–almost an indulgence!–and the ones I’m allowed to select for practical purposes.

      I’ve gone with my instinct, and am chuckling how much “instinct” can change following consideration. 😀

  4. December 3, 2012 at 6:22 pm

    I have no experience with genre labels–my current writing projects have been slow to evolve–but I struggle with general life labels. By struggle I mean I tend to run away from labels even when they are actual useful and fit. I’m too eager to NOT fit in. 😉

  5. December 3, 2012 at 6:31 pm

    I so get this. I remember asking an agent WHY I couldn’t call say book was “memoir with jazz hands and pixie dust.” She said: “James Frey.” I guess folks need to know where to put us in their virtual bookshelves. I have a feeling that all these designations are going to change in due time. At least, that is my hope.

    • December 4, 2012 at 5:24 am

      GAH! It seems impossible that we can spend so many hundreds of hours working on a thing to have it be boiled down to a word or two, or someone else’s name. Like you, I also hope these designations will change. What’s important to me is the substance, regardless of how a book’s classified.

      Sometimes I’ll admit to reading a book and then discovering it’s classified differently than I expected. (I get it now!) Most the time, though, it’s a description and a sample that catches me, and I love something that defies quick classification because it’s a unique reflection of the unique individual who created it.

  6. December 3, 2012 at 8:30 pm

    I always have a hard time with “wife” and “mother.” Yes, I am both and I love being each one. But at the same time, there’s this different societal view of each that isn’t always positive – and that’s hard for me.

    I’m talking about this idea of labels right now with my seventh graders and somehow today “slut” came up. It all started with defining “prude.” Darn newspaper articles for giving them new vocab, anyway. I just hope it doesn’t promote parent emails…

  7. December 3, 2012 at 8:37 pm

    I very much identify with the difficulty in choosing the right genre for Ripple in particular. I Run is easy: memoirs; a journey of faith and healing–bingo.

    I’m happy you’re choosing the genre that will result in the most sales (without compromising your integrity).

    As far as labels. Sheesh. I’ve been labeled and mislabeled my whole life and this has created so much freakin’ confusion for me. Who am I? What am I? Why am I? I’ve just recently gotten a grip on most those questions. Sometimes I still get confused about the “where am I” issue. Giggle.

  8. December 4, 2012 at 4:02 am

    Great post, Deb. I am mostly clueless when it comes to labels. I’m working on a project right now that could be Mid LIfe Crisis/ Self Help/ Fiction/ Religious/ Dark Humor, so I settle with “Hey, it’s about what it’s about”. Same goes for my blog which some days is a stereotpical Mommy Blog and other times is a dark hole of 12-year-old boy poop jokes. It’s a toss up, but I’ve decided to just go with it 🙂

  9. December 4, 2012 at 5:07 am

    You have to go with what feels right to you, they’ll always be someone who disagrees such is life 🙂

  10. December 4, 2012 at 7:30 am

    I remember struggling with this a bit when I first started blogging, but I ended up just throwing a bunch of different genres together. Now, in retrospect, I can totally understand why people start two blogs… Thankfully, I’ve never had to categorize a book, but I sometimes find the categories a little off. I probably would have called “The Hunger Games” trilogy sci-fi, but I think they’re marketed as YA…

  11. December 4, 2012 at 9:23 am

    Childhood labels keep therapists busy for sure! I noticed that when I veered away from humor on my blog (its stated purpose) to write about something I felt strongly about, kind of obligated to write about, it was a chore. For now, I’ll keep those heartfelt opinions in my close circle, but I understand that pursuing humor helps me (maybe others, too?)deal with the craziness of the world. As for the labels you choose for your work, definitely go for the wider audience–and I know YA appeals to a wide audience.

  12. December 4, 2012 at 12:50 pm

    I was thinking about it and all I came up with was blank as in blocked memory… Yep, I’ve blocked them out… Labels can be so destructive… 😦

  13. December 5, 2012 at 11:43 am

    Yes I too find choosing the genre is the toughest job in the world as far as writing is concern. Till the very end I was confused about which genre to choose for my book and then I decided to go with memoirs. But honestly, I do not think that well describes my book. And then I find the same difficulty while choosing the keywords. And I am not still satisfied with my choices there. But as it’s my first step towards publication, so it’s more of a learning process for me.
    I hope you are going to choose the best option that will help the sale.

  1. December 29, 2012 at 1:54 pm
  2. February 2, 2013 at 6:32 am

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