What’s Your Genre?

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What’s your genre? Seems to be a simple question to answer. As an author you need to be clear because you will be pitching your book to people in the publishing industry and/or readers.

It’s a lesson I learnt yesterday while participating in a reading competition at a small suburban literary festival outside of Toronto. I was one of five “emerging” writers to read an excerpt from a WIP in front of four judges who work in the industry. Two were publicists for publishers, one was an editor and the fourth was a published author. It was call Writer’s Court and borrowing from reality TV (e.g., American Idol), the judges critiqued your work once you were finished reading.

Let me set the scene up further. It took place in a historic courtroom. The judges were sitting on a raised platform behind a railing and the writers stood in the witness box facing the judges. Just a little intimidating!

You may be asking yourself, why did I want to put myself through this? It’s like pitching your novel to a literary agent. You have a very short window to catch their attention. Actually, a real agent will give you less time than that. About the time it takes for them to wait for an elevator to arrive to get them up to their office.

We were told we had five minutes and would be cut off by the moderator once our time was up.  I calculated that worked out to about 500 words and decided to read the first two pages of Loved Mars, Hated The Food. When it was my turn, I got up and walked into the witness box. The moderator read by bio but for some reason got the giggles in the middle of it and mangled the genre of my WIP. I read my piece and, as I finished, I looked up at the judges. None of them were smiling.  Not a good sign when you are reading humour.

Judge #1 looks down at the printed copy of my excerpt. It was provided to the judges several weeks before the event. However, I had been doing a lot of editing over the past month so it didn’t quite match what I had read. She noted that I had done a lot of editing while reading which she felt was a good thing. I think I winced. Really? I moved some sentences around. Does she think I could do that on the fly while reading it in front of a room full of people?

Judge #2 acknowledged that she knew nothing about the genre. She asked if I have read a lot of science fiction? I reminded her that I write humour but I have read some science fiction. She then suggested I change the description of my Martians. I just smiled to mask the thoughts running through my head.

Judge #3 was the author. He admitted that he favours literary fiction and is also not familiar with the genre. But he did have an opinion on my manuscript. His view was that I wasn’t going to attract science fiction readers because I was providing all the “techy” stuff the scifi lovers want. How he was able to determine that from the first two pages of my manuscript, I’ll never know.

Judge #4 felt that the story felt too much like a screenplay and not a novel. In the two pages, the main character is alone and freaking out because he may be dying soon. There is a fair amount of inner monologue going on. Again, I’m not writing literary fiction. Oh, but he told me he really liked the title.

Yup, it was a really good evening. I felt like William Hung being ripped apart by Simon Cowell on American Idol. Maybe it was karma? The literary festival was being held in the city of Brampton which I had lampooned in my first novel. I guess this was some sort of payback. My ego was somewhat rescued by a woman who came up to me as I was leaving. She wanted to tell me that she thought what I read was hilarious and she had no clue what was wrong with the judges.

So what does this have to do with knowing what your genre is? I’ve been telling people that this is a humorous science fiction story. That is technically correct but obviously could confuse people. My first novel was a political satire but it wasn’t a political book. The genre of my current novel is humour with Mars as the setting. I need to drop science fiction from the description. I think readers know where Mars is located.  When you are pitching a book to an agent or marketing it to readers, make sure you are targeting the right people. It will save you a lot of frustration.

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