This week authors J. Thorn and Crys Cain discuss the question “what is genre” and why it matters when writing, publishing, and marketing your books.



Story Grid Genres


Crys: Welcome to the TASM podcast. I’m Crys Cain with my co-host J Thorn.

J: Hi Crys.

Crys: Hey, how’s it going?

J: Oh, it’s going great. How about you?

Crys: I am doing pretty good. Finished a book for the first time since August, so that’s quite exciting. We had it on pre-order, so I uploaded it a couple days before the pre-order deadline which I think is tomorrow. So I uploaded it yesterday.

And then this morning I was talking with my co-writer, and we’ve been talking about translations for forever. And we know a few friends who are doing well over there, specifically in German translation. As intimidated as I am about the whole process, like far more than finding a narrator, at least they’re producing something in a language I can understand, I have put a job posting up for German translators on Upwork. So we’ll see how this goes.

J: Excellent. Excellent. Do you remember back in the day there was a company that facilitated the connections between authors and foreign translators?

Crys: Babel Fish. Yeah, I think that was it.

J: I don’t know if they’re still around.

Crys: They may still exist.

J: I remember I dabbled, but it wasn’t very reliable. But one of the things I’ve always thought about with the foreign translations, if you’re doing it on your own, how do you know you have a good translator or not?

Crys: Yeah. You have to hire somebody else to fact check. But we are also reaching out to a German writer friend of ours who writes in English, but they are German native, and say, “Hey, like would you mind reading these samples over and tell us which ones are the best bet here?” Since we can’t tell, and it’s someone who writes in our genre as well, so they’ll be able to say like specific genre things, whether they’re well translated or not.

J: Good idea. And I’m assuming you’re starting with German because of the size of the German market.

Crys: Yep. In general, the market size is German, French, Spanish. And I’ve had a freebie story out in Spanish for a couple of years. And I think I may have only put it on Google Play, and it’s only gotten like 2,600 downloads for the freebie in those two years, and only 18 people signed up for the mailing list.

So Spanish hasn’t quite caught on in the eBook realm. That doesn’t mean it’s not going to, cause it’s absolutely going to, but it just has been more of a risk than German.

J: Interesting.

Crys: Yeah, indeed. But anything new for you?

J: I’ve been working on a few behind the scenes things, although probably on Monday as we record this, I’m going to start recording the next Three-Story Method book called Writing Scenes. It’s completely done. So I feel like I’m good now to hopefully knock the narration out in about a week or so.

When I did the first Three Story Method book, I really liked knocking out like two, three, even four hours at a time if possible. It’s so intense that if I spread it out over a month, I feel like I’m going to be way more tired than if I just like bit the bullet and did big chunks in a fewer number of days, so I’m hoping that given the size of it.

There are some sample chapters and scenes in there that I’m hiring other narrators to read because they’re fiction, and I don’t narrate fiction. I don’t pretend I have that skill. So I think word wise, like it’ll be significantly less than the original book.

And I’m hoping by the end of next week I have that done because my plan is to publish wide through Draft2Digital with a royalty share with some collaborators and publish wide audio through Findaway. Getting those to sync up is going to be tough because Findaway can’t really control what ACX does on the approval side, but I should be able to get them close. And it’ll be the first book I’ve ever self-published that has been 100% wide in all formats from the very beginning. So I’ll be curious to see what happens.

Crys: Now does that coincide with, I can’t remember what day it is that you’re having the webinar with the narration teacher/coach /amazing actor whose name I cannot remember for the life of me.

J: David H. Lawrence, the 17th.

Crys: Yes. And I love him, and he’s generally like a side character when I’ve seen him in movies and stuff or TV shows, but he’s always just so unique and I love him.

J: Yeah, he is. He’s a great guy. Yeah, he’s going to be doing a webinar, and if you’re on my mailing list you’ll get a couple of notifications to this. But no, my narration is not connected to that. But he runs VO Heroes, and he has trained literally thousands of people how to become auto audio book narrators. So he’s going to do a Q and A with me. And he’s an entertaining guy too, like he’s got a great sense of humor. And I’m looking forward to it. It’s

Crys: Excellent. Well, this week as I was scrounging my brain for topics that we haven’t gone over, that aren’t too similar to things that we’ve talked about recently, I realized that something that comes up a lot for members of our community, just writers in general, is the idea of genre. We have that in writing to market, you know, write to market, know what your genre is, know how to sell it. We have it in like, well my book is like a little bit of sci-fi, and a little bit of Western, a little bit of a fantasy. So I decided to throw the very cantankerous question of “what is genre” at you.

J: Yeah, which sounds like I could just crack open a dictionary and I could go to the Gs and I could tell you exactly what it says, and then we could stop recording and we will be done. It’s clearly way more complicated than that. Because I’ve had a whole two and a half minutes to think about this, my gut reaction is, at its core, genre is packaging. What do you think about that?

Crys: Yeah, I always say genre is marketing. It’s what it started as, that’s what it is useful for. It doesn’t necessarily dictate how you write your book, but it dictates how you sell your book.

J: Yes. And I think that distinction gets lost in a lot of the conversations around genre, because I think any good writer can write in any genre, and it’s still going to be good writing because there isn’t anything in genre that makes them a better writer. Genre is simply the lens that the reader is using to observe the story, or it’s the packaging that’s used in the store.

 I think where we’re going is like, well, why does genre matter? If we know what genre is, then why does it matter? So I’d like to ask you that question first. Why should your average independent author care about genre?

Crys: I f your reader does not understand what your story is in relation to other things that they know what those stories are, then they don’t know if they want it. I think that is my off the top, off the cuff, quick answer.

J: Yeah. And what do you say to someone who says, I don’t want to write in a genre. I have this paranormal, western, thriller, space opera that I just know is like the story I have to tell, and that’s what I want to write.

Crys: You can absolutely write that, but if you don’t figure out a way to present it as a main genre, nobody’s going to find it.

It’s not that nobody’s going to like it, nobody’s going to find.

J: Yeah. And I think that is also something that gets lost because I’ve had this conversation with authors before, and they say, but I know it’s a really good story. And I’m like, I’m not saying people aren’t going to like it, I’m just saying people have no way of knowing what it is. They’re not going to open it in the first place.

And I know that I’m someone who, in the early part of my career, I was writing much more to market and much more genre specific stuff because I had no following, I had no readers. And if I didn’t present something that at least resembled something they knew, no one would ever have taken a chance on my stuff.

So my early stuff is pretty straight up horror. And even the post apoc stuff is pretty straight up post apoc. And over the past couple of years, I’ve experimented more with what would be considered more mashups or experimental things. My voice is the same. My writing chops are the same. I’m the same person. And I think the people who read the earlier stuff would like the more contemporary things that I write, but again, to your point, if I start like that, how do I ever build an audience because no one knows what I’m delivering.

Crys: Yeah. I read this book that I love telling people about it because it’s so insane. And it is such a mashup of different genres, but it’s packaged as sci-fi. And it is, it is sci-fi, but it’s also a bunch of other things. So this story features a somewhat immortal violin teacher who made a deal with the devil, a trans mixed race teenage sex worker, and an alien family who has escaped an intergalactic war and their headquarters is masquerading as a doughnut show.

Now, this book is sci-fi, it is paranormal fantasy, it is a LGBTQ coming of age, it is middle-aged lesbian sapphic romance. It is all of these things. But, and this is a trad-pub book, they know how to market their genre, they only buy within things that they can market in genres, and they chose to market this primarily as sci-fi, and secondarily as LGBTQ.

And so they’re like, all right, we’re picking our two kind of main tags for people who like sci-fi and this. These are the two mashups. Like we’re pretty used to like space westerns, that’s become a mashup people are familiar with. But like when Firefly came out or Cowboy Bebop came out, like they’re the first two space westerns I know of. Like you could even say Star Wars is a space western to some degree, but nobody knew what a space western was then, so they were definitely not going to advertise it as a space western. But when Firefly came out, like it was advertised primarily as a sci-fi show. And then it grew to be described as a space western. And now other things that have followed after that can call themselves space westerns because people know what that means.

J: Excellent. And I’ll tell you where maybe the listener can gain some insight from this. This is the takeaway from my perspective, when someone asks you what kind of book you’re writing or what kind of story you’re telling, if you’re writing a mashup or you’re writing one of these cross-genre stories, what I normally hear is well, it’s kind of a mix between, and then you just plug in however, four or five, six genres.

What I would do, my suggestion would be, is to say it’s a sci-fi story and it has elements of, and then name your other genres. You have to change your perspective a little bit and you have to anchor it somewhere where it’s most likely to be found. Because at least that way, in your elevator pitch or if you’re having a conversation, they ask you what kind of book you’re writing, you can plant your flag in that genre, in your predominant genre, and still incorporate those other flavors that will make it sound more interesting. But if you immediately start with, it’s a mix up of these eight things, even in a casual conversation, you’re not giving anyone something to grab onto. There’s just nothing there.

Crys: Yeah. And if you’re struggling to figure out what would be your primary genre, for speculative fiction at least, and that’s anything that isn’t our world. I would go primarily with what’s your main setting. That’s probably going to be the main genre that you’re going to advertise as because that’s going to be the first thing people see.

Now, A Light From Uncommon Stars did take place on our planet and the sci-fi elements are not what you primarily see, but you know very early on that there are aliens and that’s the most unusual thing, right? And it’s also *spoiler alert* where the story ends, so that’s what gives it more weight.

There’s no formula for figuring out which is going to be your primary genre. It kind of just has to go with what feels most present, what element feels most present. Like horror is always going to be probably its primary genre, even if it’s a space horror, because people who don’t read horror, aren’t going to want to read space horror. And so the horror is the most important aspect of that because the people who will read horror, will read horror. But you don’t want to sneak people who love action, adventure, sci-fi, into your sci-fi horror. They are going to be appalled.

J: I think that’s a great point, and that’s happened to me too. Like I’ve been suckered into something and then it turns out that’s not what the primary genre is, and I bail. I’m like, wait a minute, I’m fine with these elements, but like you’ve completely sold me something that’s untrue.

And I love that idea, and maybe there are only a couple anchor genres. Like maybe there’s horror, sci-fi, thriller, romance, literature. I don’t know, I’m just totally riffing.

Crys: Yeah. I have this theory that I’ve been working on for a while and trying to figure out, that every kind of genre that we come up with, and this borrows a little bit from the whole Story Grid genres. I like that the Story Grid genres, though I hate they use the word genre cause they’re not genres, the story grid genres had this expectation built in that this kind of story has this kind of answer at the end. This is what the readers are looking for.

And I think that for a lot of people, every genre has its own emotional fulfillment that they’re going to. For fantasy, they’re looking for other worldly things they wish existed in the world. They’re looking for wonder, they’re looking for a sense of wonder to be answered.

Similar with sci-fi, but they’re looking for wonder plus science, right? And for thriller it’s often excitement or justice, mystery is justice. And so at some point I’m going to like actually have my thoughts out, but I think that what those of us who feel called to one particular genre or another is we’re called to that particular emotion, that particular emotional answer, emotional fulfillment. And which emotional fulfillment is the greatest in your story, that’s going to push your genre in that area.

J: I would imagine this might be a great use of a beta reader. If you have a beta reader who reads in many genres, you could give them your book and just say, tell me what the primary genre is. Or you could go the other direction and you could say, okay, let’s say you think it’s primarily sci-fi, you could give it to a hardcore sci-fi reader and say, is this a sci-fi book? And there’ll be able to tell you in pretty strong language whether it is or not. But I think that because sometimes we are so close to the art, we don’t necessarily know how to classify it. And putting it into someone else’s hands and asking them to label it might be helpful too.

Crys: And you’ll hear people say genre doesn’t matter until you’re trying to sell it. But I don’t a hundred percent agree with that. Because if you’re trying to write to a genre, the genre matters before you get to the selling part. And that’s part of that writing to market, right? If you write a romance story where the main couple doesn’t get together or that one of them dies, and in most romance genres, if one of them cheats, it’s no longer a romance. It needs to be put in some other genre completely because you have completely betrayed the expectations of that genre. So you need to know that ahead of time, if you were wanting to package your book as that genre.

If you don’t necessarily care what your book is going to be packaged as, you just want to write the book you want to write, go ahead and write the book you want to write and worry about the packaging after it is done.

J: Totally agree. Yeah. Such a simple question, but so layered in the answer.

Crys: For our listeners, what questions should we throw at them about genre?

J: I’d love to know how folks define genre.

Crys: Excellent. Thank you so much for joining us this week and every week.

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