Sanity Snippet #7

Let’s think about genre. How do you pronounce it much less define it?

Say it like this: “zhaan·ruh.” Say it five times.

Define it like this (from Wordnet Dictionary):
“a kind of literary or artistic work;
a style of expressing yourself in writing;
an expressive style of music;
a class of art (or artistic endeavor) having a characteristic form or technique[.]”

For now let’s look at genre simply as a specific kind of story that leaves the reader with the sought after emotional experience. Said another way, genre is a way of categorizing stories. Think again of a reader. She wants to read a mystery. Book sellers want her to locate just the right one and literally or figuratively bring it to the checkout counter. Without categorization, she would have to hunt and hunt and hunt, plowing through massive stackes of disorganized books: sci-fi, horror, thriller, romance, suspense, erotica, and on and on, before she finds her mystery (I’m ignoring the fact a lot of books are hybrids. Can you imagine a mystery-romance genre?).

Of course, there is mystery and there is mystery. Uh? Let’s look at how Amazon breaks down this category, but first let’s define mystery. I found this on Google: “[t]he mystery genre is a genre of fiction that follows a crime (like a murder or a disappearance) from the moment it is committed to the moment it is solved. Mystery novels are often called ‘whodunnits’ because they turn the reader into a detective trying to figure out the who, what, when, and how of a particular crime.” Of course, this definition isn’t always rigidly applied. For example, the murder could have taken place long before the beginning of the book.

“As far as I’m concerned, you can’t beat a good whodunnit: the twists and turns, the clues and the red herrings and then, finally, the satisfaction of having everything explained to you in a way that makes you kick yourself because you hadn’t seen it from the start.”

Anthony Horowitz, Magpie Murders

Now, to Amazon. It further categorizes the mystery genre as follows:
Amateur Sleuth
Black & African American
Collections & Anthologies
International Mystery & Crime
Police Procedurals
Private Investigators Series
Traditional Detectives
Women Sleuths

My favorite genre is mystery (although I do love a good legal thriller; BTW, John Grisham is still king of this genre). It’s a toss-up whether I like Amateur Sleuth or Private Investigator Series the most. But, considering that the majority of my novels fit in the Amateur slot I’d say that’s indicative of my preference.

Let’s look closer. So, what is an amateur sleuth mystery? Again, Google answers our question: “An amateur sleuth mystery features a protagonist who, having no professional direct ties to the police or other investigative agency, stumbles upon and sets out to solve or help solve various crimes, most notably murder. They are often seen in the sub-genre cozy mystery.”

To the end of not leaving you hanging, let’s look at another Google search result: “Cozy mysteries involve an amateur sleuth, usually in a small town, solving a murder. Unlike grittier mystery genres, cozies don’t have swearing, violence, or sex. With the exception of the fact that somebody has been bumped off, the cozy tends to be light in tone, and sometimes even humorous.”

Here’s an example of a book in the amateur sleuth category (note, it’s not a cozy): The Mighty Johns, by David Baldacci. Read the following and decide if the Amazon abstract makes it clear a reader would discover his desired emotional experience assuming he is seeking a good amateur sleuth story.

“From a #1 New York Times bestselling author comes a gripping thriller novella about a college football player’s investigation into the unsolved disappearance of a local legend who seemingly vanished into thin air.

Forty years ago, Herschel Ruggles, the most legendary player on the Mighty Johns football team at Draven University, disappeared after scoring a record-breaking touchdown.

Instead of tossing the ball to the referee after his near-mythical athletic feat or celebrating with the nearly 25,000 spectators in the stands, Ruggles continued running, ball in hand, into a passageway that led deep underneath the field to the Mighty Johns’ locker room—and was never seen again.

His disappearance has mystified the community for decades . . . until another player—Merlin North, a brilliant physics major—helps break Ruggles’s record for kickoff returns. After that, North turns detective and becomes fixated on discovering what happened to Herschel Ruggles.

Investigating Ruggles’s mysterious disappearance, however, will prove unexpectedly dangerous for North, as evidence of murder—and ghostly visions—reveal the truth to be far more stunning than he ever could have anticipated.”

Did you notice the word ‘thriller’ in the description’s first paragraph? Think hybrid. Here, we have a mystery, an amateur sleuth mystery, that is written at a thriller pace.

Don’t worry if all of this sounds complicated. It is. Take it from me (who, over my writing years), one who has not always given genre enough thought.

Although choosing a genre is complex, it is necessary. A genre-less book is like a piece of driftwood in the middle of the Atlantic Ocean—probably alone for ever.

I encourage you to think about your story. What genre is it? Take out pencil and paper and record some thoughts. You might consider your sixty-six year old protagonist’s goal. Is he trying to win the heart of Jill the newest waitress at the corner cafe? Or, is he trying to find out who killed his best friend back in high school? Or, is your story about both, romance and mystery? That’s okay, it is up to you.

Here’s another exercise I’d encourage. Spend some time on Amazon looking at various genres. Find your favorite and read the summaries for at least half-a-dozen. Find one that sounds a lot like a story you want to write. Buy this book and read it carefully, noting the conventions the author used.

Photo by cottonbro on

Author: Richard L. Fricks

Former CPA, attorney, and lifelong wanderer. I'm now a full-time skeptic and part-time novelist. The rest of my time I spend biking, gardening, meditating, photographing, reading, writing, and encouraging others to adopt The Pencil Driven Life.

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