Tuesday, July 05, 2016

I have stripes: am I a zebra?

 In my query letter, is it acceptable to put "commercial fiction" as the genre or are there more specific subdivisions of the term which agents like to see? Commercial fiction sounds a little vague and general but my novel is not in a specific genre and it isn't really literary as such so commercial fiction seems like the best category. 

First, let's remember that "commercial fiction" isn't a genre, it's a category.
Other categories are: non-fiction, poetry, memoir, textbooks.

Genres are: mystery, science-fiction/fantasy, romance, western.

If your book would not be at home with novels of crime, sff, western or romance, then commercial fiction is a good general description.

One good way to figure out your "herd" is to look where books like yours are shelved or categorized.  Don't use Amazon for this. They have the screwiest sorting system I've ever seen.  Your best bet is the library. Librarians sort things with standardized criteria and exactitude;  they're pretty good at it.


Carolynnwith2Ns said...

My new favorite word.

My writing is like my closet. What I wear now is handy, all the stuff that doesn't fit (but keep until they might) is pushed way to the back. I have boxes and boxes of what-the-hell-is-this and maybe-someday categorys.

DeadSpiderEye said...

You go into a bookshop, find a book like yours that's not on the named author shelves then ask a person working there, 'What genre is this?'. In a cases such crime/sf fantasy they will still have genre labels, so you won't even have to do that. But they don't like to market Romance and young adult explicitly, so you might still have to ask.

E.M. Goldsmith said...

I love the titles of these blog entries. I have nothing to add. Bookstore or library- there be your key. Hello world.

Colin Smith said...

To be honest (and I don't want to be anything less than honest with you, my friends), this is an aspect of writing and publishing that makes me grumble a bit. I want to write my book, whatever it is, wherever it might be shelved, and send it to lots of agents, some of whom will love it, most of whom won't, and the agent that ends up with my novel can find me a publisher and then they can worry about whether it's urban fantasy or thriller or dino porn. I just want to write my stories!! *pout*

But that's not the way it is, so we just have to suck it up and do what we need to do. *sigh*. Thankfully, with the responsibility to be better researched comes a plethora of information to help us get there. :)

Angie Brooksby-Arcangioli said...

I'm reading Loving Day by Mat Johnson. A man who is half black and half Irish finds his true identity when he meets a community of mixed race Americans. One of his new friends wants a zonkey. The offspring from a zebra and a donkey.

What zonkey is your book?

Julie Weathers said...

We had this discussion on Books and Writers a while back. What haven't we discussed? Lately it's what is a parson's nose? That conversation has ambled on for weeks unbelievably.

Anyway, I think one thing most agreed on is most commercial fiction doesn't fit neatly under a genre label, tends to appeal to a wide audience and have a tendency to have great hooks and compelling plots. There's a potential to make a lot of money with them. They're...commercial.

Don't we all wish to make a lot of money?

On the plus side, I noticed a lot of agents like books that don't fit neatly into one genre or another. Isn't it nice when you can be a round peg in a field of square holes? Sometimes it's good to be a cowboy even if you're in a continental suit.

Kitty said...

And then there's that classic category of a prisoner on a zebra.

E.M. Goldsmith said...

I want a zonkey. Is that a real thing?

DLM said...

Kitty, my mildly dyslexic and/or smartypants brain read that as Prisoner of Zebra for a moment there ...

Theresa said...

Julie: parson's nose? Was a consensus reached? My great-grandmother often talked about the Pope's nose. She was Catholic, so it surprised me how she used this as a euphemism.

Janet, thanks for the zebras and the clarification on genre.

Kitty said...


julieweathers said...

Yes,a zonkey is real as is a zorse. zonkey Why, I don't know.

Colin, just write the book. Rain Crow has some paranormal elements sneaking in I certainly hadn't planned. There were no spiritual butterflies in the original thoughts at all. In the back of my mind I'm wondering how I'm going to tie all this together and will anyone want it even if I do. The boys in the back keep saying, "Trust us, we know where we're going. It'll be fun." The problem with that is in the south, "Hey, y'all, watch this! It'll be fun." is usually followed up with a trip to the hospital.

Nevertheless< I think you have to write you story as true as you can. Stop worrying about where it will be placed or what agents will think. Hemingway chastised Fitzgerald roundly for whoring his work to editors.

Hunter S. Thompson didn't care for a book written about him. Read the number 10 rejection letter. In that case, I might have taken Hunter's warning a bit more seriously, but mostly I think a writer has to stay true to their vision or they'll never survive.

julieweathers said...


Consensus is a parson's nose and pope's nose is the same thing. I've stopped following the conversation. It's the fleshy part of the tail end of a dressed chicken.

Colin Smith said...

Julie: Oh, you were defining "parson's nose" not metaphorically stating that the conversation had run it's course.

Mornings... *sigh*

And thanks for the encouragement. :)

Celia Reaves said...

This reminds me of discussions we have about advising beginning college students. Most of them have only the vaguest idea of what their goals are with regard to their education or their career plans, and scream, "Just let me be myself! Why do I have to fit into your categories of majors and schools!" (Sometimes they scream this internally, but we hear it anyway, because we're awesome like that.) What's amazing is that within a few years almost all of them have found their academic home and their career path, and are moving ahead with conviction. This happens through exploration of lots of alternatives and honest assessment of their own ideals and strengths. I see the book genre/category issue the same way. Write the book you want to write, let it meander across genre lines as it will, honestly assess where it sparkles best, and in the end it will find itself, and its zebra herd.

Karen McCoy said...

What Julie Weathers said.

And, I love me some librarians (I am one) but I must risk possible passage to Carkoon and share with the reef some things I learned as a selector within a 28-library system:

To start, science fiction and fantasy have very different readerships, and as such, cannot be found together in all libraries. Luckily, since most is arranged by author last name, findability isn't usually an issue.

Except when there are librarians who think that anything supernatural-like counts as science fiction.

Yes, this happened.

Yes, the system I worked for had Game of Thrones with alien science fiction stickers on them, and many catalogers decided it was too much work to fix mistakes that happened years ago because they were too busy categorizing new stuff. And no, I don't blame them. Because when there is no fantasy sticker, what do you do?

This also means that science fiction romance stories will have pink romance stickers slapped on them, which may limit readership.

And sometimes categories won't reach all age groups. For example, I couldn't label anything YA as urban fiction, as much as I wanted to, because only adult books could be labeled that way. Etc.

Unfortunately, even the best ninja selectors who choose the best categories have to accept that there is a lot of reverted stuff that cannot be corrected. And, when master decisions are made by catalogers who don't often see the front lines of how readers pick their books, their actions can often affect years of how things are categorized after that.

Please know that I am not criticizing catalogers. They are rock stars as far as I'm concerned. They often have the very difficult job of choosing where all the things go--and the decisions aren't easy, especially when a 28-library system has a diverse audience depending on the needs of each branch. Which is why executive decisions have to be made for the system overall, because otherwise, chaos.

Luckily, most novels in libraries are placed the major umbrella of "fiction," and as such, most of these problems can be avoided. This is true for Patrick Lee's Runner which also has a subject sub-heading of Suspense Fiction. (Subject headings are a rant for another time, but in this case, the catalogers got it right.)

Okay, phew! Rant over. Sorry gang, and thanks for reading this far. I'm not saying librarians don't know their stuff--but if you're looking for stuff in libraries, chances are some of the categories might get muddled due to some of the issues listed above.

Lennon Faris said...

Going to be devil's adv. here - doesn't everything fit into SOME kind of category? Even if it's a mix of a couple? On a basic level, the genre lets the reader (or agent) know what they're getting into. 'Commercial fiction' covers so many things in my head.

It drives me nuts when I research an agent, and this is what they say they represent.

julieweathers said...

I'd like to clarify something. When I say we should be true to our story, I mean that. However, we must also accept the consequences. If we write a story that is full of some pretty awful things, we have to accept it may be a tough sale.

Over the weekend the story about some interns who decided to petition their bosses about the company dress code went viral. They felt it was unfair and wanted it relaxed. They particularly thought it was unfair because one employee got to wear shoes that weren't leather dress shoes. They wanted to wear running shoes, sandals, etc. and not have to wear suits and blazers as per company dress code. The managers said no, so they banded together and signed a petition.

The company leaders agreed to meet with them.

I think the lesson here is to learn when to fight the system and why you're fighting it. Also, sometimes it's a losing battle. Like the guy who decided he was just going to keep querying agents until he forced someone to represent him.

Being a special little snowflake just for the sake of being special isn't enough. Or having stripes just for the sake of having stripes. Zebra stripes are a cooling mechanism. The closer they are together, the cooler they are. Zebras can be up to five degrees cooler than other animals in the area due to their stripes. Useless factoid of the day.

I'm going to agree with Karen. I've found some books in odd places in the libraries due to broad categories. Luckily, the librarians usually know where to find things. It's kind of like knowing that the screwdriver isn't in the toolbox, it's in the desk drawer, because you have to keep using it to jiggle the lock on the stuck bottom drawer.

Diana Gabaldon is a prime example of an author who doesn't fit into a neat little box. You can find her in romance, literary, fiction, fantasy, historical, science fiction. I've yet to find her in inspirational.

Colin Smith said...

Julie: And yet I'm sure you'd say Ms. Gabaldon has been a great inspiration to you... :)

julieweathers said...


She's certainly a good writer and has been a good friend. That doesn't mean she's easy to categorize as she admits herself.

Over the years she's posted a lot of what might be deemed mini writing lessons on the forum using her work to dissect and show how to achieve or demonstrate how something is done. She's very well read, so she might also pull a book like Shogun and use it for an example to demonstrate something about anti-heroes, villains, etc.

It's a lot easier to understand underpainting or how using the descriptions of certain objections as opposed to others reinforce a scene when someone shows you a scene and then dissects it and to see what makes it tick.

If everyone will forgive a longish quote.

Diana Gabaldon
The Outlander series

"The Technique: I call it “underpainting,” because it’s done for the same effect (and is just as tedious to do) as the sort of work done when constructing an oil painting—the laying of sub-layers, half-transparent glazes, bits that aren’t seen directly, but add to the depth of the final painting. In literary terms, the technique involves a good deal of body language and inconsequential small actions. The reader is conscious of the main thrust of a paragraph, page or scene; the spoken dialogue, the main actions. Subconsciously, underpainting brings the scene alive in the mind’s eye.

The Advice: Oddly enough, I got this advice from the Bible: “If thine eye be single, thy whole body shall be full of light.” In other words, concentrate only on what You’re doing—don’t allow yourself to be distracted from the work by worrying about whether it’s good/who will see it/will anyone buy it. If you just work, the world falls away, and the words on the page start to live."

I'm not particularly fond of water, but my goal is to make my stories come alive as much as Aivazovsky did the sea. A lofty goal, I know. That means I keep studying. Diana is a good teacher.

Joseph Snoe said...

My local Barnes & Nobel does a good job separating out nonfiction categories. For fiction, they have a small Fantasy corner, A Supernatural wall, a SciFi wall, a graphic novel row, and everything else falls under Literature and Fiction.

Brigid said...

Oh, I read that intern petition story on AskAManager. Turns out the one person who had an exception had a very good reason: They were a military veteran who'd lost a leg, and needed to wear specific shoes. I think it's perfectly valid to question conventional wisdom — sometimes it's just habit masquerading as tradition.

My mother told me a story once of a woman who always cut her pot roasts in half. And one day, this woman's new husband asked why she did that. She stopped and said, "I don't know. My mother always did it that way." So she called her mother. Her mother thought and said, "I don't know. It's how my mother taught me." So she called her grandmother. And her grandmother said, "Well, my pan was too small."

When I was a very new writer, I was perpetually convinced that I could be the exception to every rule. And I probably could be for any one of them, if I was prepared to work hard enough. I could write a book consisting of a series of vignettes that would sell and delight all*, if I devoted my life to becoming the next Isabel Allende.

I don't think there's any harm in questioning The Way It's Done. Just in assuming you know better. The Man is sometimes evil and repressive. Other times, the way it's done is just a function of figuring out what has worked in situation A. You're in situation B, which inevitably has a few differences from A, so ask away. You might find a new way to make pot roast.

julieweathers said...


Yes, the employee who wore running shoes part of the time had a prosthetic leg. In the link I posted, the intern said the manager explained she was a combat vet who had lost a leg and they allowed her to wear whatever shoes she could walk in. The intern qualified this with a "Well,how could we know, she looked normal" then went on to say if they had known it they would have factored it into their argument. They had no argument. They were guests at that company.

They still felt they were special little snowflakes who didn't need to follow the rules, but they would have made some allowance to the vet. How generous of them.

I don't ever assume the man is evil and repressive. I don't think agents are there to keep me from succeeding. I believe my destiny is in my hands alone.

BJ Muntain said...

I think I've also heard such books called 'contemporary fiction'. Books set in the contemporary real world, about real life. In the case of these books, would it be just as well to leave genre out of the query letter altogether?

Genres aren't limits, by the way. They're groups. You don't write to a genre. You write a story. And the genres are open-ended enough that everything will fit into one or another, even if it's in the general, contemporary, or commercial fiction (normal?) genre. What you do is, you write your book. THEN decide where it fits on the shelf. Take your best guess. As Janet says, you may not always be right but that's okay. Your book DOES fit on the shelf. Somewhere. (Unless it's one of those insanely large picture books, then the shelves are probably too small for it and it will have to be relegated to tables or something.)

Karen: I used to be a cataloguing technician at the central cataloguing point for the province. We didn't catalogue fiction, though, beyond 'fiction'. It was up to the regions and/or branches to decide exactly where on the shelves the book belonged. Sometimes, they chose wrong. We'd let them know - if we ever found out - but it was up to them to fix it if they wanted to.

Back to yesterday's comments: Welcome, Curt! No longer lurking in the coral of the reef, you've joined the school!

Karen McCoy said...

Ah, BJ, that makes sense! A lot of what I had to deal with was genre on the ordering level, because many things were cataloged offsite by the vendor as well.

Susan Pogorzelski said...

Angie: I loved your comment!

Book marketing/classification puzzles me. My writing leans more to the literary side, but that's not exactly a genre, as Janet explains. When I look in the bookstore and classify my own work, I imagine it would sit within the General Fiction & Literature section. But what makes a book General Fiction and Literature? Is it the fact that it doesn't fit elsewhere? If a book doesn't squarely fit into a specific genre (crime, SFF, romance, etc), does it then become marketed as general fiction?

This discussion always makes me more dazed and confused than usual.

BJ Muntain said...

Susan: There are people who specifically want books about space battles or elves or mysteries. The 'genres' are simply to point those people in those directions. Yes, anything that doesn't have the things that make a book science fiction or fantasy or mystery is General Fiction. It's like chocolate bars. They're all basically chocolate, but they have added ingredients to appeal to those who like nuts and those who like other things in their chocolate. But who doesn't like a lovely piece of uncorrupted chocolate once in awhile?

Claire said...

And how would one describe a more-literary-than-commercial novel in a query letter? 'General fiction' seems wrong. Contemporary fiction? Mainstream fiction? In some ways it seems completely unimportant, as the agent will read your pages and draw their own conclusions... yet you still need to put something.

Susan Pogorzelski said...

BJ: You had me at the mention of chocolate ;)

I completely understand its usefulness when it comes to the given genres. My mom is a huge fan of mysteries, for example, so at book sales, she'll automatically gravitate towards that specific area and then narrow down her search for her favorite type of mystery books. Meanwhile, I'll make a beeline for the "general fiction" section and start rooting through the paperbacks for anything that catches my interest. I know what books I love(coming-of-age stories), but unfortunately, I have to do a lot of digging to find them. This is actually a thrill for me because I love the search and have come away with a lot of unexpected gems, but I'm probably missing a lot of the types of books I love to read, too.

As a reader, I feel like there's a lot of specificity in book marketing when it comes to certain genres, and a lack of distinction in others. As a writer preparing to market my next book that doesn't fit into any of those genres, I feel like I need to figure out how to fit a square peg into a circle. I had faced the same issue when I was querying: agents want to know where your book sits on the shelves. Is General Fiction and Literature enough of an answer? As expansive as the category may seem, it also feels very limiting.

Cheryl said...

I'm not sure I understand why the author has to specify the genre or category in the query anyway. Shouldn't it be obvious from the story? And if it isn't, won't the agent who chooses to take the author on be able to guide the author into one or the other if necessary?

I mean, if I'm not clear on whether my novel is women's fiction or non-category romance and the agent represents both, aren't I better off just not specifying in case I'm wrong?

There's a book. It's a very good book: skilfully executed, charming, and engaging all the way through. My husband found it in the SF section of the library. It could have fit equally well as a steampunk romance. It just depended on who published it. In this case, it was an SF house so that's where it ended up.

julieweathers said...


Agents want to know word count and genre. They don't want to try and figure out what genre it is. Some agents don't represent some genres, so it doesn't do any good to read queries for stuff they simply don't rep. An agent who doesn't read fantasy or understand it isn't a good fit for fantasy. They don't know what's been done to death, what might be appealing, who is a good fit a publishing houses for a certain book.

There's a reason agents say they want these genres. Having said that, it doesn't hurt to query widely as long as you understand your chances go down severely with agents who simply don't represent that genre and don't want it.

Megan V said...


I'd say the answer is knowing your readership/knowing the market. If an author can't specify the genre or category of their novel, how will they know how if there's room for it at any given time? How can they predict the battle?

I like to think of the market as a boat. I am my manuscript. The other manuscripts are shark-bait. Too much shark-bait, means the boat sinks, and the sharkly agents will eat the lots-o-chum and probably won't bother biting me. Meanwhile, the editors on TradPub island have their canons at the ready and are prepared blow me out water if I come too close.

If I'm prepared for that, if I know where my book fits, then I'll have a backup raft and I just might be able convince Bruce and gang to pull me to shore. The editors will be so stunned they won't fire at my raft, and in fact, will welcome my manuscript with open arms.

Panda in Chief said...

I do love how the Reiders talk about this stuff.
It makes me wonder what I'm doing here, and then I think, "But everyone loves pandas!"
Happy day after the 4th, evryone. I'm thankful for cooler temps than last year, and a little rain to soften the firepower.
An illuminating discussion, as always.
Pass the cake.

Joseph Snoe said...

Angie posted

"I'm reading Loving Day by Mat Johnson. A man who is half black and half Irish finds his true identity when he meets a community of mixed race Americans. One of his new friends wants a zonkey. The offspring from a zebra and a donkey."

Since nobody else asked, I'll ask: What genre did he call this book?

Amazon.com classifies it under "Urban Life."

Joseph Snoe said...

I need a quick writing lesson. Please educate me.

Must you always say "Jack said" instead of "said Jack" after quotes? For example,

"I don't know why anyone eats there," Jack said.
"I don't know why anyone eats there," said Jack.

I feel more comfortable with "said Jack" most of the time (If using a pronoun I'd flip it to "he said."

Today I read an article saying my way is a no-no. Is it?

BJ Muntain said...

Joseph: There is a rule for that. It's called 'every writer has their own style.'

That's not a grammar question - grammatically, either are fine. The style guides don't really care. It really comes down to rhythm.

I think I read the same article. I came away with 'meh'. What fits your style better? What fits your rhythm better?

In other words, it's NOT a no-no.

Back to the genre thing: There is nothing wrong with general fiction. And if your novel is general fiction, you probably don't need to state a genre. Is it a broad genre? Yes. That's because it covers the entirety of real life, and real life is HUGE. The other genres are the exceptions, while general fiction is the rule.

Susan: I had me at chocolate, too. And then I forgot to buy any when I was out.

Julie Weathers said...


There are thousands of articles that say you can't do this or that. I picked up a book I had ordered years ago written by a well known literary agent who touted a best-selling author as the way to write a "blockbuster" novel. I was pondering something about Rain Crow and happened to notice the book, so I decided to glance through it.

The author said, "I know of no successful author who doesn't outline their books before they write." He then went on to tell the reader that was the only way a writer could hope to ever write a coherent story.

Diana Gabaldon as I've said before doesn't know where her books will end up. She writes in chunks as the scenes come to her. They start falling into place at some point and then she starts filling in the gaps. She's as surprised as everyone else at what happens.

Barbara Rogan who's been a successful agent, editor, and author, plans things out in great detail.

There is no right or wrong way to write. The only wrong way to write is not to write. I tossed the book in the trash, btw.

“I told you so,” I said rather exultantly. “The bed is probably filled with drugs.”

“I assumed you would,” replied Sam with a knowing wink. “Might I suggest feeling about the bottom panels?”

Apparently I often do what you do, so I'm wrong also.

Placing the verb first is more archaic and more common in the UK I believe. It also depends on genre and style. For instance, Regency can affect a more archaic use of language and style.

In the end, I always go with what sounds right to the ear. Plus, frankly, most dialogue tags can be dispersed with. Use them enough to identify your speakers, but you also want to insert some body language, action, etc. so that often you don't need a tag.

Adele said...

In my local Big Chain Bookstore, Alan Bradley's "Flavia de Luce" novels started out in mainstream fiction (for several years), then moved to the 'teen' room, and now they've at last reached mysteries, where I do hope they'll stay.

Joseph Snoe said...

Thanks BJ and Julie

Naturally I changed a couple already. I may change them back.

I don't use dialogue tags much, either. But when I do, I now know I'm being archaic (Isn't that when writers were writers?).

Julie Weathers said...


It's a matter of style. I hate to keep harping on Hemingway, but he was very much against writers telling other writers what to do. When we have craft discussions on the forums and Diana pops in she might say this is how so and so does it or this is how I do it, but there is no right or wrong way to write, everyone has to find their own style.

Twain despised Jane Eyre and said the greatest crime against literature was that she was allowed to die a natural death. His hatred for all things Eyre will shock her fans.

You know how to write. You've published, successfully, some very deep books. Now you just need to wallow around until you find a style you're comfortable with in fiction. Your voice will change as you mature as a writer, just as it does with most singers.

Stop sweating the small stuff. People will drive you crazy just because it's fun to watch those little hamster wheels whirring at the speed of light, sending off sparks in every direction.

Tonight on twitter someone advised, "Watch your word count. Novels shouldn't be over 90,000 words unless it's fantasy." I could see historical writers everywhere jumping on their wheels.

Craig said...

As a reader I tend to think of "commercial fiction" as literary writings. I have slogged my way through a couple but don't do it often. I don't care how well someone writes about going to the grocery store.

As a library user I can remember when sci-fi and fantasy we marked as the different worlds that they are. I guess those lavender unicorns went on strike because the dark blue sci-fi stickers looked better. I wonder if they hurt the readership of those magical whatevers.

As a writer I write to entertain. I want people to easily understand that I want to do that. I would spend some more time finding a spot where readers who might appreciate your writing look for books. At least give them a clue.

Craig F said...

I have changed my screen name to Craig F. I did that in chance the other Craig wishes to participate. I doubt you need to use the F part when responding to some of the off the wall comments I make.

Kate Higgins said...

I wouldn't mind if my book was any Zebra genre as long as it was;
Black and white and read all over......

I was up late last night............zzzz

Joseph Snoe said...

and I'm worried my revisions will cause my manuscript to exceed 100,00o words.

I'm the calmest looking worrier you'll ever see.

Her Grace, Heidi, the Duchess of Kneale said...

It's good to be able to categorise your book one way or another. This is so you can answer the question: "Who will read this book?"

This is probably the most important question of all.

Who will buy this book? Who will read this book? Who will enjoy this book and tell their friends they need to read it?

If you're not able to assign a genre (or know which shelf in the bookstore/library it goes on), at the very least, know who will be reading it.

"For fans of Mary Robinette Kowal and Georgette Heyer."

"Frederica meets The Magician."

Sure, we want our books to land in the hands of readers; it's so important those hands are the right readers.

BJ Muntain said...

Kate, I don't say this unless I literally laugh out loud: LOL!

And Her Grace nailed it. You don't have to mention genre in a general fiction query. Use comps that show who the readers will be. Good job, Duchess!

Angie Brooksby-Arcangioli said...


Here is a quote from Highbridge (audio) about Loving Day:

"In their search for a new life they struggle with an unwanted house and its ghosts, fall in with a utopian mixed-race cult, and inspire a riot on Loving Day, the unsung holiday that celebrates interracial love."

Amazon's "urban life" is reductive and could even be considered derogatory. Mat Johnson's main character is an illustrater. At a book fair he is assigned the "urban" table. He says urban is a word to describe "nigger." This not my description it is the character's description. I hope no one is offended by me writing that word.

I've read more than ten urban novels this year. I can't see how Loving Day could be urban other than it has some black characters and the author is black. The word urban is associated with black authors. But not all black authors write urban.

Joseph Snoe said...

Wow Angie
I had no idea about any of that before.

and I still don't know what genre Loving Day would fall under. Is that er a Non-Genre Fiction category?