Picture this: you go to a restaurant and you see on the menu an item called “pie.”
You ask the waitress, “What kind of pie do you have today?” (For the purpose of this thought experiment, let’s say you are a big fan of pie and may very well buy a piece of it, depending on how the waitress answers.)
“It’s hard to describe,” the waitress says. “It’s kind of a tangy, creamy, sweet dessert. It’s layered and really complex. Part of it is yellow. It’s totally sick.”
Your heart sinks.
“What ingredients does this pie contain?” you ask, mainly out of curiosity. Your chances of buying under-defined “sick” pie are virtually nil.
“It has an all-butter pastry crust, with lemon curd filling and meringue topping,” she says. “You can see it in the case right there.”
A quick glance confirms suspicions that you have been harboring about the mysterious pie. “Isn’t that just regular old lemon meringue pie?”
The waitress looks down at you with slight weariness, “yeah, that’s what some people call it but the chef here doesn’t believe in defining his creations in bourgeois marketing terms.”
Unable to stop yourself you ask, “But ‘lemon meringue pie’ isn’t a marketing term so much as a well-accepted name used to describe the contents of a particular kind of pie. Don’t you think the pie would sell better if diners understood what it was?”
“Maybe,” the waitress replies, “but it’s important to our primary vision to avoid pigeonholing something so expansive and indefinable as lemon meringue pie into one tiny little category. You can’t put labels on art.”
Ah, if only that were true. The fact is, though, that if one is going to engage in the business of selling art, it eventually becomes necessary to define what this thing that you are selling is supposed to be.
As a writer of fiction that could often be best described as “interstitial,” I struggled and fought and wept and shouted long and endlessly into the unforgiving night about the stupid need to define my stories in terms of pre-existing genres. It’s very fair to say that this inability to accurately describe my own work delayed my being published for at least ten years. Why? Because without being able to summarize or label my work, I couldn’t write a query letter.
It was only after I became an editor and started reading other people’s terrible, dismal, baffling query letters that I realized how important it is for an author to be able to accurately define their own work. It all comes down to this: being able to describe one’s work is not only a sign of maturity, it communicates to the editor that you (the author) have enough grasp of publishing markets and their salient genres to roughly know where your story falls in the great, three-dimensional continuum of narrative. It means that you understand that there are different types of story with different structures, aims and goals. It means you have the critical capacity to compare your stories with the stories of others and see where they are similar and dissimilar and make a judgment about where this thing you have written should be categorized, and put it all together. It means that you have a grasp on the larger purpose of marketing—which is to connect readers with stories that they will enjoy.
And when I say buyers, I don’t mean just editors, but readers as well. In these days of easy self-epublishing, authors interact directly with readers more and more. Accurate marketing is crucial so that readers do not feel as if you’ve attempted to deceive them into buying something that they don’t want. Labeling a 100 page piece “erotica” when it contains only three paragraphs of sex will lead to readers who rightly feel cheated–like you’ve pulled a bait & switch on them.
Okay, so I think I’ve beaten the idea that labels help buyers understand your product home well enough.
But understanding that labeling is important doesn’t really help with the problem of defining your own work in the first place.
Here are some tips that can help you better describe your stories. I suggest that when you’re trying to define a piece first just come up with some words that convey the separate elements in play. One way that’s worked for me is to look at the individual parts of a story: the plot, characters, setting and tone and then come up with some terms that describe the various parts first.
Words that describe plot include (but are not limited to) romance, mystery, adventure, thriller, comedy, coming-of-age, quest, space opera, family saga and horror.
Character words can be things like gay, detective, mother, teen, alien or vampire.
Setting includes words like paranormal, contemporary, historical, science-fiction, or fantasy.
Finally we have tone, which can describe either the style of the writing, or the themes explored or both. These are descriptors like literary, hard-boiled, inspirational, epic, erotic or humorous.
One note here: some terms describe a very specific kind of story structure that includes a particular tone. These are words like noir, gothic, steampunk or regency. If you use these descriptors, be careful that your story fits all the criteria. Just because a story is set during the regency of Prince George does not mean that it contains witty banter and comedy of manners. Conversely, if the tone and story progression are right, a story can be rightly called a regency even if it takes place in outer space, as with JL Langley’s My Fair Captain.
Once you’ve got a few accurate words, putting them in order can be tricky. Is your story a romantic mystery or a mystery romance? Here it becomes useful to look at proportion. Does your primary protagonist spend 75% of the pages solving a crime and 25% accidentally falling in love in the process? It’s a romantic mystery.
Sometimes you’ll need a string words to get the gist across. For example, I would describe my hardest to define the story, The Red Thread of Forever Love, as a gay, paranormal romantic-comedy. Ginn Hale’s Rifter series could be described as a fantasy epic with a gay protagonist. Because of the proportion of intimate scenes to total page count, Josephine Myles’ Barging In could be considered a gay contemporary erotic romance.
And so on.
If all else fails you can always do what I did–ask your savviest friends to help you. Then—and this is the tricky part—believe what they say. Sometimes it’s very hard to separate your own favorite parts of the story, or what you’re proudest of being able to write, from what ended up being most prominent on the page. Maybe you thought you were writing a hard science-fiction story but what you ended up with was a M/M futuristic romance. Go with it. No matter how it’s described to buyers (so long as that description is accurate) it’s still the same manuscript to you. And labeling it correctly will give it a fighting chance of reaching the readers who will love it.