"What kind of books do you write?"
I dread this question, mostly because I don't know how to respond in under 75 words. That's about 65 words too long -- long enough for the person asking to wish they never had. I always end up feeling like the guy who gives his life story in response to, "How you doin'?"
I have the same problem with my elevator pitch. The idea of the elevator pitch is to be able to give an answer to "tell me what your book is about" that is brief but complete, as if you were asked while traveling in an elevator. I can do it, but my best pitches all postulate the existence of a very tall building.
My issue is really with genres. I would kind of love to be able to say "I write romance" and then we could have a nice conversation about what books my interrogator has read in this category. Or science fiction, or mystery, or even, I guess, young adult. (Aside: Young adult isn't actually a genre. I hope we all understand this. Young adults are the target audience. The genre is something else.) The problem -- and I don't think I'm the only one who has it -- is that I can't color within the lines.
All of us learn to write by reading. We absorb the lessons of storytelling by breaking down how other people have done it, and if we read a wide range of genres we have more tools available to us, and different ways to accomplish a thing. For instance, if you are writing a scene that requires some measure of dread and you have learned how to do this effectively by reading Jane Austen, the dread you create is going to be different than if you learned how to do this by reading Stephen King. If you've read both you have real choices. Occasionally, these choices will be things that make sense to you, the writer, but will lead the story out of the genre it began in.
And that's okay. Although maybe you shouldn't listen to me.
Every description of one of my novels eventually requires the use of the phrase mash-up. As in, "Immortal is a sci-fi contemporary fantasy adventure historical-fiction humorous first-person confessional mash-up." This is mostly accurate, but makes people faint, so I usually just say it's sci-fi/fantasy.
Eight years ago, this meant I couldn't publish Immortal. I'm not even kidding. There was an agent, there were submissions to large traditional publishers, and there was feedback, and that feedback was, "We love it, we don't know how to sell it, good luck." Why? Because something called "science fiction" couldn't have vampires and demons in it -- and it does -- and something called "fantasy" had to have magic in it -- and it doesn't. Self-publishing wasn't an option (we will talk about how I was born a decade too early another time) and so the book languished for a while.
Things are looser these days. I see plenty of examples of authors with much more famous names than mine writing things that defy neat categorization (my favorite is Neal Stephenson's The Baroque Cycle, which is perfectly impossible to categorize) and Amazon now has multiple sub-sub-sub genre categorizations to recognize this, resulting in maybe the most interesting listing I've ever had for one of my books: Erotica -- Horror.
These subcategories are helpful, but they are still annoyingly reductive. Sapphire Blue is not horror, but it has a dark enough ending that the category is not unreasonable. Likewise Fixer is subcategorized as Time Travel, which is technically accurate except that the traveling is to five seconds into the future, and that's not what people think of when they read that subcategory.
It's frustrating, and I'm sure there are many of you out there that are as frustrated by it as I am. But the thing we have to remember -- the thing I remind myself of all the time -- is that the point is to sell books. Genres are there to define where a book belongs, but that's only to help a potential reader find something to read.
When I was growing up, for about five years all I read -- other than comic books -- was fantasy. I mean the sword-and-sandal kind of fantasy, with magic in a medieval setting. The books were reassuringly uniform: brightly colored covers with a framed artistically rendered action sequence on the front cover and a breathless by-the-numbers description of the plot on the back. These novels were similar enough that my decision to buy sometimes came down to something as ridiculous as font type and the density of the first paragraph.
It helped to know that all the books on these shelves were the sort of thing I would like to read. And that's all genre is: shorthand to help us find a book we would like. It's only that this makes it difficult for those of us about whom it might be said that there are no other books quite like ours.
Instead of fighting genres, I'm wondering if maybe we need something new, a catchall for anything that clearly incorporates more than three categories without cleanly fitting into one. We could call it Multi-Genre Mash-up. (Or Cross-Genre. There is a wiki page for "Cross-Genre" that is single-sourced and has not been edited since 2012. Not a good sign.)
I'm optimistic that this could catch on. If it does, maybe someday you'll see articles in this space like, "so your book only has one genre," and "how to create a multi-genre mash-up without even trying," and "the visionary brilliance of Pride and Prejudice and Zombies."
It's not like new genres don't get invented all the time. There's something out there now called Regency Romance that I didn't know existed until last week. And Cyberpunk has only been a thing for a few years now. So let's do this, people.