How To Pick The Right Genre For Your Novel (And Why Your Sales Depend On It)

picture of books arranged according to genre Do you want to sell thousands of copies of your novel?

Maybe you want to sell to a traditional publisher through an agent.

Or would you rather sell directly to readers through self-publishing?

No matter which route you choose, your ability to pick the right genre for your novel can mean the difference between success and obscurity.

Genre is the type of story you’re writing.

Most booksellers and readers recognise genres such as:

  • Romance
  • Mystery
  • Science Fiction
  • Fantasy
  • Thriller
  • Suspense
  • Historical

But these are just categories, right?


What makes genre so important


Agents and editors tend to specialize in a few specific genres. Unless your manuscript fits the genre an agent represents, it will end up in the slush pile.

Agents and editors use genre to see if you know what you’re writing.

There’s nothing an agent hates more than hearing “well, my book is a little bit of a mystery, but it’s set in a dystopian future, so it’s sort of sci-fi… and there’s a love story, so it’s also kind of a romance…”

If you don’t know where your book fits, you’re saying you don’t know your target audience.

And without understanding your target audience, you won’t know how to market your book.

This will make an agent think twice about signing you.

If you’re adamant that you “don’t want to be labeled” because your book is “so complex” – well, that’s a clear indication that you’re more interested in your identity as an artist than you are in being a selling author.

Which will make an agent reject you outright.


Your ideal audience uses genre to find your book


Let’s say you love mysteries.

You’ve got a long trip ahead. You’ve read all the books by your favorite authors, and you need to find something new.

In about twenty minutes.

You’re not going to wander randomly around the store. You’ll go straight to the mystery section.

So if I’ve written a mystery but shelved it under Romance because the detective falls in love, you won’t find my book, because you weren’t looking there. (And some poor romance reader is going to be annoyed because she was expecting a lot more romance, not all this solving-the-guy’s-death business.)

In short, choosing the right genre is about improving your odds of making a sale.

Here are four simple steps to help you choose the right genre for your book.


#1. Get to know genre options


A quick look at Amazon’s Books page, or a stroll through any bookstore, will show you the main classifications for fiction.

The Amazon bestseller page for books splits its lists by genre.

Look at the top five bestsellers in each genre. Read each book description. What does each genre emphasize?

For example, James Patterson’s NYPD Red 2 is on the list for “Mystery, Suspense & Thriller.” The description features crime scenes, brutal slaughter, and shocking murders.

Now glance through the Romance list. Nora Roberts’ The Collector also involves solving a murder.

But it describes “the woman with no permanent ties finds herself almost wishing for one” and “Ash longs to paint her as intensely as he hungers to touch her.” The focus is obviously the passion between the protagonists rather than the resolution of the case.

Once you’ve looked through a few book descriptions, you’ll understand which elements are most important to each genre’s readers.


#2. Identify genre elements in your work


Look closely at your novel.

Does it have a love story? A crime?

Are there elements of magic or the supernatural?

Is it set in the past, present, or future?

What age are the protagonists?

What drives the plot?


You’re looking for elements that could help narrow the focus.

What do you feel is most important about the book?

Which elements do you enjoy the most? What are you the most proud of?

You don’t need to make a decision about genre yet. You’re just looking for the story pieces that will help you decide. You want to know what you’re working with.

Once you’ve got a list of your story elements, you’re ready to move to the next step.


#3. Identify your “most likely reader”


What sort of reader would love your novel, and why?

Keep in mind: the question is not which readers might enjoy your novel. Anyone could buy the book by chance, and be surprised at how much they enjoyed something outside their norm.

But your odds of finding that person are slim. That’s not marketing – it’s luck.

Instead, you’re targeting the fan who will go absolutely nuts for exactly what you’ve written.


Who is the screaming super-fan for this book?

Try to imagine a specific person.

Pretend you’re reading a review by your super-fan. What does it say?

Beyond the generic “this book is awesome,” what does the super-fan specifically adore about your novel?

Its twisty plot, like a Dan Brown suspense?

Or maybe the intricate and thorough world building, like Hugh Howey’s Wool series?

The world-stage fantasy politics, similar to George R.R. Martin’s Game of Thrones titles?

Or maybe the toe-curling love scenes, like E.L. James’ 50 Shades of Grey?


What does your super-fan complain about?

Keep genre conventions in mind.

If the couple in your love story die at the end, romance fans will be up in arms, because they expect a “happily ever after” (or at least “happily for now”) resolution.

Disappointing a reader means poor sales and bad reviews.

Make sure your super-fan will be happy with the entire story, not just some aspects of it.


#4. Use comparative titles to nail your sub-genre


Each genre carries books by writers who offer different “flavors” – different sub-genres.

Take mysteries. Dan Green writes police procedurals in his Max Segal series. These are very different from the cozy amateur sleuth of Jessica Beck’s Donut Mysteries, or the sexy, silly fun of Janet Evanovich’s Stephanie Plum series.

In the young adult genre, there’s a wide disparity between dystopian love stories like The Hunger Games and Divergent, the frothy Braced to Bite, and the angsty Twilight.


Once you know your most likely buyer, imagine you’re looking at an online bookstore sales page for your novel.

Underneath the “purchase” button you’ll find recommendations for other novels, with the phrase “People who bought this also bought…”

Think of three novels your super-fan might enjoy that are similar to yours in style and content. See where these are categorized on Amazon or in your local bookstore.

This is how you will identify the genre that best suits your novel.


However you plan to publish, learning to pick the right genre for your novel is crucial.

It will teach you how to match the best elements of your writing with the audience that will most appreciate them.

The better you get at identifying your strengths and your reader, the more accurately you’ll pick your novel’s genre. And the more sales you’ll make.

Try it and see.

How do you identify the right genre for your novel? Let me know in the comments!


About the author:

Cathy Yardley is a novelist, teacher, editor, and writing coach at Sign up for her free e-course Jumpstart Your Writing Career, and receive helpful hints on pinpointing where you might be stuck – and how to get back on track for a successful fiction-writing career.

Image: Categories courtesy of Bigstockphoto

Be A Published Author: 4 Steps To Successful Revisions

be a published author through revisions

Be a Published Author by Revising Successfully

Want to be a published author and don’t know how?

Often the difference between a novel that succeeds and a novel that fails is revisions.

I’ve worked with clients that have finished a draft, only to get overwhelmed trying to turn their rough manuscript into a polished, publishable novel. Other writers get demoralized and confused as they get vague rejections from agents and editors, with no direction on how to address the issues raised.

Here are four steps to effectively – and successfully – revise your novel to be a published author.


1. Have a game plan


When writers struggle with revisions, they are usually trying to accomplish too much at once.

They buff a scene to a mirror shine only to cut it later because it doesn’t work in the overall story.  Or they bounce from scene to scene, changing a character here, a sentence there, slowly losing all sense of perspective and direction. Either way, they waste time and energy, and often lose momentum.

The solution to this: stick to a three-pass system.

  • The first pass is story-level.
  • The second pass is scene-level.
  • The third pass is sentence-level.


2.  Revise for story


All story flows from character.  Before anything else, ensure that your protagonist has a solid, working character arc.

How do you do this?  By asking the following questions:

  • What does he want?  What is the reader rooting for?
  • Why is what he wants important?  Why does he need it now?
  • What’s stopping him?
  • How has he changed at the end of the book, as a result of these challenges?
  • And most importantly:  why will a reader care?


Strengthen your characters.

Make sure that your protagonist is a three dimensional person.  Readers engage with fully fleshed out characters, not themes hung on archetypes (or worse, stereotypes).

Make sure that the character behaves believably and consistently.  Build the plot points from your character – or, if you’re wedded to a plot twist, ensure that the character is developed to organically support the choices you want him to make.

From there, map out your character’s arc via his plot points. (If you have more than one protagonist, you’ll have more than one set of plot points that need to be woven together.)


Strengthen your conflict.

Once you’ve identified the spine of the story, check your conflict.

  • Are the obstacles to your protagonist’s goal big enough?
  • Are they scalable?
  • Does the conflict gradually and inevitably escalate throughout the novel?
  • Does your story climax involve the most powerful conflict possible, in terms of story goal?

I find that most writers pull their punches in the third act.  A powerful conclusion, where your protagonist faces a truly immense ‘black moment’, can be the difference between a contract and a rejection – or a good review and a return.


An example

A writer is working on a mainstream suspense/thriller.  The protagonist is a lawyer who discovers his firm is protecting a serial-killing surgeon client.

In revisiting the character, the writer realizes that the lawyer is stereotypical: we’re not sure why he needs to expose the law firm other than “it’s the right thing to do”.  Introducing a more personal element by enriching the character’s backstory – the surgeon is about to kill a child, for example, and the lawyer lost his son a few years ago – makes his motivation stronger.

Also, the writer notices that the lawyer relies on coincidence and people mentioning the right things at the right moment in order for the surgeon to be brought to justice.  Tweaking to make the lawyer more proactive helps fix that… and necessitates more direct conflict, which the writer then escalates.

Finally, the writer sees that the current climax threatens the lawyer with losing his job if he doesn’t play ball. Also, the surgeon has the child’s procedure scheduled in a few days.  These are threats, with little urgency or pain attached.  The writer then ramps up the third act, actually firing the lawyer and putting the surgeon in the operating room, scalpel in hand.

Each revision creates more layers, strengthens the story structure, and increases both conflict and stakes.


3.  Revise for scene strength


Once you’re certain that the story mechanics are in place, we get more granular.

Each scene is a building block to support that overall story arc.  The first thing to check on a scene level is: does this scene support my story goal?

From there, you can look at how the scene accomplishes that.  Here are a few things to look for:

  • Whose point of view is the scene in?
  • Are the characters behaving consistently and believably, based on what you know of them?
  • Is the dialogue distinct for each character?
  • Are you telling, not showing?
  • Conversely, are you drowning the reader in too many details that aren’t necessary?
  • Is the scene anchored?  Is the setting clear? Does it contribute to the tone and feel?
  • Is the action descriptive?  Is there more than simply “talking heads” in the scene?


An example:

In the serial killing surgeon example, our writer has the following scene opening:

Arnie thought about what had happened.  His boss had just told him to bury the paperwork – to shred the patient complaints.  Now, he was supposed to shred the police report as well.  It was all so suspicious.  He was starting to have serious reservations about not only working at Lomax, Jacoby and Randall… he was starting to wonder if their client, Dr. Peterson, wasn’t some kind of monster.

In revising the scene, he notices that it’s telling, not showing, and it feels dead.  There’s too much narrative, no anchoring of setting, no action or dialogue, and no description.

So he revises it:

Arnie stood in his boss’s office, dumbfounded.  The mahogany desk between them might as well have been a cinderblock wall. “I’m sorry. Are you telling me – you want me to shred all paperwork on Dr. Peterson? Because some of these documents are kind of…” 

Arnie bit back on “damning”, the first word that came to mind. 

“Suggestive,” he said instead. 

Gerald Lomax grimaced. “Don’t be histrionic. The documents don’t have bearing on current cases.  We’re simply freeing up file space.”

Arnie cleared his throat, wishing he could loosen the silk tie that felt inexplicably tighter. “But we might…”

Gerald stared at Arnie, his ice blue eyes unblinking.  “You’ve been working here for three years, yes?  Arnold, was it?”

“Arnie,” he corrected, stammering. 

“Well, Arnold – do you want to be a partner here, or not?”

Arnie studied Gerald’s smirk, then glanced down at the document in his hand.  He was about to shred a report that implied their client was a murderer.

Suddenly, he wasn’t quite sure how to answer Gerald’s question.

The revision anchors us (Arnie, the lawyer, in his boss’s office.)  Instead of narrating what had happened, it puts the reader in scene, experiencing firsthand what Arnie is hearing, seeing, doing. Instead of explaining Arnie’s feelings, the reader is allowed to draw her own conclusions based on his reactions.


4.  Polish your prose


You’ve clarified your story arc.

You’ve ensured that each scene works as a part of that larger picture.

Now you’re ready to fine tune the writing itself – the process that most people associate with revising.

A few quick tips:

  • Look for repetition.  Are you using the same word in close succession?  Is there a phrase you’re particularly fond of, or a character action? For example, does your character smile before every dialogue tag?
  • Can you strengthen and streamline your prose?  Are you using passive voice or filler words?
  • If you’re writing first or deep third person POV, does the character’s internal “voice” match his dialogue?
  • Are you varying sentence length within a paragraph?  Or is it an unrelenting sameness – either a staccato series of short sentences, or a large wall of text?

Beware the usual suspects.  Every writer has a favorite sin.  I’m addicted to ellipses, for example.  Learn what your particular Achilles heel is, and edit for it ruthlessly.


It’s that easy – and that hard.

As they say, revisions are like lifting an engine block: they aren’t exactly complicated, but they aren’t easy.

If you break down your revisions in this order, and ask yourself these questions, you’ll not only avoid feeling overwhelmed, you’ll edit more quickly, more effectively, with more dramatic results. You’ll be closer to your goal of being a published author.

What has been your biggest revising challenge?  Please share your experiences – and obstacles – in the comments!


About the author:

Cathy Yardley is a novelist, teacher, and writing coach at  Sign up for her free e-course Get To The Request, and check out her ebooks on plotting, revising, and writing every day!

Image: Making revisions courtesy of