Write On Wednesday
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Write on, Wednesday: Agent Toolkit–Genre Listings

By Leslie Lindsay

Welcome to a new series for writers, The Agent-Getting Toolkit!  My critique partner and I are at that stage where we’re thinking–okay–hoping with our fingers and toes crossed we’ll have a literary agent to support and sell out our first novels to a publishing house in New York. 

Do we have our sights set too high?  I’m gonna take a stab and say…nope!  We have worked on these manuscripts for a painstakingly long 13+ months.  And that’s *together,* meaning she sends me her work, I critique it, send it back, and she does the same for me.  We’ve exchanged ideas, worries, compliants, and meltdowns. 

Prior to our partnership, we toiled away alone on our manuscripts, pounding out chapters late into the night while the rest of the house slept.  We did it in parked minivans while we waited for children to practice soccer or finish a craft at Brownies.  (yes, pun indended) 

And now, here we are looking at agents, genre, loglines, query letters, and proposals.  Just recently, we tweaked our working titles.  And now, we’re questioning our genres. 

I was getting mixed signals about the elusive “women’s fiction” category; she wasn’t entirely convinced her work was “Christian.”  So, we went back to the drawing board.  What are the elements of our stories that make it decidedly “women,” or “Christian?”  And then, we pulled out the wonderful genre description checklist from our Write by the Lake Summer Retreat with author/instructor Kathy Steffen.  Curiously, Christian and woman’s fiction aren’t listed. 

Take a gander:

List of Fiction Genres


This genre features break-neck action and violence ramped up with elements of danger and risk. Usually takes place exotic locales such as deserts, mountains, jungles, foreign cities, remote locales, but this is not a necessary component. Protagonists are generally professionals in the action business—commandos, special forces, spies, and the antagonists are bad, bad dudes…terrorists, smugglers, pirates, murderous drug lords, and ruthless dictators. Examples: The James Bond series by Ian Fleming, Maximum Ride series by James Patterson.


Stories set in invented, alternate worlds, or on our earth in a fantastical or hidden-from-view setting (and sometimes hidden in plain sight!) There are generally supernatural or magic, mystic fantasy elements. Lord of the Rings series by J.R.R. Tolkien, Harry Potter series by J. K. Rowling, The Sword, the Ring, and the Chalice series by Deborah Chester.Harry Potter and the Sorcerer's Stone (Book 1)

Historical Fiction

Books set prior to World War II, and focus on events and character’s lives in the past.  This fiction is rooted in historical fact and often times include actual events or historical figures.  In some cases, the books are about people who actually lived.  Facts are true, but the author fills in narrative with fictional supposition. Examples: I, Claudius by Robert Graves, Shogun by James Clavell, Loving Frank by Nancy Horan


Horror novels must scare the reader!  Horror can focus on religion and the supernatural, but some stories also lean toward realism (after all, what is more frightening than something that might be real?) This genre also includes psychological and medical story lines.  Horror goes way back and includes vampires, ghosts, zombies, and other iconic creatures.  The point of horror is to invoke fear, and many times revulsion and, well, horror.  The more goosebumps, the better. Horror authors: Edgar Allen Poe, Stephen King, Dean Koontz, Charlaine Harris.


Serious fiction with big, difficult themes.  Focus is on character, psychological and emotional depth rather than plot and narrative.  A plot happens in the hearts and minds of the characters, as opposed to fiction where outside influences occur.  What happens in the outside world is not as important as what happens inside the characters.Product Details

Examples: The Great Gatsby by F. Scott Fitzgerald, Mrs. Dalloway by Virginia Woolf, anything written by Ernest Hemingway.


Mystery has many sub-genres, but basically you start with a dead body or a crime.  The book is about finding out whodunit.  The reader figures out a puzzle along side an amateur sleuth or a professional.  Clues are sprinkled throughout the narrative, with answers coming together at the end.  Venues are big city, small towns, or just about anywhere. Mystery authors: Agatha Christie, Dennis LeHane, Ken Bruen, Janet Evanovich, Carl Hiassen, the Sherlock Holmes series.


Romance is currently the largest and best-selling fiction genre.  Simply put, the focus of the story is two people and the plot must center around their relationship. The main conflict of a romance novel must relate to the core theme of developing romance, but subplots can be about anything, and thus all the sub-genres of romance.  These novels must have an emotionally satisfying ending where the couple is headed toward a committed, long-term relationship. Romance authors: Nora Roberts, Linda Howard, Stephenie Meyer, Sherillyn Kenyon, Lori Wilde, Carly Phillips

Science Fiction

Science fiction includes extrapolated or theoretical future science and technology, and is often set on other planets, in outer space, or on a future version of Earth. Science fiction authors: Isaac Asimov, Ray Bradbury, Harlan Ellison, Frederik Pohl.


An emerging genre that falls close to the fantasy genre. More specifically, Urban Fantasy, except the time of these stories is set in the Industrial Age where machines (of technology that didn’t really exist at the time) are powered by steam. The storylines can contain magic (slight-of-hand) and are peopled with zombies, vampires, werewolves, ghosts, or anything else considered paranormal. The stories can contain some elements of real history, persons, or real events. Think of the old television show and more current movie The Wild, Wild West and the movie, Sherlock Holmes. Steampunk books and authors: The Anubis Gates by Tim Powers, Boneshaker by Cherie Priest, Soulless by Gail Carriger, Alan Moore’s series: The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen.


Written to keep readers hooked and on the edge of their seats, these books are fast-paced and action oriented.  They are so-named, because the books thrill the reader with pulse-pounding emotions and a break-neck pace.  Think of a thriller as a mystery with lots of action, thrills and fear.  Mysteries are usually about solving the case, a thriller is about the characters struggling to survive (sometimes, a disaster.)  In a thriller, not solving the mystery can mean death (or the destruction of the civilized world!)

Suspense novels don’t have as much action as a thriller, but sometimes (many times) the lines are blurred.  Suspense is a character waiting for something to happen, and fear and emotion build during the course of the story.  There is a threat and the protagonist may or may not know it is coming.  The reader does! Suspense/thriller authors: Tom Clancy, Tess Gerritson, John Grisham, Lee Child, Carl Hiaasen, Jonathan Kellerman

                       Upmarket Fiction

Product DetailsThis genre is new and emerging from literary fiction.  Think of upmarket as books read and discussed for book clubs.  Before this term was coined, upmarket books could be referred to as “literary light” and the lines are blurred between the two.  This commercial fiction has big, difficult themes and the writing tends toward literary, but features a commercial slant or structure. Upmarket authors: Anita Shreve, Elizabeth Berg, Alice Hoffman, Jodi Picoult.

Urban Fantasy

Once considered a fantasy sub-genre, this market has exploded in recent years. The name tells it all; Urban Fantasy has a fantasy storyline in an urban setting. The stories also have a specific narration feel, one that is very similar to noir mysteries and thrillers. The setting is contemporary urban, but supernatural elements exist, and paranormal species people the worlds, such as vampires, zombies, werewolves, ghosts…anything from mythology and generally the darker, more horror-oriented creatures. Urban Fantasy authors: Kim Harrison, Jim Butcher, Patricia Briggs, Laura K. Hamilton.


Western fiction is the one genre with a specific place, being set in the American West, mostly in the 1800’s.  The heroes are rugged individuals, usually cowboys and/or ranchers who live to face down threats and stand up to conflict. Western authors: Larry McMurtry, Zane Grey, Louis L’Amour, Cormac McCarthy

Young AdultProduct Details

Fiction where the protagonist is preteen to teen (usually 12-18) and deals with issues concerning and facing teenagers. YA stories span the spectrum of fiction genres. Examples:  The Harry Potter series, Are You There God, It’s Me, Margaret by Judy Blume, The Gossip Girl series, The Twilight series, The Hunger Games series.

in the meantime, I’ve heard of some “new” genres:  New Adult–>20-something educated readers.  and also New Memoir–> where you’re telling a true story, but it’s not *your* story. 

This list on genre definition and example is from Kathy Steffen.  Please see, www.kathysteffen.com  for more information.  Thanks, Kathy!!  : )

[heading image source: educationendowmentfoundation.org.uk, book images from amazon.  All images retrived 9.25.13]


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