The Genre Game


It turns out the hardest part of writing a query isn’t trying to fashion a snapshot synopsis, (although that is definitely not an easy task). The hard part comes in the “logistical” paragraph. Right after the title and word count, agents want to know what genre fits your novel. That’s a toughie for those of us who write something that doesn’t exactly fit into a precise pigeonhole.

The genre section of my query letter is a sentence with a blank space until I figure out what genre best describes my novel. I have a few choices that include sub-genres of YA: fantasy, paranormal, romance, urban fantasy, magical realism or a combination of two or more.

I decided the best place to start my research was at my neighborhood bookstores. The Young Adult section is divided into Fiction, Fantasy, Fantasy & Adventure, Romance, and Paranormal. I looked at various books on each shelf to find anything that had any sort of reference to Greek mythology or re-imagined myth. One bookstore had those books shelved under Fantasy, but another had them shelved under Paranormal. Yet another, had them shelved under Romance. Clearly, there is dissension among the ranks.

Now even more confused than I was at the start, I went online and researched general definitions for fantasy, urban fantasy, paranormal and magical realism. These are the four genres I feel have the strongest relationship to my work, but after researching them I’ve discovered the line dividing them is much thinner than I previously thought.

Fantasy: commonly uses magic and other supernatural phenomena as primary plot element, theme or setting. Many works within the genre take place in imaginary worlds where magic and magical creatures are common.

Urban Fantasy: sub-genre of fantasy defined by place; the fantastic narrative has an urban setting. Many urban fantasies are set in contemporary times and contain supernatural elements. However, the stories can take place in historical, modern, or futuristic periods, and the settings may include fictional elements. The prerequisite is that they must be primarily set in a city.

Paranormal: encompasses elements of the paranormal, such as ghosts, vampires, werewolves, shapeshifters, and any sort of magical or otherworldly creatures. This type of fiction often goes beyond fact and logical explanations to speculate about the things that cannot be seen or proven.

Magical Realism: magic elements are a natural part in an otherwise mundane, realistic environment. Magical realism portrays fantastical events in an otherwise realistic tone. It brings fables, folk tales, and myths into contemporary social relevance.

Hmmmmmm. A story about a girl who falls in love with a male muse could easily fit into both fantasy and magical realism. Plus, the fact that the bulk of the story takes place in a modern city gives urban fantasy a point as well. Heck, we can even give YA Romance a point! The only one I think I can safely eliminate is paranormal because it seems a little darker in subject matter. Muses aren’t remotely scary like a vampire or werewolf.

The Muse takes place in the real world for the most part, but also in a fantastical world towards the end. It includes human characters and magical beings. And mythology is re-imagined and ushered into the modern era. I’ve got fantasy on one hand and magical realism in the other. Can it be both??

Why all the fuss about genre? Agents are pretty picky about they want to see in their inbox. If I don’t label my novel correctly, it could end up in the slush pile without a single look.

What’s a writer to do?

I have no idea.

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c.b.w. 2014

Genre Information courtesy of Wikipedia and


12 thoughts on “The Genre Game

    • I have “sell” paragraph where I can personalize each letter to a particular agent. However, as I research agents they literally have a list of genres they are looking for and genres they do no want. I don’t want to mislabel my work and therefore mislead the agent. This is a huge part of my internal debate!


  1. Look at where your book 2 setting is going to end up, as well, since you say The Muse finishes up some in a fantastical world. You’ll want your entire series in the same genre, and since magical realism is set in the mundane world, that might give you your answer.

    Also, I’ve seen many agents on twitter rant about magical realism vs fantasy, and that they don’t cross borders (which isn’t necessarily true, but if you’re wanting an agent, catering to their tastes is part of the process), and I’ve seen very few agents rep BOTH magical realism and fantasy. Most draw a clear distinction that they represent one or the other.


    • The second book will also be rooted in the real world with occasional trips to an otherworldly realm. It’s this middle ground that keeps me flip-flopping between fantasy and magical realism.

      I’m looking for agents that do both or describe what type of fantasy they are looking for. Those agents are making it easy to decide how to brand my work in the query I send them. I wish they all did that!


  2. I rather disagree with the two comments above. A decent literary agency goes for what they think they can present to a publisher, regardless of genre. Agencies and publishers are in it for the money, by and large, so I would say to heck with trying to say what genre your book’s in, say who would BUY it.


  3. I’m glad you’ve been able to narrow it down to two different genres, but I see why it’s so hard to pick between them. I could see it either way, too. Like you mentioned, the line between them is so thin.

    I don’t know if this helps, but in the upper level creative writing courses I took in college, magical realism was presented as a subgenre of fantasy. (Much like how high fantasy is a specific subgenre of fantasy.) Perhaps some agents view it this way as well?


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