Okay, I don’t know too many people like that — any, really — but I know lots of writers who think of themselves that way.
But it’s not so easy to just pick a genre and immediately start writing. Even if the genre you choose is one you read regularly, it might not be the best fit for you as a writer. For instance, I know a writer who just eats up mystery thrillers and romance novels, but what she writes are stories of magic and lore.
I’d never heard of “urban fantasy” when I started writing, so I had no idea how to classify my work. My stories were weird and funny, with a decidedly paranormal bent. But when people asked me what kind of tales I wrote, I had to give the synopsis of each manuscript in question rather than just being able to point to a known genre.
I’m not sure exactly when I heard the words “urban fantasy” for the first time, but it was a revelation. Instantly, I knew where I fit. Witches, wizards, ghosts, vampires, old Norse gods, all doing their thing in a modern, real-world setting. Yep. That works.
I started shopping around my urban fantasy manuscript, Valhalla, and was thrilled to have some early interest from agents. But I was stunned by the feedback I was getting. It went something like this: “This is really good! But it’s reading as Young Adult. Can you make some changes so this fits more firmly in this genre?”
Young Adult? But there was no way my manuscript was YA.
I admit now that my immediate — and negative — reaction was rooted largely in the fact that I didn’t really understand what “Young Adult” meant. I’d assumed the agent was talking about children’s books, or at best mid-grade fiction. I didn’t know how the age groups broke down into different categories — nor what they were called — and so I had unintentionally been lumping them all together.
I went to an author friend (and neighbor) of mine, David Ward. He took a look over the first few chapters and said, “Yes, this is definitely Young Adult.” He must have read the look of confusion and dismay on my face, because he then elaborated for me: “Teenagers. High school kids, and into college. That’s who this is written for.”
Relief washed over me. I’d been afraid I was being asked to write for eight-year-olds — something I have no clue how to do. Teenagers I could write for. Those years were some of the hardest and most brilliant of my life, and I often find my thoughts straying to that period.
I thought about some of the movies I enjoyed most — “Night at the Museum” comes immediately to mind, as well as action-adventure comedies — and I knew I had a firmer handle on the genre than I’d realized. I don’t like writing about deep psychological trauma, complicated political maneuverings, or horrific violence. My fiction is quirky and punchy, tinged appropriately with darkness and angst, and generally quite “clean.”
So I went to work on rewriting Valhalla as a YA title. The biggest change I made was in the character of Sally. If you can believe it, she was originally written as a middle-aged church secretary, but once I re-imagined her as a sixteen-year-old solitary witch, everything else fell into place around her. There’s definitely a strong cross-over between YA and mainstream, so I have about as many adults as teenagers reading Valhalla right now, and I have no complaints about that.
My genre most definitely chose me. I’d previously tried action-adventure, historical drama, horror, and romantic drama, but YA urban fantasy was what reached out to claim me. While I did have to spend some time learning about — and making peace with — what YA means, I’ve found that if I write to entertain myself and strive to keep both the story and the writing process appealing and interesting to me, this is what comes out.
If you’re trying to figure out where your own writing fits, my advice is to let your material choose your genre, rather than the other way around. It is helpful to write with a particular audience or “ideal reader” in mind, but instead of using of formula for what you hope will be a guaranteed best-seller in this or that trendy genre, take a hard look instead at what you’re producing when you’re writing in your strongest and most authentic voice.
About the Author:
Jennifer Willis is an author, essayist, and journalist in Portland, Oregon. In her non-fiction work, she specializes in topics related to sustainability, spirituality/religion, history, and health. Her articles have appeared in The Oregonian, The Christian Science Monitor, Salon.com, The Portland Tribune, The Writer, Ancestry Magazine, Aish.com, Skirt!, InterfaithFamily.com, Vegetarian Times, Spirituality & Health, and other print and online publications at home and across the globe.