Know Your Genre: Tips and Secrets from the Experts for Writing Bestselling Genre Fiction

by Ruth Harris

Romance with a side of horror? 

Happens in real life—oy!—but not such a hot idea in fiction.

Cozy mystery with a soupçon of blood and gore? 

 Only if you want readers coming after you with shoulder-fired missiles.

Sci-fi in a gauzy, vintage-y mood? 

Not unless you want to find an IED in your driveway.

Genres come with rules that create guidelines for writers—and set up expectations in readers. Break those rules, disappoint those expectations and the reaction will be a polar vortex of one-star reviews.

You can’t build a house without a solid foundation, so before you start playing around with wildly inventive and creative genre mash-ups, you first need to learn to stick the landing. 

Julie Ann Lawson provides an excellent overview of genre—Julie calls it a cheat sheet—defining the do’s and don’ts of genres and sub-genres ranging from Survival Horror and Christian Fiction to Gothic Punk and Urban Fantasy.

Note from Anne: The terms YA (Young Adult, age 12-18) MG (Middle Grade age 8-12) and to a certain extent, NA (New Adult, age 18-25) define demographics, not genres. Almost all these genres can also be written for specific age groups (Although I wouldn't recommend MG Romance.) For more on the New Adult category see Chuck Sambuchino's piece for Writer's Digest.

Here's a list of some of the most popular genres with links to expert advice on how to write them:


Over half the books sold in the US are categorized as Romance. It’s the Big Mama of genres, competitive and potentially lucrative.

Romance University is Harvard for romance, useful to beginners and advanced students alive. Professors (successful romance writers and editors) tell all about how to write and how to market romance. (And it's FREE!...Anne)

We’ll stay in the Ivy league with Everybody Needs A Little Romance, a group blog written by romance writers who share their opinions and insights, their triumphs and—sometimes—their tribulations. Romance writers, it turns out, are just like us.

Contemporary Romance, a chapter of RWA (Romance Writers of America) is devoted to the writing and marketing of contemporary (as opposed to historical) romance. Pros who write in genres and sub-genres ranging from “spicy to inspirational to young adult to adult” keep readers and writers informed and up to date via discussion forums and workshops. (This site requires RWA membership, but if you're a Romance writer, RWA membership is well worth the price...Anne)

Have a good time and learn at Romance Divas an award winning, website and discussion forum dedicated to romance.

Romantic Suspense

The suspense must add to the romance and the romance must add to the suspense. Nora Roberts lists some of her favorite Romantic Suspense authors—Mary Stewart, Sue Grafton and Elizabeth George (among others)—and explains the necessary balance between romance and suspense.

New York Times bestselling author, Lisa Gardner, lists 7 Tips for writing Romantic Suspense ranging from setting and research to character and plot.

Patience Bloom, senior editor of Harlequin Romantic Suspense, shares 5 Secrets for creating compelling Romantic Suspense.


As Supreme Court Justice Potter Stewart said you "know it when you see it." But the line between erotica and erotic romance has blurred in recent years. It can be a, ahem, "Gray" area. Here's a piece (complete with infographic) on the difference between erotica and erotic romance from Sorcha Grace in the HuffPo. Got more than two people in the scene and there's no HEA? It's erotica.

Women’s Fiction

Anna Quindlen, Anita Shreve and Jodi Picoult are among the stars in a genre that can also merge/morph into Mainstream Fiction or Literary Fiction.

Author and blogger, Amy Sue Nathan, who hosts Women’s Fiction Writers, defines this not-always-easy-to-define genre.

RITA Award finalist and former journalist, Wendy Wax, talks about the impact of headline news and real life on women’s fiction.

Screenwriter and novelist, Paul FitzSimons, states that of all the major genres of fiction-writing, crime, fantasy, literary, comedy, sci-fi, erotica (thank you EL James for making it okay to include that last one) – the most popular and successful is women’s fiction. Paul has pulled together a list of useful links for women’s fiction  authors.

Chick Lit (aka Rom-Com)

Think Bridget Jones Diary, Sex And The City and The Devil Wears Prada. Chick Lit, breezy and humorous, is written in the first person and is about 20- and 30- something women living in a big city. A Chick Lit novel is about relationships—romantic and otherwise—as the heroine searches for a job, a boyfriend, an identity.

Editors at Ballentine and Harlequin discuss what makes Chick Lit tick.

Will Write for Shoes: How to Write a Chick Lit Novel, by an author of chick lit, offers advice and a step-by-step method for writing the savvy and sassy chick lit novel.

While a romance novel usually ends with a wedding or a promise of one, a chick lit novel can end with the heroine having pink drinks with her girlfriends, dissing Mr. Wrong.

Note from Anne: Chick Lit is a bestselling genre that has found new popularity in the age of ebooks, but it was out of fashion for a few years. I see that Publisher's Lunch calls it "Rom-Com" rather than "Chick Lit" when talking about book dealsshort for "Romantic-Comedy." So if you're querying Chick Lit, you might want to call it "Rom-Com" unless the agent specifically asks for Chick Lit.

Literary Fiction

Cormac McCarthy and Michael Ondaatje come to mind as authors of literary fiction. Literary Fiction tends to focus more on character than plot although—because characters interact and events take place—LitFic does have plot.

The prose in LitFic possesses aesthetic value, and the theme(s) and emotions are layered, complex and serious.

Like other genres, Literary Fiction defines itself through cover design, titles, book formats and shelving. In addition, there are four characteristics that make Literary Fiction a distinct genre.

Paranormal Romance and Urban Fantasy

Think Charlaine Harris and Stephanie Meyer, Dead until Dark and Twilight. Think noir, paranormal and magic.

At Heroes And Heartbreakers, Larissa Benoliel defines the difference between these two popular genres.

Here’s a questionnaire that will also help distinguish between ParaNormal Romance (PNR) and Urban Fantasy (UF)

Award-winning author Jami Gold is a go-to guru in PNR and UF. She conducts workshops and offers tips, tricks and tools for writers. Jami mixes in “elements of suspense and women’s fiction to create ‘Beach Reads with Bite.’ Her stories range from dark to humorous, but one thing remains the same: Normal need not apply.” (And she's going to be our guest in August!...Anne.) 

Dystopian (Especially YA)

From Hunger Games to Divergent and Susanne Collins to Veronica Roth, this is a hotter-than-than-hot genre. In YA Dystopian fiction you’ll find reading lists, reviews and expert analysis.

Here’s pro advice from YA authors Lauren DeStefano and Moira Young on writing dystopian fiction and 5 more tips from "Miss Literati" about pushing the envelope in this wildly popular genre.


Bestselling author P. D. James, Baroness James of Holland Park, OBE, FRSA, FRSL, is an English crime writer and creator of policeman and poet, Adam Dalgliesh. Baroness James has learned from writers like Jane Austen, Wilkie Collins, Dorothy L Sayers, Graham Greene and Evelyn Waugh. Here are her 8 suggestions for writing a mystery.

Ron Lovell, author of The Martindale Mystery Series, sweats blood. Not really but sort of, as he tells how to write a mystery.

Susan Spann, an attorney and author of the Shinobi Mystery series, says that “mystery novels work a lot like any other genre, except that mystery writers murder their imaginary friends.” Susan lists 25 things you need to know about writing mysteries.

Ginny Wiehardt, editor and writing teacher, offers 10 rules for writing mystery.

Cozy Mystery

The author Agatha Christie and TV’s Murder, She Wrote mean “cozy” to millions of fans who are looking for mystery sans graphic sex, profanity and violence.

Lynn Farris delves into the specifics that distinguish a cozy mystery from a classic mystery. Find out everything a writer needs to know about this popular genre as Lynn analyzes elements including cover, protagonist, audience, setting, and plot.

Author Stephen D. Rogers has written a useful run-down of characters, plots, setting and the exceptions that define the cozy mystery. Stephen also adds a list of resources and markets relevant to authors of cozies.

The Cozy Mystery List adds to the information about the genre and recommends books, DVDs in this increasingly hot genre.


We’re in James Bond territory here. The thriller revolves around around anticipation and suspense, action and excitement. Unlike a mystery in which a crime must be solved, in a thriller the hero/heroine must prevent the crime from being committed or the dastardly plot from going forward.

Top thriller writers from Daniel Silva to Edgar Award-winner John Hart give advice about writing the can’t-put-it-down thriller.

Ian Fleming discusses the line between fact and fiction in a thriller and describes the nuts-and-bolts of his writing process.

Police Procedural

The police procedural ranges from Evan Hunter/Ed McBain’s 87th Precinct series to Maj Sjöwall and Per Wahlöö’s ten-book Martin Beck series to Michael Connelly’s Harry Bosch series.

Mystery novelist and college professor Margot Kinberg discusses the wide range of this genre, its diversity, history and current status on her blog, Confessions of a Mystery Writer.

Christian Fiction

Targeted to a large audience, Christian Fiction offers inspiration, positive uplift and points the way for relatable characters to resolve their real-life dilemmas via faith. Christian Fiction encompasses numerous sub-genres including mystery, sci-fi, romance, women’s fiction, historical and more.

CrossBooks, a publisher of Christian Fiction, reaches out to authors and lays out guidelines for writing Christian Fiction with realistic characters confronting gritty issues like abuse and alcoholism.

American Christian Fiction Writers (ACFW) is a professional authors’ association similar to Romance Writers of America (RWA) and/or Mystery Writers of America (MWA). The goal of ACFW is “developing the skills of its authors, educating them in the market, and serving as an advocate in the Christian Fiction publishing industry.”


Horror comes in a variety of flavors. There’s creepy, gross-out, and just plain evil. There’s H.P. Lovecraft, Peter Straub and Stephen King. Don’t forget slime, monsters, vampires and locked rooms. Horror, like all fiction, isn’t easy to write but here’s Ramsey Campbell’s guide to avoiding the clichés.

Stephen King shares some thoughts about the craft of writing horror.

Novelist, screenwriter, and game designer, Chuck Wendig, lists 25 things you should know about writing horror including severed heads and septic fear.

At Hellnotes, Robert Gray suggests 13 tips about writing horror fiction.


Cowboys and Indians, sheriffs and outlaws, gunslingers and schoolmarms—we’re talking Westerns. Louis L’Amour, Tony Hillerman, Zane Grey, Larry McMurtry and Elmore Leonard are among the masters of the form. Western Writers of America, sponsors of the annual Spur Award, represents professional authors of Western literature.

Popular sub-genres include Western Romance and Western Historical Romance.

R.L. Coffield offers these guidelines for writing a Western and Adrienne deWolf’s writing resources for writing a Western offers tips and research help.

The NaNoWriMo site has interesting facts about iconic Western towns like Tombstone and the dangerous perils of six-shooters plus more tips for writing a Western.

Lyn Horner, bestselling author of Western Romance, shares tips and techniques for writing a Western Romance.


Noted sci-fi/fantasy author and teacher, Jeffrey A. Carver, a Nebula Award finalist and developer and host of the educational TV series, Science Fiction and Fantasy Writing, has created an on-line course, how to write sci fi/fantasy. “There are no rules, exactly,” says Jeff. “But we do have what you might call guidelines. And that's to have fun writing!”

Award-winning sci-fi author, Massimo Marino, takes a scientist’s approach to sci-fi. Massimo, who worked at CERN—an international lab for particle physics research near Geneva, Switzerland—then at the Lawrence Berkeley National Lab as well as with Apple Inc., and the World Economic Forum, has created a useful and entertaining Guide For Down-And-Dirty Hairy-Knuckled Sci-Fi Writers.

Roz Morris, author, editor, bestselling ghostwriter and book doctor, shares 3 tips for writing watertight fantasy, science fiction and time travel stories. Roz talks about the roles of logic and magic and illustrates her points by discussing mistakes she herself made and how she corrected them.

Author and editor, Charlie Jane Anders contemplates 10 “Rules” scifi/fantasy authors should break. Charlie offers insights into portal fantasies, when it’s better to tell, not show, and the possibilities of faster-than-light space travel.

There are dozens of subcategories of SciFi/Fantasy, too many to go into here. Some are: Steampunk (The Anubis Gates, Homunculus) Space Opera (Dune, the Foundation Trilogy), Hard SciFi (I, Robot), Epic Fantasy (Lord of the Rings, Game of Thrones), Cyberpunk (Neuromancer), Speculative Fiction (A Handmaid's Tale, Brave New World) and Time Travel (The Time Machine—not to be confused with Time Travel Romance like Somewhere in Time or Time Travel Women's Fiction like The Time Traveller's Wife.) 

Genres and sub-genres help readers find books and writers need to understand the conventions of his/her chosen genre to write satisfying fiction. Ignore the rules of genre at your own peril! 

What about you, Scriveners? Do you set out to write in a particular genre, or do you write books first and ask questions about genre afterward? Do you write cross-genre work that you find hard to place in traditional publishing categories? Have you ever set out to write in one genre and had the book turn out to be another?


A Kiss at Kihali--sweet romance set against the backdrop of African animal rescue
A must-read for animal lovers.

Available at Amazon US, Amazon UK, Amazon CA 

Beautiful and inspirational, A KISS AT KIHALI draws on the power of human-animal relationships, the heroic accomplishments of African animal orphanages, and the people, foreign and Kenyan, drawn to careers involving the care and conservation of wild animals. Filled with drama and danger that lead to a happy ending, A KISS AT KIHALI will appeal to readers who love tender romance and who have personally experienced the intense, mystical bond between humans and animals.

"A must-read for anyone who cares about animals and the environment, because what we do to them, we do to ourselves”... bestselling author Sibel Hodge

Coming up on the blog

June 1st: Anne will talk about how to launch a new book in the digital age.

June 8th: Nina Badzin: social media expert and freelance writer: regular contributor to Brain, ChildKveller, and the HuffPo. Nina will talk about what happens when you realize you like blogging more than working on your novel.

June 22: Nathan Bransford: Yes. That Nathan Bransford (squee!) Blog god, former agent, children's author, and author of How to Write a Novel.

July 20th: Janice Hardy: host of Fiction University and bestselling YA author. Repped by uber-agent Kristen Nelson.

August 10th Jami Gold: editor, writing teacher, award-winning paranormal romance author, and awesome blogger.

September 14th Barbara Silkstone: bestselling indie author and owner of the Second Act Cafe.


BLUE EARTH REVIEW FLASH FICTION CONTEST  $2 ENTRY FEE. 750 words or less. Limit two stories per entry. First place $500. Second place $250. Third place $100. Winners will be published in the Blue Earth Review, the literary magazine of Minnesota State University. Deadline August 1.

The Saturday Evening Post "Celebrate America" Short fiction contest. $10 ENTRY FEE. The winning story will be published in the Jan/Feb 2015 edition of The Saturday Evening Post, and the author will receive a $500 payment. Five runners-up will each receive a $100 cash payment and will also have their stories published online. Stories must be between 1,500 and 5,000 words in. All stories must be previously unpublished (excluding personal websites and blogs). Deadline July 1.

The Golden Quill Awards: Entry fee $15. Two categories: Short fiction/memoir (1000 words) and Poetry (40 lines max) $750 1st prize, $400 2nd prize in each category. Sponsored by the SLO Nightwriters and the Central Coast Writers Conference. Deadline June 30th.

Drue Heinz Literature Prize for a collection of short fiction and/or novellas. Prize of $15,000 and publication by the University of Pittsburgh Press. Author must have been previously published in print journals. Deadline June 30.

WRITERS VILLAGE SUMMER SHORT FICTION CONTEST $24 ENTRY FEE. $4,800 First prize. Second prize $800, third prize $400 and 15 runner up prizes of $80. The top 50 contestants also get a free critique of their stories. Judges include Lawrence Block, a Grand Master of the Mystery Writers of America, and Jill Dawson, Orange and Whitbread-shortlisted author of eight novels. Winning stories showcased online. Any genre of fiction may be submitted up to 3,000 words, except playscripts and poetry. Entries are welcomed world-wide. Deadline June 30.

Labels: , , , , , , ,