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How to Write & Sell a Cross-Genre Novel

Here are the keys to writing and pitching a novel that crosses genres.

For as long as any of us can remember, the term genre fiction has referred to work that fits neatly into a single prescribed category: science fiction, romance, mystery, fantasy, horror, historical, etc. But take a close look at any bookshelf today, and you might be surprised to see how much the lines between genre fiction and mainstream fiction—and even between certain traditionally compartmentalized genres—are blurring.

—by Michelle Richmond, bestselling author of the The Year of Fog
and the creator of The Guided Workbooks for Writers series.

M.J. Rose, bestselling novelist and founder of AuthorBuzz, knows what it means to defy genre conventions. While some of her novels are easily categorized, others combine elements from such varied genres as romance, paranormal and mystery. And while that might sound like watering a story down, it’s actually been lifting her work to the top. In March 2012, Rose’s The Book of Lost Fragrances simultaneously made both Amazon’s Best Books of the Month in the science fiction/fantasy category and Publishers Weekly’s Top 10 Mysteries & Thrillers rankings.

Books like Rose’s demonstrate the potential of quality cross-genre fiction to reach exponentially more readers by appealing to multiple audiences. They also show how much the publishing landscape is changing. “For years,” Rose says, “publishers told my agent that they loved my work but didn’t know how to market such cross-genre fiction.”

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Such concerns were very real in the brick-and-mortar marketplace. “Fiction in different genres is packaged and marketed differently and shelved on different bookstore shelves … so cross-genre fiction wouldn’t be the easiest way to start a career,” explains veteran literary agent Elizabeth Pomada. But today, thanks in large part to the rise of online booksellers and the accessibility of digital publishing (and self-publishing), there’s plenty of room on the virtual shelf for books that defy easy categorization. “[Suddenly, we are living] in a bottom-up culture in which readers, not publishing conglomerates, are the gatekeepers,” Pomada says.

My own career has been a 12-year lesson in crossing genres. My first novel blended elements of erotica, political fiction and murder mystery, was set in China and the Deep South, and addressed an impending environmental disaster. The agents I queried questioned how the book would be positioned. Was this a coming-of-age story? A mystery? A political or environmental cautionary tale? Was it too racy for mainstream readers? I never quite pinned the genre (or genres) down in my pitch—and I never found an agent, either. I’d all but given up on the novel when I connected with a small publisher that had an interest in Southern writers (I’m from Alabama). When Dream of the Blue Room was published with MacAdam/Cage in 2003, reviewers didn’t know what to make of it. “There’s a lot going on in this book,” a reviewer for the San Francisco Chronicle wrote. In hindsight, I see that I was trying to juggle too many balls.

I had the feeling that what I’d been missing was a sense of urgency and focus, so with my second novel, I decided to have a child character go missing on Page 1. Delving into suspense was a huge departure from my comfort zone, but it felt good to put my characters in a situation I (and they) couldn’t walk away from.

Fortunately, by that time I’d met my agent, Valerie Borchardt, who encouraged me to write what I most wanted to write; as a result, the story also became a meditation on memory—something that allowed me to indulge my meandering nature and my affinity for more literary prose.

With strategic, targeted marketing to both women’s fiction and mystery readers, my second novel, The Year of Fog, did indeed reach a much larger audience than my previous work, even hitting The New York Times bestseller list. With the release of my next book—which combined an ancient mathematical puzzle, a historical perspective on coffee, and a decades-old murder—the Daily Mail dubbed me “mistress of the kind of literary mystery that packs the punch of a fine thriller, but with added insight and wisdom.” As someone who’d never much contemplated being mistress of anything, I was happily surprised.

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3 Keys to Writing the Cross-Genre Novel

My own cross-genre success happened almost by accident, but only after the trial and error of my first novel. I’ve since learned that a more focused approach is the most direct route to crafting the kind of manuscript that will draw the attention of agents, publishers and readers.

You don’t have to look far to find authors having wild success with focused cross-genre approaches. Take Charlaine Harris’ bestselling Southern Vampire Mysteries featuring telepathic waitress Sookie Stackhouse. The series, which from the outset featured a well-defined and consistent blend of paranormal elements, romance and mystery, was so marketable it transcended book form and spawned the popular HBO series “True Blood.”

Then there’s bestseller list staple Sandra Brown, author of dozens of romantic suspense novels, including The Alibi, The Crush and, most recently, Low Pressure. Her titles are so equally successful in both genres that Brown has received both the Romance Writers of America Lifetime Achievement Award and the International Thriller Writers’ top designation of ThrillerMaster.

Successful novels that have done what you’d like your own work to accomplish can be wonderful learning tools. Here are some other strategies to keep in mind as you shape your cross-genre story:

• Recognize your primary genre—and use it as your compass. Examine the fundamental core of any cross-genre story, and you’ll likely find that it has one primary genre driving the plot. It’s important to recognize this in your own work and pay homage to that genre’s time-honored traditions: A murder mystery should have red herrings, a romance heroine should face obstacles to true love, a political thriller needs a villain who stands in the way of your protagonist’s search for justice.

Let that genre guide you, from Page 1. Brown’s romantic thriller Lethal begins with a mother and her young daughter being held at gunpoint in their home; from the first chapter, the reader is confronted with the sense of imminent danger that propels the novel forward.

Let your primary genre give your story structure, and you’ll have a strong foundation upon which to build. From there, layer on fundamental aspects of at least two (but no more than three) genres in a way that gives fair, if not equal, time to each.

• Draw on your strengths as a writer, regardless of genre. Julianna Baggott is the bestselling author of 19 books running the gamut from young adult fiction to poetry. Her most recent novels, Pure and Fuse, are part of a futuristic YA trilogy that has also drawn a devoted following among adult science-fiction fans—not surprising, given that she began her career writing fiction for adult readers. Baggott encourages writers to take what they know from the genre in which they feel most comfortable, and find a way to use it to their advantage in anything they write. “Each genre has its own demands,” she says, “[but] the lessons learned in one are often transferable to another.”

By relying on what comes naturally to you even as you venture into something new, you’ll be more likely to find a cross-section of genres that is inherent to the story at hand rather than forced by any preconceived ideas of what the story should be. “I find it a huge advantage to take what the world hands you—that raw material—and ask what form it most desires,” Baggott says.

Pomada agrees. “Write what you love, and write it with an eye toward entertaining your reader,” she says. “The essential virtue of salable prose is that it keeps readers turning the pages. If writers can do that, they can write anything.”

• Create characters that defy genre conventions. Genre fiction is often criticized for being formulaic and short on character. As you write, keep asking yourself: If you were to extract your main character from the novel and set her down in an entirely different situation, would the reader still care what happens to her? If not, you have more work to do.

Holly Goddard Jones’ debut novel, The Next Time You See Me, is literary suspense that opens with a time-honored mystery setup: the discovery of a body. But as the story progresses, the way in which each character reacts to his own suffering—an emotion-driven hallmark of literary fiction—turns out to be every bit as important to the story as uncovering the identity of the killer. Ryan McNear, the believably flawed protagonist of Ransom Stephens’ scientific legal thriller The God Patent, isn’t just a physicist who has patented man’s soul; he is also a man on the run who is reeling from the loss of his family.

Pitching Your Cross-Genre Novel

Agents and publishers want to know how a novel will fit into an existing niche, but they also want to know how it’s different from what’s already on the market. Instead of giving in to the urge to say, “I don’t want to be labeled,” consider labels a way to make your book more marketable.

• Name the primary genre and one or two additional genres in your pitch. Don’t throw too many labels into the mix. No agent is likely to embrace a “Western romantic thriller with elements of science fiction and fantasy.” If you can, distill your genres into one adjective (the secondary genre) plus a noun (the primary genre): historical thriller, sci-fi drama, romantic fantasy. The more specific your description, the more confident your pitch will sound.

• Play up the ways in which your cross-genre approach will broaden your target audience. In her pitch for French Lessons, Ellen Sussman capitalized on the intersection of two genres: suspense and romance. Her pitch, she says, went something like this: “This novel will appeal to readers who love a literary page-turner, as well as those who are looking for a steamy romance.” An agent wants to know you’ve thought about your audience.

• Emphasize the story in relation to the genre. “When pitching a genre-blurring novel, talk about the world of the novel and the characters who endure within it,” Baggott advises. Pure features a young female protagonist, Pressia, facing off against a lawless society and a powerful group that wants her dead; the genre is futuristic YA, but the draw is Pressia herself, the emotional center of the story.

Consider M.J. Rose’s pitch for her next genre-bender, Seduction: “In 1853, Victor Hugo began a series of secret séances in an effort to reach his dead daughter. He wrote transcripts of those séances and claimed to have reached Jesus, Dante, Shakespeare and dozens more spirits including someone he called the Shadow of the Sepulcher. Known to us by another name: Lucifer. What if one set of transcripts was hidden because they were too controversial? What if a modern day woman finds them and they put her life in jeopardy? Celtic legends, the Isle of Jersey, reincarnation, perfume—all come together in my first ghost story.”

Notice how Rose mentions the cross-genre elements of her novel—historical figures with religious subtext—in one juicy paragraph that begins and ends with emphasis on her primary genre: paranormal.

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