Tag Archives: what is literary genre

Identifying Genre #amwriting

If you have taken my advice and written several short stories, you now have something to enter in contests and submit to various publications. However, it can be hard to know what publication to send your work to.

This is where you must learn to identify the genre of what you have written.

When I sit down and begin writing a short story, sometimes I don’t have a particular theme or plot in mind. I key the first lines with an open mind, and random ideas begin to flow. Because I am working within the limits of 3000 to 7000 words, these are the stories that stretch my writing skills.

These “orphan” short stories are widely different from my normal work and aren’t always written in a genre that is easily identified.

Mainstream (general) fiction–Mainstream fiction is a general term that publishers and booksellers use to describe works that will appeal to a broad range of readers and will have some chance of commercial success. Mainstream authors often blend genre fiction practices with techniques considered unique to literary fiction.

It will be both plot- and character-driven and may have a style of narrative that is not as lean as modern genre fiction but is not too stylistic either. The prose of the novel will at times delve into a more literary vein than genre fiction, but the story will be driven by the events and action that force the characters to grow.

Literary Fiction–Literary fiction tends to be more adventurous with the narrative, with the style of the prose taking a prominent place. Stylistic writing and the exploration of themes and ideas form the substance of the piece.

Writer’s Relief Author’s Submission Service defines literary fiction as “…fiction of ideas. While the story must be good, emphasis on action is not often as important as emphasis on the ideas, themes, and concerns of the book. Literary fiction tackles “big” issues that are often controversial, difficult, and complex.”  (end quoted text)

Literary fiction is frequently challenging to read, which is why certain readers search it out. They want to savor every word and turn of phrase. Sometimes literary fiction is experimental, wordy, and goes off topic, but the journey is the important thing to those of us who enjoy the works of David Foster Wallace, John McPhee, and George Saunders.

Science fiction–Science Fiction features futuristic settings, futuristic science and technology, space travel, time travel, faster than light travel, parallel universes, and extraterrestrial life.

If you use magic for any reason you are NOT writing any form of sci-fi, so don’t bother submitting it to a publisher who only wants science fiction.

Hard Sci-fi is characterized by rigorous attention to accurate detail in the physics, chemistry, and astrophysics. Emphasis is placed on accurately depicting worlds that more advanced technology may make possible. Soft Sci-fi is characterized by works based on social sciences such as psychology, economics, political science, sociology, and anthropology.

Other main sub-genres of Sci-fi include Space-operasCyberpunk, Time Travel, Steampunk, Alternate history, Military, Superhuman, Apocalyptic and Post-Apocalyptic.

The main thing to remember is that Science and Magic cannot coexist in the Genre of Science Fiction.

The minute you add magic to the story, you have Fantasy.

Fantasy: Fantasy commonly uses magic and other supernatural phenomena as a primary plot element, theme, or setting. Many works are set within imaginary worlds, environments where magic and magical creatures are common. Epic and high fantasy generally avoid scientific and macabre themes, although in some fantasy subgenres there can be a great deal of overlap between fantasy and horror, and fantasy mixed with science.

I’ve said it before, but every genre has its share of snobs and idiot purists, people who will argue your choice of sub-genre no matter what you choose.

High fantasy–High fantasy is defined as fantasy fiction set in an alternative, fictional world, rather than the real world. It commonly features elves, fairies, dwarves, dragons, demons, magic or sorcery, wizards or magicians, constructed languages, quests, coming-of-age themes, and multi-volume narrative. Often the prose is more literary, and the primary plot is slowed by many side quests. Think Mervyn Peake, William Morris, and J.R.R. Tolkien.

Epic Fantasy–These stories are often serious in tone and epic in scope, dealing with themes of grand struggle against supernatural, evil forces. Epic fantasy shares some typical characteristics of high fantasy and can include elements such as elves, fairies, dwarves, dragons, demons, magic or sorcery, wizards or magicians, constructed languages, quests, coming-of-age themes. These also come in multi-volume narratives. Tad Williams’s series, Memory Sorrow and Thorn is classic Epic Fantasy.

Paranormal Fantasy–Paranormal fantasy often focuses on romantic love and includes elements beyond the range of scientific explanation, blending together themes from all the speculative fiction genres. Think ghosts, vampires, and supernatural.

Urban Fantasy– 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.

Horror–Horror fiction, horror literature, and also horror fantasy are narratives written specifically to frighten, scare, or startle their readers by inducing feelings of horror and terror. Sometime these stories detail the experience of purely mental terror, other times they are rife with sudden graphic violence.

Romance– Novels of this type of genre fiction place their primary focus on developing a relationship despite many roadblocks, and in the end, the characters find true romantic love. These stories must have an emotionally satisfying and optimistic ending, or they are not romance.

Choose carefully what publications, anthologies, and contests you submit your work to. Read and follow their submission guidelines. Read one or two back issues so that you only submit the kind of work they publish.

Never submit anything that is not your best work, and do not assume they will edit it, because they won’t. No publisher will buy work that is poorly written, sloppily formatted, and generally unreadable.


Credits and Attributions:

How Do You Know If Your Novel Is Literary Or Mainstream Fiction? How Long Is A General Fiction Book? By Writer’s Relief Staff, Writer’s Relief Author Submission Services Blog, posted July 22, 2009. (Accessed August 14, 2018.)

Cover of The New Yorker (first issue) in 1925 with illustration depicting iconic character Eustace Tilley,  drawn by Rea Irvin. Fair Use.

First Cover of Astounding Stories of Super Science (Analog Science Fiction and Fact) art by H. W. Wesso,  January 1930, Fair Use. Via Wikipedia.

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#amwriting: Identifying Genre

When you write a lot of different short stories, you really get to explore all aspects of your creative mind. You never know what will fall out of your head, so you find yourself writing in a wide variety of genres, things you never thought you would find interesting.

But they consume you, and you can’t stop writing.

So now you have this wonderful backlog of short and novella-length stories to enter in contests and submit to various publications–but now you find that this contest wants general fiction, and this one is fantasy. And this one is sci-fi only!

Dude–how do I know what tale to send to who?

If your work is nonfiction, it’s no problem because your work is targeted to a magazine with a specific readership, so the sub-genre will be clear and where you should submit it was likely evident the day you decided to write it.

Where this gets dicey is when you write short fiction with no specific contest or magazine in mind. When you sit down to write a short story with an open mind, random ideas flow, and because you are working within the limits of 3000 to 7000 words, your stories are creative and stretch you. But they will be widely different from your normal work, and will not always be in a genre you can easily identify. You have all this work, but no idea where to submit it.

Mainstream (general) fiction–Mainstream fiction is a general term publishers and booksellers use to describe works that may appeal to the broadest range of readers and have some likelihood of commercial success. Mainstream authors often blend genre fiction practices with techniques considered unique to literary fiction. It will be both plot- and character-driven and may have a style of narrative that is not as lean as modern genre fiction but is not too stylistic either. The prose of the novel will at times delve into a more literary vein than genre fiction, but the story will be driven by the events and action that force the characters to grow.

Science fiction–Wikipedia says:  “Science Fiction is fiction dealing with imaginative content such as futuristic settings, futuristic science and technology, space travel, time travel, faster than light travel, parallel universes and extraterrestrial life.” BE WARNED: the internet is rife with purists and impurists in the sci-fi field, snobs and folks with their heads up their anachronisms. Anyway, if you use magic for any reason you are NOT writing any form of sci-fi.

Hard Sci-fi is characterized by rigorous attention to accurate detail in the physics, chemistry, and astrophysics. Emphasis is placed on accurately depicting worlds that more advanced technology may make possible. Soft Sci-fi is characterized by works based on social sciences such as psychology, economics, political science, sociology, and anthropology.

Other main sub-genres of Sci-fi include Space-operasCyberpunk, Time Travel, Steampunk, Alternate history, Military, Superhuman, Apocalyptic and Post-Apocalyptic.

The main thing to remember is this–Science and Magic cannot coexist in the Genre of Science Fiction. The minute you add magic to the story, you have Fantasy.

Fantasy: Wikipedia says: “Fantasy is a genre of fiction that commonly uses magic and other supernatural phenomena as a primary plot element, theme, or setting. Many works within the genre take place in imaginary worlds where magic and magical creatures are common. Fantasy is generally distinguished from the genres of science fiction and horror by the expectation that it steers clear of scientific and macabre themes, respectively, though there is a great deal of overlap between the three, all of which are sub-genres of speculative fiction.” 

I’ll be truthful–fantasy has its share of snobs and damn fools when it comes to defining the sub-genres:

High fantasy–High fantasy is defined as fantasy fiction set in an alternative, fictional world, rather than the real, or “primary” world, with elves, fairies, dwarves, dragons, demons, magic or sorcery, wizards or magicians, constructed languages, quests, coming-of-age themes, and multi-volume narrative. Often the prose is more literary, and the primary plot is slowed by many side quests. Think William Morris and J.R.R. Tolkien.

Epic Fantasy–These stories are often serious in tone and epic in scope, dealing with themes of grand struggle against supernatural, evil forces. Epic fantasy shares some typical characteristics of high fantasy includes fantastical elements such as elves, fairies, dwarves, dragons, demons, magic or sorcery, wizards or magicians, constructed languages, quests, coming-of-age themes, and multi-volume narratives. Tad Williams’s Memory Sorrow and Thorn is classic Epic Fantasy.

Paranormal Fantasy–Paranormal fantasy often focuses on romantic love and includes elements beyond the range of scientific explanation, blending together themes from all the speculative fiction genres. Think ghosts, vampires, and supernatural.

Urban Fantasy– 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.

Horror–Wikipedia says “Horror fiction, horror literature and also horror fantasy are genres of literature, which are intended to, or have the capacity to frighten, scare, or startle their readers by inducing feelings of horror and terror. Literary historian J. A. Cuddon has defined the horror story as “a piece of fiction in prose of variable length… which shocks or even frightens the reader, or perhaps induces a feeling of repulsion or loathing.

Romance– Novels of this type of genre fiction place their primary focus on the relationship and romantic love between two people, and must have an “emotionally satisfying and optimistic ending.”

I’m discussing Literary Fiction last because it is the most complicated and least understood genre of all. Literary fiction tends to be more adventurous with the narrative, with the style of the prose taking a prominent place. Stylistic writing and the exploration of themes and ideas form the substance of the piece. Writer’s Relief Author’s Submission Service defines literary fiction as “…fiction of ideas. While the story must be good, emphasis on action is not often as important as emphasis on the ideas, themes, and concerns of the book. Literary fiction tackles “big” issues that are often controversial, difficult, and complex.”  (end quoted text)

One of the problems in the perception of what constitutes Literary Fiction is this: A book like Alexander Chee’s Queen of the Night is a historical fantasy–BUT it is the style and VOICE with which it is written that makes it a powerful literary work. The same goes for much of George Sanders work. The Tenth of December is technically scifi, but it is the style and voice that makes George Sanders literary. The same with Neil Gaiman’s lovely work on the book, Stardust, which is a lightning rod for the “that’s not literary–yes it is” debate.

But think about this: an editor at Harpercollins once told me (at a conference) that literary fiction is anything that is well written with intentional prose, is character driven, has a compelling story, and doesn’t quite fit into any other category. A friend of mine in an online writer’s community said in a thread, “Intention, approach, the way resolutions happen, and the ideas explored help create these distinctions.”

Now that you know what the genre of your story is, you can seek out magazines and contest looking for that sort of work. Choose carefully who you submit your work to, carefully follow their submission guidelines, and only submit the work you have that best fits what they publish.

Never submit anything that is not your best work, and do not assume they will edit it because they won’t. And let’s be real–no one will even consider publishing work that is poorly written, sloppily formatted, and generally unreadable.


Parts of Identifying Genre were first published here on Life in the Realm of Fantasy under the title, What did I just write? Labeling short fiction, by Connie J. Jasperson © 2015-2017 All Rights Reserved.

How Do You Know If Your Novel Is Literary Or Mainstream Fiction? How Long Is A General Fiction Book? Posted on July 22, 2009 by Writer’s Relief Staff, accessed 11 June, 2017.

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