Literary Genre

Just reading those words makes me feel like throwing down my pencil and running away.  We have to know, we writers, what genre our writing fits within. It seemed easy to me when I first began writing “seriously.” Fiction. Cut and dried. Well, Ms. New Writer, that isn’t enough. What type of fiction: adult, women’s, children’s, oh, or young adult, (or now) NEW adult …?

We have to know. It is a rule we must acknowledge if we want our writing to be published and marketed. Where would your book be placed in a bookstore? Isn’t that the $64,000 question? What shelf would you send your friends and other interested readers to when they ask, “Where can I find your book?”

Mine will be on the “special” shelf labeled: adult women’s and some men’s’ fiction, but it is basically a coming-of-age story with the twist of a murder mystery and a lot of suspense. That is my book’s genre in a whopping nutshell. I’m not worried. From what I am hearing, there will be at least three more there beside it.

Seriously, I am concerned. The thing I most dread about writing my query letters and/or pitching to an agent or publisher is that question about my story’s genre. I strive to be as honest and accurate as I can be without sounding ignorant about the subject. It helps to know I am not alone. I have heard from and read of other authors who feel the same pressure about the genre business. Also, I have read many books which could be placed under several genres and are found on the “fiction/literature” shelves in larger bookstores. Whether books are written as plot-driven or character-driven they must have or be a story with beginning, middle and ending that keeps us involved; something needs to happen. Maybe it is mysterious, maybe it is criminal or maybe (oh yeah!) it is a steamy love story. Maybe it is two of those, or all three.

I have read until my eyes have crossed and my brain took a nap about the subject of genre. I have looked up the history of literary genre. I have researched recently added genres. I am genre-d out.  I am wide open for any helpful advice about the subject. Perhaps there is some sort of guideline I’m not aware of. Or one you have come up with for yourself.

I write and rewrite query letters often. I want them to be professional and most of all written according to the agent’s request. I want the agent to know that I have done my homework; looked him/her up and learned something about them that makes me feel that we could be a good literary match. I read about their agency, books they have successfully placed with publishers, and about what other writers think about them.

Ah, but I still have to know my genre …

Please! Send help!



… And help came. The day after I wrote the above whine about genre I received the September issue of Writer’s Digest and in it is an extremely helpful article on the subject. Written by Elizabeth Sims and titled “Shelf Savvy” it contains excellent, easy to understand information about the what and why of genre.

Most helpful for me was the “here’s how” under the sub-title “Your Role.” For instance, I need to remember who my reader audience will be and how they will relate to my book. Also, I really can’t stretch the truth. For instance, just because it is set in the west and is about western life-style, it cannot be listed as a true western … because it isn’t.

The article also says I can’t make up my own genre … darn it. I had a good one, too.

And the very last point (#6) is the best one. “Don’t stress about any of this. Get back to writing your next book.”

I can’t leave this post without including a plug for Writer’s Digest magazine. I have subscribed for several years and I can hardly wait for each new issue to show up in the mail box. Without fail, there is something interesting and/or exciting inside to help me along with my writing. I highly recommend picking up an issue for yourself.



Are You Funny?

The May/June issue of Writer’s Digest has an interview with Dave Barry. I have been reading his columns and books for years because I enjoy his style of humor a lot. The article doesn’t say, but I would bet he was a corny kid, a class clown, and sweet, and annoying. Those are the kids who develop a whip-quick humor—the kind who get attention and detention in junior high—especially if the comments have a smarty-pants tone. If the kid is ever so lucky, his antics pay off and he gets to be like Dave Barry.

I have wanted to be funny ever since I can remember. Funniness is a friend magnet. Only a few very odd people don’t like to laugh. Even if a person is sad and doesn’t feel like laughing, said person’s spirits can be lifted out of the blues-gutter with an exhilarating, spontaneous guffaw. Why do you think Reader’s Digest has carried a humor column titled “Laughter is the Best Medicine” for decades? Because laughing cures what ails us, even if its effects are temporary. I have read how something happens to us physiologically when we laugh. I think it has to do with adrenaline and brain chemicals, blood flow to the brain and a lot of other stuff I don’t understand.

Even the descriptions of laughter (and laughing people) are amusing (if slightly gory). Picture bursting with it, cracking up, convulsing, sides splitting, and being in stitches. And are people dying of laughter? Well, no. People want to laugh. They want to be with someone who makes them laugh. In fact, in today’s world of seriousness and hardships, I think people crave laughter. Sort of like a drug. One can buy laughs at a comedy club or a book store or obtain it free from a funny friend.

I have a couple of clever, witty friends I can get my doses of laughter from for the price of a couple of beers. I can count on them to lift my spirits, lighten my day, force me to gasp for air, wreck my eye-makeup and even cause me to drool. (Drooling is a common body function during hysterical laughter).

So, can we learn to write funny? I think we can. I will never be another Erma Bombeck or possess the wit of Dave Barry, but there is help out there for those of us who lack that big fat funny gene. If we like to laugh, know what makes us laugh, then chances are we can learn to be laugh-makers ourselves.

Leigh Anne Jashaway has an informative article with Writer’s Digest, ( and author Annie Binns covers some important rules at One thing most humorists seem to agree on is that sarcastic humor doesn’t work well, especially when overdone (unless you are Don Rickles, and I don’t think you are). What do ya mean, who’s Don Rickles?

Are you funny? Can you put that in writing?

Write What You Know

“Write what you know.”

I wish I had a gallon of gas for each time I have read that in the past dozen years.

Once my idea of writing a novel became a reality, once I began to be slightly enthralled, and once the fact that I knew next to nothing about doing such a thing whacked me upside my head, I knew I had at least six years of research to do. I wanted to do it all in a month and get it over with. I was, at first, what I would call preoccupied. “At first” means about a week, after that I was obsessed. I haunted magazine racks for issues about writing, actually taking one right out of the stock lady’s hand. When I could get to a book store, I bought books on writing:  how to, what to, when to. My old computer nearly went over the rainbow bridge with exhaustion.

I made notes about notes and wondered why. I printed out advice articles and lay awake at night thinking about what I had read. I was tired, crabby and annoyed when I had to do something trivial like the laundry, or cook supper, or sweep the floor. But, by golly, I learned more than you could shake a pencil at! And one of the things I learned was to “write what you know.”

I argued with the WWYK promoters. Not the people themselves, of course, but in my head. I have read some large number of books with two or three zeroes behind it. Those authors could not possibly have known about all of which they wrote. Remember, I am a western and cowboy poet, and I hold to the idea that it is tough to write a believable line or verse about how horse sweat can smell good (yes it can), or what the wind sounds like rushing through the reaching limbs of a gray pine if you have not experienced those things. So how in the world did writers manage to create entire stories about murder and intrigue or love affairs or driving real, real fast? Know what I mean?

Now that I have written two full novels and umm, about a third of another, I get it. While you read the following, please keep in mind that as far as I can recall, I have never sneaked down a dark alley in the middle of the night with unlawful intentions:

The slender woman in black virtually floated within a hand’s width of the high board fence, footfalls silent, and being careful not to step out of the darkest of dark shadow so her presence would not cast out onto the rutted ground of the alleyway. She was good at this. So good. She made no more noise than the padded paws of the feral cats that prowled there. The blue points of starlight and the silver face of a lopsided slice of moon lit her way and that was fine. I was all she needed. When her next step would have her leave the fence’s shadow and approach the hedge edging the grassy backyard she paused to check herself carefully. Her gloved fingers ran around her hairline being sure every red-gold strand was tucked away beneath the woolen scarf. She had wrapped the dark, soft material snugly about her head, knotted it at her throat …


It was not in the cards for me to do something with my life that required a certain amount of education. Far from being a scholar, I had no desire to be academic. School from K-12 was difficult for me, to say the least. I would have been happier locked away in my room eating dry Cheerios. School hurt. I was shy, timid, introverted, and oh so sensitive. My little feelings could be crushed with one misperceived facial expression from a teacher or peer. I squirmed my way through my school days hiding from everyone. I could literally squish myself down to a being so tiny no one noticed me. The best hiding place I found happened to be behind the spread of an open book. And thank God for that! Reading saved my hide and mind.

I think it might have been the third grade when we could order books from a little catalog once a month. Without money to spare, my dear mother saw to it that I chose at least two each time. Nancy Drew became my superwoman/girl. Oh how I wished to be her. She acted fearless beyond belief and was she ever shrewd. Later on, someone gave us a set of Hardy Boys mysteries. After that I read old copies of The Boxcar Children® and the Five Little Peppers that my mother discovered in a dusty cardboard box. There’s been what feels like a zillion books since.WP-Janice

Flash forward a bunch of years. Okay, many years, and there I am, almost 50 years old, sitting in the middle of our big bed, crying my eyes out, and writing my very first poem about my beloved horse that had recently died in a tragic accident. I explained about her the best I could and wrote of what she had given me in our years together. Every word came to me, ripped right out of my heart. Later, when I was not so blinded by tears and grief, I reread it and found myself pleasantly surprised to see that it read like a nice poem. Not great maybe, but pretty damn good.

I fell in love with western and cowboy poetry. The words and thoughts, the feeling of pastoral poems felt so personal to me. They fit my life style. I fit in the pictures they conjured. I found a place I belonged, and it felt like a homecoming for my heart. I read. I wrote. I attended poetry gatherings. I wrote. I shared! I had never spoken a single word before an audience. Was I terrified? Yep. But I did it anyway, and I know it stands as one of the bravest things I have ever done. As Dr. Phil might say, that was a changing point in my life.

In my writing life, some poems stretched their arms and became short stories. One poem and the short story which followed nagged me for more attention. There remained considerably more to say about the whole deal. There was more to be told about the people in my poem than a few pages could convey. I thought long and hard about my characters. I met them, listed them, made lists about them and watched them come alive. And I began to write my first novel. I now have two completed manuscripts and have begun on the third. I am sure I will always be writing something as long as I am able.

There is a broader reason for sharing this with you, other than hoping you may get acquainted with me and my writing life. I carry a message around inside myself that I would holler out randomly if I wasn’t afraid of the guys in white coats. I almost can’t stand to think how close I came to never realizing I could do something that matters so much to me. Please, if you are 15 or 50, whether it is a rising passion or a tiny seed of desire looking for the light, please grab every opportunity you can to own your aspiration. If that nervous, fearful little girl who struggled through school and stumbled along her trail for such a long time – if she can take leaps of faith – you can do it.