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How to Teach an Old Genre New Tricks

By Hannah Earthman

Remember all those pulse-pounding dystopias and dramas with animal characters you read as a tween? No? Yeah, me neither. For ’80s and ’90s kids, growing out of Little Golden Books and “early readers” into lengthy chapter books also basically meant growing out of stories in which animals were the main characters. It’s not that exceptions didn’t exist, but the beloved big-kid books of the day were mostly peopled by . . . people. At the more serious end of the spectrum? The Face on the Milk Carton by Caroline B. Cooney. Character facing seemingly insurmountable odds and having to churn up steely resolve? Gary Paulsen’s Hatchet. Characters fighting for independence in a universe gone control-freaky? A Wrinkle in Time by Madeleine L’Engle.

And it’s not that these have gone anywhere—good books stubbornly cling to the shelves for eras—but many of the new guys in middle-school fiction look different now. One need look no further than the wild popularity of books by Erin Hunter (otherwise known as Kate Cary, Cherith Baldry, Gillian Philip, Inbali Iserles, Tui T. Sutherland, Rosie Best, and editor Victoria Holmes . . . whew!) to see that the old assumed guideline that animal protagonists and villains are for little kids has gone out the window. Hunter’s Warrior, Seeker, and Survivor series feature America’s favorite pets in epic dramas with life-or-death stakes. The Last Dogs series by Christopher Holt explores issues no less weighty than post-traumatic vulnerability and creepy culthood while showing pets fending for themselves after their humans have vanished.

I’ve personally seen volumes from these animal-populated series in the hands of readers from nine to thirteen (Amazon lists the age range as eight to twelve). The shift has undoubtedly left many asking, Who would have thought older kids would go for serious animal stories? Well, you could answer that by starting with, “Kate Cary, Cherith Baldry . . .” and running out of breath by the time you get to the last-listed person who calls herself Erin Hunter, but there’s a simpler answer: genre writers who wanted to get creative.

What to Respect About Genre

Whether you’re interested in writing tween dystopias, cozy murder mysteries, period romances, or spaghetti westerns, there are reasons you’re drawn to that category. Same with other readers. The faithfuls of a given bookstore section have come to associate certain storytelling parameters with their genre of choice, and it makes sense that you can only tinker with so much before a story—however good it may be—no longer fits within the bounds of that genre.

Can you include some humor in your horror story? Sure! If it develops such a stand-up routine, though, that nobody could possibly be afraid, you’re not writing horror anymore. And furthermore, if you’ve started out with the tone and conventions of one genre only to drop them and pick up those of another midway through, or mingle them chaotically with the standards of multiple other genres, there’s going to come a point where nobody knows quite what the hell you’re writing.

Don’t get me wrong. Genre-benders can work, when compatible conventions of complementary genres are mixed together well. And for that matter, there are many writers who say, “[Expletive] genre! And all your guidelines!” and go for post-modern stories wherein the main purpose, if any, is holding a mirror up to the reader and the reader’s expectations. I’ve mentioned his name many times in these blogs and here it comes again: Mark Z. “Categorize Me and I’ll Do Something Even Crazier” Danielewski.

But you’re not going for either post-modern or literary mainstream coming-of-age fiction; you’re going genre. And often determining what exactly the nonnegotiable factors are for a new entry in that loose-knit family is as easy as asking what draws you to the genre, what you expect to see and would be disappointed to find ignored. If you like detective stories, you may not mind a little blood and guts at the crime scene, a little romance drama tugging at the lead detective’s attention, but you’d probably also be irritated if those elements overshadowed the staples: the increasingly complex puzzles related to the main mystery, the red herrings, the uptick in tension, the time running out, etc.

If you would be peeved to read a so-called mystery in which there was zero pressure (in terms of timing, the detective’s reputation, or other circumstances) to even solve the crime, the overall concept of “pressure to solve” is not a factor you should dismiss. So what you can you play around with? How does true authorial creativity play into genre?

Wiggle Room in Genre

Have you ever been reading a genre novel you kinda sorta liked and said something that started, “Wouldn’t it be weird/crazy/wild/funny/interesting/awesome if . . .”? Our wouldn’t-it-be ideas tend to propose not completely breaking a genre but switching up how one of its conventions is realized.

What does this look like? It looks like imagining a keen feline as central to unraveling mysteries (The Cat Who Series and, now, many, many others). Imagining the culprits in a crime story as the undead and the main detective as a vampire with a distaste for zombies (Charlie Huston’s Joe Pitt series). Or reimagining tween-friendly apocalyptic and fight-to-the-death fiction with cats and dogs.

When you offer an imaginative twist on a convention of a genre without undermining or neglecting that convention, you give the die-hards a fulfilling and fresh reading experience. And you may even inspire a trend. Which is no problem—when a trend develops, circumstances are ripe for someone to come up with yet another novel take on familiar parameters.

An experienced book editor can help you accurately assess your genre novel. Does it ring true? Will it satisfy the fans? Is it crafty enough to stand out while still honoring the basic frame of the genre?


Hannah is an experienced book editor who can help you figure out your genre.

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