Guest post: Robert E. Dunn talks genre writing


Robert E. Dunn stops by today with a post called What’s My Genre? I’m always open to guest posts, especially from Robert as he continues to be a huge supporter of my blog and other blogs throughout the book world. His latest release, Dead Man’s Badge has been praised by the legendary Joe Lansdale, calling it “lean and smart and very good”. I’ll drop a link to the book at the bottom of this excellent post. Thanks for stopping by and thanks to Robert for his continued support.




Writer friends, it’s time to play, What’s My Genre?

It seems like an easy question and a silly game but it has serious stakes. Something you hear a lot in writer circles is the idea that genre shouldn’t matter. I’ve read interviews with writers who say they hate being slotted into a definition. They don’t think of their work as anything but, hopefully, a good book and books should be equal, free to find their widest audience without labels. Most of the writers that say that are the very successful—household name—making big movie deals—bestseller list writers. And to a degree they are right. That degree is books should be equal, like the American ideal, all capable of growing up to be president. We all know how that works.

Authors selling into broad markets see genre as a limiting factor.

The whole idea of genre is to categorize and help readers find your book by grouping it with other books they already know and like. That is also the limit that so many writers object to. Many readers don’t look beyond their comfort label. Is your paranormal romance shelved with horror titles or romance? It makes a big difference. If the book is more paranormal than romance it won’t satisfy the strictly romance fans. If it’s more romance, the paranormal fans, read that horror fans, because that is where it will be shelved, won’t be happy at all. It’s oftentimes up to someone who has not read the book to decide where to put it in the bookstore. All of that is easier if sometimes more confusing with online retailers listing a book in every, even vaguely, meaningful category.

The thing is, there is something else beyond genre that goes to work in the book stores and big selling sites—name recognition. The big names and big titles have a gravity to them. They have mass and awareness that draw readers to them both despite and because of genre. It doesn’t matter where King, Patterson, Child, Evanovich, Rowling, Martin, Scalzi, or any of a hundred or so names are shelved. Even if you don’t know them, there are cadres of fans who do. Think of the corollary of film directors. Remember years ago when Steven Spielberg directed The Color Purple? How many viewers did he bring to that beautiful story who never would have given it a chance without his name? Remember Amistad? Who said, I don’t like historical drama? Fans said I love Spielberg movies. Big names, big books get noticed. Heck, they don’t even have to consider shelf placement for the first few months because they are stacked at the front of house.

But I’m not one of those big names. All the rest of us, the small press authors, the first timers with a larger publisher need to be found. We want our horror book on a horror shelf not a general fiction section that stretches for a mile. We may want our paranormal romance closer to Nora Roberts than Laurell K. Hamilton or the other way around. What if you’ve written an exciting and fast-paced, police procedural? What book shop has that specific shelf? Your book will be either tucked away in mystery or thriller.

I’ve written horror books but none that are only horror. My first zombie book had a lot of humor. My second book was alien horror. Some readers, and book sellers, by default think of all alien stories as science fiction. Add to that my other books, literary/horror, sci-fi/horror fantasy/horror, mystery/thrillers, and romantic/suspense. If you were to put them on one shelf by author’s name it would make different readers angry at me for fooling them. On the other hand, because of those little overlaps, the / in each of my books, none of them are one simple thing.

For the small press and even the new big house writer, it matters very much where the book is placed in category shelving. These books need online retailing.

There is no easy answer and no winning the genre game. I can understand the complaints of authors who don’t want to be limited and see the needs of the smaller authors who live by genre. Over it all are the concerns of publishers and book sellers in an increasingly dynamic and fractured marketing world.

But I’m learning something else as I go along. The hard rules of genre really are for the shelves at the local B&N. The books themselves are best served by a furious and liberal cross-pollination. While it’s true a romance with a horror ending is going to be a tough sell, bringing a new layer of tension, a jolt of fear into the story can serve it well. Taking character expectations and types from one to another is also liberating. It’s easy to see with the growing influence of paranormal in romance and, I believe, a simmering resurgence of gothic in horror. Have you noticed a creeping rise in weird western titles? I have.

Jonathan Maberry is one of those authors forging the new hybrid genre, horror/thriller. His Joe Ledger series about a team of special operations agents that confront everything from genetically modified monsters to zombies, robots and Lovecraftian elder things is the product of a lot of gear shifting. And it’s shaking things up. Not an earthquake shake up but something I notice when I browse at a book store. I’ve seen his wonderful Joe Ledger and Dez Fox books shelved as horror, as science fiction, and simply in the general literature heading. A couple of years back I picked up one of his latest, Kill Switch, at the library. It had a Suspense sticker on the spine identical to what was attached to the latest historical mystery from David Morrell.

Another author that’s doing the genre mix and making it work so well is Richard Kadrey. In the Sandman Slim series of books, Kadrey has succeeded in fusing horror fantasy with a hard-boiled noir feel. It is a potent mix both with readers and the people who choose shelving position.

Maybe I’m just rationalizing my own lack of focus and short attention span. Or maybe I’m part of a larger trend of writers shifting our genre gears more often. I hope so. Not just to make myself feel better but because of the books. Writers and their work benefit from a broadness of experience. It works the other way as well. Writers who read widely, bring different energies and viewpoints to their work. In all cases, it is books, and publishing, and book selling that benefit. That’s good for everyone.

I wish I could make it look easy like Jonathan Maberry does. I don’t know him. We follow each other on social media. I read his books. (I can’t imagine him reading one of mine.) What I do imagine is him shifting easily, down into the curve and up on the long straight away taking the different bits and pieces of genre and melding them into his own smooth road. I’m getting better at it but the thing is, as I said and I slowly figured out, it’s not about the writer. It is about the books, the finished bits that stand for us in neat rows on the shelf or online display.

So even though it makes my head spin, and I don’t make any of it look easy, I’m going to keep shifting and jumping tracks to make my own road. It will feel so much better sharing it that way.


Pick up a copy of Dead Man’s Badge from here.

Check out Robert’s books at Amazon here.

2 Comments Add yours

  1. Lilyn G says:

    Oh, I absolutely love Jonathan Maberry’s Joe Ledger series. You are right, he is definitely making some waves with it, and I love it.

    I’ve only read one of the Sandman Slim books (the first one) but I agree. That one is in a class of it’s own too, and could be shelved almost anywhere.

    Liked by 2 people

  2. David Spell says:

    Couldn’t agree more! Robert is great and is always welcome at my site too.

    Liked by 1 person

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