Categorizing Your Writing

Last Saturday I had a writer friend say she wasn’t sure what to call her story in a query letter. She was debating between science fiction or futuristic, but mostly she wanted something that would give an agent a good idea of what the story was about.

Hers was a good question. Whether you’re writing a query letter to an agent or editor or self-publishing, it is important to know how to categorize your work; something beyond the basic categories of fiction or non-fiction. Of course, the first description would be if it was a novel or novella, short story, article, play, screenplay, poem, or whatever. Once that’s clear, how you describe your work—categorize it—becomes very important.

For a work of fiction, it could be classified as literary or genre (sometimes referred to as commercial fiction). Genre, however, is still too broad a category, so a more specific term is preferred: romance, mystery or crime, thriller or suspense, science fiction or fantasy, horror, action or adventure, historical, gothic, futuristic, dystopian… The list could go on.

What every writer wants is for the book to be easily found by people who buy books. If you simply say you’ve written a romance or a suspense, the book buyer (or agent or editor) doesn’t really know if this is what she or he is looking for. The more specific (to a point) you can be in your description of the book’s genre, the better your chances the book will stand out.

For example: simply listing a book as a romance on Amazon means the book will be one of more than a million titles. Call it a romantic suspense and it’s now one of seventy-five thousand books. Call it a romantic suspense ghost story and the list is down to fifteen hundred. So let’s call it a nineteenth century romantic suspense ghost story. Now, it’s one of fifteen.

The book will still come up under romance, and in the list of romantic suspense titles, and in the list of romantic suspense ghost story titles, so you haven’t lost the possibility of the book being found there, but if someone is looking for a specific century romantic ghost story, you’ve got a darn good chance that book will be found.

With my writer friend, I think she has written a science fiction story, but she’s going to have to look at the list of possibilities under that category to find ones that best define her story. (She should check as well as Once she sees what kind of competition she might have with various labels, she should be able to pick the ones to use in a query letter.

Here are two web sites that list categories and descriptions. Check them out.


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13 Responses to Categorizing Your Writing

  1. Pat Brown says:

    I usually know exactly what the label for my book should be, but I’m working on one now that has me wondering. It’s definitely romantic suspense, but it also has a lot of tragedy in it so it’s very dark. Would it be safe to label it Dark Romantic Suspense?

    • Maris Soule says:

      Pat, have you looked at the books listed under Dark Romantic Suspense? Read the blurbs about them? If they sound similar to what you’ve written, then yes. The category is definitely smaller than for romantic suspense alone. If the blurbs don’t sound like what you’ve written, are there any published books you can think of that would be similar? How are they listed?

  2. I called St. Joan’s Architect a contemporary paranormal romance. The publisher calls it a fantasy. Will that help?

    • Maris Soule says:

      I don’t know, Rohn. Have you looked at what your competition is for the two categories? Can you expand on that categorization? Fantasy + what other descriptive words.

  3. Playing Post Office
    The shine of his mail truck first caught her eye. She watched from her bedroom window, drew back when he looked up. He carried a clip board which meant she’d need to sign for the packages he carried.
    Scanning her full length mirror, she judged she’d seen worse. She tucked a stray curl behind her ear and proceeded down the stairs.
    “I apologize,” he said, as his blue eyes riveted her to the threshold. “My girlfriend lived her—before her folks moved away.”
    Casey signed for the boxes, but held onto the clipboard. “Do you want a replacement?”
    He gulped and stepped forward.

    Is this flash fiction?

  4. Paula says:

    Good to know, Maris. I realize you and most of your readers write fiction, but will using the sites you listed help me find a category for a non-fiction book as well?

    • Maris Soule says:

      Paula, yes. I just ran a test. First I clicked for nonfiction books. As you would expect, Amazon lists a lot. Then I looked for nonfiction Christian books. Fewer books listed. And finally I asked for nonfiction Christian books+bible verses. Down to just a few hundred listed. The more you can zero in on what your books is about or what you’re looking for, the few books you have to weed through.

  5. Melissa Keir says:

    This can be so challenging since some books cross categories. Great post!

    • Maris Soule says:

      You’re right, Melissa. My mysteries definitely cross categories. One was called (by the publisher) a psychological suspense. And, I guess it was, but that’s certainly not a general category for suspense.

  6. Diane Burton says:

    If we (writers) don’t know our book’s category, how will the editor/agent? We can’t say “read the book and you’ll know” because editors/agents are too busy. They’ll pass. Great info, Maria, on how to find out.

    • Maris Soule says:

      Perfect response, Diane. I’ve found knowing the category a story fits in also helps me when talking to others. It allows me to be specific, rather than, “Well, it’s sort of about…”