Genre means type, class or category, that’s all, so genres of fiction means the classification of your story. For example, is it romance, or thriller, or detective? Is it horror, or spy or science fiction?
Within those categories, is it romantic comedy or quite serious? Is the detective in your story a police detective, or a private detective, or an ordinary person caught up in the situation? (These would be known as the sub-genres.)
Is the story set in contemporary times, or is it historical fiction, science fiction (set in the future) or fantasy (not set in any real time, e.g. Lord of the Rings) Or even fantasy that is set in real time, i.e. Harry Potter is fantasy, but it’s set in 1950’s England for part of the story.
Is it adult fiction, or children’s, or YA (young adult)?
So, you might have historical romance or contemporary thriller - the different descriptions can be combined.
Now, you’ll immediately see the flaw in my argument - there’s a lot of overlap in the genre categories, and the edges of them are a little fuzzy.
It’s hard to get an exact definition of what constitutes each genre, but the publisher/agent will know it when they see it - and you should too.
In your query letter to agents and/or publishers you should be able to tell them exactly which genre your story belongs in.
Within each genre there are distinct conventions which should be adhered to (except when they shouldn’t! See below for more on that). Readers expect certain things when they pick up a novel, e.g. in romances there should be a happy ending, in thrillers the hero should defuse the bomb in time.
Now, that isn't as easy as it sounds. The conventions are subtle. You get to know them by reading widely in your genre and absorbing the conventions almost by osmosis. But to help you (which is what this website is all about, after all!) I am gathering together articles by authors in different genres with advice specific to that genre.
The thing is, though, that even as you’re following the conventions, you should be original. That’s not easy to do, to think up original stuff within a rigid framework. But sure if it was easy, everybody’d be doing it!
A good example of being original within the framework is the first Shrek film. If Shrek and Fiona kiss before midnight she’ll be free of the enchantment and return to her non-ogre form. But she decides she’d rather stay an ogre to be with him. So the conventions were satisfied in that true love triumphed, but it was original in that the princess didn’t choose beauty.
So, can you ever break the conventions? Well, all rules are made to be broken, and if you can do it with enough style and panache and it works, then go for it. Because, if it works, it works big. But it is risky.
I remember an editor telling me of one of Ireland’s biggest female writers. She had a story in which the dramatic question was which of two lovers the heroine would choose. In the end she chose neither, and celebrated being single.
This editor told me that so, so many readers had complained to her about that. They didn’t like it. They felt cheated. This writer was established enough and popular enough to get away with it in terms of her career. But if it was your first novel, it would definitely be a risky path to take.
But as I said, if it works to break the rules, it can work well. Terry Pratchett is a perfect example. His books didn’t fit into any genre when he wrote them - in effect he created a whole new genre himself, and now other writers write in his genre. That’s a terrific achievement, and if you can do it - go for it!
Just be aware that it’s not what publishers and agents are looking for.
Publishers (and hence agents) are in a difficult position. Publishing’s a business; it exists to make money. So they’re attracted to the tried-and-tested, with enough variation to be original. The outright different is scary for them, understandably. They all have bosses and shareholders and bank managers to answer to.
If you want to make it easy on yourself, write in an identifiable genre, and be as original as you can be within that genre. State clearly in your cover letter what genre you’re writing in.
Read extensively in that genre (which should be no hardship; if you’re drawn to write it, you should have an interest in it anyway), and soak up its conventions so you can stay within them (or break them deliberately, if that’s what you choose).