This week, there was an excellent article in the New York Times with a brilliant explanation of religion. A similar piece aired on CBS Sunday Morning. Both pieces stated that religion is more about identity than a set of precepts everyone who ascribes to the religion adheres too. Muslims and Christians are Muslims and Christians because they identify themselves as such. We have no right to single out one radical group or another to tell them they are not “real.” Nor does one group have the right to vilify another, saying they are not true believers. Interpretation of scripture in a number of textual, social, and cultural contexts can lead to any number of beliefs, equally justified, within any faith.
This is the way genres work as well. Here’s the scenario: “What do you do?”
“I’m an author.”
“What kind of books do you write?”
“Suspense/Thriller. Some horror.”
“Oh. I read mostly _______.”
Whatever the blank is filled with is likely not your genre. It’s also pretty likely that the potential reader standing in front of you actually does read something like your books, but has no idea what “genre” the books they read actually fall into. Genres are only real because an author declares they write in a certain one, and a reader states that is what they prefer to read. So bookstores and Amazon apply sweeping categories to fiction, and readers hope the author, the bookstore, and their tastes all align.
This results in disappointed readers, sometimes poor reviews, and confused book store clerks. Amazon provides more specific categories than most, but even those cover a wide variety of books. So how do we, as authors, stand out from the crowd?
Have a good log line. A movie term, all this means is a one sentence summary that piques the readers’ interest. Regardless of your genre, a good log line tells the reader at least a little bit about the book, the plot, and whether it is a good fit for them.
Have a solid, brief summary of your story. This is often the back cover blurb. But you should have this, or something similar memorized. Or you should be passionate enough about your story to share something quick and powerful with any potential reader. Don’t provide details. This allows room for the reader to interpret your story according to their worldview, not yours. Therefore, they create their own context, and your story is able to touch more readers.
Make sure your cover relates to your content. This reflects back to context and perception, the core of interpretation. The cover, along with your log line and your summary, should begin to tell the reader something about the story. If it doesn’t, you need a different one.
Your story will not relate to everyone, but it will relate to enough readers. Breaking news: not everyone shares your view of the world. Actually, that is a great thing, because it’s what makes life interesting. So be honest about your work. At the same time, be open to a reader’s perception, and listen to what they have to say.
Will any of this guarantee you stellar book sales? No. But it’s a start. Your message must be clear, and communicating it is part of your job as an author. Just remember, communication is a two way street. Leave room for the reader to add their own input and imagination. After all, crossing genres is largely determined by context and interpretation.