Evaluating genre anchors many of the best developmental editing approaches. Knowing whether a story works begins with knowing whether it achieves what it sets out to do. The reaction of its intended audience—not necessarily the editor—matters most. An editor also needs to know how a book will be received by the gatekeepers involved in the author’s chosen publishing paradigm. That can be Amazon algorithms and reader-reviewers in indie publishing, or agents, editors, and professional review outlets in traditional publishing. Evaluating genre helps an editor do that job.
What is Genre?
Before an editor can evaluate genre, they need to develop a working understanding of what genre is. For this, I highly recommend Shawn Coyne’s book The Story Grid, which lays out an innovative “Five-Leaf Clover” approach that breaks each story up into several genres based on length, prose style, plot type, distance between the setting and reality, and structure. I cannot recommend this book enough. If you don’t have time to do that reading, here’s my quick-and-dirty definition: genre is a set of expectations readers carry into a book based on how it’s marketed to them. When we say a book is fantasy, readers expect magic. When we say it’s a thriller, they expect lives to be on the line and the pacing to be fast. When we say it’s a romance, they expect a love story. And once we set those expectations, we need to deliver on them.
How to Evaluate Genre
To evaluate genre, I focus on three parts of the five-leaf clover: plot type, structure, and distance from reality. Plot type tells you what readers will expect in terms of the obstacles the protagonist faces. Is this an adventure story? Is it a romance? Is it a coming-of-age novel? Structure tells you what kinds of narrative expectations the audience will carry. Is this a traditionally structured three-act novel that maps to the hero’s journey? Is it a circular, character-focused novel that explores cycles of action and how they affect lives? Is it a postmodern takedown of the very idea of structure? Distance from reality tells you how far the reader wants to suspend their disbelief and what kind of spectacle they’re looking for. Is this a fantasy built around a fascinating magical what-if? Science fiction that stems from a startling technological innovation? A historical novel that begins with an evocative description of a famous time and place? A contemporary novel built around cues the reader will understand from their day-to-day life?
Identifying each of these genres helps you narrow down the audience’s expectations. And once you’ve done that, you can begin accurately evaluating how well the novel does its job.
How Do I Learn Genre?
To evaluate genre, an editor develops a fluent understanding of setting types, plot types, and structures. They also learn how those things funnel into and interact with the broad marketing genres (Fantasy, Science Fiction, Thriller, Mystery, Romance, Young Adult, Middle Grade, etc.) used in bookstores. Typically, editors do this by reading a lot, and by training themselves to evaluate genre in every book they read. If you’re thinking about working with an editor, it often pays to ask them about their experience in your genre, as well as their approach to evaluating genre overall. Not all editors pay as much attention to evaluating genre as they could, and their editing sometimes suffers as a result.
Next we’ll talk about evaluating structure. Or you can return to our developmental editing resources.