Grace A. Johnson
Ask Ann-Marguerite™: How Do I Know Which Genre to Write?
The café was quiet all month long. Once snow begins to fall and rain to pour, it usually is. It may seem strange to some, what with all the tourists around Noël, but business has always slowed down for Rousseau’s. Part of the reason is because it is a tiny little café sequestered away on the second floor of a vieux apartment building. I live in the room above, across from Madame Abreo and her family and Monsieur Rousseau, whose daughter moved in with him after his wife’s death last month.
The inhabitants of the building, which are little more than the ones mentioned, are nearly the only customers Rousseau’s has. We are enough to keep him afloat, oui, but I suspect that most of his stock went out of date in 1990. He putters around his petit checkered kitchen because it is what fuels him, his raison d’etre. We all are glad to give him purpose.
But once winter comes around, most of us do not have time to sip on coffee and gossip over beignets. Mme Abreo is usually taking her daughter Chloë to her weekly ballet rehearsals leading up to Casse-Noisette performance her studio puts on every year. The young couple on the first floor fly to America in novembre and do not return until janvier. M. Watteau rarely leaves his apartment during the winter months, when his arthritis is at its worst. The neighbors across the street, who stop in from time to time, will be too busy Christmas shopping uptown.
I am the only one left. The atmosphere in Rousseau’s is much more peaceful than my room on the top floor, where the rattling of the heating unit and the rumble of my dishwasher affords me no quiet moments. Not to mention Rousseau’s out-of-date coffee is far better than mine.
Now that Noël is a few days away, not a soul enters the café. Only the muffled noise of M. Rousseau in the back with his grandson and the steady click-clack-ding of my typewriter permeates the heavy silence.
I lean back on two legs in my chair, surveying the stack of papers that amounts to the first draft of my first manuscript. Eleven years of blood, sweat, tears, rejection, neglect, and procrastination has finally brought me to the long-awaited point of completion. I have discarded a myriad of stories, ideas, and half-finished manuscripts, learning something new every time. I have had short stories lose contests and get picked apart by critics. I have had novellas rejected from small, unknown presses. Through all of this, I have felt my way to the one story I hope and pray will be good enough for publication.
Of course, I have many drafts to go yet, but I am one step closer to my goal.
I made good progress, I think. I am quite pleased with myself, pour être honnête.
It seems a long time passes as I take in this accomplishment. All I have left to do this day is gather my papers and haul my typewriter upstairs—there are no unanswered letters for the column, no chores, no meals to plan for Noël, as there is no family to come. I will spend the holiday with Monsieur Watteau, who is as much an unmarried, childless orphan as I am.
He is also very quiet, oui. I enjoy his companionship, and so he does mine. We are a bonne pair.
My cup of café has run dry as well, and my plate of éclairs is now crumbs and a few smudges of icing. I could ask for more, but I would do my best to save my appetite for the holiday meal I will prepare in a few days. I usually gain fifteen pounds during Noël, and if I get started on them now, I will not be able to fit into my pants.
So I sit. And breathe. The heated air within the café is tainted with the frost from outside, and suddenly it seems a gush of this chill engulfs me.
I look up to see the door swinging open, a man bustling quickly inside with a rough shudder against the low temperatures. He looks about the café as though he has yet to realize where he stumbled into. Longingly he gazes at the kitchen, only turning away once M. Rousseau begins to clatter again.
His eyes lock with mine, startling in their intensity as he starts toward me, tugging a pair of leather gloves from his hands. “You...” He squints at me, rubbing his clean-shaven jaw with a finger. “You are Ann-Marguerite, oui?”
I smile gently. I did not realize I am a celebrity. M. Calvin must have overlooked that fact. I motion to the empty chair before me, moving my papers closer to my typewriter and adjusting my cup and saucer. “Bonjour, monsieur. S’il voux plait, sit down.”
He rounds a table to pull out the chair and plops down, still with his stare focused on my face. “Merci. J’ai raison, non?”
“Oui, you are right. Is there something I can help you with?”
“As a matter of fact, I sent in a letter to you this morning. Since I have stumbled upon you here, I may as well ask my question. Do you mind?”
“Not at all.”
He tosses his gloves down on the table, shrugging out of his coat. “Well, I enjoy writing, as you can imagine, but I have yet to find a genre that fits. Pour être honnête, I would like to write them all, but all writers have their...niche, tu sais? I simply cannot find mine.”
I mull over this question, lifting my coffee cup to my lips only to remember—ah! It is empty! I set it down carefully, my gaze flickering to my manuscript. It was a simple task to find my preferred genre—not a task at all, vraiment. It called to me at a very young age, through the books I would gravitate to, the settings I so adored, the stories my imagination conjured up.
Some are more broad than I, of course, and therefore they have a choice to make. Should they write historical fiction, contemporary, fantasy, or science fiction? Should their stories be adventurous, mysterious, or romantic? Should they follow the rules and stick to convention, modeling their writing after those in their genre before them?
The answer to the latter is by far the simplest.
And therein lies the answers to the former questions.
One must not feel pressured to choose one genre and one genre only. Now, I understand this man’s dilemma; he wants a niche, a hollow dug out solely for him, his realm of comfort, and most of the time that niche is small, contained, reserved for only one or two certain genres. A great deal of people will write fantasy and science fiction or historical and contemporary, keeping their worlds and stories separate but retaining their individual style, their voice, no matter which of the two genres they are writing.
This is nothing to them, selecting which genres to write within. They have long explored them—be it through classical writers like C. S. Lewis, J. R. R. Tolkien, Shakespeare, Dante Alighieri, Alexandre Dumas, Victor Hugo, Agatha Christie, Jane Austen, and more; or through their contemporaries, such as J. K. Rowling, George R. R. Martin, James Patterson, Nora Roberts, Nicolas Sparks, Édouard Louis, Katherine Pancol, and Marc Levy. These authors and many besides have already swayed them to their niches, already dug their hollows for them.
But for an aspiring writer who has not confined himself to a few authors or genres, who has read the great poets like Bryon and Baudelaire, the novelists like Hugo and Tolstoy, the fantasy and science fiction authors like Jules Verne and Pierre Benoit, the mystery writers like Gaston Leroux and Émile Gaboriau, the romantics like the Brontë sisters and Anne and Serge Golon, and the up-and-coming like Rainbow Rowell and Guillaume Musso, picking just one is too difficult.
Especially when one begins the novel.
Short stories and novellas are already ambiguous enough. If one does not assign to it a specific genre but leaves it open to interpretation, it is easier all around. But a novel cannot be such a mystery. It must have a focus and a clear, concise thesis, much like an essay. Is it persuasive or retrospective? informative or fantastical? innovative or classical? romantic or comedic? tragic or a fairytale? suspenseful or dynamic? adventurous or intellectual?
I retrieve the top page of my manuscript, the page upon which is written in bold typeface the title of my novel (which took nearly as long to figure out as it did to write the first draft itself, and I am almost certain I shall end up changing it...again). My book could be defined by all the above adjectives, at least so early on in the writing. It is both hopeful and heartrending, light and dark, amusing and haunting. The possibilities are endless, I suppose, and if I were to confine it to one solid genre and strip it of anything not pertaining to the chosen one, I would be left with a lifeless piece of scrap. Because of my characters and their story, I have a novel so fathomless and broad. It has a niche, oui, but it transcends it as well.
I should hope to write more like it, with the same characteristics and in the same style. It would provide me with a niche all my own if I did so, inventing, perhaps, a genre of its own within a predetermined genre. It would not be the first time something of the sort has happened. Within the fantasy genre alone there are dozens of subgenres. High fantasy, dark fantasy, paranormal, steampunk, gaslight, historical fantasy, urban fantasy, the list goes on. And one must not stop there. Fantasy determines the setting, but not the story. Is it lighthearted and romantic or mysterious and frightening? It could be either of the two and still be fantasy.
One could be left with a romantic fantasy, and then go on to write a fantasy mystery and then an allegorical fantasy and a fantasy epic and a collection of slightly ambiguous (but still fantasy) short stories. After that, they could call themselves a fantasy, romance, mystery, Christian short story novelist poet.
Or a fantasy writer for short.
All of this is determined by one thing. My own story is proof of that.
You may have a mermaid for your main character, and it is up to her whether or not she is going to fall in love with the prince or solve the mystery surrounding his birth or become a spy in his courts or do nothing but sing love songs and fantasize about him in the form of a sonnet or lai.
Perhaps the main character is a pirate. Why, he could be on a mission to capture a politician’s daughter and fall in love with her! Or, in a tragic turn of events, he could murder her and be sentenced to hang, finding mercy only as he meets the noose. In another reality, the pirate and his captive are caught up in a satirical game of political intrigue. In yet another, they set off to discover the Fountain of Youth and become eternally young, roving the seas together forevermore.
Do not set yourself on a genre. Set your sights on a character.
Do you want a character who changes the world by designing a super-suit? I suggest science fiction, and I am sure your character will have many challenges along the way, opening up different subplots and subgenres.
Do you want a character who moves to a new town to attend a snooty prep school? YA (a genre, not an age group, mind you) is best for this, and no doubt some romance will come along.
Do you want a character who finds God in the midst of insurmountable odds? Contemporary would present more situations for your character and a greater way for readers to understand and empathize, although historical fiction has its perks. And you never know what else your character will discover on the path to transformation!
I have my answer, and looking up at my inquisitor, I find him watching me intently, eyes darting from my face to my fiddling fingers. “Monsieur, I believe I understand your problem completely. It is not a genre you need; it is a character.”