Genre Blending

on October 16, 2008

A couple years ago, NYT bestseller James Rollins spoke to my local RWA chapter on blending genres. His presentation was fantastic–not only is Jim a great writer, but he’s also a fun and informed speaker.

He suggested that one way to break out, or to write that something “fresh and different” that editors say they want is to take an element from another genre and blend it with the “rules” of an established genre. JD Robb’s books are a perfect example of a blended genre–romantic suspense novels set in the future. They’re truly three genres–mysteries, romance, and light science fiction.

Romantic suspense has become it’s own distinct genre. There are those of us who write romantic suspense that’s heavy on the romance, such as the incomparable Roxanne St. Claire. There are those of us who write romantic suspense that’s heavy on the suspense, such as me. And our own Heather Graham has successfully incorporated paranormal elements such as ghosts into her romantic suspense novels–she helped forge the trail, as Heather has blended paranormal elements into her stories before that genre was so hot.

In fact, genre blending is nothing new–established authors have been doing it for years. In the 60s and 70s, gothic romances led the way to the modern romantic suspense novels. Romance writers who tended to write sexier than their peers became the new erotic romance writers–and there are sexy paranormals, suspense, and historicals, another branch off the tree. With the explosion of urban fantasy–which may or may not have strong paranormal and/or suspense elements; the successful science fiction romances of Linnea Sinclair; the increase in romantic mystery series (or, rather, mysteries with a nice dose of romance), our imagination is truly the limit in what we can create and blend together to make something new, different, and exciting.

When you look at some of the biggest authors of our time, they are not considered “genre” at all, even if they are shelved in an established genre. For example, Stephen King and Dean Koontz may be identified as “horror” or “suspense” but both have gone beyond genre to write stories that appeal to a large cross section of the public, largely because they incorporate ALL genre elements successfully. Stephen King’s books often deal with the supernatural or paranormal, while almost always having a relationship story (that may or may not be a romance.)

I think this is all good–it gives our imaginations more room to roam. But there’s a pitfall for up-and-coming authors, including myself: how do we market our books? Specifically, how do we create covers that appeal to cross-genre readers?

You can put Nora Roberts or Stephen King in white letters on a black cover and sell books. Their name is their genre, in a sense–they are a brand in and of themselves. They tend to have more “generic” covers without a lot of gimmicks. HIGH NOON, for example, is a simple cover that evokes a mood, but it’s Nora Roberts’ name that has you buying the book. While I’m sure bad covers for even the most popular authors can affect sales, bad covers–or the wrong covers–can negatively impact a growing author’s career.

When you write romance, you have parameters for your covers. Harlequin covers have certain guidelines and are designed to meet their reader expectations. Avon Historical Romances have certain guidelines to meet their reader expectations. When you write thrillers, there’s certain elements that tend to recur, but many of the covers either have a strong setting or image that directly relates to the story (such as James Rollins and Steve Berry) while others have a more generic or art look like Lee Child. Then there’s the running man, or other elements of speed and chase incorporated into the cover that gives the reader a sense for the type of story they are getting.

But when you write romantic thrillers, what do you focus on? The romance? The thrill? Both? To what degree?

I’m one who believes that the cover should reflect the tone of the story. More romance in the story, a more “romance focused” cover; more suspense in the story, a more “suspense focused” cover. But finding that balance that’s going to appeal to the readers who would enjoy that type of story is not easy, yet it’s probably one of the most important things for a book’s success–or failure–after the writing itself.

I recently bought a book solely for the cover. David Hewson’s THE GARDEN OF EVIL. (Great title, too!) But I was looking at covers that evoked a mood, specifically for my upcoming supernatural thriller series, and this one jumped out at me. It’s not that this cover would fit my story, but it gave me the right feeling.

Genre blending is no longer new and different, but because of the endless permutations of the genres, it will continue to grow and thrive. Yet for those of us who are trying to establish our careers, who mix it up with the genres primarily because that’s where our voice and interest takes us, finding the right covers is not always easy. And until we get to the point where our name alone puts us at #1 on the NYT list, covers will always be important.

What do you think of genre blending? Do you prefer your mysteries to be mysteries and your romances to be romances and your science fiction to be science fiction . . . or do you like mixing and matching?