Like most things in life, genres can be good or limiting concepts depending on how you look at them. From a consumer’s perspective, genres are helpful: they give the purchaser a snapshot of what a book/movie/play offers in terms of content, which helps them make a decision on what to buy.
From a writer’s point of view, genres can also be a good thing, depending on what type of writer you are and the goals you set for yourself. If you want to set out to tell a story that fits snugly within a certain set of parameters, if you want to emulate a certain author’s style and expand on their universe (and, of course, if you want to try and hit it big and make lots of money), then genres can provide you with the markers necessary to stay in bounds.
But if you’re anything like me, the concept of genres is an incredibly annoying thing. I’ve tried to write within genres before, but I always end up throwing fantastical or thriller or true crime elements in at the weirdest places, shaking things up (probably out of the boredom that comes from hewing too close to a formula) and thereby destroying the neat picket fence I’d constructed around my story.
Even now, I’m in the middle of writing what most people would probably call a young adult fiction book, but its got highly-whimsical aspects to it, as well as philosophical overtones, that I don’t think make for a snug fit in the YA genre. But you know what? I’m not sweating it.
Because rules were made to be broken. I once had a writing teacher who told me, “Don’t try to write within a genre. Once you’ve finished writing your book, let other people decide where it fits.” Like many other bits of wisdom from this teacher, his words have proven to be incredibly helpful over time. From a marketing perspective, writing exactly how I want to write without regard for genre may cause me headaches, but to me, what good is writing if you can’t do it exactly how you want to do it?
Look, we’re told how to live our lives 24 hours a day by people who claim to know better. We have to dress up nice and play within in the rules of a game in which we have absolutely no say throughout the better part of our lives. Why would I want to worry about playing by the rules when it comes to writing? “Because you won’t sell any books, that’s why!” you might say. “Readers won’t know what to make of your book unless it’s spelled out for them!”
Bah. I believe that readers are sophisticated enough to get what I’m saying, even if I don’t wave a huge red flag in front of their eyes with the words “YA Lit” screen printed on it. And as for making money? Well, that’s a value judgment, an extremely subjective point. Would be great if I could get an agent and a publisher to publish my writing? Sure. But in the age of self-publishing, I have options.
For my part, I don’t care about not becoming hugely wealthy from my writing. Becoming a millionaire is not why I write. I write because I want to express who I really am, what I really believe. If I can make some money while doing that, then bonus points for me. But it’s not what drives me.
Let me hasten to add that I don’t think my writing is groundbreaking or mind-bending; perhaps you’d look at it and say, “I don’t get what all the hoopla’s about; this is YA, hands down.” My point is that I would never go into writing a project thinking about how I’m ultimately going to market it. For me, that destroys the creative process. Marketing is important, don't get me wrong, but in my opinion, you should wait until you’re closer to finishing your novel before you start thinking about to whom you're going to market it.
At least, that's the approach I'm taking. And I'm very happy with that approach. For now, my advice is to just write. And don’t edit yourself too much as you write your first draft. Just live in the writing moment and worry about the business side of things later. Good luck!