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Exploring the Different Types of Fiction

Fiction is a general term used to describe an imaginative work of prose, either a novel, short story, or novella. Recently, this definition has been modified to include both nonfiction works that contain imaginative elements, like Midnight in the Garden Of Good and Evil by John Berendt (Random House, 1994) and Dutch by Edmund Morris (Random House, 1999), and novels consisting largely of factual reporting with a patina of fictionalization, such as Memoirs of a Geisha by Arthur Golden (Knopf, 1997). However, in the truest sense, a work of fiction is a creation of the writer's imagination.

The two main types of fiction are literary and commercial.

  • Commercial fiction attracts a broad audience and may also fall into any subgenre, like mystery, romance, legal thriller, western, science fiction, and so on. For example, The Bridges of Madison County by Robert James Waller (Warner, 1992) was a hugely successful commercial novel because the book described the fulfillment of a romantic fantasy that is dear to the heart of millions of readers. Written in a short, easy-to-read style, the book was as mesmerizing to 15-year-olds as it was to 100-year-olds. Other blockbuster commercial fiction authors include John Grisham, Sidney Sheldon, Danielle Steele, and Jackie Collins.
  • Literary fiction tends to appeal to a smaller, more intellectually adventurous audience. A work of literary fiction can fall into any of the subgenres described in the following sections. What sets literary fiction apart, however, is the notable qualities it contains — excellent writing, originality of thought, and style — that raise it above the level of ordinary written works. A recent work of literary fiction that enjoyed wide popularity was Cold Mountain by Charles Frazier (Atlantic Monthly Press, 1997). Other popular authors of literary fiction include Toni Morrision, Barbara Kingsolver, John LeCarre, and Saul Bellow.

Mainstream fiction is a general term publishers and booksellers use to describe both commercial and literary works that depict a daily reality familiar to most people. These books, usually set in the 20th or present-day 21st century, have at their core a universal theme that attracts a broad audience. Mainstream books deal with such myriad topics as family issues, coming of age initiations, courtroom dramas, career matters, physical and mental disabilities, social pressures, political intrigue, and more. Regardless of original genre or category, most of the novels that appear on the bestseller list are considered mainstream, whether the author is Sue Grafton, Arundhati Roy, Michael Crichton, or David Guterson.

In addition to mainstream fiction, more narrowly defined categories of popular fiction appeal to specific audiences. These different fiction categories, which are described briefly in the sections that follow, are classed as a group as genre fiction. Each type of genre fiction has its own set of rules and conventions. So, if you want to try your hand at writing fiction, start with what you like to read. A solid grounding in the conventions of your chosen genre helps a great deal, so the more familiar you are with the books in it, the better.

If, for example, you're a voracious reader of mysteries, look closely at the conventions in the work of Agatha Christie, P.D. James, or whoever your favorite mystery writer is. If you can't get enough of Jennifer Wilde's historical romances, that may be where you start. Likewise, if the thrillers of Le Carre or the westerns of Louis Lamour are on your bedside table, make those your model as you embark on writing your novel.

Mystery

Mystery is a popular genre, boasting a huge established audience. All mysteries focus on a crime, usually murder. The action tends to center on the attempts of a wily detective-type to solve the crime. And the climax usually occurs near the end, in a leisurely setting where all the elements of the mystery are neatly assembled for the reader's convenience. The solution, complete with surprises, is then delivered to the characters and the reader alike.

Mystery subgenres include spy, detective, and crime stories. You can find a vast network of mystery writers associations, conventions, and conferences, as well as publications to help mystery writers pursue their craft. For information, contact Mystery Writers of America.

Great practitioners in this genre include Arthur Conan Doyle, Raymond Chandler, Dashiell Hammett, and Earle Stanley Gardner, creator of Perry Mason. Present day giants include Carl Hiaason, James Ellroy, Robert Parker, James Lee Burke, and Elmore Leonard.

Romance

Romance is a huge category aimed at diverting and entertaining women. In romance novels, you have elements of fantasy, love, naïveté, extravagance, adventure, and always the heroic lover overcoming impossible odds to be with his true love. Many romances, especially the gothic romance, have an easy-to-follow formula — a young, inexperienced girl living a somewhat remote existence is courted or threatened by an evil man and then rescued by a valiant one.

Other subgenres include historical, contemporary, fantasy romance, and romantic suspense. If historical detail and settings interest you, try writing a regency or historical romance. If you enjoy a dash of mystery or intrigue, then romantic suspense novels are for you. However, if you're interested in more modern stories with sexual candor, then consider writing a contemporary romance.

Certainly, you have lots of opportunity in the field of romance writing, which is the largest, most diverse, and most popular of the commercial genres. And romance writers' organizations can provide exact writing guidelines. To receive a set of guidelines, contact Romance Writers of America.

First-class romance writers include Jude Deveraux, Victoria Holt, Judith McNaught, Daphne Du Maurier, Jennifer Greene, and Nora Roberts.

Women's fiction

It's common knowledge in the publishing industry that women constitute the biggest book-buying segment. So, it's certainly no accident that most mainstream as well as genre fiction is popular among women. For that reason, publishers and booksellers have identified a category within the mainstream that they classify as Women's Fiction. And its no surprise that virtually all the selections of Oprah's Book Club are in this genre.

From a writer's perspective, some key characteristics of these books include a focus on relationships, one or more strong female protagonists, women triumphing over unbearable circumstances, and the experiences of women unified in some way. The field includes such diverse writers as Barbara Taylor Bradford, Anne Rivers Siddons, Alice McDermott, Judith Krantz, Anne Tyler, Rebecca Wells, and Alice Hoffman.

Science fiction/fantasy

Science fiction/fantasy novels depict distant worlds and futuristic technologies that whirl readers far away from the here and now and yet provoke contemplation of contemporary issues. Imaginative, thoughtful, and other-worldly, this robust category is made even more popular by the Star Wars and Star Trek series. Leading science fiction and fantasy writers include Ray Bradbury, Arthur Clarke, Isaac Asimov, C.S. Lewis, and J.R.R. Tolkien, as well as the current, multi-best-selling, young adult author J.K. Rowling.

To obtain professional assistance in this genre, contact the Science Fiction and Fantasy Writers of America.

Suspense/thriller

Suspense novels and thrillers are tense, exciting, often sensational works with ingenious plotting, swift action, and continuous suspense. In this genre, a writer's objective is to deliver a story with sustained tension, surprise, and a constant sense of impending doom that propels the reader forward. Unlike mysteries, thrillers are dominated by action in which physical threat is a constant companion, and a hero (James Bond, for example) is pitted against a nefarious villain.

This genre includes the great espionage writers, including John Le Carre, Len Deighton, Ian Fleming, Clive Cussler, and Frederick Forsythe. It also includes the police procedurals of Patricia Cornwell, Tony Hillerman, and Lawrence Sanders, as well as the courtroom bestsellers of Scott Turow, Richard North Patterson, Steve Martini, and John Grisham, and the military thrillers of Tom Clancy and Stephen Koontz.

Western

Known simply as westerns, these novels about life on America's post Civil War western frontier usually involve conflicts between cowboys and outlaws, cowboys and Native Americans, or Easterners and Westerners. While this category still has a mass-market audience and a thriving regional market, it's not the popular genre it was 25 years ago.

If you're interested in writing a western, contact the Western Writers of America

Zane Grey and Louis Lamour, both deceased, are still among the popular western writers.

Horror

Filled with gut-wrenching fear, this popular genre keeps readers turning the blood-filled pages. From a writer's perspective, the defining characteristic is the intention to frighten readers by exploiting their fears, both conscious and subconscious: fears of supernatural forces, alien visitations, madness, death, dismemberment, and other terrifying notions.

Tracing its roots back to the classic tales of Edgar Allan Poe, the horror genre today is dominated by Stephen King, whose vast output of bestsellers under his name as well as his alter-ego Richard Bachman has dominated the bestseller lists for nearly 25 years. Other major horror writers include Mary Shelley, Roald Dahl, Clive Barker, Peter Straub, Dean Koontz, and Anne Rice.

While horror isn't science fiction, the SFWA provides a great deal of information and community services aimed at horror writers. To obtain its professional assistance, contact the Science Fiction and Fantasy Writers of America.

Young adult

This genre includes any type of novel with a protagonist in the 12 to 16 age range that speaks to the concerns of teenagers. Currently, J.K. Rowling and her amazing Harry Potter (Scholastic Press) books are dominating the field. Rowling's accomplishment — a truly universal story, brimming with magic and fantasy as well as likable characters that readers identify with — is an amazing feat. Watch out for all the Harry Potter wannabes in the coming year.

Success stories in this genre share many of the qualities evident in the Harry Potter books: a memorable voice (J.D. Salinger's Catcher in the Rye, Little Brown, 1951), believable characters (Golding's Lord of the Flies, Perigee, 1959), and a willingness to write about the disturbing subjects that preoccupy teens and preteens (Are You There God, It's Me, Margaret by Judy Blume, Dell Yearling, 1972, or Holes by Louis Sachar, FSG, 1998).

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