How to write a book

Is my book paranormal or literary? And which age group is it for? How to categorise your novel

4245561092_00ff8217b6_zI’ve had this question from Alexandra:

I’m not sure which category my story would fit into. I had originally intended it to be for 9-13-year-olds (my protagonist is 13), but realised I was dumbing down my language in an attempt to suit the reading level. So I decided to write without thinking about age groups or categories. But now I’m close to the end, I still don’t know how to categorise it. Is it young adult with no sex or violence? Literary? Teen? Paranormal?

Let’s break this down.

Age of protagonist

Readers in any non-adult genre are fussy about the age of their protagonist. They usually like them to be at the top end of the range or a little older. But a 13-year-old main character doesn’t mean you’re writing a book for 13-year-olds. You might easily have a child point of view in a book for adults (Henry James’s What Maisie Knew; Michael Frayn’s Spies).


Certainly the language for child readers has to be appropriate for their age. If you’re feeling hamstrung and frustrated by this, it might be a sign that you won’t be able to keep it up for the whole book. But good writers for children won’t feel they’re dumbing down. They’ll find ways to get variety and style into their sentences so that it sounds natural.

Not just language and age

But age ranges aren’t just about language or the age of the protagonist. The real difference is the emotional development and interests of the audience. So pre-teens are interested in different things from teenagers and YA, and books for adults are different again.

Stories for pre-teens will be more adventure based, whereas stories for teens will be about the trials of that very turbulent time of life. You could even take one story event and make entirely different books out of it, depending on the age you write it for.

Take Geraldine McCaughrean’s White Darkness, which is about an expedition to the Antarctic with a mad, exciting uncle. If it was written for pre-teens, the biggest issues would be the survival situation. But the most compelling trials are emotional – disillusionment with a family member, learning who you are, dealing with relationships. Really, it’s a story of growing up, not of polar exploration. That’s what makes it a teen book.

So to work out your age range, identify the most significant trials the characters go through.

Literary or paranormfaint mmal?

And so to the second half of the question. Oh my, you’ve come to the right place! My debut novel, My Memories of a Future Life, has paranormal ingredients – regression to other lives – but it isn’t paranormal. This is because the paranormal elements are not my main focus. My curiosities in the story are despair, hope, how we live, how we heal and scare each other. I’m using ideas of reincarnation to create unusual pressures in the lives of my characters, but reincarnation is not my subject. My subject is the people and how these experiences are the making of them. Indeed, the paranormal element might even be psychological.

This approach would probably annoy a fan of paranormal fiction. They want to lose themselves in a story that uses the paranormal events as the main fascination. That doesn’t mean they don’t want well-drawn characters with compelling arcs, or good writing, or innovative twists. But they want to see their liking for paranormal ingredients to be given due respect.

Here’s another example. I’ve just been editing a novel set in a historical conflict, but it’s literary, not historical. Why? The emphasis is more on the themes and the people than on the historical period; the period is merely a set of circumstances that give the characters their challenges. Why is The Time Machine science fiction, but The Time Traveller’s Wife is not?

Or both?

Could a novel be both literary and genre? In a sense, we are all on a line, and some authors fold the line over to touch. Like Ray Bradbury. He writes science fiction, but his stories are metaphors that also unwrap the human condition. Just when you thought it was clear.

Which are you?

So if you’re still puzzled, how do you tell which category and age group you belong in? By reading good examples of the genre.

It’s all a question of how the material is treated.

To sort out the literary/genre question, read books in the genre. Then read some literary or contemporary fiction that uses elements of that genre. If you’re wavering between children’s, teen or adult, read books for different age groups. Which treatments and approach pushed your buttons, gave you the most satisfaction? The odds are, that’s what you’ll strive to write.

Thanks for the pic LouisaThomson

faintnyn2More about characters, including child characters and teen characters, in Writing Characters to Keep Readers Captivated: Nail Your Novel 2.

Have you had trouble working out where to categorise your novels? Any advice to add? Let’s discuss in the comments!


21 thoughts on “Is my book paranormal or literary? And which age group is it for? How to categorise your novel

  1. It’s just getting harder and harder to categorise any book these days. Mine is a future dystopian medieval society. So is it sci fi because it is set in the future? Or is it historical fiction because the world and technology is undoubtedly medieval (with some liberties)? There are no fantasy elements so it would never go on the same shelf as Game of Thrones. It has elements of both sci-fi and historical fiction but doesn’t quite fit into either.

    1. Ha, good question. Such are the problems when we try to pin things down too much. Have you considered seeing if it fits under some of the ‘punk’ classifications? I think they let you mix past and future elements. Or is it a medieval grunge future?

  2. I just had this discussion with a friend for whom I’m beta reading! YA or NA (category rather than genre)? Paranormal or thriller? It’s so interesting, because the concerns for each category and genre are different.

    1. Hi Melanie! The YA or NA category is probably easiest to pinpoint, since they come down to the life issues being dealt with. So NA tends to be college time, or finding yourself after graduating.
      As for paranormal or thriller, have you considered horror? Or supernatural thriller? I think some of these genres overlap.

  3. Is The Thin Red Line by James Jones historical or literary? Jones picks a style that is almost (to me) journalistic; “here’s what happened to these guys on Guadalcanal.” There’s a lot of historical detail (Jones served in the Army in the later stages of the Guadalcanal campaign) — also a lot of detail about what the characters see and feel. Could this novel happen anywhere other than Guadalcanal? Considering the contemporary-mythical status of the campaign for Americans? Is the place itself evocative? Themes and characters, yes, but also the place, the history…so maybe Jones and Bradbury have something in common, that folding over of the line until it blurs. Heavy sigh. I’ve never been too good at this sort of discriminating between one thing and another.

  4. Hi Roz;

    When I read Blake Snyder’s “Save The Cat”, and got to genre, he surprised me. He described ten genres, none of which I expected. He never mentioned Romance, Westerns, or Fantasy. He focused on how the writer approaches the protagonist throughout the story (ten of them – some of which were Whydunnit, Fool Triumphant, and The Golden Fleece). He arrived at some startling conclusions, like Buddy Love and Romance are the same (the writer must solve the same problems for “Sleepless in Seattle” as she would in “Grumpy Old Men”).

    The curse of knowing a little bit bit is that I have to listen when someone uses the term, genre. In the traditional use of genre, there is a formula. For instance, an Agatha Christie Whodunnit has an expected formula (the Great Detective, the Watson, the Clue, the Murder – maybe two, no growth in the Great Detective, etc). Romances have a different formula. I suppose Westerns have something else.

    Age levels are different than Blake’s genre, or the traditional genre. What about reader comprehension levels, and language usage. Writing for children should never even hint at four letter words or themes therein. Reading comprehension is completely different. According to the Hemingway app I write at a fourth or fifth grade level. Does that mean I write for fourth or fifth graders? Not on purpose.

    I have a first draft WIP, waiting for me. When I wrote it, I never gave genre a thought, either Blake or traditional. I imagined it was romance. But…maybe not so much. Maybe, more like a Rite of Passage, with love interests and steamy scenes. If I “fix” it, I will need to pick a Blake genre, and a traditional genre. Otherwise…I will never be able to explain it. And…I won’t be able to pick one of those pull-down menu tags for something like Amazon….if I care…and I do.

    Great topic. Thanks,


    1. Hello Silent! The Blake genre is an interesting approach. It’s essentially identifying the problem the writer has to solve for the story to be satisfying. It’s a very useful principle for figuring out what to do with the story elements – especially if you’re not sticking specifically within a category.

      And good points about the age groups. Certain themes will be impossible!

  5. Wow! Thanks for the detailed answer! It really helped me to understand how you go about categorizing a novel. I will follow your advice as soon as I am done writing my first draft!

    1. Thanks for asking it, Alexandra! I know you’re new to this, but if you hang around the Facebook forums with other writers, you’ll soon discover that categorisation is something of an obsession! Especially when it comes to pitching your book to readers.

  6. I do not write YA, Paranormal, or Science Fiction, so I have little to say about these genres. However, I believe that most genre novels can also be literary, as long as the author has enough knowledge and understanding of the human condition that these feelings come through in the descriptive passages and the dialogue of his or her novels. Novels can also be editorial in nature if the author believes strongly enough in an idea or concept that he brings it out through his characters.

  7. Oh my, you’ve just given me a whole lot to think about. I see my writing as rooted in science fiction, yet if I take reader expectations into consideration, maybe vokhtah is more fantasy than sci-fi. Ungh. I really will have to think about this some more.

  8. I had the same problem – I wrote my latest novella as a horror/fantasy with a pulp feel, and my publisher feels it’s more YA! I worry that the YA label might put people off, but then again it might also attract more readers. It’s just difficult to know where the boundaries are sometimes!

  9. Ah, but don’t forget that we must also brave the self-appointed literature police who unleash their ire on anyone who attaches an audience to a book that’s implies different tastes by sex.. The real divide that must be managed is often boy/girl and man/woman. It matters as much in literature as it does in medicine, maybe more.

    My next book tells the story of Lily, a girl in her mid-teens who must ride a dangerous stallion over Klan infested country roads in 1870s North Carolina to warn her father that he’s about to be murdered. Is it for girls, particularly girls who love horses? Certainly. They’ll love it. But I could double my sales if boys would find it worth reading. The story also has young men who stand up to the Klan, although a bit belatedly and, in part, because they’re so impressed by Lily’s “pluck.”

    One of the other heroes in the tale is a poor white father who’s defying the all the powers in his North Carolina community–the Democratic party, the wealthy planter aristocracy, and the other white supremacists–to form an alliance with poor black people to get good schools for his two daughters. Good fathers would love that, but how do I a stretch the description of a tale for teen girls who love horses to also cover dads who love their kids.? That’s not including the elderly black pastor who’s defying the Klan or the central figure in the story, a Union officer who’s moved South to make a difference. In fact, it’s he who teaches his daughter Lily how to be brave.

    1. You make some interesting points here, Michael, about audiences. Booksellers and publishers are most worried about this, and marketing people endlessly fret about what they perceive as gender tastes in writing. Readers are infinitely more varied in their tastes, but the trouble is, we have to plump for something when we try to pitch our books.
      I particularly sympathise with your points about horses, as I had similar wrangles with Lifeform Three. The Lifeform Three is actually a horse, but is it a horsey story? Not strictly speaking, though it will please horse lovers. What else does it have? Abandoned mansions, English countryside, robots who are more human than the people they serve, people who are run by software, and plenty of characters who are afraid to step out of line. It also has a great sense of regret over the things we are losing and burying from the past.
      I particuarly had problems when I had to decide what to write in the blurb and what to put on the cover. Both covers and blurbs are concise; you need to be clear in the message. You can’t clutter the cover with an image of everything the book contains as it will look like a horrible mess. So I went for the emotional feeling – mist, mystery and drowned towns. In the blurb, I picked out a few tantalising things and did not mention horses at all – I left those for the reader to discover.
      Does that help? Good luck!

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