An American Editor

August 24, 2015

Thinking Fiction: Categories of Fiction

by Carolyn Haley

Independent editors can help independent novelists reach their publishing goals by factoring book categories into their editorial approach. Most of us are familiar with these categories from shopping at online or physical bookstores, where titles are separated into fiction and nonfiction then arranged by category, which make it easier for customers to browse and retailers to sell. Categories also help publishers and agents sort through submissions.

Independent editors, who usually see novels prior to submission, can use categories in two ways. At the proposal stage, an editor’s knowledge of categories allows quick screening of prospective clients; for instance, an editor who favors Literary novels may decline a Thriller. At the editing stage, category knowledge influences the nature of the work. Romance and Science Fiction, for example, emphasize different story elements and are written in different styles. Readers of each category expect to see those elements and styles underneath the author’s unique voice. If a novel deviates too far from category norms, it may flounder in the marketplace. Editors can help prevent that by querying anything in the manuscript that doesn’t fit the category the author is writing for.

The value of category knowledge

Understanding categories lets editors help clients align their publishing desires with their skills. For example, a first-time author writing a Thriller may present a draft too verbose for their target readers. If the editor helps them recognize that, then they’ll be more open to the cuts and tightening of a substantive or developmental edit than the simple copy edit they requested. Conversely, a skilled storyteller planning to self-publish might only need a copy edit to polish the writing, but they’re aiming the book at the Suspense market when it’s actually a quest story suited for Fantasy. If the editor makes the author aware of the difference, then the author will appreciate content tweaks and suggestions to better suit the book to category. Or, they’ll know to redirect their promotional efforts toward the right audience.

A common vocabulary

Fiction categories are guidelines for publishing in the same way editorial style books are guidelines for language. They provide a vocabulary that editors can share with their clients to help them along their publishing journey.

Vocabulary-sharing starts when an author seeks editorial help for, say, a Thriller. The novel might in fact be a Mystery or Romantic Suspense, but the editor won’t know that until they’ve read some or all of the work. So requesting a sample or the complete manuscript is an appropriate first response. It gives the editor an informed basis for making a decision and, if positive, building a proposal. Once both parties are speaking the same language, they can advance to working together, or move on.

Category types

Both editor and author need to know that fiction falls into two broad categories: Commercial and Literary. The distinction is neatly put by publishing guru Nathan Bransford, who describes Commercial as having “out-in-the-world” plotting and Literary as having “in-the-mind plotting” (for elaboration see his essay, “What Makes Literary Fiction Literary?”).

The terms “Literary” and “Commercial” distinguish between story types and styles on a macro level. They are not rigid terms—Literary novels can be commercially successful, and Commercial novels can have the qualities Literary is known for: meticulously crafted prose that touches upon universal themes and draws readers deep into character and place for an enriching drama. The point is to channel books from manuscript through publication with best chance for success, and Literary/Commercial is the first subdivision.

Genre conventions

Whether Commercial or Literary, all novels must have a beginning, middle, and end, with a central challenge that the main character is compelled to overcome, resulting in some internal or external change. Editing for that central challenge comes first, followed by fine-tuning for genre.

Commercial novels subdivide into genres with characteristic conventions. These vary between publisher and industry sector (as do the terms “genre” and “category”) and often nest inside each other. But they have enough commonality to be useful to editors and their clients. A sampling of the variation is shown in the links following this interpretation.


Romantic stories may occur in any category of novel, but what makes a book a Romance is its focus on one couple’s relationship, plus an ending that must be either “happily ever after” or “happy for now.” Within those parameters almost anything goes. Romance has so many subgenres now that there’s something for almost every taste, though for some subgenres and publishers, the story must be written from a specific viewpoint, such as first person. In Romance, editors watch for sidetracking plots, implausibility, and pacing that gets bogged down by description.


Erotica covers the territory between Romance and pornography. A new term is coming into use, Romantica, for erotic novels that meet Romance’s one-couple-relationship and happy-ending criteria via frequent, graphic sex. Erotica in general, despite its explicitness and openness to alternative lifestyles and values, still has boundaries. Editors handling Erotica need to familiarize themselves with what practices are taboo and discuss them with the author if any appear in the book.


Mystery and Crime are often lumped together but differ in main elements. Mystery is a whodunit, often a puzzle, whereas Crime may cover broader ground. In both the storyline must feature a crime (usually murder) and its resolution. Crime novels tend to be dark in tone and revolve around police procedure, forensics, and violence, with subgenres featuring private investigators and rogue detectives. Mysteries commonly feature amateur sleuths, and the crime usually occurs offstage. These stories, especially the subgenre Cozy Mystery, are lighter in tone and focus on a troupe of characters and a lovingly evoked setting. All crime-based novels are difficult to construct and take much detail work to be credible. Editors must watch for technical inaccuracies (especially involving guns) and pacing that reveals too much too soon or too late.


Suspense and Thriller emphasize danger and breathless page turning. They might involve a crime but often focus on preventing or escaping one. Suspense leans toward psychological drama, and Thrillers tend to be action-oriented with big stakes. Popular works in these categories favor a lean, noun-and-verb writing style, so verbosity is a common writing fault that editors need to address, along with plausibility.

Science Fiction/Fantasy/Horror/Supernatural

Collectively these genres fall under Speculative Fiction. Sometimes it’s hard to tell them apart, but simplistically Science Fiction is based on known scientific principle and logical extrapolation thereof; and Fantasy is based on magic, often involving beings that can’t exist (fairies, dragons, and the like). Horror/Supernatural covers the gray areas in between, but if pushed will fall under Fantasy. These genres subdivide into more variations than Romance—no surprise for works of unlimited imagination.

In Spec Fiction editors need to watch for problems with world-building. Even if the story is set on a different planet or millennia in the future, the world still has its own laws of physics. Beginning authors may cut corners and just tell an Earth story against an alien or supernatural backdrop. Convincing worlds have their own vocabularies, cultures, and environments, even if based on Earth. Tracking world details makes for extensive style sheets, so editing this type of novel may take longer than others.


The line defining “historical” used to be drawn at World War II; however, that leaves 70 years for “contemporary” fiction to cover, so some publishers are redrawing the line or inventing new subgenres (e.g., Vintage) to cover the 1950s through 1980s. Regardless, in a Historical novel the period drives the characters and defines the setting and action, and factual accuracy is imperative. That means more fact checking for editors (who must resist the urge to replicate the author’s research, unless that’s in the scope of work). As with Spec Fiction, building style sheets is an important part of editing Historical Fiction.

Chick Lit/Women’s

Women’s Fiction has emerged as a deeper, more literary exploration of life and relationships than Romance allows, and Chick Lit has followed as a sassier version for younger women. Editing these mainly contemporary stories is as much about tone as anything else.


This category emphasizes personal faith. Depending on which faith is involved, there may be limitations on vocabulary (no profanity), sex (offstage or within heterosexual marriage only), or violence (forbidden, or else story focus on the psychological effects). The faith may fall within an established church or be a personal odyssey. Editors might need to bone up on the idioms and practices of a particular faith in order to catch the nuances in this type of work.

Western/Men’s Adventure

Typically, Western novels are historical, because most take place in the decades when the American West was explored and settled. They feature men, guns, horses, land, and storylines wherein justice prevails. Fact checking and style sheet building may be big time-consumers on these books, depending on what facet of Western history the author is covering. Men’s Adventure is similar in flavor but set in other places and times.

Young Adult/New Adult/Middle Grade/Children’s

Novels for youth can embrace any subject. The main difference between subgenres is the presence and/or degree of sex, vice, and violence, and the progatonist’s age. Broadly, Young Adult: high school; New Adult: college and first job; Middle Grade: junior high; Children’s: preadolescence. Authors have to be careful about “dumbing down” their language for young readers, so editors can assist with age-appropriate words and straightforward sentences.


General Fiction can be considered a catchall for novels that may sell better unlabeled. This includes Hybrid novels, which combine two more or standard genres or subgenres (e.g., futuristic vampire romance mystery) without one dominating enough to place it in an established slot. Such novels have become more common since the advent of self-publishing, where genres are more subdivided and flexible than in traditional publishing. They’re the easiest to edit because they lack conventions.

Sample alternative definitions

A win–win arrangement

Editors with category knowledge on top of writing-craft knowledge can help authors in a meaningful way. The benefit is mutual: An editor’s proposal personally tailored to an author’s publishing goals is likelier to win the job than one focusing only on the manuscript in a vacuum; and an editorial approach that guides authors in honing their novels for category is likelier to earn happy, published clients who come back with their next book.

Carolyn Haley lives and breathes novels. Although specializing in fiction, she edits across the publishing spectrum — fiction and nonfiction, corporate and indie — and is the author of two novels and a nonfiction book. She has been editing professionally since 1977, and has had her own editorial services company, DocuMania, since 2005. She can be reached at or through her websites, DocuMania and New Ways to See the World. Carolyn also blogs at Adventures in Zone 3 and reviews at New York Journal of Books.



  1. This is a good article. Thank you. I am forever having to explain the differences, mostly to new writers but sometimes also to agents. I would take issue with your distinction between mystery and crime fiction, however. I’ve been editing in this area for many years and until recently acquiring in it too, and I think of crime fiction as the overarching term for mysteries, thrillers and suspense. Perhaps what matters most is that and categorize them as mysteries, thrillers or suspense, with no mention of crime fiction. has them as crime, mysteries and thrillers until you drill down the list and “crime” disappears as a category. Great minds may never agree on this one.


    Comment by Dinah Forbes — August 24, 2015 @ 6:53 pm | Reply

  2. As mentioned in the essay, these categories vary widely in their definition and interpretation. I wouldn’t even try to debate what truly belongs where according to whom! There simply is no industry standard. It comes down to what authors want to do with their manuscripts. When submitting queries to agents or editors, or submitting to contests, they have to study each entity’s criteria. When self-publishing, they need to study how places like Amazon assort and define their groupings. It’s not uncommon to tailor their package differently for each submission. Kind of like job shopping.


    Comment by Carolyn — August 26, 2015 @ 7:19 am | Reply

  3. […] Carolyn Hayley has written a valuable article on the editor’s handling of fiction categories at the An American Editor blog. Check it out here. […]


    Pingback by First-Person Point of View in Fiction - AfterWords Editorial Services — September 8, 2015 @ 11:30 am | Reply

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