Genre novels are sometimes called "category," "pulp," or "trash" novels. They are usually sold as rack-sized paperbacks (though occasionally they're sold in hardback), which fit supermarket or drugstore book racks. When sold in bookstores, they're usually in the back of the store on shelves divided into their various types: mystery, science fiction, fantasy, horror, romance, Gothic, western, political thriller, techno-thriller, historical, male adventure, and so on.
Genre novels are read by people who want a good read, an entertainment. If you're writing one, part of your contract with the reader is that your novel will conform to the conventions of the genre. In the mystery, as an example, there's going to be a murder and someone will solve it, and in the end the murderer will be brought to justice.
Some genres, such as the romance, go beyond simple conventions: They're formulaic. The publishers will even provide a tip sheet for writers that spells out the requirements of the formulas. As an example, the tip sheet might call for the heroine to be twenty-three to twenty-eight with blond or auburn hair, have strong skills in the workforce, but be struggling financially. The specifications might call for the hero to be thirty-two to thirty-eight and rich with dark brown or black hair. Another requirement might be that the couple may have sex only if there's a commitment. The formulas are specific and rigid and if you are writing for this market you must stick to them.
The best way to learn conventions when the publishers do not provide tip sheets is to read a few dozen novels of the type you plan to write. You'll quickly get a sense of the conventions. Spy thrillers, as an example, are usually written in third person, with several viewpoints. They're often set in several locales throughout the world. The spies use exotic spycraft and don't shrink from killing, drugging, kidnapping, and so on. They are usually motivated by what they perceive as their patriotic duty. The protagonists have a surface cynicism, though at heart they are idealists. They are modern-day knights going out to do battle against modern-day dragons. The heroes and heroines are pitted against a great evil, usually a conspiracy on an international scale.
None of these conventions are written in stone, of course.
They are simply conventions, which can be bent or even occasionally broken—unlike formulas, which publishers enforce with maniacal zeal.
In addition to reading a mountain of novels to learn the conventions, you'll find it's a good idea to join organizations such as Mystery Writers of America or Romance Writers of America, and attend some of the workshops and conferences that abound for all types of fiction. There are several journals devoted to the writing of genre fiction. I subscribe to Mystery Scene, as an example, which is loaded with information on mystery writing. Almost all of their articles are written by top mystery writers. There are also journals for writers of science fiction, westerns, horror, and others.
Within the major genres are subgenres. There are over a hundred different subgenres of romance novels alone. Mysteries come in different types: tea cozy, hard-boiled, soft-boiled, innocent-at-risk, comic mysteries, and so on. Among the thrillers, there are cartoon-type international thrillers, and there are serious international thrillers. Ian Fleming wrote the cartoon type, while John le Carré writes the serious type. Readers will expect you to stick to the conventions of the subtype as well as to the conventions of the genre as a whole. As an example, in a hard-boiled mystery it is okay for the hero to take personal vengeance upon the villain; in a soft-boiled or a tea cozy, it is not.
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