Genre Fiction Rules: Find Out If Your Novel Meets Publishers’ And Literary Agents’ Criteria For Publication

by | Jun 18, 2009 | Book Publishing, Marketing Your Writing, Publish A Novel, Submit A Book For Publication, Submit Your Writing | 8 comments

Genre Fiction Rules

If you have written a book or novel, you’ll want to be sure that it meets the basic criteria of book publishers and literary agents. Follow the rules of genre fiction (whether it’s romance, Western, thriller, fantasy, historical, sci-fi, or horror), and you are more likely to get your book published.

The Rules Of Genre Fiction

Genre fiction refers to books that are published widely for popular appeal. Publishers tend to place high value on these books, especially when a writer shows a palpable enthusiasm for his or her particular genre. Usually, genre books are published in the smaller, mass-market book size.

Genre writing is all about crafting great stories that appeal to a distinct audience with particular preferences. Do your research and learn what is expected from your genre. Read widely in your genre. Join a creative writers’ group. Research recommended book lengths and what publishers are buying—and not buying. Again, you don’t have to be a slave to the standards, but—as with grammar and punctuation—a professional writer must know the rules in order to effectively break them.

Disclaimer: Please keep in mind that the information below is an overview of generalized genre guidelines: Always research information about your specific project for the best results.

The Rules Of Romance Genre Novels

A romance novel ends with a happily ever after. It starts with the introduction of characters and the conflict, and at some point the relationship is consummated in some way. The story usually emphasizes the heroine’s experience, and the reader should be drawn into caring about the characters and cheering on the eventual romance.

How long is a romance novel? A single title (or stand-alone) romance novel runs between 80,000 and 100,000 words. A category romance novel (like those published by Harlequin) is generally shorter, and each “line” or “imprint” will have its own strict specifications. Save yourself a lot of trouble: Research before you write!

Subgenres of romance include paranormal, erotica, Regency, historical, contemporary, women’s fiction, Christian, time travel, erotica, fantasy/science fiction, and more.

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The Rules Of Fantasy Genre Novels
Create the parameters of your fantasy world in advance and stick to them. Design the environment (geography, weather), the characters (race, creatures), and other details such as the use of magic, the history of your environment (wars, etc.), and limitations of powers. Avoid clichés in your characterization (no The Lord of the Rings impersonators), and let your theme (good vs. evil?) be consistent yet subtle.

Pay particular attention to publisher guidelines: One publisher specifically states caveats such as “no time machines, please.”

How long are fantasy novels? Between 80,000 and 150,000 words (approximately). They can be a little longer than traditionally published novels, and are sometimes serialized as trilogies.

Subgenres of fantasy include alternate history, urban, dark, high, historical, steampunk, wuxia, fantasy of manners, and more.

Note: Be sure you’re familiar with the subgenres before you attempt to position yourself as an expert author in your field!

The Rules Of Western Genre Novels
Westerns should be set in the Old West (west of the Mississippi River and before the year 1900). Historical details should be accurate, but the story is what really counts: Focus on three-dimensional characters and strong plots, with the hero facing some sort of conflict. While Westerns are very specialized, be sure that you’re not relying on clichés!

How long is a Western book? Westerns tend to be on the shorter side of fiction books, anywhere from 45,000 words to 75,000 (loosely).

The Rules Of Historical Fiction Genre Novels
The details are important in this genre. Set the stage carefully and accurately so that your 18th-century character doesn’t wear clothing or use products that weren’t around at the time. Pay attention to details like social customs, holidays, transportation, and food, and make sure they are relevant to the period.

Don’t judge your characters by modern standards—a person’s behavior should be dictated by the customs and society of your time frame. Careful research is especially important for this genre.

How long is a historical novel? Generally, a stand-alone historical may be 85,000 to 100,000 words. For first-time writers, submitting a book longer than 100,000 words is especially difficult, but historical novels have been known to be longer.

The Rules Of Mystery Genre Novels
Pay special attention to plot in the mystery genre. Introduce the murder or the crime early in the story, and research the methods by which the crime was committed (is it really possible for a five-foot woman to decapitate a large man?) and how the investigation proceeds. Research forensics, criminal justice, and detective procedures to lend credibility.

Avoid supernatural or unbelievable methods of solving the case. And create a solvable puzzle for your readers—mystery novels are supposed to be fun to read and fun to solve, but if the reader isn’t provided with plausible clues to follow, they’ll lose interest.

How long is a mystery novel? Mysteries vary in length depending on subgenre. Single-title mysteries may be between 75,000 and 100,000 words. Cozy mysteries, like those in a mystery series, may be on the shorter side.

Subgenres of mystery include hardboiled, supernatural, crime, true crime, amateur sleuth, police procedural, cozy, and more. Be certain of whether or not you are writing a mystery or a thriller.

The Rules Of Thriller Genre Novels
Thrillers are designed to do one thing: thrill. Strong characters, tight plots, and an emphasis on action over flowery prose drive this genre to daring storylines. Thrillers often feature determined protagonists and clear antagonists, and they can be set in nearly any location imaginable. Thrillers can be graphic (gritty) or somewhat more subtle, but focus is always on suspense.

How long is a thriller novel? Thriller novels hit the genre-standard sweet spot of 90,000 to 100,000 words for new writers (loosely). Thrillers tend to go a little longer as well, but new writers will probably see better results with shorter books.

Subgenres of thrillers include action, conspiracy, disaster, crime, eco, political, erotica, legal, and more.

The Rules Of Horror Genre Novels
Horror novels capitalize on emotion (fears, phobias) more than plot. Create a feeling of dread for your reader, and sustain the suspense throughout until you reach a climactic conclusion. Avoid clichés, like the monster that seems dead but really isn’t.

Horror novels vary in length, but generally, a stand-alone novel will be between 80,000 and 100,000 words.

Subgenres of horror include psychological, ghost, weird menace, erotic, body horror, occult detective, and more.

The Rules Of Science Fiction Novels
Science fiction blends science and technology that push our imaginations to the limit with elements of reality. Sci-fi novels tend to explore alternative possibilities and are often philosophical and filled with thoughtful commentary.

How long is a sci-fi novel? Science fiction novels can vary in length, but generally speaking, a stand-alone sci-fi novel may be between 90,000 and 120,000 words.

Subgenres include hard, soft, cyberpunk, space western, alternate history, space opera, military, and more.

The Rules Of Young Adult (YA) Genre Novels

Young adult (YA) fiction targets boys and girls between the ages of 12-18. The tone, style, and content of YA novels change significantly, depending on the specific age a writer is targeting. YA writers write for a specific audience without “talking down.” The genre can tackle G-rated issues or it can be very edgy. In all cases YA provides a safe place for young readers to explore the challenging situations they may face in real life.

Young adult novels vary in length depending on demographic, but generally run between 40,000 and 75,000 words.

Subgenres of YA include most of the same subgenres of adult fiction. “Edgy” YA tackles especially controversial or difficult issues.

CLICK HERE FOR PART TWO: How Do You Know If Your Novel Is Literary Or Mainstream Fiction? How Long Is A General Fiction Book? And for more information on defining genres, see Genres Defined (Part I) and Genres Defined (Part II).

Photo by Foomandoonian

Writer QuestionsQUESTION: What genre do you write?


Whatever type of fiction you write, make sure you know the rules of your genre. And when you’re ready to get your book or novel published, let us know. The staff at Writer’s Relief is eager to help you develop a solid submission plan!


  1. Carolyn J. Lewis

    I’m looking forward to your rules on literary novels. I see much information on other genres, but very little on literary novels, which is my genre. I’ve won awards for my literary short stories, but am now entering the arena of literary novels and am in need of information on literary novels. Thanks.


    I would like to see some rules on the teen/young adult novel. Thanks!

  3. Susan Rand

    I, too, would like to see some "rules" on the youth novel. For example, the age group that reads Harry Potter.

  4. Kyle

    Thanks so much for this article! I write historical fiction, and it’s really helpful to see some guidelines that are so specific to what I do!

  5. Amina

    This is a very helpful article. Thank you so much!

  6. Mimi

    According to this article, my just finished novel, The Grove, is considered Soft SciFi

  7. stef

    Good general guide, but to make your book interesting, you must deviate from it



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