Knowing Your Category

Recently, I participated in Indiana’s Golden Opportunity, better known as the IGO, contest for writers. It was one of the best experiences I’ve ever had with a contest for romance.

Here’s what they did spectacularly well. They confirmed receipt of the project, sent out communication about when to expect results, notified the finalists, sent out score sheets and comments, and then notified those who placed and won, followed by second round judges’ comments for those who made the final round.

Their judges were well-versed in the categories they were scoring and gave many tips as they moved through the manuscripts. I was impressed.

No, I didn’t win, but I did make the final round and placed third in my category. But I feel a bit as if I did win because of the judges’ hints and tips. Priceless.

IGO award

And all of the judges had similar scores and areas of improvement on my entry, which is so much easier to deal with than the wildly swinging scores when they are in complete disagreement.

My category involves mystery and suspense. They wanted to see more intrigue from the antagonist’s point of view, which as a mystery, I saved until the end of the story for a big reveal.

And that’s where I’ve been. Rewriting the novel, already 78,000 + words in length, to include the third POV of the antagonist.

Guess what?

I didn’t like it.

So I ordered Jodie Renner’s

Writing a Killer Thriller, an Editor’s Guide to Writing Compelling Fiction

The first page summed up my problem. In the past, mystery/suspense/thriller was all one category. That has changed.

She defines a mystery as one in which nobody, neither the reader nor the protagonist, knows who the bad guy is. Part of the story is figuring out ‘whodunit’. In a thriller/suspense, the reader knows who the villain is and sometimes the hero does as well. It is the ‘outwitting’ that is the storyline.

She also describes a mystery as being more ‘cerebral’, where as a thriller/suspense is more adrenaline-pumping.

Although there is plenty of suspense in my manuscript, keeping the antagonist a mystery adds to that. But it doesn’t mean it qualifies for the category of suspense/thriller.

All the time and work I put into adding the third POV wasn’t for nothing though. I learned a lot about that character. And I’ll be fleshing out the storyline when the introduction is finally made.

And I’ve learned that I’m writing mysteries, not thrillers. Although they share suspense, they are now in separate categories.

Who knew?

Renee Johnson is the author of Acquisition, and The Haunting of William Gray.  She is currently working on a Young Adult novel, while editing a suspense novel which has international flair–an homage to her love of travel and foreign food.  She lives on a farm in North Carolina with her husband, Tony Johnson, and one very spoiled German shepherd named Gretel.   

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  1. WOW congrats first off for 3rd place that’s AMAZING! And way to take good critique. I think good critique can make your journey easier.

      1. Exactly! Good critique can make you… and bad critique… well hopefully won’t brake you. because it comes from a bad place and we don’t want to absorb someone’s bad energy! Congrats on 3rd place!

  2. “She defines a mystery as one in which nobody, neither the reader nor the protagonist, knows who the bad guy is.”

    THE ALIENIST by Caleb Carr immediately comes to mind.

  3. So glad you had a good experience! It’s amazing you have written 78,000 words. When I think of cerebral mysteries, Edgar Allan Poe’s “The Purloined Letter” would top my list, although it’s a short story, it’s masterfully made.

    1. Poe was a master. I can’t think of him without also thinking of the mysterious visitor to his grave every year. He managed to leave us with a mystery even after death. Who else could have achieved that?

    1. Thanks Frank. I have never minded constructive criticism. When we write, we know what we are trying to communicate. Only the reader can tell us if we have achieved our goal.

  4. So glad that you were able to find a benefit from all the extra work. It is also good that you were able to look at it and say you didn’t like it and find out why. You are certainly giving us some perspective on how difficult it is to craft that perfect novel.

    1. Thanks. It is such a learning curve for me. What I think I know isn’t always what is true. The market changes. We can try to make our work fit the existing category or, if unhappy with that, find a new one. I like a little mystery in a novel. It didn’t have the same urgency once the culprit was identified.

  5. Sounds like you did pretty well!
    It’s so hard to keep up with changes. You need to be in the right spot – as well as have the “perfect” novel. A tough mountain to climb – but you’re well on your way!

  6. I don’t fully understand some of the genre guidelines either. Thanks for sharing that. Glad to hear you are hot on the trail of writing your novel.

  7. My hat’s off to you…writing fiction is hard! Sounds like I’ll be looking for you on a future best-seller’s list! Good for you! And today I learned that mystery and thriller are not the same…not sure I would have made that distinction before. ~ Sheila

  8. Fascinating insight into writing. Love that you’re so committed to it. I get sidetracked so easily by life, work, etc. So I applaud you for staying the course. Keep at it!

  9. Good Job!

    I consider “ALL” writing “”practice!””

    (even when I edit other people’s papers, contests, BLOGS…..That’s PRACITICE. I love it!

    YOU ROCKKKKkkk, Renee. Xx Keep Writing!

  10. First of all congratulations with your third place. Very nice. And then to go head on and edit and rewrite the novel is very impressive too. It’s a learning process isn’t it, but it takes a lot of work. I am glad you found a way to improve your novel – and hopefully it will soon be in a state to be ready to be published. Good luck with the rest of the work.

  11. Congratulations on your win! Third place isn’t shabby at all.
    My first novel was classed as a mystery. You pretty much know who did it, but I hoped I made the chase fun. I plan to re-edit it, making significant changes and republish it under a new publisher. Based on your article, I should change it to a thriller/suspense group
    Finding the genre for my novels is always tricky for me. I think my second one would be considered a mystery romance. I’m planning on doing it as a Christian novel. So, it will end up as a Christian Mystery/Romance, or a Christian Suspense/Romance?
    Am I, the author, supposed to class it; or is that up to the publisher?

    1. And congratulations to you as well. Getting published is fabulous. To answer your question, I’d say you both have a hand in that. The publisher will likely have the final say. But you have to know which category to query it in before it gets to that stage, right?

      I agree with you. Selecting the genre is terribly confusing. For some publishers the age of the protagonist matters; for instance, over forty might have its own category. But I think multi-genre novels are now becoming more appealing.

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