Designing a Book Cover: Groundwork

This week marks a first for Nightwolf’s Corner– a guest post. I’ve teamed up with Ashley Ruggirello, Creative Director and Founder of REUTS Publications, to bring you a series about cover design. (And by “teamed up,” I really mean asked permission to syndicate her work. 😉 ) I know nothing about cover design, so why not defer to an expert? Because that’s what she is. Not only is she the creative genius behind all of REUTS, she’s also the owner of freelance design company, Cardboard Monet. I’ve had the privilege of watching Ashley’s brilliant talent in action, so I can vouch that her expertise will lead to some helpful insights for you and I both.

And if my word that you’ll learn something valuable isn’t enough, how about this to entice you? She’s using my nemesis WIP, Unmoving, as the example cover. That’s right, by the end of the series, Unmoving will have a real life cover! And you get to watch it happen. No, that doesn’t mean I finally managed to finish the darn thing. But I can promise you an exciting (well, it’s exciting for me, and maybe the 3 fans I have) announcement regarding it at the end of the series. 😉

So stick around. I can guarantee you won’t regret it.

Take it away, Ashley!

Chapter 1: Groundwork


By Ashley Ruggirello

It’s common to hear the phrase, “You can’t judge a book by its cover,” although it’s often referring to much more than just a book sitting on a bookshelf. In the aesthetic (and competitive) world of publishing and readership, though, books are judged by their covers. I’d even venture to say you have less than five seconds to wow a potential reader with your cover art– talk about pressure! That’s why you see publishing companies and designers working harder and harder to push the envelope, create something new, and really grab their audience. Cover art is such an important element to your story, and boy is it a daunting task to take on! So I’ve taken it upon myself (as a so called “expert”– thanks Kisa ;)) to step up and pen a Cover Art series. Expect this to be the first chapter (of many) breaking down the process– start-to-finish– in creating a print-ready book cover design. And I’ll do my best to post a new chapter every week.

Different from the editorial phase, cover art, unfortunately, requires a certain set of programs to work within, especially if you’re planning on working professionally in the industry. These programs are part of the Adobe Creative Cloud, including Photoshop, Illustrator and InDesign. Now, all three of these are quite expensive to purchase without the prospect of frequent use, but there are online resources I’ve already touched on in a previous blog post: Cover Design On A Budget.

Before we begin the nitty-gritty designing, there are a few key pieces of information needed to set the groundwork. First and foremost, you need a book to design for, preferably one that’s nearing completion. Luckily, we have just that! Throughout this series, we’ll be using Kisa’s WIP, Unmoving, as the guinea pig for our designing adventures. Although this is a good start, we usually need more than just a title to begin. These are the elements I request before beginning any Cover Art project:

The Checklist


  • Tagline / Sub-Title
  • Full Book Synopsis or the Full Manuscript
  • The Author’s Ideal Book Cover Art
  • Dimensions of the Printed Book


Tagline / Sub-Title

Although this element isn’t mandatory, I’ll share some examples of popular novels using a tagline to aid in their cover art.

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DIVERGENT, by Veronica Roth: “One choice can transform you.”

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ACROSS THE UNIVERSE, by Beth Revis: “What does it take to survive aboard a spaceship fueled by lies?”
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JESSICA’S GUIDE TO DATING ON THE DARK SIDE, by Beth Fantaskley: “The undead can really screw up your senior year.”
Consider the tagline added real estate to explain your plot (or tease your readers) when designing. In the case of Divergent, the title itself doesn’t explain much. Throw in the tagline “One choice can transform you,” and we’re given a peak inside the story. There’s some sort of conflict surrounding a decision; a decision serious enough to define the decision maker. This immediately adds prospective tension to the plot, in addition to generating interest in learning what decision holds so much weight on the main character’s life and future? And how does it all play out?

Books are judged (and quickly) by their covers, so the more you can explain in a quick glance, the better odds you have of attracting a reader.

The Author’s Ideal

Although not always feasible, the author’s ideal book cover is a great place to start when brainstorming what the cover art should be. If you’re designing for yourself, this part is easy. You know your story best, and how you’d like to represent it. If you’re designing for another author, on the other hand, stop stressing out trying to figure out what’s in the author’s head, and just ask them! Sometimes it may be difficult to put to words, but if your author is able to visualize in their mind’s eye what type of cover they’d classify as ideal, you’re off to a great start. It may be difficult to make that ideal into a reality (e.g. finding the right stock photos could prove to be a challenge), but from this starting point you can begin collaboration and brainstorm how to meld the author’s vision with your creative input and own interpretation of the story.

Always remember: the best design is born out of collaboration. If you’re able to bounce ideas off of more than one individual, including the author, you’ll always come out with a stronger, more powerful design. So always feel free to seek input from friends, family, your team (in my case, the REUTS Acquisitions Team), etc. Trust me, you’ll appreciate the additional eyes, and create a better cover.


This one is tricky to get right off the bat. The standard book size REUTS uses is 5.5″ x 8.5″, however, it can range from 5″ x 7″ to 6″ x 9″, and a few stragglers larger or smaller than those. If you follow the 5.5″ x 8.5″ standard, you know the size to work within for the front and back cover, just not the spine. Unfortunately, it takes a fully type-set book to determine the full cover dimensions. The final number of pages will affect how thick or thin the spin ends up being. (Obviously, this step can be disregarded if you’re focusing solely on an eBook cover design.) Since we’re lacking information at the start of a new project, I usually like to nail down the front cover art, bringing those elements/themes into the back cover, and then add the spine width once it’s determined.

Many times, a printer will provide a design template to work with once the dimensions are finalized. In this case, it’s always safe to initially comp a larger cover size, and edit down, rather than try to increase the size later. Increasing anything that isn’t a vector from its original size in Photoshop will cause distortion and pixilation.

Always remember: Include a bleed in your working cover-art file. It varies between printers, but you can be safe adding .25″ – .5″ around your artwork to account for any cutting idiosyncrasies when the book is in production.

Next week we’ll begin brainstorming for Kisa’s story, Unmoving. Stay tuned!


Self-Editing Tips From an Editor

It’s no secret that writers loathe the editing process. With its tedious attention to grammar rules you tried to forget as soon as you graduated, repetitive methodologies that make anyone’s brain numb, and general snail’s pace, it’s no surprise that it pales in comparison to the joy of creating. But it’s a necessary evil. One that a strange few of us actually enjoy and decided to make a profession, creating the editor/writer bond we know so well. That doesn’t exonerate you from having to edit, though.

Surprisingly, I’ve actually seen the statement (more than once) that writers don’t need to worry about things like grammar and spelling. That’s the editor’s job; they’ll clean it up. (Every time someone says this, another editing muse disintegrates into ash from the horror.) No, actually, that’s not our job. It’s yours. Yes, editors (especially freelance editors) are more forgiving of the occasional typo and drunk-sounding sentence than your average reader, but that doesn’t mean they want to sludge through something that isn’t even as legible as your 4th grade history paper. And if your 4th grade teacher made you proofread, what makes you think an editor standing between you and publication, between you and being paid for your work, wouldn’t expect the same thing?

Exactly. They do.

But that doesn’t mean editing has to be as painful as a self-lobotomy. In fact, I’ve given tips to get you through the revision process before. (Divorce Your Words; Save Your Story) It’s a topic that bears repeating though, so today, I’m going to give you another set of helpful insights, not from the perspective of a writer (like that previous post was) but from that of an editor.

(Hold on a moment while I swap my writer hat for my editor one . . . Okay. Ready.)

1. Step Back


No, I’m not bastardizing “step off” so don’t get your panties in a bunch. Step back is a concept from the art world. In fact, it’s one of the first things you learn at art school. (Yes, you learn stuff at art school. Shocking, I know.) The idea is that an artist can’t clearly see the entirety of their work when they’re hunched over it and it’s about 6 inches from their face, so they have to “step back” to change their perspective and see their work the way the world does. Now it makes sense, huh?

The first step in self-editing is finding a way to create that shift in perspective, to see the work you’ve poured your heart into for the past year in a different way. We’re too close to it during the creation phase, viewing it like an overprotective mother turning a blind eye to their kid’s flaws. You have to break that connection before you can even begin to analyze your work objectively.  You need to step back.

The easiest way to do that is simply to shove your manuscript in a drawer for a few days and avoid it like a note from a debt collector trying to repo your car. I recommend a bare minimum of 48 hours, but a week to a month would be better. That allows the warm, fuzzy glow of creation to fade away and stark reality to set in. If you can’t afford to take the time off, then simply changing the mode of viewing can help. Download it onto an eReader or print it out. Even just move to the Starbucks two blocks away instead of the one next to your house. The change of venue will automatically clear your perspective of any lingering rosy tint and allow you to see more clearly.

2. Ignore the Details

Editing is synonymous with comma hunting, spell-check, and word choice, right? Wrong. So many writers (and more than a few editors) dive right into the detail work, thinking all they have to do is clean up the grammar, completely skipping over a very crucial step — structural editing. Bypassing this is like trying to repair a broken bone with makeup. All you end up with is a mangled limb painted like a hooker. Offensive, maybe, but it gets the point across, no?

At this stage in the process, no one cares if you spelled “definitely” wrong, or have a bazillion commas in all the wrong places. Ignore all that. Look deeper, at the story itself. If the structure isn’t working, there’s no point in polishing. That lump of coal’s not turning into a diamond. The only way to fix it is to become a story surgeon, diagnosing and repairing things that are otherwise fatal to your chances of publication. How? Like this:

Take that fresh perspective you earned in step 1 and read through your manuscript from an aerial view, glossing over all the details. You’ll fix them later. Right now, you want to focus on things like pacing, character motivations, world development, scene transitions and narrative sequence. What’s the message of your book? Is that coming through clearly? Do the characters feel like fully fleshed-out people, or cardboard cut-outs? Are the scenes in the right order or does shuffling a few around improve the plot’s progression? These are the kinds of questions you should be asking. Trust your instincts as a reader. We’ve all been programmed to know when a story works and when it doesn’t. And don’t be afraid to make a giant mess; you can stitch it all back together afterward.

3. Murder Your Habit Words

Habit words are insidious, riddling your manuscript like a cancer, so before you send your book off to the cosmetic surgeon (aka, your editor) for that much-needed facelift, you need to eradicate them. (Don’t ask why my favorite analogy for editing is medical. I don’t know.) Don’t feel bad, everyone has them. They’re like comfort food, something we turn to without even realizing. My habit words are “was”  and “so.” I’m sure I have others, but that’s all I’m admitting to. 😉

Other common ones are “that,” “had,” and “actually.” It can also be a phrase like “for a moment” or “roll his/her/their eyes.” Pretty much anything you find repeating over and over again qualifies as a habit word. Ideally, you should try to avoid repeating words on the same page or even the same chapter! The English vocabulary is huge; use it to your advantage. But without being pretentious about it. Rarely will you find a word that doesn’t have at least one synonym. So before you go to the next step, arm that delete button with a hefty dose of radiation and go hunting for your habit words. You can’t kill them all, but you’ll be surprised at how even just this small tweak can drastically improve the smoothness of your prose.

4. Rhythm’s in the Details

Now you get to go through your manuscript with a fine-toothed comb, copyediting line by line until it’s as perfect as you can make it on your own. This includes things like fixing rocky sentences, condensing wordy parts, simplifying convoluted phrasing, fixing grammar mistakes and just general tweaking for rhythm and smoothness.  This is what people picture when they hear “editing.” It’s the tedious part that will make you want to poke your own eyes out just so you never have to read that chapter ever again. It’s repetitive and monotonous, but it’s like sending your book to the gym. Each pass will trim a little more of the fat until your manuscript is a lean, efficient piece of storytelling. At which point you send it to an editor and the whole process starts over.

That’s right. I just outlined what a professional editor does. (With the exception of #1.)

So, why, if these are all steps you can do yourself, do editors exist? Because they provide objectivity. Even a self-editing master won’t be able to catch everything. Writers can never truly disconnect from their work, can never view it with complete objectivity, because they know the story and what they were trying to convey. An editor provides clarity, finding things that are confusing or missing just like a reader would. But since they’re also literary doctors, they’ll help you fix it, saving you from the embarrassing backlash of reader criticism and scorn. Besides, two heads are better than one. Right?

Exploring the Subgenres of Science Fiction

Welcome to the daunting final installment of my subgenre series — the long-awaited behemoth, Science Fiction.

Sci-fi is most often synonymous with spaceships, aliens, technology, robots, and to some, Star Trek or Star Wars. But there’s more to it than that.  Just like Fantasy sports a whopping 31 subgenres, Science Fiction contains a plethora of subtle variations, each deserving of its own subcategory. A shocking 37 subcategories, to be exact. (And I thought Fantasy was bad!) Now you know why I had to keep deferring this one. That’s a lot of research! Ready to find out what these 37 subcategories are? Then let’s get to it.

Hard Science Fiction

This is the subgenre most people think of when they hear “Science Fiction.” Drawing from the “hard” sciences — physics, astronomy, chemistry– Hard Science Fiction is not for those easily lost by conceptual details. Scientific realism trumps the more mundane aspects of character or plot development, placing this subgenre’s focus on things like exploration and discovery instead. Expect a lot of attention to be paid to process explanations and technology, and if this is a genre you want to write, expect to put in hefty amounts of research. Plausibility is king in this field. If it’s not believable, that ship’s not gonna fly. (Pun intended.)

Star Trek is the most notable example of Hard Sci-fi. There is character development across the series, but that’s not the main focus. I mean, they say it right in the opening sequence. The mission is to “boldly go where no man has gone before.” That same slogan applies to pretty much everything in this category.

Soft Science Fiction

The exact opposite of Hard Sci-fi, Soft Sci-fi puts the emphasis on character and plot, with the scientific aspects taking a backseat. This subgenre focuses on what are considered the “soft” sciences– anthropology, political science, sociology, psychology, etc.  Anne McCaffrey’s Dragon Riders of Pern series would fall in this category. Deceptively starting off as a Fantasy with just a light hint of Sci-fi, later books in the series reveal a heavier Sci-fi slant. But the focus is largely on the characters and cultures, with very clear influence from the disciplines of anthropology and political science.

Military Science Fiction

The name says it all on this one. Military Science Fiction revolves around a distinctly militaristic theme. Usually, the characters are part of the military and the plot involves some kind of war. For those fans of the video game world, Bioware’s Mass Effect trilogy and Bungie’s Halo series are prime examples of this type of story.

Robot Fiction

Another one where the name is pretty self-explanatory. Works in this category place heavy focus on the science of robotics. Isaac Asimov is one of the most prominent pioneers of this subgenre, but you’ll see this theme a lot in films. 2004’s I, Robot springs to mind as a popular example of these kinds of stories.

Social Science Fiction

Social Science Fiction is an interesting creature. It relies heavily on the influence of Social Science to extrapolate and then criticize future societies. So at its heart, it’s a genre bent on satire, on delivering criticisms and moral messages about our own society through the filter of a fictional, future one.  This subgenre shares a lot of similarities with Dystopian Fiction in that sense. Notable, and probably familiar, examples include Brave New World by Aldous Huxley and The Giver by Lois Lowry.

Space Opera

For those of you who pictured the operatic blue alien from The Fifth Element, I’m sorry to say, you’re wrong. This subgenre has nothing to do with music. It does, however, bear a slight resemblance to its more earthly counterpart — the Soap Opera.

Space Operas are adventure stories. Romanticized and melodramatic sometimes, but still. They usually center around a sympathetic hero going up against insane odds in an epic battle to save the universe.  Good always wins in a Space Opera, and if you can’t guess the notable work I’m alluding to yet, here’s a hint: it features light-sabers, Wookies, and a princess in a slave outfit. 😉

That’s right, Star Wars was, and is, considered a Space Opera. (Alternatively, it’s also known as a Science Fantasy, for the same thematic reasons.)

So although this subgenre may have some intrinsic ties to the much-ridiculed Soap Opera, don’t let that color your feelings. Star Wars is one of the most successful Science Fiction franchises of all time, and if it can survive being called a Space Opera, your work probably can too.


Steampunk is an strange one, spawning an entire subculture as well as a subgenre. It’s often set in an industrialized not-so-distant, alternate future, with heavy influences from 19th century Victorian England and the American Wild West. Strange combo, no? It may also contain elements of Fantasy, Horror, or Historical Fiction. The main requirement, though, is that a story in this category must include steam-technology and a 19th century perspective on everything from machinery to fashion. Examples include the work of H. G. Wells and Jules Verne as well as more contemporary author, Phillip Pullman.  But with the rapidly growing popularity of this cultural movement, Steampunk will likely have several more notable titles soon.


Cyberpunk is Sci-Fi’s answer to the Detective/Crime Novel. Its settings are typically dark and gritty, with a heavy emphasis placed on advanced technology. Plots often revolve around the degradation of society and the abuse of technology. Hackers, Artificial Intelligence and Megacorporations spying on the world are all elements seen in these high-intensity thrill rides. The work of Phillip K. Dick falls largely under this category, making him one of the most well-known authors in this field.


Biopunk is pretty much the same as Cyberpunk, but instead of an emphasis on technology, it focuses on the biological. Genetic modification and DNA engineering are common in this subgenre, providing a cautionary look at the downside to messing with biology. The Island of Dr Moreau by H. G. Wells would be a prime example, although it technically predates the creation of this category.


Another cousin of the previous “punk” categories, Nanopunk focuses on a specific set of technology — nanotechnology. Michael Chricton’s Prey, as well as NBC’s recent hit show, Revolution, are both examples.

Superhero Fiction

Ah yes, a subgenre full of dudes in tights and capes, and women wearing barely-there spandex and magic-powered accessories. I don’t think there’s a person alive who isn’t familiar with this category, (don’t lie, you know you went through the towel-turned-cape wearing phase when you were a kid) although it’s much more popular in the visual mediums– TV, film, video games, and comic books.

The basic idea is exactly what you’d expect, a “good” protagonist dressed in an elaborate costume faces off against a supervillain. Often, both hero and villain have superhuman abilities, making their battles nothing less than epic. Which is why we continue to reboot these narratives over and over and over again. I mean, seriously, what are we on, like our 8th Batman?

Scientific Romance

No, this isn’t a combination of Sci-Fi and Romance, although that does exist. (It’s considered Science Fiction Romance, in case you forgot. 😉 ) Scientific Romance is actually an archaic term that was the genre’s original name. Now, it refers specifically to works from the late 19th to early 20th centuries or ones that are purposely written to sound that way. H.G Wells, Jules Vern, and Sir Arthur Conan Doyle are considered part of this category, largely because they were writing during that time frame, pioneering the genre.

Gothic Science Fiction

I find it interesting that this isn’t lumped into Horror Sci-Fi, but rather is given its own designation. Gothic Science Fiction is what it claims– a combination of Gothic-minded elements and Sci-fi. Vampires and Zombies are frequent visitors here. The most common plot is the attempt to explain monsters through science. There’s heavy emphasis placed on the biological explanation of these more-typically mythological creatures while still maintaining that darker, Gothic edge. Think Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein, or Richard Matheson’s I Am Legend.

Mundane Science Fiction

This subgenre very closely resembles Hard Sci-fi, except there’s no interstellar travel or alien life forms. Fascinatingly enough, part of this subgenre is a position that things like worm holes, warp drives, and multi-galaxy exploration (all things typically found in Hard Sci-fi) are speculative wish-fulfillment and could never really happen. (Which I suppose makes the choice of “mundane” in the title fairly appropriate.) Instead, this subgenre focuses on stories that could happen, and often contain scientific data that can be, or has been, corroborated by scientists. Geoff Ryman and the short story anthology he edited, When It Changed: Science Into Fiction, are the most prominent names associated with this subgenre.

Horror Science-fiction

Just like it sounds, this is a combination of Horror and Sci-fi. Pairing the adrenaline inducing gore and violence of Horror with Sci-fi’s action-based futures, this is a powerful combination. Alien invasions, mad scientists, experiments gone wrong, there’s really no end to the number of ways Sci-fi can terrify us. Resident Evil, The Body-snatchers, The Alien Franchise, even The Terminator, are all examples of just how lucrative this category can be.

Comic Sci-fi

Again, pretty straight-forward. In fact, so straight-forward that all I should have to say is this: Douglas Adam’s Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy. See? Enough said, right?

But seriously, this is a combination of Comedy and Sci-fi. It exploits the elements of Science Fiction for comic relief, often leaning toward satire, as in our example above.

Science Fantasy

This is a blend of Science Fiction and Fantasy (Duh, right?) that lends a sheen of scientific realism to things that could never really exist. This is a squishy subgenre at best, and has never been truly solidified with a description. Surprisingly, one of my all-time favorite series, Shannara, by Terry Brooks, is considered this. I never knew that. See? Even I learn something doing these posts.

Apocalyptic Science Fiction

These next two subcategories are very tightly linked. Apocalyptic Science Fiction is all about the end of days, the downfall of civilization. The whole story leads up to some cataclysmic event that destroys life as we know it. Sometimes we survive, sometimes we don’t. But once disaster strikes, the story’s over. Otherwise, it becomes part of the next subgenre.

Post-Apocalyptic Science Fiction

If Apocalyptic is about the disaster itself, Post-apocalyptic naturally features what happens next, after the crisis. Often it includes desolate landscapes, a much smaller population, and sometimes even a return to medieval, or non-technology-enhanced ways of life. Apocalyptic fiction is often depressing, but Post-apocalyptic brings a sense of hope with it, revolving around themes like survival and rebirth/rebuild.

Zombie Fiction

I know what you’re thinking: Doesn’t this belong in Horror? Well, that depends entirely on the storytelling approach. When the emphasis is placed on the fear created by a Zombie Apocalypse, and violence and gore play a major role, then yes, I would tend to agree that it’s more fitting in Horror. But when the focus of the story is on an infectious contagion sweeping through the world, turning everyone to mindless, flesh-craving mutants, that’s Sci-fi’s realm. So it really just depends.

Alien Invasion

There seems to be a lot of these self-explanatory subgenres in Sci-fi, doesn’t there? Alien Invasion is exactly what you’d expect: Aliens invading Earth for the nefarious reasons of either destroying or enslaving mankind. This has been one of the most common storylines in Sci-fi; it’s right up there with Hard Sci-fi’s exploration and discovery. From War of the Worlds, to Independance Day, to Avatar, Alien Invasions have fascinated audiences. I wonder if we’ll find it so fascinating if it ever really happens?

Alien Conspiracy

Unlike Alien Invasion, where all hell breaks loose as massive ships descend from the sky, Alien Conspiracy takes a more subtle stance on the whole Alien thing. UFO sightings and abductions are fair game in this category and stories usually center on the conspiracy itself, on the journey to truth. Perhaps the most well-known example of this subgenre is The X-Files.

Time Travel

First popularized as a Sci-fi subgenre by H.G. Wells and The Time Machine, Time Travel is one of those things, like Historical, that crosses several genres. And, like Zombies, the designation between each is subtle and based on the approach. Time Travel without an explicit, scientific explanation would fall more in the realm of Fantasy, but when it’s based in science, like The Time Machine, it’s most definitely Sci-Fi. Other than that distinction, the idea is the same– traveling through time. End of story.

Alternate History

We’ve seen this header elsewhere. And just like its Fantasy counterpart, Sci-fi’s version is pretty straightforward. It’s a story rooted in history, but then deviates from that to create an alternate timeline. Pretty simple, no?

Parallel Worlds

This is the only subgenre that allows for pure speculation, more akin to Fantasy in many ways than its Sci-fi brothers. The idea is that there is a parallel universe to our own, where the world is either recognizable or very much not. Often including elements of Time Travel, Parallel Worlds is rife with endless possibilities for imaginative new twists. The most prominent and recent example I can think of is Fox’s cult hit, Fringe.

Lost Worlds

This subgenre features tales of adventure, discovering lost locations (islands, continents, planets, etc.) that tend to feature dinosaurs or other extinct creatures and cultures. Jules Verne’s A Journey to the Center of the Earth is a prime example of this type of fiction.

Dystopian Fiction

Just like Dystopian Fantasy (which isn’t an official subgenre yet), Dystopian Sci-fi is all about the opposite of Uptopia. Generally set in a near-future heavy with social unrest, Dystopian Fiction explores things like police states, repression, and dictatorship. They also commonly feature rebellions. This subgenre has seen a recent boost in popularity, especially with the YA audience, claiming such heavy-hitters as Suzanne Collins’s Hunger Games Trilogy and Marie Lu’s Legend Series.

Space Western

Yep, space cowboys. (Oh, come on, you know you were thinking it.) Combining the ideology of frontier America with intergalactic travel may sound like a ridiculous concept, but it’s actually a pretty potent combination. How many of you have heard of a little show by the name of Firefly? **Waits for the fanboy/girl squealing to die down.** Yeah, exactly. That’s a Space Western. Enough said, right?

Retro Futurism

This subgenre can boiled down to a phrase: “The future as seen from the past.” It has to conform to a vision of the future presented by artists pre-1960, creating a nostalgic blend of elements to showcase a timeline that could have been but never was. Sky Captain and the World of Tomorrow, The Rocketeer, and even The Phantom all qualify for this category.

Recursive Science Fiction

How’s this for a convoluted subgenre? Recursive Science Fiction is Science Fiction about Science Fiction. The best way I can describe it is that it’s a framed narrative often featuring a protagonist writing a science fiction story. Fortunately, it’s rare, so I wouldn’t dwell on this one if I were you.


Landing somewhere between Literary and Speculative Fiction, Slipstream is just plain weird. It’s actually known as the “fiction of strangeness.” It actively tries to break the conventions of genre, crossing between the various styles with ease. A good Slipstream will leave you feeling confused and uncomfortable, and is often accompanied by a resounding, “WTF?” But hey, to each their own!

Anthropological Science Fiction

This subgenre is rooted entirely in the discipline of Anthropology. It seeks to portray races and cultures to the same scientific degree that anthropologists do, even if those races and cultures are entirely fictitious. Notable names under this header include Ursula K. Le Guin, Chad Oliver, and Michael Bishop.

And that concludes our long, sometimes arduous, journey through the many literary subgenres. Next week, I’ll return to my previous style of snarky commentary on something random. (Which really means I have no idea what to write about now and will spend the next 4-5 days scrabbling for a topic.) Thanks for sticking around and if you happen to have a topic request, feel free to send it via the Contact page. (Like seriously, no idea what to write about. Suggestions would be mighty helpful! 😉 )

Investigating the Subgenres of Mystery

We’re only two posts away from completing our trek through literary subgenres. Excited? I am. I think my brain’s about to overload from all this information.

This week, it’s Mystery’s turn. Mysteries are literary puzzles, challenging the reader to unravel the story and put all the pieces in place before the big reveal. They rely heavily on suspense and foreshadowing, carefully withholding pertinent information about the antagonist’s motivation, and even identity, until the very end. When done well, the clues are so subtle the reader only fully understands in a glorious “Oh! Now I get it!” burst of clarity once everything’s been revealed. These narratives are twisty, brilliantly convoluted, and written to keep you on your toes. Which is why they’re one of my favorite genres, both as a reader and an editor.

But just like every genre, Mystery is broken into subcategories — 20 to be exact. You know what happens next.


I’m pretty sure there’s one prominent name that comes to mind for this subgenre — Sherlock Holmes. Yep, Sir Arthur Conan Doyle’s famously eccentric sleuth is a prime example of this Mystery staple. But he’s certainly not alone. Detective stories can feature professional private investigators, as in David Baldacci’s Sean King and Michelle Maxwell books, or they can be amateurs, like Jessica Fletcher in Murder, She Wrote. The point is that each book follows an investigation from the POV of the detective, creating a kind of follow-along for readers as they try to, ideally, solve the crime first.  Detectives with winning personalities, such as Mr. Holmes, are prime candidates for long-running series, making the central character as important to this subgenre as the mysterious crimes themselves.

Child/Woman in Peril

These stories typically feature kidnappings; the mystery lies not only in why the victim has been taken, but whether or not they will be saved. High intensity and heavy on action, this is a favored storyline for film as well as literature. Most recent examples include Taken, starring Liam Neeson, as well as ABC’s failed show, Zero Hour (although there was a lot more to that than just the kidnapping). Agatha Christie’s Murder on the Orient Express also falls under this heading.

Classic Whodunit

(You can’t have Mystery without a Whodunit reference.)

These also usually feature a professional investigator, but they’re different from Detective stories because the situation is more prominent than the characters. Think more like Clue, where the crime is the most important element and figuring out the puzzle is the main point. These are usually stand-alone books, where the detective just conveniently happens to be included, rather than character-driven series like Detective fiction.

The best example of this subgenre is Agatha Christie’s And Then There Was None.

Comic (Bumbling Detective)

Fusing Humor with Mystery, these are light-hearted tales meant to elicit laughs. Often, they feature a detective who is less-than-qualified but who still manages to fumble their way into solving the crime. Examples include Inspector Clouseau from The Pink Panther, as well as USA’s former hit, Monk. Those are extreme examples though. Really, it can be any Mystery that puts emphasis on the humorous elements, diffusing what can sometimes be rather dark material with laughter. A & E’s recently cancelled show, The Glades, would fit here with its wise-cracking lead character, as does ABC’s Castle.


Cozy mysteries occur in small towns or even single homes. The characters, except the detective, who’s conveniently an outsider, all know each other and the tension is laced with the possibility of betrayal. Though primarily Horror, since it’s based on the work of Stephen King, I would categorize CBS’s Under the Dome here as well. It contains many of the required elements — a small town trapped under a mysterious dome, with one convenient outsider trying to understand the many layers of intrigue. But technically, Murder, She Wrote is a better known example. (What? It can fall into more than one category.)

Legal Thriller

Legal Thrillers are similar to Detective, but feature lawyers instead of investigators. They takes place entirely in the legal system, whether that be an attorney trying to convict/acquit a client, unraveling the clues of the case as they go, or simply set against a backdrop of law-wielding firms. John Grisham’s famous novel, The Firm, is a prime example.

Dark Thriller

This one has a slightly misleading name. It’s actually a combination of Horror and Mystery, pulling the fear and graphic violence from Horror and mixing it up with the suspenseful puzzles of Mystery. Sharp Objects by Gillian Flynn is an example of this kind of story.


More commonly thought of as Thrillers, Espionage books are actually part of Mystery (because technically Thriller is part of Mystery). These titles revolve around the international spy game, as blatantly referenced by the subgenre’s name. The most recent resurgence of this category features spies facing off against terrorists, racing to find and stop planned attacks and tracking down leaders hiding in the shadows. They’re exciting in the way only spy stories can be. (Who doesn’t love to say stuff like, “Bond. James Bond”?) Espionage lets readers step into a glamorous (and fictional) life of adventure and subterfuge, making the focus of these plotlines plain ole action.


Like most of the Mystery subgenres, Forensic once again revolves around solving crimes, this time through the highly detailed and scientific lens of the forensics lab. Popularized by shows like Bones and CSI, this subgenre is dominated by a small niche of authors — Kathy Reichs (the real-life inspiration behind Bones), Patricia Cornwell and Tess Gerritsen (behind TNT’s popular hit, Rizzoli & Isles) are just a few.

Heists & Capers

Who doesn’t love a good heist? Face it, there’s something inherently appealing about the elaborate schemes to steal priceless items, the thrill of the con, and the ever-present question of “can they really pull this off?” This subgenre glorifies the “anti-hero,” meaning that it’s told from the criminal or “bad guy’s” POV. The rules of the category actually say that the criminals aren’t supposed to win, that their plans are foiled at the last minute and everything goes wrong, but more recent variations like Ocean’s Eleven and TNT’s now-deceased show, Leverage, give the audience a different end — a criminal’s happy ever after, as it were.


See? Here it is again! I’m telling you, Historical should become its own genre.

Anyway, just like all the other variations, a Historical Mystery is set against a recognizable period of time and may or may not include famous historical personas. Fascinatingly enough, this particular subcategory of Historical features a niche market of Chinese Mysteries (stories set in ancient China and Japan) as well as the standard Elizabethan, etc. The Sano Ichiro series by Laura Joh Rowland is a great example.


This could almost be described as an omniscient mystery, wherein the reader witnesses the murder up front, knowing full well who the killer is, and the suspense is created around figuring out “how” they will be caught. So the reader knows more than the detective and watches from the sidelines while they struggle to figure it out. The most fantastic use of this technique I’ve encountered is actually in ABC’s most recent drama, Motive, but the subgenre has been around since 1912.

Locked Room

If you’re like me, then you instantly thought of panic rooms. But, like me, you’d be wrong. Locked Room is a strange niche of a subgenre that seems to have fallen out of favor. The idea is that the central crime is committed under seemingly impossible circumstances but is later explained rationally. The most notable example is Edgar Allan Poe’s short story, The Murders in the Rue Morgue, which apparently spawned the whole thing.


From unknown viral epidemics to the diagnostic marvels seen in Fox’s House, Medical mysteries are pretty straight-forward. Obviously, they contain something medical that, for whatever reason, is unexplained. Figure out what the disease is, where it came from, or how to cure/stop it, and the story’s over. It’s as easy as that.

Police Procedural

Ah, yes, everyone’s favorite Mystery subgenre. Without it, we wouldn’t have such iconic shows as Law and Order, (all 15 versions of it), or half of TV’s current offerings. Police Procedural is such a well-known category, I almost feel like it’s a waste for me to define it. But just in case you’ve somehow managed to avoid exposure to this type of story, here’s the deal:

It features police detectives (with their assorted teams of bad-ass forensics people) unraveling often brutal crimes and eventually catching the perps.

See? Didn’t I just describe about 80% of prime-time, scripted TV?

Psychological Suspense

I think perhaps I missed my calling as a psychologist, because once again, these stories fascinate me. Most of the other subgenres focus on who committed the crime, or how, but Psychological Suspense focuses on why. It explores the dark and twisty pathways of the human psyche and the motivation behind a crime. Also called Psychological Thrillers, the story rides not on an external threat, but on an internal one, focusing on the character’s emotional state, mental abilities or instability. TNT’s current hit (and one of my favorite shows), Perception, would fit nicely under this header.


Another cross-breed, Romantic mysteries combine, you guessed it — Romance and Mystery. A relatively new subgenre, Romantic features strong, compassionate heriones prone to falling in love with their crime-solving partners. But while the romance is a strong element in these tales, it takes a backseat to the puzzle, making this melding of genres a different one for Romance. Usually, when Romance is involved, it’s the dominating story arc, but here, it plays second fiddle to the standard plotlines of Mystery.


This subgenre has two requirements:

  • A high level of action
  • Heavy emphasis on technology

Scientific detail is imperative in these and often plays a crucial role in the plot’s progression. Espionage, conspiracy theories and military action are also cornerstones of this category, with quite a few heavy-hitting names gracing the lists: Michael Crichton, Tom Clancy and Dan Brown (for his work prior to The Da Vinci Code) are some you may have heard of.


This is such a broad category that some consider it a genre unto itself. But technically, it does fall under the parameters of Mystery. Thrillers deal with pretty much every topic under the sun. The criteria, therefore, has less to do with certain plotlines or characters and more to do with the storytelling techniques themselves.

Thrillers use suspense, tension and excitement to create adrenaline-inducing thrill rides that are action-packed and gripping. Red herrings, plot twists and cliff-hangers run rampant through this subgenre, making them some of the most exciting tales on the market. It also makes them prime fodder for Hollywood to cherry pick, as they are an almost sure hit with audiences.

Woman in Jeopardy

Similar to Child/Woman in Peril, this also focuses on a damsel in distress. The difference is that, here, she’s also the heroine. So instead of having to be rescued like in a Child/Woman in Peril, Woman in Jeopardy focuses on the protagonist’s ability to outwit, outmaneuver and ultimately escape from her dangerous adversary. Lisa Jackson and Heather Graham, though both technically considered Romance authors, tend to write stories that qualify for this category as well.

And there you have it — a breakdown of the various mysteries of Mystery. As you can see, this genre plays a dominant role in many mediums. We’re surrounded by it on a daily basis, to the point that it almost becomes synonymous with storytelling. Humans are curious creatures, and Mystery plays right into that, capturing our attention in ways the other genres don’t. I mean, don’t get me wrong, we all know I’m a Fantasy girl at heart. But I can’t deny that Fantasy allows more of a passive approach to enjoyment, while Mystery makes your brain work for it. If you want to be a couch-potato, soaking your entertainment in from the sidelines, Mystery’s definitely not the genre you should go to.

Next week will be the grand finale to this post series; the epic conclusion to our journey — the behemoth that is Science Fiction. Better polish up those reading glasses, it’s going to be a long one. Don’t say I didn’t warn you! 😉