Genre Identity Crisis develops when an author does not know or does not care which genre their book falls into. I’m not talking about books which cross genres, or mix genres. If you’re writing a paranormal historical fiction, or a mystery romance, by all means, go for it. I’m speaking about books where the first hundred pages are set in present time, with dramatic tension between two people, and then on page 103, a wand-wielding dwarf from another planet comes out of nowhere and kidnaps the guy. While I’ve never seen this particular plot device, if there are allusions to aliens who use magic in the first hundred pages, everything could work out.
The first sentence should establish your main genre, and by the end of the first paragraph, or at least the first page, any book store owner should be able to decide which shelf fits your book best. If one store owner puts it in the Mystery section, another puts it in with the Fantasy, and another puts it in Historical Fiction, how are your readers ever going to find it? Contextual clues in the first paragraph are important to pulling the reader in.
If a famous author like Terry Brooks wrote a book where there was no hint of druids or elves until page 21, his readers probably wouldn’t care. There are already 25 books in the Shannarra series, and that name being placed somewhere on the book is enough for most readers (and shop owners) to know what genre the book embraces. Aspiring authors, however, do not have the luxury of asking their readers to stick with them for the first ten pages before knowing whether the mystery will be solved by Sherlock Holmes, Shea Ohmsford, or Doctor House.
The easiest way to diagnose Genre Identity Crisis is to ask the author what kind of book they’ve written. If their first response is “Fiction,” they have a problem. If they say “It’s kind of a historical mystery romance, between a vampire and an elf,” if all those elements are in chapter one, then at least they have their elevator pitch down. Resolving Genre Identity Crisis isn’t about making sure the book fits into a predefined box. It’s about establishing very early on the limits of the suspension of disbelief the reader must establish in order to enjoy the book. In other words, don’t bury the lead. If its a biography of Leonardo da Vinci, don’t wait until page 142 to mention he was actually an elf. The moment you pop the bubble your reader puts around your book, is the moment they put it down and move on.