Tag Archives: genre

The Pitfalls of Genre

Guest Post by Gregory D. Little

Greg LittleSo what genre do you write in?

I always inwardly cringe at this question. Genre is an inescapable part of fiction, and for good reason. It’s a useful tool. Necessary, even. Trying to talk about fiction without touching on genre would be like trying to describe the color red. The fact is that the human brain is hard-wired to simplify and categorize. It’s a necessary short-cut, one that keeps us from burning excess energy trying to remember too much detail.

Genre is just another means to that end. It’s a time-saver, a chaos-reducer. We all have limited time and money. Will I like this book? Well, it’s an epic fantasy, and I’ve liked other epic fantasies. Automatically your bet is safer. You pick up a book, quickly discern its genre, and are comforted. You can even tailor your decision to your mood. A mystery when you want to be thrilled. An epic fantasy when you want to feel wonder. Erotica when you want … well, you know.

So the genre of a story tells us what to expect. More than that, the tropes inherent in each genre know the shortest paths to evoking feeling. Every trope that exists does so because it’s tried and true. On some level, it works. When you select your fiction by genre, you are investing your money and time in that sense of certainty.

Yet the same part of our brains that excels in categorization short-cuts can lead us to prejudice and bigotry. And the certainty and safety of genre can quickly become a prison for the unwary writer. Must all noir begin with a mysterious woman entering the shabby office of a hard-bitten detective? Must epic fantasy always sprawl across many volumes and feature a world overflowing with detail? You’d be forgiven if you sometimes thought so.

Even more confusing, most genres have fluid definitions. Is Star Wars science fiction or fantasy? It has space travel, laser swords and aliens, but also magic. Most people would describe it as space opera, but I’ve also heard it referred to as a fantasy set in space. So it turns out the definitions of the various genres can’t even be agreed upon.

Yet fluid or no, the pressure to conform your writing to those genre labels is still there. Publishers love such labels. Categories make marketing easier, which makes selling things easier. Think how many times you’ve heard “If you liked X, you’ll love Y! It’s basically X with a new twist!” I think a lot of new writers feel compelled force-fit their writing into rigidly defined genres for the purposes of pitching and selling. I know I’ve felt that way.

Yet as I’ve started writing more frequently and regularly, I’ve begun to feel stifled if I try to color only within genre lines. It began with a shift in my reading habits. I still read plenty of works that fit comfortably within genre lines. But the books that really get me excited are the books that cross genres, blur the lines between them, or even actively subvert and reject them.

Perdido Street Station by China Mieville is a good example of what I’m talking about. Is it steampunk? Secondary world fantasy? Extra-dimensional horror? It could be all of these or none. All I know is that it blew me away when I read it.

Finding and reading such works is one thing. Writing them can be another. The tracks that familiar tropes wear into your mind over time are often so deep they are hard to notice. If you aren’t careful, you’ll find yourself tending to slouch lazily into those tropes even when you don’t mean to. Breaking out of them at all can be difficult. You’ll have to cultivate a healthy mistrust of your own brain, shooting down first, second, third ideas, anything that feels too comfortable. Because the brain will naturally default to ideas it’s seen and liked in the past. Learning when to trust such instincts and when not to takes practice.

Even if you succeed, there are pitfalls. Crossing genres in the wrong way can create problems with mixed tones. Avoiding or subverting too many tropes can undermine the emotional core of the work. If you tap into too few emotional shortcuts, the story will fail to satisfy the reader at all. It’s a balancing act, but in this writer’s opinion, it’s worth the risk. Because when those genre-busting stories work, there is-by definition-nothing else like them. And because the only thing more fun than reading such stories is writing them.

So by all means, experiment. Strike out in unexpected directions with plot, setting or character. Abandon your story’s genre entirely. Or if that thought leaves you too far adrift, pick out your genre’s more useful elements and lay them within your story’s foundation. Keep that foundation below ground. Then try to build something amazing atop it, something beautiful for its strangeness, something so different it worries you. Even frightens you. Follow your story wherever it takes you, even if that’s out across trackless ground.

Choosing A Genre or Mashing-Up Genres ““ What’s it All About?

 I read three well written novels novels recently and wasn’t sure what genre they belonged in. They were set in the future – one was set in a dystopian Calgary with some really cool cyborg people, another was set on Mars where people had the option of having their consciousness transferred into android bodies, and the third was set in another solar system with interstellar travel and neat technologies and alien beings. Science fiction seemed logical as they were all in the future, but their telling and basic elements were much more traditional.
defining diana
If mystery had a future-crime sub-genre, all would fit that category beautifully. Rob Sawyer’s Red Planet Blues has a delightful, laid back gum shoe detective. Defining Diana by Hayden Trenholm (see his blog on writing science fiction later this month) is a solid crime novel that’s gritty, hard and gruesome when it needs to be. K.A. Bedford’s Hydrogen Steel has a retired homicide inspector struggling to save humanity while she struggles to accept her own physical reality. These are three well-executed detective stories  marketed as science fiction.

The fact is, when we write, we use elements from several genres in our stories. Mystery in science fiction. Thriller in fantasy.  Romance in steampunk. The mash ups are as varied as the imagination! And yet, some work better than others. Why? The magic happens when the author understands the elements that make each genre unique. For example, a cozy mystery like Rex Stout’s adventures with Nero Wolfe, could have easily fallen into the annals of “literature’ as Stout deftly captures the voice of the time by using strong characters and a well-defined milieu. Yet, his stories are, first and foremost, mysteries and his novels are marketed as such.

ShanghaiSteam-110px-150dpi-C8In all four examples, it is each author’s ability to understand the genres they are mashing that gives their work depth and memorable voice. Most importantly, their writing is a joy to read as it pleases the intellect on many levels. Making it fun for the reader, transporting him to worlds he never dreamed of – that’s the true test of knowing your genre well and choosing mash-ups wisely. I recently had the privilege to edit Shanghai Steam , an anthology with a unique mash-up of steampunk and wuxia. Reading the submissions and editing the selected stories was fun because authors who understood the subtleties of both genres created distinct worlds, plots and characters. Fun, gripping, mind-blowing – that’s what it’s all about for writers and readers.

Do you choose to write in one specific genre or do you use a mash-up? Every novel has elements of several genres and the question is one of degree and desired market placement. Is it science fiction or mystery? That’s determined when you decide the character of your novel – what its unique voice will be. It’s no different than creating well-rounded, deep characters as was discussed in many of February’s posts. Frank Morin, in his post Complex Characters reminded us of Shrek thinking he is like an onion – layered. In his post Platonic Male-Female Relationships in Fiction (a.k.a. “The Glue”), Evan Braun compared the complexities of romance against friendship as he discussed how each creates a different dynamic in character interaction. What is your story’s dynamic? How will the  genres you choose relate to one another? Is your story more mystery or science fiction? Which genre will have the stronger voice? Like Shrek’s onion, how many layers deep will you go into each genre? What blend provides the best milieu for telling your story? How will your characters and your readers react? What will you choose?

March’s posts will help you better understand how each genre can give your story its unique voice and character. We’ll also have posts comparing genre writing to literature, choosing which genres to mash and how to market them, and there’ll also be a case for not worrying about any of it. There will be posts on specific genres including horror,  steampunk, fantasy, romance, science fiction and many others. What makes each genre unique? What makes it work?

Choose your story’s voice and character and have fun writing as you peel back the layers!

Let’s see now … Miss Marple in dystopian 2081? A western horror? Steampunk space opera? Romantic military SF? Historical fantasy thriller? Urban fantasy folktale? So many to choose from…

Genre Writing is Like Your Favorite Food

Last night I was in a group and had been discussing my book that is currently in edits and being beta-read.  One of my female friends and I began a private talk about reading preferences and she said, “Most romance novels are stupid.”  I write romance, but took no offense because people like what they like.  I get it.

As we discussed this topic further, my friend said the thing she didn’t like about romances was exactly what I like best about romances.  And what I think most people like best about whatever genre writing they read – that they know the formula, they like the formula and they want more of the formula.  Not saying that genre writing is boring or predictable.  I don’t think it is.  I think it’s more resonance and comfortableness.  It’s like your favorite food.  No matter how you change the method of cooking or the ingredients involved – a burger is a burger.  You know it, you like it, you want more of it.   It’s familiar and we like that.

That’s what genre writing is.  Any particular genre has it’s own conventions, things that must happen in order for it to qualify as being in that genre.   In romance, the hero and heroine have to have conflict they overcome in order to be together at the end.  They will be together at the end.  That’s non-negotiable.  No matter the bumpy road (and it needs to be a bumpy road) they must traverse, they also must end up at their destination of happy-ever-after together.   That makes me happy.  I can still get caught up in the bumpy road and feel their frustration and joy with them, but in the end I know it will all be OK and that works for  me.   I like the journey.

I have another friend, she doesn’t like romance writing either, who wants to know what happens after they get together.  She doesn’t want to know how they get together, she wants to know how they stay together for the long haul, the day in and day out.   I don’t care so much how they stay together, I don’t want to see them struggling with how to make time for each other, find romance despite having two point five kids and a mortgage.  This does make for many a great romantic-comedy movie though.  But me, I just want to see them get together after some trials and be left with the fantasy that all will be well – no matter what.

David Farland (aka Dave Wolverton), a SciFi / Fantasy writer (among so many other things he does brilliantly) says that we like genres for what they make us feel.  Fantasy brings us a sense of wonder, Mystery’Suspense gives us a thrill while we try to solve the problem.  Again – this is what makes it genre writing.

I like and read different genres and I know exactly what I’m getting when I start reading.  I know the conventions (or formula) that I can count on, but what I don’t know is the means by which I will travel this familiar road or the sights I will see as I go down it.  But I do know the destination and that’s where I want to end up.  Just watch what happens when a writer tries to not follow the rules of that genre.  It won’t be liked.  Many a reader will be angry in fact.

So back to my first friend and her ‘romance is stupid’ comment.  When she told me what she did like to read, I was amused because she just likes a different genre with different rules.  She didn’t even seem to realize that what she enjoys reading has the same results over and over too.  Different and yet the same.  I didn’t bother pointing that out.

Your thoughts?