Thursday, July 16, 2020

A Compass That Doesn’t Point North

A few weeks back I talked about things getting their genres mid-identified, and afterwards somebody asked an interesting follow up. Namely, how do we identify genres? What are the benchmarks? How do we decide if something’s sci-fi or a techo-thriller or a romance that just happens to be set in a sci-fi world?

I know this sounds like a simple question, but it isn’t. For a couple reasons. Which I shall go over now.

First and foremost thing to remember—I shouldn’t worry about genre while I’m writing. Genre’s really a marketing tool more than anything else, so it doesn’t have a lot of use on the creative/ artistic side of things. In fact, if I’m worrying a lot about the guidelines of a given genre while I’m writing, I may want to take a step back and make sure I’m not just trying to jump on a trend. In my experience... that doesn’t work out most of the time.

With that in mind... what even is genre? A great way to think of it is a compass (many thanks to Pierce Brown for this analogy). Genre points you in the general direction of things you’re looking for. You want to head south-west? Just keep going that way. You want to find horror novels? They’re all over there.

And that leads us to another good way to think of it, maybe an even more relatable one. Where would my book get stocked in the bookstore? Don’t think about getting misshelved or getting featured on that best-sellers endcap. No excuses, no avoiding the question. Picture your favorite store and decide where would it be shelved in that store. 

If I can’t answer this... I have a problem. Because this is how an agent’s going to try to sell my book. “It’s something new to go here.” Even if I’m just planning on self-publishing an ebook, Amazon’s going to want to know how to categorize it.

Let me tell you one last little story. My first published book was Ex-Heroes, which ended up becoming a series of books set in that world and all involving the same basic theme—superheroes fighting zombies in post-apocalyptic Los Angeles. When the series originally came out, it was through a small press that specialized in apocalyptic fiction, specifically zombie fiction. That was their niche, and they filled it perfectly. So they heavily emphasized the zombie/ post-apocalyptic aspects of the book in their publicity for it. That’s the direction their compass pointed.

But... by book three the series had moved to Broadway Paperbacks at Random House, and they wanted something that would promote well at comic conventions. So... the superheroes became the new focus. And so the compass needle for the books swung from the horror section (in the few stores the small press had gotten them into) to the sci-fi section.

My point being... life finds a way.

No, sorry, my point is that in both cases, the genre gave people a good idea what they’d find when they opened the book. Post-apocalyptic zombies. Superheroes.

So, that said... let’s talk very rough guidelines for a few basic genres. I won’t be able to touch on every genre (and may not even do a fantastic job with these), but I figure if you’re here looking for advice from me, there’s a semi-decent chance you’re writing the same kind of stuff you read. Which is me arrogantly assuming you ended up here because you read a couple of my books and liked them.

Science-Fiction—this is when my fictional elements have a rational, scientific explanation behind them. They don’t need to be explained (although hard science fans love it when you can), but they need to fall within a range of believability.

Science-Fantasy—This is when my story elements are hypothetically grounded in science, but (to paraphrase Arthur C. Clarke) they’re so far advanced they’re beyond all possible understanding and essentially magic.

Fantasy—This is when some aspect of the rules of reality are tossed out the window. It might mean magic. It might mean new races or species (dragons, elves, orcs, owlbears, what have you). Fantasy tends to have less technologically-developed settings.

Urban Fantasy—A subgenre I thought was worth mentioning. Here we’re still tossing some of the reality-rules out the window, but we’re specifically doing it in a modern (or near-modern), real-world setting, often with more modern technology alongside it.

Horror—Might sound obvious, but many aspects of these stories involve fear for both the characters and the reader. Depending on my exact subgenre, that fear can have many different causes and intensities.

Romance—again, might sound obvious, but in romance most of the elements revolve around two characters developing a relationship despite various challenges. There may or may not be a sexual element (of varying explicitness) again depending on my subgenre.

Mystery—This is when the main thrust is trying to find answers to a problem—very often (but not always) involving a crime of some sorts. Another good rule of thumb for mysteries—they tend to center around something that already happened. The mystery is past tense.

Thriller—Somewhat similar to mysteries, this is when the plot elements involve a current, ongoing problem. Because of this, thrillers also tend to have a strong action component and fast pacing. The rule of thumb—thrillers are happening right now.

That’s not all possible genres (not even close), and there are sooo many sub-genres, but it’s enough to get you started.

One last thing to tag onto this. You’ve probably heard of terms like young adult or middle grade. It’s worth noting these aren’t actually genres in and of themselves, but additional guidelines that get applied to a given story. It’s not about my story as much as it is about how I’m choosing to tell that story.

All of this leads me to my final bit of advice, which kind of ties back to that earlier post. If I had to give a one or two sentence elevator pitch about my story, what would be in that pitch? What would I be focusing on? Would I be talking about space elevators and moon colonies, or would I be emphasizing the zombie hordes rising from their graves? Remember—I’ve only got two sentences, and they can’t be run-ons. Elevator pitch. Very fast, very clear.

Consider Twilight. It has vampires and werewolves and more than a few deaths... but it’s not a horror story. It barely counts as urban fantasy. The thing we’d emphasize in our elevator pitch is the high schooler who falls in love with a vampire. It’s a romance novel. Supernatural romance if we want to start focusing down.

And remember—there may be elements to my story that’d normally be immediate signs of one genre, but they don’t come up in that elevator pitch. That’s okay. I shouldn’t try to cram them in. Tamsyn Muir’s Gideon the Ninth has lots of raunchy jokes and a few spaceships, but I’d bet 99% of the people who’ve read it don’t think of it as a comedy or a sci-fi novel--their minds jump right to the necromancy and the murder mystery.

And that’s all I’ve got to say about genre. Unless anyone has any specific questions?

Next time...
Well, in some beautiful, alternate world we all sheltered in place all through March and April, wore our masks for May, and now it’s perfectly safe for all of us to attend San Diego Comic Con next week! YAY!

But in this world, alas, SDCC was cancelled because of folks who refused to do those things. There are still going to be some virtual events, though. I’m doing a panel on sci-fi writing next Friday at 4:00. I’m hoping to have a new Coffeehouse video up by then. And I’m also going to be doing a special Saturday Geekery, live-tweeting a few B-movie classics with some friends. You should come join us.

And all this means that next time, I may revisit and revise my list of top B-movie mistakes.

So until then, go write.

And, c’mon... wear your mask.

2 comments:

  1. In general, would a heist film or story be considered a thriller or its own genre?

    Most crime stories I can think of are thrillers but then you have something like Oceans 8 (which I enjoyed) that is a heist story but almost completely devoid of action and a fairly leisurely pace.

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    1. I'd say a heist is much more it's own thing. Maybe a subgenre of crime? There's such a wide range of heist movies, though, I'm not even sure they'd all fit under crime (Ant-Man for example...).

      Definitely not a thriller, though, since such a huge part of a heist story it the training/anticipation/looking ahead aspect of it. We're waiting for things to start for much more of it than things are in motion, if that makes sense?

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