By Letitia Coyne
Posted July 26, 2012
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One of the problems I come back to often in reading new fiction, especially DIY fiction, is genre.
Every book contains elements of several genres; some go together more naturally than others. But if you seriously want to write blended genres you had better know the important marks you will need to hit. A science fiction epic that has a romantic thread is not a blend of genres, it is a sci-fi epic in which the main characters develop a romantic attachment. In order to be blended genres, the romance has to be as important to the story as the science on which the story is based. Likewise, history and fantasy often go hand in hand, but if the historical details have no basis in fact, what you have is a fantasy set in an alternative history.
I read authors promoting their work and struggling with the blurred lines between genres, looking for familiar labels with which to help their audience find their work. It isn’t easy, but it should be easier than it is proving to be. Authors are ignoring the importance of reader expectation, and the importance of their own brand-power, by failing to curb their enthusiasm.
If you were writing for a publisher, they would give you nice clear guidelines which they like met and which their audience has come to expect. Along with a word count, they will give you a framework of elements that are recognized by their readers. Those elements are usually the reason readers choose that genre. They require certain things of a story in order to feel satisfied with what they have read.
If you try to write a story which is impossible to classify because it does not meet the requirements of any one genre, but mixes a whole pile of elements into a porridge, you may well find there is no label and no audience looking for what you have produced. The idea of blended genres is very popular with readers – as long as the important parts of each thread are there and satisfying, and they are getting more than they expect and not less.
What are the markers?
I hope you would choose to write what you enjoy reading, that is one of the few rules for writing that I think is well founded. If you love a type of story, you are likely to know instinctively what is important in your tale. If you are going to blend genres, try to blend genres you know. Some are a good deal easier to define than others. If in doubt, find a publisher of your chosen genre and read their guidelines. As an independent you don’t need to do anything you don’t want to do, but it can pay to take some proven advice. For example:
Know your world. Readers will not tolerate shifting parameters, and even if the rules of the real world are broken, the rules you establish for your fantasy realm have to be consistent. The landscape, geography, and weather should be familiar to you and stable. Characters have to be fantastic in some way. Stereotypes are common in fantasy, it’s true, but in my opinion, only fantasies in their lowest form use duck-out-of-water normal main characters thrust into a fantastic world, these days, or a Deus ex machina magical solution to any problem.
Define, and ensure you know, the history of the world you create. It is not sufficient to use a vaguely fantastic world unless the fantasy aspect is only window dressing for the storyline. That is, unless you are aware that you are not writing a blended fantasy genre.
Know your subgenres and do not mix and match elements without knowing your subject. Subgenres of fantasy include alternate history, urban, dark, high, historical, steampunk, wuxia, sword and sorcery, time travel, and the paranormal. Fantasy should be based on heroes, myths and legend, folklore, fairy tales, and magic.
A bit of magic in an otherwise real world setting is not sufficient to wear the badge.
A romance has a happy-ever-after ending. There are no exceptions. If you choose to have a story which does not end happily, as well you might, it does not fit the romance genre label. Before you reach the happy resolution, some other key points you must recognize are pace, conflict – internal and external, and intensity.
These have to be key drivers of the story and key motivators of the characters. If this is a side-issue and only part of the general ambience, it will not qualify as a blended romance. The central characters should meet and clash as close to page one as possible, and an intense love or hate emotional reaction at each meeting is essential. Adding a rocky relationship to a storyline does not make it a romance. Adding a subplot or setting to a romance does not make it a blended genre, it makes it a subgenre: historical, contemporary, gay and lesbian, mystery, ethnic/multicultural, inspirational romance, paranormal etc.
These should be set in the Old West before the year 1900. As a very specialized form of historical novel, it is essential to get the details accurate. Again, internal and external conflict for the main character is essential and these stories more than most rely on the need for character development: the hero should change and grow as a result of physical and moral conflict. It is not sufficient to drop a clichéd cowboy with a gun into any other realm and still use the Western genre label.
Details, details, details; first, second and third, they are all that matter in this genre. You cannot use anachronisms in thought, attitudes, deeds or accessories. Set the stage carefully and accurately, be it cane or chair or hats or devices. Your historical characters cannot wear clothing or use products that weren’t contemporary. Pay attention to details like social customs, holidays, transportation, and food, and make sure they are relevant to the period. Research, research, research; if it comes off the top of your head it probably has the detail, detail, detail wrong, and you are not blending a historical genre, you are creating an alternative history for another genre altogether.
I won’t go on with the thirty or more genres; maybe another day. It suffices to say that you have to know what reward a reader is hoping for when they search out a particular genre. All genre labels are definitions created to help direct traffic; each carries with it an expectation. If you do not know, if you cannot list the important points in the genre you choose to write, research the question. Go to publishers’ guidelines. Google it, if nothing else. Then take care when you decide to label your work.
It is of no use to anyone in the modern marketplace to draw a mass of readers to your work if they are disappointed with what they find; not because it was a poorly written story, but because it was not something they derived their expected enjoyment from. Use the familiarity of these labels to your advantage rather than railing against them.
Know your readers and what they love. Treat them with the respect due to intelligent consumers. Knowing what a genre actually is before you label your work is not curbing your artistic expression, it is giving your readers a better chance of finding what you’ve created.
Oh – and one last thing. Don’t add in things which are not acceptable to your chosen demographic. Don’t write an inspirational/Christian story full of explicit sex and violence, for example. When you find an audience, don’t offend them in the hope of drawing in another audience who might not exist.
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