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Labels and Genre

June 24, 2014

A while back, say around the time of my last blog post, I commented on someone else’s blog in response to a question of what genre I write in. I truthfully answered that, even though most everything I write tends to be at least partly science fiction or fantasy, a.k.a. speculative fiction, I don’t intentionally limit myself to a particular genre. After listing a few examples of stories I’ve worked on over the past couple of years, I went on to say that genre considerations are something you worry about after you have a first draft.

This blogger responded by saying that publishers and readers will assign a genre to your book anyways, and that it’s not possible to write a first draft without knowing the genre, whether you label it or not. This doesn’t directly address what I actually said as much as how this blogger chose to interpret what I said. (This blogger also said that he wasn’t sure what speculative fiction is, which I think is a really strange thing to claim ignorance of.) But this slight misunderstanding in our comments does raise some points that I’d like to address in more detail.

How important is it for a novel to conform to the expectations of a particular genre? Do readers ultimately set the standards for genre expectations, or are they set by the marketing departments of corporate publishers? At what point in the writing process should you start to worry about whether or not your work is going to fit into the conventions of a specific genre?

I certainly don’t have definite answers to those questions, but I have my opinions.

First off, I believe that very few readers limit themselves to a single genre. There may be true crime fans or hard science fiction fans who refuse to read anything else, but they’re a minority of the people who buy fiction. In speculative fiction in particular (does the term really need explaining?) there’s no lack of crossover in readership. How many people in this day and age do you think like John Scalzi’s novels, but don’t follow the work of at least one fantasy author? How many Neil Gaiman fans do you think have never read at least something by Isaac Asimov or Robert Heinlein? Show me someone who considers themselves a Stephen King fan, and I’ll bet you money that they have either read, or at least plan to start reading A Games of Thrones.

Tell me if I’m being presumptuous here.

The question of readers versus publishing house marketing departments is probably too large a question to really address in this post. I think for now it will suffice to say that if a real disparity exists between the two, and I think it does, that it may be another driving force behind the recent explosion in independent publishing. Marketing know-it-alls label a novel as something lame, leading to poor sales, leading to authors saying ‘screw traditional publishing, I can handle it myself and keep more money’. Which is undeniably working out just fine for many professional writers out there.

And when should you start considering whether the story you’re writing fits a particular genre or genres? At the point when such considerations won’t turn you into a hack. If you’re setting out to write a epic fantasy novel (0r three, or twelve) and you’re actively trying to make it conform to some epic fantasy formula before you even have a first draft, then your story will be a pastiche at best. (Ever read Sword of Shannara? I don’t recommend it.)

On the other hand, if you’re writing in a particular genre with the intent of using old tropes in a new way, that’s great. In that case, you need to be familiar with the genre conventions so that you can re-purpose them. Brandon Sanderson’s Mistborn trilogy is a great example of an epic fantasy series that pulls this off.

I realize that as an unpublished author, I’m hardly in the position to be dispensing advice. These are just my opinions. Agree? Disagree? I’d love to see what you think in the comments.


5 Comments leave one →
  1. Ebon Talifarro permalink
    August 25, 2014 4:24 pm

    Hey, I’m Ebon Talifarro, my class (8th grade) wants to interview you, would you have time to answer a few questions?


    • August 27, 2014 1:26 pm

      Hi there. If this is a legitimate request, please send me an e-mail using the address on my Contact page. Thanks.


  2. December 16, 2014 7:53 am

    yeah, except the “dolphin saving you” one


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