Tag Archives: defining literary genre

Speculative Fiction: the Liberation of Ideas #amwriting

The overarching genre of speculative fiction can be broken into two main categories: science fiction and fantasy. Each of them is subdivided into many smaller sub-genres.

Consider what the words “speculative fiction” mean for our purposes.

Speculative = conjectural, suppositional, theoretical, hypothetical, academic, abstract, risky, hazardous, unsafe.

Fiction = novels, stories, creative writing, prose literature, narration, storytelling, romance, fable, imaginative writing, works of the imagination.

Put together, speculative fiction takes risky abstract ideas and expresses them through prose.

Those words give an author permission to leave the boundaries of our known world and go off to explore profound and meaningful concepts through a fictional environment.

Neil Gaiman’s Stardust qualifies as a speculative fiction novel that is a “literary fantasy.” This is because it is a fairytale told with beautiful prose in an unhurried fashion. Lean prose can be leisurely, poetic, and still pack a punch.

That is what true writing is all about, conveying a story in a crafted style with a voice that is uniquely that of the author.

Fairytales always offer us morals, and in Stardust, Gaiman shows us truth. He lays bare the lies we tell ourselves through the simple fairytale motif that real love is not gained through prodigious deeds. All through the narrative, we see the difference between desiring a person and loving them. By the end, we know that love requires truth if it is to survive.

Neil Gaiman trusts his readers. That is something we all need to do. Sometimes a story needs to emerge slowly and be told with beautiful, immersive prose, and we need to trust that our readers will enjoy it if we craft it well.

There is room in the bookstore for books with a less urgent story to tell, as well as those that ambush the reader and beat them bloody with non-stop action.

In 1953’s Caves of Steel, Isaac Asimov took us into the future, a time when humanity had divided into two factions—spacers and earthmen. The Blurb:

Like most people left behind on an over-populated Earth, New York City police detective Elijah Baley had little love for either the arrogant Spacers or their robotic companions. But when a prominent Spacer is murdered under mysterious circumstances, Baley is ordered to the Outer Worlds to help track down the killer. 

The relationship between Baley and his Spacer superiors, who distrusted all Earthmen, was strained from the start. Then he learned that they had assigned him a partner: R. Daneel Olivaw.  Worst of all was that the “R” stood for robot—and his positronic partner was made in the image and likeness of the murder victim!

In 1953, racism was endemic, institutionalized. When Asimov wrote this novel, he took on bigotry and equality in a palatable way by showing us a civilization where androids are denied equality. To murder a human is a crime, but in this society, many otherwise good people doubt that robots are sentient beings with a right to life. Yet, in R. Daneel Olivaw, we meet a sentient being and feel compassion for him.

Isaac Asimov trusted his readers too.

We write because we have a story to tell and concepts to convey. To that end, every word we put to the final product must count if every idea is to be expressed.

Asimov showed us that tight, straightforward prose works.

Gaiman shows us that sometimes you can just have a little fun with it.

The genre of speculative fiction grew out of the the repression of the 1940s and 1950s, and has always been the literary field in which ideas that challenge the norm were sown. Radical concepts could be conveyed when couched fantasy and set in fictional worlds.

Dedicated authors are driven to learn the craft of writing, and it is a quest that can take a lifetime. It is a journey that involves more than just reading “How to Write This or That Aspect of a Novel” manuals. Those are important, but they only offer up a part of the picture. The rest of the education is within each of us, an amalgamation of our life experiences.

Whenever I come across an author whose work shocks, rocks, and shakes me out of my comfort zone, I go back and reread it. The second time, I take notes. I study how they crafted their work, look at their word choices. I ask myself why it moved me.

I do the same with those whose work left me feeling robbed—where did they go wrong? What can I do to avoid this in my work?

I always learn something new from looking at how other authors combine and use words to form the moods and emotions that drive the plot. For me, writing is a journey with no finite destination other than the satisfaction of making small steps toward improvement.

Sometimes my work is good, other times not so much. But when I look back at my early work, I see improvement over time, which is all we can ever hope for.

Don’t lose heart, and don’t give up just because you think you can’t write like your favorite author. Write for yourself and write because you have something to say.

And don’t quit until you arrive at the place where you write “the end” on the last page.


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What’s my Genre? #NaNoWriMo2019 #amwriting

When you sign up and declare your novel at www.nanowrimo.org, you will be asked what genre you think it is. It’s perfectly fine if you don’t really know.

If you don’t really know exactly what genre your work falls into, here is a list of genres and what they represent. This list has appeared on this blog before, so if you’ve seen it before, thank you for stopping by!

First of all, the term “genre” is all about sales, and how readers choose a book to buy.

“Genre” is the label that tells the bookstore what group of books to place your book with. This will be the group where it has the best opportunity to find a reader.

Bookstores and their owners are in the business of selling books.

They understand that most customers will walk past uncounted numbers of wonderful books on their way to the shelves that contain their favorite kind of novel. On that stroll through the bookstore, they won’t even glance at anything that doesn’t shout “SEE ME? I’m Your Genre! Read ME!”

But what about all those things you’ve heard about “literary” or sci-fi” or “chick lit?”

Forget all that noise.

I left a literary fiction readers group because the moderator was an arrogant snob who violently disliked any mention of enjoyment for reading genre fiction.

And there is the opposite end of the spectrum; the friend who consistently mocks literary fiction, which she doesn’t read, as “Hokey Prose and Plotless Ugliness.”

That is not just untrue, it’s an arrogant, divisive thing to say. No genre is immune to authors who get too artsy and go off the rails with their work. And, every genre has authors who are adept at degrading the work of authors who write in other genres as if that work threatens them.

I urge you to ignore the noise generated by the people who want you to conform to their likes and dislikes. Choose what you want to write, based on what you want to read.

How to determine your genre:

First, the genre of a book is defined by setting and content. It is determined by what the author intends the reader to get out of it, their approach to telling the tale, and the way resolutions occur. Walk through the bookstore and examine how the shelves are stocked and what their literary content is. You will see the fiction books grouped like this:

Mainstream (general) fiction—Mainstream fiction is the general term that publishers and booksellers use to describe works that may appeal to the broadest range of readers and have the most likelihood of commercial success.

Mainstream authors often blend genre fiction practices with techniques considered unique to literary fiction. It will be both plot- and character-driven and may have a style of narrative that is not as lean as modern genre fiction but is not too stylistic either.

The prose of the novel will at times delve into a more literary vein than genre fiction, but the story will be driven by the events and actions that force the characters to grow.

Speculative fiction is work that offers ideas of what may be. It encompasses two genres, Science Fiction and Fantasy:

Science fiction—Futuristic settings, futuristic science and technology, space travel, time travel, faster than light travel, parallel universes, and extraterrestrial life are the core of science fiction. You should be aware that the internet is rife with purists and impurists ranting on what does or does not constitute  sci-fi.

One truth exists: If you use magic for any reason you are NOT writing any form of sci-fi.

  • Hard Sci-fi is characterized by rigorous attention to correct detail in physics, chemistry, and astrophysics. Emphasis is placed on accurately depicting worlds that more advanced technology may make possible, based on theoretical physics as we know them.
  • Soft Sci-fi is characterized by works based on social sciences such as psychology, economics, political science, sociology, and anthropology.
  • Other main sub-genres of Sci-fi include Space-operasCyberpunk, Time Travel, Steampunk, Alternate history, Military, Superhuman, Apocalyptic, and Post-Apocalyptic.

The main thing to remember is this—Science and Magic cannot coexist in the Genre of Science Fiction. The minute you add magic to the story, you have Fantasy.

Fantasy is a genre of speculative fiction that commonly uses magic and other supernatural phenomena as a primary plot element, theme, or setting.  Like sci-fi and literary fiction, fantasy has its share of snobs and damn fools when it comes to defining the sub-genres:

  • High fantasy—This genre is defined as fantasy fiction set in an alternative, fictional world, rather than the real, or “primary” world. It features elves, fairies, dwarves, dragons, demons, magic or sorcery, wizards or magicians, constructed languages, quests, and coming-of-age themes. The primary story arc often encompasses a multi-book series, from three to as many as twenty volumes. Sometimes the prose is literary in its style. The primary plot is resolved only slowly, as many important side quests will sidetrack the protagonists. Think William Morris and J.R.R. Tolkien.
  • Epic Fantasy—These stories are often serious in tone and epic in scope, dealing with themes of grand struggle against supernatural, evil forces. Epic fantasy shares some typical characteristics of high fantasy. It can include fantastical elements such as elves, fairies, dwarves, dragons, demons, magic or sorcery, wizards or magicians, constructed languages, quests, coming-of-age themes, many side quests, and multi-volume narratives. Tad Williams’s Memory Sorrow and Thorn is classic Epic Fantasy.
  • Paranormal Fantasy—This genre often focuses on romantic love and includes elements beyond the range of scientific explanation, blending together themes from all the speculative fiction genres. Think ghosts, vampires, and all that is supernatural.
  • Urban Fantasy—These stories can take place in historical, modern, or futuristic periods, and the settings may include some fantasy elements mixed with science. The prerequisite is that the novel must be primarily set in a city.

Horror—This genre  shocks or frightens the reader. Some horror induces a feeling of repulsion or loathing. People who read horror want to be challenged by facing their fears within the pages of a book.

Romance—Novels of this type of genre fiction place their primary focus on the relationship and romantic love between two people. There will be hardships, but Romance must have an emotionally satisfying and optimistic ending.

Mystery and Mystery/Adventure—Mystery is a genre with several subgenres.

  • “Who Dunnit” mysteries, cozy (think Agatha Christie)
  • Mystery, true crime
  • Mystery, hardboiled detective
  • Political thrillers
  • Legal thrillers
  • Medical Thrillers
  • Supernatural Mysteries
  • Romantic Mysteries

All mysteries involve a puzzle that the protagonist must solve, usually placing themselves in great danger in the process. Good mysteries have small clues embedded along the way for the reader, and also many false clues that keep the reader on the wrong track. Mystery readers want to solve the puzzle—that’s why they buy these books.

I mention Literary Fiction last because it is the most complicated and least understood genre of all.

Literary fiction can be quite adventurous with the narrative. Yes, the style of the prose has prominence and may be experimental, requiring the reader to go over certain passages more than once. Literary fiction is a work of many layers, and the people who seek out this work are not just reading the prose—they are looking for the deeper meaning of the book as a whole.

Authors who write true literary fiction deliberately craft each sentence so that each word has impact and meaning. They might employ a stylistic, almost poetic, writing style. This is because it is a love of words and how they are used that characterizes true literary fiction.

Authors in this genre will make heavy use of allegory,  and the deep exploration of themes and ideas to form the core of the piece. It may take years for an author to finish the book to their satisfaction.

I have discussed the following  three books before, but they illustrate the problem of perception—the question of what constitutes Literary Fiction.

Alexander Chee’s The Queen of the Night is a historical fantasy. However, the style and voice in which it is written make it a powerful literary work.

The same goes for George Saunders’ work. Tenth of December is technically sci-fi, and Lincoln in the Bardo is historical fantasy, but it is his style and voice that makes George Sanders literary.

Neil Gaiman’s book, Stardust, is a poster child for the “that’s not literary/yes it is” debate. The prose is literary and poetic; the narrative has a relaxed, meandering yet thought provoking style to it. Yet, it is an out and out fantasy.

I consider it literary.

If you want to know what genre you should write, my advice is to choose to write in the genre that you gravitate to when you enter a bookstore.

Thus, I write fantasy.

And science fiction.

And mainstream.

And poetry.

The genre in which I habitually write depends on the whim of the moment.


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