Ugly Dogs and Cute Goats: Let’s Talk Genre
Welcome back to the Stonecoast blog train. And how timely, because I’ve just received my signature pages. Their international journey took them to Boston—to be signed by my advisor—and then to Maine—for my second reader’s signature—and now they’re briefly back with me in Toronto before I send the entire thesis to the MFA office. I’ve not been fretting. Not at all.
Anyway, today my Stonecoast comrades and I are discussing genre. As in, what’s our genre, why that genre, what is genre…?
I’m primarily a fantasy author. It tends towards dark fantasy, but we’re not talking full-blown horror. I like historical fantasy too, and I’ve written steampunk on occasion. I’ve yet to write any hard SF. The closest I’ve gotten is my quirky romp of an RPG, though one thesis short story could maybe be soft SF.
And right away, you have an idea of the types of stories I tell, even if you’ve never read anything of mine.
I write stories that have magic. Sometimes they get a little scary and grim, but that’s not their main focus, nor will you find gore. Steampunk suggests Victoriana, gears, and perhaps a touch of whimsy. I don’t write stories centred on technology and scientific concepts very often; even my stories without magic focus mainly on people.
You can tell this because different genres carry different sets of expectations. In the “Fantasy” section of the bookstore, we expect different stories than in the “Thriller” section. And we judge them according to those expectations as well, which means that genre frames the reader’s experience of the story at hand.
For example, I have strongly resisted attempts to classify my novel Heartstealer as “steampunk.” Why? Simple—it does not meet the expectations for the steampunk genre. Yes, it is set in a pseudo-Victorian society. But that’s about the only similarity it shares with steampunk. Magic may be present in steampunk, but it tends to be something lurking in the shadows. In Heartstealer, it’s front-and-centre: an integral part of the story. Steampunk frequently features societies powered by advanced steam technology. Heartstealer has none of that.
Rather than being a creative re-imagining of the Victorian era, Heartstealer is fantasy, set in a world that is not our own, but shares our Victorian age’s social structures, psyche, fashions, and technology.
As a “steampunk” novel, it’s not a very good example, because it does not meet those expectations. As a “historical dark fantasy,” I think it does much better.
So do you write to genre expectation, then?
A harder question that it seems. I think when you start any story, you have a rough idea of where it might fall. If there’s spaceships and warp drives, you’re probably not writing a Western, for instance. You know your direction. The more nuanced, particular sub-classifications can come later. Okay, so you know right away that it’s a SF story—but is it a space opera, or soft SF, or a science fantasy, or military SF, or a first contact story? That, you may know only after you’ve finished the thing and taken a good look at it.
Because here’s the thing: I think genre is mostly useful for telling readers how to approach a given story. It gives them a framework in which to work. Is it the be-all and end-all? No, but it’s an efficient shorthand.
Really, it’s like our goats at the museum. They’re walked on leashes, and whenever I see them from the corner of my eye, I invariably think, “Wow, what ugly dogs.”
Then I look again and think, “Wow! What cute goats!”
Different approaches yield different expectations yield different responses. Make sure your readers know whether your story’s a dog or a goat.
What I’m Listening to This Week
Oooh, something awesome. The “Dies Irae” and “Tuba Mirum” movements from Verdi’s Requiem. We maybe know Verdi more for this operas—and my goodness, that theatrical streak shows here. This could basically just be the opera setting for the apocalypse.
Those initial bangs, his favourite trick of passing the line between parts…this is a glorious cacophony of sound and fury. Until suddenly things quiet. And that’s even more terrifying.
And oh, those trumpets beginning at 2:25- Verdi’s a freaking genius. See, in Revelations, there’s meant to be trumpets to signify the ending of ages and coming of judgements. These are them. Right here. That’s what they would sound like, I’m pretty sure. Seriously, just grab a set and actors, and you pretty much have Revelations for the stage.
And next on the train…
My fellow steampunk-lover, J.R. Dawson! She is a highly talented writer with whom I’ve had the distinct pleasure of workshopping. Which means that I got to read snippets of her fabulous YA steampunk novel. A strong voice in our Stonecoast community, I will miss her upon graduation. Also, her blog is really pretty.
Check her out, and head onto the next stop here!
Posted on November 1, 2015, in Writing and tagged Community, creativity, fantasy, geek, KT Bryski, musings, Podcasts, science fiction, steampunk, Stonecoast, stories, writer, Writing, Writing life. Bookmark the permalink. 1 Comment.