The Writing Life: The Lessons of Genre

Hello there!

I’m a writer of fantasy. This is the genre in which I have always wanted to work, into which my intuition and imagination have drawn me. I cannot conceive of doing anything else.

However.

There is much to be learned from other genres: the well crafted misdirect of murder mystery, the connection of human experience across time in historical fiction, the emotive thrill of romance, the capturing of moments in literary fiction, the propulsive plotting of the thriller, the down in the dirt immediacy of military fiction, the exploration of ideas in science fiction, the creeping shift of consciousness in horror, the lush atmospherics of the gothic, and so many more. (But wait! Buy this boxed set and get these three limited edition graphic novels free!)

If I had to write in other genres I think I could jump into crime or mystery most easily, science fiction with some effort, historical fiction with a lot of research. (Fantasy requires quite a bit of research, but not to the level of detail demanded by historical fiction.) Maybe not horror, but gothic noir would be something I’d enjoy doing, undoubtedly with supernatural elements, so it would become fantasy in sumptuous crushed velvet skin.

Now that last is the truth: I could write any genre, as long as I mixed a little fantasy in. I think if I want to try out the techniques typical of other genres it is likely I will approach them through the prism of fantasy.

I admire writers that can hop genres, and write convincingly in more than one. If you have the story in you that requires a particular form, I imagine it would be natural to write in the genre that best expresses the story you want to write. But I believe I’m a one genre man, and cleave to fantasy (in all its variety) I shall, but I think the lessons, the strengths of all the genres listed above (and many more… keep reading for 30 more seconds to receive a very special offer…) can be incorporated into fantasy. Certainly I, in my more maniacal moments, imagine I could do so.

For example, I have written twenty six thousand words of a contemporary and literary novella that rapidly showed me it had no intention of remaining slim and novellaesque (yes, I know), but for all its realism, the main premise was a fractured conversation between our heroine and Lucifer, (that may have been real, or a symptom of mental distress – I left it for the reader to decide) so let’s be honest, it was a fantasy, because that is where I’m most comfortable, but I was trying to capture some of the moments of life that literary fiction allows the reader to identify with so strongly, as well as the lingering sense of “What is real?”, so prevalent in the psychological thriller. I have plenty to say in the fantasy field, but I want to learn from other genres, first by reading them, second by implementing what I have seen into my own favoured medium. There is a lot to learn from trying other forms, but I don’t think I want to stray too far from my passion when experimenting with other genres in order to expand my own writing range.

What do you think? Can genre writers learn from other fields? Should they? Are genre distinctions useful today when you look for books to read?

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7 thoughts on “The Writing Life: The Lessons of Genre

  1. I write science fiction, and I usually like the genre classification but lately I’ve had a guy in my writers’ group tell me that I should be doing certain things differently just because of the genre. I don’t think that’s a good enough reason!

    1. I agree with you. I think if your work clearly sits in the sci-fi convention you are more than allowed to try different things within it. Stick too rigidly to ‘genre techniques’ (whatever they may be identifued as) and you may hamstring your story. There has to be space to be you within the genre you write, in my opinion, and it is the you in your writing that helps it stand apart from everything else in the genre!

  2. I wanted to be a writer once… for me the most valuable part of creative writing is the evocation of human experience in the reader, if borrowing from other genre forms allows you to better do this in your fantasy writing, then you should do it.

    1. Hello Stuart! Evocation of human experience is very important in writing, though it does sound very weighty when put in those terms. I think I want to a) write characters that people can understand and identify with, to make them as rounded and human as possible, and b) capture emotions and experiences in such a way that the reader feels as much of them as possible. If you can successfully combine those two things, you will have a book that I think will manage to evoke human experience well. However, I want plot and driving story too. Some novels are written with their whole goal being to capture a particular moment in life, and to immerse the reader in that experience as far as possible. I do not think that is my goal, at least not yet, because I am in love with the story to be told. The characters must live, the moments be as real as possible, but for me, at present, it is the story that is paramount, and everything else is built around the goal of making the story and its characters as strong as possible. This will involve trying to evoke human experience, but I suppose I’m long-windedly trying to say that that alone is not my goal in writing!

      1. swcomp

        Thank you for your clear answer!

        You’re probably right – we read books for a good story, characters and setting first, however evocation of human experience without the story context is not what I meant…

        For me when I feel that I’m in the protagonist’s shoes, sharing their experience, my own life is most enriched ( or affected ), in those moments the supporting writing becomes most vivid and merges into the experience.

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