Saturday, 4 October 2014

Genre Writing: Whose Rules Are They Anyway?

I'm at that stage in my current work-in-progress Redemption where the big-picture doubts are starting to creep in.

These aren't related to the actual mechanics of the story per se. The plot fits together, the characters do what they're designed to do and the story world is coherent enough that any consistency boo-boos that do appear can be ironed out with very little heartache. No, the doubts I'm referring to are the ones over which I have far less control - the ones my Inner Grinch gets a massive kick out of taunting me with. And his favourite one at the moment goes something along the lines of:

 "No-one will ever read this novel of yours, because it's not 'proper' sci-fi! You're doing it all wrong! The people who like proper sci-fi will hate it, and the people who might like it won't notice it because they won't be sci-fi fans and you've classed it as a sci-fi novel!"

So... am I an ignorant dumbass who mistakenly thinks Redemption is a sci-fi novel when it is in fact not? Well, let's see... it's set some thirty years in the future, in a city under the martial law of a rogue organisation that deposed the elected government following worldwide resource shortages. Almost all of the technology available can only be obtained by the rich and powerful, and anything else is retro junk that clever hackers and tinkerers have recycled and learned to jerry-rig into functionality. And the aforementioned rogue government have an army of super-enhanced soldiers to dispense 'justice' to rebellious citizens. Well, that sounds pretty sci-fi to me. But what does my Grinch mean by 'proper' sci-fi? I believe the clue to this question lies in my previous writing experiences...

You see, Redemption is the first sci-fi novel I've ever completed (even to Draft One stage) - but it's not the first one I've ever tried to write. In the past, I began at least two other sci-fi novels and - being a naive and not-well-versed-in-the-etiquette noob at the time - posted a couple of chapters to writing critique forums to get some feedback. (I have since learned that it's best to have at the very least a completed draft one of the entire novel before I even consider posting chapters for critique.)

A lot of the feedback I got was very useful. Some people even liked what I'd written. But the ones who didn't, really, really didn't - and had two very distinct things in common. Thing One: they all hated the 'emotional stuff' in it, and Thing Two: those reviewers were all men.

I'm not coming over all angry feminist now; those are the plain, simple facts of the matter. Their universal complaint - and one they clearly felt very strongly about judging from their feedback - was that characters having any kind of internal emotional issues alongside the more practical, external conflicts of the story was not what proper science fiction was about. For example: in one of my stories I had a major character who was a scientist that had become a virtual recluse both in his home and work life, following the death of his little girl some five years ago in an accident he blamed himself for. It formed a huge part of his character arc and influenced his actions in relation to the plot - but that, apparently was the problem. As one of those critics put it (this isn't a direct quote, but as close as I can remember to what he said)

'Why put in all this emotional crap about him being tortured about his dead daughter? You're turning what should be a straight science fiction story into bloody chick lit! Stop trying to girlify the genre and you might actually write something genuine sci-fi fans would want to read.'

Now let me assure you, at no point did this scientist character ever pour out his feelings to his friends at a Boys Night In, where they all watched Bro movies and trimmed each other's facial hair. Nor did he record all his emotions in a private diary, along with the calories he'd consumed that day and whether or not he was having a Fat Day. In fact, the character never spoke about it to anyone else at all - the information was revealed to the reader gradually through his own internal dialogue and the odd remark from people who knew him well enough to know the history. So I was (and still am) a little baffled by the 'chick lit' comparison.

But the fact still remains, more than one person had echoed this sentiment - and that makes it a Thing, an ethic that at least some proportion of readers of the sci-fi genre subscribe to. Question is, how established is this ethic? Was I really violating deep-seated genre conventions, upheld by the Masters for generations? And did that really mean I had to completely change my whole writing style, or forever remain unpublishable?

If that's the case then I'm already in trouble, because Redemption is chock-full of characters with various 'emotional issues.' Not to the point of the whole thing reading like a Dear Deirdre problem page, but... well, dammit these characters have got to have some reason for doing the things they do, other than simply 'because, woooh - sci-fi plot!'

Of course every genre has conventions that, by their very nature, are what enable the publishers to define those genres in the first place. You can't put a novel in the Romance genre if the two main characters don't remotely fancy each other, and a Thriller where the only crime committed is Mrs Pendles forgetting to return her library books on time would certainly be considered a violation of the Trades Description Act. Those conventions exist for very good reasons.

But surely, within the more concrete rules of genre, there's some creative wiggle-room? Is it not possible to have a Comedy-Thriller? An Urban Fantasy Romance? Steampunk Vampires? An Emotional Science Fiction story?

Whatever the answer, it's not going to stop me writing Renegades - and writing it my way, the way this story needs to be told, not to fit some pre-defined template of What Sci-Fi Stories Should Look Like. If that renders it 'unpublishable,' or 'something true sci-fi fans would never read' - well, so be it. While I can and will always strive to improve the way I write and how I write it, nothing could ever change the why in everything I write. Because the why is me - it's who I am.

Can we bend the boundaries of genres? We won't find out unless we try. If enough of us are bold, I think we can do it. The publishing world is changing, with more opportunities for experimentation than ever before. The laboratory's open - let's get mixing potions!

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