Marketing Categories: The Genre Question

I read an article from Quill and Quire today that talked about a new marketing category that has evolved – new adult fiction. It described how an author had trouble selling her book because it featured a protagonist in her 20s.

The article said that this presented trouble for publishers because YA conventionally deals with high-school age protagonists, while adult fiction generally features protagonists who have reached full adult maturity.

It made these works difficult to categorise… until somebody came up with a name for it.

My first novel is a coming of age story featuring protagonists who have recently entered adulthood. The arc of the protagonists is one which centres around the assumption of adult responsibility: finding a path, choosing sides in political conflict, learning to be a leader, to make priorities, building stable relationships.

I’d been calling it a young adult novel when I described it because, well because once you’ve written a book, marketing categories matter.

They matter because they will affect the metadata that goes along with the book. That metadata will in turn influence E-Marketplace recommendations and will determine where a book shows up when browsing.

They matter because book stores and libraries care about marketing categories. They matter because society, in general, implies certain assumptions about a book based on its category.

And that’s where things get difficult. Because the assumption might not be a correct one. Let’s take, for example, the division between Science Fiction and fantasy. Where would we place a book like Ecko Rising? The book starts off in a pretty standard near future / cyberpunkish vein, with a protagonist, augmented with cybernetics, fighting against the ruling corporate elite of a dystopian England.

And then the novel curves into left field as the character is suddenly and without explanation dropped into a fantasy setting with centaurs, wizards, warriors and a teleporting tavern.

The tension between the sci-fi protagonist’s expectations and the fantasy world he inhabits becomes a key element of the story. But what is it? Is it sci-fi or is it fantasy? This actually matters because science fiction and fantasy have distinct tropes and if a reader expects one set of tropes and suddenly gets another they may not be pleasantly surprised.

Now in this example, the subversion of expectations is handled elegantly by Ware, who allows the protagonist to voice the science fiction expectations only to find himself by turns frustrated and enthused by the differences between the expected world and the one he is in.

Of course some stories don’t have to actually pull a bait and switch to meander over genre lines. Look at any comic book: Power-armour clad scientists duking it out with gods carrying magic weapons; aliens and wizards collaborating; time travellers and mutants and mystical prophecies all jumbled together. There’s some very interesting and fertile ground for stories in the spaces between genres.

But how to sell them?

That’s been a perennial problem for comics, which have struggled against the idea that they are somehow “lower” artistically than other stories basically forever.

In the end, I think Quill and Quire gets it right. Authors will generally, eventually, find a home for good work. In time, no matter how hard it is to sell, somebody will probably at least give it a shot. If they do, and if they sell successfully, hey, voila a new marketing category is born.

And then everybody will be complaining about how many awful steampunk zombie mashup retellings of classic novels they keep seeing in their bookstores, no matter how bold the initial concept of something so bizarre might be.

So, I guess, I’d say this – write your story and write it well. Never, while writing, consider the marketing category. You can pigeonhole your book after you’ve finished it.

Because you will have to think about it. And that’s when it’s time to assemble your elevator pitch. But in the meantime don’t sweat it.

Writing fights

I unabashedly write kung fu stories. It has to do with the fact that one of my biggest influences is Jin Yong. I’m a huge fan of Wuxia and, in fact, have written articles on the topic of the genre previously.

In short Wuxia is a genre of historical fantasy from China. It draws its roots from Chinese folk tales and opera, historical classics like the Romance of the Three Kingdoms and the Water Margin, and from 19th century romances, especially those of Alexandre Dumas père.

Jin Yong generally built his stories along the lines of a bildungsroman, as the development of the protagonist is traced from late childhood to adulthood. Other authors used the template of detective stories.

But what gets remembered most about Wuxia stories is that they are kung fu stories. The depiction of superhuman martial skill is the short-hand by which a diverse and complex genre is differentiated from other branches of romance.

And let me tell you, writing fights is hard. A key difficulty is keeping the action moving properly in your head. To write a fight you have to choreograph every player in the combat. You have to be able to keep track of where each person is standing, what they’re doing.

And then you have to be able to lay it out in an orderly fashion. You have to do it in a way that makes it clear what’s going on. You have to do so while respecting the pace of the story, and the pace of the fight. After all, fights happen FAST and if you linger too long describing perfectly what happened you’ll pull your reader out of the story.

At the end of the day there’s no one right way to write fights. There’s a million wrong ways.

I’m interested in your opinion. Please let me know a story you thought had excellent fight sequences, or horribly written fights in the comments.

Fantasy and the fine art of rules – Part 2

Worldbuilding Rules Yesterday I discussed the necessity of bounding a fantasy world with rules of some description. I said that the rules should reflect the theme of the story in some way and should build internal consistency.

I also hinted that, while it was necessary for the author to understand the rules governing a fantasy world it was not necessary for the audience or the characters to. That’s what I’d like to elaborate on today.

The Ignorant Character

Characters come in all stripes. There could be characters who are deeply enmeshed in the cosmology and metaphysics of their respective universes. These characters might understand the minutiae of how their worlds are governed. Gandalf is one of the most active and aware members of the Wise of Middle Earth. There are few characters who understand the rules underlying Middle Earth better than he does – maybe Galadriel – maybe…

Other characters might start clueless, but learn over the course of the story. Lyra may arrive at a deep understanding of the universe with Will by the end of the series, but when we first meet her at the start of His Dark Materials she doesn’t have the first clue even how daemons work – let alone any of the deeper secrets beyond that.

Some characters might even bumble through their universe entirely ignorant to how it works, never becoming the least bit enlightened.

But whether it is the high fantasy of Lord of the Rings, the cosmological metaphor of His Dark Materials or the absurdist sci-fi setting of Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy, all of these books have settings bound by rules – even if those rules are that in an infinite universe the most improbable thing can, and probably will, eventually happen.

Careful with that exposition!

Just because you’ve calculated the universal constants of your fantasy world into a complex set of equations does not mean your audience needs to see it. Exposition is one of the greatest stumbling blocks of genre fiction.

Part of the problem, of course, is that the great masters of early science fiction were just notorious for unnecessary exposition. (Don’t get me wrong, I love the Foundation series, but it was rife with clumsy exposition including frequent occasions where Hari Seldon or his ghost would pop up and explain the story in detail.)

Fortunately, genre authors have gotten much better about this sort of thing.

I can’t rave enough about the Quantum Thief and its sequel, the Fractal Prince. Post-human heist capers with a culture and technology both fully realized and almost entirely alien, these books have sometimes faced some flak for their lack of exposition. I know a few science fiction readers who were frustrated by the book for that reason.

I read it through the lens of a fantasy reader, and thought it one of the best works of science fiction of the last decade. This is because Rajaniemi didn’t bother telling me what gas the spaceship ran on (well actually, he kind of did, but he did it in an off-hand and organic way). What he did do was tell why these things mattered.

Fantasy and the Fine Art of Rules

Worldbuilding RulesA lot of fantasy writers aren’t fully comfortable with rules. In fact arguments against the rule of rules are pretty common on a lot of writing sites, especially those populated by new writers.

And I understand. Fantasy is the genre that embraces magic. And a lot of people magic as being the infinity of possibility made manifest. Magic can do anything – that’s the whole point.

So if we are writing in worlds defined by their lack of limitation anything should be possible… right? Right??

Well, not exactly. Because there’s this little thing necessary for suspension of disbelief – it’s called internal consistency. And that is a harsh and unforgiving taskmaster.

We can contrast a (narratively) successful fantasy story from one that is less so largely by looking at which stories keep better track of their own worlds.

In our successful example the rules of the world are clearly well-understood by the author. This doesn’t mean that she isn’t able to startle or delight with the flights of fancy she conjures with her magical take on England and Europe in the time of Napoleon. It’s just that it all seems to fit. Everything from the mytho-history surrounding magic to the culture of magic users ties together seamlessly into a perfectly realized world.

In our less successful example the world is constructed hodge-podge. Elements are (to be gentle) borrowed from diverse sources without any specific concern for how they actually fit into the overall continuity of the world. Most of the time things get shuffled in for reasons no more thought out than that the author thought it seemed neat. Furthermore the actual capabilities of any given component of the story (such as the protagonist’s “Talent”) expand or contract in scope depending on the needs of the narrative. The Nightside books are readable – but there’s no denying that they are a veritable lace of plot holes and nonsense.

As a result it’s much more easy to feel like Clarke’s world is a real world.

Rules define this internal consistency. They can be high order things like “nothing is ever free” or specific like “you must use blood sacrifice to power dark magic which is defined as X” – they should point toward the themes of your story either way.

But just because a fantasy story should be constrained by rules doesn’t mean that your audience, or even your characters need to know about them. I’ll get into rules and exposition tomorrow.

Writing Thrilling Fantasy Part 2

In part one I talked about the importance of brevity and of establishing stakes. Today I’ll pick up this discussion of making writing thrilling by looking at hooks and then will talk about the traps that a writer can fall into when they try to write thrilling and forget to write well.

The Hook!

Hooks are deceptively simple. They’re little bits of text whose whole purpose is to make you interested in the story. Here’s an example of a famous one:

When Mr. Bilbo Baggins of Bag End announced that he would shortly be celebrating his eleventy-first birthday with a party of special magnificence, there was much talk and excitement in Hobbiton.

This immediately establishes that the story will open with the birthday party of an elderly gentleman. It demonstrates that this is an occasion of significance in the community.

And that’s it. If you haven’t read the Hobbit you don’t know who Bilbo Baggins is or what his significance is to Hobbiton. Even if you have read the Hobbit you won’t know the reason for his remarkable longevity.

The sentence entices you that things are going to come which will interest you, but it doesn’t give too much away.

A hook doesn’t have to come at the end of a chapter. Here’s an example from one of Butcher’s Dresden books that lies at the end of a chapter half-way through the book:

Oh, God.

Oh, God.

Oh, God.

I’d sent the phages after Molly.

Again the hook is simple. It communicates a simple idea – in this case that the protagonist has inadvertently sicced dangerous monsters on his friend’s daughter. It doesn’t provide much more in the way of detail but it keeps you wanting more.

Butcher does this well, but he sometimes tiptoes up to  the boundary of a mistake its possible to make when trying to make a thrilling book.

Doors behind doors

I think I owe the metaphor for this to Sandra Kasturi. It was at a panel, possibly at WFC but I could be mistaken about that. Notwithstanding that she’s one of the best poets I know and also one of the amazing editorial voices behind Chizine Publications – publisher of many of my very favourite books and you should check her out.

The idea is that some authors do the above – but  they do it at the end of every chapter. So the protagonist discovers a mysterious door. He opens it and discovers…

Chapter two

A room containing nothing but another door! After a brief inspection of the room the protagonist goes to the other door and with some trepidation opens it revealing…

Chapter three

A room with another door and a tiger! He runs from the tiger as it claws at his backside, reaching the door a moment before the tiger he opens it and discovers…

Chapter four

Another room containing nothing but a door.

The problem with this is that it’s a cheater’s hook. Yes, it’ll drive readers through the book quickly, but it won’t give them an enjoyable experience, rather just a continuous feeling of frustration when each door the protagonist opens just leads to another door that MIGHT have something behind it – but that probably doesn’t.

This is a big risk when you’re writing a book that you want to be thrilling. But it’s not the most damning risk.

Who cares about the characters? this is a plot driven story!

The greatest sin that bad thrilling writing can do is to drop characterization in favour of thrills. When you’re writing tightly paced, compact, hook-filled stories you run a serious risk of letting the plot drive the bus, hauling the characters along as not much more than an after-though, a mobile perspective point to the action.




No matter how tense your story is, no matter how little time there is on the ticking clock and how big the explosion your heroes must outrun you have failed as a storyteller if your audience doesn’t identify with your protagonists and enjoy spending time riding along behind their ears.

Never forget that a thrilling story is not an excuse for spectacle empty of characterization.

What do you think? Are there other elements to make a book thrilling? What other risks do authors face when trying to write a thrilling book?

Writing Thrilling Fantasy part 1

We’re going to dig into writing craft a little bit today and talk about writing thrilling stories. Because I’m a fantasy writer I’ll stick to writing thrilling fantasy but these tips could work in other genres. I don’t know, try it out.

Here’s the thing about thrilling – it’s a separate quality from good. That’s not to say that thrilling and good can’t exist together – they most certainly can and I’ll try to use examples that are also both thrilling and good in this post. But it’s worth noting that Dan Brown is an occasional master of thrilling despite being generally received as a bad author.

What makes a story thrilling

Largely thrilling stories are ones where the stakes are escalated quickly and kept high throughout. Furthermore they use bits of literary trickery to drive people through the story and keep them turning pages.

These tricks include the use of frequent hooks and the use of cliffhangers. They often function by (on the good end) providing small payouts while piling more tension into the story leading to the ultimate payout at the end or, on the bad end, by denying the reader any resolution, increasing tension by piling in new problems without dealing with the existing ones.

Setting the Stakes

Yesterday I talked about Pacific Rim and its masterful use of stakes to increase tension. However an action blockbuster movie has a lot of other tools available to create a thrilling atmosphere that an author just doesn’t have. (We can’t use sound editing to produce a boom and our explosions have to be made of orderly rows of print.)

So this makes the setting of stakes, both large and small scale, all the more important to an exciting book.

Dead Beat, the seventh book in Jim Butcher’s Dresden Files series isn’t a perfect novel but it’s basically a masterwork of setting stakes and as a result it’s one of the most thrilling novels I’ve ever read. I went through it in a single sitting (as I do with plenty of these guilty pleasures.)

What’s more, the stakes are set early on. They include:

  • Dresden has to protect a friend from a blackmail attempt even though doing so means giving an evil monster access to power.
  • He has to save the city of Chicago from a spell that will kill most of the people in the city. (He eventually learns that the end result of this spell would allow somebody to become a dark god – generally a bad thing for the world.)
  • He has to protect a likeable helper from the attentions of a necromancer.
  • He has to take on a veritable gang of powerful wizards without calling for much of his usual help.

These varying stakes run the gamut from the personal (protecting friends) to the wide scale (stopping evil necromancer murder god rituals). And they’re thrown at Dresden fast. By the end of chapter 2 he’s already perfectly aware of what’s at risk for his friend. A few chapters later he’s protecting the coroner from zombies too… and these aren’t long chapters (more on that later). The various antagonists are all introduced well before the end of the first third of the novel – which isn’t that easy considering that this book has no less than seven antagonists of varying significance (possibly eight depending on whether you count the demon coin).

The tension ramps up in Dead Beat incredibly fast. By the end we’ve seen Dresden escape certain death by the skin of his teeth on several occasions. We’ve seen him have pressure to succeed piled onto his shoulders by his allies, his enemies who aren’t on-side with the local necromancers, the local Mafia kingpin, and just about every other character in the story not actively trying to murder him. We’ve seen his meagre list of allies dwindle down until any hope of odds levelling goes out the windows.

By the time the words zombie tyrannosaur are mentioned we’re willing to buy not only that something that patently ridiculous is necessary but also that it has been earned.

And, having consented to allow this silliness past the walls of suspended disbelief it’s a quick roll downhill to the climax from there. The story to the point prior to reanimated dinosaurs builds pressure so effectively that we couldn’t possibly NOT see it through by that point. I’ve never successfully set the book down from that point onward over the course of several reads.

Keep it punchy

This is a matter of prose styling and this one goes back to Hemmingway. Because you know what’s another really thrilling little book? The Old Man and the Sea.

Part of the reason why is because of Hemmingway’s legendary succinctness. At around 27,000 words it’s not a lengthy tome. And it doesn’t need to be because Hemmingway uses stunning economy of language.

He could feel he was inside the current now and he could see the lights of the beach colonies along the shore. He knew where he was now and it was nothing to get home.

Brevity is the friend of language, whether it is a shorter book, economical language or the use of short chapters. And short chapter lengths are one of those literary tricks that can be used to increase how thrilling a book feels. Each chapter shares certain qualities with a story. There is a beginning, a middle and an end to it. There is action rising throughout mounting in a moment of highest tension before easing off a bit (though not all the way, never all the way unless it’s the very last chapter).

By shortening chapters you can create a bit of a rollercoaster, revving up the tension, easing off momentarily and then diving right back in again. These little peaks and valleys give hints of the climax to come and keep the reader ever so slightly uncertain.

Of course this can frustrate readers so it’s important to not run on forever. I know this is running against the grain in fantasy since the current paradigm of fantasy stories is that it’s the one genre in which we can let our word counts bloat to proportions of Wheel of Time excess.

As much as I love a few of the bloated fantasy epics I have to say that, at the end of the day, this is a bit of sloppyness that we just happen to allow within our genre. That doesn’t make it best-practice.

Tomorrow we’ll pick up this discussion with a talk about hooks, doors behind doors and the dangers of aiming for a thrilling novel.

Pacific Rim – a case study in Storytelling and Genre Action

If you haven’t seen Pacific Rim you should go now. Seriously. Leave this blog, close your computer and go watch a midnight show somewhere right now.

I’m going to try and avoid too spoilery spoilers in this article but I can’t guarantee that this will be entirely spoiler free so if you still haven’t seen the movie and intend to let this be your last warning. Stop reading, go see Pacific Rim, then spoilers won’t be a problem.

Let’s get this out of the way, Movie Bob referred to Pacific Rim as the best summer blockbuster since Independence Day. He pointed out that the use of that particular film was deliberate on his part because there was a lot of the spirit of Independence Day in Pacific Rim.

He’s not wrong. But I’d go so far as to say that Pacific Rim is the movie that Independence Day wished it was.

I say this because both movies were built around very similar premises. Monsters come to Earth, want to move in. Humanity is on the ropes and has to band together and, by becoming the exemplars of all that is good and noble about the human spirit, kick the monsters firmly in the junk.

It’s not a complex formula. But here’s where Pacific rim improved on Independence Day:

  • It’s truly international – Independence Day was always burdened by a certain level of Rah Rah, United States leads the world baggage. From the third-act speech that references the titular American holiday to the specific heroics of American soldiers, American scientists and the American president it’s all about the story of America, as the exemplars of Humanity’s higher calling, beating back the tide of evil. In Pacific Rim this idea is gone. Among the team who run the robot program you have Americans, Japanese people, Brits, Chinese people, Australians and Russians. The action in the film is divided between Alaska and Hong Kong (with brief trips to Japan and Australia) and it’s made clear throughout that the Jaeger program is a truly international effort. This is not showing crashed flying saucers in the jungle at the end. This is truly demonstrating that humans overcome national prejudices in the face of adversity (putting the Russians, Americans, Chinese and Japanese all on a team together was a particularly deft use of this idea considering their history.
  • The monsters are truly alien. There are hints of similar stuff regarding the way Aliens think and the way the Kaiju brains work but where the older movie used it as a minor plot point, Kaiju cognition is an integral part of the plot in Pacific Rim.
  • We care about the characters sincerely. Again, Independence Day did this decently by giving the protagonists people they cared about, families and loved ones. But Pacific Rim, partially through the use of “Jaeger tech” but certainly not entirely through that device, puts the loves and rivalries, the bonds between the characters front-and-centre.
  • The third-act speech in Pacific Rim was a million times better.

So what does it have to do with books?

I write action oriented stories. I one time told a good friend of mine that I couldn’t help it, I like stories about heroes. Always have, always will. Pacific Rim was an exemplar of the hero story and I think that it provides a few valuable lessons for telling exciting action oriented genre well.

The archetypical awesome secondary character

Here’s a few:

  • Using archetypical characters doesn’t absolve us of the need to develop them. The characters in Pacific Rim are archetypical. They are Stoic Russians, Brash Young Bucks, Wounded Warriors (oh, so many Wounded Warriors), Mad Scientists (such wonderful mad scientists), Ron Pearlmans (Ron Perlman is an archetype, right?). But they still grow, change, they have big things that they want (to save the world) and little things (to prove to a friend that they were right) too. They may be painted with bold strokes but they’re not left with bare canvas showing. Archetypical characters have a big place in action stories because we can immediately pin a whole set of story expectations to them and then get running with the action. But we have to remember that they still have to be characters first, archetypes second.
  • Never forget to dawdle when things get awesome. There are moments during the set pieces (the first bit with the sword comes to mind) where the frenetic pace of the monster vs. robot fisticuffs slows down enough to let the audience savour the awesome. They’re usually a beat or two long.
  • A good relationship isn’t a love story… except when it is… and then it can’t be just a love story.
  • Don’t fail the sexy lamp test.
  • It’s ok to have a father figure afraid to let his hero child step out of the nest but it’s not ok for him to be an idiot about it… (Man of Steel, I’m looking at you). As a more general rule, don’t let your protagonists be idiots. Don’t let them succeed only because the monsters are even dumber. Make us root for their ingenuity.
  • Peril is good but it has to be genuine. If you know everybody is going to be A-OK it’s not real peril.
  • Hold back a good laugh for when you need to cut the tension.

I could go on this way. But what it comes down to is that people will forgive a high concept with a script that edges toward silly a bit too often if its impeccably paced, if we are invited to know the characters, if we are given reason to care for the characters and if they are subsequently put into danger.

It’s not enough for us to want them to save the earth. We have to want them to save themselves.