Genre is a difficult word as many authors resist being ‘put in a box.' But the reality is that, when you self-publish, you have to choose three categories for your book. And if you want a traditional publisher, they will have to put you somewhere too.
So I tend to think of genre as category these days. The problem is … which do you choose!
As J.F.Penn, I write across the boundaries of supernatural thriller, action adventure, dark fantasy, and crime with an edge of horror. When I first started out writing fiction in Australia, I met Alan Baxter, because he writes books that I enjoy with similar cross-genre themes. In today's article, Alan explains how we can make the most of writing genre-mashing.
I am unashamedly a genre writer. But I find it hard to answer when people ask what genre.
Generally, I tend to write speculative fiction, which is the umbrella term for science fiction, fantasy and horror. Most of my stuff is dark urban fantasy and horror. But it’s rarely only those things. I include a lot more than just SFF tropes in my stories. I’m a huge fan of crime, noir, mystery, thrillers – in all honesty, I’ve never met a genre I didn’t like.
I’ve written a weird western ghost story, a novella that turns sweltering Sydney into a noir landscape where supernatural beings are dealing with mental illness, a historical pirate yarn with a cosmic horror threat looming over the world. My novels are paced like thrillers, dive through realms of crime and mystery, but are thick with magic and monsters and mayhem. And often a lot of martial arts, as I’m a martial arts instructor too and that’s the only other thing I’ve been doing as long as I’ve been a writer.
So how do we genre-mash without our stories becoming a mess? Here are 5 tips that I like to keep in mind:
(1) Write the stories you want to read
The reason I like to mash genres together is because they’re the kind of stories I like to read. And you should always write, first and foremost, what you want to read. That’s where your particular passion lies.
The beauty of a genre mash is that you surprise your readers. If they go into a story thinking, Ah, this is a police procedural! but they come out of it thinking, I was not expecting a monster and sword-wielding Gregorian monk to appear! then you’ve really done your job well. (Note to self: Write a police procedural that’s solved by a sword-wielding Gregorian monk.) So don’t think about what genres you want to mash. Instead think about what crazy stories you’d like to read and then use whatever genres are required.
(2) Don't mash for the sake of it
Any time we do something for the sake of doing it – in this case, cramming in tropes because we want to genre mash – it comes off hackneyed and try hard. That’s a terrible way to tell a story. But if you start by deciding what kind of story you want tell and then make sure you’re not averse to any strange occurrence coming along, you open yourself to all kinds of possibilities.
So take a step back and look at what you’re really doing. If you want a story about a magic-wielding urban mage, but you need him to go on a quest, find yourself a catalyst. Entanglement with an organised crime boss, maybe. Or on the run from the law. Or a vengeful ex-lover. Take those other tropes and slap them onto your urban fantasy and see where it takes you.
(3) Never only tell one story at a time
Some of the best writing advice I ever got was, “The best stories are the ones where something else is happening.” Unpack that advice and it means don’t only focus on your protagonist and their current predicament.
Look at what else is happening. Maybe they’re going through a divorce at the time. Maybe they’re fighting a law suit. Perhaps they’re trying to be there for a terminally ill friend while not telling that friend about battling demons from the Ninth Plane of Hades. Layers happen when you tell more than just the one central story, and sometimes you have to cross genres to do that.
This is another piece of invaluable writing advice and it’s particularly important for antagonists and villains. Don’t make them cardboard cut-out evil-doers. They have a history, they have personal motivations, they have things happening in their lives that are real and important to them.
So follow those up, think about what part of their story you want to tell and then have a think about what genres that might open. Horror? Mystery? Romance? It’s all there for the taking.
(5) Don't write for an audience
This is a bit of a return to the first rule, but there’s more to it than that. While you should always tell the kind of stories you want to read, you should also avoid being swayed by what’s currently hot. Especially so if you’re in traditional publishing, as that can move so slowly that by the time your book is written and in front of editors, the current hot trend is over. Even for indies who can move fast, you might miss the peak of the trend.
But more importantly, if you’re writing for a genre trend, you’re not writing your passion.
Don’t blinker yourself. Just because there’s not currently a trend for a hard-boiled detective investigating crimes that can only have been committed by a shapechanging alien, that doesn’t your book won’t find readers. And maybe your crazy, exciting, interesting genre-mash might just be the start of a new trend in publishing.
There are no boundaries except those you impose on yourself. Be free and create!
Do you have any genre-mashing tips or questions? Please do join the conversation and leave a comment below.
Alan Baxter is a British-Australian author who writes dark fantasy, horror, sci-fi, crime and pretty much everything else. He rides a motorcycle and loves his dog. He also teaches Kung Fu. Alan lives and writes among dairy paddocks on the beautiful south coast of NSW, Australia, with his wife, son, dog and cat. He’s the award-winning author of the Alex Caine series, the Balance series, Dark Rite, and over sixty short stories and novellas. So far.
Read extracts from his novels, a novella and short stories at his website – www.warriorscribe.com – or find him on Twitter @AlanBaxter and Facebook, and feel free to tell him what you think. About anything.