This past Saturday, I joined Faith Hunter, Kalayna Price, Rachel Aaron and John Hartness for the Fantastical Mystery Tour event in Columbia SC. It was a wonderful evening – standing room only! During the panel discussion, I was talking about the novel that I’ll be continuing to write as soon as the Kestrel’s Dance rewrites are finished, and I told the gathered throng that it was a weird western. Faith pointed out that the genre is now actually being known as historical urban fantasy. In the space of a few seconds, my genre had changed.
When you’ve finished your manuscript and are ready to send it out into the world, one of the most important things to know about it is what genre it belongs to. Once upon a time, if a book had magic in it, it was fantasy. Period. Tolkien was fantasy, Tim Powers was fantasy, Glen Cook was fantasy. That’s no longer true. Genres have split and split and split again, becoming more and more specialized as the audiences demanded. Where once agents said they read fantasy, now they say they only want comic paranormal romance, dark epic or dieselpunk. Which puts the writer into a quandary – how do you know what you’re writing?
The best way to know is to read in all the subgenres, as much as you can. I’m a big fan of using the library. At mine, you’re not limited to what’s in our inventory. Once you’re a patron, you can log on to the website and look at the inventories of thirteen other counties across the state. And if none of those libraries have the book you want, the librarians can use InterLibrary Loan (which at my library is free of charge, and doesn’t take long.) But you don’t have to spend all your time buried in novels – there are a number of exceptional magazines (in print and online) from which to choose. Not only will you have shorter options, so you don’t spend every minute of your time reading and never write your own words again, but the magazines feature lots of genres. You could easily see three or four different genres in one issue. You can start with Intergalactic Medicine Show, Realms of Fantasy, Bull Spec and The Magazine of Fantasy and Science Fiction, but there are tons of other great magazines in existence, and I imagine folks will share their own favorites in the comments.
“But Misty, I’ve done some homework, and I’m still not sure what makes a genre a genre.” I understand…the distinctions can be subtle. Over the next few weeks, I’m going to attempt to explain, and give you some examples. Today we’ll start with an easy one – high fantasy. This is the subgenre you’re most used to seeing on the shelves. In high fantasy, the worlds tend to be pre-industrial. In the 70’s and 80’s, they resembled medieval Europe more than anything, with class hierarchies that included kings and courtiers not unlike those of historical Europe. These days writers have branched out and mined non-Western cultures in their world-building, which is wonderful. High fantasy focuses on the struggle of good against evil, and usually involves a quest of some kind, in which the good characters (who are the heroes of the tale) must risk life, love and limb to achieve whatever will save their world from the looming evil. The protagonist is usually someone who wasn’t expecting to have the fate of the world laid on his shoulders, and has to come to terms with that responsibility while he is questing. Generally he’s an average guy, someone who’s already planned out his ordinary life and is taken by surprise by the job he’s handed. He’ll have a mentor of some kind, someone older and wiser who can guide and train him to complete his destiny. Much of his trouble will be related to the political machinations of the world, a game he hardly understands because of his humble beginnings. There’ll be a large cast of characters, from all walks of life. And there’s magic…oh, there is magic. The protagonist might have magical ability, or he might have a companion who can cast spells. The evil antagonist has magic on his side as well. And the item they’re both hoping to possess, if there is one, is just oozing with magic. Most of the time these stories are long, with more than one book required to tell the full tale, and when that’s the case, “epic” is added to the genre title. I’ll be honest – if you hear something called epic, you can bet it’ll be a book big enough to kill a small dog (hence the tag “chihuahua killer”). Some examples of good high epic fantasy are Tolkien’s The Lord of the Rings, David Eddings’ The Belgariad, George R R Martin’s Song of Ice and Fire or David B Coe’s Winds of the Forelands.
So there we have it. If you recognize your work in what I’ve said, you’re probably writing high fantasy. But wait a second – high fantasy breaks down into further subgenres, and I’ll get into those next time. I’ll also be getting into urban fantasy and all the ‘punks, because those can be confusing. If you’re not entirely certain whether you’re working in high fantasy, feel free to ask questions in the comments. If I don’t know the answer, I’ll make up something really good.
Because, you know…writer.