Monday, January 22, 2007

My Genre-tini: A dash of adventure, a drop of romance, a shot of mystery, shaken not stirred…

I hope you all paid attention to Jacqueline’s blog last week on how genres came about and how they function in the book industry. Because if you don’t understand that, then the ‘mixology’ of combining two or more genres is only going to muddle you further.

The plain fact of the matter is that almost every commercial fiction novel on the shelves today is a mixture of more than one genre. The plainer fact of the matter is very few authors or publishers will admit to that.

The why is…::points to first paragraph::. The why is why genres exist in the first place. I’m not going to discuss that.

What I am going to talk about is taking the plunge, coming out of the genre closet, breaking free, rising like a phoenix and any other bad cliché you care to throw in here. I’m going to talk about starting out admitting that yes, my book fits the bill for two or more genres. It’s a genre martini.

"Cross-genre” we’re often called when in reality, combi-genre is probably more accurate. In my case, it’s science fiction and romance and—with my current WIP, The Down Home Zombie Blues—science fiction, police procedural and romance.

Why do I do that? For one thing, real life is combi-genre, isn’t it? Your morning might be a comedy (What? No clean underwear? What? The dog puked in my purse?), your first few hours at work could be a thriller (What is that weird moaning noise coming from the copy machine?), your lunch hour might be a western (Get a long little hot doggies!) and your after work stop at the local bar might, just might, be a romance.

When I decide to craft a story, I’m very aware that all these same episodes may well occur in my character’s lives. What particular part of their lives I highlight in the book inevitably defines the genre—or narrows down the genre because, as I said, any commercial fiction novel contains multi-genres. So I highlight certain aspects of a character’s life—let’s say, Trilby Elliot in my Finders Keepers (RITA Award Finalist!) and because Trilby was a starfreighter operator, and because the opening scene takes place on a distant planet, and because Trilby’s sidekick is a very C3PO-like ’droid, Finders Keepers is deemed science fiction/speculative fiction. But when Trilby and the male protagonist, some pushy guy named Rhis, suddenly decide to stop fighting and start kissing, whoa, Nellie! We’ve got ourselves a romance.

Now, in The Down Home Zombie Blues, Commander Jorie Mikkalah is an intergalactic zombie hunter (check: science fiction), who arrives on this planet (we call it Earth and Jorie finds it apt that such a boring place is named after dirt…) via a starship (a Red Star Class Three Intergalactic Combat and Recovery Vessel, to be exact), then the genre powers that be would deem the book to be science fiction. But wait! The male protagonist is a Florida homicide detective sergeant. And he’s investigating the suspicious death-by-mummification of an unlucky human. So, hmm, we’ve got police procedural here. But wait, again! The intergalactic babe and the hunky cop start locking lips a few chapters in. Romance!

So what is it?

My answer is, why should it be just any one thing or genre? You’ve never had rum raisin ice cream? You’ve never had mocha fudge mint chip ice cream? Must books be only chocolate or vanilla? Or how about a Cosmo Martini? Or Mango Mojito: mango rum, sugar, crushed ice, mint leaves, club soda. Our culinary palettes have expanded. Why not our literary palettes?

It really wasn’t any big deal for me to craft Zombie Blues. I didn’t sit down one day and decide, hmm, I’m going to write an SF Romance Police Procedural. I sat down to write Jorie’s and Theo’s story. Just like I sat down to write Rhis’ and Trilby’s, and Mack’s and Gillie’s and all the rest.

Why I chose homicide detective for Theo’s profession was two-fold: 1) one of the opening scenes is the discovery of the mummified body (who is Jorie’s teammate) and without that discovery, there’d be no story and 2) I wanted to play the law enforcement mind set against itself. In Finders Keepers, Trilby was the independent in more ways than one. She was not just an Indy freighter captain, she was an independent personality. A loner. Rhis was the military, in control person. In Zombie, both Jorie and Theo are—by the nature of their professions—used to be in control. I wanted to put the two together and see sparks fly.

I’m a character-driven writer. If you’re a character-driven writer, I think you shouldn’t shy away from a certain professions for a character just because it might add another element or taste of another genre to your story. All science fiction doesn’t have to star scientists or spaceship captains. (I wouldn’t deliberately force a profession onto a character just to add a genre, either. It has to be natural to the character and the storyline.)

In Jacqueline Lichtenberg’s terrific Those of My Blood, one of her main characters (Titus) is vampire-like and a scientist. Most of the story takes place in a science station on the moon. Scientist-science station-vampire all bespeak science fiction.

But what if her main character wasn’t a scientist but a cop or a private detective? That could bring a whole new element into the story, possibly turning it into something like the detective/science fiction of Kristine Kathryn Rusch and her (wonderful) Retrieval Artist novels. Yes, science fiction. Yes, police/detective.

But Jacqueline’s character’s profession as a scientist was required for the character to know and do the things he did. It wasn’t a slapped-on career. It was an integral part of the plot which yes, also contained romance.

Just as Theo’s profession as a homicide cop in Zombie is essential for the plot to go where it has to go. Had he been a professional ice hockey player or an attorney, the story—and his interaction with Command Jorie Mikkalah—would be completely different.

In my upcoming February release, Games of Command, the story absolutely would not have worked if Sass hadn’t also been Captain Tasha Sebastian and Branden not also been Admiral Kel-Paten. I needed to use their ranks as well as their duties as military officers in order to create much of the conflict and tension between them. If Sass had had Trilby’s job—and Indy freighter operator—she’d not have as much to lose. And the admiral wouldn’t have the reason to interact with her as much as his did. Another genre mix: space opera and romance, with a touch of woo-woo paranormal.

Our daily lives are not all one theme: comedy or tragedy. Our flavors of ice cream are varied. Our alcoholic libations are equally as blended. Why shouldn’t the stories we enjoy be just as varied?

Feeling adventurous? Why not sit down and mix yourself a genre-tini. Let your characters live on the edge in your novel, exploring their limits and their conflicts using your full creativity. Keep it texturally rich and potent. And as always, shaken not stirred.

Just be aware that the marketing teams of the NY publishers can get mighty confuzzled when you do so. And dealing with that is a topic for a whole ‘nuther blog.



  1. Anonymous2:00 AM EST

    Great entry, Linnea. I'm also character-driver, writer and reader. If a protagonist doesn't grab me on the first page, I put it back and keep looking. I simply created the stories without regard for genre before I started this process. However, once the Star Captains' Daughter took off and I knew I had something which could fly, I had to figure out where it fit in. I have two heroines. One starts the story at 15. Does that make it Young Adult? No. The main plot is her reconciling her parents. How many teens want to read about people old enough to be their parents jumping each other's bones? It's a romance. To me, there's nothing more romantic than a man still deeply in love with his wife after twenty years. But, how can I have two heroines in a romance novel, especially when one is a teen and the other is over 50? Doesn't exactly fit the Fabio-and-bimbo stereotypical cover. Frustrated me for almost a year! Didn't help with the Polishing process of revision one bit, to say nothing of researching agents. Then, I read your interview over at Sequential Tart and I literally jumped up and squeeled. "That's it! That's what I write! I knew I couldn't be the only one!" Things have gotten much easier in finding my way since then. Thanks a bunch. ;)

  2. Anonymous10:11 AM EST

    I feel so relieved. My own little story has elements of multiple genres as well. Until I read some of your stories, I hadn't realized how much this was so. I always thought of it simply as Space Opera, and maybe that's a multi-genre term in itself. Glad the world is becoming more receptive to a broader story venue. :-)

  3. Great entry and very informative. As a reader I love the combi-genre of all the new stories getting published today. I just hope the writers keep it up and ignore the 'genre' for the sake of the story.

  4. I'm so glad you posted this because I was thinking the same thing after finishing a certain story last night. :D I love your books because they could be labeled both science fiction AND romance, equally. Those types of combos are rare things but hopefully publishers are becoming more accepting of them, even if still confused.

  5. I do believe that a lot of what we see on TV and movies has opened people's eyes to cross/combi-genres. X-FILES was paranormal and cop, for example. Maybe because TV doesn't have 'shelving' requirements, but I rarely hear the negatives about multi-genre shows that we do about multi-genre books. IMHO. :-) ~Linnea

  6. Anonymous8:55 PM EST

    Yeah, weird. Loved X-Files. Gillian Anderson is wonderful.