Know Your Genre – Speculative Fiction

How many times have you heard that? If we are to ever write something worth publishing, we must know how our book differs from all that has come before. This is essential in marketing your book to agents, editors, and ultimately readers. As agents are fond of saying, your book’s genre is where it gets shelved in a brick-and-mortar bookstore.

With the rise of e-books and self-publishing along with the current trend of postmodern genre mash-ups, the importance of genre may be slightly decreasing, but that doesn’t mean you shouldn’t know your stuff. Consider it another part of the research process.

That’s why I’m so freaked out about attending Taos Toolbox next month, a two-week science fiction and fantasy novel writing workshop. I write speculative fiction, of course, but I know I’m not as well versed as I should be in the field.

Sure I’ve read Tolkien and Lewis; Le Guin, L’Engle, Bradbury, and McKinley; Susan Cooper and Lloyd Alexander; and later Phillip Pullman and Garth Nix. I also read my fair share of Piers Anthony and too many Star Wars novels to count. But current stuff? No so much. You’ll also note how much of the authors above trend toward more young adult stories.

So of course I started hunting around on the interwebs to see what was considered required reading for speculative fiction.

io9 provides a wonderful overview of the genre with their Syllabus and Book List for Novice Students of Science Fiction Literature. The list is described thusly:

It is not comprehensive. It is intended to introduce the novice student of SF literature to the major themes in the genre, as well as books and authors who are representative of different eras in SF lit (including the present day).

And I’ve read just 7 of the 24 titles listed. Yikes.

Last year, NPR ran a poll for the 100 best books in science fiction and fantasy. I fared better here, having read 29 of the top 50 books (and another 14 of books 51-100). But still, there are plenty of gaps in my reading.

Earlier this month, Kirkus Review ran a series on Social Science Fiction (Part 1, Part 2, Part 3). And while I haven’t read all of the books they mentioned, it’s clear that social science fiction is one of the areas I’m better versed in. That and young adult SFF up until two years ago (when I essentially stopped pleasure reading and started writing more).

This is good since I tend to write more socio-cultural speculative fiction stories in addition to YA. There’s still more work to do, but at least I’m not a complete slouch in the sub-genres I’m writing in.

What about you?

For more recommendations:

Adult SFF: David Brin’s List of “Greatest Science Fiction and Fantasy Tales”
SFF Short Stories: Bibliophile Stalker’s Short Story Collections for the Aspiring Speculative Fiction Writer
YA SFF: Book Review Blog Charlotte’s Libraryvar gaJsHost = ((“https:” == document.location.protocol) ? “https://ssl.” : “http://www.”); document.write(unescape(“%3Cscript src='” + gaJsHost + “google-analytics.com/ga.js’ type=’text/javascript’%3E%3C/script%3E”)); try { var pageTracker = _gat._getTracker(“UA-15029142-1”); pageTracker._trackPageview(); } catch(err) {}

7 thoughts on “Know Your Genre – Speculative Fiction

  1. It’s impossible to read everything, and I’m far from good about it. I try to get a taste of subgenres similar to what I write and focus on some of the big authors out there. I’ll also look up summaries of the book I don’t have time to read or go to my husband, the expert on all things SF/F/comic books, if I have questions.

    May I recommend looking at urban fantasy, which is pretty big right now. Jim Butcher and Patricia Briggs are my favorites. But there’s also Carrie Vaughn, Laurell K. Hamilton, and Seanan McGuire. If you like shifters, go with Briggs or Vaughn; vamps, go with Hamilton; fae, go with McGuire; wizards and all things really cool, Butcher. I didn’t think I’d like urban fantasy until I really got into it. Now, I love it.

    Good luck at the workshop and let us know how it goes!

  2. Sounds like you've got a pretty good foundation, actually. It can always be better, right? In grad school we used to play a game, “What you haven't read?” Even the most seasoned professors of literature would be missing something huge from their lists. There are just too many books.

    I take into account too that everything I consume is part of my writing, not just books in my field. Non-fiction on too many topics to mention; articles and podcasts on topics that interest me; fiction in other genres. I figure that so long as we are reading, we are okay.

  3. It sounds like you are doing a great deal of reading in your genre. I think it is important to do that. I read a lot of mg and hf books. Reading authors that you love is another way to improve your skills.

  4. I've only read 8 of the 24 in the syllabus — and I wouldn't worry about it too much. You don't want to ghettoize your brain by reading only one genre. To think outside the box, you need to know there's something outside the box in the first place.

  5. I thought I was going to do really badly in the syllabus, but hey, it's full of old stuff. I love old stuff. Proud to announce 15 out of 24. Now, if it were to include a lot of modern stuff I'd be in trouble.

    Since I started writing, I've cut down on my novel reading and I read mainly short stories. Plus I can never really remember the titles, or the authors of stuff I've read. I was a bit worried about that before I went to Milford (UK writing workshop) but it was fine.

    I just rambled on about other stuff, and nodded wisely when the topic turned to books.

  6. Laura – Thanks for the recs! I've heard good things about Butcher and haven't read hardly any urban fantasy. And you are lucky to have a cheatsheet with your husband's knowledge!

    Elizabeth – Too many books…isn't that the truth. And you are right about other genres. I've read a lot of romance and nonfiction, primarily history and critical theory, and they've all had an influence on my writing. We are the sum of our (reading) experiences.

    Sharon – Reading is definitely a good way to improve my skills. I just wish I had more time!

    L. – “Ghettoizing the brain” love that. Absolutely. There's a big world out there and tunnel vision is one of the worst things for a writer to have.

    Deborah – Glad to hear the smile and nod strategy worked for you at your workshop. I have increased my short story reading too as the novels have dropped off. Not sure if it's because that's what I have time for these days or because I've been focused on writing short stories this past year.

    Thanks for the comments, ladies!

  7. Your reading background sounds a lot like mine! And I haven't read a lot of contemporary adult SF, something I'd like to remedy soon as well. Nothing wrong with having read the “classics” though! Thanks for all the great link lists!

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