Invent your own Genre

Men’s Action-Adventure Fantasy.

This started when my First Reader and I were plotting in the car. It’s a favorite way to pass the time while making the trek over the hills and through the woods to Grandmother’s House, and yesterday as we were on the way home I started talking about what I’m hoping to write in the upcoming time when school is over. I have to finish the science fiction (Jade Star is the prequel, although Jade herself doesn’t show up until two-thirds into the novel), but the next book planned is The East Witch. And yes, that is another book in the Underhill universe I created with Pixie Noir. We’ve actually roughly plotted three more novels, loosely connected, in that world, and I’m really excited about them.

But as we were talking about what the Pixie for Hire series is becoming, my dear husband informed me that he thinks it should be called men’s action adventure fantasy. I protested that technically it’s Urban Fantasy (despite very little of the setting being anything like urban), and I’ve also been told it’s Dark Fantasy. Nope, he told me. Correia’s MHI series, the Dresden Files, and my books are all part of a different genre – action adventure fantasy. I still protest lumping my books in with Butcher and Correia, but he has a point. They aren’t easily encapsulated in an existing genre (except the Dresden Files, which I suspect define Urban Fantasy). We’ve talked before about genres, here at the Mad Genius Club. In the new world of Indie Publishing, we authors are free to invent our own genres. We can mix, match, and crossover. If I want to write men’s action adventure fantasy (and frankly growing up I loved men’s action adventure books, like the works of Alistair MacLean and Louis L’Amour) I can.

The problem comes in helping your reader find your books. Genres are useful to readers. Me? I’m not a fan of High Fantasy – too much Tolkein pastiche for my taste (I loved his work. All else is a pale imitation). However, I do enjoy some Urban Fantasy, except where it ought to be labeled Paranormal Romance (which is fine if it’s written by Amanda Green. I highly commend her recent Witchfire Burning as a good example of that genre). I’m not a big fan of whiny main characters (they aren’t all female, but it seems that way sometimes) so I’m cautious of that genre. And then there is Low Fantasy, and Dark, and Light, and… and what is Sword and Sorcery in all that, anyway? I did decide that Correia’s Son Of the Black Sword is an excellent modern example of that blood and thunder genre, though. I’ve written about Science Fantasy, which isn’t a genre but probably should be.

Which brings me back to inventing your own genre. You can, but you need to be familiar with the existing delineations, so you can tag or categorize your book in such a way that the reader can find it. And it shouldn’t fall so far outside the parameters of the genre as to give your readers mental indigestion – like how I react to Urban Fantasy now. Which of course means you ought to be reading in your genre. I’ve run into writers that insist they can’t read in their genre – or read at all, which just boggles the mind – and frankly, it’s a fatal mistake. Yes, you can stop reading it for a time while writing. I have to, since I pick up ‘flavor’ from whoever I’m reading, and while that can be useful (I binge-read Spillane and Hammet and other pulp authors while working on Pixie Noir and sequels) other times it can mean that your work sounds too much like someone else. Which I don’t want, since I do want my unique voice to come through in my work.

I could sell my books (well, not the science fiction, but you know what I mean) as simply ‘Fantasy’ but that is a very broad brush to paint with. If instead I can find a niche market of readers who like my style, that is more likely to lead to consistent sales of other books in the same vein. And sometimes out of it, since I also write other things, up to and including the Western romance under a pen name. As we were moving and I was shelving books in the new house, I realized we own books by Sarah Hoyt writing under at least three, and possibly four pen-names, for instance. Because if you’re going to go that far out in left field, it helps the readers to have a banner hung over you saying ‘read this, not that! Unless you really want to, but don’t get mad if it’s not what you expected from this author under another name.’

Ok, maybe that’s too long. Short and punchy. Something. I dunno. What do you think about genres, and how would you define your favorites?

73 thoughts on “Invent your own Genre

  1. The problem that I have with the concept of genre is that it is reactive rather than proactive. “Genre” has, for the last few decades, anyway, been defined in terms of shelving schematics in chain bookstores. There is no generally accepted taxonomical view of genre.

    Instead what has been happening is that one author will come up with a unique concept, a number of others will write similar books, and when there are enough books in a particular niche to fill a shelf somebody comes up with a name for it.

    For example, John Grisham, wrote “A Time To Kill” as a new take on the mystery novel–the identity of the killer was known from the beginning, the tension of the book comes from the uncertainty of the trial. It became popular and he wrote more books about lawyers, other people wrote books about lawyers, and suddenly “Courtroom Drama” needed its own shelf. (Obviously Grisham wasn’t the first to write a courtroom drama–Leon Uris’ brilliant “QB VII” comes to mind. But Grisham had enough books and enough copycats to warrant a new section.)

    Ditto, say, “Steampunk”. K W Jeter has been writing steampunk since the 1970s, but it took Williams’ & Gibson’s “The Difference Engine” to bring the genre into its own.

    I don’t color inside the lines very well. My series “The Book Of Lost Doors” came about largely because I wanted to explore William S Burroughs’ cosmology without aping his deliberately perverse literary style. I could make a case for my series being Science Fiction, Fantasy, Horror, Magical Realism, or any of a number subgenres of the above.

    My new book is the same. I’ve been describing it as “Little Nemo In Chinatown”–my main character is a literal nightmare (the polite term is “oneiri”) in physical form, who is solving a mystery in a fantasy world based on 1970s Los Angeles. Alt-History Dark Fantasy Noir?

    There have been several attempts to make a top-down taxonomy of fiction types, but I have yet to see one that really works. Instead it seems to be that you just have to wait until enough readers are fans of a particular substyle of fiction that they come up with a name for it.

  2. Science fantasy. The starship fires up the hyperdrive, a flaming pentagram appears ahead of the bow, and the ship flies through the middle.

    No ,someone else made that one up…Lost Universe.

    I am too late to take your advice on pen names, as I have written one superhero, one mil-SF, one swords and muskets different world, and one sailing ships and trade if you ignore the starport and rare starship.

    1. Well, those are all still loosely related. For me, it was the Western Romance with no trace of magic or hard science I felt I had to separate out. I’ll do the same with the straight mystery I want to finish soon.

            1. The second series reads like a “before” example from a writers’ group. And it’s doubly shamed by proximity to the first series.

              There’s a lot of really good stuff there, but most of it seems random.

              I’m sure *someone* out there liked it, but as I waited for and purchased each volume, I became more disillusioned…

              1. Yeah. How did he manage to make Shadow, that vast realm of possibilities he brought to life so powerfully through Corwin’s eyes–seem so *cramped*?

      1. It’s one long novel, split into five shortish pieces. And it reads fast; Corwin’s breezy first-person narration is concise and to the point.

  3. Thank you for including the link to your Science Fantasy post here. Unlike at that time, evidently The Case of the Toxic Spell Dump by Turtledove is again available and now it awaits my reading on Kindle or app.

    1. Ooohh, that’s one of the books I snag extra copies of when I find them, to pass out to unsuspecting victims.

      I’ve had some interesting discussions with some of my more religious friends after they read that book…

        1. Yeah, and then “Operation Luna” riffed off Turtledove. What goes around, comes around.

          A recognizeably-like-our-world based on magic has to have a blend of “don’t go there” and handwavery to make it work in a story. That’s just the given background for the genre. What matters is what you do with it.

          Anderson’s books took that and went down the action-adventure path. Turtledove went down the politics and ethics path.

          1. And Garrett’s Lord Darcy stories went down the straight mystery path.

            As you say — that’s just background.

  4. Industry insiders, especially writers, can slice and dice the genres, but the bulk of people only know the bookstore sections. We all need to remember that the genre label is advertising, and we need it to do two different things. We need readers looking for this specific subgenre to find it, but we also need readers bumbling around the larger genre to trip over it and hopefully like it. Fortunately in Amazon, we can tick off two genres, and add tags to broaden the search response.

  5. I actually very much like books that cut across genre lines or are otherwise hard to pigeonhole. Unsurprisingly perhaps, when I finally gathered my courage and wrote “On Different Strings”, reviewers agreed “This is a love story, but not a romance”, even though it has the happy ending requisite for genre romances.
    * no explicit sex (unlike “contemporary romances”, where multiple graphic scenes have become the norm);
    * some spiritual elements, but not enough to qualify as “Christian/Jewish romance”;
    * some social observations including anti-PC stuff, but shying away from message fiction,
    * a mystery subplot, but not enough for the book to qualify as a mystery;
    * Lots of music, but staying away from “Lad lit” and “Rock’n roll romance” alike…
    To me, it was just the story that was waiting in my head to come out.

    1. What he said. I have 0 clue how to describe my current series-in-progress. Think, oh, Talbot Mundy’s sort of story (ex. _King of the Khyber Rifles_) or John Masters as told from a woman’s POV, with blasters and wormhole travel and space aliens.

      1. As a guess from the samples, like a Heinlein juvenile, but chewy enough to digest over three volumes.

  6. To be honest, I look more for an association of authors than a genre. (I’m a reader only, not a writer so take it FWIW.) I got to your stuff following a twisted trail from Sabrina Chase through Sarah Hoyt to MGC where I’ve been sampling authors. Oddly enough, I love the Pixie series but had a hard time committing to start on it. The Pixie Noir cover grabbed my eye and interest, but the genre it appeared to be in isn’t one that normally interests me. Now if it had been labelled “Mens Action-Adventure Fantasy”… 🙂 While I was disinclined to buy initially, because of the author circle you associate with I kept coming back to it. When I saw your note on the Zombie Maggots story in Twisted Mindflow talking about the voice of Lom it tweaked my interest enough to buy the first book (Kindle) and from there the rest of the series. Genres seem either too generic to be useful or too specific to be found. Stuff like the Free Range Oyster posts on ATH and the Amazon “readers who liked this also liked…” pages are far more useful to me.

    1. Oh, I agree. Word of Mouth has always been the most powerful marketing tool. But to be successful, we have to keep a full tool box (admittedly, some are more like that whatchamallit you jiggle the doohickey with, about every three years). I’m still a novice, myself. I came to this business from a somewhat similar business, so I know a bit about marketing (and that I prefer tribe-building, or content marketing) and I’ve been working on applying more knowledge to that base.

      I’m tickled to hear you liked Pixie Noir. I hope to recapture some of that essence in the new book, although I’ll warn you it has a female lead. She’s… well, she’s one of my characters. So you might like her.

  7. I am in awe of how Robert E. Howard invented a whole new subgenre of Fantasy — Sword and Sorcery — with his story “The Shadow Kingdom”, without even trying.

    1. It was easier then. Every pulp magazine was potentially its own genre; they were all looking for ways to differentiate themselves in a crowded field. More recently it’s been a matter of bookselling chains trying to prevent books from being differentiated, for convenience of shelving.

      (And then came Amazon.)

  8. Yup, Men’s action-adventure fantasy. That’s EXACTLY what I write.
    And why I’m doing so well, because Baen is the only major publisher who will even touch it, and even they don’t publish that much of it.
    Almost all of it comes from indy’s like me, and all of us who write it are doing very well.
    The only reason why it isn’t a category is because you can’t have a category specifically for men. ‘That would be sexist.’

    1. Currently robot spiders with railguns are going to blast the living shit out of an afrit. Haven’t decided who the underdogs are yet, might be the robot spiders.

      Did you know that when you launch a bullet hard enough, atmospheric friction will get it really hot? An iron jacketed tungsten bullet at 1800C will hit Mr. Demon, the almost molten iron will splash and set him on fire while the tungsten, still very hard and pointy, will penetrate and cause a steam explosion.


      1. “Did you know that when you launch a bullet hard enough, atmospheric friction will get it really hot?”

        That ain’t all, laddie. One of the things that made an impression on the Germans at Cambrai was how much damage got inflicted on the crews of early tanks by bullet “splash”: even if it couldn’t go through the armor, an ordinary lead bullet hitting it basically melted and sprayed through every little opening. A little hazard of combat that often gets overlooked.

  9. I am reminded of the Sandman graphic novel sequence, which started out as a horror comic (with appropriate graphic tropes) for the first few issues because they literally had to build a readership for a genre that didn’t yet exist (dark fantasy for adults.) It built a whole new industry that’s doing decently well (given that the industry in question is small to begin with.)

  10. Men’s action adventure fantasy…a couple of observations: one of the best practitioners of that genre (I guess before it was officially a genre?) in my opinion, was Leigh Brackett, another woman. Yet I’ve seen very few female authors who can do it convincingly beyond the exceptional exceptions. Out of curiosity: how do you females writers of MAAF manage to get inside our heads and tell us stories that resonate with us?

    On a tangential note: Romance novels for men. What’s your thoughts?

    I personally find Barbara Hambly’s Children of the Jedi novel exceptional (it’s one of those books you either love or hate, apparently) and I was absolutely floored when someone described it as ‘a romance novel for men.’ I normally disdained romance, but on re-reading the story, I sort of see it, and was left to re-orient my perceptions.

    1. I can’t speak for her – I really need to find out if there is a biography of her somewhere out there – but in my case, I grew up reading the genre. I raided Dad’s books from an early age, reading Clive Cussler, L’Amour, Zane Grey, Alistair MacLean, Ian Fleming, Edgar Rice Burroughs, and more I’m forgetting. Then, the First Reader earned his title by literally reading snippets as I wrote, and critiquing them. Guys wouldn’t do that, he’d tell me. Too much talking here, they’d be exchanging insults, not compliments. Which I think helped me immensely.

    2. My thoughts on romances for men is simple. Don’t write them as romances. Write them as stories where romance is integral to the hero’s life, but not the driving force behind the story. For example, in Cedar’s Pixie Noir romance is a key element, the growth to and foundation of a marriage and family. Their relationship gets a mention on a regular basis, but is not why they do what they do. Lom isn’t trying to win and woo Bella, he is trying to save the kingdom and do his job. Bella isn’t trying to trap Lom, she is adjusting to her new world and doing her job. Now that the person they are doing this with is worthy of their love is true. And some of their behavior is based on that love. Most of it is based on trust and finding a partner who they can rely on. Lom isn’t looking for a sex toy, or someone to keep house for him, he is looking for someone, make that accidentally finding someone, who can be his partner in his life both private and public. Bella isn’t looking for someone to support her or give her status, none of the normal reasons for marriage. She simply found someone who makes her life, every aspect of it, complete. Tehe same thing Lom found

      1. The closest thing to a men’s romance I can recall would be Louis L’Amour’s CONAGHER.

        Man meets woman.

        Man goes about his business, dealing with hardship, outlaws, loneliness, etc.

        Woman goes about her business, dealing with hardship, childraising, loneliness, etc.

        Man’s business occasionally takes him past woman’s place. Awkward moments. He remembers what it’s like to have a home. She remembers what it’s like to have a man around the house.

        Complications and resolutions ensue.

        And I haven’t deployed any major spoilers yet…

    3. Donald Westlake’s comic mysteries are often also romances–in “Dancing Aztecs” and “The Fugitive Pigeon”, for example, the conclusion of the romantic plot is at least as important as solving the mystery. There is a strong element of rescuing the damsel in distress in the romance, and a feeling that the male protagonist didn’t simply run into the female lead, but in some sense earned her affections.

    1. Thank you for that! I love science fantasy, and I remember seeing the genre listed as such on the spine of a Piers Anthony novel. It’s been hard to find more in that genre, but since a blogger, Jeffro, began talking about D&D’s Appendix N I’ve finally hit on more literary sources (as opposed to TV / movies).

      As a kid I watched a cartoon called “Thundarr the Barbarian” that I’m now pretty sure was Conan wielding a lightsaber in a “Dying Earth” setting. His companions were a sorceress and a wookie-like creature they called a “mok.”

      For years I looked for similar mashups in books and short stories, but I got the strong impression that those were “against the rules” of fantasy, in spite of certain exceptions I’d found. John Carter and Leigh Brackett have been welcome discoveries. I’m glad for indie just because I now don’t have to worry about convincing someone to publish my own sci-fantasies.

      I’m bookmarking this thread and the science fantasy thread, please keep the recommendations coming 🙂

  11. I got my start in the 50s/60s, when you could still read everything that came out in the SF/F genre, and the only genre that mattered was “good”. And genres were later invented for marketing purposes — but I still just look for “good”.

    You can go back, and try to put things into subgenres, but you rapidly run out of ability to do so. A book like _Conjure Wife_ (Leiber) has been marketed in lots of genres (romance, horror, urban fantasy, …) — but it’s still the same brilliant book. Or _The Witches of Karres_ (Schmitz), which is clearly SF (lots of rocket ship action), except that it’s clearly fantasy (lots of magic). Or _Lord of Light_ (Zelazny), which reads like fantasy, with godlike powers — except that it’s SF. So even the major genre break — SF vs Fantasy — isn’t as clear as marketers want people to believe.

    And there are works such as clearly fantasy written like SF, with Anderson’s _Operation Chaos_ (a fixup novel incorporating a several shorter works) being a perfect example.

    Although I’m not saying that there aren’t clearly SF and clearly fantasy works. Tolkien was writing fantasy (high fantasy subgenre) for Lord of the Rings, as was Anderson with _Three Hearts and Three Lions_. And _Mission of Gravity_ (Clement) or _Tau Zero_ (Anderson) are clearly SF (hard SF subgenre).

    You can probably make an argument that “humor” is an additional attribute that you can find on any genre. So I’d put stories like “Snulbug” (Boucher), or “Yesterday Was Monday” (Sturgeon) as funny fantasy, and “A Bicycle Built For Brew” (Anderson) or the Hoka stories (Anderson/Dickson), or the Gallagher stories (Kuttner/Moore) as funny SF.

    And you’ve got mysteries — my favorite non-Conan Doyle Sherlock Holmes story is probably “The Martian Crown Jewels” (Anderson). And SF writers also wrote straight mysteries — which is why Bouchercon, one of the oldest of the mystery conventions (annual since 1970) was named after the editor of F&SF, and why Fredric Brown (the closest the SF field has ever come to O. Henry — the finest really short story writer we’ve ever had in SF/F) won an Edgar (the annual award given by the Mystery Writers of America). (Personal plug — I edited the anthology of the complete short SF by Brown, so I’m massively a fan of his work. He started his genre career with “Armageddon”, at under 2000 words, and he had lots of great works under 500 words, although he did write some SF (and a lot more mystery) at full novel length.)

    The oldest genre is probably still the one called “planetary romances” — going back to Burroughs’ Mars/Venus books. As mentioned upthread, Brackett was one of the finest of them during the pulp era (although I think that “Shambleau”, and the other Northwest Smith stories by C. L. Moore are probably better — but then I reread _The Sword of Rhiannon_ and change back to Brackett).

    And you’ve got hardboiled fantasy (Heinlein’s “Magic, Incorporated”), or Madeleine Robins’ three hardboiled Regencies.

    I still like “good” as my preferred genre. It saves me from trying to fit things into marketing boxes, which are likely to change anyhow.

    1. Even Tolkien included science fiction tropes in his Middle Earth fic, like his explanation of why you would get to America now instead of Eressea if you sailed West. Mystery tropes too, like all the elaborate timetables and a few other things.

      1. It’s really stretching to count those as SF or mystery tropes. In any case, there is no ‘one drop’ (or ‘one trope’) rule in fiction.

  12. One genre I’d love to see more of is the colony-in-peril genre, which is how I’m classifying “The Legacy of Heorot.” That, and the science fiction thriller genre. Specifically *not* the weird-virus-run-amok variety, but the race-against-time for a spaceship / colony / second world variety.

    I like mashups of sci-fi / mystery / horror — and romance! I notice that the more you drill down in Amazon’s categories for these mashups the fewer books there are. A bummer as a reader, but an opportunity as a writer …

    1. I think, as a writer, one difficulty with mash-ups is trying to master the conventions of more than one genre, without the work feeling like someone was writing from a Chinese take-away menu: one trope from column A, one from column B. At least that’s my personal challenge. I’ve tried it twice and neither experiment came out well enough to stand alone.

      1. Ah, yes, I was thinking that the mashups would involve genres the author is deeply into. I’m thinking of Rowling, who I was not surprised wrote adult mysteries because I noticed she wove mysteries throughout Harry Potter (that was what drew me in initially). And Bujold, who has a mystery elements in the Vorkosigan novels. I latched on to them as evidence that writers are “allowed” to have elements of different genres in their stories.

        To be clear, I’m assuming the mashups are stories that lend themselves to it in the first place. A derelict space ship story is science fiction. If there are monstrous aliens hidden in it that hunt down the explorers, it becomes horror, too. If the exo-anthropologist has to figure out where the monsters came from and what they’re up to, and how they’re connected to a friendlier set of aliens, you get a mystery. If she falls in love with the ex-warlord who is damn good at fighting the monsters, it’s also a romance …

        I agree it can be really tricky to pull off. I just like that I don’t have to convince a publisher to let me try 🙂

      2. I’ve read too many of those. That’s one reason I tend to avoid genre-bending mashups in general.

  13. Perhaps I ought to drag out my steampunk space opera with a meganekko space princess for further work. . . .

  14. My objection to genre creep is that it multiplies the complexities of reader discovery, which is our biggest single problem as writers. Indie made it possible for me to write a novel positing that magic is the same as software, depending on what universe you happen to be living in. You could call it “urban fantasy” with a straight face, but people have expectations of that term that I didn’t satisfy. Then there’s the serious/whimsical/satirical spectrum, and fifteen other things that turn fiction discovery into a 3-dimensional pip chart. I call the book “hard fantasy,” and it shares the notion with Larry’s Grimnoir series of magic as a system with explicit and detailed rules and limitations. Magic as alternative physics, in other words. But it’s still magic, and for many people in my own inner circle, the word “magic” is the kiss of death for fiction, whether the magic is object-oriented or not.

    One of my best friends recently wrote a novel I can only characterize as steampunk zombies in the Wild West. And true zombie fans will argue as to whether Jim’s zombies are really zombies or not. They incorporate Crowlean occultism, zero-point energy, and nanites, fer pete’s sake. They’re more like robots with magically bound human minds, except that…

    …except that there are so many exceptions that any description I might offer would fail to give a reader any useful guidance. I’ve often wondered if we could convene a consortium to create a hierarchy tree of descriptive tags, but as anyone who’s studied library science in depth knows, classification requires the reader to remember the whole tree, and a tree precise enough to be usefully descriptive would be too large and complex to remember.

    Without tradpub bookshelves to limit the concepts we can imagine, we’re exploring universes of infinite richness, but we can’t give readers any sort of map. I don’t know what the answer is. I just want people to understand the difficulty of the problem.

    1. And I would call Ten Gentle Opportunities Light Fantasy, since it is much more on the humor end of the spectrum. It’s good, though. You’re right about the complexity, and I’m trying to muddle through what to call things, since I do like taxonomy, but still make those names relatable to readers who can say, oh, I like fantasy… and then a modifier to make it more specific. It’s doubtless a fool’s errand, as you can’t predict what a reader will associate words with, except very broadly.

    2. Similar problems exist with music marketing. Half a century ago there were maybe five musical genres. Now there are somewhere between fifty and a hundred and fifty, depending on where you look.

      There have been times I’ve bought a book simply because it was by a particular author, then discovered it was in a completely different genre than the one the author normally wrote in. Which often annoyed me enough to avoid that author’s work in the future.

  15. I was looking for a place to express my dismay over the crumbling of my walls, and found this post from last week.
    See, I only like one book. Well, two, really: “Huckleberry Finn” and “Starship Troopers.” And I’ve spent the last 40+ years looking for books that make me know and feel and be, in the same ways those two boos make me know and feel and be.
    Not much success.
    So, I settled into military sci-fi and other books with guns.
    You, and you know who you are, did NOT allow me to remain in that comfortable fortress, and you gave me books about pixies and panthers and dragons who cook in a diner, and mermaids, having first seduced me with rats and bats.
    Okay, horizons expanded. But what Alicia Butcher Ehrhardt has just done to me is something I will never recover from. There isn’t even a GUN in the entire book ( a battle is ACTED in the background) and nobody gets killed or goes into space.
    Genre? I still have no idea of the genre.
    Most of this is going into the book review, but I can’t do that now; I have a cat on my lap.

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