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Jay Lake
Date: 2007-02-05 16:53
Subject: Transferability of Genre Techniques
Security: Public
Tags:lj, process, writing
james_nicoll recently asked:

And a follow up question for published authors

Specifically the ones who write in multiple genres and in particular mystery, SF and fantasy: how easily do you find the techniques and ways of thinking transfer from one to another?

[Clarification: for the purposes of this question, please treat SF and fantasy as different genres]


I liked the question so much I wanted to jump it to a blog post of my own, but then life got in the way. So once more I arrive tardy to the party.

This question has two answers for me. The first is to say he's asking the wrong question. Which is to say, when I'm working on a story or novel, I don't concern myself with whether it's SF or fantasy. I tell the story I want to tell, the way it seems to me best to tell it, then sort out the genre question post facto, as a marketing issue. casacorona has described Mainspring as science fantasy. It has explicit fantasy elements, but is set in a word which is highly mechanist, with a whopping great packing of steampunk tropes.

In the writing process, there is no conscious distinction for me in techniques between genres, because there is no conscious distinction between genres.

The second answer is to speak a bit more narrowly to what James asked. This is in effect from my post facto perspective. For example, the world building elements of fantasy and SF can be viewed somewhat differently.

In Mainspring, there are a number of factors which make no sense science fictionally. The earth orbits the sun on a brass track. That track is twenty miles wide, about twenty miles deep, and the size of the Earth's orbit. That much metallic tonnage in deep space would have gravitational effects, and I don't even want to think about thermal expansion. By the time I fixed all that, I'd have Ringworld. Not a bad place to end up, but Larry Niven already did it far better than I ever could.

So I have the element of world building by fiat as an example of fantasy, where the author at some point says, "well, that's just the way it is". As a practical matter that happens a lot in SF, but SF authors have to at least pay court to the notion of logical premise.

On the other hand, between SF and fantasy there is a vast amount of transferability of Second World story telling techniques. The little rhetorical and descriptive tricks that establish setting and character -- Tolkein's exemplar of "the green sun" being practically the reference case -- work well on all ends of the SF/F spectrum. Likewise the "sensawunda" techniques which an important part of the "reader cookies" for both genres.

Another congruency between SF and fantasy is the structure of the second arc. To my thinking, all genre stories have at least two arcs. There's the nominal plot arc, which pretty much any story in the Western tradition usually has in some recognizable form. Then there's the genre arc. In romance, that's the course of the relationship. In erotica, it's the course of the sexual encounter. In mystery, it's the detective work. In both SF and fantasy, the second arc is about that Second World experience. (Note in this model that a story can have more than two arcs, just as it can be seen to fit in more than one genre.)

Anyway, my first reactions to james_nicoll's question. Your thoughts?
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Shalanna: Shakespeare
User: shalanna
Date: 2007-02-06 01:24 (UTC)
Subject: (no subject)
Keyword:Shakespeare
I like the idea of the two arcs. The second arc is the one that snags the imagination of the genre reader, while the story arc has to be "the normal one" to make the tale feel right.

I can write in any genre (well, I couldn't do horror or erotica, or at least not well, because of the squick factor for me.) I think that telling a story and using craft to "show instead of telling" and bringing the vivid, continuous dream to life for the reader is universal, and the techniques are just the same whether I'm working on that screwball romantic comedy, one of my series mysteries, or on a Dulcinea fantasy story. The only time you would really depart from the usual methods is when you're going literary and maybe experimental. Otherwise, you fly the plane pretty much the same way. You always have a premise and a theme, you always have characters whose story this is, and you always have to avoid being boring. *grin*
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thecrimsony
User: thecrimsony
Date: 2007-02-06 02:39 (UTC)
Subject: (no subject)
In Mainspring, there are a number of factors which make no sense science fictionally. The earth orbits the sun on a brass track. That track is twenty miles wide, about twenty miles deep, and the size of the Earth's orbit. That much metallic tonnage in deep space would have gravitational effects, and I don't even want to think about thermal expansion. By the time I fixed all that, I'd have Ringworld. Not a bad place to end up, but Larry Niven already did it far better than I ever could.

So I have the element of world building by fiat as an example of fantasy, where the author at some point says, "well, that's just the way it is". As a practical matter that happens a lot in SF, but SF authors have to at least pay court to the notion of logical premise.


Oh my grok, I could kiss your furry head. In writing my own YA steampunk novel I've been fretting over that same issue myself. A clockwork planet? How is that supposed to work? It affects both mechanical and organic life? Huh? It's not all answered by fiat, but so much so I kept thinking about another author's assertion that "Well steampunk is Sci-fi, of course."

Up until now I've been going back to Mike Resnik's advice on star ship drives. He's always been more about the people inside the ship than exactly how those people are traveling faster than light.

That segues nicely into my comment to the original question. I just found a used copy of DOWN THESE DARK SPACEWAYS, edited by Mr. Resnik where he and five other top authors write sci-fi mysteries. His intro discusses how the two genres have been working together for decades, since THE DEMOLISHED MAN and CAVES OF STEEL.

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blogeois
User: blogeois
Date: 2007-02-06 02:43 (UTC)
Subject: (no subject)
Thank you for this timely post. Recently, I've been beating myself up over what exact genre my writing falls into...while I'm still writing it. I agree with your take on no conscious distinction between genres and it gave me a warm fuzzy to read it somewhere other than in my own head. I'm looking forward to more comments on the topic and in the meantime, I won't classify myself (pidgeon-hole myself?) until after my novel is finished.
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Jay Lake
User: jaylake
Date: 2007-02-06 02:48 (UTC)
Subject: (no subject)
Good plan. Write, then market.

(Unless you're writing to market of course, but every rule has exceptions in this business...)
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Oz Whiston writing as Oz Drummond
User: birdhousefrog
Date: 2007-02-06 13:58 (UTC)
Subject: (no subject)
I liked both answers. The first one I knew. It's how I write. The second clarified something for me. That there is a genre arc. And it's probably why I want to throw some stories against the wall and say "nice, but it isn't SF (or fantasy)! It's mainstream." The second arc is missing from the story and yet, it was printed in a genre market because of who wrote it.

Oz
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Jonathan Wood
User: thexmedic
Date: 2007-02-06 16:02 (UTC)
Subject: (no subject)
It strikes me that the first answer is the writer's answer and the second answer is the marketer's, in which reader expectations have to be taken into consideration. Am I off base?
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Jay Lake
User: jaylake
Date: 2007-02-07 04:19 (UTC)
Subject: (no subject)
Nope, pretty much dead on. The question is (or can be, at least) how the writer balances those two interests. For all that I yammer on constantly about marketing and metrics, I am very much the first kind of writer when words hit the page.
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