WWC 2014, day 2: Blending science fiction and fantasy


Panellists: Stacy Dooks, Nina Munteanu, Greg Bechtel, and Ian Alexander Martin

Nina MunteanugregbechtelIan Alexander MartinSD: Genres are breaking down. Clarke’s third law states: Any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic.

NM: Why do we have genres and should we still?

GB: Yes. It’s for the reader. How else will we know what to buy and read?

NM: Publishers and imprints have the genre printed right on the spine, though.

IAM: I say I don’t like categories and genres, but when I go to my publisher, I use them. I may not like it, but I have to use them.

SD: Genre is your navigational touchstone, your compass point. You can get tricked into reading a genre you weren’t expecting. Stephen King is known primarily for horror, but then he published the Dark Tower series.

IAM: Using categories to restrict authors or stories is bogus.

NM: Do we need to re-educate our readers, then?

GB: Word of mouth is how you find out about books. Now it’s moved online.

NM: It started with Amazon. People are finding their books in new ways now.

IAM: Chapters is its own competition. If you buy online you save 20% over the bookstore prices.

NM: Is it still germane to categorize books?

IAM: Categories in bookstores is an American invention. In the 50’s or 60’s it migrated to Canada. Before that, everything was alphabetical by author, regardless of genre or category.

NM: It’s a different way of looking for a book. When you look for a book, do you look for an author, or do you look for a genre?

Q: People who are already published can bend the rules. What about someone who’s writing?

SD: It’s important to establish the ground rules for your universe. Don’t get derailed. Take Star Wars, for instance. It’s the biggest blend of science fiction and fantasy out there. Don’t try to explain the fantasy elements, like midichlorians. Don’t let anything come out of left field.

GB: We all seem to be agreeing that blending science fiction and fantasy can be done and has been done successfully. What advice do we have for the writers in our audience?

NM: To me, it’s all about the reader. When you read my books, you know what you’re getting. It’s about consistency.

SD: You make a covenant with your reader.

NM: As soon as another writer takes over a franchise, the reader can tell.

GB: You can break your rules if you set it up. Foreshadow. (Mel’s note: Kelley Armstrong said much the same thing in her workshop on writing fantasy at CanWrite!)

IAM: You should trust your reader to “get it.”

NM: You can be subtle.

Q: Blending is one thing, but what is genre? Is it the trappings, or are there other criteria?

NM: I teach how to write science fiction at the University of Toronto. That’s one of the first things my students have to learn is how to define the genre. In science fiction, science is the premise, the ‘what if?’ Fantasy doesn’t have to have magic, but it’s based more on myth and folklore.

SD: In Star Wars, you have all the trappings of science fiction, but at its core the story is a mythic one.

NM: Even if there’s something inexplicable about it. Sometimes, it’s better not to explain.

Q: So is it the fantasy element that enables the story?

NM: Take a look at Diana Gabaldon. Her books defy categorization, but when Outlander was first published, it was stuffed in the romance section of bookstores, even though the author insisted on the more general ‘fiction’ category. Sometimes trying to pigeon-hole your novel can backfire. I wrote what I called a romantic science fiction story. An artificial intelligence ran society, but romance was the main thread. It was dark though. Both partners died. It bombed with romance readers. It was well-reviewed, but romance readers hated it (where was the happy ending?) and science fiction readers loved it.

GB: Margaret Atwood is another example. You don’t want to disappoint your readers’ expectations.

Q: Is genre mainly the concern of publishers and marketing departments? Do you need to focus on it when you’re writing?

NM: You need to understand genre and how that’s going to affect where your novel is placed. New writers who blend are not as marketable.

IAM: Not during the creative process, though. Afterward, yes.

Q: Before the 50’s fantasy had to be disguised as science fiction.

Q: As a new author, how should you present your blended novel?

IAM: I’d be more interested in your mix. Do your research. Approach those publishers that have a track record with blended fiction.

GB: Find a publisher that produces novels you like to read and approach them.

NM: Books used to be marketed by genre. Identify what your book is and sell it for what it actually is.

IAM: Online recommendations may not be accurate. Genre is important for retail, library, and the marketing department. It’s not so relevant to the end user/reader anymore. Social interaction is the key to discoverability.

Q: I didn’t understand that Star Wars was a blend. Now that I think of blending in this light, Final Fantasy nailed it. How much does the visual element contribute?

SD: Science fiction and fantasy is a marginalized genre.

IAM: The general reaction is, “You’re reading that? Read [the classics] instead (Asimov, Clark, etc.).”

NM: The visual element enables blending.

GB: Buffy the Vampire Slayer was a wonderful cross-pollination of horror and action-adventure wrapped in a coming-of-age story.

Q: Fantasy is magic-based. It doesn’t necessarily track for me. Can you make a science-based magic system?

IAM: Absolutely. You can do it if you do it well.

NM: Ultimately, fiction is story. Serve the story.

Next week: When words collide day two continues with Mark Leslie.

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