Wednesday, September 06, 2006

Defining Novel Genres, Part III (Paranormals & Sci-Fi)

This is the third in a series of posts intended to help writers identify the genre of their manuscripts. We'll be talking about paranormals and sci-fi today. HINT: You might want to refill your coffee before you start reading. This is an extra-long post.

First, let me give credit to the people who helped me learn how to think about paranormals and sci-fi. Special props to Cathy Clamp, who teaches terrific classes on genres, and to the FF&P loop (Fantasy, Futuristic and Paranormal). FF&P is an online chapter of RWA and a fantastic group of writers. Cathy is an extremely versatile author, and her latest novel (together with writing partner, C.T. Adams) is Captive Moon. You can read about it at their website at: http://www.ciecatrunpubs.com/. Thanks to Cathy for being willing to share the information attributed to her with my readers.

Let's start with science fiction, often called sci-fi. A good working definition is Robert Heinlein's. Boiled down, it reads, science fiction is "realistic speculation about possible . . . events, based solidly on adequate knowledge of the real world, past and present, and on a thorough understanding of the nature and significance of the scientific method."

The operative word in science fiction is science. Sci-Fi must be based on science. It can be speculative, meaning it can suggest how present-day science will evolve, but the fictional advancements MUST be grounded in real scientific principles.

Even though it's implied in the above definition, Cathy Clamp emphasizes that the science involved must be Earth-based (the only reality we Earthlings know). This is an important distinction. To understand why, let's look at two stories: the original television show Star Trek and the first Star Wars movie, Episode Four.

The fictional starship Enterprise's five-year mission originated on Earth. A futuristic Earth, yes, but Earth nonetheless. In the nearly forty years since the show debuted, one of the compliments frequently paid to Gene Roddenberry, the scriptwriter who produced it, was that the show used "real" science as the basis of its episodes. Star Trek is truly science fiction.

By contrast, Star Wars begins on the planet Tatooine where Luke Skywalker lives with his aunt and uncle. Star Wars is filled with rich world-building, but the worlds are not real. Star Wars is, therefore, a fantasy.

I can almost hear someone reading this and saying, "But wait! Star Trek also created worlds that were not real." Yes, of course, they did. However, Star Trek is almost always classified as sci-fi while Star Wars is almost always classified as fantasy. And, now you can see why I think Cathy's stipulation about the science being Earth-based is so important.

When selecting a genre, you don't want to have a laundry list. You want to select the predominant one and stick with it. Believe me, it helps with the query letters. While Gene Roddenberry might have written a query letter listing Star Trek as a futuristic, paranormal sci-fi with elements of fantasy and time travel, I guarantee he didn't. You shouldn't either with your query letters.

Since we've mentioned fantasy, let's look at that genre next. If you look for a definition of fantasy on the Internet, you'll find lots of entries. I'd like to start with the one I found on Experiencefestival.com: "A critical characteristic [of fantasy] is that the world features some difference from Earth that is not a result of science or technology, but rather the result of magic or other anomalous phenomena."

Just like Star Wars, we're talking about world-building. However, unlike our definition of science-fiction, the world-building does NOT have to be Earth-based. Also, note the reference to magic. Many fantasies from Lord of the Rings to Harry Potter include magic as a critical element.

Once again, IMHO, Cathy Clamp clarifies the definition. She divides fantasy into two types: building a different world with creatures that don't exist (again, like Star Wars) OR building an alternate reality, picking and choosing the parts of Earth history to keep and changing others to build your alternate world. Perfect examples of alternate reality novels are Jim Butcher's Dresden File stories or Kim Harrison's stories about Rachel Morgan and The Hollows. Both are set on Earth, but an Earth with an alternate reality. Both series include witches, wizards, and vampires (remember, our definition of fantasy included magic, another distinction from sci-fi).

In honor of FF&P, let's look at futuristic (the second "F" in FF&P) next. A lot of writers would consider futuristic a sub-genre of sci-fi. However, we know by now that sci-fi must be science-based. Futuristic is under no such limitations. The only requirement is that futuristic be set at a future time from our present time on Earth.

An interesting debate started on the FF&P loop in January, 2005. A writer who had a book in which an Earth woman traveled to the year 2176 wanted to enter FF&P's Prism contest. However, she could not decide whether to enter it in the futuristic or time travel category.

Lots of published and unpublished authors chimed in with opinions, most of them leaning toward futuristic, but without really giving a solid reason for their gut instincts. Finally, one very knowledgeable author of paranormals cut through the rhetoric with a simple statement. She voted for futuristic because the heroine could not return to her own time. The membership was happy to have a defining reason and the debate ended. (Thanks to Rowena Cherry for both the solution and for being willing to share it here. Check Rowena's website at http://www.rowenacherry.com for her latest print and e-Books).

Therefore, on the basis of that discussion, FF&P (the authority for such things in RWA) agreed that time travel can include travel to the past or to the future, but the time traveler MUST have the ability to return to his/her own time (whether s/he chooses to do so or not).

Our last definition will be the "P" in FF&P: Paranormal.

The Free Dictionary defines paranormal as "Beyond the range of normal experience or scientific explanation." Wikipedia states that "The term is derived from the Latin use of the prefix 'para', meaning 'against, counter, outside or beyond the norm.' Wikipedia also says that "Paranormal is an umbrella term used to describe a wide variety of purported anomalous phenomena." That's why I titled this post "Paranormal and Sci-Fi." All of the genres I've listed here except sci-fi could fit under the paranormal umbrella (I'm not including science fiction since it is speculative rather than paranormal and because it contains that element of "real" science).

Fantasy, futuristic and time travel can all be considered subsets of paranormal. You can refer to your vampire novel as a paranormal and be perfectly correct. But check your bookstore. It is likely to be filed under "Fantasy," which is a more specific term. Pay attention to how your bookstore shelves books. Given a choice of a very broad term like "paranormal" or a more narrow term like "fantasy," always go with the one that says where a bookstore will shelve it.

I hope that the posts over the past three days will prove helpful to you in defining your manuscript's genre. Again, I would emphasize selecting the dominant genre. Resist the temptation to fancy--or worse--cute. Remember: if agents or publishers can't easily pigeonhole your market, they are likely to pass on your query.

P.S. To provide support for my last paragraph, I just read this in Miss Snark's blog. The first line is from a query letter; the second is MS' response:

"Wing Nuts" is chick lit, humor, mystery and strange phenomenon (like a boy who talks to asparagus).

There's nothing I hate more than a string of adjectives tellling (sic) me what a book IS. Tell me where it goes on the shelf, and 'classics' isn't an option.

P.P.S. I'm still catching up on Miss Snark's blog. Just came across a question posed by a writer who wanted to describe his manuscript as "character-driven" instead of "literary fiction." Here's the Snarky One's response:

Literary fiction is used to describe where something is shelved in a
bookstore. You may describe your book as character driven as soon as you send me a .jpg of a section called 'character driven' in a bookstore.
Any bookstore. Anywhere.

2 comments:

Rabah Qial said...

Impressed how detailed it is, yet interesting! Good job :)
Rabah Qial

Maya said...

Rabah: Thanks for your post.

Regards,

Maya