Paul Welch

On Fantasy, Writing & the Journey to Publication

Tag Archives: steampunk

Which Genre Is It, Anyway?

Fantasy vs. Science Fiction All books need to be classified, for it tells book sellers – and readers – where a book belongs. If you go into a book store, a quick glance at the aisles tells you that it is imperative for a book to fall into a certain genre. Often, fantasy and science-fiction are grouped together in one big section, which can make it a challenge in searching out a specific sub-genre of literature. But when we submit our work to agents, it’s important to have the right genre classification.

Why? Because the agent needs to know how they are going to sell the book. If we say that our book is a “young adult, middle grade, high fantasy, space opera, steampunk set in Victorian-era Mars,” an agent will likely give it a pass – because they will be unable to sell the book to a publishing house (and chances are, such a book would be a bizarre mess.)

It can be confusing knowing where to place your book. As such, it is important to fully understand the genre. To help with that, I’ve done a little work for you and defined some of the sub-genres of both fantasy and science fiction, with a little note on classification. I hope it helps!

Fantasy:

Epic Fantasy: Arguably the father of all fantasy, epic fantasy is a genre where the protagonists must save the world, typically from some malevolent, evil antagonist. They typically fight the final battle between good and evil, conquer evil nations, overthrow evil overlords, or even face off with the gods themselves. Often times, epic fantasy and high fantasy are considered interchangeable, but there is a subtle difference. J. R. R. Tolkien and Robert Jordan fall under the heading of epic fantasy.

High Fantasy: Closely related to epic fantasy, the high fantasy genre typically has just as much world building as its epic counterpart, but the difference is in the scope of the story. High fantasy typically involves stories that are more personal in nature, perhaps more limited to the needs and desires of a single protagonist, rather than a group. He or she is focused on a single antagonist, rather than on a global/end-of-world event. Typically, by the end of the story, our protagonist has attained his or her goals, but the rest of the world is generally unaffected and continues on as though nothing had happened. Often, Ursula K. Le Guin’s Earthsea novels are considered to be high fantasy.

Urban Fantasy: Sometimes referred to as contemporary fantasy, urban fantasy is typically set in the real world, such as Earth, and is often in the present day. Magic still plays a pivotal role, and, as such, is not to be confused with science fiction. Guy Gavriel Kay has some urban fantasy in his oeuvre.

Sword and Sorcery: Sword and sorcery fantasy involves stories that are typically smaller in size with less emphasis on world building and more time spent on action. Think of dungeon-crawls, where the protagonists must fight off the hordes of evil on a quest for his or her goal. Xena: Warrior Princess would be a good example of a sword and sorcery type fantasy.

Dark Fantasy: Dark fantasy isn’t necessarily ‘scary’ or ‘horrific’ fantasy, but rather it is typically a story where the protagonist fails to win. They may involve antiheroes rather than heroes, and the stories are often set in worlds where evil has triumphed over good. Sometimes they are set in dystopian or post-apocalyptic worlds. H. P. Lovecraft is well known as a dark fantasy author.

Historical Fantasy: Often set in the historical real world, urban fantasy includes magical elements set in historical eras. Susanna Clarke is an example of a historical fantasy author.

Erotic Fantasy: Also known as fantasy romance, erotic fantasy tends to have a lot of sex and/or romance as central drive for the plot. The Sleeping Beauty” novels by A. N. Roquelaure – a pseudonym of Anne Rice – are examples of erotic fantasy.

Science Fiction:

Hard Science Fiction: With a heavy dose of science, hard science fiction is perhaps one of the more challenging genres to write in. The author must have a solid understanding of scientific fact so that their futuristic science is wholly plausible. Asimov is considered the grandfather of hard science fiction.

Space Opera: This tends to be a fun genre, with less focus on scientific fact with perhaps more liberal, fantastical elements. There can be hard science and military science fiction in this genre, but it leans heavily on the fiction side. George Lucas is a good example of a space opera author.

Steampunk: Steampunk is typically a very specific type of historical fiction, where more modern technology is set within classical historical eras. For instance, you’ll often have mechanized gizmos and gadgets in a Victorian-era world. The new Sherlock Holmes movies lean towards steampunk, as well as novelists such as Cherie Priest.

Classification:

We typically don’t need to classify when a novel is suited for an adult audience. It is assumed that all literature can be read and appreciated by adult readers. Adult fantasy and science fiction tends to allow for more sex, romance and graphic violence, with a more sophisticated point of view.

Young Adult: The primary distinction here is that the protagonist tends to be close to the age of the reader (typically 13-17). If you visit the young adult section of the book store, you’ll see that it has exploded in popularity. It is interesting to note that young girls tend to be the target demographic for these stories, although the popularity of these stories is growing among young teen boys. Suzanne Collins, of Hunger Games fame, is a good example of a young-adult (YA) author.

Middle Grade: These are books intended toward kids ages eight to twelve (also known as ‘tweens’). They are starting to make decisions on the types of stories they’re interested in reading, and typically the protagonists are of a similar age to the reader. There is typically very little – if any – sexual content, although there is definitely action and conflict. Janice Hardy is a good example of a middle-grade (MG) author.

Have I missed any major sub-genres? And was this helpful in making sense of the differing genres? If so, please include your thoughts in the comments below. Note that literary agents and publishing houses may disagree, and that these are only guidelines.

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Book Review: The Girl in the Steel Corset

Every now and then, I will be posting book reviews on my blog. I know this can be challenging, as we all have personal tastes. What rings true for me might be in complete opposition to your own experience. This is 100% okay, and I welcome differing opinions.

That being said, I hope to use these reviews as an opportunity to explore where novels did or did not succeed.  These are the lessons I took, and, with a little luck, they might be helpful in your own work.

The Girl in the Steel Corset, by Kady Cross.

This young adult novel is a steampunk adventure. It has received a lot of praise, sales, and even an award or two. It has a sexy cover, its title evokes the popularity of The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo, and the premise is pretty neat. I was excited to give it a read.

From the back-cover blurb:

“When a young lord tries to take advantage of Finley, she fights back. And wins. But no normal Victorian girl has a darker side that makes her capable of knocking out a full-grown man with one punch…

Only Griffin King sees the magical darkness inside her that says she’s special, says she’s one of them. The orphaned duke takes her in from the gaslit streets against the wishes of his band of misfits: Emily, who has her own special abilities and an unrequited love for Sam, who is part robot; and Jasper, an American cowboy with a shadowy secret.

Griffin’s investigating a criminal called The Machinist, the mastermind behind several recent crimes by automatons. Finley thinks she can help – and finally be a part of something, finally fit in.

But the Machinist wants to tear Griff’s little company of strays apart, and it isn’t long before trust is tested on all sides. At least Finley knows whose side she’s on – even if it seems no one believes her.”

The novel is published by Harlequin Teen, and I will acknowledge that I am not the target demographic. That’s okay. Good stories can have universal appeal, but sometimes they target a specific group of people. That being said, we should be able to appreciate aspects of the story – characters, plot, atmosphere – regardless of the genre.

A cursory scan of the reviews on-line suggested that a number of readers have thoroughly enjoyed this book, so I acknowledge I may be in the minority in my opinion. But the story didn’t sit as well with me. I’d like to explore the reasons why as an opportunity to learn.

I struggled with the plot. I felt like I was never given a real sense of the antagonist. Right from the get-go, we’re given the impression that perhaps it’s one guy. But after a single scene, he is all but forgotten. We’re given a hint that this other fellow named The Machinist might be the antagonist, but he seems so much on the periphery that it is hard to believe he’s truly important to the story. At the half-way point of the book, I was still at a loss for a clear antagonist, and that’s problematic.

The lesson: It is important to establish the stakes of the antagonist as early as possible. We need someone to be worried about – someone that will pose a threat to the survival and well-being of the protagonists, the characters we’re going to root for. If the protagonists aren’t in jeopardy, how can we become thoroughly invested in the story?

Some novels manage to accomplish a subtle antagonist – someone who doesn’t clearly jump out as “the bad guy.” And please note, an antagonist doesn’t need to be “the bad guy.” They simply need to provide the conflict – the challenge – to the success of the protagonist. And without strong, clear conflict, it becomes difficult to invest.

The story had multiple points-of-view. I found this problematic. The story starts off by introducing us to the protagonist, Finley. But after one scene, we jump into another point of view. And then another. I never really got a true enough sense of the characters to care about them long enough to give their perspective up, and this proved problematic.

The lesson: If we’re going to use multiple point-of-views, it is worth-while to ensure the reader develops an attachment to the character – roots for them, wants them to succeed – before we dive into another. Multiple points-of-view can succeed and be highly effective, but I think it occurs in situations where we’re truly invested in the heart and soul – the ambitions, challenges, and humanity – of the character.

The editing posed a problem. It may be a matter of personal taste, but I felt this book could have used a little more massaging. Several scenes felt clunky. There were run-on-sentences – which I acknowledge can be used to drive tension, to up the ante, as it were – but unfortunately it often came across as grammatically flawed. There were also instances where a simple re-ordering of sentences would have done WONDERS for the scene… and other instances where sentences could have been cut to help drive the story – the action, the plot – forward.

The lesson: Be diligent. Challenge sentences every step of the way. Does it further the story? Does it add to the atmosphere? How about the pace? Editing can be tedious, but 99% of the time it’s what makes your story sing. Janice Hardy has numerous excellent articles on editing, and if you choose to invest the time, it will take your novel to the next level. I highly recommend her blog.

The Girl in the Steel Corset was a fairly easy read. It didn’t bore me to tears, and I managed to move through it fairly quickly. I’d actually love to see the film version of this book, and I hope that we’re given the opportunity. For the book, however, I simply felt that with a few little tweaks, it could have gone from an acceptable story to an incredible story.

I encourage you to see for yourself.

Have you read this book? What were your thoughts? Do you agree or disagree with any of my observations? Please share your opinions in the comments below – I’d love to hear what you have to say.