BookDeeply excerpt: Foreshadowing and Deus ex Machina

The following is an excerpt from my first BookDeeply event. To help me decide which novel or genre to do next, leave a comment below! To join and unlock TruestSem at any time, start here.

foreshadowing

Foreshadowing & Chekhov’s Gun

“Remove everything that has no relevance to the story. If you say in the first chapter that there is a rifle hanging on the wall, […] it absolutely must go off. If it’s not going to be fired, it shouldn’t be hanging there.” — Anton Chekhov

[Truest spoilers removed]

The trick to writing foreshadowing is that you don’t write it.

You plant it.

And then you make it blend into its surroundings.

If you know a character is going to get shot, you go back to the very beginning and put a gun on the wall.

Sometimes you’ll plant foreshadowing during revision.

Sometimes you’ll have so much foreknowledge of your plot, you can write it in as you go. If you’ve ever read the Harry Potter series, you know that J.K. Rowling planted foreshadowing several novels ahead. But that’s the exception, not the rule.

Writing is rewriting. The best writers are average writers who kept rewriting.

What about other details—if nothing happens with them later, are they red herrings? No, they’re set design.

(For more information on writing details, see my post Becoming a Fan Favorite: Writing Description and Direction.)

Deus ex Machina

 

Back in the times of ancient Greek drama, a contraption might spring forth a god to save the protagonist from almost certain doom. Hence the name deus ex machina. In contemporary fiction, the protagonist needs to face their greatest fight—or question—without the help from their allies.


Next up:

Help me pick a debut novel to read in March 2016! What genre or novel would you like to BookDeeply?

The novel needs to

  1. be a debut (meaning the author hasn’t had a novel traditionally published before this one)
  2. have been published between January 2015 and March 2016
  3. be any genre other than YA contemporary romance (since that’s what Truest is)

Leave your questions, comments, or BookDeeply suggestions below!

Still from cafeteria scene in film NEVER BEEN KISSED, of protagonist Julia dressed in outrageous clothes, wondering with whom she should sit at lunch.

Literary? Mainstream? Commercial? What Genre Is This Anyway?

What’s the difference between commercial and literary and mainstream fiction? What do those words mean, anyway? What about “upmarket”? Where does my book fit in?

Sometimes it’s really obvious where your novel fits in with others.

Other times, you show up querying your book and have no idea where to put it. It’s awkwardly similar to high school (at least the movie version of high school). Everybody else seems so neatly sorted into groups.

A group of skater-pothead high schoolers from the film CLUELESS.

And then there’s you…

Still from cafeteria scene in film NEVER BEEN KISSED, of protagonist Julia dressed in outrageous clothes, wondering with whom she should sit at lunch.

But you want your book to find readers, which means your book needs to find something in common with other books (ones that have readers). Hey, you know which books have the most readers? Commercial fiction. Let’s start there.

Commercial Fiction

Commercial fiction is any fiction that has ONE of the following characteristics:

  • It sells a lot of copies, OR
  • It has a tight, fresh premise that’s easy to pitch (like a logline), OR
  • It has a very specific, established audience.

So genre fiction is considered commercial fiction, because genres can sell a lot of books to their target readers. Children’s books can often be considered commercial because all kids are encouraged to read, but children’s books are categorized by age first, genre second. Commercial writers are often prolific ones, churning out book after book after book for their very happy fan base, regardless of their genre.

BOTTOM LINE: Don’t call your own work “commercial fiction”—that’s a term defined by sales. Know the difference between age categories (adult, young adult, middle grade, etc.) and genres (what this post is about).

Genre Fiction

Genre fiction adheres to specific tropes. For example, if you’re writing a romance, your story must have a happily ever after. If it doesn’t, it’s not a romance.

Read heavily in your genre. What do you expect when reading that genre? That’s what readers will expect from your book if it’s put on that shelf.

Established genre families, often with their own shelves in stores or libraries:

  • Mystery
  • Romance
  • Suspense / Thriller
  • Speculative Fiction (includes fantasy, science fiction, horror)
  • Western
  • Adventure (sometimes grouped with thrillers)

Did you write speculative fiction? Read about my guide to Science Fiction and Fantasy Sub-Genres.

Cross-Genre

A cross-genre novel or story is one that borrows tropes from two or more genres. If your book is about an elf and an ogre falling in love and living happily ever after, you’re borrowing from the Romance and Fantasy families.

take-on-me

But do you call it Fantasy Romance or Romantic Fantasy? The first word in a genre pairing is the adjective qualifying the second, more prominent genre. In other words, a fantasy romance is primarily a romance with some fantasy elements. A romantic fantasy borrows more from the fantasy genre than the romance genre, but it still should have a happily ever after, or you can’t call it “romantic.”

Many stories have romantic elements. That doesn’t mean they are romances.

If your story has romantic elements, then say it’s “______ with romantic elements” if you must. But the romantic elements should be evident from your pitch.

A lot of colors have blue in them, but when we add a bit of it to yellow and mix it throughout, we call the result “green,” or maybe “yellow-green,” not “yellow with blue elements.”

BOTTOM LINE: If you think your book fits in one or more genres, look up the tropes for each genre. Read multiple authors of those genres to see where your book fits best. 

mean-girls

Your book doesn’t fit in with any of those genres? Don’t give up yet.

Mainstream or General Fiction

If your book wouldn’t sit on one of the five “shelves” listed above, it will likely be placed in a section called “General Fiction” or simply “Fiction.”

Historical fiction will likely be shelved here, along with contemporary fiction. Women’s fiction is general fiction promoted mainly to female readers. If your book is one of these genres, call it by one of those names. It’s better to be specific than vague, and it shows that you know your audience.

Mainstream fiction might appeal to a broader audience, but it can be more difficult to market. Marketers need to know where to direct their efforts.

Without a specified audience, your book will be a much harder sell.

GIF from The Princess Diaries: "My expectation in life is to be invisible, and I'm good at it."

Literary Fiction

Literary fiction has its own audience—one who has high expectations for prose and subtext.

If literary fiction gets its own shelf, that shelf is often called “literature,” though many readers are rightly annoyed at the suggestion that genre fiction can’t be considered literature. We won’t get into what constitutes a work of fiction being considered “literature” here. As far as I’m considered, that’s the same as debating the definition or worth of “art.”

What we will talk about is what constitutes literary fiction.

Elements of literary fiction:

  • The language is vivid and fresh. Frequently in literary fiction, how an element is presented is more important than what is presented. The words are like visible brushstrokes in a painting.
  • It might be more concerned with subtext, theme, or atmosphere than action.
  • It’s more likely to subvert tropes than genre fiction, which upholds tropes (to the satisfaction of its expectant readers).
  • Literary fiction is more likely to allude or respond to other forms of art, especially classical poetry and literature.
  • The structure might be experimental, playing with timelines, points of view, or different forms (incorporating poetry or illustrations or other forms of media).
  • It might be more concerned with a character’s internal struggle than external conflict.
  • It might play with what defines a “novel” or “story” or “literature” (see Metafiction)
  • It might be delivered to a select few (like the first collection from Facsimile Press, which publishes fiction only via fax).
  • Some readers might not consider it accessible because it attempts the unexpected.

Read more: Literary and Commercial Fiction as Paintings

Like “commercial,” the term “literary” is subjective and is doubted by readers when self-applied. Some readers might not agree with your label.

GIF of a man throwing a book out the window in frustration

If you’ve studied or discussed literature at length, or if your writing has been recognized or published by a literary community, then you might be fine calling your work literary. Show that you understand what literary means in a query letter by including a statement in your bio paragraph, like “I majored in literature at Such-and-Such University” or “my fiction has won [recognizable literary accolades not based on commercial genre].”

BOTTOM LINE: Err on the side of calling your work contemporary or historical (whichever fits) until an authority in the literary sphere—an agent, reviewer, award-winning author, or publisher—assigns the “Literary” qualifier to your work. 

Upmarket Fiction or “Book Club Books”

Upmarket Fiction is mainstream fiction with both literary and commercial elements. These are often books read by book clubs, because not only are the books entertaining and accessible, but they also have finely crafted prose, universal themes, or head-scratching concepts that beg to be discussed with other readers.

You can call your work upmarket, but there’s no shelf for upmarket books. “Upmarket” is an adjective. Use it paired with another genre or category label, for example, “upmarket fantasy” or “upmarket contemporary novel.”

BOTTOM LINE: Upmarket fiction is approachable, but beneath its fresh, commercial premise lie layers of subtext.

pretty-in-pink

Conclusion

When pitching your book, you need to show how it’s both different from and similar to books on the market.

From The Breakfast Club: a popular boy makes a really weird sandwich, eliciting looks from his peers.

To be a success, your book needs to fit in with others while having unique qualities of its own.

In a query letter, the main content of the pitch should show how your story is unique. The informational paragraph with word count, genre, and age category should show where it fits in. This is where you can include comp titles: books or related media that might share a specific audience with your readership. “[MY TITLE IN ALL CAPS] would appeal to fans of [two or three recently published books, still-writing authors, or related media].”

What's the difference between literary, mainstream, commercial, and upmarket fiction?Click to save on Pinterest

Tips and Tricks for Writing Successful Twitter Pitches

Or, general tips and tricks for pitching on Twitter, and how pitching SFF is different from pitching other genres.

twitch

This is going to be a long one, folks. Skip around as needed!

Update from 2018—I wrote this post in 2014, and it’s been so cool seeing these practices put to work in Twitter pitches over the last four years. It’s been unreal knowing that some are now books I own or can pre-order! Some things have changed (like contest rules and the character limit on tweets), and I’ve added clarification where I felt it was needed, but much of the advice I gave then I’d still give now.

Update from PitchMAS—when pitching in a general pitch party, your hashtags matter so much more. Make it easy for an agent to find you, or they never will. I tried searching for different genres during the party so I could retweet—I couldn’t find them because people weren’t using effective search terms. Use age category tags and genre tags, plus relevant and appropriate keywords (like “Bechdel” or “WNDB”—see my notes on references below).

Contents

  1. Well-Known Twitter Pitch Events
  2. Tips for Pitching on Twitter
  3. The Importance of Hashtags
  4. After the Pitch Party
  5. My Personal SFFpit Results
  6. Analysis of my Personal SFFpit Results
    1. Analysis of Timing
    2. Analysis of Focus
    3. On Voice
    4. On Comp Titles and Culture References
    5. On Fresh Premises and Trendy Topics
    6. On Hashtags, Again
  7. Final Thoughts

Well-Known Twitter Pitch Events

  • PitMad, for pretty much everybody, 4x/yr*
  • PitchMAS, for pretty much everybody, 2x/yr**
  • SFFpit, for Science Fiction and Fantasy works, 2x/yr
  • AdPit, for Adult works (as in, not PB, MG, or YA works)
  • DVPit, for pitches from marginalized voices that have been historically underrepresented in publishing, each April***

*(see PitMad’s new rules! Only 3 pitches total, not twice per hour. Make sure you are tweeting what will catch your genre’s agents’ attention, and use hashtags!)
**Looking at my winning pitches from PitchMAS, hashtags and keywords mattered most, then other references, then stakes.
***Read DVPit’s about page before deciding whether you qualify.

Tips for Pitching on Twitter

Favorite Resources for Twitter Pitching:

The following advice stems from a series of Tweets published December 8th, 2014. Follow me on Twitter! @LaraEdits is devoted to writing and editing tips. If you aren’t on Twitter, you can still bookmark my feed.

A hook can be interesting MC, conflict, stakes, fresh premise, or voice. Pitch whichever is strongest in your novel.

It’s impossible to convey how unique your MC, setting, conflict, premise, or voice is all at once, in one tweet. Which is the MOST different compared to other novels?

If your pitches are falling flat, adjust your selling point. You might be trying to pass a swan story off as a duck one.

Twitter pitches are so short, you have to pick your focus. Character, stakes, conflict, premise, voice…pick two per pitch.

That way, if an agent goes to your feed, they don’t see the same pitch repeated, and they see that 1) your novel is complex, 2) you can pitch in a variety of ways (i.e. you’re a skilled writer), 3) you are open to variance in writing (i.e. you’d be willing to do necessary rewrites)

During these Twitter Pitch Parties, you can usually pitch once or twice per hour. That’s 12 to 24 different opportunities to pitch! Vary them by focus and by hashtags, but only use relevant hashtags. (This rule has now changed for PitMad)

I use the free version of Buffer to 1) schedule my pitches beforehand and 2) see their effectiveness afterward.

I’d recommend at least 6 different pitches, with different focuses, repeated with different hashtags (if more than two are applicable). And out of those 6-12 differently focused, no-words-wasted, intriguing pitches, tweet your most fantastic ones at peak times. That is, as soon as the pitch party starts, and at lunch time EST, lunch time PST, and after-work hours. There will be more tweets then, and that’s likely when agents will do the most browsing, so your tweets then matter most.

There will be too many tweets for each agent to read. That’s why you need to use hashtags effectively (see below). You can always query those you think are a good fit for your novel (check #MSWL).

The Importance of Hashtags

The reason you need to use genre or age category hashtags in Twitter pitch parties is because that’s how agents filter through the feed. They can’t see every tweet! One agent was looking for Adult Fantasy works. She searched “#SFFpit #A #Fa” and that’s how she found my tweet.

KNOW THY GENRE. If you write speculative fiction, read my Straightforward Guide to Science Fiction and Fantasy Sub-Genres.

There are two deciding factors in assigning an age category. One is the age of the protagonist. One is the age of the audience, based on the age of protagonist and the content of the novel. If your protagonist is an adult, you can’t pitch it for kids. If your content is too mature for kids, it needs to be pitched at a higher age category. If the tone is too simple or cutesy for the intended audience, that needs to be fixed. Agents will reject YA novels if it “sounds MG.” (See When Voice and Genre Don’t Match)

What is New Adult? New Adult is a contemporary construct that stems from the post-adolescent phenomenon. If your novel contains an 1) 18-to-20-something protagonist with a 2) contemporary mindset 3) transitioning between adolescent and adult life, then you can pitch it as #NA. Note, though, that this started as a subcategory of romance, and some agents and publishers still consider it “YA romance + more sex” OR “adult romance with younger MCs.” NA is all about navigating the world as a newly-released-into-the-wild adult. It concerns itself with firsts: first job, first home, first “serious” relationship.

NA is new, because historically, people were children, and then, after they hit puberty, they were adults. In the 20th century, more people attended school past puberty, and eventually (post WWII), people were divided into children, teenagers, and adults. Now, people aren’t considered adults until 25, which leaves us with a 19-to-25-year-old category: new adults.

Calls for Diversity: #WNDB, #OWN, and #DVpit

If you (or in some cases, your protagonist) qualify, you can use the #WNDB hashtag, which stands for the #WeNeedDiverseBooks hashtag but gives you considerably more characters to work with.

(2018 update, since I absolutely needed additional clarification here: 

  • Remember that diversity is NOT a trend. It is not a label you “add in” as an afterthought to sell more books. If you are wanting to write characters who are marginalized in a way you are not, invest your time in researching setting, culture, attitudes, worldview, and language, and invest your money in sensitivity reads.
  • If you aren’t a marginalized author writing about a character sharing that marginalization, do not use #own or #ownvoices. Secondhand experience is not enough. Read DVpit’s notes on marginalization here.
  • Some voices are not yours to borrow, and some stories are not yours to tell. Do we need another LGBT coming-out story written by a cishet person? Should another white American write from a slave’s perspective? Do not profit off another’s pain, especially if your ancestors or your greater community were the ones who caused the pain.

)

After the Pitch Party

What to do after Twitter pitch parties: STOP. Celebrate agent interest and newfound friends, analyze which pitches worked best, research agents.

DON’T:
Jump into querying too soon.
Query more than 1 agent per agency.
Query agents / presses that seem shady.

DO:
Query only agents / presses you’d trust your MS (& career!) with.
Take time to research agents and tailor your query for each. Try to send within the week.

If you sit at the bar and keep using the same line over and over again, it’s not going to be very successful unless you’re Ryan Gosling. You need to tailor your pitches based on the type of agent you want to represent you.

SFFpit Results

For the sake of this post, all times given are in CST Central Time.

Remember, #SFFpit is for writers and agents of speculative fiction. Agents looking for other genres might act differently. In fact, I expect they will. Be sure to read my analysis below.

Dan Koboldt, host of SFFpit, posted his results of the 2014 Twitter Party. A quick look:

  • 641 authors tweeted 6,000 pitches
  • 32 literary agents made 355 requests
  • 11 small presses also participated
  • 32% of authors received at least one request from an agent
  • 14% of authors got requests from 2 or more agents

My results

  • I tweeted 24 times, once every half hour from 7am–7pm.
  • I pitched 22 completely different pitches for the same manuscript. I re-pitched two.
  • During those 12 hours, I received 143 RTs and 17 requests—10 from agents, 6 from small presses (one small press requested twice).

While I will certainly be looking into the small presses, this specific blog post is going to consider what the agents were looking for.

37.5% (9/24) of my pitches received requests from both agents and small presses.

25% received requests from literary agents. Here are the 6 winning pitches:

7:47 am, pinned to the top of my page, 26 RTs and 5 agent requests

Tagged: Premise, Voice, Reference

9:47 am, 9 RTs and 1 agent request

Tagged: Premise, Reference

12:47 am, 1 RT, 1 agent request, 1 press request

Tagged: Premise, Stakes

1:17 pm, 1 RT and 1 agent request

Tagged: Character, Premise, Reference

2:17 pm, 4 RTs, 1 agent request, 1 press request

Tagged: Premise, Stakes, Reference

3:17 pm, 1 RT, 1 agent request, 1 press request

Tagged: Voice, Premise, Reference

Audience Choice—Three pitches received 10 or more RTs but yielded no agent response:

Tagged: Stakes, Voice

Tagged: Stakes, Premise, Reference

Tagged: Stakes, Voice

The tweet that received the most RTs was actually the first and third “Audience Choice.” It was the clear winner in critique groups, and I thought for sure it would be my most successful pitch. 29 total RTs … zero agent response.

SFFpit Analysis

For the sake of this post, I will only be analyzing the requests from agents, not small presses. Realize that this is an extremely small sample and is particular to my genre and premise. To make this really scientific, I’d need to analyze every agent favorite per category. If anybody wants to go ahead and do that, please do! If you want to do the same analysis I’m doing here, blog about it and comment below with a link so readers can see your responses as well.

Analysis of Timing

I started off the day with what I thought were some of my strongest pitches. My second post did better than my first, so I immediately pinned that to the top of my page. It went on to be my most successful pitch of the day, likely because it was pinned to the top of my page.

If you post great ones at the beginning of the day, they will be retweeted throughout the day, getting your pitch in front of more people.

The chart below shows the time the number of RTs and Requests (both agent and small press) by time posted.

Time Posted

I don’t know how to see when the agents were online, but I vaguely remember a surge of notifications at around 10 am CST, and in the afternoon, around 3 pm CST.

Analysis of Focus

I tagged my 22 different pitches by their focus:

  • Conflict
  • Character
  • Stakes
  • Voice
  • References (comp titles, pop culture references, social references, relevant diversity movements)
  • Premise

As you can see, the audience favorites were definitely those pitches with clear stakes and a strong voice.

audience

While most advice I see regarding pitching focuses on conflict and stakes, the success rate of my pitches suggests that isn’t necessarily what agents are looking for, at least in SFF, at least in my genres.

Two guesses.

One: Because the past decade has given us multimillion dollar Science Fiction and Fantasy franchises, agents who represent these genres receive more derivative work than manuscripts from other genres. That’s why, today, in SFF, a fresh premise is important.

Two: Speculative fiction often features a clear antagonist. Whether it’s good vs evil, humanity vs aliens, or one girl against the world, it’s generally assumed that conflict and stakes are a given.

So if you aren’t writing SFF, don’t think that your pitches don’t need stakes!

Granted, my tweets that focused on stakes didn’t do bad at all, but they certainly didn’t do as well as ones with other focuses, as you can see:

All ten agents who requested on one of my tweets selected one tagged “premise.” Nine selected one with a reference of some sort, six chose one with strong voice.

Agents Selection

However however however!

Not all of my “premise” tweets were successful. Let’s look at the success rate of each focus based on my 24 tweets.

Out of all six tags, the tweets with references (I’ll go through the references below) had the highest success rate at 50%. Of my 10 tweets with references, 5 got requests.

Those are pretty great odds.

The odds get even better when I start combining tags.

success-rate

Now, here my sample size is showing, but of the 2 tweets that had both strong voice and a culture reference, 100% got a request.

And I’m thinking that the 0 requests for my Stakes + Voice pitches is more proof that pitching SFF just isn’t the same as pitching other genres. Those poor little babies. Maybe they’ll do better during PitchMAS.

At bigger sample sizes, the results might not be the same, but one thing’s for certain:

No matter your genre, your pitches with strong voice and apt pop culture references are most likely to get noticed.

On Voice

It takes practice to have a natural voice to your writing. Voice = diction = word choice. Use specific nouns, verbs, and adjectives. See my posts on diction here.

On Comp Titles and Pop Culture References

I’ve spent months trying to find the best comparative titles for my novel. Here’s how to do it.

HOW TO CHOOSE COMP TITLES

1—Choose a novel that matches your novel in at least 2 of the following categories: genre, premise/plot, time, place, protagonist type, conflict, tone, audience, event.

2—Find another work that matches both your book and your first comp title in two or more of those categories.

My most successful pitch was The Princess Bride + Lost in Austen. While it isn’t a novel (I’d love to read it!), Lost in Austen matches my novel in genre (literary fantasy) and premise/plot (contemporary MC goes to a historical, fictional world, tries to get home, falls in love reluctantly with a local). The Princess Bride matches my novel and Lost in Austen in genre, and it matches my novel in tone (the irreverent humor), audience, time and place (medieval Europe-ish), and event (the wedding crashing).

Remember that when you are pitching a book to an agent, you are pitching a book to a reader. A reader that reads professionally. You’re also pitching to a professional. A professional that needs to make a living.

With that in mind, here are my 7 tips for including references in Twitter pitches:

  1. Be relevant—references to classical literature and old books aren’t as successful as ones published in the last two–three years. Show that you’re aware of what’s in the market today.
  2. Be literary—make at least one of your comparative titles a novel, if possible. Show that you read your genre.
  3. Be realistic—your references need to work for your novel. See “How to Choose Comp Titles” above.
  4. Be humble—Don’t claim to be the next [Insert Famous Author Here]. Instead, use one of their recent books as a comparative title.
  5. Be specific—compare your characters to well-known characters (I picked Taylor Swift and Chuck Bartowski)
  6. Be savvy—if you can make a reference to a still-current movement that affects publishing, do, but only if it applies to you or your manuscript (Examples: WNDB, LGBTQ, Bechdel and Mako Mori feminism tests. Read my note on diversity movements in the hashtag section.)
  7. Be awesome—refer to something geeky or a cult classic that hasn’t been mentioned for a while and will stir up nostalgia. Everybody mentions Black Panther and Buffy and recent blockbusters. Give me more Veronica Mars, Donnie Darko, more 80s and 90s and 00s references.

On Fresh Premises and Trendy Topics

By “fresh premise” I mean pitching something that the market isn’t currently saturated in. Pay attention to agents who tweet their responses to queries (#tenqueries, #querylunch, #500queries), and you’ll see what they are receiving a lot of. Right now, winter 2014, they are receiving a lot of paranormal, dystopians, fairy tale retellings, and urban fantasy. Ghosts, angels, demons, werewolves, mermaids, psychics, empaths.

So if you’re pitching something trendy, focus on what makes your novel different, what makes yours unique, not on what makes it trendy.

The good news about publishing is that it’s cyclical. So you can try to grab the readers now, while they are hungry, by self-publishing, or you can wait a couple of years until the big publishers come back to it. Remember that anything that is trendy now, won’t be in two years when the books being written now are being put out on bookshelves. You either have to be a year or two ahead of the market, or a couple years behind. I heard one editor at a big 5 publisher say she was ready to start looking at vampire books again. Give it time. (And please don’t ask me which editor. I don’t remember because it wasn’t applicable to me personally. If you have an agent, s/he should know.)

(Note: In April 2018, agents were aflutter on Twitter actively looking for more vampires. See?!)

On Hashtags, Again

Use them. Of the agents who requested from my pitches, here are the total number of requests they made during the SFFpit event, in descending order:

40, 34, 33, 33, 7, 6, 5, 3, 3, 3

If you take into consideration all the favorites and the 32 agents who participated, a single agent, on average, chose only 11 pitches. Out of six thousand.

Final thoughts

Research what agents are looking for. See which Wish Lists are compatible with your novel, and then try to guess what that agent might search for during a pitch party. If one of your favorite agents is looking for space opera, use that hashtag, or if there isn’t a designated hashtag list, use those words in one of your pitches. That way when an agent searches “#SFFpit space opera,” your pitch will pop up.

Guide to SFF (Science Fiction and Fantasy) Sub-genres

Lara Willard answers genre questions: What's Magical Realism? What's the difference between Science-Fiction and Fantasy? What genre is my novel?

Find out the closest fitting sub-genre for your speculative fiction, or troubleshoot your genre in this guide for writers.

Contents

  1. Major Genres
  2. SFF Sub-genres Used in #SFFpit
  3. The Difference between Science Fiction and Fantasy
  4. What’s the Difference between…
  5. Setting-Based Sub-genres
  6. Literary Fantasy
  7. Fantasy Romance or Romance Fantasy (Order Matters!)

Major Genres

This post is about the sub-genres of science fiction and fantasy. If you don’t think your story falls into speculative fiction, see my post on commercial, literary, and “general fiction” categorization, or watch my seminar on understanding age categories and genres (>1 hr).

SFF Sub-genres Used in #SFFpit

If you are writing speculative fiction and plan on pitching via #SFFpit, or if you are researching #MSWL, you need to know your sub-genres. The total list, as of December 2014, is below. I’ve divided them based on the requirements of the sub-genre.

This list is what what used for #SFFpit in 2014. For current lists or other contests, please visit the contest host’s website or blog.

By Subject (Genre Depends on Specific Tropes)

  • #FA – fantasy
  • #DF – dark fantasy
  • #EF – epic or high fantasy
  • #MYF – mythic fantasy
  • #PN – paranormal
  • #SF – science fiction
  • #DS – dystopian
  • #ML – military science fiction
  • #PA – post-apocalyptic SF
  • #SP – steampunk

By Setting (Genre Depends on Time or Place)

  • #CF – contemporary fantasy
  • #HF – historical fantasy
  • #SO – space opera
  • #TT – time travel
  • #UF – urban fantasy
  • #WW – weird west

Crossovers

  • #FR – fantasy romance
  • #HF – historical fantasy
  • #AH – alternate history
  • #LF – literary fantasy
  • #MR – magical realism
  • #SFR – sci-fi romance
  • #SFT – sci-fi thriller
  • #SO – space opera
  • #TT – time travel

The Difference between Science Fiction and Fantasy

If the not-in-our-reality elements stem from technology, it’s Science Fiction. If they stem from magic or unknown forces, it’s Fantasy. There is crossover. The Force in Star Wars tied the series to fantasy until the Midi-chlorians debacle of the prequels, which tried to sever any ties with the fantasy genre by explaining the Force with science.

The umbrella term for Science Fiction and Fantasy is Speculative Fiction, which is fiction not limited by real-world settings or physics.

What’s the Difference between…

Contemporary Fantasy & Urban Fantasy?

Answer:  If the urban setting is so experiential that it becomes a living, breathing thing, then it’s Urban Fantasy. You could have a historical UF set in 1930s NYC or a futuristic UF. Contemporary Fantasy is contemporary. Internet age. The fraternal twin of urban fantasy is rural fantasy, but “rural fantasy” is better categorized by its setting in time, not place.

Contemporary = Internet age.

Historical = set in the past.

Contemporary Fantasy & Magical Realism?

In Magical Realism (#MR), the fantastic elements aren’t described as extraordinary. “It is what it is.” Examples of #MR would be One Hundred Years of Solitude, The Curious Case of Benjamin Button, and the film Big Fish. The setting is the “real world.” The difference between magical realism (#MR) and contemporary fantasy (#CF) is that CF treats the fantastic as being weird or extraordinary. It explains the magic or calls it magic (or something similar). Disney loves contemporary fantasy. It’s always calling stuff magic.

In a Magical Realism world, magic is real and ordinary. When something falls at a party, we don’t explain gravity to the whole room. It’s just a part of our reality. We accept it.

Genres with Gods and Goddesses—Paranormal, Mythic, Dark, or…?

These can have some overlap.

If the gods are based off classical or pre-established mythology, it’s a mythical fantasy. If they are interacting with the real world, it’s paranormal (specifically supernatural). If it’s set in an imaginary world (Narnia, Middle Earth, Westeros), then I’d just call it fantasy (#FA). If the tone is dark or evil, it would be dark fantasy.

High Fantasy & Space Opera?

They are quite similar. Epic/High fantasy entails a journey, often with a “fellowship.” Think Lord of the Rings, swords & sorcery. An epic fantasy is epic in characters, in setting, and in scope. Journeys span countries, take time. Space Opera is an epic tale, like epic or high fantasy, except the travel is between worlds, and the travel is usually done via space ship. Space Opera, if it contains spaceships, is Science Fiction. The setting is the main difference.

Post-Apocalyptic or Dystopian?

dystopian novel is about a protagonist in a futuristic setting fighting a corrupt state.

If your “dystopian” lacks technology as part of the setting or corruption, it’s probably epic fantasy. It’s the difference between Big Brother (dystopian) and Dark Lord (epic fantasy).

post-apocalyptic novel is about human survival. The story takes place after some major disaster has affected the world. Usually the disaster is a natural disaster (think Day After Tomorrow and other world-disaster movies), a zombie apocalypse (Warm Bodies, World War Z), World War III, an alien or monster invasion (The Book of Eli), or a disease outbreak (Contagion, Station Eleven). A post-apocalyptic novel may also be science-fiction thriller. Warm Bodies crosses over into paranormal romance. Station Eleven is often considered literary fiction.

Post-apocalyptic = after civilization—humanity vs natural disaster, invasion, or aftermath

Dystopian = against uncivilization—humans vs a corrupt State

PA and DS novels have an interesting cause-and-effect relationship. Take current day, add an apocalypse, have people survive, they end up creating a new government which becomes corrupt. That’s the beginning of The Hunger Games. Take a corrupt government, overthrow it in a major war, and you’ve got people trying to rebuild and survive. That’s Mockingjay.

Dark or Paranormal Fantasy?

To be grievously simplistic, paranormal means “monsters.” If your novel contains ghosts, vampires, were-animals, zombies, Big Foot, or any kind of “spooky” type of creature, it’s paranormal. Paranormal can be romance, adventure, or comedy. Generally it is placed under fantasy, but it could be post-apocalyptic (see Warm Bodies, above). If it’s a romance novel with a paranormal love interest, it’s paranormal romance.

dark fantasy has a dark, ominous tone. It might concern death or criminal behavior. Usually a dark fantasy is considered a fantasy / horror crossover.

Not all paranormal fiction is dark. Twilight isn’t a horror novel, it’s a romance. Shaun of the Dead is more of a comedy adventure than a horror movie. I’d probably call it paranormal comedy. If it weren’t funny, but not particularly dark or ominous, just a paranormal adventure, I’d call it paranormal fantasy.

Setting-Based Sub-genres

If your novel prominently features historical settings or characters, it’s Historical Fantasy, Alternate History, or Time Travel.

  • Historical Fantasy (#HF) is set in the past but contains fantastic elements. It’s the fraternal twin of contemporary fantasy.
  • Alternate History #AH asks “What would happen if [historical event] had a different outcome?” While HF focuses on the past, AH focuses on a new present or future.
  • Time travel is either Science Fiction (if it uses tech or science to travel through time), or it’s a portal fantasy (if it uses a magic portal to travel through time).

If your novel primarily features the geography or heavens of a fantasy world (like Narnia, Middle Earth, Westeros, or Mount Olympus), it’s fantasy or one of its subgenres.

If your novel takes place in outer space or has interplanetary settings (it goes from one planet to the other), then it’s more likely science fiction.

The other setting-based genres, as sorted in the list above, should be pretty straightforward.

Literary Fantasy

Literary Fantasy #LF is a new addition to the #SFFpit hashtags. In LF, more emphasis is placed on theme, the human condition, or the prose. If book stores wouldn’t know whether to shelve you with SFF or with “Fiction” (aka General Fiction aka Literature), you may have written LF. Recent examples of Literary Fantasy—The Ocean at the End of the Lane (also Magical Realism), Jonathan Strange and Mr. Norrell (Historical Fantasy), The Magicians.

Genre isn’t about labels, it’s about finding readers. SFF readers look for imagination and adventure that isn’t 100% ground in reality. Literary readers want excellent prose, or to be emotionally or mentally invested in a character or theme. Of course there’s crossover!

For more about the “literary” classification, read my post Literary? Mainstream? Commercial? What Genre Is This Anyway?

Fantasy Romance or Romance Fantasy (Order Matters!)

A Fantasy Romance is a Romance novel with fantastic elements. It takes more after the romance genre than the fantasy genre. That means the novel is primarily about getting two love interests into a relationship.

It’s like the difference between yellow-orange and orange-yellow. Put an “ish” after the first word, and you can tell that yellow(ish) orange is more orange, and orange(ish) yellow is more yellow. If your novel couldn’t stand its own among other romance novels, it’s more likely a romantic fantasy.

Whenever you combine two genres together, the second one is the prominent genre, and the first is the modifying adjective. Which genre readers would be more likely to enjoy your book? That’s your prominent genre.

If you still aren’t sure about genre, leave a question below or tweet your question to @LaraEdits.

Appendix: Am I a reputable resource on this subject?

Well, I think so. I’m a published literature essayist of Sigma Tau Delta, the International English Society. I graduated summa cum laude with an interdisciplinary degree in literature, writing, and English (among other things). Since then, I’ve traded in my academic writing for a conversational tone. As a writing coach, freelance editor, and writer, I have experience in the field and have been reading on the subject of speculative fiction genres for years. I’ve taken into account the opinions of literary agents, librarians, publishers, and readers. Collaborative opinions aren’t something you can cite easily, so don’t look for a works cited page or list of references here. If you’re writing a literature paper on the subject of sub-genres, you can cite me using the following information, based on your style guide: C. Lara Willard / “Guide to SFF (Science Fiction and Fantasy) Sub-genres” / Write Edit Repeat / [link to this post].

Update: Connor Goldsmith, literary agent at Fuse Literary, has shared his definitions on sub-genres, with a section devoted to horror, here.