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What’s in a genre? What’s in a name? March 18, 2012

Posted by mattfarmer in Uncategorized, writing.
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I have been receiving positive reviews this week. Two people posted reviews in Smashwords, I received a comment from a friend through email, which was funny and honest:

I will admit to starting to read the book out of ‘politeness’ (I said I would, so I was) and I really got into it. Don’t tell me that I have to wait for the rest (I was intolerable when the Lord of the Rings trilogy came out – I had to wait a *whole* year to see the next instalment!!! Now the Hobbit looks like it is going to do the same thing – Agggggg!!!!)

You should be really proud of your book – It is definitely publishable material (in my humble opinion!). Try to remember us little people when you get famous 😉

And I was chatting to my old university and writing friend, online, about the book. She is notorious for wielding the red pen with abandon on my work. And while she says there are some niggles still there for her (it wouldn’t be her if it she told me it was utterly perfect), she was extremely happy with what I produced from the original. It read clearer, motivations for characters were clearer and stronger.

However we did get into a discussion as to if my story was true steampunk or not. I say it is magical steampunk, but when it comes to categorising, that doesn’t fit too well. ‘TRUE’ steampunk…. is it Victoriana? Gentlemen in suits with top hats and ray guns, riding steam-powered machinery, with their ladies by their side, silken gloves, corsets and ray guns as well? Or is it the wild west frontier, of an alternate history, with automaton horses, ankle length coats, cowboy hats and goggles and six shooters with dials and gauges stuck on the side?

I have mentioned before that I like the genre of steam punk as it is new and emerging and can encompass so many different things. And yet, it seems those differences which makes other people claim- no that is not steam punk.

My friend and I settled on the term magitech. I like that word. It tells you there’s magic and there’s technology and somehow they are linked. However, it’s not a term people would go searching for, and hence that may impact on sales. So while I agree my book could lean towards this new word, I have labelled it ‘steampunk’ because that is what people will search for.

I do not think this is me selling out. It is going to be hard enough to point people in the direction of my book when it goes on sale. I don’t want to further hamper those efforts by calling it something that not many people have heard of before. Now, when I become popular and well known and people begin to buy my books because of my name, then I will have no problem saying it is colourist theory futuristic interior design retro punk. A new genre! As long as it is a strong story no one will really care what genre I call it. They will be searching for my NAME, not a genre.

Case in point. ‘Perdido Street Station‘. When I first encountered this book I did not know what steampunk was, not really. I had heard rumours. But I was told this book was really good steampunk. So  I read a book which had artificial intelligent junkyard robots, remade prisoners blended with machinery, often in twisted and horrible ways. I read a story about weird and wonderful creatures, an insect-headed woman having a perfectly normal relationship with a human. A blend of magic and technology. And I loved it.

And then I find out that it is not ‘true’ steampunk because it doesn’t have a Victorian feel to it, or is not set in the new west. There is a lot of internet rage over this, and it is rage I am going to avoid. I have heard this book described as ‘urban-gothic’, ‘dark urban fantasy’, ‘weird fiction’ and ‘science-fantasy’. So which box of genres does it go? Or has it created its own new box?

I know that genres were originally invented so book stores knew where on the shelf to place their books, and how to point customers to them. And this idea of genre has become a part of us over the years. Think of this scene- a man about to go to work, is in a diner having coffee and pan cakes. He has been flirting with the waitress for a few weeks now. She knows it too, and she thinks he is cute. This time as she hands him the bill, she puts her number on the ticket and gives it a kiss, leaving lip stick marks. So, this is a romance story, yes? Boy meets girl and romance ensues? It would go there on the shelf with other romance novels.

The next scene shows the man stepping into a mining vessel and launching out to mine the ice rings of a gas giant planet in a far away in a binary star system on the edge of human settled space. Now it is science fiction, and goes on another shelf. Even if this mining ice thing is a just a small part of the story, and it focuses on the building relationship between these two people and the trials and tribulations they have, this book is now science fiction. Because it has space ships.

I accept the need for genres. It gives the book an anchor, a starting point from which to grow. When I started to write ‘The Girl From Out of Town’ I said to myself that I wanted to write a steampunk novel. And while I stuck to some conventions- the mechanical golems are powered by steam, there are sky ships which also have steam engines to power jets, the story which grew naturally, had dragons in it. It had magic in it. It was set in my own created world. It had dimensional travel and demons in it. And yet I still consider it steampunk, although now I may be leaning towards magitech.

But Steampunk works for now. People can search for it and go from there. It is a good STORY, which is what it should be first and foremost.