07 August 2009

Learning A New Genre

Now, when I said that I was going to learn a new genre, I didn't mean that I'd never read science fiction, or that I know nothing about it. That's why I said I was being easy on myself ;) I've been reading sci fi almost as long as I've been reading fantasy - the difference is, I haven't been paying attention to what I've been reading, and I haven't read as widely.

There are, broadly speaking, two ways to learn a new genre: the Intentional way, and what I'll call for now the Accidental way.

The Accidental way is where you just read. You read, and you read lots, and widely, and you hope and sort of assume that if you read enough the general expectations, conventions and so forth of the genre will seep their way into your brain.

This way works. It's how I learned the fantasy genre.

But it isn't the most efficient.

So today we're going to talk about the Intentional way of learning a genre. This is hard work, but it's quicker and much, much shorter than using the Accidental method to learn a new genre. Ready? :)

First up, the important assumption: I'm assuming here that we're wanting to learn a new genre with the intent to write in that genre. If that's not the case, then seriously, don't bother trying the intentional method!! If all you ever want to do is expand your reading, then by all means, just go read! :)

However, we all know that writing is a different beast to reading. So let's pretend that we're learning a new genre with the intent to write in that genre. For me, I want to learn sci fi (a loose, nebulous term which I will pare down as I go) because the universe in which all my novels are set (yes, all in the same universe, although mostly you'd never be able to tell) is HUGE, and, as universes are wont to do, contains SPACE - and since not everyone in the universe uses/has/likes magic, there is technology, and where this is space and technology, there will one day be space travel....

*gets distracted by all the shiny stories that will one day exist in this universe*


So. I want to learn more about science fiction.

Now, as I alluded to before, sci fi is a huge genre - like fantasy - and there are a lot of subgenres. How am I going to figure out which ones I should be studying? Ah ha. Good question :)

The First Step: What Do You Want To Write?

Before you start learning your new genre, you need to know what you like to write. Not in genre terms, but in terms a little more specific than that. What are the elements that you could never write without? What is it that makes you really love a story that you're writing? For me, it's things like:

* Some sort of paranormal/fantasy element
* "Evil" characters that have really solid, plausible motivations
* Main characters who have to undergo a big change in the way they think
* Often, dreams/memory/illusory elements
* Big, high-stakes conflicts

If a story doesn't have those, then I'm not really going to enjoy writing it, even though - IMPORTANT POINT - I may really, really love reading it. Because we're looking for things we want to write in the new genre, remember, not things we want to read. Read ususally encompasses a lot more than write.

If you're doing this yourself, remember to walk the middle ground between so vague that, like, every book in existence will fit your criteria, and so narrow that there will only ever be three books that don't make you want to run screaming. Aim for 3-6 criteria. Any less isn't terribly informative; any more can get too restrictive. If you have a Sweet Spot Map, head to that for advice.

So, I know what I absolutely need to enjoy writing a story. What do I do now?

The Second Step: What Are You Going To Read?

Look for books to read. But not any books; books which fit your criteria. Do this by asking people you know who read in the genre, or by haunting appropriate forums, or whatever - but be specific in what you're asking. "What's good in sci fi?" is going to give you answers that run the whole gamut from perfectly helpful to run away screaming because the book was terrible.

On the other hand, a question like this will hopefully get you exactly the response you want:

"Do you know anyone who writes science fiction that include high-stakes conflict, main characters that have to learn really big lessons, soundly motivated villains and some paranormal or inexplicable stuff thrown in for fun?"

That's a real question. If anyone has answers, I'd really love to hear them ;)

Hopefully the answer to your question is, "Yes, there are several people!" In which case you then (by asking LOTS of people for opinions) figure out what their best couple of books are, and arm yourself with between 5 and 10 good books by good authors than contain elements you like to write. Maybe check them out at a library first, and if you really like them, buy them. Because the next step is....

The Third Step: Tearing the Books Apart

If you can bring yourself to actually do this physically, the benefits are worth it. However, it's a lot of work, and it pretty much destroys the books you're learning from. So it's up to you whether you do this literally or figuratively. But basically, you need three different coloured highlighters, and as you read, you're going to mark any and every time you see these three things:

1) Elements from your "Can't write without this" list
2) Elements that are critical to the genre
3) Elements that match BOTH criteria 1 and 2

When you're done, have a good look at the proportions. If more than 50% of the pages are marked with colour 3, you've got yourself a winner. If more than 50% are marked with 2, but virtually none are marked with 1, you might want to rethink your decision to write in this genre. Do this for 5-10 books though before you start making decisions, and try to make sure those 5-10 are as diverse as possible, while still matching your criteria.

And then after you've done this, pick 4 or 5 of your books and sit down with a pen, and write done one sentence for every scene describing what happens. By the time you've done this for four or more books, you'll have a good grasp of the inherent pacing and structure of the genre, and you'll have accomplished in just a few weeks/months what might have taken you years to internalise otherwise.

The Fourth Step: The Final Check

If you've done all this and it looks like your new genre will be a good fit for you, you might be interested in taking it one step further. Repeat step 3, but this time with a bunch of bestsellers in the genre. If you're lucky, the bestsellers will end up with a large percentage of colour #3, which bodes well for your career in the genre. If not, you can either go boldly forth and write in the genre anyway, content with the knowledge you probably won't hit bestsellerdom - or you can rethink your decision to genre-hop.

So, that's it: learning a new genre. And I'm serious: if anyone can answer my question regarding sci fi authors, I'd be most grateful! ("Do you know anyone who writes science fiction that include high-stakes conflict, main characters that have to learn really big lessons, soundly motivated villains and some paranormal or inexplicable stuff thrown in for fun?")

What do you think of the process of genre-learning? Would you ever consider doing this? Can you see the benefit, or does it just look like Too Much Work (tm)?


Yunaleska said...

Ok, in some respects (from the technology/biology side) sci-fi is newish to me :)

Um, I know some books which tick your boxes

Anne McCaffrey: Acorna series, and Freedom Series. And Tower and the Hive series (what makes you think I like her work???) Ok, Freedom has a little paranormal, but everything else you're after. The other two definitely have what you're after. And...if I have them, I'll read them and send them out to you. Might have one or two....

Anonymous said...

Thanks for this post. I am in the process of fine-tuning my knowledge and understanding of a genre, and your method will be of tremendous help!

Merc said...

Fascinating and wonderful post, Inky! I especially like how you break it down in an analytical way--very helpful. :)

I want to try the "dissection" approach a little more in reading so this is AWESOME as a guideline for working on that. B-)

As to your question, I can't think of anything off hand but I'm admittedly not well-read in SF lately (I'm more familiar with authors like PKD, etc). But hey, if I come across anything like that I'll let you know. ;)


Jenita said...

Great post. =] That actually looks like... I hate to use the word fun, exactly...

I might have to try this. Someday. When I "have time". Because for now, I'm actually happy enough in my one little (or, not so little) genre.

Sara Jackson said...

I think that as writers we sometimes become very comfortable and safe in the genres that are of interest to us. For me it's horror. And I think we become afraid to branch out into writing in other genres such as mystery, sci-fi and fantasy, or romance.

I for one like to write mainstream or literary fiction. I have a hard time with the emotional impact these stories are supposed to give the readers, but I try.

Here's something, a long time horror writer (me) just had a picture book published! It's called "Jack's Dreams Come To Life." and it's available on Amazon.com and Alibris.com.


Tricia J. O'Brien said...

Love your blog and your interesting posts. Tripped in by way of Lady Glamis. A couple of writers that might fit your criteria: Ray Bradbury and Ursula LeGuin.

Inkblot said...

Yuna - Oh! Thanks for recommendations! Woo hoo!

Dragon - Thanks for commenting! :) Glad you found the post helpful :)

Merc - you know me. I need analytics %-) Glad it sounds useful to you - let me know if you end up using it/how it goes :)

Jenita - well, you can always use it to improve your knowledge of your own genre :D hehe.

Sara - Congratulations! That must be very exciting! I think we do get comfy in our little corners sometimes - stretching can be good :)

Tricia - Thanks SO much for the suggestions. I always forget that Le Guin did sci fi too - will DEFINITELY check her out. Welcome to the blog! :)

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