Vision: A Resource for Writers
Lazette Gifford, Editor
Vision@sff.net

Different Genres and Approaches

An Examination of Romance and Science Fiction

By  Lazette Gifford
2004, Lazette Gifford


Sometimes discussions at Forward Motion can lead to odd revelations about the art and act of writing. That happened to me in early September of last year, when I realized that a thread I started (Newbie Writing Problems) had gone off in what I thought was a slightly odd tangent.  People began to disagree about a very basic tenet of writing:  Know Your Market.

However, as I looked through the posts, I realized that the disagreement was actually a fundamental difference between genres and the way the authors approached their material in relationship to those markets.

When I saw that the disagreements in the posts were rising, they appeared to be mostly between people who write in the sf and fantasy genres and romance writers.  In fact, the dividing line seemed so obvious that I sat down and tried to find the reasons.

I believe that romance writers -- in general -- are far more attuned to and cognizant of their market than any other genre's writers, and they use it to generate their material more often than do writers in genres like science fiction.  I think this true -- and works very well -- for two important reasons. 

First, the romance genre is not as apt to sudden leaping changes like those in the science fiction field.  In fact, I would say that the romance readership does not like sweeping innovation, while science fiction readers demand it.  Neither is a bad thing -- there is nothing bad about any genre, and understanding the readers' expectations is one of the most important steps to writing for whatever type of audience the author desires. Romance readers want certain things from their books, and someone writing in that genre had better be aware of what the market expects.

Second, romance has very definite rules at the core of the genre, and that means knowing those rules is important to new writers.  HEA -- Happily Ever After -- came as quite a shock to me, though I do understand that the rule is not always followed outside of the core publishers like (most of) Harlequin's imprints.  To me, The Bridges of Madison County looked like a romance book, but I have been dissuaded of that idea because it does not follow HEA.  Neither do Love Story, Romeo and Juliet, or a number of other pieces that I had always considered romance.

Romance does change, but it does so far more slowly than science fiction.  The changes are apparent over time, rather than as a sudden burst of new material.  Regency romance, for instance, is harder to get published these days than it was twenty-five years ago.  And the sex scenes are certainly more graphic than they were when I read romances in my teens.  However, those changes are slow and the subgenres are relatively stable (contemporary, historical, paranormal, etc.).  Therefore, studying the market for what to write in romance makes sense.  The books on the shelf today are a good guideline to what the publishers are buying.

However, the same is not always true for science fiction. 

That's not to say that people shouldn't read sf before they write it.  You can learn the basics about the art of writing science fiction by reading current popular books as well as the older classics.  Having a grounding in the genre will save you from making some very basic mistakes.  For instance, I had one person tell me that all science fiction books were about the destruction of the earth, so that was what he was writing about.  He'd never read more than one or two books, and those were media based.  There are so many subgenres of science fiction (alternate earth, alien worlds, hard science, near future, cyberpunk, time travel, space opera, futuristic, sociological, etc.) that even an avid sf reader is going to have trouble keeping up with them all.

There are some compelling reasons why 'studying the market' for science fiction will not work in the same ways that it does for romance, however.

First, readers (and publishers) of science fiction are always looking for the next new idea that goes beyond the bounds of what they've already read.  Science fiction has even been described as the genre of change.  Cyberpunk and steampunk are relative latecomers to the list of sf subgenres, and that list grows every time someone writes a piece totally outside the current norm (though not necessarily a new idea), and it draws the sf community's attention.  Readers are searching for the unique.  Making an extensive study of what is on the shelves now for an idea of what to write is missing the fundamental point of science fiction -- to not follow the common path.  Imagination should be the guide, not the current Locus bestseller list.

In the case of sf, the overall rule is to not follow rules.  If you can make a believable story that is logical within its own framework -- as well as well-written -- then a publisher isn't going to care if it doesn't fit in with the market as it happens to be on that particular day.

As in all genres, there will always be writers who hold the middle line and write material that fits the medium market rather than striking out in new directions.  Those writers have strong followings, too.  However, the ones who really make a name for themselves are generally the ones who look to imagination, rather than the market, for their ideas.  That's not to say that a writer will not be inspired by something she read, but there is a difference between inspiration and mimicking. 

And that's where the really big difference for the writer comes in.  The market is going to change.  Someone is going to come out with something strange, innovative, and exciting.  And that novel that you were working on for the last two years -- that you wrote because it suited the current market -- is no longer a perfect fit into the mold of the new big thing.

It's all right.  Science fiction is a very wide ocean of material, and even when the Big New Change happens, there are still readers and publishers who want other types of stories still.  Science fiction can include such diverse works as the Dragonriders of Pern series by Anne McCaffrey and Douglas Adam's Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy books.  Frank Herbert's monumental Dune, originally published in 1976, is still a viable sf read and has even spawned a number of new books by other authors.   No type of material really dies out in the genre, though it may go dormant for a few years.  As long as you put depth, imagination, and feeling into that 'marketable' story or novel, it's likely to still find a place.

However... do you want to be a writer who fits the market, or do you want to be one who sets it?

As for how people in romance and science fiction approach their markets, the answer is that there is no 'one answer fits all.'  We are not writing for the same audience, and what may look like a perfectly reasonable response for a romance writer is often going to appear unnecessary to someone who writes sf.  And what looks haphazard and lazy from a romance writer's point of view may in fact be a very reasonable approach for someone writing science fiction.

And even those cases of cross-genre stories -- like a time travel romance -- the way in which the book is written is going to depend on which aspect of the work is stressed, and which audience is the primary target.

Know your market really means to know your genre's expectations.  And when you discuss those expectations with other writers, be aware that what they write may not have the same rules as your own work.  It's nothing to argue over.  Respect each other's genres... and once you understand those differences you may even find yourself tempted to give the other genre a try.