Write in a Genre or not?

At a writer’s conference this spring, I met a science fiction writer. With his bushy hair, thick glasses and flowing beard, he certainly looked the part of what I would imagine a science fiction writer. He was committed to his particular genre of fiction yet at a Christian had written a number of science fiction manuscripts and was trying to find a home for them.  After I completed my stint on an editor’s panel, he was one of the first people to engage me in a conversation. Then he followed it up with one of my one-on-one sessions with various participants.  Each time, I tried to gently tell him about the limitations within the Christian fiction market. Every now and then you can find one of these types of books but it’s admittedly rare. This tenacious author even followed up after the conference and sent me his manuscript.  If you read these entries very often, you know I dislike sending rejection notices—but I sent one to this author.  Since January, I’ve received and logged over 300 queries, proposals and manuscripts for few possible spots. I didn’t see any room on the list for a Christian science fiction book.

A recent issue of Publisher’s Weekly featured a story called A Reality Check for Fantasy. The opening paragraph from Susan Corbett raises an interesting question for fantasy writers, “Magicians-in-training, genies-in-exile, apprentice wizards, belligerent fairies, plucky orphans, kind dragons, kind orphaned dragons—a reader cant enter the children’s department of a bookstore these days without tripping on a wand or falling into a portal. Has the saturation point been reached?”  There is interesting information in this article about fantasy and whether there is too much of it or not. I concluded from reading the article that it has not reached the saturation point but publishers and customers are more selective. It’s what you face if you are writing for the fantasy genre. 

You’d be shocked how often at a writers conference various participants pitch a project to me saying their book will be the “next Harry Potter.” When editors hear such a pitch you want to roll your eyes around and say, “Right.” Instead, we sweetly smile and say, “Interesting. Let’s have a look.” Why? Because that eager writer is sitting right across the table from you and you want to be encouraging and not crush their dreams. Maybe they have written the next Harry Potter type of book. I will tell you on the Christian fiction landscape, it’s rare to find much in this area. In recent years, it has opened up a bit—but only a tiny bit.

If you are writing a particular type of genre fiction (romance, horror, suspense, thriller, Gothic, fantasy, science fiction, historical, or any other genre), here’s some ideas for you.  First, make sure you are reading in this genre. It happens far too often when I talk with writers that a particular story has sprung into their mind and heart and fingers—yet they don’t read in the genre. It makes the editor question if you understand the intricate workings of the genre. It’s not the type of impression that you want to make on the editor.

Next, look for a group of writers who emphasize this genre and join the organization. Each of these various groups have different requirements and standards. There are many reasons to join and you will learn a great deal from the experience. Also you will develop friendships with other authors who write in your genre and gain from the interaction.  Also as you grow in your experience in the genre, it will give you a place to give back and help others.

Naturally whatever you write is your own decision. My hope is you will go into the particular area of writing with your eyes wide open to what is happening in it.

9 Responses to “Write in a Genre or not?”

  1. R. K. Mortenson Says:

    This one’s right up my alley! (I get Publisher’s Weekly but haven’t seen this article yet; my issue often arrives late.)

    My Landon Snow books are often compared to Harry Potter, as are just about any fantasy series for kids these days. I always steer the comparison toward where it belongs: with Alice in Wonderland and the Chronicles of Narnia, because these were my inspirations for Landon (primarily Alice, incidentally, at least for The Auctor’s Riddle, book 1). (I began writing about Landon in 1994, well before anyone had heard of Harry P., other than Ms. Rowling of course.)

    Landon Snow books are middle grade fantasy with biblical themes. At first I was somewhat reluctant to point out the biblical theme aspect. I thought such an overt Christian reference might turn people off. What’s been delightfully surprising, however, especially at non-CBA stores, is that the great majority of people respond positively when they hear this. A couple days ago you wrote about niches. The explicit Bible references (Landon receives an ancient Bible for his birthday in book 1, and Scripture passages determine the theme for each fantasy adventure that ensues) are what make Landon Snow books stand out. Not only is there no sorcery, but there’s an obvious–a literal Bible pre-text–for each tale. As more people hear about the books, the more they’re catching on. (Book 3 is due out in October, and it’s the best one yet!)

    All right. I’ll stop. Sorry to take up so much comment space. But the mention of children’s fantasy wakes me up in the morning! And (again in) the early afternoon!

  2. Jude Says:

    A really interesting post. Some useful tips here- thanks

  3. Heather Says:

    I thought I was completely opposed to sci-fi. A date once told me that he grew up on Star Trek. That nearly closed the deal for me. (Now he’s my husband.) But then I remember my ongoing love of Narnia and L’Engle, and I find myself addicted to TV shows such as Lost and Eureka. When I stumbled across the Christian sci-fi space, my first reaction was, “huh?” L’Engle’s advice rings, though, that imagination and fantasy are gifts and part of the imago dei. (I’m sure she said something to that affect.)

  4. Ronald E. Gollner Says:

    I used to love writing Science Fiction until I figured out that real life is far more compelling than any fantasy I could ever hope to contrive.

  5. Douglas V. Gibbs Says:

    Writing in a genre and sticking to that genre is exactly true – – and though I am a Christian I recognize the limitations in that market as you stated, so I write more mainstream – – but the comment you made that I most agree with is that a writer must not only be a voracious reader, but read what he or she is writing. A SciFi thriller won’t come out very well if the writer is reading a romance novel. Of course, for new writers, the thought that comes to mind is simple this, as well: re-write, re-write, re-write. . .

  6. michelleu Says:

    My nuclear engineer husband is a long time science fiction fan, but claims everything he reads has become fantasy–apparently modern science now has disproved most of the scientific underpinings of the genre(unlikely to be life on other planets, time doesn’t work right, power problems–I have a degree in English, I can’t follow this).

    All of my children have loved fantasy and bookstores recognize this. (Harry Potter is established reading world-wide. We could find hardly anything else in New Zealand several years ago, including excellent NZ children’s books I could get in the US library.)

    Christian publishers, apparently, haven’t figured out how or if they’re even interested in the genre. We know it sells, I suspect we just don’t know how to package it in a way that gives glory to God and doesn’t become pseudo-occultic.

    (I’ve read one of Randy’s Landon Snow books and it didn’t have any problems publishers rightfully might worry about when publishing fantasy. Good job, Randy.)

    Whose fantasy has worked in the CBA/ICRA market? L’Engle, Lewis, Peretti? My kids like Stephen Lawhead, but beyond that, I don’t know. It seems to me if you’re writing fantasy (which in the secular market has lots of sexual overtones), you need to present your proposal in a way that emphasizes the Biblical truth of the story’s underpinings with fantasy aspects only in the setting.

    Wait, I hear Darth Vader’s musical march coming down the hall, the children must be waking up . . .

  7. michelleu Says:

    I’d like to add another comment, however, on why it may be important for the industry to figure this out and soon.

    The kids who do read are being raised on fantasy; some might argue this is part of growing up in a post-modern world which focuses on everything vaguely spiritual and skirts away from declaring anything true. As writers, we need to be paying attention to this trend because these are the adult customers of tomorrow. We need to be honing our writing so we can present truth accurately in a story they are likely to read.

    I suspect fantasy makes us nervous because we worship the Creator–who already has put together a unique, amazing world, and called it good. And as Christians trained to read their Bibles as truth, I think we may feel uncomfortable trying to unhinge our brains to grasp something out of the ordinary that is not the Bible. But we believe the miracles happened, don’t we? That’s a suspension of logical belief.

    I’ve rambled long enough, but this topic comes up a lot in my world. I think they’re playing Lord of the Rings music now . . . 🙂

  8. C.J. Darlington Says:

    I’d highly recommend The Personifid Project by R.E. Bartlett to anyone looking for sci-fi in the CBA. It’s published by Realms, but I think Realms might’ve shut its doors recently?

  9. C.J. Darlington Says:

    I answered my own question. Realms is going to continue. Sorry to have hinted otherwise without facts.

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