How to Write Genre Fiction for Beginners
Getting into the Genre:
For whatever reason, when I was an early teenage writer, I held onto two misconceptions that hindered my creative mind. The first was that writing outside of school was pointless. I’m glad I got over that pretty quickly, because if you enjoy writing, whether you intend to make it a career or not, then you will have to write outside of a school and/or work setting. Writing for yourself removes all the limitations and pressure you would normally get from assigned guidelines and due dates.
The second misconception I had was that writing something that wasn’t ‘real’ wasn’t worth my time. In other words, if it couldn’t happen in the real world, it wouldn’t be very interesting, or wouldn’t be respected by my teachers and peers. While it is true that genre fiction doesn’t get the respect it deserves from the academic world, it does have the power to be just as interesting, if not more so, than realistic fiction. I’m glad I realized this and if you hope to write genre fiction, you will have to realize it as well. Writing what you love is about taking risks and making sacrifices. Take the risk to try something new with your writing, but be ready to sacrifice control when the story develops a heart and mind of its own.
How to Begin:
My usual advice for any writing project is to start small so you don’t burn yourself out too quickly, but in the case of writing Genre Fiction for the first time, don’t be afraid to go as wild and over-the-top as you want. It might seem absurd to write about a candy monster terrorizing a research facility, but if you can write it, no matter how poorly, it will open the door to the world of the speculative and set you on your path to writing genre fiction.
So, first, you will need to figure out what sort of unusual element you wish the story to have. I will go into the individual genres below, but in order for a genre story to be a genre story, it needs to introduce some element that separates it from regular fiction. This could be a character: (A stranger appears in town with a dark secret), or a setting (During the day the space station was peaceful, but at night, everything changed), or an inanimate object (A glowing rock falls from the sky). The things one can do with genre fiction are nearly limitless, but it is important to remember that if there are no out-of-the-ordinary elements in your story, then you’re just writing regular fiction.
Also, don’t be afraid to have your character’s point out the absurdity of the situation around them. For example: “Paul glanced back at the candy cane monster as it bashed through the door. ‘This is ridiculous!’ Paul shouted.” Any time you write something new, you can’t take it too seriously, because if you expect it to be flawless the first time, then you will always be disappointed. But if you decide to have fun with it, then it doesn’t matter how off the wall it gets. Try not to veer too far away from your speculative aspects either. It you spend half the story following a normal character then throw in a shifty eyed man for effect, you haven’t really gotten your hands dirty. Genre fiction integrates these speculative elements into the narrative so that it is essential to the story rather than tacked on to fit it into the right shelf at the bookstore. Ask yourself if the story could be told without its unusual aspect, and if it can, you might want to rethink it. That isn’t to say that the core story shouldn’t be universal, because most great stories are, regardless of genre, but when you write genre fiction you want the oddball things to be second nature to you as you write it and for the reader as they read it. It needs to be so believable that when an alien walks by, the reader doesn’t throw the book on the floor and say “Where the heck did that come from?”
Fantasy, Science Fiction, and Horror:
You might be asking yourself what the difference is between the sub-genres of genre fiction. For example, what is the difference between Science Fiction and Fantasy? Maybe you aren’t sure what your story is classified under, or you want to write in one genre but you’re not sure if you’re doing it right. To be honest, there is no wrong way to write a specific genre and these labels were probably created by the publishing companies so they could be properly marketed and categorized. But for a general overview, try to think of it this way:
Fantasy = Magic
Science Fiction = Technology
Horror = Fear
Obviously this is the most simplistic description I could have given, but when you consider how much each genre bleeds into the other, saying anything more than that would create a huge debate. Even these descriptions bleed into each other. There are plenty of fantasy and science fiction stories that involve fear and stories like Star Wars have blended magic and technology for years. But the reason that I picked these three words is because you will most commonly find them categorized this way. Fantasy worlds will frequently use magic as their means to an end. Science Fiction will use technology, ancient or new to get its characters from point A to point B and horror novels, whether the monster is flesh, machine or human, is all about fear in the characters and in the reader.
Creating a World:
One of the unique things about genre fiction is that often times you will need or want to create a world separate from the real world. Maybe it’s a world similar to ours, but is inhabited by vampires, fairies or aliens, in which case the world is changed. In other words, when I say you might want to create a world, this encompasses history, geography, religion and physics, just to name a few. This doesn’t mean, however, that you have to be a physics major to create a world of your own. When I say things like physics I simply mean that if people can fly in your world, you need to take time out to explain why a specific character can’t fly, rather than expecting your audience to understand why this guy is randomly different. Essentially when you set down ground rules for your world, don’t go breaking them without an explanation. Otherwise you lose credibility and the reader will lose interest.
It might seem daunting to create a world from scratch but it isn’t as bad as it sounds. It’s true that most alternate worlds are based on the real world with minor modifications, but when you set out to write a story, who really wants to sit down and map out histories and religions first? I know I don’t. One important thing to remember is that not every aspect of your world needs to be fleshed out as intricately as the novel itself. If I write a story where a war took place in the past, I don’t need to write out everything that happened in that war to know when it took place and who won. This is especially true if the history doesn’t have anything to do with the story you’re trying to tell. World’s are vibrant and colorful things, so information is available everywhere, but unless that old war is going to resurface in your story, it can be used as a simple character trait of the grizzled car mechanic.
Another thing to remember is that alternate worlds are based on the real world for a reason; because you and your readers live in that real world. So when you write a story and someone reads it, they’re going to understand real world concepts a lot faster than concepts that are entirely new. So in other words, it’s easier on you, as the writer, and your readers to go through a sentence like this “The travelers ate their loaves of bread quietly in the forest.” Rather than a sentence like this: “The feynars devoured hunks of doba while in the snarg.” Making up new words for existing things doesn’t make your world new or interesting, it just makes it harder to read. When you want interesting new words, do it with character names, city names and exotic beasts. You can have a unique language in the story, like J. R. R. Tolkien’s elvish language, but don’t over use it to the point that the reader gives up trying to understand what you’re saying. In standard fiction, the simplest word is usually the best, and the same is true of genre fiction.
The last thing I will say about creating your own world is to try to find some over-arching link between all of its elements. This isn’t a crucial step when you first start out, but it is one you will want as you further develop your story. A good example of this is the intriguing yet woefully over-used vampire lore. Each author seems to have their own version of how it began, but there is almost always a starting point. Vampires exist because an evil spirit possessed a human, or because a disease altered and someone got bitten by a vampire bat. At some point a force existed to send this world on the path that it’s on. Granted, you can write a story that includes vampires and never bother to explain where they came from, but learning where everything began is the first step towards truly molding your own world.
It Has All Been Done Before:
One of the saddest, and yet most true, aspects of genre fiction, or fiction in general, is that it has all be done before. The chances of you writing something truly original are slim. However I’m not saying this to discourage anyone who wishes to write genre fiction. In fact, you should take it as an encouragement. Many early writers get discouraged when they find that someone else has written something similar to one of their ideas and so they give up. But the thing that makes your story unique isn’t the fact that there are vampires in it or fairies. The unique part is the way you told the story, who you told it with, and where it goes. Think about some of your favorite books, movies or television shows and ask yourself, were they original? Or did they just find a new way to tell an old story? So if you sit down to write something, don’t stop to think “This seems cliché” because the moment you stop, the story stops as well. Let the story be cliché, let it be a copy of a story you like. As you add more and develop your work, it will come into its own and break away from any source material. The important part is to enjoy what you’re writing and believe that it is worth finishing.
Some Additional Tips:
- Don’t ever expect your first draft to be good. We all start at the same place, the trick is to keep writing. The more you write, the better you will get, but it has to start somewhere.
- Creation myths are a good way to develop your world from the beginning. Think of older myths like the greek and roman versions as well as more modern day religions and examine how they described the beginning of the world. Using these as a jump off point, you can begin developing the boundaries and limitations of your world.
- Genre Fiction isn’t for everyone. If you don’t care for it, then do not feel obligated to write it just because it may be more popular in the mass markets. Forcing yourself to write something you don’t wish to write won’t help you.