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Praecedo – September 2011

For a set of people who specialise in communicating with others, writers are notoriously reticent when it comes to answering questions that the non-writing public are interested in.

“Where do you get your ideas” is a question almost guaranteed to make a writer squirm. If your work is unfamiliar to your interrogator (and for most of us, that’s a given), then the next question is “what do you write”? This isn’t an invitation to give a synopsis of your latest work. They’re interested in which genre you write.

At this point, many of us clam up. For some writers this is due to a misplaced embarrassment about what they write. But for many others they bristle with indignation that they should be asked such an impertinent question! Such precious, delicate butterflies of fancy are we, that the very idea that we write something so crude as a genre is anathema.

Genre is not a dirty word. We all do it, so let’s embrace it. You may think your current magnum opus is the next Great American Novel, a surefire winner of the Booker Prize–even the Nobel Prize for Literature–but regardless of the quality of your work, you write a genre.

You might think that science fiction, horror, fantasy etc are small subsections of fiction, but there are hundreds of genres out there. Strip these genre novels out of the category fiction and you are left with a tiny stub that can be termed literary fiction; itself a genre (and even then, not always; literary fiction can be simultaneously a genre and descriptor of the style and aims of the work).

Fiction is a collection of genres, and so to write fiction is to write a genre. There is no point bristling about this fact, you do it whether you like it or not. You may write in multiple genres, you may specialise in only one, but you do it nonetheless.

I write fiction; more particularly I write speculative fiction, a macro-genre that embraces the fantastical–in its widest sense. Science fiction and horror both belong here, though I don’t write the former, and rarely dabble in the latter–if I do, I tend towards Gothic horror and supernatural fiction, which share characteristics with, but are not the same as, horror. Within speculative fiction I work in the realms of fantasy, where magic and the supernatural come to the fore, and to define myself further I am mainly an urban fantasy writer.

Traditional fantasy is mostly sword & sorcery based (think Lord of the Rings) whereas urban fantasy is frequently (though not always) set in the modern-day. The crucial factor in urban fantasy is that it is set within the urban environment–towns and cities–and the impact of the paranormal and the magical upon the urban sprawl is one hallmarks of the genre. The existence of the supernatural is either openly known by all (for example Terry Pratchett’s Discworld series), or is hidden and kept secret from the non-magical world (think of Harry Potter or Jim Butcher’s Dresden Files series).

As you can see, genre can be highly particular or a broad brush. Think carefully this month about what you write and how it fits into the wider fiction world. An awareness of genre will make you a better writer. It will teach you the conventions of what you write, as well as warn you of the clich├ęs and tropes of the genre (must all dwarves be gruff and all elves surly?), so you know what to avoid, and what to subvert.

The Write Anything crew belong to different genres, and will be introducing you to some of them this month, and their thoughts about what genre means. We can’t possibly hope to cover every genre in 30 days–there are too many–but we hope to give you a flavour of what we do.

Feel free to tell us about what you do in the comments.

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Paul writes down the strange thoughts that populate his mind. Which means a lot of what he writes is strange, disturbing, violent, or all three at once. He considers a story a success if it scares both his wife and his mum. Paul lives in west London with his wife, his dodgy typewriter, and a chubby little leopard gecko called Jabba. His online home is Once Upon a Time in the West of London, or for something a little more frequently updated find him on Twitter @panderson1979.

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