The effervescent A A Bell has the first book of a new series out. Since Ms Bell has managed to sell a series ‘Diamond Eyes’ with a science fiction premise (with mystery and a whole pile of other things) I asked her how she managed to cross the genres. Take it away:
PS. Watch out for the give away question at the end.
Greetings fellow speculators!
Rowena has posed me with a doosie regarding how to get away with crossing genres in commercial fiction – a question which Richard Hatch (Apollo, Battlestar Galactica, original ’78 version) also raised with me during his recent visit to Australia, because it’s a question that’s also rife throughout the film industry.
“Lots of people have been saying that SF is dead… [but] you have combined SF with a paranormal element in a contemporary setting… how did you integrate the SF elements into the contemporary story?”
Specifically, how did I combine the seven genres of paranormal fantasy, science fiction, poetry, military action, crime, romance and psychological thriller without precipitating a toxic sediment?
To understand, first, I’ll have to argue that SF is not dead – from my perspective it’s morphing/maturing beyond the “pure” genre of science fiction into speculative fiction (the new meaning for SF), in a way which offers room for a natural blend of genres which must also complement each other uniquely for each story. Effectively, this permits a wider scope for wider technologies and invites more possibilities and opportunities to cross-dress our genres. Whereas SF – the old definition – seems more to me like an emperor with new clothes; still out for all the world to see, but only those of us who are attuned to what it was can recognise it for what it is now, and as such, it’s infiltrating other genres en masse. Personally, I’ve secured contracts for 7 novels in 7 years under various pen-names (not counting numerous short stories), all with major publishers and all with strong SF elements – the strongest being Diamond Eyes, which scored a 3 book deal in one contract – and yet none have been reviewed as science fiction.
And it’s not just my take on it, because Diamond Eyes (which provides a new slant on time travel, offers a fresh take on ghosts and mentions a physicist who uses two math formulae to “prove and double-prove” the existence of God) is being pitched by the whole marketing machine as fantasy, while being reviewed as a psychological thriller or paranormal romance/crime/espionage thriller. I think one of the main reasons for this level of infiltration, is because the SF elements are all organically embedded within the setting and the “make-up” of the characters– literally drawing as much attention as the shade of the heroine’s sunglasses – while each of the new “fantastic” worlds seen by the main character are what command centre stage every time she opens her eyes.
In our own fast-changing world, which is already rife with “fantastic” opportunities and “tomorrow technologies” is it any wonder that such elements are so readily accepted in the environment of a wider story – often even expected – by a market that can still shy away from health food if we label it health food? To many people, it seems that science fiction sounds more like “homework” while fantasy sounds like a “holiday”, and yet how many wouldn’t go anywhere on holiday without their mobile phone, ipod or laptop?
There’s a lot to learn from others who’ve already passed this way – writers who’ve successfully lured skittish readers and viewers into loving their stories, regardless of the SF elements.
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For example, my old neighbour has to be one of the top ten most recalcitrant science fiction haters in the history of the known universe, and yet he also loves:
- James Bond, Mission Impossible, Iron Man, Spy Kids and anything else that’s dressed up with “tomorrow technology.” Arguably, even CSI, Burn Notice, MacGyver and others which stretch the abilities of current technology or human capabilities, or crunch time-lines, can also be lumped in with fiction that features scientific-based extrapolations.
- The Stepford wives, dressed up as a “comedy thriller” where all the perfect women in town are robots… hello? Robots!
- The Lake House, marketed as drama, fantasy and romance for Sandra Bullock and Keanu Reeves, when the central idea is time travel. Hmmm…
- Eureka, marketed as a comedy-crime series for TV about a laid-back sheriff who plays good shepherd to a “little town with a big secret”… i.e. top-secret town full of mad scientists and their wacky inventions… yep, definitely no chance for science fiction there either.
- The Big Bang Theory; an almost fatally hilarious comedy TV series that’s basically a nerdy version of neighbours, laced with some of the wittiest takes on scientific facts and theories I’ve ever heard. Every episode is blatantly named after a formula or theory but there’s no sign of SF as a genre in the advertising pitch! Oh, and 3 of the 5 main characters are physicists, while the forth is “just” an engineer for the international space station. Sure, he only designed and built the lavatory, so mankind really could “go” where no man has gone before, but still… space is space, right?
- And what about Numb3rs? Pitched as crime, drama, mystery and thriller – anything but fiction with science, yet the DVD covers and credits are all dripping with scientific formulae! And for any aliens who just landed, that 3 in the title, is not a typo. Never an episode goes by that we don’t get at least one full-on heavy-duty fully-foreshadowed science/math lesson, and it’s delivered so cleanly as an organic part of the main character’s “make-up” that even my neighbour can spot a pattern of murders in the news nowadays and say “Oh yeah, the cops are gunna need the hot zone equation for that. It’s like a lawn sprinkler…”
Let’s face it, even Star Wars is pitched to the contemporary market nowadays as action, adventure, fantasy and last of all, sci fi. It’s just a royalty saga in space now.
In each case, it’s not the scientific concepts or exotic settings that attract and maintain attention. It’s the people with problems.
I know some industry observers are deeply concerned that this still presents evidence of writers being forced to “mainstream” the genre, dumb it down or bring it down to earth (large E as well as small). And as an author who’s been asked to tone down or eliminate the science in a previous series under another pen-name in order to keep the series “focused” on the situation comedy and crime, I can fully appreciate how frustrating it can be. At times, it can even kill creativity stone dead. But I also think it gives us the chance to smarten up, take a closer look at what’s really important to the characters and their situations while also reaching a much wider readership/audience.
Best of all, I didn’t have to compromise my craft to achieve publication. Quite the opposite. By using advanced editing strategies, the work morphed completely into something new and more exciting, and yet the same with all the wrinkles smoothed over and agendas hidden more stylishly. Strategies such as:
- re-vision-ing the original vision into something more commercially viable
- re-framing through a new style of narrator
- re-fielding, re-toning and re-moding the expanse, style and mood of the work
- re-layering the text, subtext and metatext, and…
- re-voicing the narrator from overt to covert…
… to name a few. I also rebelled and cranked up the SF elements for Diamond Eyes, which allowed me to revel and play with more exciting new concepts as well as fresh takes on old ideas. It took me ten years, and despite all the years of scratching my head, tearing out my hair and staring at screens, overall, it was really liberating. So many more unwritten rules for each genre, and yet so much more freedom to bend or break them.
Visionaries will always see the real deal. And we can still appreciate the hardcore “pure” SF genre inside such stories, no matter how they’re dressed, so long as they come with the same proviso as ever, I think; that they’re strong on people with problems, not just plots on planets (even if it’s just this planet.)
At least, that’s my two cents.
 Encompassing all speculative genres such as fantasy, horror, supernatural, science fiction and sci-fi, and yes there is a difference.