Fifteen minutes long, because you're in a hurry, and we're not that smart.

12.52: Cross-Genres as Gateways

Your Hosts: Brandon, Piper, Howard, and Dan

What are the books which have drawn us from the bookshelf genres where you’re the most comfortable into bookshelves you haven’t read from? What can we learn about our own writing by reading these gateway books? How can we set about writing them ourselves?

Credits: this episode was recorded in Cosmere House Studios by Dan Dan the Audioman Thompson, and mastered at the intersection of Cowboys and the Great Lakes by Alex Jackson.

Homework: Write a story where one of the characters thinks they’re in a different genre than the genre of the story itself.

Thing of the week: The Diabolic, by SJ Kincaid.

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As transcribed by Mike Barker

Key Points: Cross-genre books can be gateways to get readers to read in new genres. People who don’t read a genre often pretend it is monolithic, because the iconic stories in a genre do so well. But each genre has blends and hybrids and explorations of new directions and interesting things! Romance is the genre that other genres like to pick on. Set aside the notion that some genre is untouchable, start with an open mind. Young adult used to be not segregated by genre. Most Americans think comic books are all superhero stories. Gateway cross-genre books are fun! Give readers more possibilities for reading and enjoying. Listen to Season 16… no, make that 11! Elemental genres let you mix the concepts. But don’t just do windowdressing, or paint on the walls, build your genres in so they can’t be easily separated. Cross-genre stories can help reluctant readers find what they love. So mix it up! Science fiction, fantasy, romance, horror, mystery… cross the genres and build gateways into new and fascinating world! The familiar, and the strange.

[Mary] Season 12, Episode 52.
[Brandon] This is Writing Excuses, Cross-Genre Stories As Gateway Drugs.
[Piper] 15 minutes long.
[Dan] Because you’re in a hurry.
[Howard] And we’re not that smart.
[Brandon] I’m Brandon.
[Piper] I’m Piper.
[Dan] I’m Dan.
[Howard] And I want something new.

[Brandon] So. Piper. You pitched us this episode.
[Piper] I did.
[Brandon] Tell us why.
[Piper] Because there are a lot of books out there that can be the gateway to getting you to read something you wouldn’t have read before. I wanted us to talk about that more. Like, what kinds of… What kinds of books do you have, and what kinds of books have you read that have been gateways to another genre that you might not have read previously, or that you didn’t think you would like, but because it worked, you were willing to try more.
[Brandon] Yeah. I like this idea. So, one of the things I often say is people who don’t read genre fiction pretend it’s monolithic. Right? That there is only one thing that is a romance story, one thing that is a fantasy story, one thing that is a mystery. That’s because certain iconic stories are so popular and do very well. In fantasy, it is farmboy saves the world. Right? It’s the hero’s journey about a person on a… A kid on a farm who finds a wise mentor who then takes them on a quest and then usually dies, and then they have to step up and save the world. This is what people think, but the thing is, within the genre, there are actually very few novels that are that. There are some of the big popular ones, but there are very few that do that. The genre is full of stacks and stacks of things that are actually blending and hybridizing and taking us new directions and interesting… Doing all kinds of interesting things.

[Piper] Yeah. I could go first and say that my gateway to romance… Because I was a science fiction and fantasy reader all through my youth, up into, I think the year… Oh, gosh. I have it on my website, somewhere. Like 2006 or 2008, I read my first romance novel. It was C. L. Wilson, and her Tairen Soul series. I happened to be at Anime Con and I was maybe a little hung over. So I didn’t go for the early-morning panels. Instead, snagged this… What looked like to me an epic fantasy book that my friend had left in the hotel room and started reading this amazing wonderful epic fantasy featuring a hero who was so heartbroken when his first love died, he scorched the world. I was in! All in. Finished that book that day, and said, “Let’s go to Barnes & Noble, I want to buy this book and I want to buy the next one.” My friend goes, “Yeah, it’s over here in the romance section.” Nailed.
[Piper] I have absolutely embraced and loved romance since, and have found that romance has all of the genres of spec fiction as flavors of romance. That was my gateway drug into trying romance, as well as continuing to love science fiction and fantasy.
[Brandon] Excellent. For me, I had a couple that I would say were gateways. These are all during my youth, because it was the first things I tried. I would call say Melanie Rawn, we were talking about Melanie Rawn before, was a great gateway into understanding more romantic fiction. I wouldn’t call it romance. I would call it fantasy that is inspired by romance. Right? The Sunrunner books by Melanie Rawn. They were great for in… Making… Like, I finished these books. I read further in the genre. It was years later, two or three years later, when I was reading a new one and I said, “You know, these are actually romances.” That was a big moment for me, because romance is the genre that the other genres like to pick on. Right? It sells so much better that, I think, a lot of the other genres have little brother or sister syndrome. Where they’re like, “Oh, romance novels. Eww, romance. I won’t touch romance. I’m too manly to touch romance.” Yet the Sunrunner books are romances. They’re beautiful. They’re wonderful books with an excellent magic system.

[Howard] I think the important thing to remember, when we’re having a discussion of genre crossing and gateways, is that you have to set aside the thought that a given genre is X, is whatever. You can’t look down on it, you can’t look sideways at it and say, “Oh, I would never read that.” You have to start with enough of an open mind that the book you’re reading is… That you’re going to be able to embrace all of the elements of that book. If there’s a good romance in a science fiction book, and you have said that you hate romances, yeah, you may have a hard time when you get to that portion of the book. So don’t say that. Embrace that bit of the story.
[Dan] I find that this has… As I’m trying to think back, what are the books that have done this? I think my reading just tends to go in phases, and there’s always some crossover book. Like when I was in elementary school, I was fantasy all the way and that is all I read. Then I read deep enough into the Pern books that I realized, “Wait. She tricked me. These are science fiction.” Then that got me reading science fiction and I went through my huge science fiction phase, culminating with Dune, which has so much fantasy in it that I started reading fantasy again, and back and forth. Different things, different books have pointed me in one direction or the other as I go.
[Howard] The genre that has always… And remains elusive to me, is nonfiction.
[Howard] Which… But some of my favorite nonfiction books have been the ones where they feature a big idea. I love science fiction, I love the big idea stories. A couple of examples are The Black Swan by Nassim Nicholas Taleb and Freakonomics and Super Freakonomics by… I forget their names, the Stevens [actually, one Stephen and one Steven] , the Freakonomics guys. In both of these, I was…
[Brandon] Dubner and Levitt, I think.
[Howard] Yeah, Stephen Dubner. Thank you. Dubner and Levitt. The nonfiction isn’t just, “Oh, it’s a biography of this person,” or “Oh, it’s a blow… It’s an encyclopedia entry of this historical event.” These were books that analyzed things and drew interesting conclusions that were larger. Which is something that the science fiction that I was reading was doing all the time anyway. Now, the crossover bit… was… reading one thing that crossed me over? No, what crossed me over was when somebody described the book to me and said, “Oh, yeah. This and this and this and this. But what’s actually going on is…” I realized, “Oh, there’s an intellectual puzzle in the real world that’s as interesting as the science fiction I read. I will try buying that book.”

[Brandon] Let’s stop for our book of the week.
[Dan] All right. Book of the week. This is one of my favorite little gateway cross genres of the last year, which is The Diabolic by SJ Kincaid. She is an author I  talk about a lot. She did a great cyberpunk YA series. This one is young adult epic space opera that is also a Machiavellian political court book that is also a romance. It starts… It’s about… The Diabolic is an engineered being. A girl who is created to be a killer. She is purchased and raised as a bodyguard for what’s basically a Duchess. Then, the Royal Imperial Court at the center of the galaxy decides that they want that Duchess to come and live in the court for a while. So they send the Diabolic in her place to masquerade as her. It is a fantastic book, and has been… It has already caused a lot of people to jump genres. People who love YA romance read this and all of a sudden they are all over space opera and they are looking for more. It made me want to read more romances, because it was such a good one. I came from the space opera direction. So, The Diabolic by SJ Kincaid.

[Brandon] It’s interesting, talking about young adult, because for many years, young adult was not segregated by genre in the bookstores and libraries. It was just the young adult section. Which allowed a lot more of this sort of you pick up a book, you don’t quite know what genre it is, you read it, you… And are introduced to something new.
[Dan] Most sections, I think, are still like that for the most part, but they do break out…
[Brandon] They’ve broken out…
[Dan] Paranormal romance…
[Brandon] Not just…
[Dan] Dystopian.
[Brandon] They do romance and adventure and like… Mine are in YA fantasy.
[Piper] In YA, yeah.
[Brandon] So, it just doesn’t happen that way anymore. But I feel like graphic novels have often been the same way. That there’s a graphic novel section. It’s usually in the science fiction section, but includes all kinds of graphic novels.
[Howard] Well, when you touch on… When you talk about books with pictures in them, the superhero genre of comic book is what 90%… I’m pulling that number out of thin air, but it’s probably right… Of Americans think of when they think of the word comic book. Oh, it’s going to have superheroes in it.
[Dan] Probably way more than 90%.
[Howard] Probably. But if you are in Japan, or really…
[Howard] Anywhere besides the United States, whatever the word is for comic book in that language does not mean it’s a superhero book. It doesn’t mean it’s an underpants on the outside book. It may have… I’ve read a lot of manga that is very, very dramatic, and very… It’s romance, it’s political intrigue, it’s… There is no superheroes in this anywhere. The crossover…
[Piper] There’s a lot of magical girls, though.
[Howard] There’s a lot of magical girls. Espec… Yeah. But the crossover here… Where the genres blend is… I bring this up because you were talking about bookstores. Comic bookshops in the US are just weird places who haven’t yet figured out how to cross sell the manga to the people who are buying the graphic novels. I don’t know what the answer is, but I’m fascinated by the problem, because I love both kinds of stories.
[Piper] That is interesting. Because… I mean, as an anime fan, like, I love reading manga. I love reading manga. I even get into manhwa, which is the Korean comic books. I actually started reading Thai as a kid by reading manga… Japanese manga that had been translated into Thai.
[Brandon] Okay.
[Piper] So that always confused my Japanese friends, because they’d come over and they’d see all this great manga. They’d open it up and they couldn’t read it because it was in Thai.
[Piper] Not Japanese. But like the stories in there, you get your slice of life, you get your high school romance, you get your magical girl, you get some of your superheroes, you get some of your really heavy duty horror in there, and there’s just some really, really great genres there. I’m surprised, because it’s been my experience that people who appreciate comic books in the US also have a tendency to like some of the other geek fandoms and be open to them, like gaming and like anime. So they would readily kind of cross over.

[Brandon] So, I’m going to pose this back at you, because you, during the break, basically said, “This is Piper’s career. The example. Just like cross genre and things like this.” What did you mean by that, this is what I do?
[Piper] Oh, that’s fun. So, I started out in publishing as a PJ Schnyder, wrote sci-fi romance as well as paranormal romance. Now, my sci-fi romance was intended to be a gateway, so that romance readers who had never given science fiction a chance would embrace science fiction. So it wouldn’t be hard sci-fi, it was more space opera. But it had the strong elements, where they were willing to be drawn into the sci-fi world. I wrote a lot of steam punk with romantic elements. Paranormal romance was my pull for people who like urban fantasy. They like werewolves, they like shape shifters, they like vampires, to come into the romance genre and taste it, because this is predominantly about werewolves. It just so happens that the central line of the story is the romance focus, as opposed to an action focus or a mystery focus. Then, I was asked to cross genres myself. I was asked to cross genres from paranormal romance to romantic suspense. The feeling that my agent and the editors had faith in me was that my action scenes, why world building, my character development could be set into a contemporary standpoint, and take out these paranormal elements of urban fantasy or of paranormal romance and still have a really solid engaging romantic suspense story line, and be able to cross over into contemporary that way.

[Brandon] So let me kind of pitch a different thing at you. Why is this important? Why do we need crossover, or why do we need to… Why were you interested in pulling people from romance to sci-fi?
[Piper] Because there is no way anyone on earth can write enough fast enough for the readers who love them to be able to continue to constantly have something to read. So being able to give readers more possibilities as to what they could go out there and read and enjoy, to me, is a lot of fun. That way, readers don’t get bored and they still love us, even if we write slow.
[Howard] You raise an interesting question. I’m all about how do I write across genres. Well, I mean, the first answer to the question is listen to season 16. The whole discussion of elemental genre…
[Brandon] 16? Season…
[Howard] Season 11.
[Brandon] Season 11.
[Howard] 2016’s episodes… Whatever.
[Brandon] Howard the time traveler says, “Season 16, we will cover this really well.”
[Dan] It’s going to be great.
[Brandon] In four years.
[Howard] It will have been my favorite.
[Brandon] No. The elemental genres was all about how to mix the different concepts.

[Howard] But, fundamentally, Piper, one of the things you said was, “Oh, you know if you strip away these world building pieces, you could set this story just fine… It works just fine as a romance.” For me, for a cross genre thing to really work, if I want to draw people into sci-fi from someplace else, I have to make sure that both stories I’m telling can’t be stripped away in that way. The romance can’t just be windowdressing. The science fiction can’t just be painted on the walls.
[Piper] Oh, I agree.
[Howard] There has to be a reason for both. I’m not saying that’s what you were doing. I’m saying, for our listeners, if you want to build this, build it that way, so that when they head into the science fiction section, they’re engaging on the elemental level.
[Piper] Yeah. When you build it, you have to make sure that it is still a complete world build. Like, you can’t strip something out and just think it’s okay. You have to make sure that it’s strong on its own.
[Dan] Coming from a YA perspective, where we talk about trying to engage kids who aren’t into reading yet… But I think this also applies to adults who aren’t necessarily into reading or don’t know. Cross genre is usually where a kid will find the thing that they love. Every reluctant reader is just a kid who hasn’t found what they love yet. I can’t tell you how many people I have talked to who are hard-core horror fans now because they read something like The Madman’s Daughter by Megan Shepherd, which is science fiction romance horror, and one of those three pulled them in and got them hooked on one of the other ones. It just… It helps people find what they love.

[Brandon] Well, we are out of time for this episode, and really for this season.
[Brandon] We will be back next week with Dan, me, Howard, and Mary to kind of wrap up season 12. So this is our last chance to have Piper, at least for this year. We will definitely have you back in future years.
[Piper] Yay!
[Brandon] Thank you so much. As I mentioned before on… A few weeks ago. Thank you to our Patreons. Our patrons on Patreon, for supporting us, letting us be able to do this. If you have feedback on Season 12, how this has played out, how having guest hosts has played out, please let us know on the website. Just give us a reply or email us and let us know, because we really want to hear how to make the podcast better, and we were very excited about this year. We want to see how it went for you guys.

[Brandon] I am going to close us out with a writing prompt. Our writing prompt is I want you to write a story where one of the characters thinks they’re in a different genre from what the story actually is. They think they’re in a story from a different genre. How does it go? This has been Writing Excuses. You are out of excuses, now go write.