When someone asks if you’re a god, you say…

Over the last few weeks, I’ve found myself trying to describe what I write to people – friends, family members, work colleagues, it all runs the same way:

“So, what do you write?” they ask.

“Well,” I say, madly scrambling for a quick answer that fits… there is usually a long pause at this point where I pull various faces and wave my hands around before giving up and answering: “Science fiction.”

“Oh,” they say, usually with a touch of disappointment.

This is when I make a judgement call – do I try and explain how it’s not spaceships and aliens and stuff? If I say Empire State actually starts in Prohibition-era New York and deals with pocket universes, does that make it any easier to understand? Then if I say it has rocket-powered superheroes and steam-powered robots, am I making it better, or just digging a bigger hole for myself?

Or, as I suspect, am I overthinking things?

When I first pitched Empire State to Marc and Lee from Angry Robot, it was over lunch in Nottingham. After talking about my latest story in Hub – which had come out that day, I think – Marc asked me if I was working on anything longer. I said yes, I had a manuscript called Empire State. Marc asked what it was about…

… and I paused, and waved my hands, and pulled a face, and as the silence grew, Marc turned to Lee and said “sounds like just our kind of book!”.

Of course, let off the hook a little, we then spent the next hour discussing it. But when someone asks you what you write, firstly (outside of a convention) they’re unlikely to be people like Marc and Lee who know what they’re talking about. And secondly, you’re unlikely to have an hour to describe your book to them.

The thing is, Empire State is science fiction. Blogger Amanda Rutter once told me that science fiction is based on an idea, while fantasy is based on a character. I think this might be true, in general anyway (although not always, of course), because Empire State is very definitely based on an idea.

The other question is whether it really matters what you write anyway.

There are two answers to this – firstly, no, as a writer, not at all. You write what you like – if it is hard science fiction or epic fantasy or crime fiction then cool. In fact, you’ve got it a little easier, because you can say you write hard science fiction or epic fantasy or crime.

If, like me, you write across genres, it gets harder. Kaaron Warren, one of my favourite authors recently said on the Angry Robot podcast that she writes whatever she likes, and indeed, her current three novels are all very different from each other. She considers herself to be an “author”, and any other descriptor is probably irrelevant.

I like that a lot, but when it comes to marketing and publicity – and telling a friend about your book! – it gets a little tricky. People like boxes and labels, and I don’t blame them. Stephen King, another favourite of mine, is considered a master of horror when really he writes – to my mind – mostly science fiction. Of course, when you’re Stephen King, you’re a genre all of your own, which is nice and easy for bookstores. But, reading as I am his entire catalogue in publication order, he really strikes me as another author who is just that – an author, writing whatever he likes. He gets a good idea, he writes it, and it doesn’t matter.

The header of this blog says “Steampunk, superheroes, and science fiction”. A few years ago, when I got everything set up, that seemed like a good summary (plus it kinda rolls of the tongue, with all those ‘s’es). But now it seems less relevant – I have written steampunk, but I don’t write it much now. When I started taking writing seriously, I really thought that would be “my” genre, but that’s not how it worked out. Superhero fiction is more important – and certainly superheroes are something I have a very strong interest in – and my first two novels, Empire State and Seven Wonders, are superhero stories. Having said that, I’ve never really thought of Empire State as a superhero novel, while Seven Wonders most definitely was designed that way from the outset. And Empire State has steampunk elements too… well, truth be told, I just couldn’t resist!

What does that leave? Science fiction? That’s accurate, possibly more than the other two, but it doesn’t quite encompass everything. I also write horror – although I find horror itself hard to judge, given that it’s less like a genre and more like a “tone” that can be applied to anything. I’ve also got ideas for some crime fiction, and a couple of ideas for stuff which isn’t really anything other than… well, slightly strange, I suppose.

Perhaps more importantly, I write stuff which is a mix of everything. For that reason I’ll be ditching the subheading shortly, and will just be an “author”. I wonder if the need to categorise an author is more important in the early stages when they are establishing themselves and trying to get that first book deal. Once the work is out and a wider audience is familiar with the writer, it becomes less important as the name of the author gets recognised, on some level at least, rather than a categorisation.


And let’s face it, as I discussed a LONG time ago, we all get lumped in alphabetical order in that big shelf at the back of a bookstore anyway.

But I really do need to work on that elevator pitch for Empire State. Raymond Chandler meets The Rocketeer in Gotham City? That might do it.

So tell me: what do you write? Do you stick to a clearly defined genre, or do you fit into many categories? I’m interested. And in either case, how do you define yourself as a writer?

  • Anne Lyle

    My pitch to Marco was basically “I like what these noir guys are doing with fantasy, but I find it a bit macho. My book’s more Bogie’n’Bacall than ‘Sin City’ ” 🙂

    At the moment I’m sticking to a single sub-genre – historical fantasy – because it’s something that fascinates me, the interaction between a real (or quasi-real) historical setting and something more SFF in flavour. OK so the actual plots of individual books could be spy thriller or mystery or whatever, but I’m not sure the genre reader cares about that side of it.

    To my mind, there are two strands to genre: the setting (SF, fantasy, historical, western, contemporary, etc) and plot (crime, thriller, romance, and so on). You can combine any setting with any plot to get an interesting book, but setting seems to trump plot when it comes to marketing.

  • Interesting distinction – so is horror a setting or a plot, going by your system?

  • The other day I described myself to my long-suffering girlfriend as a novelist. She had the good grace not to snort with laughter, given that to date I have nothing published, and the only projects that have been completed  are short stories. But I persevere in this mindset because that’s how I see myself, and how I see my writing – I am most comfortable when setting out scenes in chapters in parts, and getting a good run of writing in without having to worry too much about running over-long with any one scene.

    Regarding what I write, I describe myself as a military fiction writer with a steampunk bent. Or, to put it another way, a historical novelist writing alternative-history novels. In truth I am not really comfortable with genre classifications, and would just prefer to be known as “Jonathan D. Beer: author, wordsmith, lothario”. But for the elevator pitch, the quick snatch of conversation, one has to pigeon-hole oneself.

    I also tend towards the out-and-out shootydeathkillinspace (to quote your colleague Dan Abnett), which is a lot easier to explain to a nonplussed interrogator. Just say “Space Marines” and watch as their eyes glaze over and an expression of polite contempt sets in 🙂

  • John Carrick

    I just released the first novel – Legacy of a Mad Scientist.  We’ve given away almost 1,500 free downloads on …  http://www.free-ebooks.net/ebook/Legacy-of-a-Mad-Scientist in just a couple weeks.

    I guess it’s Sci Fi, but like you said, most people roll their eyes at that.  But it’s very also Horror/Adventure with a lot of Bruce Lee – It’s a comic book, written as a novel, set in a future with flying cars, but no aliens.     Then I say, Yet, and they roll their eyes again.

    And I roll my eyes, and think to myself, why am i pitching a novel to someone who hasn’t bought, let alone read, a novel in fifteen years.  Everyone knows who Stephen King and Batman are, but how many of them read Cormac McCarthy and Garth Ennis.

    It’s hard to pitch people who aren’t readers.  ie. family, friends, you know – the others.