October 1st 2012
The Category Game
I spent the better part of the past weekend promoting my latest novel, DARKBEAST, to avid readers who are not necessarily readers of fantasy and science fiction. (I was attending the Baltimore Book Festival’s Children’s Bookstore Stage and the New Atlantic Independent Booksellers Association annual meeting.) I got my patter down pretty quickly: “DARKBEAST is a traditional fantasy novel perfect for middle grade readers, both boys and girls. It’s the story of Keara, a girl who has been magically bonded to her best friend, a raven, since birth. When her society dictates that Keara must sacrifice her raven so that she can become an adult, she decides to run away from home and join a troupe of traveling actors.”
My pitch is all about giving my listeners categories: “traditional fantasy novel”, “middle grade readers”, “both boys and girls”… The weekend became one giant game of Categories.
You’ve all played “Categories” haven’t you? You make a grid, and across the top you put a variety of categories (e.g. “animals”, “colors”, and “cheeses”) and down one side you put letters of the alphabet. Then, with a time limitation, you try to come up with an item for each category that starts with each letter.
Often, I feel like we break down science fiction and fantasy this way. Across the top, we put “Non-Western-Culture Steampunk in Translation”, “Feminist Space Opera with All Non-Human Characters”, “Pacifist Military SF Built on Pre 1970′s Technology”, etc. Then, we try to fill in the columns, with all the amazing, incredible, obscure novels we know.
But sometimes, I think we’d be better served to look at the bigger picture, the broader categories. For people who are new to our genre, or people who have read widely in some sub-genres but not across the board, our “micro-categories” can be alienating. When we try to expand the foundation of our genre, we can reach more people by defining things as broadly as possible.
Of course, our broadest categories are “Science Fiction” and “Fantasy” (with a possible third of “Horror”). But we don’t want our categories to be so broad that they’re useless. The person who revels in the scientific rigor of Stanislaw Lem is likely to be disappointed by Mary Doria Russell. Likewise, the person who adores the humor of Jim C. Hines might not be thrilled with the staid worldbuilding of J.R.R. Tolkien.
So, what is the bare minimum of categories that we can define, to satisfy readers looking for similar books without overwhelming readers with specificity?
Just to get the ball rolling, I’ll propose the following for fantasy, I’d propose epic fantasy, traditional fantasy, urban fantasy, humorous fantasy, and alternative history.
So? What about you? Modify my list for fantasy, and make your own for science fiction and/or horror!
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Mindy Klasky is the author of eleven novels, including WHEN GOOD WISHES GO BAD and HOW NOT TO MAKE A WISH in the As You Wish Series. She also wrote GIRL'S GUIDE TO WITCHCRAFT, SORCERY AND THE SINGLE GIRL, and MAGIC AND THE MODERN GIRL, about a librarian who finds out she's a witch. Mindy also wrote the award-winning, best-selling Glasswrights series and the stand-alone fantasy novel, SEASON OF SACRIFICE. Visit site.
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