Writing Genre Blends: Madeline Dyer talks NaNoWriMo

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Personally, I am a huge fan of cross-genre novels — if they’re done well. I love a good science fantasy book (Gameboard of the Gods by Richelle Mead), or a Victorian gothic thriller with strong romantic elements (A Long Fatal Love Chase by Louisa May Alcott). Plus, I love reading classic mystery novels that are also full of sensation and melodrama, such as The Woman in White by Wilkie Collins. But I’ve also read some genre blends that just haven’t worked — ones that feel all over the place, ones where the author has tried to bring in too many genres at the same time, and ones where the blended genres clashed with the style of writing and/or the content.

With Fragmented, the second book in my YA dystopian fantasy series, having released at the beginning of September 2016, I’ve been thinking recently a lot about what makes a good cross-genre novel. And, of course, I’ve found it depends on the story and the characters you’re writing about. But, most importantly, it depends on how the author mixes the two genres together and the strength (and detail) of the worldbuilding.

Firstly, if you’re thinking of writing a genre blend, it’s essential that the genres you mix actually go together and that they work for your story. It has to feel like a natural blend, and not something that you’ve just thrown together for the sake of it. If you’re thinking of writing a genre blend, I recommend choosing two genres within the same larger category — so two genres within speculative fiction (fantasy, science fiction, paranormal, horror, dystopian, etc.) often work well together if written correctly. Similarly, two darker (or potentially dark) genres — such as horror and mystery, thriller and detective fiction — will also usually fit together nicely.

Dark fantasy — a mix of fantasy and horror — is a genre blend I’ve noticed becoming increasingly popular for both children and adults (think Coraline by Neil Gaiman and The Drawing of the Three by Stephen King). I believe this is because those two genres have the ability to fit seamlessly together. Fantasy, after all, explores an unknown world where anything can happen. And horror often plays on readers’ fears of the unknown and concern over danger — particularly danger inflicted by man (or man-like creatures). But whichever two genres you choose to mix in your writing, you need to make sure that the elements you take from each actually have a purpose in your book, that they’re definitely needed and not just thrown in because you like them. They need to provide a function and add something — whether it be shaping your characters’ actions and experiences, or advancing the plot.

Many readers are critical of genre blends, believing the author doesn’t really know what he or she is doing, and so you need to make sure that readers are not left wondering why you’ve mixed two genres, or what the elements of one genre are doing in your book.  Instead, as they’re reading, you need to both hook them and make sure that they understand why you’ve brought the second (or third) genre in — and how it enhances and fits with the first.

Knowing your world — and how and why there are elements of more than genre — is important, particularly so if either one or more of your genres are from the speculative fiction category. Like with any fantasy or science fiction novel that relies on rules that aren’t the norm, worldbuilding is important in a genre blend. My first two novels, Untamed and Fragmented, are both cross-genre dystopian fantasies, meaning I had a lot of work to do on the worldbuilding, as there are elements of each genre present — and each had to seem believable and fitting for the world. Not only did I have to perfectly blend fantasy elements into a dystopian society, but I also had to make sure that it all made sense — that readers knew how and why they fitted together. And that it worked for the story.

Like with any worldbuilding, providing detail — and the history of the society or world — in a genre blend is key. If you’ve got robots and vampires in the same world, tell the readers as much as you can (their politics, history, interactions, how it effects or changes the societal structure). The more detail you have, and the more answers you can give, the more believable your world is likely to be. And believability is hugely important in a cross-genre novel (particularly where speculative fiction elements are involved) as you’re already asking readers to suspend belief to a pretty big extent and/or prepare for something unfamiliar that may be outside their comfort zones. So, you want to make everything within your genre-blend’s world easy for your readers to believe by giving detail and explanation where it’s required.

You don’t want your readers thumbing through three-hundred pages without really understanding the blended-genre world they’re reading, and them finishing with no understanding of the foundations upon which the plot is set (as that usually means they couldn’t follow the rules of your cross-genre creation and it just seemed a mess with no organisation or thought). But, like with any novel, you do want your readers asking some questions about the world as they’re reading (particularly at the start) as that means they’re engaging with it and trying to understand it, that they’re investing their time into it. You just don’t want to leave these questions unanswered for too long (or fail to give answers at all), as then you risk alienating and/or losing the reader.

And let’s face it: cross-genre novels can be unfamiliar to readers. They can be daunting and scary. If a reader picks one up that has their favourite genre and another genre that they’re not so familiar or comfortable with, he or she may feel on guard to start with. In this case, providing them with confusing worldbuilding and many unanswered questions is just likely to put them off your book and leave your reader discontented. No, you want your readers to feel comfortable — after all, most will read your book for their own entertainment — and they need to be able to confidently navigate your world. They need to know the rules of the world, and the rules need to make logical sense in your world. It also needs to be evident why your world has these particular rules. Show them that you’ve thought about this carefully. And if readers do have questions, they need to feel confident that by reading more they’ll find the answer soon — they need to trust that you as the author know what you’re doing in writing this blended world.

But, all this isn’t to say that genre-blends require a big info-dump of their worldbuilding. Not at all! Your worldbuilding should still be woven into your plot and shown to readers through your main character’s eyes, it’s just that you’ll have elements within this worldbuilding and set up from more than one genre and that this may make it a more complicated. One important thing to remember, when including worldbuilding for your reader, is if your fictitious world is one that has always had this genre-mix going on, throughout its history, then your characters won’t necessarily question this mix like your readers might. To your characters, this world will seem normal and it won’t seem like a clash of two usually distinct worlds. Thus, be aware that any explanation that comes from a character as to why there are elements of different genres present could seem shoe-horned in (for the purpose of explaining to the reader) if it jars with the character’s own personal experiences and interactions with their world. You don’t want your character’s voice suddenly being replaced by the author’s voice for the sake of answering a reader’s question. All answers have to be worked in using a way that fits the style of your writing and the book. Make sense?

But how do you decide the balance of the genres you want to mix? I think this is one of the most important things to decide when considering writing a cross-genre novel. Will you have one genre that’s the main one, with just little elements of the other? Or do you want to go for a 50/50 concoction? Or even introduce a third genre?

In my opinion, once you start bringing in more than two genres (especially in a strong way where each fights for dominance) that’s when the writing can feel chaotic. Think of it as a boxing ring: with two genres, you’ve got two opponents, each trying to win (and get the reader’s attention and understanding). If you’ve got more than one contestant, the reader’s going to be pulled into multiple corners, often one after another, with either little time to get to know and understand how and why you’re using the elements of one genre, before they’re pulled into another corner where another genre tries to grab their attention. It can just feel disordered and messy — especially if elements of one of the genres are suddenly introduced halfway through the book, with no foreshadowing (such as a fairy suddenly turning up in what readers have been led to believe is a hard-boiled detective novel — that would just be a What is going on? moment).

So, I say stick to two genres, whether you’re writing a comic fantasy or a science fiction western, and make it clear early on that your book has elements of both. That way, readers can’t be unpleasantly surprised. And trust me, novels that blend their genres right from the start are usually better than ones that switch suddenly part of the way through.

When I write genre blends, I use two genres, but I prefer one of these to be the base genre — the main one — and the other to be subsidiary, a bag from which I pull a few elements from to weave into the worldbuilding of the main genre. With my debut novel, Untamed, the base genre is dystopian, and woven in are fantasy elements, such as Seers and spirits. Keeping this balance right was important, and in my mind I knew that I wanted the balance to be at least 60/40 in favour of dystopian at all times. And, this also made categorisation and marketing a lot easier. Genre tags categorise a book and tell readers what to expect. Therefore, as Untamed would be primarily appearing in dystopian categories, I wanted the content to be an accurate reflection of that (and my publisher markets this book primarily as dystopian fiction).

That isn’t to say that the fantasy elements in Untamed are a surprise to readers. No, the back cover copy of the book clearly indicates that there are some fantastical elements, telling us that Seven, the main character, is one of the most powerful Seers left in this dystopian world. But, the rest of the description focuses on the dystopian society and the upcoming war, connoting ideas of rebellion and societal change. This way, the main genre of the book is clear, yet readers are aware that Seers are a part of this book’s world — and, presumably, will expect there to be other fantastical and potentially otherworldly elements too.

Categorisation of a book is important; whether you’re aiming for traditional publication or will be self-publishing it, a genre tag will be used to market your book. Incidentally, this may be why some publishers are less inclined to look at cross-genre manuscripts, especially if there isn’t a clear primary genre, as it may seem that this book would be hard to market. Either that or the author doesn’t understand genres — or even know fully what he or she is writing! This is another reason why I favour a base genre, as that way in a query letter you can describe your book as primarily being of one genre, but if necessary mention that there are a couple of elements from genre number two and explain why or how they link to the plot — in short, give their function. This is a particularly good thing to do if the person you’re querying is also a fan of genre number two (presumably, they’ll love genre number one, otherwise why are you sending them your work?).

Another important thing to remember when writing cross-genre books is that the genre of a book often hints at the structure and shape of a plot. For example, a detective novel typically follows an expected structure, where the bad guy is revealed at the end — and this is a formula that readers of this genre will be looking out for. Romances, on the other hand, have a different archetypal ending (usually a happy ever after in the shape of the hero and heroine getting together and/or marriage), as well as other different ‘required’ elements.

So, when mixing two genres, it’s important to think about the readers’ expectations, especially if they’re approaching this book as weighted more heavily to one genre. Because, while giving them something completely unexpected can work in some cases, it can also not work. A romantic murder mystery where the love interest is revealed to be the bad guy—and thus the main characters never get their happy ever after as the hero/antagonist is caught and jailed or killed—would be a great plot twist, but it would also annoy some readers. There’d feel let down, like they’d had false expectations set up. And, it could cause confusion — especially when some romance readers expect the heroine and hero to get together at the end — meaning that the reader then doesn’t even think this novel can be classed as a romance at all. In that case, they might recommend the book solely as an example of detective fiction — which could then throw other readers off who are surprised or annoyed by the romance, believing it not to be a detective novel. A lot of it does come down to personal taste, but you can limit potential backlash like this by pairing together genres that go together and that do not set up vastly different — and conflicting — expectations in terms of plot structure or explored themes. So, you’ve got to be careful about which genres you mix together, and that you’re not setting up clashing expectations — especially as readers will usually prefer one of the genres to the other.

And, finally, if you’re writing a cross-genre novel where one of the genres is ‘Young Adult’ or ‘Children’s Literature’, then this isn’t actually a genre blend unless you also have two genres such as science fiction and comedy. Adding ‘Young Adult’ to one other genre alone does not make it a genre blend. Yet, this is something I see so often when seeking out new genre blends to read. ‘Young Adult’ is an audience. Just like ‘Adult’ is. You can get YA fantasies and you can children’s mysteries, but neither of these are cross-genre, they’re just fantasy novels for teens or mysteries for children, as one of these descriptors is an indicator of audience, not genre/style/content/classification. So, the message here is to know what you’re writing, and only market your book as a cross-genre novel if, in fact, it is. You don’t want to give readers the wrong expectations about your book.

untamed madeline dyerIn short, the key things about writing genre blends are knowing your world (knowing everything about it, being confident that it makes sense in your book and that it has logical rules, despite its mix of genres) and being able to pass on this knowledge to your reader so they are confident enough to navigate it. Successful cross-genre novels engage their audience and follow readers’ expectations for both genres, merging different elements seamlessly together in such a way that readers don’t stop to question it, but can continue and concentrate on what really matters: your characters and the stories they have to tell.

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About Author

Madeline Dyer

Madeline Dyer lives in the southwest of England, and holds a BA honours degree in English from the University of Exeter. She has a strong love for anything dystopian, ghostly, or fantastical, and can frequently be found exploring wild places. At least one notebook is known to follow her wherever she goes. Madeline is the author of the Untamed Series, a YA dystopian fantasy series about addiction and betrayal, published by Prizm Books. She is currently working on a new YA genre blend, as well as a standalone dystopian novel for adults.

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