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In Which I Ruminate On Genre

When I first started writing fantasy, I didn’t think about genre.

I know that’s controversial.

What about marketing? What about categories? What about readers knowing what they’re going to get?

It all matters, darn it!

I don’t disagree that genre is important – in fact, I love genre fiction, and it is actually almost the only kind of fiction I read. The stories I am drawn to reading and writing are fantasy, historical fiction, steampunk, written for YA audiences.

Ah, audience – another category!

But let’s stick to genre for now.

High fantasy, sci-fi fantasy, dystopian fantasy, urban fantasy, steampunk, mythpunk, gaslamp, fairytale. Plus, nowadays, several dizzying combinations of the above.

But what if what you’re writing both straddles genres, and also seems to not quite fit into any of them?

My first attempt at fantasy was years ago, in the first community creative writing course I took. I wrote some chapters about a South Asian-esque fictional city, where magicians were musicians, and it was very hesitant and unformed.

But for me, that story started with a character, not with a genre. I could see this girl, and see the setting in which she was in, a setting which drew her out of her ordinary world and into an extraordinary one.

And as a South Asian musician myself, I could see the magical potential of South Asian raga music. The world sprouted from that character, and that sense that magic could take her somewhere, transform her.

But it really didn’t follow any typical genre conventions; I didn’t worry about whether it was high fantasy or ‘South Asian fantasy’ or god forbid ‘ethnic fantasy’ (eyeroll) or whatever.

Moreover, I wrote and still write fantasy because of how freeing it is. No boundaries. No rules. A world you create out of your own head, enrich with your own knowledge and experiences and fascinations.

Except, of course there are boundaries and rules. The question is, when should you abide by them?

I definitely don’t have a complete answer to that yet. But here’s one thing I can say I have learned. Every time – every single time – I’ve tried to follow a “how to” guide on writing a fantasy novel, or a YA novel for that matter, from start to finish, it’s never worked.

So, as I work on editing and revising my upcoming novel, Unbound, I’ve let go of conventions. I’ve just gone with what made me write the book in the first place.

A character. Or, as it turned out, two characters. Their worlds, before and after, and their journeys and transformations.

It’s why I write or read any kind of novel really – that journey, and moving through a world that takes me out of my own. And fantasy happens to be my preferred vehicle for that, the one that gets me excited about writing that character, that journey, that transformation.

I still can’t categorise Unbound with any real solidity. It’s fantasy with a YA main protagonist, and it’s kinda mythpunked, and it’s also somewhat gaslamp. But it doesn’t sit with too much ease in any of the categories of YA fantasy, mythpunk, gaslamp.

Does it have to?

I hope not.

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