Genre Fiction: You Have It, We Want It

CC image by Ellen Forsyth

In our May podcast, we discussed lit mags in some depth. One of the topics we discussed was how an overwhelming number of lit mags today want literary fiction rather than genre fiction. Very broadly speaking, genre fiction is about characters propelling a clear plot in a particular form (e.g., horror, sci-fi, fantasy) while literary fiction is about an idea expressed through the characters’ actions/thoughts via poetic language. These are not perfect definitions, but the main idea is that genre=action/plot while literary=ideas/language. Yes, both types have plots, but I would argue that literary fiction plots are often more understated. Yes, they both have characters engrossed in their thoughts, but those thoughts and the language used to express them are more carefully attended to in literary fiction. Allow me to give you an example. Below, I’ve crafted two hooks for stories, the first genre and the second literary.

Genre: The year is 3750, and the war between the Titans and the Vixens has begun as foretold by the Ancients. However, when Fen and Iona—son and daughter of the opposing leaders—decide to end the fighting, a movement starts that even the Ancients didn’t see coming.
Literary: When Jonathan drops out of college to race the family boat around the world, his father cuts off his cash flow. At sea with only his cocker spaniel and a marine VHF radio, he learns more from the people on the other boats than he ever did at school.

It’s also possible for literary and genre fiction to cross over, creating a story that’s a blend of both, probably with one slightly more dominant than the other. I enjoy blending them, personally. But they often appear as two sides of the same fiction coin. They’re different but I would argue—to the chagrin of many an academic—that neither is superior. As a writer, I enjoy crafting both. As an editor of a literature magazine, I want to read both.

Why do I see so little genre fiction? Part of it might be because of the tons of other lit mags out there that say, in big bold font, NO GENRE FICTION, PLEASE. As if the “please” makes it any better. Therefore, people assume that if you are a “literature magazine,” you don’t accept genre fiction. They think that if they want their genre fiction published, they must submit to those lit mags that ONLY publish genre fiction. There are horror, sci-fi magazines, and the like publishing the best short fiction in their genres. Genre writers often run to these for publication opportunities. What’s really sad is that—at least in my research—I haven’t come across many magazines that happily print both literary and genre fiction. Guess what? Embers Igniting does.

CC image by Ellen Forsyth

CC image by Ellen Forsyth

Imagine it. Literary and genre fiction living side by side, neither one superior, giving each other the nod from opposing pages of the same magazine. Isn’t it beautiful? For this to continue to happen, we need more genre fiction submissions. Continue to send us your literary fiction, of course. But genre writers—give us your stories too. That means YOU, writer of sci-fi, fantasy, horror, historical fiction, romance, thriller, mystery, etc. As long as it’s not bloody for the sake of bloody or sexy for the sake of sexy, we’d love to see it. What will make your genre piece successful to us? Well, I shall tell you.

1. Know your genre and why you’re writing it. This seems obvious, but it isn’t to everyone. Genres are “genres” for a reason—they each have unique characteristics and even rules to follow. They also each have a history, meaning they’ve likely changed/evolved in some way since their creation. Know your genre’s conventions, as well as its life story (to some degree). This is essential to making your short genre fiction identifiable and authentic. Furthermore, know why you’re using a particular genre for a story. Perhaps your story is about an assassin who has quit her trade and is seeking the quiet life. This story looks different depending on the genre used to tell it; imagine this story as a sci-fi, a thriller, a western. Genre is a story-telling tool, so make sure you are not only educated about the genre(s) you write, but also that it’s a good fit for the story you want to tell.

2. Give an impression of the world rather than trying to accomplish all of the world building you’d normally accomplish in a novel. This is a challenge with certain genres—like fantasy and sci-fi—where the world is often not our own. Pick the essential elements of your world and show us those. Is your world underwater? Then absolutely show that. Is it underwater in the northwest region of a planet called Ratark that was founded in star date 09002? We might not need to know all that. You’re just flat out not going to be able to accomplish all the world building you can in a novel, and that’s okay. The same goes for crafting character for short work. Short fiction is a different form entirely, one in which you must condense stories, lives, and settings with skill. It’s not easy. Practice the art of giving a clear impression of your world, and make sure you make any rules clear so we can grab onto those (e.g., magic must be governed in some way by rules, and we need to know what they are in your story).

3. Pick one plot and stick with it. Short stories are not the correct form to give ten different snippets of ten different plots/interweaving storylines, unless you’re freaking amazing and they all add up to a cohesive, whole plot (in no longer than 5,000 words, in the case of Embers). Simplify. Make your job as the writer easier by having a clear story in mind. Additionally, don’t wait to get to the actual “plot” until page seven, meandering for the first six only to end in the middle of the good part. Know where your story lies. If you’re unsure of where/what your story is, ask others to read it and help you find it—readers are perceptive. They’ll find your story.

4. If your story is part of a bigger story (e.g., a novel excerpt, part of a series of short stories, etc.), do your damndest to view it as a standalone piece for the purpose of your submission. We the staff are only going to see this one piece. That means that if you’re submitting story number eight in a mystery series, and your character killed his brother in story seven and the guilt from that torments him all through story eight, you should probably tell us why he’s tormented by guilt. We haven’t read your whole series of stories, and the one you submit must be able to stand alone. And if we publish it, you need to view it as a standalone piece as it goes through the editing process. It will make editing much easier, and you’ll likely find it rewarding rather than thinking it’s robbing your series of its integrity. We aren’t publishing your series, we’re publishing your one piece. And that piece needs to be badass all by itself.

We’ll be opening for submissions toward the end of summer—exact date to come on our website. Personally, I want to see our inbox flooded with not only superb literary fiction, but also mind blowing genre fiction. Stories take many forms, featuring metaphors and images of varying types. Sometimes they’re in the fluid motion of a duck through a pond, sometimes they’re in the round green door of a hobbit hole. We want both, living together in a symphony of styles. Will you send them in?

By Madeleine Mozley