Genre Discrimination: Don’t judge a book by its genetic skulduggery
“Sci-fi isn’t really my thing,” reply most people to whom I stumblingly attempt to explain my trilogy's subject matter. To be honest, until very recently I wouldn’t have counted sci-fi as my thing, either. In fact, until I was at the point of querying agents and had to ask Google: what genre is Never Let Me Go by Kazuo Ishiguro, I had no idea that what I had written fell into the sci-fi (or, according to some definitions, “soft sci-fi” although that’s a whole other debate) category.
Apparently, according to several sources, the key to being a successful author is ‘writing to market’. People have filled (and successfully sold) books on the subject, but to be brief: you select a genre, research it and make sure you stick to all the rules. For example, if children’s fiction is your thing, you’re going to want to keep your word count under 80,000 or possibly lower, depending on the age you’re targeting. If it’s fantasy or sci-fi, no one will take you seriously if you’re coming up shy of 90k. (It's true - they tell you allllll about it here!) Genres have tropes and themes and rules and, as a first-timer with not-much-at-all in the way of a readership to bring to the table, it’s generally a good idea not to rock the boat too much.
Unless, of course, you're just winging it with the story that's been bumbling about your head for the last ten or so years*.
I did not know any of these rules or guidelines before I wrote THE GIRL WITH THE GREEN EYES. In its earlier form, I thought it was a children’s novel, until I realised the most interesting character was Bella, the young protagonist’s extremely-glamorous-but-unfortunately-a-bit-evil mother (big fan of His Dark Materials. Huge.) Anyway, what I’m trying, in a way of many tangents, to say is that no one was more bemused than I to find what I had written was a sci-fi story. A sci-fi story with a strong female lead, a (few) tempestuous mother-daughter relationship(s) and even a bit of an unlikely love oblong. But also an institution churning out genetically-modified children including the protagonist and robotic slaves who’ve had their humanity surgically removed. I mean, of course that’s sci-fi. I’m not even going to get into the whole human/animal hybrid storyline in book two and the telepathic ghosts in book three.
Now if all that makes you think: “Designer babies? Hybrid ghosts, telepathic what now…? Yeah... NAH.” Please re-consider. The reason I didn’t realise I was writing sci-fi is not because I am a bumbling idiot (I am, but for entirely different reasons). It was because those elements are not the heart and soul of the story. I mean yes, it is a big feature. My main character, Bella, is a genetic aberration and pretty much all of her issues stem from that. But you won’t fall in love with her because she is impossibly beautiful or because she has a hidden trait which manifests itself as a sadistic manipulation of others. You root for her because ultimately, despite all her flaws and her uncanny abilities, the choices she makes are extremely human. In other words, she may be beautiful and aloof on the outside but inside, she is every bit as screwed up as everyone else (actually more so, arguably).
On the other hand, I can appreciate that Green Eyes and its sequels may not be hardcore sci-fi enough to appeal to readers looking for a more traditional example of the genre. The actual science in it is vague and speculative – it’s not really important that the reader knows exactly how the characters go about their human experimentation and genetic skulduggery, more so that they just go along with it and we get on with the nitty gritty of what happens to the subjects of said skulduggery. So just as I don’t want to alienate those who don’t think they like sci-fi, I also don’t want to put off those who are into all things weird and wonderful. Who knows, you might enjoy the coming-of-age angst and mother/daughter theme. After all, one of the more ironic things about all this is that it’s made me re-examine my own prejudice. I didn’t think I was “that into” sci-fi as a fiction consumer either, remember? That is until I remember how much I loved Stranger Things, Jurassic Park, The Expanse, Westworld, The Matrix, The Hunger Games, The Martian, The Time Traveller’s Wife. Many of them contained an awful lot of technology/time travel/science-far-beyond-basic-GCSE-level detail that made my brain ache to think about (looking at you, The Martian) but I loved the stories for the characters, for drawing me into the carefully crafted world of these characters until I cared so much about what happened to them, I couldn’t bear not to read/watch to the end.
So there you go. Sci-fi isn’t your thing? That’s absolutely fine, but perhaps… maybe just give it a try? You never know when there might be a juicy love oblong nestled among the pages of hybrids and flying children.
*Fun fact: originally, Bella appeared in my dissertation-length Creative Writing BA submission, along with Dr Blake and a child called Aura who could fly because they had never been taught that they couldn’t (this character later became Nova). I re-wrote it into a full-length children’s novel back around 2017 and dubbed it The Experimental Children which I mistakenly attempted to submit to a handful of agents as a fantasy YA novel. Luckily I came to my senses and realised that a) it was not fantasy, b) it really wasn't a kids' story, c) Bella was the strongest character and demanded her own trilogy and d) if I re-wrote it as an adult novel I could get away with rambling on for at least another 20k words without incurring instant rejection on the word-count alone.