When People Ask What I Write

When I tell people that I write, the question invariably follows, “What do you write?” The simple answer is that I tend to write speculative fiction novels, which then usually leads to a query as to the definition of speculative fiction. “Oh, you know, sci fi, fantasy, horror, that sort of thing.” The buzz words people know from their labels on bookstore shelves.

But then the question turns to, “What kind of fantasy do you write?” and this is more complicated. You’d think I’d know how to answer, since I wrote the stories, but this question always renders me floundering.

I can answer with subgenre references: “YA,” “urban fantasy,” “epic fantasy,” high/low/dark/grim/paranormal/heroic/Arthurian/romantic, or any of the myriad other classifications. This helps only if the person asking has some knowledge of writing/marketing/selling/publishing speculative fiction; otherwise, not so much. Even so, it doesn’t really say very much. What kind of urban fantasy? Is it secondary world fantasy? Is it really more contemporary and not so much urban fantasy? Is it about a woman with magical powers who works as a PI? No? You mean there are other kinds of urban fantasy? How do you mean? (I paraphrase, but I have really been asked all of these questions.)

“High fantasy” says nothing about the world: consider, N.K. Jemisin’s Dreamblood duology and Robin Hobb’s Farseer trilogy would both qualify as high fantasy, but they have pretty much nothing else in common in terms of world-building, style, plot, and so on. I could say talk about the sorts of things I like to work with technically or thematically in my work, but this doesn’t clarify anything in practice either. At least, not in the way the questioner usually wants it to.

In order to answer this question, I’d have to explain a particular book. Some people are content with a premise/pitch. But I don’t just write one kind of book, I write many, and so then I’d have to explain the premises of multiple of my books to give a sense of why this question is impossible to answer. And by then, the person is a) no longer interested, or b) thinks that I don’t know what I’m talking about if I can’t explain it more succinctly. Or maybe they really do want to hear all about all the books I write, but you’ll have difficulty convincing me of that.

This is frustrating. But you know what? I’m not that easy to classify, and that’s okay. And unless I’m trying to sell them my book — my particular book — and not answer the question they’re really asking, (“Are you a real writer?”), then it probably doesn’t matter how well I explain.

It does still bother me.

The only answer I have is that I write fantasy novels. I will write heroic, contemporary, YA, space opera, or anything else that calls to me, and they will all be completely different in process, style, tone, and everything else.  They will probably all be speculative fiction, but beyond that? Your guess is as good as mine.

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