The Can't-Lose Secret to Making Anybody Want to Read Your SF Novel

Illustration for article titled The Cant-Lose Secret to Making Anybody Want to Read Your SF Novel

Over in Locus, there's a must-read essay by God's War author Kameron Hurley, about how to talk to your friends and family who don't "get" science fiction and fantasy books. A big part of it is getting over your urge to dismiss your own books (or favorites by other authors) as "silly." But there's also a crucial secret.

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Image by Jason Chan.

Hurley explains exactly how to get your friends and family hooked on your SF or that of your favorite author — don't focus on the daunting trappings, focus on the universal story:

When I looked at what I'd call ''breakout'' books – books that everybody I know is reading, not just my trusted SF/F circle of buddies – I started to notice a common thread. No one ever tried to sell me on Carrie by say­ing, ''You really need to have a solid understanding of telekinesis.'' Not a single Hunger Games fan said, ''You'll only get it if you've already read Battle Royale.'' Instead, they talked plainly about the stories – the bullied high school girl who gets revenge. The older sister who volunteers to take her younger sister's place in a fight-to-the-death lottery. They sold me on impossible situations and impossible choices. They sold me on stories.

As science fiction and fantasy have become more mainstream, writers and marketers in other fields have become experts at selling these franchis­es in mundane terms. Yet I still have conversations with other writers in SF/F where I get these long, windy ex­planations about the technological theories their current book explores. I do it myself, defaulting to long rants about my worldbuilding and giant flesh eating plants and satellite-reliant magic. Predictably, I've found that the folks who hook me on their project are the folks who talk about the stories. Not the backstory. Or the narrative experiment. Or the long, grinding history of their whole made-up world. No, it's the folks who stick to the basics.

It's the folks who talk about the people.

The whole essay is definitely worth checking out. Amazing stuff.

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lightninglouie
lightninglouie

It's worth pointing out that the only people who really care about genres tend to be hardcore fans and academics, between which there tends to be a massive overlap. Most hugely popular authors tend to be genres unto themselves, at least in the minds of their readers. Stephen King wrote mostly horror fiction (though with a lot of fantasy and SF elements), but his regular readers didn't think of him as a horror writer, per se — he was just Stephen King. You could point out to his fans that he was influenced by lots of different people, like Shirley Jackson, Ray Bradbury, Richard Matheson, Jack Finney, John D. MacDonald, etc., but they generally wouldn't be interested in those writers — they loved him for being Stephen King, and didn't really care about influences or conventions.

That's probably why the bottom fell out of the horror market in the late '80s — publishers kept trying to push younger writers as "the new Stephen King," except there really wasn't much interest in horror fiction beyond King himself. Even the most popular contenders like Peter Straub and Clive Barker didn't come remotely close to selling as many books as King did in the '80s. The big exception was Dean Koontz, but his career didn't take off until he disassociated himself from horror in favor of a more generic "suspense label."

You could extend this to a lot of other popular "crossover" writers who inspired legions of imitators but never had a true rival or even an heir — John Grisham, Michael Crichton, Thomas Harris, Douglas Adams, Tom Clancy, Anne Rice, J.K. Rowling, Terry Pratchett (in the UK, at least, but still a cult writer in North America). More recently you can probably add Neil Gaiman, Susan Collins, and George R.R. Martin. They're all recognizably working in genres, some of which they helped influence, but they're not seen exclusively as "epic fantasy" or "legal thriller" or "YA dystopian" novelists by their fans.