We have a guest blog post, written for us by Tom Aston. Tom writes in an exciting cross genre which has been termed the “science thriller”, and he’s written a blog for us to explore the idea of how commercial these hybrid genres can be.
His novel The Machine comes highly recommended by Iain and Heide who have both read it.
Handing over to Tom:
The advent of e-publishing and self-publishing has brought us more cross genre novels than ever – especially in fantasy, romance, erotica and horror and hybrids of these four. Historical romance, fantasy-horror, gothic erotica – the opportunities for story ideas and scene ideas are infinite. And the massive success of the Twilight books and The Hunger Games demonstrates how powerful these hybrid ideas can be if you get it right
Readers have said my second novel “The Machine” is a “science thriller” – which means it’s a thriller full of novel ideas for technology, and at times I guess it has something of a science fiction feel. Nonetheless, it is grounded in realism. All the ideas are either real technology, or closely based on real research, and this gives the thing that all important believability. You could say the same about Michael Crichton, whose exciting science thrillers like Prey, Andromeda Strain and Jurassic Park also had a solid base in existing technology, with just enough “stretching of the possible” to make it intriguing.
So is it the “high concept”, or the plausible science, or the boundless font of ideas from the fantasy, horror and science fiction genres that is energising staid genres like romance and thrillers and making them so compelling? It looks like it on the surface. Certainly I get more novel ideas from one issue of New Scientist magazine than whole shelf of classic fiction. And cross-pollination in any artform has long been a rich source of innovation and freshness.
However, let me just turn this idea around for a moment. Let me use three examples of super-successful “crossover-fiction” and take a closer look at what makes them tick. Let’s take a look at Twilight (horror/fantasy/romance), The Hunger Games (science fiction dystopia/YA love saga) and Fifty Shades of Grey (relationship romance/erotica/misery-memoir). Now, these may not be your cup of tea, and I’d argue that the Hunger Games is much better written than the other two. But successful stories have never been all about “good writing” – otherwise, where would Tolkien be? Or Bram Stoker? They are about compelling ideas, characters and scenes. Any how, these three crossover books have been phenomenally successful and it is instructive to consider why that this in each case.
Twilight is a teen romance, made compelling by the character of Edward Cullen. The idea of the super-attractive, powerful, sexy male who falls for the ordinary girl and stays devoted to her is very enduring. That same devotion and faithfulness is also dull, unless the male has a fatal flaw. Edward Cullen wants to drink Bella’s blood. They both know he’s bad for her, but they can’t resist each other. It’s a great set up, in fact a variation of Jane Austen’s Mr Darcy, and works superbly.
Common wisdom has it that Fifty Shades of Grey is successful because “mummy porn” erotica has gone mainstream. I don’t believe that. There is plenty of smut around, some of it better written than Fifty Shades, and for me that doesn’t explain it. I believe EL James has been phenomenally successful by taking some erotica and building it around another Mr Darcy-type character, and steadily dripping in misery-memoir style psychological complexity and drama. Again, it is the character of Christian Grey that really makes it tick. Uber-attractive, fatally flawed, with layers of complexity to peel away, onion-style. Men, by the way, don’t buy into this fellow at all, so despite the smut factor they don’t buy the book. Women, however, have bought this in their droves.
The Hunger Games meanwhile is by far the best written of these books (and the only one I personally enjoyed). The science fiction/post-apocalypse dystopia element makes this trilogy very thought provoking, and the nightmare reality TV show element is truly inspired. However, none of this would work without two much more traditional elements, which were deployed very effectively. Firstly the heroine is in a fast-action adventure and constantly in jeopardy, and secondly there is a young adult love drama going on right till the end. Who is Katniss going to choose – Peeta or Gale? On top of all this, the characters are excellent – sympathetic but flawed, scheming, tragic, with hidden depths, superficial-but-likeable, treacherous, mulish. It’s a great mix, and the writing is as tight as a drum. You only need to read the first two pages to see what an ambiguous heroine you are dealing with.
It may not be the novelty of fantasy, erotica and science fiction that is turbocharging these otherwise “mainstream” novels. It may be the other way round. Both Stephenie Meyer and EL James have brought a two hundred year-old male romantic character paradigm into their books and given him a modern twist. Suzanne Collins has brought traditional virtues of tightly-writing, interesting characters and brilliant action plotting to the science fiction post-apocalype genre.
In the end, and perhaps boringly, there are certain virtues that go into making good fiction. Dynamic, larger-than-life characters; intriguing, engaging plot; believable, punchy dialogue – these things are the what makes a story worth reading, whether it’s about zombies, billionaires or office workers.