When The Daedalus Incident was being prepped for release in early 2013, there was some confusion as to where it should be shelved within the multitude of sub-genres of science fiction and fantasy. It certainly has some steampunk elements to it, though there’s a very evident lack of steam. Historical fantasy? Sure, though there’s no over “magic” in it. Space opera? Certainly possible, though the 22nd century stuff was distinctly science-based.
When I was writing it, I didn’t care. I knew what I wanted to do, and I did it. The result borrowed from several subgenres (hard SF, military SF, historical fantasy, space opera, steampunk…to name a few) and, I’d like to think, resulted in something greater than the sum of the parts.
Had I thought more about the book-buying marketplace, I might’ve slimmed it down somewhat. Indeed, one potential publisher back in 2012 had thought that cutting the 22nd century stuff altogether might make it more marketable. I tried it, edited it down and it was OK, but I’m glad it didn’t happen in the end. The Daedalus Incident and its sequels are exactly the stories I wanted to tell.
Publishers tend to think in taglines — “police procedural with zombies,” for example, or “Heinlein-esque military SF with humor.” Even the forthcoming MAJESTIC-12 series can be summed up with “paranormal Cold War spy thrillers” or “X-Men meets James Bond.” But the Daedalus trilogy really didn’t lend itself well to that kind of summation. Even my standard go-to tagline, “Napoleonic Era space opera,” only captures half of the equation.
The other side of this is the “what’s hot” trend. Dystopian YA? Thanks, Hunger Games. It’s practically its own subgenre. Vampires are so over, though urban fantasy still has a plethora of mythic beasties and monsters wandering the darkened streets of the 21st century. Steampunk marches on, dominating the alt-history section of the bookstore. Some publishers are looking for the next big space opera, or grimdark fantasy like Game of Thrones, or near-future cyber-thriller.
What’s a writer to do?
There’s certainly room for exploration within any subgenre, even the trendy ones out there. There’s always interest in a book with a hook that’s easy to understand and, therefore, easier to sell. If that’s what calls to you, saddle up the laptop and get typing.
At that point, though, you run the risk of not writing your story. Having tried that with the pared back version of The Daedalus Incident, I can tell you that it’s less fulfilling than writing the story you really wanted to tell. I would’ve missed Shaila Jain and Stephane Durand immensely. They brought a perspective and an angle to the work that made me happy as a storyteller.
MJ-12: Inception is also very much mine. I had great input from my editor, the fantastic Cory Allyn, and his efforts really made it sing, but it remains the story I wanted out there.
Does that mean your book will sell? No, of course not. The taglines and trendy subgenres are there for a reason — because they’re easy for people to grasp. They call to fans of prior works with the promise of both new adventure and familiarity. That’s why The Force Awakens was so well received, after all. It hardly broke new ground, but it captured the essence of what made Star Wars special. New works that capture the essence of a beloved subgenre can have similar success.
That’s not to say that a unique book can’t succeed — it absolutely can, but it’s more of an uphill battle. Personally, I think it’s worth climbing the hill, because then you can point to it and say, “This is mine.”
So for all the aspiring writers out there, I urge you to forget about what’s hot or trendy, or whether or not you can boil down your book into a marketable tagline. Write what you love and make it as awesome as possible. Worry about the rest after the book is done. And if it doesn’t slot neatly into a summary or subgenre, well…just remember that “22nd century Martian mining colony is invaded by late 18th century alchemically powered sailing ships in space” did pretty well, too.
Write for yourself, first and foremost.