Genre Pacing: A question from Goodreads

On Goodreads, a nice person called Xena WP asked me

Jo, after finishing Transcription by K. Atkinson I wished for a few paragraphs at least of Juliet’s happy discovery of Italy and enjoyment of motherhood, things you describe movingly in My Real Children. I read My Real Children shortly after reading Life After Life and I thought they enriched each other. Have you read Life After Life and do you think it is a work of SFF? (If MRC is, then LAL is IMO.)

And my response was:

After I’d written My Real Children but before it was published, an editor told me people would compare it to Life After Life. I then read LAL. I thought it was great, beautifully written, great characters, but after I’d finished it I felt unsatisfied and that it was slightly lacking in resolution. I have not yet read the sequel, and I hope it has the resolution I was craving.

MRC was my attempt to meld the genres of women’s fiction and SF, and the hardest thing about that was getting the pacing right. (Not sure I did completely.) It’s a crossover book. It was therefore very interesting to me to see Atkinson trying to cross over in the other direction. I’m not sure how much SFF she read before deciding to write some. All the genres I’ve mixed up into my work are ones I read a lot normally — cosy mysteries, women’s fiction. Victorian sentimental novels, historical fiction. Atkinson clearly wasn’t interested in blending SF pacing into LAL, and I sometimes got the feeling (as with Doris Lessing’s SF) that she was trying to reinvent the wheel. But it was a very absorbing read, full of wonderful imagery. Great book.

And reading it was very influential not on MRC which was completely finished beyond any tweaking by the time I read LAL, but on my next novel Lent. You wait until you read that and then let’s talk about this again. 🙂

Then Xena commented on this response:

What is the question/issue you have with Life After Life? I’ve read the sequel, A God In Ruins and even without knowing your issue with LAL I doubt very much AGIR will answer your question because it is not SFF. I read it and enjoyed it because I loved Teddy in LAL.

You’ve mentioned before that some “main stream”authors don’t have sff pacing. I don’t quite understand or recognize that. Do you mean SFF tends to be more plot driven than Lit Fic?

I was already looking forward to reading Lent after your reading at WorkdCon 76 and am intriqued by LAL’s influence on it.

And I wanted to reply but Goodreads only gives you a teeny tiny box to write in, and it’s a long complex answer so I am replying here. And it might be of interest to other people anyway.

So imagine a book as a necklace with beads on a string. It could be a string of matched pearls, or it could be like one of Elise Mathessen’s creations like  this, OK? And the spacing of the beads and the expectation of how far apart they’ll be and what size they’ll be and everything like that is genre, and it’s also pacing. So there’s a great A.S. Byatt story where a woman finds a bottle with a genie in it, a hundred pages into a hundred and fifty page novella. If that were a genre story, she’d have found the bottle on the first page, because you can’t pace a fantasy story that way. I’m not talking about “more plot driven” or anything like that (MRC is one of the least plot driven books in the world, far less plot driven than LAL) I’m talking about shapes of stories, where you expect to find what. If one of those perfect pearls appeared in that Elise piece, it would mess it all up, just as much as if one of those gorgeous blue glass things was in the pearl string. Our expectations would choke.

So what is a genre? There are lots of fascinating answers to this, but there are also two standard answers. One is that it’s a marketing category that lets publishers put mating signals on the book so that people who will love it will find it. And the other is that it’s the furniture of the genre — rocket ships in SF, couples in romances, horses in Westerns, wizards in fantasy, etc.

Now the marketing category definition is of practical use. There’s no point putting a romance cover on Starship Troopers and trying to sell it to romance readers with a blurb like “Johnny Rico loves Carmen Garcia secretly, silently, and desperately. But everything in the galaxy is conspiring to keep them apart. Can they find each other and declare their love despite battle and interstellar war?” You can’t do that because the answer is a resounding “No!” and also because it so isn’t what the book is about. I think everyone will be with me here. But you can’t do it (much more fairly) with The Forever War either, even though The Forever War actually is a love story where the happy ending is a sappy reuniting of lovers. Now a romance reader might enjoy The Forever War and even enjoy the romance in it, but they won’t enjoy it if they’re told it’s a genre romance, because it isn’t, and they know what a genre romance is, and it isn’t a story with a couple in it any more than SF is a story with a spaceship in it. The Forever War doesn’t have romance pacing and it isn’t interested in the questions romance novels are interested in exploring and it’s not in dialogue with romance — which are some of the actually interesting answers about what genre is,

So it’s possible by the furniture definition of genre to think that Kate Atkinson’s Life After Life is SF because it has a device in it that comes from the workshop of SF. I think that’s a fair way of putting it. Life After Life focuses on a woman who repeatedly dies and starts again, getting a bit further each time, and learning and remembering some things from her previous lives. This is a device from SF, certainly. But SF isn’t its devices. Life After Life isn’t looking to Ken Grimwood’s Replay or to Heinlein’s All You Zombies or to George R.R. Martin’s “Unsound Variations” or Alfred Bester’s “The Men Who Murdered Mohammed” and it isn’t usefully part of the same conversation. My Real Children is, though it’s also part of another conversation with Marge Piercy and Margaret Atwood and Marion Engel and A.S. Byatt and Joanna Trollope and Gail Godwin and Margaret Forster — because it’s deliberately and specifically written into both genres.


In science fiction, the world is a character, and characters have to change and so the world has to change, or at the very least be interrogated and examined and seen all around the way a character would be. The author has to have thought about why things work that way. The reader doesn’t have to be given the answers, but the answers, the world answers, need to have been in the author’s mind, and it’s quite clear when they are not, because the world will not be consistent in a way that would fit with their being an explanation. And really, we SF readers expect an actual explanation at some point. Sometimes the explanation is deeply disappointing. There are a lot of books out there with questions that are much more interesting than their answers — a whole lot of Sheri Tepper, for instance, or Dan Simmons’s Hyperion series. But we expect these questions to be answered.

Whereas in genre LitFic, those world questions are just scenery, and the whole structure of what Atkinson is doing isn’t for anything, or it’s for creating emotional resonance in the reader — which it does really well. Having resolved the emotional plot, she thinks the reader will be happy — and she’s right, the reader of women’s fiction and of LitFic will be happy, but the SF reader will be asking “Wait, what was this all about? What was the point? Why was she going through all these versions of her life? Did I just read a whole book and you’re not even going to give me the answer? What was it all for?”

And My Real Children doesn’t give you that answer either, but it examines the question, and it comes to a resolution, and it leaves the reader firmly looking at the question and into the potential answer space. There are things I may not have succeeded at with that book but that isn’t one of them, you can look at the reviews and even the people who don’t like it are writing about how we live and what difference we make and looking into the answer space I gave them there.

Now, pacing is a whole lot of what makes genre work. And we learn genre pacing when we read genre, and something having the right pacing for the genre is a lot of what makes us recognise genre. This is why Dan Simmons mainstream novel about a retured astronaut Phases of Gravity feels like SF, not because it has a retired astronaut — Terms of Endearment has a retired astronaut! — but because Simmons used SF pacing. And it’s why Jack Womack’s brilliant novels in the Ambient universe don’t feel like SF even though they are set in the future and have alternate world travel, because their concerns are not the concerns of SF and they are paced like mainstream novels. And because genre as a marketing category gets in the way here, if you look at the blurb on Elvissey it’s as bad as the romance blurb for Starship Troopers I wrote above, because it says something like “A mission into an alternate world to rescue Elvis and bring him back to a world where he is worshipped as a God” and — look, if you haven’t read Elvissey but you are familiar with how SF works, and you read that line, how far, roughly, into the book would you imagine the “mission” returns with Elvis? You know, you have definite opinions on the shape the story would be as an SF story, even if you’re not a writer and you never thought about this before, you could draw a curve that was the shape of the story any normal person would have written instead of Elvissey.

But all we can say is “it feels like SF” or “it doesn’t feel like SF” because we don’t have good ways of talking about these things, especially pacing. And because outside the SF ghetto lots of lit people don’t want to take SF seriously (and while this attitude is vanishing like summer snow it’s still cold if you get stuck out in it) and inside the SF ghetto lots of people refuse to take any literary theory seriously or even think about it, AND because SF really is different in fascinating ways, this gets very hard to talk about.

Above, in my answer to Xena as posted on Goodreads, you can see me politely weaseling. Life After Life is a literary novel and it is deeply unsatisfactory as science fiction because it grabs a shiny tool from science fiction’s toolbox and waves it around as if it were meaningful and then just drops it. But it’s a wonderful novel with a level of characterisation and literary excitement that you only see in the very best SF. There’s a thing it does — OK, in Kim Stanley Robinson’s The Years of Rice and Salt there’s a structural thing he’s doing with reincarnation so he can have a set of novellas taking place across a huge span of time with sort of the same characters. And there are interludes in the ‘Bardo”, the chamber between life and death, which is sometimes a kind of hell. And then there’s a point where the characters are fighting and they don’t know whether they’ve died and gone to the Bardo, and neither do we, the readers, because the book has set us up so that we cannot know. This is an incredible reading experience. Life After Life does this with its repeating structure where the character keeps dying and starting again over and over, and there’s one point where something horrible happens and she’s dying and you want her to die and you’re ready for her to start again and get out of this iteration of her life which is horrible, and dying and starting again will be a relief — but she pulls through and has to keep living that life, no new start. That’s brilliant. I loved that. That’s the kind of reading experience I read for and so seldom get.

But still in the end I felt cheated because she just dropped it with no possibility of explanation. And this is what I feel about Lessing’s Canopus series — that there are moments of writing in there that are better than anything, but that the whole thing fails at things that even the worst SF writer accomplishes easily. It’s like somebody who can make a souffle but can’t boil water.

So I read Never Let Me Go and even though it has stupid science mistakes in it such that I want to beg Mr Ishiguro to have dinner with me and some friends at a con so we can fix those things easily in five minutes, I still was very excited because it got the pacing right. The pacing works in both its genres, in the same way I try to do when I write something that is using two genres. And the same was true of Michael Chabon’s The Yiddish Policeman’s Union, to which, incidentally, we gave a Hugo. Some mainstream writers also read SF and when they want to write it they know how to do it.

So the thing about pacing. Try this. Read half a book, in any genre you frequently read. Put the book down. Look at the page number, and look how many pages are in the whole book. Think about what’s left to happen in the second half, what still has to be resolved, what questions need to be answered. Then guess what page each thing will happen on. (Don’t do this with a book you’re really enjoying, because it will ruin reading the second half.) You might not be right about what happens, but the better you know the genre the more you will be able to predict where the beats will fall. (If you’re using a Kindle, do it by predicting the % through the book instead of page numbers.) This will teach you a lot about how pacing works and how it is different in different genres. We’re not talking about plot at all, just the shape the story will take, the distance between scenes, the rhythm the book falls into. You can see that from half way and extend it out.

When you’ve done that, try doing it from another genre you read a lot of. Then try seeing how the second half of the first one would be different if it had the pacing — not the plot, the pacing — of the second.

Then read Elvissey.

After this, I recommend reading fifteen things with your twelve year old head on, or else something long and brilliant and unpredictable, because this exerciset can really mess up your enjoyment of reading fiction.

I don’t know if this answered your question, or if you even care this much, but that’s what I talk about when I talk about genre pacing.

Posted in Books, My Books, My Real Children, Writing