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How Cosy Can You Get?

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In my workshops for aspiring writers, I am often asked how best to categorize a manuscript when submitting it to an agent or publisher. As I’m mainly a writer of fantasy, this question usually comes from fledgling writers of speculative fiction. Where does their work fit into the various sub-genres of fantasy, or is it actually science fiction? If there’s a love story, maybe it’s romantic fantasy, fantasy-romance, paranormal romance? Fantasy comes in many varieties. We have epic/high fantasy (think Tolkien), fairytale fantasy, low fantasy, urban fantasy. Then there are sword and sorcery, grimdark, and magic realism. And don’t forget cosy fantasy, a sub-genre I hadn’t heard of until a couple of weeks ago. I’ll come back to that later. A similar range of variants exists in other kinds of genre fiction, such as romance, crime and mystery.

When this comes up in a workshop, I usually say, forget this for now. First get the manuscript all set for submission. That means not only finished, but polished and edited to the very best standard the writer can achieve. I explain about the value of critique partners or writing groups, the need to seek feedback from someone with the appropriate expertise, the value of beta readers and so on. A writer who reads widely is less likely to ask that question about sub-genre – they will already have a fair idea of where their work fits in. Others may need to think it through, in particular to be clear about the difference between science fiction and fantasy. The generally accepted definitions are that SF contains elements that do not and cannot exist in the world of today, but that might exist in the future, eg human contact with life elsewhere in the universe, where fantasy contains elements that do not and could not exist in our world now or in the future eg magic, supernatural beings (though that definition is crying out to be challenged.) Just to confuse the issue, it is possible for a story to be a blend of science fiction and fantasy. Steampunk, with its combination of magic and technology, has the potential to be both at once. Once the manuscript is as perfect as it can be, the writer does need to decide how they’ll describe it in their cover letter to the agent/publisher. I remind them that if they’re lucky enough to have someone read it, that person will first be looking for outstanding storytelling and originality, whatever the genre or sub-genre.

Genre categories can be misleading. They don’t mean the same thing to everyone. What led me to write this blog post was an invitation to participate in a panel about Cosy Fantasy. I was startled, to say the least. I had never thought of my books as in any way cosy. To me the term suggested the fantasy equivalent of Agatha Christie’s Miss Marple series, something set in a quaint English village or equivalent, with a cast of (mostly) loveable or amusing characters and a story the reader can breeze through without being too troubled. As it happened, I couldn’t do the panel in question because of time zone problems. I asked why they would put me on a cosy fantasy panel when I don’t write in that sub-genre. The answer was, more than one reader had identified my work as cosy fantasy. I was shocked. I imagined a person unfamiliar with my work trying out one of the books on the recommendation that it was a comfort read and being confronted with characters battling severe mental illness, scenes of fratricide, assault, torture, cruel incarceration, and human sacrifice (not all in the same book, I hasten to say.) So I decided I’d better investigate.

It was true. Bloggers and other readers had recommended my work – very positively – as cosy fantasy. Had those dark plot lines and troubled characters somehow been overlooked because I sometimes included a cast of small, benign uncanny folk? Or was it the fact that most of the books/series include a happily resolved love story? Was I writing cosy books without even knowing it?

Next step: find a definition for cosy fantasy. Google brought me many results. ”A feel-good story with low stakes in a fantasy setting.”  ”It’s light-hearted and fun. The characters are not constantly in peril.” Or this one, from the Cosy Fantasy forum on Reddit: “Cozy Fantasy is a genre of imaginative fiction involving magic and adventure that gives a feeling of comfort, warmth, and relaxation.”  The comments on that forum were enlightening – it seemed like serious themes could be included and stakes could be high, but the dark scenes were in the background rather than shown graphically on the page. I’ve included the link to that discussion, as it makes insightful reading.

Goodreads has a listing of cosy fantasy books, based on how readers ”shelve” what they read. To my surprise, I found several of my favorite authors on this list, including the wonderful T. Kingfisher. It all started to make sense. Yes, those books are a form of comfort reading, though the stakes are often very high indeed and characters are put through some grueling experiences. I’ve cried over a heroic death in one of the novels on the list. In another I’ve seen a kind of bravery I wish there was more of in the real world. For me, the comfort in reading these authors comes in their underlying humanist message: no matter what hardships we face, we can feel empathy for our fellow creatures. No matter what befalls us, we can reach out a hand to help one another. And yes, that’s exactly what I try to convey in my own storytelling. Despite the fantasy elements, these are stories about real people and their life journeys. Did I mention that my favorite authors all write characters who come alive on the page?

Thanks to astute readers I’ve learned something from this. It doesn’t matter how readers choose to classify my books. A novel is something different in every reader’s hands – their own background and experience inform their response. What really matters is good storytelling. As for that query letter to the agent or publisher, the aspiring writer might play safe and just call the work fantasy. Or take the alternative route of ”this should appeal to readers of (insert name of popular author who writes similar work.)”  Either way, to new writers, I wish you good fortune on the journey, and to teachers and mentors, keep up the great work!

What have you learned from your readers? What is your best advice for aspiring writers querying an agent or publisher? How do you go about defining the genre of your work, and does it really matter?

Photo credit: 135193136 © Chriskiely | Dreamstime.com



About Juliet Marillier

Juliet Marillier has written twenty-four novels for adults and young adults and two collections of short fiction. Her works of historical fantasy have been published around the world and have won numerous awards. Juliet's most recent series was Warrior Bards, of which the third and final book, A Song of Flight, was published in August/September 2021. Her collection of reimagined fairy tales, Mother Thorn and Other Tales of Courage and Kindness, had its trade release in early 2022. Mother Thorn is illustrated by Kathleen Jennings and published by Serenity Press. When not writing, Juliet looks after a small crew of rescue dogs.

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