Putting yourself on A map: Navigating genre

Genre is a scary word for writers, especially those with no background in literary studies. Most writers aspire to do something unique and new, sometimes out of ignorance of someone already have done what they have in mind. It is a frightening thought for an artist to be categorized, closed in a tiny box and analyzed like they were a rock in a geology lab. But just like everyone else, every writer has a favorite genre, fantasy, science-fiction, crime, romance, YA… and when setting out to write, and one cannot avoid but bring one’s influences into one’s work.

The problem starts with surrendering to genre conventions. By reading a lot of fantasy books, you develop a feel for what is expected of you, and what the readership likes to see in their fantastical reading material. After having consumed half a shelf of crime novels, you might as well be a detective with your knowledge of procedural police-work. But is that enough?

Despite what the movie industry seems to think, today’s public is clever, and they expect clever entertainment (more about my frustration with modern-day movie writing can be understood by watching HISHE or Honest Trailers on YouTube… they get it so right… or Cinemasins). How can a writer give his or her readers the cutting edge novel they (unknowingly) want if they restrict themselves to the same things that everyone has done in the past?

Since the 60’s, it’s become incredibly popular to break genre restrictions. For the most part, this so called movement has been dubbed Postmodernism (love me some postmodernism, did my bachelor thesis on it, trying to prove Ozzy Osbourne’s lyrics are postmodern), which just goes to show you that even by trying to break any conventional means of categorization, writers will eventually find themselves categorized as something. This may not have brought down the shackles of antiquated views on literature, but it did show people that genres are nothing more than guidelines. Not even that, in fact. Genres are not there for the writers, they are there for scholars, readers and marketing experts.

A reader needs genre to more or less know what to expect from a book, which will (or will not) encourage them to buy it, a scholar needs genre because without talking about literature and sounding clever about it, they’re out of a job and marketing people need genre to better find an audience for whatever book it is they are selling. We as writers can use genre to help us orient ourselves in what we want to do, but we are not bound to repeat the same thing everyone has done to date.

Don’t be afraid to experiment, mix things together, borrow elements from different genres, you’d be surprised how well things can blend together. Just as examples, I want to mention two blends of genres that work so well that I think they can be great inspiration to anyone who want to experiment a little.

Science-fiction meets western; Firefly. I thought I’d start with the exception here, i.e. something that isn’t a book. If you don’t know the show, I recommend you binge watch it right now, that’s right, stop reading and watch it. It’s a perfect blend of the best element of a desperado-type western in a science-fiction setting full of possibilities and adventure. The protagonists of the show are directly taken from your run-of-the-mill gang of misfit outlaws (former military) in the old west, but instead of a pack of horses, they have a spaceship. They even have a “city-slicker” who joins them and turns out to be useful despite his lack of experience as an outlaw. Putting this group of lovable misfits in space did open endless possibilities for the show, which was, unfortunately, cancelled before its time.

Historical (meta)fiction meets crime; The Hundred-Year-Old Man Who Climbed Out the Window and Disappeared. Probably the most successful of Jonasson’s novels, the book combines a story of crime, murders, impossible investigations, tough motorcycle gangs, and a romp through history through the protagonist’s memories. Besides being a great satire and clever commentary on the nature of political conflicts, the story is endlessly hilarious. The ridiculousness of the protagonist’s journey through history continues in present day Sweden as he runs of with a drug dealing motorcycle gang’s millions.

Of course you can say that everything mixes genre to some extent, which is sort of true. The trick is in doing to consciously and for a point. Setting a love story in the 1800s does make it both a romance and a historical novel, but does it have to be? Are you truly using the conventions of both genres to say something unique? Or are you using the fact that people love love stories and are fascinated with the 1800s?

Genres are there, as constructs, for our benefit. We can pick and mix, build something new out of the what we know to present our stories, our views. A genre gives you a certain set of rules of what is expected of you, but you are free to “borrow” a different, new rule to exceed expectations and do something truly unique.

Writing Otherness

I am very sure that somewhere out there, there’s a dissertation by a very bright PhD student in post-colonial literature with exactly that title. But I am not here to make all white, christian men feel bad about what people with their skin color might have done in the past (or are sadly still doing). No, I am here because I want to discuss the challenges of writing outside our own experience.

Of course we almost always write outside our own experience, I doubt Stephen King was ever haunted by anything, or that Rowling attended a school with such disregard for its pupils’ safety. But I am talking about the more immediate lack of experience in the way our chosen characters might see and experience the world. Stephen King’s characters, though faced with extraordinary circumstances, are very regular people who have a world view much like our own (except in the Dark Tower series). I am talking, for instance in my case, about a man trying to write outside his gender.

I am a straight man. I have always been, and will probably always be a straight man. That is how I experience the world. I take things like being attracted to women for granted. Right now, I am writing a novel about a bisexual man and a homosexual man. Both of those things are outside my way of experiencing the world. Luckily for me, they are still men, which means I do have something to rely on when writing these characters, but what about women? OR writing in a different race? Or religion?

All those factors have a powerful impact on how people experience the world, e.g. a christian person never even needs to consider what is on their plate unless they suffer from some kind of allergy, while Jews and Muslims (if they so choose) adhere to a religious code concerning their food (pork, alcohol, shellfish, dairy and meat….). This, even for those Jewish or Muslim persons who choose not to adhere to those rules and eat a bacon pizza on Yom Kippur, effects their experience (feelings of guilt, uncomfortable conversations with religious relatives, etc.) A woman experiences the world differently from men (and I’m not just talking about the whole 10.4% less pay), they emphasis on clothing and appearance is much more dominant among women than with men. The “need” to get up even earlier than men in order to have time to put on makeup, etc. are all parts of the female experience. How can I, as a man who doesn’t care what he looks like as long as he’s not morbidly obese, have any insight into how women experience the world?

Unlike some of my other posts, I am not giving any advice here, I just had a thought and wanted to share it. I find it a conundrum and a challenge to write outside my own experience. The only advice I could possibly give is to be respectful. Try to see when what you’re writing comes from some preconceived notion you might have and maybe as someone from that group you are writing about if that makes sense to them.

With writing about historical periods, another challenge I am currently facing, one can do research, read a lot about the period, include first-hand accounts of things, to get a better understanding on how people thought, but to truly take yourself out of your own shell and try to think not like a man in the middle ages, but as a woman, or a child, or as an African slave in the early days of America, that is a challenge.

 

Intertextuality and showing off

I would like to start off this little post by a very simple explanation about the nature of intertextulaity:

The story goes as follows, a young prince is beset by deep melancholy and the overwhelming suspicion that his father, the former king, died of not-so-natural reasons, and that his uncle, the current king, has risen to the throne by means of deception, and murder! The young prince, instead of confronting his uncle, runs off somewhere and hides, only to face his uncle later, possibly after some encouragement from a few friends, pirates, and maybe a ghost.

Now, I am sure this story sounds familiar to a lot of you. You might even be able to attach a name to our poor prince. For some of you, he might be Hamlet, prince of Denmark, for others, he might be Simba of Pride Rock, for some of you, he might even be called Tomjon (AKA King Verence II of Lancre)…

All of you would be right of course, our prince is, at the same time, all of those, and more, characters at the same time. A lot of writers, directors, animator, playwrights, and whatever have taken up this time tested story and made it their own (there are probably more versions of Hamlet out there than I would care to count), but they all rely on one thing to get them started: Shakespeare’s Hamlet.

If you exclude simple enactments of the play by its name, i.e. Hamlet performed as Hamlet, you are still left with hundreds of books, plays and movies making references to that wonderful Shakespearean play. This implied reference is what is known as intertextuality. One story taking about another story in order to make a new point (if you’re really interested in knowing more, there are oodles and oodles of information and articles about this online and in every decent library, but most of all, read Julia Kristeva’s discussion on it if you want to get the basics(.

In our postmodern world, everyone uses intertextuality to some degree. Everyone, even if only to make some homage to whatever writer/story inspired you to write your piece, eeveryone makes some sort of reference to another story, another text. It can sometimes serve as a shortcut to “plant” certain ideas in the reader’s mind, or for quick characterization, or it could serve to make a point (read Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are Dead, trust me, you won’t regret it), point it, we all do it. But how much is too much?

One major point of criticism of literature is that it could be very elitist. People feel intimidated by constant references to texts they don’t know, and which are considered “the foundation of civilized society”. A book that constantly references the Iliad and the bible might be considered “high literature”, but I’m rather sure I would let it gather dust on the shelf and keep reading Pratchett and Stephen King.

I suppose that as a writer, I want to be taken seriously, so I want to make sure my readers know the that I read the “big, important books”, but how do I stay clear from the point where I just come off as a trying to show off how well read I am?

These are questions many young writers ask themselves, as they want to have their proverbial cake and eat it too (and also a real cake, because… cake!) I would like to illustrate some “best practices” by giving an example of a writer who, I think, found that perfect balance, Terry Pratchett:

  • First and foremost, good writing speaks for itself! You don’t need references to all those pivotal texts of western civilization if you want to be taken seriously, just write a good book! Building an interesting, insightful, and clever narrative by using clear, engaging language is what going to keep people reading your book, not a reference to some Greek poet every three or four pages.
  • Keep references relevant! You’ve read that 600 page novel from the 19th century and want to show off? Well, go tell your friends about it. Don’t bother referencing it if it doesn’t bring anything to your novel/story other than the warm feeling of future scholars knowing you’ve read Dickens. Take the Pratchett’s novel, Soul Music, for example. It makes references to rock bands, musicians, famous concerts, and even the Blues Brothers, but it’s all relevant to the plot and the point Pratchett is making about the nature of music and its industry.
  • Be subtle! Having all of your characters constantly talk about Shakespeare or the bible might be too forceful. Take the novel Wyrd Sisters, it quite obviously makes references to Hamlet (which is central to the plot as the whole book takes on the topic of theater, in its most Elizabethan sense) but there are far more subtle references to at least 30 other plays and poem from the Elizabethan period which are there to find, but only if you know what to look for.
  • Referencing for the sake of referencing is no referencing at all! (Try saying that three times fast!) Very similarly to what I said about relevance, don’t reference another text without a point. It isn’t enough that the second text is relevant for yours (they’re both about war) but it needs to bring something tot he plate, or better yet, you could shed new light on the old text! I suppose you could take ALL of Pratchett’s repertoire as an example, he is a master of taking a topic, referencing some central cultural text on the topic, and putting it on its head. My favorite example here would be the novel Maskerade, which mocks and salutes the book The Phantom of the Opera at the same time. By making Christine Daae an airhead who literally can’t sing, and the ghost a mentally challenged young man, he sheds new light into the understanding of the world of high arts.
  • Moderation is key! Just because you know 30 books about the topic you’re writing on, doesn’t mean you need to mention all of them. pick one or two central texts, preferably ones your comments on them will have some cultural significance, and go with it.
  • Be authentic! Out of all those points I made, a certain level of authenticity emerges. A forceful intertextuality comes off as worse than showing off, it come off as… forced. It becomes insincere, chasing readers away.

Getting back in the metaphorical saddle

So you’ve been putting of writing for a week, two, seven? Finally found the time to take it up again and found yourself staring at your last sentence for twenty minutes not knowing how to continue and decided to make yourself a snack instead? While I can’t say I blame you for any of those things, it isn’t ideal, is it? I am guilty of this exact thing (I’ve had no internet for a month, and thus, no access to my cloud where I keep my writing, and also no blog posts…) which is why I wanted to talk about that (again).frustrated

The writing process is, of course, very dynamic; ideas come and go (especially when applying Ernest Hemingway’s method of writing: write drunk, edit sober) and what might have been the obvious way to continue the narrative last week may have gotten completely lost to you now that you’re back in front of the computer/notepad/typewriter.

Don’t be discouraged, it doesn’t mean that you’re not a good writer, it doesn’t even mean you have a bad memory, it only means that your mind is active, I mean, you have been thinking about other things between the time you stopped writing and now…

Now, by the mere fact the novels do get written some of them over the span of several years (e.g. it took J.R.R. Tolkien several decades, the better part of the twentieth century, to write The Silmarillion, which was published after his death, so don’t stress out about your idle week), we know that it is possible to “get back into it,” I just want to go over some ways of making that process more efficient.

  • I am afraid to so that the best things you can do to quickly get back into your own story are preemptive measures, which means more foresight and planning, but I do guarantee that you will be more satisfied with yourself for having done so. The best such measure is to make notes. That’s right, as boring as it sounds, and being a writer you probably want more crazy artistic stuff (sorry), planning is the best solution. Make notes, either on paper or on tape (I have a recording app on my phone that I use for short notes) so that you can tell where you were going.
  • Another way of staying organized is making charts and diagrams of narrative progression. You don’t need any pre-made formula, just go with your gut in a way you will be able to understand. Flow charts, mind-maps, screenplay type illustrations can all work. You might need to experiment a bit at first to see what best suits you, but it will help as a reference point.
  • Have one person (I do this with my fiancee) with whom you constantly speak about your story, this way, they’d be able to help you find where you were a week ago, even if all it took was jogging your memory.
  • Now we get to those things you can do in the case you have not done any of those things mentioned above: reread. It’s more work, yes, but it will also serve as a form of editing. Now, this could be more time consuming that simply reading through your notes or listening to them, especially if you are writing a novel, and it might not bring you back to the same ideas you had last week, but it will help.
  • After rereading, take a moment to contemplate, don’t jump right into it. This will help your memory, and reveals more possibilities than continuing your writing as soon as you get tot the last line where your left off.
  • If you feel up to it, write down your thought after rereading and contemplating, this could also serve as the beginning of notes for next week, so you could be prepared next time.
  • Think of what you did besides your writing when you last wrote, this might help put you in the same mindset, which might help jog your memory. I often listen to music related to the subject matter of my writing when I write, so listening to the same songs helps me (there aren’t many songs about the first world war, but I make do).

Those are just some ideas, if you have any suggestions from your experience don’t be afraid to share them with everyone as they might help someone write their first bestseller!

An update from me.

Again, I am reduced to breaking a recent period of radio silence on my part with something mundane and boring, an update.

There are several new things to say: I attempted to have a manuscript published and was (very politely) rejected. I am not discouraged, though. I am, however, toying with the thought of a major overhaul of this story in order to, maybe, make it more marketable. I am not sure yet, though.

A second, more happy update comes from me having joined the Monkey Collective. They are a group of writers at different stages of their writing careers, and they share stories, advice, and pretty much anything on their platform; it’s pretty neat. I’ve not had any time to be a really active member yet, but that is due to update nr. 3.

The third, arguably most important update is that I moved and got a new job. Yes, I am once again a working stiff, even after my rantings about wanting to write for a living. I do have one thing to say in my defense: it’s an editor job. Yes, I am now an editor of translations and a translator (German to English), and that’s pretty neat. I do get to work with texts, and I am even fairly good at it, so I think I’ll keep this job for a while.

Well, that is all the important stuff I have to talk about, I am sort of internet-less here, which is the reason for my recent radio silence, but I will be back soon!

“The journey of a thousand miles begins with one step” (Lao Tzu) Starting your story

Like anything, a story is born with a lot of blood, sweat, and tears, out of which
something beautiful develops. Everyone has a different approach to the actual process of getting down to it and putting ink to paper (or binary code for words onto binary code for blank page), but that is hardly the true beginning of writing a good story. The story is born in our minds, of course.

William Faulkner wrote that “The only thing worth writing about iconflictss the human heart in conflict with itself.” Whether you agree or not, it certainly means that not EVERYTHING is worth writing about, unless it involves some greater meaning or a glimpse into the essence of being human. On the other hand, we are all limited to our own world of experience, does that mean that the housewife in the suburbs has nothing to say? or that the 9 to fiver from downtown with the house full of dying houseplants should refrain from sharing his thoughts? No, just so long as there’s a point.

A story is born in our head out of some observation. This observation might be very striking and bring a wave of (sometimes) melancholy contemplation. This is where the whole essence of being human comes from. A singular even mundane event might bring our proverbial housewife to ponder the concept of fate and free will (like her kid running amok in the supermarket and catching herself regretting starting a family) or the 9 to fiver might get stuck in traffic on his way back home and ponder the complacency of the modern day workforce in comparison with the American revolutionaries. These observations, but more so those thought, will make our proverbial Everyman and Everywoman want to share their experiences.

Now it’s time to get out the paper or laptop. But I wouldn’t recommend getting right into it, take it step by step!

  1. Take notes. There’s little more frustrating than having had a monuments idea when you set out and losing it between page 10 and 67 (Numbers are random, you might have had better luck keeping track of your brilliance). This can also help you separate reality from fiction. You might have gotten inspiration from reality, but we, as writers, are literally in the business of fiction, so don’t make fiction more realistic, more the fiction better.
  2. Build your characters in advance, at least the main ones. Like the beloved analogy pop-culture has found in Poochie the Dog for unwelcome half-@ssed characters inserted as an afterthought, any such character introduced too late in the narrative that starts to steal the show is going to leave a sour taste in the reader’s mouth. Don’t confuse this with inserting an important character in a later chapter, sometimes a love interest or something similar does come in halfway through the novel, but it needs to be planned to look seamless and more believable.
  3. You’re not married to your first sentence/paragraph. I sometimes start a story with nothing but the first sentence that sounds really cool in my head. But as the story takes shape, I might find that that first sentence gives the wrong kind of vibe for the rest of the story. Even if your first line/paragraph are really great and amazing and clever, they might not best serve you as an opening. Consider moving them somewhere where they will have a better effect on the reader. But this of course, are thoughts for the editing process, my real point here is don’t sweat it if you’re unhappy with your opening, go back to it later. You’re the writer, and you have the right to change anything.
  4. At least broadly, define what it is you are doing. This might sound odd, but I found that setting goals is important, despite myself not knowing exactly what will happen with my writing as I am writing it (I am a little sporadic sometimes.) I just mean that you should know (again, broadly) how the story ends and what is its point, you should know if it’s science fiction or contemporary fantasy, you should know if your audience are between 15 and 20, or 50 to 70. Don’t try to dig yourself into a ditch at the very onset of your writing, it will crystallize into something more concrete as you go along, but at least have some sort of notion how that concrete is going to settle.
  5. Don’t start flooding your pages with motifs. This happens especially to those who are avid readers or have some theoretical background in literature. They’ve read all the greats and heard the praise on their use of stark motifs, ergo, they think motifs should be lavishly flaunted like some literary bling. It comes from a desire to seem clever and show off one’s knowledge of literature (this also goes for intertextuality), but sometimes, less is more. The greats are praised for the sparse and poignant use of motifs that are rife with meaning for the story and for the time those stories were written in, if you flood your stories with too many clever ideas, you just seem amateurish. That is why it is best to think about those devices at the beginning to help guide your reader to better see anything under your writing’s surface.

Those are the first things I do/think about when I set off to write something new, I hope it would help anyone out there to get better results in their writing.

Creativity never sleeps! Even though it sometimes should

No one likes a cough. It’s even worse when that cough is accompanied by a relentlessly runny nose and a constant gurgling sound emitting from one’s chest. As you can imagine, I’m talking about being sick and the various inconveniences it may cause. In my case, as I am sure it happens to many others, being in that state, I find it very hard to fall asleep, or go back to sleep once awoken at 3 in the morning.

Not too long ago, I was exactly like that: coughing, gurgling, runny nose, fever, and a delightful combination of nausea and a weird hunger. It was so bad that my partner had to sleep in the living room to get away from my constant coughing and gurgling, and other various noises. Other than the sad reality of her feeling it necessary to go to the other room (I offered to go sleep there instead, but she wouldn’t hear it), the was also the dull reality of having to lie in bed for long hours not being able to sleep, or, coincidentally, breathe.

Why am I telling you this? First of all, it’s my blog and I can do what I want. Secondly, it is very much relevant to the creative process and writing, which is, as you all know, the main point of this blog.

Lying there in the dark for long hours, needing to distract myself from how tired I am and how much my throat hurt, I let my mind wonder about. Naturally, my mind started making stories, and as hard as I tried, I could do nothing to steer my mind to continuing the story I was writing anyway for the past few months, no. My mind wanted new pastures to graze.

For close to what felt like an hour, I started a brand new story in my head. I created characters, a setting, even found some poignant points and overarching motifs. It was quite impressive if I may say so myself. It started as a game, really. I was playing around with more ideas for novels for several weeks before that night, and my brain just started putting some meat on the skeletons of those ideas. But it turned out good, very good.

At the end, I just couldn’t handle it anymore and simply turned on my laptop and began typing what I had formulated in my head just before as best I could, to the great surprise of my fiance, who was shocked to find me awake as she was getting ready for work at six in the morning.

I suppose this entry doesn’t really have a point besides being an anecdote on how a creative mind can surprise even itself. It did also teach me something, seeing as it provided me with the first three chapters for my next novel: Follow your creativity, let it flow before you put the breaks on it for the sake of convenience or self-censorship. You’d be surprised what comes out.