Writing on the Edge of Genre

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I’ve always been fascinated by art which is hard to classify: music that hovered between punk and reggae, say, or jazz and alternative rock. For me the blend is itself interesting, forming a new liminal category just outside the realms of the normal and familiar. I love it in writing too, and though it can be hard to pull off, it’s striking and eye-catching when it works.

Sometimes these fringe experiments spawn whole new subgenres. Fantasy used to be notoriously limited as a genre: if it didn’t have elves and dwarves, it wasn’t fantasy. Those days are, thankfully, far behind us, and the genre is all the richer for it, many of the subsets of contemporary fantasy having formed from hybrids: urban fantasy, for instance, at least in some of its forms, might be thought of as a blending of old fantasy with contemporary mystery or thriller, and as such it borrows settings, mood, character types, even narrative style from both genres in ways that make all those old tales of magic and supernatural beings feel alive and fresh.

Authors who blaze these trends can really make a name for themselves, particularly if they get in at the front of a new trend before it gets heavily imitated, or if they acquire a reputation for always being a bit hard to pin down. Neil Gaiman is, for me, a particularly successful example of this. Yes, his stuff borrows from fantasy, sci-fi, magical realism and other genres, but the results always seem to be unique and tough to pigeon-hole. I love this. Partly the appeal is that I never quite know where the story is going to take me, because the book isn’t obviously following narrative conventions with which I am already familiar. This means the story can throw real curves at you which keeps you on your toes.

But there is also something great about a story whose one sentence hook immediately makes you want to know how the story works. American Gods is about gods and mythical beings living in the contemporary United States, but feeling their power fading because no one believes in them anymore. Good Omens (with Terry Pratchett) is a comedy about the end of the world. Neverwhere centers on the parallel universe in the disused stations of the London Underground. The Graveyard Book is about a boy raised by ghosts.

You see how short these mini summaries are? How little they actually tell you about the book, but how the premise piques your curiosity? See how big they are conceptually, what bold splashes of color they are made of, instead of the fiddly sequence of names and events we usually resort to when describing our work? I think this is because whatever Gaiman’s consideable talents as a writer, he has a gift for PREMISE. They are deceptively simple and they exist, to an extent, outside conventional genre boundaries. We might categorize them broadly as fantasy or magical realism or something else, but those categories aren’t tight enough to suit the stories, and that is an indicator of where their power comes from.

We all know when we’re in the realm of formula mystery (or fantasy or romance or whatever), where we can clock the developments in the story according to what page we’re up to. Such books can be perfectly acceptable to genre readers, but they aren’t going to surprise or excite us. Nor will they appeal to readers outside the genre’s most die-hard fans. Gaiman’s high concept approach is premised on a generic slipperiness, and I think it’s part of what makes him both good and successful. I have no idea what his sales numbers look like, or the amount of money he makes, but I’m sure both are considerable. All power to him.

Lately on this site we’ve been talking a lot about how writers think about success and failure, and these debates have continued, I think, in some of our recent conversations about different publishing strategies (traditional press versus self e-pub) and even about quitting entirely. Today I want to forget all the stuff about the market and its various problems and horrors and ask that we think about the one thing we can control: our own writing, and that in large scale terms. Though I’m all for focusing on sentence-level detail, I’m thinking today about the hook: the big idea that helps you wriggle out of the confines of genre and gets you the kind of story people immediately want to read or talk about. I’ve talked about high concept stories before, and this is obviously a closely related post, but I’m particularly interested here in “genre-bending,” in story ideas that exist in the borderlands of categories without having to claim to be “literary fiction.” These are the ideas that draw attention from different reading populations, that become hits at independent booksellers, books that get newspaper and web features written on them because they feel original, and their originality is not in their sentence-level detail but up front in their premise.

So for your next project, try to come up with a hook that really blows the doors off. Thinking up those ideas isn’t easy, but I wonder if we sometimes are so comfortable with our genre work that we stop trying, that we rely on the built in scaffolding that genre gives us instead of fighting to come up with a premise that really pops: a story whose core idea is so strong and original that it transcends genre and its readership, a story that will get you on All Things Considered or Good Morning America. We can all create interesting stories within genre, so that we can say “If you like Jim Butcher (or whoever) you’ll like this.” But I think our chances of success (of various kinds) goes up if our story has a strong and simple premise, one which is less reliant on generic convention.

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31 comments to Writing on the Edge of Genre

  • authorguy

    This is exactly what happened when I wrote my latest novel, St. Martin’s Moon. It starts with a werewolf attack on a haunted lunar colony. It started out a horror/mystery, morphed into a futuristic paranormal and ended up a Gothic SF romance!
    The problem with these sorts of genre-busting stories, though, is in trying to describe them. The taglines are easy, but trying to get down into the plot can sometimes be a nightmare. I just posted on this exact topic just a few days ago: http://authorguy.wordpress.com/2011/05/25/cant-get-there-from-here/

  • I think you’re right – these are the kinds of stories that attract a lot of interest and even have the chance of founding new genres based on the imitation of the original (what is Epic Fantasy, for instance, but a genre that largely exists because of attempts to imitate “Lord of the Rings”?). But you’re also right that his is hard to do. Writing, generally, is a skill at which we can get better; more or less, anybody can be taught to do it, and to do it well if they put their mind to it. But coming up with innovative ideas – premises that pop – isn’t something that we can easily learn to do. I think it takes a measure of creativity – of allowing different things to freely clash about in our minds – to make it work.

    The few times I’ve ever come up with some interesting, genre-bending ideas and premises I’ve been disappointed to discover that I’m already way late to the party, and that it’s been done, and done with superb talent, by someone else already. So it gets harder and harder to push boundaries in places where they haven’t already been pushed before.

  • Authorguy,
    yes, what makes Gaiman so good at this is that he’s not just forcing genres together, but coming up with an idea which–at the outset–makes genre as we’re used to thinking of it almost irrelevant. You can get good results by simply hybridizing genre, but the premise is key. I also think–now that I reflect upon it–that part of Gaiman’s success is that his stories are rooted in a version of conventional reality, even if it’s skewed slightly. If you want mainstream appeal I think tweaking the world we live in is going to get better results than the sorts of alien world-building we’re used to in fantasy and sci-fi. Maybe that’s just me.

    Stephen,
    absolutely. This is really hard. But I think it’s worth the effort. I sometimes find I’m so keen to get cracking on a project that I start mapping it out or even actually writing it before I have the strong hook. This means that I’ve got a strike or two against me right out of the gate. Nothing gives you a better shot at a home run than a great core idea. Yes, that takes creativity and imagination, but that’s the gig, right? Who wants to just slave away on mediocre and generic genre boilerplates all their lives? This is hard, but sometimes success is in not writing when you know the idea isn’t really there.

  • AJ: I guess my point, in part, was that for some of us, the best that we’re ever going to do is incremental improvement on existing genres and conventions, because our brains may not be properly wired to do the kind of astounding innovations that someone like, say, Gaiman is capable of… I often fear I’m in that former category – that I might be able to do wonderfully well at working within existing frameworks, but that I’m not sure I have what it takes to really push boundaries in new ways; especially since every time I’ve found some new idea that I think is innovative, I invariably later discover that it’s an idea that actually has already been done.

    When that happens, I often lose interest in the new idea, and so I go back to those somewhat more comfortable genres where I’m better equipped to make those incremental improvements. Which isn’t to say that I don’t keep trying at those really innovative leaps, but I don’t want to wait to write until I’m sure I’ve finally come up with one, because I have things I want to write right now… and I figure the best I can do is write what excites me now, and if it’s innovative that’s great, if it’s only incremental, at least I enjoyed writing it.

    Sometimes, I wonder, when you’re in the heat of the moment, is it hard to tell the difference between something that’s truly innovative and something that’s merely incremental?

  • Fair enough, Stephen. And it could be that if we worry at a genre enough, we find ways to make it feel new. My second WILL book was an attempt to do that, teasing at things common to fantasy (derived from Tolkein) in ways I found interesting, even subversive. Some people get that when they read it, but others seem to see only the familiar elements of high fantasy (albeit told by a character out of Wodehouse!). I’m OK with that, I guess, though it frustrates me a little and makes me want to say “but don’t you see what I’m doing here!?” The bolder, premise driven ideas leave less room for people to miss that impulse to fine-tune the genre, and I for one want to do more of that kind of thing. But I guess I’m agreeing with your point that being innovative is in the eye of the beholder, and when you are close to a project you don’t see it as readers (some at least) will. As to beating other writers to the punch… all I can say is (as I’ve been saying a lot lately) write fast 🙂

  • Julia

    AJ — Reading this inspired me to rework my pitch! It’s still not a one sentence hook, but I finally paired away the details and the backstory to highlight the emotional conflict at the heart of the story.

    Yesterday, I had lunch with a friend who asked the dread Question. As I was telling her about the book, I could literally feel the point where her attention slid away. When that happened, I cut straight to the emotional conflict — and her eyes lit up again.

    Reading your post this morning really helped clinch this. I reworked my query to tighten it and shed unnecessary info… Thanks for the insights!

  • A.J. Thanks for such a thought-provoking post.

    I’ve personally never had much luck with sitting down and saying to myself “okay, now I’m going to come up with a killer idea.”

    The killer ideas seem to evolve from other ideas, often in a huge flash of inspiration that seems to come out of nowhere. Seems to, but doesn’t really. When you look back, you realize that the “flash of inspiration” was actually the result of some percolation time and the synthesis of several ideas that together birthed an exciting concept.

    I think that all we can do is keep writing. Write what excites you, but step back once in a while to look at where you are and where you are going. Those are the moments when you are open to flashes of inspiration. I’m talking about those “what if” moments where the question is so provocative that you absolutely must write the answer.

    I think what you are getting down to is courage. Courage to explore the limits of our creativity. Courage to let that door-blowing hook take shape in our minds. We may not be able to force it, but we can certainly open our arms to it.

  • Julia, glad this helped, though of course what I’m getting at is not just about how we talk about or pitch our stories, it’s about what the story itself is. The hook for one of those Gaiman’s stories isn’t about spin, it’s about simply conveying the gist of the first chapters.

    DRM
    yes, I do think that ideas often evolve in process and that part of what I’m asking for is courage, but some of that courage has to go into brutal revision once the idea has emerged. If that cool “what if” strikes you at some point in the process, the smart–but hard–thing to do maybe to scrap what you have already written and embrace the newly emerging idea more thoroughly. I should also say that the problem with ideas that evolve in process is that sometimes they are dependent on other things you have created (given circumstances, as it were) which themselves aren’t that great and which, unless jetisoned, might hold your story back.

  • AJ, I also think that sometimes we are ahead of the curve. I tried to write a paranormal book back in the nineties and was told *that stuff doesn’t sell*, and no one wanted it. I ended up turning it into a woman in jeopardy story — thriller with female protag and my agent sold it handily at auction. Almost no paranormal in it.

    Then there was the post apocalyptic world of the Rogue Mage with totally different types of fantasy characters, totally different kinds of magic systems, BBUs, and concept that straddled Harry Potter, superheroes, the Revelation of John, and traditional fantasy without being in the least religious — and Thorn St.Croix who was a different kind of magic user. Concept was, “The end of the world came. Angels and demons waged war, but God didn’t come back. And from the ashes came a new kind of magic user. The X-men meets the Left Behind series.” Great, unusual concept! Went to auction! Sold. Got my foot in the fantasy door. But little pub interest at this time for buying more in the series.

    Then there was the witch family that started out with a short about Molly — who became Jane Yellowrock’s friend rather than a protag on her own. Witches weren’t selling.

    I love high concept, but like Stephen, I take concept in increments. And like DR, if it happens in the midst of creating a world or character, then great! If not, I’ll keep writing and hope I’ll hit on something the public likes.

    Right now I’m riding the crested wave (yes, I think it has crested) of Urban Fantasy. Will Jane Yellowrock continue? Beats me. Doesn’t really matter. Yeah. Wow. It dosen’t really matter. I am in the biz for the long haul, despite having to work full time (to get those pesky benefits).

    I gave up giving up a long time ago. And as I reread that line, I am struck by having stated my writing philosophy. Whereas you and many others look for concept, for art, for style, for steady success, for whatever, my philosophy is a lot more simple, and maybe pragmatic, and way less artistic. Maybe I’ll find concept. Maybe it will find me. And maybe I’ll fail and have to start all over. Again. Who knows.

    Give up giving up. Keep writing. Yeah. 🙂

  • Faith,
    I totally agree that part of what makes it hard to stay ahead of the pack is that the industry isn’t always ready for what we have to offer. My first WILL book was rejected by everyone 20 years before it finally came out, by which time jaundiced first person narrators were sufficiently common that one reviewer accused the book of being derivative! Sigh.

    Maybe my hunt for concept is akin to my academic position and the attendant interest I’ve always had in ideas, but I’m all in favor of your writing philosophy. I too won’t be giving up any time soon 🙂

    PS. Congratulations on Skinwalker’s nomination for best paranormal audiobook of the year! That’s huge.

  • Yeah, AJ, I agree: I definitely want to write that innovative, explosive idea. I want to make a splash and to do something that can truly be called art, that really stands the test of time. But like Faith, I’m happy if I just write something that folks like to read and that grabs my interest enough that I have to finish writing it. If that’s incrementally better than what’s gone before, I’m happy with that… I’d rather create innovative art, but I can’t not write because what I’m working on now doesn’t yet rise to that level… (I will say if it’s not at least, in some way, incrementally better than what’s gone before I’m probably not going to be excited enough to finish it.) I’ll keep casting my net for that big idea, that truly break-out concept… but I’m not going to hold my breath.

    Either way, it was a great piece to remind me that, ultimately, that’s what I want to do, if I can ever make it work.

  • Thanks, AJ. It was an honor, but I knew it would never win, not in a category that was predominantly paranormal romance.

    And I had forgotten that about WILL! Which totally fits my own experience when I am ahead of the curve. Sigh…

    I agree that concept is much easier to focus on for someone of your high educational background and a lot harder for me with my medical background. I tend to think of blood and gore (and who dies next) rather than the concept, the ideas of a novel. I just write.

  • I really don’t know what the hell I’m writing right now. I mean, I know the story, and I know the characters, and I know that the only way to be shot of it is to keep on moving forward and finish the thing. But I still don’t quite know the hook or the theme or the big overarching concept. Right now it’s a story that I have to tell, and I’m hoping that the rest will come clear in time. As for keeping going — well, you all can help me with that at ConCarolinas. For months now, I’ve been flirting with the idea of just chucking it all.

  • David, there’s a lot of that about. I think the pressures of this awful market and pubishers who don’t quite know how to respond to it are getting to a lot of us. For what it’s worth, I doubt you really could chuck it, which is rather how I feel about myself. I’ve tried before and not been able to stay away from it once an idea fo a story (high or low concept) has got hold of me. I realize this isn’t much consolation since it’s a bit like being diagnosed with a disease (OWD: Obsessve Writing Disorder), but you at least aren’t alone. We’ll drink to this and other things in Charlotte.

  • A.J.: Thanks for clarifying. I think I get it now: be willing to scrap some or all of what you’ve written when a better way to deliver the story comes to mind. I’ve had to do that in minor ways ever since I got started (mainly because I have no idea what I’m doing), and I’m finding that having a defined story architecture from the outset makes it easier to do. Well, maybe not easier emotionally, but you can more clearly see what still works and what doesn’t when you plug in the new concept.

  • authorguy

    David, I had exactly the same problem with St. Martin’s Moon. I didn’t even have a genre, just characters I liked. It took me 4 years to write, off and on, and it wasn’t until after I’d written The End that I had a sudden “Oh, that’s what it’s all about” moment. Two weeks after. The point being don’t chuck it all. Even if ‘something like it’ has already been done, it isn’t your thing, it’s just something like it. And if it’s one of these books, quite likely there’s nothing like it.

  • David, you will NOT give up! You hear me? Don’t make me come up there. (grins)

    Of course, you might have to make some life changes. I know about those things too. Sigh…

  • Great post, AJ, though it appears to have morphed into a “smack David upside the head for even considering quitting on a book” kind of moment. That’s okay; I’m all for smacking David around as often as possible. Thwack.

    I will add this thought to the original conversation: Be careful when blending genres that you don’t over-do it. Two cool ideas blended into one book is compelling. Too many cool ideas blended into one book leads to potential confusion, which I can tel you from personal experience can hinder a project greatly.

  • Good point, Ed. As with all such advice, let your discretion be your tutor.

  • David said, I’ve been flirting with the idea of just chucking it all.

    I know exactly how this feels. It’s horrible to think you might have reached the summit and have nowhere else to go but down, especially when you know in your heart that’s not true. We both have much higher mountains to climb, and we’re going to get there.

    Besides, if you give in, I WILL NEVER MAKE YOU COOKIES AGAIN. 😀

  • *sighs* Okay, now that my thwapping of David is done, I can address the post.

    This is, I think, one of the reasons I loved The Anubis Gates so very dearly. When I read it, fantasy was still mired in the elves/dwarves/unicorns mold, and here came a book set in the real world, blending magic into everyday lives in a way that made sense and yet retained the otherness. I was blown away, and resolved at that moment to write something like that someday. I don’t know if the New Shiny is it, but I’m hoping. 😀

  • Thanks for that, Misty. Great to hear a touch of excitement about the reading and creating of a book.

  • I do suspect in many cases, genre mashups happen very incrementally over a great deal of time.
    For example…

    I personally trace much of urban fantasy back to vampire stories which are generally cover the vampire in contemporary times as well as their past history. From current stories such as the True Blood, back to Buffy, Lestat, Nosferatu, Dracula and beyond.

    Vampires have evolved over time as the stories have taken elements from other genres, from horrific monsters (Dracula) to the poetic (Lestat) to the sexy (Bones and Angel) to emo (Edward the sparkly one) and the kick-ass vampire heroins in many contemporary urban fantasy books.

    Even the ‘gods require belief’ trope seems to have evolved over time. Wasn’t new to Terry Pratchett, it seems.
    http://scifi.stackexchange.com/questions/2783/originator-of-the-gods-require-belief-trope

    He just managed to popularize it with his audience.

    Fortunately, this means urban fantasy will likely stick around a bit…although it may evolve.
    Unless, of course, all of the urban fantasy stuff comes true. Then it’s no longer fantasy. (Cyberpunk died off ’cause it all came true as well)

    It’s been a long, hard road, however.

    There are significant risks to doing such a mashup. You may turn off readers of both genres if you do it wrong. Urban fantasies mashed up family oriented religious fiction…ain’t gonna catch on anytime soon if it’s all about sexually ambiguous vampires. Throw in angels and devils? You could probably pull it off. Probably because contemporary angel/devil stories have been happening for thousands of years, moving bit by bit towards some of the other aspects of urban fantasy…kick-ass heroins and such.

  • That’s interesting, Roxanne, though I think you are talking about natural genre evolution rather than “mashup” or conscious moving outside genre. The vampire model for instance belonged firmly to Gothic fiction until well into the 20th century when writers like Stephen King started finding a more familiar and contemporary context for horror. Some of this is keyed to social developments, of course, but there’s no question that in the hands of great writers genres make huge leaps forward, after which what they made original becomes (in the hands of lesser creators) formula. That evolution isn’t always good either. I’m still baffled by what people see in vampires after Joss Whedon (Buffy) handled them with such thoughtfulness and wit, but maybe that’s just me…

  • pepperthorn

    Thanks! This post really helped me define the hook/tagline for my novel. I knew what it was about but I just couldn’t get it into that succinct, single sentence format. It helped to read your versions of Gaiman book I’ve read.

    I love Neal Gaiman’s work but not for anything he does with genre. It think it’s the raw, unashamed vulnerability of his writing. He writes the things that we all try to pretend we don’t feel. Also, the language he uses is simply gorgeous. Simple and gorgeous.

    Genre and ideas within them are a dime a dozen. There aren’t any new ideas. But there are an infinite number of ways and people to share those ideas, tell those stories. The Graveyard Book won the Newberry not because it was an original idea that had never been done before but because it was masterfully and (because Gaiman is Gaiman) honestly told.

  • Pepperthorn,
    I’m a fan of Gaiman’s writing too but I don’t think prose alone wins you awards or sells you millions of copies. Nor do I believe there are no new ideas or that good ones are “a dime a dozen.” Also while I’m glad that the post helped you work up your tagline I should say again that I wasn’t trying to get people to spin their summaries in a catchy way but to encoruage them to conceive of catchy stories. My summaries of Gaiman’s books aren’t spin. They are (to me) the short version of what the books themselves are. You can’t produce that kind of snappy summary for books which are less adventurous in content and attitude to genre.

  • pepperthorn

    I think what I’m trying to say is, that if you worry too much about being original then it’s easy to spend all your time thinking about other people’s writing instead of your own. If you just, as Faith said, keep writing then you’ll tell the stories that you need to tell. They will be original because only you can tell that story that way.

    When Harry Potter came out a lot of people compared it to Wizard’s Hall. They are both about boys who go off to special schools to learn to be wizards and have to defeat a big evil wizard who threatens their worlds. The core ideas are the same but they are very different books because J. K. Rowling and Jane Yolen are very different writers.

  • AJ – Great post!
    I agree we shouldn’t be satisfied to *just* write within a genre; we should always be wide open to catch that Terrific Idea when and if it flies into the room. But while we’re waiting, we should write. An old writer friend told me once, “If you don’t have an idea for a story in the genre you’re most comfortable in, try writing a story in one you aren’t comfortable in.”
    I think that might be a way to generate potential ideas for the type stories you’re describing here.

  • Agreed, Lyn. Writing what you love is crucial, and a good way to generate ideas.

  • I have to agree that the easiest (and I use the term loosely) type of story to do this with is one set in a relatively “real” world setting.

    If I tried to genre bend a story set in a secondary world that could be considered medieval European in style, it would almost certainly be called high fantasy and left as is. If I tried to do it in space on a different planet it would easily be filed away as sci-fi and be done with. But then I’m a believer in not introducing fantastic things without a reason. That is, if the story could as easily be set on Earth in the year 2011 by simply replacing the word “Alpha Guano Prime” with Los Angeles and all references to “ray gun” with 9mm pistol, then you should. Could that be a way to spark some disruptive ideas? Take a science fiction novel and just replace all the sci-fi words with normal ones? See where that takes you?
    hmmm.