No, this is not an article on how to take a story in a genre and turn it into another. I can do that too, if you guys wish, sometime in the future. It is not uncommon and, anyway, it is as good a technique for beginning writers as it is for beginning painters to copy the work of a master because before they understand composition, they can feel in their guts and bones what “good” is.
Yes, there is such a thing as “good” and such a thing as “quality” – after all you have to know what to strive for when you’re trying to improve your writing – but that’s an article for another time, particularly since “good” and “quality” have been as maligned as “hate” which can now be used to mean “I’m annoyed.” (And by the way, no, dears, quality and good probably don’t mean what you think they mean, not when it comes to art. But blah, none of my business provided you don’t yell it in my face.) And yes, the hate thing is an article too.
This is not even an article about “tastes can’t be argued” though it touches tangentially on it. What I’m talking about here is talking about things you know nothing about because they’re not to your taste. Not that it’s any of my business to advise you on this, mind, but a lot of you are brilliant people who don’t realize how silly you sound when you expound on what’s not at all to your interest.
This was brought about because in an email I told someone I didn’t read (traditional) heroic fantasy anymore because I got tired of girl-with-sword-saves-the-world and all men are evil. The gentleman rather politely told me that he’d never come across those. Which is when I realized I was flapping my lips on something I know nothing about.
And it’s not even something I NEVER knew anything about. It’s just something I haven’t read in about twenty years (which since at the time I was reading used, means probably twenty five to thirty year old information) when I got tired of the two above plots and the plot device known as “cruel father” (used in Darkship Thieves? Don’t be ridiculous. If you read it you’ll realize it’s no such thing!) threw a book against the wall and never picked it up again.
I was in point of fact flapping my lips and showing my ignorance.
I’m hardly alone in this.
BTW if you’re new to fantasy or science fiction and in a panel with me feel an urge to say something like “I just want to know why we can’t have strong female characters in these two genres. Why must the woman always be rescued?” DON’T. Or if you do be aware that you’re putting your life on the line.
No, I don’t hate hearing it. At most I strongly dislike it. But when you feel my fingers around your throat as I scream “Like every strong main female character since the late eighties at least?” you might have trouble telling the difference.
And as I pound you with the nearest object (usually there’s a pitcher of water) and scream “How about we also have strong males now? Can we do that?” it might really get hard to tell. Because when you say that, you’re talking not only out of ignorance, but out of smug, self-satisfied ignorance, and repeating stuff you heard without the courtesy of at least reading in the genre you’re trying to sell in.
I’ll tolerate this sort of idiocy if you’re not trying to sell in the genre, because I’ll assume you never read it, and are just flapping lips with received wisdom. (See, I’m not trying to sell heroic, traditional fantasy, so bonus for me. I’ll still shut up about it in the future.) But when you’re sitting there at the table, with your copy of Marysue Doright To The Stars, the book you just wrote to prove women can too be heroes, it’s very, very hard not to beat you with a copy of Podkayne of Mars or the collected volumes of the Honor Harrington saga.
And condemning entire genres because they’re not to your taste is also silly. Oh, don’t misinterpret me. You’re perfectly allowed not to LIKE a genre. In fact, you’re allowed to loathe it… Hell, you’re allowed to not like it or loathe it without having EVER read a single piece.
We live in a highly specialized society and we’re all the products of rather individual development. Well, okay, maybe not all. I often think half the population is cranked out in a factory somewhere. But for all that, the truth is if you get to know someone, you’re bound to find that they’re not as… standard as you think.
Someone has coined the “Normal is a city” (apparently in Illinois — who knew?) I’m not sure I agree with that because “normal” as in “functioning well enough to perform in daily life” is a broad tent, and it fits any number of idiosyncrasies. (My neighbors don’t need to know I build worlds in my head, and the gentleman who ran out of his house when I was walking Marshall to elementary school shortly after we moved here, dropped in front of me and – groveling around – performed one of the more heart-wrenching soliloquies of Lear was probably perfectly normal when he wasn’t rehearsing so intensely he rather literally forgot himself. [And wasn’t he lucky he got me? Someone else might have dialed 9-11. I was momentarily charmed, I confess, at the idea of guerrilla eruptions of Shakespeare, but no, he was just rehearsing and probably thought to freak the mundanes. Served him right that Marshall corrected a line!])
But none of us are… mass products. Despite those of us born roughly at the mid-century mark of the 20th century (or twenty years either way) having gone through a system of mass education and being fed our news through mass systems for most of our lives, most of us are still shockingly individual. (A built in issue for future worlds like 1984, say, or the people who think it’s an instruction manual.) Genetics, environment and the sheer cussedness that is humanity means you can have twins raised by the same parents, and at least some of their tastes will be startlingly different.
Why am I prattling about that? Because even your best friends; even those who like the exact same genres of literature you do will NOT have the same tastes. (And this doesn’t mean there ISN’T quality, just that some of the quality I’ll be completely blind to, it not being my thing.) For years you could have sold tickets to the epic arguments my best writing buddy and I would get into when our favorite authors were mentioned. I find her favorite utterly bland and unconvincing, and she finds mine annoying. Neither of us has read the other’s favorite extensively, mind. Just enough to determine “it’s not my thing.” And yes, we might have been better served by reading a different book, say, or at a different time. However, it’s no use disputing because given the infinite choice of what you CAN read, why bother revisiting someone who disappointed you a couple of times? And why bother trying to convince someone they “MUST” read this when they’ve already told you they hate the genre/subgrenre/type/author?
(Yes, I’m guilty of that sin too, having grabbed random strangers and screamed, “No, no, those books were BEFORE he became Pratchett. Read Night Watch you illiterate buffoon” – it’s bad of me and I shouldn’t do it. And in the future I’ll try to refrain UNLESS the person in question is trying to write Pratchetterian fantasy in which case I’ll beat her/him to death with the collected witches’ saga.)
For centuries – millenia? Forever – it’s been known that one man’s meat is another man’s poison. And for centuries one man has sneered at the other for this. Only now, there are so many varieties of meat, we’re convinced there must be “the one true meat” which feeds everyone.
Let’s put this in another venue: I must sometime remember to thank my friend Kate Paulk for coining The Meaty Skull With Snakes Style Of Art phrase in her Con books.
Every con I go to the art show, partly because I’m a penniless writer and in years when the economy is bad you can pick up stunning pieces for under $50. Also because as a penniless writer, I like to encourage penniless artists. I’m always happy to pick up a very good but not quite there piece from a young artist starting out. Because that will hopefully work like a first short story sale upon a beginning writer.
And every con I find the art show has at least one stall, and sometimes as many as half of them, filled with Meaty Skull With Snakes Style of Art. You know the canvases when you see them. They make you fall back in sheer horror at the “OMG WHY?” sprays of arterial blood, the axes with bits of flesh clinging to them.
I’d never buy one of those pieces, not even if they were the best paintings in the world. And yet I have friends who collect them and put them on their walls to look at every day. They’d probably find my semi-nude winged beings which I tend to buy for my walls (hey, you have your kinks, Mr.) blah.
Of course my real taste is renaissance art – and there we’re touching on quality again and it’s well… for another time – but it’s very hard to go back in time and buy a little-appreciated DaVinci. (My younger son assures me work on the time-space portal continues apace.)
As a consequence, I can’t tell you anything at all about the artists who do this. I know they exist. I mean, at a con in New England, the artist guest of honor had paintings of meaty skulls, and sculptures of meaty skulls, and possibly taste tests of meaty skulls. How the heck would I know? It’s not my thing.
In the same way, I know next to bl**dy nothing about the names in contemporary romance. I know Nora Roberts, is about it. After that I draw a complete blank. And frankly Nora Roberts – though her writing is magnificent (if you don’t think so, you haven’t read her ever. She’s both transparent and carries the story very well) doesn’t do it for me. I find her women an irritant. They do irrational things, just to prove they can. I do best at hearing her narrated than reading her.
Are other contemporary romance heroines the world’s greatest twits? Who knows? I’ve sampled a couple here and there – like the one where the two main characters spend the first fifty pages in bed and the poor guy should have called his GP because it’s way more than four hours, having sex and discussing the world’s most vapid subjects. Is this representative of the genre? Eh. Probably not. But now those failures of sampling have caused me to be more cautious and contemporary romances have a higher bar to sell to me.
Until seven years ago, the same applied to ALL romance. And then Dave Freer convinced me sample Georgette Heyer. This made me aware at least SOMEONE could write romance I would read. And then… And then I got stuck at RWA, giving away books, next to Madeleine Hunter. Both of us had piles of books. My editor refused to let me build a fort and hide behind mine. For the first half hour I had no one (then I had a line, and I finished before everyone.) So, out of sheer boredom, I grabbed one of Hunter’s books (well, I HAD read mine. Have to, to edit it. Also, rumors I type with my toes while blindfolded are exaggerated) and started reading. I now have most of her books and haven’t been able to finish only two.
This introduced me to regency romance in general. Yeah, the vast majority (of everything, not just romance) is crap, but I’ve learned to find nuggets of gold.
Still, even now, because Romance is something I read when I’m out of sorts and because I buy them on discount at the thrift store (I did mention I was cheap, right?), I couldn’t tell you who the luminaries of the field are nor would I presume to say something in public like “So and so is one of the seminal influences of the field” – unless the so and so is Heyer and the field is Regency Romance specifically. Much less would I go as far as Jane Austen, whom most young writers know only by the execrable movie. And did the Bronte sisters influence anyone working now? Probably. And I hope I never read her. Most of the people working now? Oh, please. Unless through a movie, I doubt it.
H*ll I do read mystery, more or less obsessively – though in waves – and I don’t know half the people publishing today.
And sometimes genres still surprise me, as Romance did. I’d have said I’d never, ever, ever read Christian fiction published as such. NOT because I have anything against it in particular, but because the few I’ve sampled were HORRIBLY written. Probably because it’s a restricted field that people will buy for reasons other than quality, I tend to find incoherent plots and instead of a journey of faith, I find a rambling book with occasional declarations of faith or pauses for prayer. And yet, I found one for free on Amazon, set in WWII and didn’t read the description enough to catch on it was Christian, so I read it. It’s mainstreamish in reading, but a very good book. (I’ll find the name if you wish. It’s in my kindle. I have ordered two of her other books, but they seem to have wandered off from my room. I haven’t read them yet.)
But in general I’ll tell you I don’t read erotica, horror, YA, contemporary romance or procedurals. There are exceptions to all these – people at the edge, whom I like – but in general those hold true. I do sample all of these now and then, and have learned to see when it’s “well done” even if it makes me recoil.
HOWEVER I guarantee to you there are good writers in erotica, horror, YA, contemporary romance AND procedurals. I bet you there are authors I would like, but I’ll never know unless I stumble on them. And there are authors I would loathe but say “they’re doing it right.”
So, I learned my lesson. When talking about genres or subgenres I don’t read or unless I’ve read it recently, I’ll keep my mouth shut on quality, because I don’t KNOW. Keeping my mouth shut is probably of benefit to no one. In fact, it might annoy those who wish to laugh at me. BUT it will preserve my – tattered – reputation for omniscience.
You can choose to do as you please, but you should be aware dogmatic pronouncements about what you don’t know might make people laugh like hyenas. (Or answer in puzzled and gentle politeness as my correspondent did.)
On the other hand when WRITING in a genre, do at least try to read the last twenty years of your particular subgenre – or at least skim. That will save you from craving “strong women heroes” in a field awash with them.
And it will save me from beating you to death with a copy of your brand spanking new book: MarySue Does The Space Navy.