At a book site I visit, someone posed a question to the site members at large. How does one prepare oneself to write in an unfamiliar genre? Lots of answers had already been given by the time I got there, and yet they were all exactly the same answer: research! Read a hundred books in that genre! Learn the genre inside and out!
Because I am contrarian by nature, my first thought was Why on earth would anyone research a genre?
My knee-jerk incredulity aside, of course there are reasons to research genre. Perhaps one is a scholar of the genre and wants to write a dissertation on its conventions, history, or subclassifications. That seems like a very fine reason to me. Or maybe you want to deliberately learn the tropes so you can subvert and manipulate them to your own nefarious ends. Fair enough. It’s not a goal of mine, but I can understand it.
But I dunno, all the research answers seemed (to my ear) to carry an undertone of “so you can be sure you’re doing it right”.
Doing what right, exactly? Fantasy? Western? Is there a right? Bearing in mind that I have a slight anarchic bent, particularly when it comes to art, I think genre is something imposed upon literature from outside, rather than something integral to the work itself. As I wrote to a friend recently: What about “books where the author is transparently preoccupied with epistemology”? That can’t be a genre? I suppose that’s too much of a mouthful for retailers, and the acronym is no better.
I realize there are strict guidelines set by Romance publishers — when the protagonists should have their first kiss, how many sex scenes there should be, how unambiguously happy the ending should be — and yes, you would have to research the guidelines to get published by a particular publisher, but that’s the exception. In almost any other case, surely the work itself must come first. If you set out to write “A Western” first and foremost, there’s a good chance the effort will ring hollow. Write the story that’s burning a hole in you, and genre can fend for its sorry self.
I saw Maurice Sendak speak, back when I was in college, and he said (according to my totally infallible memory), “People ask me why I write children’s books. I don’t write children’s books. It’s not my fault that booksellers shelve my books in the children’s section, instead of next to Chaim Potok.” Hearing that was a formative moment in my philosophy, I suppose.
Now, because I am a bit of a Socratic, I cannot in good conscience fail to tell you that what I just told you is wrong. (Did you follow that?) Because I followed my own advice and I wrote exactly what my heart dictated, and I ended up with a very quiet fantasy novel. Ibsen (or Austen, once I cheered it up a bit) with dragons. And I was told, “This is very sweet, but Fantasy Readers have genre expectations. They’re going to want a bigger story with higher stakes and more action. They’re going to want to see more of this wonderful world you’ve created, not just parlor drama.”
“Huh. How about that,” I said, my outward calm masking my inner chafing at the Tyranny of Genre.
Aha, you’re thinking. Should’ve done that research after all, eh little missy?
Yeah, but here’s the thing: fantasy was and always has been my preferred genre. If “fantasy research” means reading a lot of fantasy, I’m not sure what more I could have done in that regard. The heart of my book was good; no one ever asked me to change anything that was really important to me. From my perspective, changes made for the sake of genre are surface changes.
I think some of it comes down to which aspects of the work take precedence for the individual writer. To borrow a metaphor from Scott McCloud, the work is like an apple: there’s the core of the book, the meaning at its heart, and there’s the polished skin of genre on the outside (and other layers, such as craft, in between). I write – wrote, have always written – from the centre outward. If I don’t have a solid core of feeling and idea, I’ve got nothing. I’m not interested. For other writers, though, maybe it’s easiest to start with the shiny surface. To start with genre, make it all pretty and “right”, and then fill in the big gaping hollow at the centre. That’s a perfectly valid way of working as well.
Just don’t forget to fill that big hollow space. It would be easy to do, since that shiny surface is mighty pleasing to the eye.
As I work on the outline for the sequel to Seraphina, I’m finding that I do have a better generic understanding now, as well as a better understanding of myself and what it takes to get me interested in the work. I can beat on plots all day, but I’m never going to get anywhere unless I’ve found my core, the idea that sets my head on fire and gives me a reason to write.
OK, then! So what have we learned? Rachel knows nothing! Rachel argues one thing, then argues its opposite, then says, “Hey, I’m Socratic, so it’s ok!” But seriously, it is ok. There’s never just one way to go forward, and I take great comfort in that.