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.

Cold War flashbacks

Hello darlings! I am back from my Tropical Ontario Vacation. I think it can pretty much be summed up in two words: The Diefenbunker. It’s a little bit sobering to see objects you remember from your childhood – rotary phones, overhead projectors, hydrogen bombs, IBM mainframes the size of a small car with less memory than an iPod – in a museum. But more shocking, I think, to realize you’d forgotten what it was like to use them.

You’re wondering whether I ever actually used a hydrogen bomb. I’m just going to let you wonder.

At the Canadian War Museum (which we also visited; we’re martial sorts, apparently) there was a listening station where you could hear popular songs from the Cold War ABOUT the Cold War. Y’know, old classics like “99 Luftbalons” and “Russians” by Sting. I don’t remember all the songs listed; I didn’t recognize several of them, and there was at least one — U2’s “Bloody Sunday” — which I didn’t think pertained to the Cold War at all, for all that it was a protest song from the 80s.

Music really brings back that special Cold War feeling, more than the rotary phones, even.

Anyway, I mention this because during our tour of the Diefenbunker, they mentioned the Distant Early Warning system that Canada had put in place in hopes of getting 15 minutes’ warning if Soviet nukes were coming at us over the pole. “Distant Early Warning”, I realized with a start, is also a song by Rush.  It wasn’t on the list at the other museum, though. Clearly an incomplete list, and they left off a Canadian song, no less. Maybe it’s too obscure.

Those were frightening times, and yet we somehow managed not to blow ourselves to bits. I choose to take that as an optimistic sign, that rationality and cool heads can in fact prevail.

Anyway, nothing profound in all this. I’m just musing aloud, feeling thoughtful. More interesting stuff tomorrow, maybe, if I’m feeling interesting.

Going Postal

I just finished re-reading Terry Pratchett’s Going Postal. That’s a rare treat for me, anymore. I used to be a great re-reader; I’ve read War and Peace 2.5 times (the .5 is because the first time through, I skipped all the war parts). I don’t even remember how many times I’ve read Pride and Prejudice; I only know that three of those times were out loud to other people. That’s the kind of hard core re-reader I was. Not just meekly re-reading to myself, no, I had to stick it in other people’s ears.

It’s a rare luxury for me now, though. I feel lucky to get to read books once.

Something prompted me to pick up Going Postal again, however. It was the first Pratchett novel I loved — in fact, it kind of blew my mind the first time I read it. It’s about a con man, Moist Von Lipwig, who’s spared the hangman’s noose on the condition that he become the next postmaster of Ankh-Morpork. It turns out his special brand of lying razzle-dazzle showmanship is just what the post office needs to get back in business again.

Like many Terry Pratchett books, it’s a book about belief; like the best of them, it’s also about a protagonist who knows himself to be fundamentally defective*, and who finds the way to redeem his defect and turn it into a strength.

* My masculine pronoun notwithstanding, I’d include Tiffany Aching in this category. Vimes, of course. Mau from Nation. Not included: Susan Sto Helit, Granny Weatherwax. I think he’s prone to make his women a bit too good (by which I mean morally righteous), even when they’re ornery.

I know Moist isn’t everyone’s favourite (the name certainly doesn’t help), but I have a particular soft spot for him. He’s a liar and a manipulator, and he despises himself for it. But people are so easy to fool, they practically fool themselves, all he has to do is put on a little show. He’s a performer, an artist, and maybe that’s where I feel the connection. Art also involves making things up and manipulating people, making them see the glass as diamond through the force of your conviction.

And of course, the woman he loves is the one person he can’t fool, the one who really sees him — and he wants her to see him, warts and all. Ah, the skeptical love interest, blowing smoke rings in his face! She’s a breath of fresh air, she is.

What struck me this time through was the repetition. I’d read some reviews complaining that Pratchett’s later work is obvious and overstated. Personally, I prefer the later works; the early ones I sometimes find to be so dense with jokes that it’s hard to see the author underneath. I like my authors out where I can see them, I guess. One thing that could be contributing to readers finding it “overstated”, however, is that he does like to repeat phrases. I think, however, that the repetition is really intended as a kind of shorthand. He talks about the glass/diamond ring several times, for example, and each mention is a little briefer until he needs only say “diamond” and we know what he’s trying to say about the situation at hand. And each time he brings it up is different, right? He’s pointing out something else that people are habitually fooled by: money, government, religion, courtship, statistics.

It’s theme and variation. I don’t find it tedious, though I see how one could.

Later books have hit me deeper – Nation, Thud, the Tiffany Aching books – but this was my first, the first time I saw clearly what he was up to and said to myself, “There is a human being there, and we have seen many of the same things.” It remains a sentimental favourite, even if I didn’t find it quite as complex this time through.

A few of my favourite things

Hello darlings! I am traveling, but shall return to amuse you next week. In the meantime, here are a few things to tide you over.

  • I don’t usually consider myself prone to envy, but I can’t read Hark, A Vagrant! without turning green and wishing I’d thought of it. There’s a guest post on the front page at the moment, but dig back through the archives and you’ll find all kinds of fiendishly demented cartoons about Jane Austen and fat ponies and the discovery of Canada and Crazy Nancy Drew. OK, not all in the same strip, but maybe SOME in the same strip. You’ll have to look and find out. A mild language warning for those of you who get the vapours at the idea of St. Brendan the Navigator cussing at Jacques Cartier. That is kind of disturbing, frankly, since they lived in different centuries.
  • That very first guest strip was written by my old friend Jim Ottaviani and illustrated by Leland Myrick. The pair have a graphic about Feynman coming out from Macmillan at the end of the month. If I know Jim (and I think I already mentioned that I do), it’ll be a great read. I’m excited about it.

This afternoon’s symposium

Ah, welcome! I trust you avoided the homework like a champion. That video was sillier than I remembered, and not in a Monty Python sense, either, alas. You have to feel for the philosopher-host, though: when the guy you’re talking about has only a handful of epigrams left to his name, it’s hard to fill half an hour. Can you blame him for talking about shopping?

Yeah, okay, I suppose I can.

In any case, this looks like the perfect time for a little symposium! And I mean that in the original “drinking together” sense. So pull up a couch, friend, and grab yourself a kylix of whatever pleases you. I’ve got some exotic Canadian tap water here at hand, because nothing makes me chatty like… well, I’m always pretty chatty. The water’s a resulting need, not the source of prolixity.

Prolixity! I know, right? I’m already sounding pompous. This is going to be the best symposium ever!

Long before I was an amateur Medievalist, I was very nearly a professional classicist. I seriously considered it; I looked at graduate programs and attempted to learn Latin on my own (I’d done four years of Greek but no Latin because I was a weirdo Hellenist). I finally came to my senses and skipped grad school althogether, but it was a close thing.

Looking back, I’m not even sure why I studied so much Greek. I’m not particularly talented at language (with the possible exception of English), but some kind of bloody-minded stubbornness kept me coming back year after year for another round of letting the aorist imperative* punch me in the face. I suppose I just liked a challenge, and nothing could knock me out cold like the dative case.

* Aorist is a PAST tense. How can you be imperative in the past? Sat down! Was quiet! I could never get my head around it.

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An introduction to Epicurus

I am utterly swamped today, friends, so it occurs to me that this would be the perfect opportunity to let someone else do the talking. I’ve been wanting to talk about Epicureanism — not in the modern sense of gourmet or hedonistic sensualist, but the original meaning, the teachings of Epicurus. He’s not a well-known philosopher anymore; of his more than 300 written works, only a handful survive. Most of what is known about him comes from the writings of others, many of them mangy stoics detractors.

But here, I’ll let someone else give you the philosophy lesson:

Here’s Part 2.


Those of you who are at work, or don’t have time, or can’t be bothered, here’s the punchline. Epicurus believed three things were necessary for happiness: friends, self-sufficiency (or independence), and time spent THINKING about your problems. No mention of gourmet food or overindulgence, contrary to popular belief.

How does this relate to Seraphina? Well, that’s another post.

A word from the not-always wise

Some kind folks have gently expressed concern about the content of that last post. They feared the language and emotional candor might be off-putting to someone encountering my writing for the first time.

That is a very fair criticism, and one I take seriously. Looking back at the post, I have said nothing I feel ashamed of. The words were used in the context of anecdote, not in a contemptuous way. Though I have obliterated most of the story’s details, those words – and how I felt about them – stand out starkly. That was the point: that one’s memory of facts can be mistaken; that one’s memory of feeling remains clear; and that maybe that’s what feeling is for. That idea informs the very heart of Seraphina, but without the story to support it, it’s not very interesting to anyone but me.

Maybe it isn’t interesting to anyone but me even with the story, but that’s another question.

If the language in my Origins II post made you think you’d walked onto the set of a daytime talk show – and that I’d start throwing chairs next – I’m sorry. While I suspect most of my readers are people who have known me for many years, I realize guests might show up at any time. I’ll try harder to keep my muddy boots off the furniture.

If you’re worried that all the posts are going to be that emotional, don’t be. That was an extraordinary event; I don’t go around having epiphanies about the nature of my own mind every day. I certainly don’t get in fights every day.

But here’s something to consider: my profession consists of taking all my disparate thoughts, experiences, observations, sensations, and feelings, and synthesizing them into something new. Emotions are a tool of my profession. There will be discussion of emotions here if I am to talk about what I do, just like the bricklayer’s blog – one assumes – is full of references to bricks.

And I want to talk about what I do, because I think it’s interesting. Luckily for you, I think a lot of other things are interesting too.