Tuesday, February 8, 2011

Aliens vs Academia: A Look Into the Literary/Genre Debate, Part 2

Alright faithful readers! You've gotten this far in listening to my rantings on this little genre war. Good! I'm glad you're still reading. If you're a first time reader (or if you need to be refreshed on the post), click here for part one.

In this post I would like to mostly address the writers and the rare instructors of the genre camp (which I've yet to, but would like to meet sometime).

Think back to the last class you took with a literary minded professor, if you had one. What were often the most common complaints? Underdeveloped characters? Lack of voice, style, and imagery? Too many unfamiliar details and terms at once? Unrealistic actions? Is your brain cluttered with jargon by now? Because mine certainly was, but I also had the distinct disadvantage of having a writing professor who looked and spoke like Professor Trelawney from the Harry Potter series.

Do what I say or your book will die an untimely death!

Now I know what you're thinking. They don't know or appreciate the genre you are writing in, and you're right. They probably don't. However there is some merit to these complaints, the key is remembering that their words should be SUGGESTIONS. The key is to translate their idea of how to fix something into something that will actually work for your story without sacrificing the flavor of it.

Common complaints and how to translate them:

You need to develop your voice: I don't feel the way your narrator is speaking really matches up to your story. Pay attention to your story and word it in a way that enhances the feel of it. It is set in a high society Victorian world? Read some stories of the era and try to write in a similar manner. Is the main character rather terse in how he speaks to people? Write in a similar way. Of course this comment can also mean that you are being lazy with language and need to read some authors who play with it more. This is the perfect opportunity to expand your vocabulary--just don't overdo it on the thesaurus surfing.

Thesaurus abuse--it's a serious crime.

What's an orc?: What's an orc? I really don't know what this thing you're expecting me to know about is because I haven't read the billion fantasy novels you've probably read; either describe it at some point close to it or just use a real, freakin' English word!


Ha...very funny...

I don't see this character: Alright, I know what this character looks like. He/she sounds exactly all of your other ones, though. Is this an individual or a hand puppet, or even worse, a mini me or talking head? What are their opinions? Do they have any particular way of expressing themselves? Show! Not tell me!

Show, not tell!: Exactly as it sounds. Now you may think that you need to release certain details in exposition for the reader to understand the setting, but there are other ways of revealing them. Telling too much often messes with pacing and runs the risk of talking at the reader, rather than talking to them. This also can mean that you need to work on developing your imagery. Take this time to play around with symbolism and metaphor. Sometimes the best works are the ones you can read again and notice how the writer is foreshadowing a future event or the character's feelings through the language you write.

Why can't you write something real?: Harsh advice, and often the criticism that will drive any genre-writing student to automatically not take their instructor seriously. I hate to say it, but the instructor is often right, but that doesn't mean you need to abandon your genre of choice. The biggest sin, I believe, of genre writers is the tendency to avoid cliches by cramming as many details and exceptions to the norm into their world, that it gets to the point where even the Mary Sue litmus test needs an overhaul to make room for all of the plot twists/tropes and cliche exceptions of cliches.  If you have a good story, tell it and stop worrying about whether your dragons are different in that they are actually chickens with scales and breathe acid instead of fire--oh and they are also avid Shakespeare fans. I'm not saying that you should get rid of them, but how important are they really in your story? Does the main character always have to be the chosen one because their grandfather's sword called out to them in a dream and told them to slay the evil werewolf-king who happens to have a magic mirror who keeps him forever young? I guess what I'm saying is simplify and find other ways other than description to make something done before more interesting in your own works. If you treat your characters (however fantastical they are) like real people in a real setting, it'll keep the eyes from rolling.

This is moving too fast for me: This is all plot and no reaction. A story does not necessarily have to be full of action scenes. In fact, I recommend against it. Now if you've done your homework, you would have readMary Lynn Mercer's article on balancing plot with character. If not, take the time to read it now. Read it? Good. One of the main differences that often sets a genre story from a literary one is the conception that genre is more plot-driven, while literary is more character driven. I don't believe this needs to be the case, but it is, most unfortunately, what seems to be currently. Now I am not saying that one is better than the other, but as the article says, there needs a good proportion of each. When you have all action and no reaction or no character development, the pretty explosions will keep you reading, but it's hard to believe what's happening or care about who's doing it because the character can be any joe shmoe with muscle-bound arms, or whatever pithy description you gave him. The story sounds like every one like it out there and your plot will probably be predictable. As a result, once the book is done, the chance your readers will want to pick it up again is very low.


In this book, generic action hero will save the world from a giant mongoose.

Genre writers have usually read enough of their own genres to have seen all sorts of fantastic plots. The trouble is a fantastic plot with poor execution creates a schlocky story. Campy and schlocky, of course, can also be fun--if that's what it intended to do (and even then, it takes some skill to make it satire in that respect). Also a fantastic plot is not entirely what drives readers to keep reading and buying your books. What genre writers can learn most from the literary camp is that it's not just what happens that makes a well-written great story, it's also how it's told.

So next time you're in a class with a literary professor who just can't understand the merit of your epic science-fiction novel, don't dismiss them completely as elitist. Listen to him or her. You don't have to write exactly how he or her wants it, but keep in mind that writing require craft as well as imagination. Learn what you can and don't lose sight of what you love to write so you can prove the pretentious literati wrong about genre. After all, how can it be art when your heart's not in it?

Thanks for reading my ramblings on this subject and keep an eye out soon for the next part of this series where I'll be addressing the literary fiction writers. In the meantime, happy writing!

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