Showing posts with label genre. Show all posts
Showing posts with label genre. Show all posts

12 September 2018

In The Corner

David Edgerley Gates


Ever painted yourself into a corner? Writers obviously set targets, like a page count or a due date, or decide on a specific setting or circumstance, maybe a card game, or Elizabethan London, or a child's narrative POV - and then of course we move the goalposts. I'm thinking more particularly of stepping into a snare of your own devising, creating a problem you didn't know you had.

Writing's an obstacle course. And one of the things you learn early on is that you can't leave stuff out, you can't skip something because you think nobody will notice. This is obvious if we're talking about forensic detail, say, but less so when it requires us to bring more to the game. We all play to our strengths, and have lazy habits of mind, or avoidance mechanisms. It's about the comfort zone. 

For example. I first blocked out my spy story "Cover of Darkness" a very long time before the end result saw print. We're talking years. Partly, it was cold feet. I wasn't even entirely sure I wanted to write about the Cold War, and my time in Berlin, and I had a handy alibi, because I knew I was crossing the line between inside information and actual classified material. But the real stumbling block was my own skill level. The set-up for the story - the rainy tarmac, the stuffy car, the security, the briefing - was all very fluent. The  problem was, once the story really starts, once McElroy makes the dive into the icy river, everything takes place underwater. It was claustrophobic, there was no dialogue, it was all physical description. I broke it up a little, of necessity, but the basic story is one long action scene. It was a toughie.

Another story, "Winter Kill," stopped me a third of the way in, because I'd written myself into an impossible box. I had a murder victim, a cold case, skeletal remains, but no ID on the victim. How do you pin it on somebody? Doyle claimed that the Holmes stories were written back to front, he knew going in what Holmes would deduce, so it was a matter of reversing the plot. In my case, I don't think I've ever known going in how a story would turn out. The work-around, in "Winter Kill," is that I blinked. I realized it couldn't be made to happen, and I came up with a way to narrow the possibilities, and put a history to the bones. In other words, I fudged it.

I've talked before about the sex scene in my novella Viper. This is an example where there wasn't any work-around. I put my head in the lion's mouth. I hadn't planned it that way, by any means, but as the story took on shape and momentum, the inevitability loomed. And it had to be full-frontal, it couldn't happen off-stage. I've speculated previously that I did this accidentally on purpose, just to see if I could navigate the rapids.

I'm wrapping a Benny Salvador story now called "Second Sight," and I've hit a snag right at the end. The question isn't what happened, but how to explain it - more exactly, how not to explain it, how to paper over the details because the truth will do more injury than a comforting lie. There's the moral issue involved, Benny being pretty much a straight arrow, and a part of him knows he owes an honest account, but the lie will own him. And then we have the actual mechanics. How do I manage this convincingly?

This last is a different kind of obstacle from the ones I've outlined above, and of course that's the point, that each of them presents a new, and individual, difficulty. The specific, not the generic. I'm perfectly ready to entertain the notion that we're testing ourselves, pushing the boundaries, raising the bar. That it's a contest, or even a contact sport, hand-to-hand combat, wrestling an intransigent syntax to a weary draw. Or is it simply the quiet satisfaction of getting it right? No. There's more to it than that. There's that place we all know, where you get to say it out loud. Gotcha, you bastard.



28 April 2018

When is a Mystery not a Mystery?

by Melodie Campbell

Homeless. Not me, luckily. I still have four walls and a roof plus dog on the couch. But my kick-ass story, A Ship Called Pandora, that had a wonderful future and clear economic security is now homeless.

The genres are tricky things. If I write a mystery and set it in the past, it’s considered a historical mystery. So, if we are classifying it, we would call it a Mystery first, and then Historical, as a subgenre of mystery genre. Everyone’s happy.

But what if I set it in the future?

This is exactly what has happened to me recently. For the very first time, I was asked to write a crime story for an anthology, without going through the usual submission process. The anthology had the delightful premise: anything goes. That is, I could write any subgenre, and set it anywhere, anytime. *rubs hands in delight*

A particular story had been percolating in my brain for weeks, pounding to get out. My friends and readers know that I like writing from the other side of the crime spectrum. In The Goddaughter series, I write from the point of view of a mob Goddaughter who really doesn’t want to be one, but keeps having to pull off heists to bail out her family. The books are fun, and weirdly, justice is done by the end, regardless of her family connections.

So this new story was going to feature a kick-ass female marshal from the witness protection program. Her job is to arrange the ‘hide’ after someone has testified in court. Thing is, the transportation is by space travel, because the plot is set far in the future.

I sent it to the anthology editors. They loved it. One of my best twists ever, they said. They liked the fact that it was hard-edged – unusual for me. I breathed a sigh of relief. And then two months later, they came back. The publisher was having second thoughts. He thought the science fiction setting would not be a good fit for a mystery anthology. *author reaches for gun*

So they asked if they could reprint one of my award-winning stories instead. I gave them a favourite (Hook, Line and Sinker) that was also hard-edged. This is the one that had me sharing a literary shortlist with Margaret Atwood (Atwood won.) It would have a second life, which is always nice.
Meanwhile, I had this story on my hands, one that everyone loved, written especially for an anthology, that was now homeless. *pass the scotch*

This was the time of Bouchercon 2017 in Toronto. I was hanging with the AHMM gang, who were recording me reading my own work, Santa Baby, for a podcast to go up on their site. (It’s there now *does happy dance*) So I asked if they would be interested in reading it.

Sure, was the answer. Sometimes they publish stories set in the near future. I didn’t think this one would qualify. I was right.

They didn’t take it. But they did suggest sending it to their sister Dell mag, Asimov’s Science Fiction Mag.  I might. But I'd rather have a mystery market.

My point is this: Usually, we classify a story as a mystery if the plot is a mystery. The setting comes second. A historical mystery is still classified as a mystery. A mystery with a strong romance element is still a mystery if the plot is a mystery plot. But in the case of a future setting, it doesn’t matter what the plot is. The setting is key to the classification.

I probed a bit among my author contacts. One said that he had written a series billed as sci-fi mystery, and this was his baffling and witty conclusion: he managed to alienate the mystery readers, and confuse the sci-fi readers. Sales were a lot better when they reclassified the thing as sci-fi only

So to answer that initial question: When Is a Mystery not a Mystery? When it’s set in the future.

What about you? Have you come across this before? Any suggestions?

UPDATE:   The intrepid editors at Mystery Weekly Magazine say they love A Ship Called Pandora.  It comes out soon. 

CODE NAME: GYPSY MOTH
on AMAZON


Here's another fun scifi crossgenre book: CODE NAME: GYPSY MOTH
It isn't easy being a female barkeep in the final frontier… especially when you're also a spy!
(Good thing I had a traditional publisher for this one. Because I have NO IDEA where to promote this.)

14 November 2016

Getting Away with Murder – and Other Things

by Janice Law

I have always believed that writers should try to get away with everything they can as far as plot, characterization, and style go. Experimental writers, naturally, have this as their basic brief and a straining after originality is the usual result. But genre writers and contemporary novelists like to push the envelope as well, and two well received recent novels provide good illustrations of blending genres for striking effect: Liz Moore’s The Unseen World and Ben H. Winters’ Underground Airlines.

Both incorporate elements of mystery and science fiction. Moore’s novel begins as a sensitive account of Ada, a bright little girl in a distinctly unconventional household. Folks looking for thriller velocity here may be disheartened but my advice is to stick with the story. When Ada’s father shows signs of early onset dementia, the novel morphs into a quest mystery with a good deal of information about artificial intelligence.

Sounds like maybe too rich a blend? Actually, no. Moore skips in time from Ada as a child and an adolescent in the 1980’s, back to her father in the 1930’s and 1950’s, and forward to the 21st century. At the center of Ada’s search is Elixir, her computer scientist dad’s experiment in artificial
intelligence. Elixir was designed as a machine that can learn, and precocious Ada, was one of the many people in her father’s lab who ‘talked’ to the program so that it would increase its vocabulary and eventually pass the Turing Test, that is, communicate in a way indistinguishable from human.

As a result, Elixir not only learns a lot of facts about the world, it learns a great deal about the personalities and histories of its lab friends. I won’t spoil how this works out in the novel, but Moore’s conclusion is imaginative and entirely satisfying.

In a quiet way, The Unseen World is a thriller, the novel structured as an investigation with high stakes on the outcome. The Elixir program and even the various generations of computers that Ada uses to connect with it, have surprising personalities, as do the principle characters, Ada, her father, David, his kindly co-worker and neighbor, Liston, and her family.

The Unseen World is a contemporary novel with what I consider welcome genre elements. Underground Airlines is perhaps the reverse, a thriller with serious literary chops that mixes mystery and science fiction with alternative history. In Winters’ novel, the Civil War was averted by a compromise following the assassination of Abraham Lincoln. Four Southern states are still slave states; Texas is contested ground between an abolitionist faction and the federal government, bound by the constitution to protect the ‘property rights’ of the so called Hard Four.

The protagonist is a former PB – person bound to labor – who has a kind of quasi-freedom as a federal investigator. He’s a cracker jack detective but as his whole focus is runaways, Victor is a modern version of that hated 19th century figure, the fugitive slave catcher.
   
The character of Victor has attracted notice because Winters’ himself is not African-American, but he has certainly made Victor a complex character with a rich interior life. Further, the detective is not exactly our contemporary. He operates in an environment at once recognizable even in matters of race and politics, and peculiar, rather like the Alternate Universe in the old Fringe series or one of Philip K. Dick’s odd cities.
   
Part of Underground Airlines is straight detective work. Victor is a master of aliases and disguises, and, leashed by a tracking chip in his neck, he mostly focuses on his cases even though the poor souls he finds mirror his own experience and fears. His stoic indifference only begins to weaken after he meets Martha, a harried young white woman desperate to find her recaptured PB lover, and Lionel, their charming inter-racial son. But Victor’s rebellion really develops when a new case with an unsatisfactory file opens up unusual moral and physical dangers as well as unprecedented opportunities.

Victor is preoccupied with the various identities and schemes that comprise the mystery/thriller elements of the plot, but increasingly memories of his terrible slave childhood resurface. Later, certain sci fi elements are added to the mix, not, to my mind entirely successfully, but there is no doubt that they add a chilling note and bring into question Victor’s decision to focus on his own self interest.

The Unseen World and Underground Airlines are two novels with literary ambitions but strong genre elements. I think the mix strengthens both.

20 June 2015

Killing People is what I Do


by Melodie Campbell (Bad Girl)
 

“Why would you ever want to write about murder?” said the horrified relative.  “Why not write a nice little romance?”

Why indeed?

As I quickly added another relative to kill in my next book (you would be shocked how often that happens….) it occurred to me that there were many reasons to write about murder.

1.. It’s the challenge of creating the clever puzzle.  Plotting a mystery is like playing a chess game.  You always have to think several moves ahead.  Your reader is begging you to challenge them, and is working to beat you – meaning to guess the killer before your detective does - to the end.

2.  Plot is paramount.  Murder mysteries start with action – usually a murder.  Yes, characterization is important, and particularly motivation.  But murder is by nature an action, and thus something happens in the book you are writing.  And quite often, it happens again and again.

3.  It’s important.  This is murder, after all.  We’re not talking about a simple threat or theft.  A lot is at stake.  Murder is the final act.  The worst that can happen.  The end of it all.
 
4.  It’s a place to put all your darkest fantasies.  There are a few people I’ve wanted to kill in my life.  They did me wrong.  And while I do have a bit of a reputation for recklessness, I value my freedom more.  So what I can’t do in reality, I relish doing in fiction.

5.  Finally – it’s fun. This is the part I don’t say in mixed company (meaning non-writers and relatives.)  I can’t explain exactly why it’s fun – you’ll have to trust me on this part.  But plotting to do away with characters in highly original ways is a real power trip.  I’m smiling just thinking about it.

Of course, I can understand where some of the relative angst comes from.  In A PURSE TO DIE FOR, a gathering of relatives for a funeral results in the death of one or two. 

In THE GODDAUGHTER’S REVENGE, a cousin of Gina’s does her wrong.  So she does him back, in a particularly crafty and oh-so-satisfying way.

It was entirely accidental, that use of relatives.  Honest.  I wasn’t thinking of anyone in particular.

 Not much I wasn’t.

(You can follow Melodie at www.melodiecampbell.com.  Better still, buy her Goddaughter books.  It's an offer you can't refuse. Especially since her maiden name was 'Offer' - not kidding.)



Available at all the usual retail locations, including Amazon

15 September 2012

The Washed and the Unwashed

by John M. Floyd


Literary fiction, genre fiction.  What are the differences?

I realize we've already made trips to this well many times, but I think it's a fascinating topic.  Talking about fiction and what makes it good or interesting is always fascinating, to me.  As for the importance of the literary/genre issue, I'm honestly not sure how useful the whole argument is, except maybe to those of us who try to write for publication.  Anyone who hopes to regularly sell short fiction to magazines or novels to book publishers should have a fair understanding of the difference between literary and genre, because--after all--most markets' guidelines include phrases like "no genre submissions" or "literary fiction only" or "genre stories welcome."  In order to get past the gatekeeper, we need to be able to accurately categorize our work.  Or at least know how editors/agents/publishers might categorize it.

"Okay, then," says the beginning writer, or the hopelessly bored dinner companion, "what IS the difference between literary and genre?"

Food for thought, or guilty pleasure?

Some have said literary fiction is an Oprah's Book Club pick and genre fiction is a "beach read."  (It's hard to argue with that.)  Others say lit fic is what you find in The New Yorker and gen fic is what you find in EQMMAsimov's, etc.  (Can you spell cop-out?)  I once read someplace that literary stories are good for you and genre stories just taste good.  (I like that one.)  My wife says literary stories are what she watches on TV and genre shows are what I watch.  (As usual, she's right.)  The clearest definition I've heard, although it's wrong, is that genre fiction is mystery, Western, sci-fi, romance, and horror, and that lit fic is everything else.

I've even heard some rude folks say that literary fiction is for those who want to be challenged mentally, and that genre fiction should be read only by the mentally challenged.  Others, just as rude and not to be outdone, say that reading too much lit fic can make you mentally challenged.

In my short-story classes, I tell students that so-called literary works deal mainly with relationships, emotions, and "the meaning of life," while genre works deal mostly with action, excitement, and adventure.  An extreme example of a literary story might be Hemingway's "Big Two-Hearted River."  It's a short piece about a guy who hikes into a pine forest, pitches a tent beside a river, spends the night, and fishes for trout, and that's it.  There's no plot, no conflict, nothing except one character doing a lot of thinking and (hopefully) making the reader think as well, about implied but never-mentioned subjects like war and rehabilitation.  I think the opposite extreme, the ultimate genre story, is a tale someone told me in high school called "The Hook."  You've all heard it: (1) a teenaged boy and girl go out parking despite warnings that a deranged killer with a prosthetic hook is on the loose, (2) they think they hear someone sneaking around outside their car while they're necking, (3) they bug out for the dugout, screaming and spraying gravel, (4) they later decide they overreacted and probably really didn't hear anything, and (5) when they get to the girl's house and the boy walks around the car to open her door for her, there's a hook hanging from the passenger-side door handle.  No deep meanings there, no profound messages, no disillusioned or dying or suicidal characters.  The whole story is plot--a twist-ending plot designed to scare the hell out of you--and the characters are there only to carry out the storyline.  And it works.

Straddling the fence

Sometimes the difference between literary and genre is obvious: The Grapes of Wrath on one end of the field, let's say, and a Rambo movie on the other.  But sometimes, as is true of most things in this life, the lines can get a little blurry.

James Lee Burke's mystery novel Cimarron Rose is considered by some to be both genre fiction and literary, mainly because of his use of elegant, descriptive language; the crime novels Mystic River and The Silence of the Lambs combine the categories because of the strength and depth of their characters; and classics like To Kill a Mockingbird and Shane are a mix of lit and genre mostly because of the life lessons that they teach.  Scout Finch and Bobby Starrett both undergo extreme changes in the way they look at life and their fellow man, and many consider this process of "becoming a different person during the course of the story" to be the single most important gauge of whether a piece of fiction belongs on the literary side of the courtroom.

Lucky with critics, unlucky at love

One thing you can count on: the critics will like you if you succeed at writing lit fic, and the public will adore you if you succeed at writing gen fic.  There's a reason that genre fiction is also called "commercial" fiction and "popular" fiction: it sells.  Stephen King once said, and I'm paraphrasing, that if you specialize in writing literary fiction there's a good chance you might find yourself sitting down with your family one night to an Alpo-and-noodles casserole.

Does that mean that all of us who actually want to earn something (rather than just learn something) should try to write only genre fiction?  Of course not.  I think you must write the kind of stories and novels that you most enjoy reading, and feel comfortable writing.  If you try to do otherwise . . . well, you'll probably fail.

It's sometimes not even safe to try to write in more than one genre.  Some can do it effectively (Nora Roberts/J.D. Robb with her romances and mysteries, Loren Estleman with his mysteries and Westerns, etc.), but it's not easy.  I don't know either of those authors, but I would bet my iPad that both of them enjoy reading the two genres they've chosen to write in.  And my hat's really off to those who can successfully write both literary novels and genre novels.  There are many, but Larry McMurtry and Ed McBain/Evan Hunter come first to (my) mind.

More opinions

The oft-stated view that literary fiction is character-driven and genre fiction is plot-driven is correct, I think, but it's an oversimplification. To be successful, both categories need engaging plots and interesting characters.  But I do agree that in lit fic the characters are probably more important than whatever it is they're doing, and in gen fic what they're doing is more important than who they are.  I love to quote Stephen King, and I often find myself thinking about his observation of lit vs. genre.  "Literary fiction," King once said in an interview, "is about extraordinary people doing ordinary things.  Genre fiction is about ordinary people doing extraordinary things."

Here's another quote that I wrote down in a notebook long ago--I think it's attributed to Bill Stephens: "The characters in literary fiction spend so much time thinking, they never get around to doing anything.  They constantly are confronted with deep issues of: Who am I?  Why am I here?  What should I do?  Where am I going?  Why can I not love/be loved? . . . and a myriad of other 'Woe is me' considerations.  There just is no time left to do much."

Alas, there is also no time left to do much in this column.  Let me say, however, that I am primarily a genre reader and a genre writer.  I admit it.  I do occasionally read and enjoy literary works, I appreciate the effort and talent that it took to write them (I've actually sold some stories to literary journals--even a blind hog can root up an acorn now and then), and I understand that many folks prefer to always read and write that kind of fiction.  As Seinfeld would say, "There's nothing wrong with that."

But, God help me, I usually prefer to wallow among the unwashed.  I simply LOVE stories like Die HardJawsPsycho, and The Big Lebowski.  And I love the goosebumps I get when I think of "The Hook."


I still remember the childlike excitement I felt a couple years ago when I heard about an upcoming movie called Cowboys and Aliens, featuring Daniel Craig and Harrison Ford.  Good grief, I thought--James Bond and Indiana Jones, teaming up to fight it out with E.T.'s evil cousins?  How could that not be fun?

Sorry, Mom.  Maybe one of these days I'll grow up …