Friday, 18 November 2011

A few thoughts on Genre

People keep asking me about my novel's genre. I'd love to be able to come back with a snappy one word answer that effectively answers their question, but I can't. I think when someone asks the genre question they're asking a lot of different questions all at once. What's it about? Will I like it? What other novels that I have already read and enjoyed is your novel like? And other stuff like that. So when I answer contemporary urban fantasy murder mystery, the response is often, 'Say what now?' I really need to boil that mouthful down to a one or two word version.

But that got me thinking about genre in general and I thought maybe instead of answering tough questions, I could just sort of make stuff up. I'm way better at making stuff up, and I bet I can make a passable blog out of that, so let's go with it.

When people say genre these days they usually mean anything other than mainstream. It could refer to romance or science fiction or fantasy, or horror, or mystery. Technically mainstream literature is a genre, but in practice it's more like the lack of genre or perhaps just the default. The word genre comes from the French and originally meant 'hard to get published.'

One book can fall into more than one genre, for example my own book is both a classic noir mystery and an urban fantasy. The Lord of the Rings is both an epic work of high fantasy and a travelog of Middle-Earth. Believe me when I tell you to skip Mordor when you book that tour. Steampunk is almost always accompanied by another genre. Classic steampunk is often paired with Victoriana, but it can also be found in contemporary fantasy, pulp science fiction or even post-apocalypse adventure. Where ever you find anachronistic technology (often over-sized and baroque as all get out) paired with social inequity, goggles and hats you will find steampunk. It's really more of a style than a genre.

Can stories can change genre after they've been published? When Frankenstein was first published it was science fiction (and horror, of course) because folks believed that maybe - just maybe - if you shot enough electricity into a corpse, that sucker would get up and move around again. Now I think it's safe to say that idea has been relegated to fantasy. But does that mean that the novel should likewise be relegated to fantasy? Should we re-shelve Frankenstein? How about billing it as the world's first medical drama? Or should we just call it proto-steampunk and move on?

Let's consider Paranormal Romance. Is the paranormal part more important than the romance part? Is dating a bad boy from the wrong side of the grave cooler than dating one from the wrong side of the tracks? Could I write a historical romance novel, replace all the instances of the word pirate with vampire and have a million seller? They both wear pretty much the same kind of floppy shirts, it could totally work. Should I add a pretty-boy vampire to my next book? Should I add steampunk to my next book? Does throwing in elements from another genre change a story? Would it make a book better?

For me the answer is not just no, but hell no. When I'm writing in a genre, I want the heart of the story to be intrinsically related to that genre. If I'm writing a fantasy murder mystery than the means, motive, and opportunity all have to have fantasy elements. If they don't I'm just re-skinning a story using genre elements. There are reasons to do that and I might do it some day but not today. Tomorrow's not looking so good either. Is the genre the story or merely the way the story is told? How many stories can be translated into an entirely different genre without changing the essential elements of that story?

These are the things I think about late at night when other people are thinking about that last slice of pie in the refrigerator. It's just as well, I could stand to lose a few pounds.

Chelmsford, MA
November 21, 2011

Tuesday, 15 November 2011

My plot for World Domination.

This is the part where I get to be a super-villain.

Not the kidnap Aunt Petunia type of super-villain, but rather the fly over Manhattan on a zeppelin and hold the entire island hostage type. We're talking your typical masked megalomaniac here; you know the type. Why do I get to become a monolog-spouting, world-conquering masked menace? It's simple, I write contemporary fantasy.

Moo hah ha!

Not seeing it? Make yourself comfortable inside my slow but insidious death trap and let me explain ... because I believe that only someone like you could understand how someone such as myself came to be. Before I kill you, Dear Reader, I shall explain my nefarious plan ...!

I write contemporary fantasy and that means I get to translate any aspect of real life I want into my own little fictional world. I can re-write history any way I please. I can replace science with magic and coincidence with destiny. That last part is important because it means that I can change history in my fantasy world as long as it always makes dramatic sense. Even senseless tragedy or meaningless coincidence can be used as story-telling elements that eventually lead to good pacing and drama.

Like when the innocent little girl loses her family and her home and is forced to lead a life of deprivation, but whose wholesomeness and plucky inner strength lead her to greatness - or in some cases a really terrific boy friend. Or like when the villain shoots his gun right before the fight scene starts, knocking over an oil lamp and starting a fire. During the fight, the fire grows and grows as the combatants ignore it completely. After sufficient thrilling action ensues, the fire causes a beam to fall down, clonk the bad guy on the head but leave the good guy completely unharmed. For bonus points the good guy then saves the bad guy's life by dragging him out. No one will mind that I totally Deus ex Machina'd the end of the fight because the meaningless coincidence was given meaning. After all, the bad guy did start the fire, right?

I won't need to do a lot of research when I change history because it's an alternate world and any number of things could have gone differently. I'm describing a world where magic is commonplace, it should be easy enough to slide in some wild historical inaccuracies. So long as all my changes make good dramatic sense and support my story, no Literature Professor in the world would prosecute me. Or so goes my plan. Only time will tell.

I am pondering such thoughts as I celebrate E-Day. Yes, E-Day! From this day forward, I will mark November 14th as the day my novel became publicly available as an e-book, thus E-Day. This is the day I will completely forget about each and every year, only noticing a week or so after and saying to myself, 'Damn, I missed E-Day again. I really should celebrate next year.' Where ever my writing and publishing career goes from here, this will be the day it officially began.

It's good to have official beginnings. Actual beginnings are usually pretty murky and notoriously hard to pin down. Did Monday and the Murdered Man begin when I decided to publish it in August 2011 or when I sat down to write it in January of 2009? Or when I first thought of the Murdered Man and his unusual request while writing for a live action campaign called Threads of Damocles. How about when I first named a character Zack Monday back in college? This is why I'm happy to have an official date that can be easily written down and subsequently forgotten.

Publishing my own book puts me in some very distinguished company, both historically and today. I'm certain there are lots of webpages that can tell you the true history of publishing, but in the spirit of being a history altering super-villain who can make up his own history as long as it's entertaining, I'm going to say the history of publishing goes like this:

In the Beginning God Self-Published the Universe. Or maybe there was a Big Bang, I wasn't there, I don't know. Either way it certainly wasn't a traditional publication so I'm going to go with God being an independent.

Later on the Renaissance happened and steampunk was invented, and shortly after that enormous steam and electric-powered typewriters that were so big you had to use ten servants to hit all the keys (and the two guys at the back only got to fight over who hits the space bar). And so DaVinci's Legendary Lost 13th Notebook becomes the next noteworthy historical publication.

At this point the gag is getting old so there's a rock-music montage of a bunch of literary images that brings us to the present day. Because I skipped over a lot of the details I can go back later and add stuff without contradicting myself. Again the only rule is that whenever I mold history to my whim it has to be cool.

So I don't get to do this in real life, but I can do it all I want in my books. Zack Monday's Fifth World is a lot like our own on the surface, but I can dip below that surface anytime I want (or at least I can anytime it serves the story) and bring up some bizarre and cool difference between our two worlds. And I can change history to do it. I can say that Gottfried von Leibniz and Isaac Newton were the heads of rival magical societies involved in a shadow war to control all of reality and that's why traditional publishing houses first came into existence in 1719 when Leibniz died. After that moment and for the next 300 years all who published without the help of a traditional publishing house were doomed to failure. Only the invention of the automatic printing press in the year 2,000 could finally break the curse.

So yeah.

That's how I would say the History of Publishing went if I were a time-warping, reality-controlling super-villain.

And also I would have made E-Day fall on 11/11/11, because that would have been so much cooler.

Thursday, 3 November 2011

My Problem With Reality

I've never been very good at real life.

That's probably not a huge shock for most of the people who've met me, but please let me elaborate. My problem with real life is simple: it's not very well written. Everyone knows what makes up a good story. You want a catchy opening to grab your attention, interesting characters that are introduced logically and who get development and arc as the plot moves forward, some solid structure a little bit of foreshadowing, and a satisfying well-constructed conclusion that ties up all the loose ends and makes some kind of sense. That doesn't seem like too much to ask, does it? We expect it from our entertainment and we cry foul if we don't get it. Unless we're talking about foreign film, but that's a topic for another day (much like my review of Once Upon a Time in Tombstone).

But real life hardly ever works that way. We're expected to figure out what's going on without any flashbacks or exposition or narration. The characters are either unmemorable or unbelievable and there's no satisfying resolution to any of the ongoing plots. I'd say it's like one of those night-time drama soap operas, but even they have some structure to them. Heck, even so-called Reality TV has a better plot than actual reality does.

And let's talk about pacing. In any decent story - be it television, movie, novel, or campfire tale - the action is spread around so there aren't long boring stretches followed by everything happening all at once. Once again real life steadfastly refuses to follow even the most basic rules of story development and structure. Reality is also filled with fiddly little details and long passages of time where absolutely nothing interesting happens. This is the kind of stuff that any good story totally glosses over. I'm not necessarily saying this is a bad thing it's just how real life differs from a good story.

Despite all the Chekov's Guns that go unfired and all the Occam's Razors that never get to shave their conclusions down in real life, I'm still stuck with it until something better comes along. That's why I like to take little vacations from reality by playing games (where balance and mechanics often over rule petty concerns like realism and accuracy), reading, and writing. Real life does have the advantage of surprise; unpredictability is hard to predict after all.

In other, completely unrelated parts of real life, I'd like to give a shout out to a great web page that my real life cousins have put together. If you're so inclined, click on over to Despite Everything Obama. Warning: Contains Politics.

Speaking of real life, Monday and the Murdered Man lurches zombie-like ever closer to publication. If all goes well and no one shoots it (or me) in the head, I will have some cover art to show soon. If other parts of all go equally well, the upgrade for the Verdigris interactive steampunk novel will be available at iTunes by the time you're reading this. We added two new storylines, a bunch of new locations and simply hundreds of new screens of material. If you've already bought the original Verdigris, the upgrade is free. If you haven't gotten it yet, it will set you back a mere 99 cents.

Addendum: Things didn't go well, but at least no one has been shot. Yet. Why isn't anything ever as easy as it's supposed to be? In theory, all we had to do was upload the new Verdigris build and have a sandwich. Guess what? You guessed it: Real life strikes again. This game has been so tricky, I'm beginning to think I should have cribbed from MacBeth instead of Hamlet. The first time we planned to do the update (a few months ago, my partner João had to go on a series of business trips. This was a good thing at the time, because it meant his day job was actually going well, but it put things off. We had planned to do the build and load out last weekend, but Mother Nature intervened in the form a 4 and 1/2 day power outage. (Believe me Dear Reader when I tell you that heat and light are good things to have.)

And that brings us to today wherein the our code seems to have chosen to redefine how parentheses work. Or something like that. I leave the programming details to my partner; I'm just the word monkey. A couple of hours of multilingual cursing later and much talk about partially versus fully formed expressions, what the aforementioned expressions can and can't see, and something about the correct binding of tokens, things were back where they used to be ... I hope. Maybe we can publish the update tomorrow. Sometimes reality sucks more than others.

Stay tuned for further developments.

November 6th, 2011
Chelmsford, MA