Tuesday, December 18, 2012

No Genre Fiction For You

Here's the truth about writing genre fiction:

Frankly, no one new to writing should do it.

When I was in college I took creative writing class. It was an entry-level course in the English department. Something like English 140: Intro to Creative Writing. When we got our first assignment, the professor made it clear that she did not want anyone writing genre fiction for her class. If she wanted us to write a love story, she wanted it set in the real, modern-day world, with real, modern-day characters. No alien space scapes, no historical sailing ships. Just two people dealing with a problem.

Likewise, sometime after college, I became involved through my girlfriend at the time, now my wife, on a website for new artists. She had been active therefore sometime and invited me to join. Artists would submit their pictures and they were open to critique from others. And as you critiqued other’s pictures people would follow links back to your page and critique yours. It also had an incredibly active in Email list-serve. Advice about how to become an artist flew around fast and furious. The most common thread among the emails was the debate of whether or not a fantasy artist should go to art school. The prevailing opinion among starting artists was that art school was a waste of time and energy because all they did was make you draw oranges and bottles and useless things. If you were going to do nothing but draw dragons for the rest of your life why did you need to spend hours and hours drawing a cube? It was a waste of time wasn't it?

In many ways the two situations are identical. The master of the art tells the novice not to delve away from the real world that everyone knows well.

I believe I have commented on this before on this blog. Recently, however, I find myself in unusual place. I'm embarking on a new ambitious writing project that will be dominating my off weeks from my Mind the Thorns. It is set in a slightly post-modern real world. The main premise, is that on December 21 the world actually does end. But not because of some manner of lava flow, or some massive round of tornadoes, or the earth spinning out of control. 

Aliens invade. And kill everyone. 

Like my sci-fi epic that I have been working on off and on now for several months, I find myself obsessing over the first few chapters. I want them perfect. I write, rewrite, revise, and off to beta readers, and then rewrite again. I have not let it rest. Literally for five days now I have focused on a single sentence. The first one.

I did the same thing with the Queen’s Fury novel. I will I spent days and days obsessing over that first line.

What sticks out in stark contrast, however, is how I have spent a lot of my energy after that first paragraph. With the Queen’s Fury novel, I have many many notes that I made during that initial process, which included ship schematics, floorplans and organizational trees. I was creating a world from scratch. 

This time, with “Operation: Bastion”, I'm doing something quite different. I am dedicating hours and hours to research. I'm handing my manuscript to experts in the field and asking them to critique the finer details I've included. When a KC-130 begins it's preflight start up, what order do the propellers turn it? What do they referred to them as? Is engine one the first engine to come up? Do the pilot and copilot even discuss whether or not engine one is up and running?

That is just the technical things. I haven't even begun to discuss what it's like to write about a military mindset, using a modern military, while having access to people actually in the modern military. With her Majesty’s Space Navy, I had extreme license to take all manner of liberties. Sure, I may have someone say that they do not understand why in a space-faring world, people would choose only to engage two-dimensional plane of engagement rather than fight in three dimensions, but that's something that I can also hand wave away. I can say, well that's just the way their society, their future universe works.

The challenge with writing in the modern setting, is that I do not have that liberty.

Which forces me to do something that I believe all writers must make themselves do. They must make themselves research. They must make themselves talk to people. They must get their work out there for people to critique.

Because as people are reading their technical details, they will also get some feedback on the writing itself. It also slows down the writing process, allowing a writer to spend more time on the mechanics.

Research is one of those things that I think is under-appreciated among writers. At least the novice. Even when writing simple fun things such as fanfiction or cutesy romance, there is a great deal of value in understanding what you are writing about. It is very dangerous for someone to write into their story a character with alcoholism, but absolutely no experience with the disease. It is a unique one, and one that can easily be misrepresented. More to the point, is very easy for a naïve writer to think they are doing something justice, when all they are doing is perpetuating stereotypes. And I believe that is one of the dangers of writing.

We have a responsibility to be true to our subject, and not simply take the conventional wisdom and stereotypes and push them further into people’s psyche. If we are going to deal with something, we should deal with it right.

And it's not just responsibility, or pacing, it's about commitment to learning the craft. When you can just make it all up as you go along, you don't practice the art of staying within the believable. You let yourself get lost in describing these magical places, these futuristic tech, and you miss what it is that makes ~your~ fiction worth reading. Sure some people read to know what life is like at Hogworts, but far more read to find out how Harry Potter ~deals~ with life at Hogworts. It's about the people, the characters, the personal conflicts far more then it is about the setting or the uniqueness of the world.

The best stories, the ones that transcend culture, or time, are the ones that can be retold to any generation, any where.

And to the fledging artist, I would say the same. Learn how to draw the musculature of a horse before you try to draw a pegasus. Study how the human body goes together before you try to draw an elf or a dwarf. Look hard at the human face before you delve into the Kat-Man. That is what your instructors, advise, and it's solid advice.


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