… seriously, no idea what I’m talking about (2)

I posted recently about a story I had written in response to a specific open call. That post focused on stylistic editing and working within mandated word counts, partly because I found that angle interesting and partly because I didn’t want to talk too much about the story itself. Label me irrational or superstitious if you must, but since the story was merely under consideration at the time the post was composed, I felt I might cosmically undermine myself if I revealed even the smallest detail regarding the story’s subject matter.

The good news is, the story was accepted! More details to come when the anthology has a cover to promote and a release date and so forth. But for the moment, it’s noteworthy that my tale was accepted in a somewhat roundabout way, which provides an excellent entry point for discussing yet another aspect of Big Three (or Four) Genre Writing. I’ve made all the points I’m capable of making about how understanding genre, intuitively or otherwise, shapes how a reader experiences and interacts with a piece of fiction. Now I’ll tackle it from the writing side.

A good sense for the boundaries of genres, particularly the subgenres within them, is important for any writer trying to place stories in open call anthologies, because by and large those anthologies organize themselves along genre lines. If an anthology is supposed to have a science fiction theme, or more specifically hard sci-fi about human interstellar exploration, then no matter how entertaining your yarn about alien pirates who fly between the stars in leviathan jellyfish may be, you’re unlikely to be deemed “a good match” for the project. Whether you’re going through your personal back catalog of unpublished stories or sitting down to write something brand new, the genre expectation game should be a part of the process.

The call I responded to was for an anthology called “The Pulp Horror Book of Phobias”, which appealed to me with both “pulp” and “horror” right there in the title. Pulp is one of those overly broad categories that can encompass any number of genre-related ideas depending on whom you ask, but I happen to have my own pulp character always at the ready in the form of Kellan Oakes. I’m certainly no stranger to horror, and some of Kellan’s adventures have skewed towards that quadrant. What probably sealed the deal was the fact that the editor was looking for stories addressing very specific phobias, eschewing the more common (and understandable) fears of spiders and snakes and enclosed spaces in favor of strange and unusual phobias. Near the top of the alphabetical list was botanophobia, and if I couldn’t write a compelling story about the son of a druid facing off against someone deathly afraid of plantlife, then I might as well break my keyboard over my knee.

Venus flytrap
Anti-spoiler: the story is not about Venus flytraps. But this picture is pretty creepy.

The open call made direct reference to the Lester Dent Master Plot as a guideline for constructing a proper pulp story. I’d been aware of Dent’s formula for a while but never actually tried following the recipe to a tee, until I started working on the Kellan Oakes story I intended to submit to the Pulp Horror Book of Phobias. I outlined the story to hit the beats Dent suggested, and included the requisite number of twists and turns. The Dent formula recommends no more than 6000 words, as did the guidelines for the Pulp Horror Book of Phobias, which is whence the word count concern in the previous post arose. In the end, I wound up with what I thought was a gem, if I do say so myself. I had expanded Kellan’s supporting cast and fleshed out his background a little bit more. I had written a pulp tale of two-fisted action, no question, and I had incorporated one of the specific phobias being solicited. The only uncertainty I felt as I appraised the finished product was that it might not have enough horror in it. Clearly it had some horror ingredient, including an actual monster, but the overall mood was more thrilling than chilling. In the end, I simply submitted the story to let the editor decide what “pulp horror” was supposed to mean. Maybe the whole anthology was intended to be a broad spectrum of stories, some pulpy adventure stories with horror signifiers around the edges, some terrifying tales with a dash of pulp signifiers, some striking a perfect balance. Either it was a good match or it wasn’t, and if it were rejected, I’d find a home for it somewhere else.

I got the story in just before the deadline so I didn’t have to wait long to hear back. And what I heard back was … sorry, not exactly what we’re looking for. And while I had absolutely acknowledged that potential outcome ahead of time, the reasons the editor gave caught me off guard. It all came down to the botanophobia element, which the editor said didn’t match their vision. In hindsight, I realized that they probably wanted the main viewpoint character to suffer from the phobia in each story, either succumbing to it or overcoming it, to convey some visceral horror permeating everything in the tale. That wasn’t really an option for me once I decided to dive headlong into a new Kellan Oakes story, because I had no desire to make a previously undisclosed phobia a part of his character. So I incorporated it into an antagonist, where it became a plot driver but not really a vehicle for putting the audience directly through the emotional wringer. I respected the editor’s decision.

The emotional roller coaster took an upswing as the editor assured me that they really loved the story all the same, and then threw me for an even bigger loop-de-loop by asking if it would be all right if the story were accepted instead for a different anthology called Death’s Garden. I had been aware of the Death’s Garden open call as well, but hadn’t considered it for this story. From the title alone it sounds like a great fit, right? Botanophobia, Death’s Garden, same difference? Except that Death’s Garden had billed itself as an anthology of extreme horror.

As far as I ever knew, the extreme horror subgenre was the darkest of the dark, where no act was too unspeakable to write down and describe in literally gory detail. I’m not judging anyone who likes their fictional horror messy and in-your-face, but that’s never been my preference. And I never imagined that anything in the Kellan Oakes story I had submitted would come across as extreme. But, I’m not one to turn my nose up at an acceptance, however circuitous, so of course I agreed to have my story take root in Death’s Garden.

Even more so than usual, I will be curious to check out the anthology once it’s formatted, and see just how extreme the rest of the contents are. Maybe my Kellan Oakes tale will be the tamest in the bunch, or maybe the editor thinks extreme horror is anything even slightly more sinister than sparkly vampire romance. We shall see.

The point, once again, is that I would have thought the story I wrote was pulp horror, not extreme horror, and that it was a perfect fit for the Pulp Horror Book of Phobias and ill-suited for Death’s Garden. But apparently I was wrong across the board, so do I really have an unerring sense of genre conventions and distinctions? Probably not, but I still like to talk about it all the same.

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… but don’t know what I’m talking about (1)

So, according to my last post, I love all genre writing, separated into pure distillations or combined into various subgenres. You would think this means I love all of the Big Three (or Four) genres equally, and then in turn you would think I write stories in each genre equally, as well. I would certainly think so, or would have before I started engaging in some self-quantifying.

To date I’ve published seventeen short stories, and the numbers break out like so:

Fantasy = 8
Horror = 6
Superhero = 4
Science Fiction = 1

A couple of observations. The numbers above add up to nineteen, not seventeen, because I counted two stories twice, one as both fantasy and horror and one as both sci-fi and horror. Honestly a lot of my stories combine genres, and I haven’t got any realist/psychological horror stories to my credit, so all of the horror tales could have double-counted as fantasy. The method I used for dividing them up was the emotional tenor of the story – was I using monsters to propel action, or create fear and unease? – up through and including whether or not the story had a happy resolution. Fear and downer outcomes went in the horror category, while thrills and action and upbeat endings went for fantasy.

My allegedly favorite genre, superheroes, comes in second to last in the output rankings. I’ve talked before about my specific take on what makes a superhero story; notwithstanding my assertion in the previous post about how comic book worlds are the ultimate genre mashup, I mainly consider a story to be in the superhero category if the protagonist meets my “could do anything but chooses to help others” criteria. As of now, I can claim to have four tales like that out in the world, all of them featuring Kellan Oakes. I have two more unrelated superhero stories accepted by editors and awaiting publication, plus a couple of Kellan’s further adventures in the pipeline, so that number will be growing shortly, and might very well have taken the lead by this time next year.

But that lone sci-fi story really sticks out, doesn’t it? As someone who grew up knowing Star Wars by heart, watching live-action Buck Rogers and cartoon Flash Gordon on tv, reading Asimov, and knowing the expansion of the internet, animal cloning, Mars exploration and more as current events, how can I have so little fiction centered around mad scientists, aliens and robots to show for it? I’m not a technophobe, I love scientific progress, but for some reason I gravitate toward the impossible in my fiction. Maybe I worry that my deep-rooted fandom for sci-fi would make anything I tried on my own too derivative. Maybe the longer I’ve been alive, the more rigorous the factual basis of sci-fi has become, and I’m intimidated by the standards it’s held to. Maybe things just come and go in cycles, and at some point just past the horizon I’ll feel burned out on fantasy and start transposing my ideas from mythic kingdoms to distant planets. Hard to say, for me at any rate.

So, again, take everything I say around here with a grain of salt, especially when I start making sweeping pronouncements about genres and the fundamental ideas underpinning them. Clearly I have blindspots of my own which make me a less than totally reliable source.

Talking about genre …

It’s back-to-school season, and my mind turns (as it often does, including the hinting I did here) to somewhat academic questions. Such as: what is genre? And what does it mean to be a genre writer?

One reason I ask is because I consider myself a genre writer, but in doing so I’m using a very specific and perhaps non-intuitive definition of the word. Genre in and of itself is a reasonably easy concept to understand. It’s a way of categorizing similar kinds of work, in terms of their subject matter. Romance is one genre. Westerns are another. Fairy tales. True crime. Domestic drama. Espionage. And so on and so on.

They’re just labels, yes, but lest anyone think that all labels are arbitrary and thus unimportant, allow me to relate a personal anecdote. From the beginning of 2012 to the end of 2014, I took part in a blogging club (via a different, anonymous blog where I mused about popular culture and joked about how slack my day job at the time was, hence the need for anonymity) where there was a weekly assignment to review one of the 1001 Movies You Must See Before You Die. One week the chosen movie was Being John Malkovich. In my review I made a passing reference to it being a science fiction movie. I later read another blogger’s review and she confessed that she really didn’t get the movie, but once she noted that I called it science fiction, she had a slightly better handle on it. The point being that identifying the genre of a story helps set people’s expectations of the story, which in turn can (sometimes, for certain people) make a big difference in the experience of said story.

So, I think about genre quite a bit in terms of how other people would react to my own work. Partly that’s just on the off chance that my writing might come up in conversation with someone, and I’d like to have a ready answer if they ask “What kind of stories do you write?” Largely, it’s because I tend to write for open calls which are organized around genre-specific themes. In the former case, it’s quick and easy to say “mostly genre stuff” as shorthand for the Big Three of science fiction, fantasy and horror, and all of their attendant subgenres. And in the latter, those Big Three all seem to coexist pretty closely in the market listings and Facebook groups and whatnot.

It does seem odd, though, that the Big Three is taken for granted as such. I can’t think of any other triumvirate of genres that seem so logically grouped together. If someone told me they write mainly cowboy stories, spy stories, and caveman stories, I wouldn’t think that was odd per se, but I would also assume they more or less stumbled into that combination, as opposed to following the example of numerous other authors I could name off the top of my head who write in those three genres. Whereas in addition to many authors who are known as sci-fi writers, or fantasy writers, or horror writers, there are almost as many who go back and forth between two of those genres or amongst all three.

Of course arguably the main thing that sets SF/F/H apart from WWII stories or police procedurals or regency novels or whathaveyou is the fact that my beloved Big Three incorporate many elements that do not and never have existed. Free-thinking computers and arcane magicks and immortal monsters are pure flights of fancy, utterly imaginary. However unrealistic or improbable a shootout or a love affair may be, they’re still working with raw material lifted from reality.

And then on the flip side, it’s a bit odd that SF/F/H are considered three distinct genres (my shorthand of being a “genre writer” notwithstanding) when it would be perfectly accurate to lump them all together as fantasy, concerned with things which are not real. Yet the distinctions are pretty universally recognized. Science-fiction’s version of things which never were leans toward what-might-be, as opposed to fantasy’s can’t-be. We can conceive of laser weapons, interstellar spaceships, lifelike robots and mental telepathy, whereas magic spells and dragons and unicorns are essentially impossible by our understanding of the universe. Science-fiction looks to the future, even when set in the present or an alternate past, while fantasy hearkens back to our origins as superstitious folk with more abstract imagination than empirical knowledge.

Horror seems like a strange bedfellow with SF/F, and again seems like something which could be absorbed into either. The Terminator, Night of Living Dead and Frankenstein are science fiction, and Dracula and IT are fantasy. Then again, Psycho is neither, Jaws is only sci-fi if you use the term extremely loosely, and some people might argue that The Exorcist is about extant phenomena and could plausibly happen. Perhaps it will suffice to say that horror gets lumped in with SF/F because a fair amount of it involves imaginary elements, but also for a couple of other reasons. One is that it tends to appeal to a niche audience, and for whatever reason there does happen to be an overlap – again, not perfect, but also again, a fair amount – in people who enjoy stories about robots, or elves, or scary stuff. Clearly you can count me among those kind of people.

And another reason might have something to do with the time continuum I invoked above. If a story contains unreal elements but is also set in the future, our brains can rationalize that, particularly if the unreality feels like something that could develop over time, and thus we get sci-fi. If a story contains unreal elements but is also set in the past, our brains can rationalize that as well, particularly if the unreality feels at the very least like something people used to believe in, hence classic fantasy. But if a story contains unreal elements and is set in the present, that in and of itself is unsettling and disturbing. It’s a depiction of the world outside our window, and yet it’s not, and that uncanny valley between the two gives rise to fear. A dragon, gigantic and fire-breathing and indifferent to human suffering, should be the most terrifying thing in the world, but within the confines of a medieval setting it’s simply part of an adventure. Whereas a tiny gremlin on the wing of an airplane is the stuff of nightmares. So horror along with sci-fi and fantasy helps to triangulate the combination of the imaginary with settings in time, and a trinity by association is born.

I recognize this isn’t a perfect theory, as there are certainly happy non-horror stories which take the present world and incorporate impossible science or fantastical whimsy. My favorite genre is superhero stories, which are pretty much all of the above, sci-fi and fantasy and even horror ideas all swirled together in a colorful, chaotic morality play in a world without limits which is somehow always the status quo here and now. And it’s precisely that no-holds-barred, anything goes spirit which can see a genius inventor and a mythological god team up to take on an alien sorcerer that makes the superhero genre my favorite. I love all the components separately, and love them even more in aggregate.

So calling myself a genre writer – which really means being a writer in at least three or four different genres, interconnected in ways which are sometimes obvious and sometimes less so – has always felt right. And if I really put my mind to it, as here, I can try to map it all out and make sense of it. But do I really know what I’m talking about? Join me here for future posts in which I peer into the mists for the elusive answer to that very question! (Preview spoiler: probably not. Probably I have no idea what I’m talking about.)