Do you have to choose a genre?

If your writing transcends genre boundaries, how do you talk about it?

Photo by Engin Akyurt from Pexels

‘What kind of writing do you do?’ a person asks. And I freeze. ‘Well, my novel is speculative literary fiction,’ I might say. They give me a blank look. ‘Sort of like Margaret Atwood?’

Actually, A Superior Spectre is a mash-up of historical fiction, science fiction, literary fiction and the Gothic. It’s also been described as ‘philosophical fiction’ and even ‘horror’. And of course it’s not really comparable to Margaret Atwood! And then my novella, Joan Smokes, is historical fiction. And some of my short stories are science fiction and others are straight-up realism…

When I worked at a publishing house, I certainly understood how useful genre can be, not only for the marketing and publicity teams, but for me as an editor to be able to pitch a manuscript in an acquisitions meeting in the first place. From these meetings, through to publicity talking to media, to the marketing team putting together materials for booksellers, and all the way to the bookseller selling a book to the end customer, genre is an established code that aids in matching books to readers.

There are readers who understand and gravitate towards particular categories such as crime and thrillers, romance, SFF, young adult… Within these genres are a range of sub-categories, and some readers can be very specific about what they like or are looking for. Publishers are always seeking that elusive book that satisfies genre conventions but also has a fresh take: a surprising, timely or gripping ‘hook’ or a unique character or setting. A book that will both feel familiar and fresh to readers.

But I know also from my time as a bookseller many moons ago that there are plenty of readers who, like me, read very broadly and are not concerned about whether a book neatly fits into a genre and has all the tropes and beats of that genre. Many readers do quite enjoy a genre-blend, too: sci-fi meets romance, fantastical historical fiction, a thriller on the moon. When you think about it, a lot of what’s adapted to film and television absolutely blurs genre boundaries. But at the submissions level, publishers struggle to know how to place and market these kinds of works, which leads to a lot of the same-same you see in the market.

(As a side note, there are a couple of interesting not-quite-genre terms being used in publishing, such as ‘reading group/book club fiction’, which denotes that the book could pretty much be any genre but has great talking points – aspects based on fact, topical issues, or complex discussion-worthy characters – and ‘elevated genre’, which I believe comes from the film world as I first heard it at a film/TV rights pitching session. ‘Elevated genre’ is basically intelligent genre fiction that may have a topical element, more ‘high-brow’ ideas, or a killer concept that ‘elevates’ it above trope-based genre fiction. Of course, a lot of genre writers could find this term rather condescending! Also, probably don’t use these terms in query letters at this stage...)

I think genre is one area where it’s fascinating to see how self-publishing (ebooks in particular) compares. Online, yes, a book is still classified by genre. But in Am*zon’s Kindle Direct Publishing Store, there are over 16,000 categories to choose from. An author can choose several sub-categories, so they don’t have to limit themself to just showing up in searches for thrillers or romance. But what I want to focus on is keywords and tags. Ebooks have searchable keywords, and authors can also use keywords, tags and hashtags on their websites and blogs, and in their social media, to alert potential readers to their works. I think that keywords go beyond internet searchability, and can act as a different kind of shorthand for potential readers than genre does. For example, look at the way they are used on Netflix:

As COVID-19 and extended lockdowns are inevitably changing the publishing industry but also the way books are marketed, I think both authors and publishers could experiment more with keyword-based marketing, rather than being genre-focused. If I use keywords rather than genres for my writing, I do start to see more cohesion between all my works, no matter what genre:

Feminist, speculative, historical women, queer themes, absurdist philosophy, literary references, metafiction, gothic, technological progress, esotericism, psychology…

Keywords could be themes, elements, concerns, eras, events, character traits, places the work is set, the great passions and desires of the author!

There are plenty of marketing-focused articles on keywords out there. (Here’s one.) This missive is meant to be more of an encouragement to authors to be okay with your book not fitting neatly into a particular genre. Genres will not become obsolete, but I believe we don’t have to be limited by them and be afraid our work will not be ‘marketable’ or will fail to find readers if it doesn’t neatly fit within the bounds of one or another. Especially in a rapidly evolving book publishing (and content consumption) landscape.

Next time someone asks me what I write, I’m going to go beyond genre: ‘I like to explore the lives and sensations of women, in different eras, with some gothic and science fiction vibes…’

What about you?

I hope you’re all otherwise keeping well. A special big hello and virtual hug to my fellow Melburnians. Only two weeks (we HOPE) of Stage Four lockdown to go. Be kind to yourselves.

And a quick reminder that there’s just one month left to pre-order my capsule course on creating compelling characters for only $29.99. That’s 70% off the full price. It’s a masterclass and resource kit in one. I’ve gathered so much great info and even if you don’t need it right now, it may be good to dip into later on, maybe when drafting or redrafting your next manuscript.

Opportunity of the month

Allen & Unwin have announced an exciting crime fiction prize. The winner will be awarded a publishing contract with an advance against royalties of $AUD 25,000.

A&U also have an exciting new imprint, Joan!

~

Take care, stay safe, and get in touch if I can help with anything,
Angela

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Hold your reader's attention with precise placement and progression

Two essential elements for readable and immersive fiction

Photo by Daniel Jensen on Unsplash

You know I love talking ‘big picture’ but this month I want to come down closer to the line level and explain two types of mistakes I encounter frequently when editing fiction: an inability to physically place your reader within a scene, and a confusing progression of information.

If an agent or editor is reading your opening pages and they have no idea where they are, or have to go back a few sentences to figure out what’s happened/is happening, I guarantee they won’t read on for much longer.

To place, situate or position your reader, you might begin with a series of questions when writing (or, more likely, when revising or editing your own work): Where does this scene occur? Who is there? What is happening and what kind of point of view do we have on the events unfolding?

Perhaps this is something that gets missed because it’s common now to be told to begin your story in medias res. To get straight to the action. But without proper placement, the action will all be a blur. It will be unanchored.

Here’s an example of an opening paragraph that fails to place the reader:

The gun was on the floor. He stood for so long looking at the gun. And then he was outside and running, running. The man behind him found the gun. He had no such reservations. He picked it up. He closed in on the first man. He squeezed the trigger. It’s over, the first man thought. He fell to the ground.

This is not a strong introduction to a scene. We can’t see, feel or smell anything. We don’t have any sense of who these men are. It’s too speedy. And don’t get me wrong; you can still write a scene with very subtle detail and situate us adequately within it.

Let’s add some placement details, including properly deciding on a point of view:

Matt stood for so long looking at the gun on the concrete warehouse floor. Was it his? He didn’t even know how he had got here.

And then he was outside and running, running. The sun was high and hot as he ran between the shadows of buildings and he began to sweat. He was too out of shape for this. He spun his head to look back and there was another man. A much fitter man. He had the gun.

Matt ran so hard spit choked up his mouth. He instinctively ran in the direction of home. But that was where Anya was. He had to turn, spin, rethink. He didn’t want to look behind him. Despite the heat, his neck prickled with cold.

In front of a café a group of women with prams idled. Shit. He jogged toward the road, tripped, came down. His hands and legs scrambled amid noises of shock. The sun was in his eyes.

The gun was in his eyes.

‘It’s over,’ the fit man said.

Okay, it’s not Shakespeare… but now how we have visuals, smells, tastes, temperature; a small idea of the character (he’s unfit and cares about someone called Anya); and a clear and maintained ‘lens’ on the action: third person limited point of view.

Even a post-modern novel like Italo Calvino’s If on a Winter’s Night a Traveler intentionally places us (and draws attention to itself doing so!):

The novel begins in a railway station, a locomotive huffs, steam from a piston covers the opening of the chapter, a cloud of smoke hides part of the first paragraph. In the odor of the station there is a passing whiff of station café odor. There is someone looking through the befogged glass, he opens the glass door of the bar, everything is misty, inside, too, as if seen by nearsighted eyes, or eyes irritated by coal dust.

Progression is linked to placement because the information you have in a scene (or even a paragraph) has to come in the right order. A thought your character has will be prompted by an action or object. The action or object will come into the scene as part of a logical progression (it is handed to them; they look at it). Their thoughts and dialogue, too, will have an associative flow. If the narration is omniscient, the narrator pans around the room, or zooms in from a height, but does not dizzyingly jump-cut from one perspective to another (without a link). The easiest way to show what I mean by progression is to show you a scene where it is ‘off’:

The gun was on the ground. Matt stood for so long looking at the gun on the concrete warehouse floor. Was it his? He didn’t even know how he had got here. The sun was high and hot as he ran between the shadows of buildings and he began to sweat. He was outside and running, running. He was too out of shape for this. There was another man. A much fitter man. He spun his head to look back.

He had the gun.

Matt ran so hard spit choked up his mouth. He ran in the direction of home, instinctively. But that was where Anya was. He didn’t want to look back. Despite the heat his neck prickled with cold. He had to turn, spin, rethink.

The most jarring aspect of this is that he is standing, looking, and then there is sun and heat and he is running, but the interconnecting phrase, which takes us from one motion to the next, is out of place. It comes too late. (He was outside and running, running.) Also, ‘There was another man’ lacks context, and so we cannot picture where this man is, or even when: Does it mean that there’s a man there now? Or there was a man back in the warehouse? Only when we get to ‘He spun his head to look back’ do we realise that the man is chasing him. Therefore, the information in this sample does not progress correctly.

Most of you are probably reading this, going: I would never do that. But it’s easier to muck up progression than you think. We can often picture the whole scene in our heads; everything that’s happening immediately and in the periphery. We often don’t realise we’ve gotten ahead of ourselves, left something out, or shifted the camera in a slightly illogical way.

The ideas of placement and progression are linked because one is about having enough detail for the reader to understand where they are and what’s happening and the other is about the order in which that information is given. Taking a break from your manuscript will help you to see these kinds of line issues better. And, of course, getting a fresh set of eyes on it is always useful – whether that’s a beta reader or an editor like me.

For examples of perfect placement and beautiful progression, check out the opening pages of the following novels:

The Well by Elizabeth Jolley

1984 by George Orwell

This is How by MJ Hyland

What am I reading?

I’m currently switching between Eugen Bacon’s poetic speculative novel Claiming T-Mo, Stephen Hawking’s A Brief History of Time (mind-blowingly wonderful) and the new issue of Overland. Attending ConZealand virtually this week means I’m also adding about a million more books to my to-read list.

Opportunities of the month

Here’s one for playwrights: The Yale Drama Series is seeking submissions for its 2021 playwriting competition. The winner is awarded $10,000, publication, and a staged reading. 

And here in Aus, Wakefield Press is publishing a YA short-story anthology, Hometown Haunts: #LoveOzYA Horror Tales. Contributors will receive a $500 payment.

If you’ve been enjoying this newsletter, please do share a link on social media.

Take care, stay safe, and get in touch if I can help with anything,
Angela

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How to create memorable characters

Compelling characters serve your story and linger in the reader's mind

Promotional photo of Boris Karloff from The Bride of Frankenstein as Frankenstein's monster, via Wikimedia Commons.

A literary character is a complex creation. In most types of fiction^, your characters will need to be well-rounded; empathetic (if not likeable); act in a believable way; carry the story’s tensions; and have an arc that ties in with that of the narrative. They will most likely also represent, in conflict or concert with other characters, the themes of the overall work.

Many manuscripts fall down because their characters are weak and are not harmonious with the other elements of the work. These characters are cliched, flat; they are carried by events rather than having an effect on their unfolding; they answer their own questions (destroying tension); they are illogically uneven (rather than consistently complex); and they experience no meaningful growth despite the events occurring in the story.

How do you create meaningful, memorable, effective (in terms of their story role) characters and avoid the pitfalls? Here are five areas to consider:

Characterisation and character voice

What is meant by characterisation? It’s the full formation of your character: their likes, dislikes, desires, fears, habits, tics, physicality, and the background and environment that has shaped their psychology. Their voice – their unique ways of thinking, speaking, acting – will be informed by their characterisation, and how much they also know about themselves. You can play with this further by making smart choices about point of view: will we witness events through their eyes (first person), from somewhere over their shoulder (third person limited), or at a distance or as part of a cast of characters (omniscient third person or shifting points of view)?

Throughout the narrative, show the reader who they are through their actions, gestures, thoughts, dialogue, memories. Be careful not to open the book with a character profile, telling the reader who your character is. (This is extremely common in manuscripts I’ve worked on.) Instead, kick off the story, give us just enough, and let the reader discover more about your character as they act in accordance to the events of the narrative.

Character arc

A character’s arc is, at its most basic, a shift in the character’s psychology from one state to another via their interactions with, and reactions to, the events of the plot. A character will be active in this, too. Things will not simply happen to them. They will fumble, make mistakes, get in their own way. Why? Because then there is tension. Because then the reader is invested in what they will do and how they will act – how they will find their way to where they want to be (or discover what that is).

Motivation

What does your character want? And why? What they seek is often related to the forward motion of the narrative.

But what do they really want?

That is something you may not even know, to begin with. It can be fun to find out! Once you’ve figured out your character’s motivations, remember that you don’t have to explicitly tell the reader what they are. Instead you will show, consistently, through the character’s actions, what they desire and what desires they may be hiding (from others and/or from themselves). The realisation of a true motivation can form part of the crisis or resolution of your story.

Additionally, tie character motivation to the story’s central conflicts: the opposing forces that exist within the narrative and aid its tension. For example, Dr Frankenstein’s motivation to be a god-like creator, and the creature’s motivation to be acknowledged as human, represent the grand conflicts of Frankenstein such as morality vs ambition, humanity vs God and person vs self.

Plausibility

It doesn’t matter if you’re writing something set in 1400 or 2078 or in a fortress under the sea, your characters have to be plausible and believable. Their characterisation must be informed by the circumstances of their background and physical context. In this sense, creating characters is an aspect of world-building. They may also be informed by the tone of the overall text. Where it gets tricky is when your characters are required to act in certain ways in order for the plot to progress. You have to be creative in ensuring their actions are believable and not too obvious as story devices. When doing this, consider not only the character’s physical context but the above points of characterisation and motivation. Remember their desires (apparent and subconscious); remember who they are. Make them act accordingly. If they are acting out of character, unless it’s for plausible reasons, your story will fall down. You may have to adjust their characterisation and motivation back through the manuscript (get to know them all over again) in order to make the pieces fit the way they should.

~

I could honestly spend weeks writing about this. I haven’t covered secondary and background characters, how to write unconventional characters or ones that populate experimental narratives*, how to swap between multiple protagonists, how to create antagonistic characters… And, actually, I’m going to do it! Spend weeks on this, that is. I also want to create some in-depth case studies, so you have a range of models for creating characters. (It might just be an excuse to re-read some of my favourite books…)

So, I’ve decided to create a capsule course on creating compelling characters, to launch in October, and you can pre-order it here for a steal (70% off).

^ There are styles of literature that vary from what we might call mainstream, in which character plays a different kind of role rather than a narrative role. A place can be a character; an object can be a character; a character might actively invert some of what’s present here.

* In Samuel Beckett’s novel, Malone Dies, Malone essentially spends the book in bed. It is a book devoid of plot, situation or characters (in the sense described here) and yet is compelling, IMO. In works like this, the writer often understands what it is they are inverting, has a sophisticated grasp of the philosophical (or other) concepts they are engaging with, and has a strong ability to engage the reader on the line level.

Opportunity of the month

Entries close soon for the Richell Prize for Emerging Writers. It is open to unpublished writers of fiction and narrative nonfiction. You only have to send the first three chapters and a synopsis of your manuscript. The winner will receive $10,000 and a year’s mentoring with a publisher from Hachette Australia!

If you’ve been enjoying this newsletter, please do share a link on social media.

Take care, stay safe, and get in touch if I can help with anything,
Angela

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Open the door to your 'magician's toyshop'

It all stems from the words (with thanks to Ray Bradbury)

In one of the hardest periods of my life, words have been doors: sturdy lines on a page through which the past, depths of the moment, and possible futures move. Among the first books I ordered after my dad died last month were Ray Bradbury’s 1951 short story collection The Illustrated Man and his book of essays, Zen and the Art of Writing. I’ve been wanting to read Bradbury for years, inspired by the schlocky 1980s-90s Ray Bradbury Theatre tv show. In the show’s intro, a grey-haired, bespectacled Bradbury enters a dark, cluttered room he calls his ‘magician’s toyshop’ – a vivid rendering of his subconscious – and his eyes search about for an idea. He describes the process of creating a story as a ‘trip’ that is ‘exactly one-half exhilaration, exactly one-half terror’.

The second story in his collection The Illustrated Man is ‘Kaleidoscope’, a haunting tale of men meeting their deaths in the blackness of space, drifting out from a damaged rocket ‘like a dozen wriggling silverfish’. My dad loved everything related to space. We grew up watching Star Trek with him, and here in the house there are models he made of spaceships and robots from various sci-fi shows and movies. These models would not look out of place in Bradbury’s ‘magician’s toyshop’ and, since Dad died, they have been asserting greater prominence in mine. As I read ‘Kaleidoscope’, I felt a strong connection to Dad, thinking also of his wish for his ashes to be shot into space:

‘There was a kind of wonder and imagination in the thought of Stone going off in the meteor swarm, out past Mars for years and coming in toward Earth every five years, passing in and out of the planet’s ken for the next million centuries.’

The essays in Zen and the Art of Writing are as inspiring and joyful as I had craved them to be. Bradbury says that the muse is your subconscious, that fiction comes from the truth inside you: the dark memories, the fears, confrontations, but also the dreams, the desires – the things you love and hate. ‘To feed your Muse, then, you should always have been hungry about life since you were a child. If not, it is a little late to start. Better late than never, of course. Do you feel up to it?’ (Well, do you?) His concept reminded me of what I have written and spoken about in regards to a writer’s ‘voice’: that the voice springs from your deepest concerns, and good writing happens when you have found an appropriate mode for the articulation of these concerns. (And these are not static, either, as we come to be in touch with different parts of ourselves over time. Standing literally in my dad’s shoes in the cupboard the other day, I remembered a version of myself I had forgotten.)

Bradbury has many useful exercises, too. They relate to those doors: the words themselves. We can have our loves and hates but we need the words to be ‘catalysts’, as Bradbury writes, to open memories out and see what they have to offer. He had a list of nouns in a notebook: the lake, the ravine, the carnival, the night train. From those, he would conduct word association exercises until something rose up from within and a character and scenario emerged. When I think of previous stories of mine, I can find the noun: the suit, the actress, the head, the trip. I love Bradbury’s simple story generation tool, in which you use a word to coax the magma of the interior. Use ‘the room’ or ‘the hat’ as a portal to that thing you did as a child you’re still ashamed of, or your secret dream of a big light-filled house on a river.

An additional activity, I think, or one that could be meshed with Bradbury’s, might be to write down a series of ‘events’. So we have the static nouns and then we have a series of movements, and the twain may meet to form a story (or not). Here are some from me:

Dropped their glasses

Came home too late

Found a message

Had no air

Found each other

Got to the bottom

Were alone again

Let flow whatever flows without second-guessing it. Even if you’ve seen it before. There are endless ways to write a scenario. There are endless angles on the current moment. Endless ways to write loss: in space, in a pair of shoes.

Go and open some doors.

*

Opportunity of the month

I loved reading the first issue of The New Gothic Review. They’re about to open their submission window again. Read and enjoy Vol. 1 and support their Patreon to get a feel for what they’re after. One day I will submit something too!

If you’ve been enjoying this newsletter, please do share a link on social media.

Take care, stay safe, and get in touch if I can help with anything,
Angela

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Reading to write

It can be hard to write in frightening times, but favourite books will see you through

Photo by Suzy Hazelwood from Pexels

I’m finding it a little hard to write at the moment. How about you? This virus is changing our lives. Our society. Many people I know are suddenly out of work. It’s… a little too big to comprehend.

The best thing I did today was not type some words on my keyboard but to overhear my elderly neighbour’s carer say to her ‘no luck’ as she got out of her car, and to slip on my thongs and race outside with two rolls of toilet paper to place carefully at a distance.

That is the kind of thing that’s making me feel okay at the moment.

But writing is what keeps me whole and helps me stay sane, and so I am seeing what I can do. I am keeping a journal again, for example. If I can’t write much creatively at least I can record what is happening and how it feels. And I am still having plenty of ideas. I write them down in a notebook, mainly, but sometimes in my phone. They’ll be there for when things feel more balanced.

But I am also reading. And reading, as I’ve mentioned before, can be part of the writing practice. How can you read in a way that feels productive to your writing, if that’s all you can manage right now?

To read as a writer is to read deeply. You engage with a book on multiple levels and aim to discover why it does what it does to you. You read actively, not passively. Reading deeply may also be to go beyond the text and read around it (the author’s oeuvre, contextual works, author bios, critical texts, interviews).

What do you read? If you’re reading to write, re-read those books that have had a big impact on you. That may also be comforting for you at the moment. The first question you may ask yourself is a broad one: why do you love this book? This simple question may unlock for you something about yourself as a writer. In a recent ‘Reading to Write’ workshop I did at Writers Victoria, we all found that George Orwell’s Nineteen Eighty-Four had resonated with us for different reasons. One writer said it was the strength of the writing, the sentences (how it started off plain and then went ‘technicolour’ for her); another said it was the mood; another the power of the message (and how that was achieved through aspects of worldbuilding, ie. Big Brother, doublethink, etc.). When I questioned each of the writers further, it became apparent that in their own writing, these were exactly the aspects that mattered for them to achieve. Golden sentences, an epic mood, a political message reflected in every element of the novel world! For me, it is often character, and ‘resonance’. I go back to my favourite books and I think: why did that character stick with me? And what made the book linger?

When you’re going back through these favourites, either take notes by page number, or use sticky notes. Highlighting and noting within ebooks works well, too. Look for those answers to the aspect that impressed you but also note anything that jumps out. Sometimes it’s like a little puzzle – only later you’ll realise why a certain line of dialogue, or character gesture, caught your attention.

When you finish the book, jot down any other impressions. Try to think about it as a whole, now – about big picture aspects such as the book’s narrative voice or point of view; the pacing of the book and the progression or unfolding of scenes; how the writer held tension (what made you keep turning the pages); the characterisation, character arcs and the role of the characters in forwarding the plot; the elements that cohered to create a specific tone or mood, such as imagery; and the overarching themes or concerns and how these were presented.

You might be thinking: isn’t this a recipe for derivative writing? A hard no from me. I have been reading Samuel Beckett’s biography recently, and so much of his early years is reading and writing down great tracts of quotes from his reading, and writing essays about other writers, and all of this study, combined with Beckett getting in touch a bit with his inner self, led to some of the most original (and in my opinion, extraordinary) literary texts of the twentieth century.

So if, like me, writing feels like sludge right now, tuck a piece of paper into one of your old favourites, crack open a tin of food from the pantry, and dive in.

What I’m reading

One of my favourite writers/thinkers is Albert Camus, and I am now reading The Plague. Compelling and strangely comforting. I’m also reading two great Aus books: Shirl by Wayne Marshall (very entertaining short stories) and Cherry Beach by Laura McPhee-Browne (so far an absorbing novel of secret yearning). A favourite I intend to go back to is Mark Shelley’s Frankenstein.

What I’m watching

Good Omens, which is great fun but has the same problem for me as some other British shows as being a bit too pleased with itself. And I’m still enjoying Picard. It’s definitely fans-only, but I am one of those, so…

Opportunity of the month

Fitzcarraldo Editions, Giramondo and New Directions have joined forces on The Novel Prize, a new biennial award for a book-length work of literary fiction written in English by published and unpublished writers around the world. Cool!

Or, for published historical novels, there’s the new $30,000 ARA Historical Novel Prize.

If you’ve been enjoying this newsletter, please do share a link on social media.

Take care, stay inside, and get in touch if I can help with anything,
Angela

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