Tag Archives: genre

Defining Science Fiction

There has long been a battle, an attitude, a snobbery in the writing world where literary or mainstream fiction is real writing, and all that “genre” fiction is done by hacks and of little merit in the tales of the world. Anyone who writes in a genre knows this and has felt it. But what is a genre? It is the categorizing of a novel or story by some of its strongest elements.

No longer in favor but once very popular were westerns. They obviously took place in a time of the Wild West where cowboys and indians ran amok and pioneers struggled to survive while men maddened by gold-rush fever lived little better than animals. Romances are tales about love and obstacles to happiness, and almost always have the predictable ending of the man and woman (or man and man, woman and woman) finding each other. But the tales of how they get there are varied. Harlequin books has one of the most steady sell-throughs of any publisher. Publishing romances is a good business.

Erotica is obviously taking content into a more sensual or erotic tone. Science fiction, fantasy, horror, have elements integral to the story and were those elements removed the story wouldn’t hold up. Horror also fell into disfavor and is better known as dark fantasy these days. Still, there are blends of tales that aren’t all one thing. There are stories that are erotic and science fiction, western romances, literary fantasy, magic realism and politics (actually that one is a typical mix), and then there are literary, erotic, science fiction tales.

I wrote one story, “Hold Back the Night,” which I called my literary, lesbian, erotic vampire story. Vampire was never mentioned in the tale and it dealt with the wife burnings that happen in India. But labeling fiction is what we do; we the readers, we the writers and we the publishers. Publishers choose genres so that they can market to a specific demographic mindset. We’ll sell more of these books if we make it look like a cookbook or a romance and market to those people specifically interested in this. Publishers hate books that don’t fit in the neat categories.

Most of all they want to market books in mainstream, literary fiction because it is the largest readership and therefore the biggest sales. Writers of course would love the same. Readers can be a bit like sheept and think that if they only like a mystery book, they’ll never look in the romance section, but then there are thousands of books to look through so it can be difficult to find them. So, in mainstream, the more sales the more money, and the more awards available than in a specified category. A book that can’t fit into a category, or a story, may not be bought for a long time. I have a story that is not quite fantasy, and not quite mainstream and will circulate for a long time because it falls into the cracks.

But genres cause their own problems and as we see, narrow the readership. Many stories are not all of one shade. So Margaret Atwood, multi-award winner, always says she doesn’t write science fiction, yet some of her books extrapolate into a near future and ask what if. Seems pretty science fiction to me, many other writers, and readers. Yet she denies. Ursula Le Guin, multi-award winner writer of SF disagrees with Atwood’s view.

Le Guin gives an intriguing review of The Year of the Flood, which takes place after the events in Oryx and Crake. Both of these books are nearish future, with a crumbling of society, dystopian novels, because that’s what Atwood does best. But yet, she, like many of the literati, those who hold themselves above mere genre writers, says it’s not science fiction. And I must ask, what’s she afraid of, or is her viewpoint so narrow that in fact she only sees science fiction as squids in space?

Le Guin and Atwood are giants in their own rights, both award-winning authors whose stories span boundaries in some ways. Speculative fiction (an all-encompassing term for horror, fantasy, science fiction and really, literary fiction as well) doesn’t have to be shallow and it often looks at worlds and attitudes and how people change in regards to the pressures of life, species, invasion, change and technology–very valid commentary into our humanity, or inhumanity. So perhaps Atwood needs to accept that she has a narrow viewpoint of SF, get down from the pedestal and just accept that she writes it, sometimes. It’s not like it will hurt her rep, but the adamant head in the sand denial still doesn’t change that she writes science fiction, no matter what she calls it. Maybe she just hates the labels and codifying of writing.

I have not read The Year of the Flood, though I did read Oryx and Crake and where I felt it was a long setup for the story that wasn’t in the book, maybe Year is that story. And maybe not. For a very thought-provoking review by Ursula Le Guin of Atwood’s book, click on the link and be your own judge. And read the book, or read Le Guin’s books and see if the literary writer outweighs the SF writer. In the end, do you think Atwood writes science fiction, no matter what she calls it?

 http://www.guardian.co.uk/books/2009/aug/29/margaret-atwood-year-of-flood

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Writing: Revisionist Poems & Stories

A discussion of revisionist writing came about on another list when I mentioned that I had sold my poem “The First Taste” to Dreams & Nightmares. It is a revisionist poem about Persephone. I was asked what I meant by revisioning. A good question because the term is probably most often used in terms of history and politics. But on the other side are the revisionist myths or fairy tales. Some will come tagged with feminist revisionism but it goes beyond that.

I ran into revisioning somewhere way back, maybe first to do with the retold fairy tales, especially the ones that were in the Datlow/Windling anthologies. But I was also doing a course on children’s literature where we examined fairy tales right back to Perrault and the Grimm brothers. Angela Carter’s tales came up as some early revisionist fairy tales. I’ve also run into it in poetry but don’t remember when anymore. It could have been in the creative writing courses at UBC or in the world of speculative poetry.

I guess the basis for any revisioning poem is that instead of a third person or narrative tale of a hero’s or god’s deeds, the tale is now told in first person, though third person is also used. It might also be in the voice of the lesser being/mortal/bad guy who traditionally was fairly two-dimensional. This is not always the case with stories, which may also be in third person, but all tend to delve into the psyche of the person and how they feel.

This is sort of what happened to SF when it evolved past the embryonic stage of BEMs (bug-eyed monsters) and started to become more realistic; or magic realism, set in today’s world with just a small twist of otherness. (Is this the bastard child of canlit and spec fic?)

Like all genre labels, revisioning is just another fancy word for categorizing what we write. 🙂 In my revisioning poems (which really is just a classic tale, whether fairy tale or heroic myth, from another point of view) I’ve written on Dionysus, Kore/Persephone, Athena, Leda, Psyche, Demeter, Aphrodite (though the last really doesn’t fit the same way as the others). I’ve also written one story on the oracle on Pythos before it/she became the Delphic oracle.

In stories, I’ve taken various fairy tales and rewrote them as well, from the Princess and the Pea, to Snow White, to Dorothy after Oz.I’m sure there are other takes on revisioning but this is pretty much how I see and understand it. One well-known child’s story done in a revisionist mode is the about the three little pigs but from the wolf’s point of view, pointing out how he was framed.

Classical fairy tales are fairly thin and two-dimensional, offering very little depth into the whys and wherefores. Many fairy tales were cautionary tales, and others were, what academics now presume, tales to show/train young women for their eventual separation from their parents, and subsequent marriages. It is the purview of fantasy and speculative fiction to take the regular world and twist the what-if. If we’re looking at old, tried and true  tales, then it’s turning the story on its edge and presenting a new view.

Whether called revisionist, speculative or just plain fantasy, taking the classics and showing a new perspective is part of the evolutionary process. Fairy tales, myths, fables were once passed down, word of mouth from person to person. The oral tradition actually kept the story current to the times as the teller would adapt or change aspects to suit the understanding of the listeners. The constant evolution means many stories have passed over the lips of humanity to be lost in the trails of time. With the newer tradition of taking those now codified tales, whether Sleeping Beauty or the tale of Eros and Psyche and telling a new story, the process continues to bring evolution to the myths and fairy tales of our ancestors.

Here is a lesson plan on revisionist fairy tales for anyone who teaches about writing and reading: http://www.readwritethink.org/lessons/lesson_view.asp?id=992

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Writing Antithesis: Shine and Catastrophia

There are always anthologies coming and going. Unlike a magazine that comes out regularly, an anthology is a collection of stories by different authors often with a theme. They’re usually in book format as opposed to a paper magazine or an e-zine format, and they are one ofs.

This is much easier to do than deal with a magazine, continuous sales and subscriptions. Both types have their place of course. It’s something I want to do, some day edit an anthology. But until I can convince a publisher of the idea or get a bigger name, I think it’s going to have to wait. The problem with anthologies published in Canada is, that unless they’re distributed in the US, we just don’t have the population basis to sell enough. For that reason, most publishers shy from anthologies.
Two interesting anthologies coming up in Europe (though anyone can submit to them) actually are the antithesis of each other.

Dutch writer and editor Jetse de Vries will be editing Shine, an anthology due out in 2010 by Solaris Books. He’s not accepting submissions until May but that gives plenty of time to write a story specific to the theme. Shine is about shiny futures, the realm of optimistic SF. Often stories dealing with new technologies in the future end up with dire consequences. Shine is to be convincing and optimistic and of the near future (within the next 50 years).

There has of late been a movement in SF to write realistic near-future works, something that could or will possibly happen. No alien invasions, no faster than light travel, no transporters, but more of perhaps setting up a colony on the moon and the research required, or missions to Mars. These are aspects of space travel that NASA is seriously working on (as well as other space agencies) and they hope to have a manned Mars mission by 2030.

The name for this type of science fiction (which my brain can never seem to remember) is mundane SF. I guess it’s because I have connotations of mundane as being boring but there are two definitions:

1. everyday, ordinary, and therefore not very interesting
2. relating to the world or worldly matters

Obviously it is the second meaning that refers to the anthology and to the subgenre of mundane SF. I tried writing one story and I did find it hard, partly because I tend to write dark fantasy more often than SF. But then I realized I just finished a novelette that is in fact mundane SF. I don’t know if it will be shiny enough for Jetse but I’ll have to work on it and polish it and see how bright it looks. For full information on Shine, go to: http://shineanthology.wordpress.com/category/guidelines/

PS Publishing, out of England will be publishing Catastrophia. Edited by Allen Ashley, this anthology centers around post-apocalyptic fiction, disasters and catastrophes. Although hope and light can also come of such tropes in horror and SF, it’s not always as likely. If anything though, these tales start in a darker place.

Whereas Jetse isn’t accepting submissions until May, Allen is accepting now with a closing date of May or when full, whichever comes first. The theme of mundane SF could also be applied to this anthology since the aspects of disasters pertain to life on Earth, and that Allen Ashley wants them to be treated in a “modern manner.” No historical pieces here though modern or slightly futuristic will work. Of course, it’s possible he’d look at a futuristic post-apocalyptic world and the societies and cultures that would develop then. Full guidelines can be found here: http://news.pspublishing.co.uk/2008/09/09/catastrophia-anthology-call-for-submissions/

Between Shine and Catastrophia, there is something for everyone: the optimistic and the fatalistic, or perhaps fatalism with an uplifting end. Many anthologies don’t pay much. Pay could be a cent a word, fifty bucks, a share of royalties should the anthology actually sell. Catastrophia and Shine will both be paying professional rates.

I’ll probably give both of these a try. A themed anthology is always a good way to push the envelope and write something new. Like that one mundane SF I wrote about a mission to Mars; it was a challenge. I had to do a fair amount of research and extrapolating. But it was fun too and though I think that I hit both meanings of mundane, I did finish the story. But I need to do something else to it first to give it a bit more vim. And I’ll start thinking of something for Shine and Catastrophia.

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Writing: Advice on Getting Published

A little while ago someone asked me:

 I am here desirous to find a faithful publisher for my book…. What useful counsel can you give to me.

I’m not sure what is meant by faithful publisher but finding a publisher is a mixture of you wanting them and them wanting you. There are literally thousands of publishers. There are some that publish all types and genres and others that specialize. So the first thing to do is figure out if your book is a how-to, a biography, history, fantasy, romance, literary, sports, spiritual, etc.

Once you know who your reading audience is, you can then research publishers. Writer’s Digestputs out a series of books on markets. They’re specific, such as, literary markets, short story markets, romance markets, etc. These books give good information on how to write a query letter, which is the first step to what to include in your submission package. Some publishers only want a query letter. Others want a letter, a synopsis and the first three chapters. Some only want agented submissions, which means you must go through the process of querying agents first. It’s best to read up on what the publisher wants first. They received hundreds of manuscripts and someone who hasn’t bothered to research the market and sends something in the wrong format or way is likely to piss off an editor and have their manuscript tossed.

Writer’s Digest also lists publishers and markets, giving short descriptions, addresses and editor names. It’s good to read up on the advice and then to start submitting. It’s important to make sure you submit your manuscripts in the proper format, which in most cases is double spaced text, no extra space between paragraphs, regular font and size, no right justification, word count, page numbering and name. There is enough information out there that tells you what to send and what not to.

Outlines by chapter, or synopses also are often required so make sure they’re laid out well and contain what is the main action/point of each chapter. Taking courses or workshopping manuscripts as well as outlines is not a bad idea. And of course, making sure your manuscript is polished and free of as many grammatical and spelling errors as possible does improve your chances.

Besides researching the right publisher for your manuscript, it’s not a bad idea to check the legitimacy and publishing record of a publisher. Find out what they’ve published and do internet searches both on the publisher name and the book titles they’ve put out. There are vanity presses that charge you to put everything together. Your chances of making a profit are small. There are print on demand publishers that will work out a deal for self-publishing but depending on how they’re set up, you will need to figure out how to advertise and distribute your book. Unless you know what you’re doing, you could have some very expensive doorstops and going with established well known publishers with marketing departments and established distribution is worth it’s weight in gold.

I once edited a book for a friend who was writing a guide on places to walk your dog. He did his own layout and found a printer. Then he found a local book rep who would market it to the bookstores and see to distribution through a local book distributor. That worked well but the book was locally focused. In most cases you’re going to want national distribution if you hope to make any money or sell your book.

Then all you have to do is keep submitting your book to publishers until they bite. Sometimes they’ll ask to see a few chapters, and then they may ask to see a full manuscript. This process can take months. Expect the average of three months before seeing a reply to even a query. It’s best to send out query letters to many publishers at once. Persevere. Like writing it takes work to get published and some is just the persistence of sending out your manuscript until you hit the right publisher at the right time.

http://www.writersdigest.com/GeneralMenu/

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Genre vs Literary Works

Now that movie technology has advanced, movie makers create worlds with all manner of special effects. There are a great number of fantastical, science fictional works. There is the whole gamut of superhero movies from the various comic books. And then there are movies based on books. Back in the sixties, science fiction movies went way out on a limb when 2001: A Space Odyssey was filmed. And then there was Bladerunner, based off of P.K. Dick’s Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep (an awesome title by the way). There were many others, which ran the range of B and lower–the Godzillas and Blob and other somewhat campy horror flicks.

And then came Star Wars, an epic story with star spanning special effects. Full steam ahead and there are many movies now out at the same time. For example, right now we have Hell Boy II, Dark Knight, Journey to the Center of the Earth and the Mummy III, to name a few. So, a lot of these are good fun and not particularly deep. Hollywood does love to turn speculative fiction into only eye and mind candy. When you look at the evolution of speculative (SF, fantasy, horror) novels, we’ve gone from bug-eyed aliens to very complex stories and worlds that look at the human condition, ethical and moral tales and what-ifs of future technologies.

On top of covering a host of possibilities with humanity, an author has to often create a viable, believable world that works. It must still follow rules and must be shown enough to paint dimensions so the reader can see it. This is of course, much easier in a movie, and yes a picture is worth a thousand words, maybe even five thousand. Good speculative writing is not for the faint of heart, nor for the undisciplined and uneducated.

All of these skills that one must learn for speculative writing apply for any type of writing. Know your market, which means read, read, read. Then write, write, write and learn and perfect. This never stops, ever. I tend to lump all the genres of science fiction, fantasy, horror and even the myths of long ago under the umbrella term of speculative. In reality, anything that is not considered a history or telling of true life events, is in fact speculative.

Now the truly interesting thing is that a speculative writer can write science fiction and it will be looked down the long narrow noses of literary academics and called “genre” (said with nose in the air, as if smelling bad, and with an English accent). But a literary writer can write something that is speculative fiction and it will be praised and lauded and given awards. Case in point; Margaret Atwood has written two speculative novels (at least that I’ve read): Oryx and Crake and The Handmaid’s Tale. They are sometimes claimed to not be speculative, or speculative but not science fiction, getting to the fine hair splitting of genre names. But she takes those technologies and does a what-if into the future. That is indeed speculative and even science fiction.

When I was slowly progressing toward a degree in Creative Writing at UBC, one had to specialize in three areas: I chose short fiction, children’s fiction and poetry. In my kiddy lit class, the instructor didn’t like it when we wrote anything to do with fantastical worlds. She said they didn’t sell that well. Well, Ms Alderson, are you eating your hat after the fame of Harry Potter? This attitude was reflected throughout the department. However, George McWhirter who was the department head, and the only person worth his weight in gold, understood that writing well came first and what you wrote came second. He was not of the opinion expressed in The Boston Globe: “[T]he genre of the comic book is an anemic vein for novelists to mine, lest they squander their brilliance.” Ow.

A champion for blending or removing the snobbery borders between genres (or lowbrow and highbrow as some put it) is Michael Chabon. He won the Pulitzer Prize for his novel The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier and Klay. For his most recent book The Yiddish Policemen’s Union he was award the Nebula and the Campbell Awards. He was purported as saying the SF related Nebula meant more to him than getting the Pulitzer.

Perhaps with such writers as champions, we’ll see “genre” fiction being treated as writing and not drivel, where the best of all writing will rise to the top and more “genre” works will be nominated for awards. I’m not holding my breath…yet.

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