I’ve heard it said that one of the issues novice writers face is figuring out to what genre their writing belongs. This very question makes a lot of assumptions: that a writer will stick with one genre; that her book will fit neatly into one genre; and that genres have any meaning at all for regular people who just want to read a good book.
Genres have always been important to marketing books, so many writers write to a genre. They want their books to fit well into a BISAC category (which classifies your book and helps determine things like bookshelf location and Amazon categories), so booksellers know where to put it and readers know where to find it.
Then there are those of us who write the book we want to write and have more than a little trouble figuring out where it belongs. It’s an adventure story with literary ambition, drama, humor and a touch of romance, for instance (is it literary? upmarket? general fiction? or simply adventure?). That’s how I’d describe my first novel, “Funnel Vision,” but a description like that doesn’t much help a writer choose one genre. Problematically, no matter what genre you choose or how you market a novel, readers are going to have their own idea of what the book is.
Science fiction means a lot of things to a lot of people, from speculative tales to hard-science space epics. “Women’s fiction” is a loaded term, given that some folks (like me) don’t want to see women placed in some sort of literary ghetto, but then again, maybe it’s a good marketing tag. At least you know it’s not going to be about machine guns or explosions; it’s going to be about relationships. And romance is an amalgam of so many different genres these days, I’m amazed the category is still so well-defined. But one thing I’ve learned from interviewing various romance authors is that books placed in that genre are still expected to have one essential ingredient: the HEA, or Happily Ever After, in which Girl A and Guy A end up together (unless it’s three creatures or something, which is really outside my reading experience).This concept is really important to people who expect the HEA when they pick up a novel labeled Romance. I recently read a review of my novel that was filled with frustration, partly because “Funnel Vision” didn’t follow the conventional romance path. Well, that’s because it’s not a romance. I’ve resisted marketing it as such; I call it an adventure. It has strong romantic elements — it has relationships — but they are part of a larger story, and the ending, which I hope is a satisfying one, may be unexpected.
Complicating matters: Some of the kind people who have reviewed the novel on Amazon have called it a romance. And some of those folks are not regular romance readers, and don’t know about the HEA rule, and see the relationships and sensual scenes and figure, well, that’s a pretty good descriptor. As a writer, all I can do is sit back and wonder (a) whether I don’t know what genre my book is in; or (b) if the romance genre should be a lot wider than currently defined.
I’ve always been a big fan of what used to be called Romances — romantic adventures with strong chivalric elements, such as Dumas’ “The Three Musketeers” — which had tales of love but were more driven by adventures and characters than whatever the ending “had” to be. Don’t many of the best stories have great love stories without being labeled romances? And don’t many of those stories conclude with tragedy or bittersweet partings? The kind of ending filled with longing that makes the heart ache at least as much as any neat-as-a-bow HEA? Would “Casablanca” have been what it was if Rick and Ilsa had run off together? Would “Gone with the Wind” resonate so much if Rhett had actually given a damn and not walked off into the fog?
And would you call these stories romances? Maybe. I’d call them great stories, period, with great characters and great writing (movie or book). Romance — that is, love or lust or longing — is such an important part of life, and such an important shaper of character, that it’s vital to any story that involves people interacting with one another. So I suppose I’ll keep writing what I call adventures, with romantic inclinations and actions I draw from the characters, whose lives are not all that tidy.
I have no beef with HEA romances. They’re great fun and wonderful escapism, and after years of pretty much ignoring the genre, I started reading a smattering of romances a couple of years ago, inspired by all the smart, talented local authors I’ve met. They’ve written terrific stories. I think we even share some of the same sensibilities. But I’m a sappy romantic and a cynic wrapped up in one, with an inclination toward satire, and my books reflect my slightly twisted view of reality. You’ll see that approach even more emphatically in the pending sequel to “Funnel Vision,” “Tornado Pinball.”
Writing to a genre may help you find a traditional publisher or cash in on popular categories as a self-publisher, but one beautiful thing that comes along with self-publishing is the freedom to write the book you want to write, write it well, and damn the rules. As a writer of fiction that defies categorization, all you can do is pick the best genre for your book and hope readers are willing to forget definitions and preconceptions and go along for the ride. And if you’re not sure, there’s always Fiction / General, even if that’s a tall mountain to climb on the Amazon charts.
I’m excited to be doing a book signing with three other Space Coast authors on Dec. 7 at Eau Gallie Arts District’s First Friday from 5:30 to 8:30 p.m. This time, in addition to the gallery walk and vendors, there’s a Christmas tree lighting complete with a visit from Santa and entertainment. We’ll be in a tent on Highland Avenue. Who’s “we”? There’s Terry Cronin, who will be signing his entertaining “Skinvestigator” mysteries, about a crime-solving dermatologist; Karlene Conroy, co-author of “The Don Quixote Girls,” about four sandwich generation girlfriends and the issues they face together; and Carol Ann Didier, author of the “Apache Warrior” romance trilogy. And I’ll be signing my storm-chasing adventure “Funnel Vision.” I’m very close to finishing the sequel, “Tornado Pinball,” and I’ll be writing a lot more about that and my National Novel Writing Month experience, which is almost over … just a couple more chapters …
The Eau Gallie Arts District is the Eau Gallie neighborhood of Melbourne, Florida, centered at Highland Avenue and Eau Gallie Boulevard. There’s a lot of great energy there right now, with new galleries and big changes at the Foosaner Art Museum (formerly the Brevard Art Museum). This will be a fun night.
Signed books make nice Christmas presents. So there’s your commercial announcement du jour. Have a great day.
First, if I were really serious about National Novel Writing Month, aka NaNoWriMo, I wouldn’t be wasting time writing a blog post. But I am serious about using NaNoWriMo as a tool to push me into a high-speed dash to finish my Funnel Vision sequel by the end of the month.
I haven’t signed up on the site, which exhorts participants to finish 50,000 words by month’s end. That means 18,000-plus by the end of today, or 1667 words per day. My goal is slightly more modest, since my novel was already started – an average of a thousand words a day, though I’m trying for more. I think I’ll need a better average to finish on time, since I think the novel’s going to be a bit longer than the last one, but I’m on target right now.
Why pull a stunt like NaNoWriMo, you might ask? Well, there are a lot of people who call themselves writers who have lots of ideas but just don’t write them down. And there are those of us who have jobs and a multitude of other distractions who write, but have trouble writing enough. I fall in and out of that category. What I want out of this month is not just a good draft of Tornado Pinball, but better habits. And so far, I’m finding high productivity pretty addictive.
I’m off to Orlando Public Library at 3:30 p.m. today to give a presentation about storm chasing and Funnel Vision. But sometime today, those thousand words or so are coming out of my brain, no matter what.
Are you writing?
Yeah, that video’s trippy.
First, come out to the Melbourne Independent Filmmakers’ Festival tonight and Saturday. There’s a full slate of fascinating films and other programming planned, from the comedy show tonight to the Florida Filmmakers Matinee Saturday starting at 9 a.m. That’s when you can see my documentary, “Hourglass,” about sand sculptors battling the weather and the clock to prepare for the Art of Sand festival. Get tickets and see the schedule for the event, at The Oaks Premiere Theaters in Melbourne.
Also, at noon on Monday, you can hear me chatting with Seeta Durjan Begui on “Seeta and Friends” on WMEL-AM radio. You can listen online.
Monday evening at 7 p.m., come to a free storm-chasing presentation at the Eau Gallie Library (sponsored by Friends of the Eau Gallie Library). I’ll be talking about the realities of storm chasing, showing video and photos and my short documentary “Chasing Reality,” and signing copies of my novel “Funnel Vision.” That’s the storm-chasing adventure to which I’m writing a sequel right now!
Learn more about upcoming events in my calendar.
When you’re writing a novel, and you’ve set your own deadlines, it’s not as easy to be disciplined. Still, when I’m in the groove, I can write almost as fast as I wrote newspaper articles. Except … sometimes, there’s a block. A rock in the road. And the story keeps running into it. I recently spent a while looking at a rock like that. I’m working on the sequel to Funnel Vision, and though I have a pretty thorough outline, there was a spot in the middle that didn’t have a way through. Because a story can’t just jump from one mile to the next without a reason, just as it can’t creep toward something and never get there (unless, perhaps, that’s the intention, a la Samuel Beckett).
I think it took a weekend away, looking at the changing light on the ocean and the shifting shadows of the palm trees, to realize I’d just have to walk around the rock and see where it took me. I needed to see it from the other side and let the characters choose a new path. And then the story started to flow again.
Remember that old “Saturday Night Live” skit in which Stephen King is being interviewed, typing the entire time, and for one second says he has writer’s block – then keeps on writing? It was pretty funny, knowing how prolific he is, but that state of dedication is enviable. If you’ve read his memoir, you know it didn’t come easy. (And all work and no play makes Jack a dull boy.)
Everyone has a different way of writing, and I think I’m learning that my characters feel imprisoned in too much premeditated structure, as do I. So I’m going to try to build my outlines out of balsa wood instead of steel and see what happens … and keep an eye on how the shadows change.
Even worse was May 12, 2005, near South Plains, Texas, a day that was at least partially redeemed by the really nice tornado that preceded the assault. I’ve remastered my video and produced a new edit that I’ve uploaded to YouTube (below).
All of my hail encounters helped inform the hail barrage that happens during one of the action sequences in my novel Funnel Vision. I once took shelter in a country airport, for instance, though it was in Colorado, not Kansas. And if you turn up the sound in this video, you’ll understand that visceral, chilling feeling of having your car destroyed while you’re still inside it. Enjoy.
Note: For best quality, roll your cursor over the lower right of the video window, click on the gear symbol, and choose 720p HD.
On Friday, make sure you check out my friend Kam Miller’s blog, Glass Half-Full in Hollywood. Kam is an experienced TV and film writer and offers fabulous advice straight from Hollywood’s movers and shakers. And speaking of shakers, she also features Friday cocktails on the blog. I’m guest-blogging there Friday about Tales of the Cocktail, the convention in New Orleans from which I just returned (and from which I’m still recovering). While I was there, I helped The Times-Picayune cover the event with blogs, photos and videos.
I was wavering between amusement and horror today as I watched two friends take on the publishing revolution in a battle of 140-character grenades on Twitter. They made good points: Digital’s rise is formidable. Self-publishing pundits are “post-apocalyptic” about traditional publishing. And so on. But I started to worry about the vitriol I see in the wider debate about traditional vs. self-publishing. Why must it be one or the other?
There are people out there who love books but seem to hate, well, everybody on the other side. As if there were another side. As writers (and as publishers, self- or otherwise), I think we’re on the side of telling great stories. Or at least some of us are; even in my most Pollyanna moments, I have to admit that some people just want to make a buck, or many millions of bucks, as rare as that kind of success may be. Vintage Books didn’t pick up the “Fifty Shades” trilogy because of its literary value. Some maudlin bestsellers seem more cynical than sincere. And publishing, big or small, is a business, and writers will make decisions accordingly.
Still, even though making money from writing is a kind of validation, or ideally, a living, it’s not the main reason most writers write.Perhaps it’s not true of you, Writer, but I think most writers, whether they aim to create great art or craft the perfect thriller, ultimately want to be read. To be read, one must be published, one way or the other. How we publish books is important to their success, but I don’t think one’s strategy has to be all or nothing, Us vs. Them. But that’s the way the discussion unfolds. Wordsmiths turn into cornered animals. Given the upheaval in publishing, it’s no wonder the traditionals feel threatened and the upstarts feel defensive. Livelihoods and reputations are at stake. I’ve seen self-publishing advocates eviscerate traditional publishers for being short-sighted and rapacious (see Jessica Clark’s screed, which is compelling partly because she came from traditional publishing). I’ve seen traditionally published authors snark about the unwashed self-published, whose books, by definition, must suck.
I hate to be sensitive to the latter stance, but I am, a little. Though I once had similar opinions, I chose to self-publish earlier this year after going through several rounds of traditional-pub rejection and years of angsting and revisions. I did it not because I think it is the one shining path to revolution, but because it just made sense for me. My novel apparently defied genre, I wasn’t getting any younger, I was actually happy with it, and self-publishing was exploding. It was a business and personal decision. I made back my expenses, and I’m glad it’s out there.
But never mind my book. I know writers who are still struggling to get published the traditional way, writers I’ve worked with closely over glasses of wine, and their stuff is brilliant. But agents/publishers haven’t wanted these brilliant books for whatever reason, and I fear they will never be read beyond a few lucky critique partners. That’s enough reason to self-publish a book.
Sure, a lot of self-published books still stuck – as do some traditionally published books. I always think of Flannery O’Connor’s response to the question of whether universities discourage young writers: “My opinion is that they don’t stifle enough of them. There’s many a best seller that could have been prevented by a good teacher.” (1)
In the case of self-publishing, stifling is elusive. The vetting process is what’s missing, for good or ill, when you take away the traditional publishing grinder. We all need friction to smooth the rough edges. We need smart people to critique and edit our books before they see daylight. As a journalist and frequent book reviewer, I used to see many, many self-published books cross my desk. Long memories of poor design, bad grammar and amateur efforts mean the stigma will linger. But we’re seeing many more of these books published at a professional level, shaped if not screened by editors, and designed well. New and refreshing voices are emerging. Even if they are not bestsellers, they can find their niche. They can find their fans. They deserve to be heard, and not to be disdained without cause. And self-publishing also offers an option for traditionally published authors who want to stretch beyond what they’re told will sell, or who want to promote their work in a new way. (It’s Us and Them.)
Once published, all books should be held to the same standard (or the standard that fits – whether it does what it aims to achieve). I’m agog to hear critics and book bloggers say some self-pubbed authors have scared them off because said authors freak out if a review isn’t favorable or ask them to be “nicer” because the book is self-published. These unprofessional writers taint the rest, and more education is in order.
Even if all books are held to the same standard, traditionally published books still have the advantage of reach and marketing (or at least a publisher’s A-list books do). The big houses have already earned the respect of traditional media, who remain wary of embracing self-published books. As a recent graduate of newspapers, I can say that attitude is slowly changing, even as coverage of books is shrinking. But in the realm of media attention, the traditionals are likely to have the advantage for a long time. I definitely read more traditionally published books than self-published ones, because their media advantage makes them easier to discover.
Consequently, when it comes to marketing, self-publishers do sometimes smell a bit desperate. Blogs for “indie” writers tend to be much more about promotion and platforms and getting reviews, about Amazon and the effectiveness of giveaways (or should I say the glut of giveaways), than about writing. And that’s OK. I’ve learned a ton from these blogs. But the key is still writing a really good, professionally packaged book. That book will not exist in an indie vacuum. It is one of millions published each year around the world, and it has to earn a place in a much larger literary landscape.
We’ve entered an era when even an unconventional, unproven, transcendent writer can hope to see his book in print, no matter how small the publishing scale. The hope is that the good books will get respect. With time and luck, they should do so, no matter how they’re published.
Storm chasers get great footage, but some of the most dramatic and intense footage I’ve seen has been by people who shot tornadoes from their homes or backyards. It’s not just their proximity to the storm in question; the storms are coming to them, after all. It’s also the sense that their homes are in peril; that their nightmares are coming to life; that they’re envisioning the destruction and what will come after – or remembering a disaster that came before.
The character of Judy in my novel “Funnel Vision” has this feeling whenever she sees a tornado, and especially if a storm threatens her town in Kansas. It’s easy to put yourself in her shoes when you see videos like this one by Kevin Adkins from West Liberty, Kentucky, on March 2. I have dreams about wall clouds and tornadoes like this – massive and ominous, whose real-time rotation is so rapid it looks like a special effect. The fact that the tornado is grinding through the mountains makes this video even more surreal; like a horror-movie monster, its terrible form can’t be seen until it’s just about to consume you.