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Genre: The Label on the Bin

“In some ways, genre is a marketing tool.”

Mark Z. Danielewski

I think Mark was understating the case. The book industry uses genre in much the same way that your local record store—remember those?—used signs to tell you that over here was “pop” and over there was “heavy metal.” It was how you found the music you wanted to hear.

Or as author and editor Cathy Yardley put it in her post on Writer Unboxed, “You want to make it as easy as possible for your reader to narrow down her choices. Genre is the first broad stroke in that attempt.”

Broad stroke, indeed, although the number of sub-genres and sub-sub-genres can be eye-opening when you are asked to pick from a list. At least that’s how I found it when I was first asked to classify my novel The Found Diary of Avery Alexander Myer (the link goes to Amazon).

The story has strong elements of magical realism, but at least at the time that was not an official marketing option. It is also an ontological mystery. Good luck finding that on a commercial genre list! What I eventually settled on was “contemporary fantasy.” Does that tell you anything about my novel? Kind of. It says it is a fantasy set in the modern day. Does it tell enough to inform a potential reader? That is a whole other question.

The problem, and the point of this article, is that there are cracks large enough in the commercial genre classification system to walk your dog through. Yet publishing companies, book sellers, and even libraries insist on fitting your story into a particular hole. This means that even if you self-publish, if you want to sell through a major book distributor like Amazon or Barnes & Noble, you must choose a genre. It is simply part of the process.

Should you write and sell for a mainstream readership, this will be a painless and valuable procedure. An author chooses a genre for their readers, not for themselves. Be sure to check out Yardley’s post, “Why Genre Matters,” to get some good commentary on that subject. But for those who write “across” genres, marketing your crypto-thriller-cooking-romance will be a struggle no matter how good your writing.

Some interesting compromises have arisen here and there: “Slipstream fiction,” first coined by author Bruce Sterling, is an attempt to place a tale that is just weird enough to make a reader question the story’s sense of reality. Steampunk is another example of cutting a genre as fine as a publishing house will tolerate. But if Netflix can categorize films as narrowly as “cerebral foreign crime dramas” or “crime late night comedies,” why can’t book publishers do the same?

—Michael Fink

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Top 5 Issues I Saw as a Judge for a Short Story Contest

I was a judge in all three rounds of NYC Midnight’s 2017 Short Story Contest (they also run flash fiction and screenplay contests). This means I not only got to read hundreds of stories between 1000 and 2500 words long, but compose comments and critiques for each one. Writers had an exceptionally limited time to write and edit their submissions–from about a week to 24 hours, depending on the round. They were also restricted to certain genres, characters, and other requirements…again, depending on the round.

I got to read some truly marvelous stories during this time. I also read a great many fair-to-good pieces. Fortunately, after the first round, the most poorly-written examples were few and far between.

Here were some of the issues that prevented many of the contestants from scoring as high as they might have.

  1. Not understanding the genre

The NYC contest dictated the genre for the first two rounds. Honestly, were I to enter the contest myself, I don’t know how I would manage writing, for example, a political satire or romantic comedy. So I can identify with those poor souls who had three days to write an award-winning tale in a genre they had never touched before.

That said, the contest rules gave descriptions for each genre. I had to call out several stories for missing that particular boat. Fortunately for the contestants, two other judges and/or the contest moderators had to agree with me before the submission could be disqualified.

Whether you are submitting a piece to a literary magazine or contest, understand what they want. When a journal says “read a back issue to get a feel for what we want to see,” take them at their word to increase your chances of selection. If a contest wants “magical realism,” know what that means before sending your best work to them.

  1. Ignoring or misapplying the cadences of storytelling 

The best contestants understood the rhythm of language and how it affected the reader’s experience. From small scale pacing (sentence construction, where and when to insert a pause, sentence length); to mid-scale (paragraph construction and size); to large-scale (paragraph usage, dialog placement versus narration, section breaks)–the flow of the story is controlled by these decisions.

The most troublesome stories usually did not understand this concept. One submission contained, for no good reason, sentences so long they left me reeling. The longest was over 90 words! Some others were 60 to 70 words. A few geniuses can get away with this (I’m looking at you, Victor Hugo), but even those are typically in novels, not short stories.

  1. Sending a first draft

Okay, the NYC Midnight contestants are understandably rushed. But writing a story also means rewriting a story. Working on a deadline? Budget time to edit the piece. Editing and rewriting are part of writing. I can’t emphasize this enough. If you are tacking the last paragraph to your first draft six minutes before you have to attach the document and press SEND, don’t bother pressing that button.

Harsh? No. In my case, contest rules required lowering a score for even one spelling or grammar mistake. Editing is a necessary component of good writing and storytelling. Many submissions had an interesting plot buried under adjectives or misused commas. Whether you have five years or one day, a sizable portion of that time should be spent rewriting, rearranging, chopping, weeding, and all the other colorful metaphors for editing. For best effect, have someone else do the final edit and proofread. If that is not possible, spend as much time as you can spare reworking that first draft into a polished piece.

My most common reason for lowering a submission’s score? Poor editing. Because poor editing makes for a substandard story. And why send out anything but your best effort?

  1. Lack of focus

This applies most especially to short stories and flash fiction: Every word should be put to work. Put a leash on your adverbs. Strengthen your verbs until they can do the heavy lifting. If it isn’t setting the tone, it should be advancing the plot; preferably both.

Cut characters. Several submissions had far too many characters for the story length. Cut needless settings. Why did the characters walk to the library? There better be a story reason; if you can remove that trip without crippling the plot or the emotional arc, do so.

  1. Flat emotional arc

True, not all good stories necessarily need a strong emotional arc. Some stories, especially genres like murder mysteries or police procedurals, can get by just fine with the energy of the narrative arc alone. But if your character(s) are going on an emotional journey, or changing and developing between the first and last sentence, there also needs to be an emotional arc. And too many writers do not quite grasp that.

Maybe the character starts off happy, has something terrible happen, then fights to reach a new high. Or perhaps the emotions just get worse and worse–welcome to many horror stories. A short story has to pack a lot into a little space, so the crafting of an emotional journey must be tight, with thoughtfully chosen situations and clear characterizations.

Although the following reference applies more to long-form fiction, consider studying No Film School’s page on emotional arcs for a brief education on the subject.

—Michael Fink

Plum Prose

You have likely heard the phrase “purple prose.” If you have not, it means writing that is too ornate—a simple enough sin, but a pernicious one. Beginning writers, if they fall into an extreme, typically go towards “too much,” rather than “too little.” They hear about good writing engaging the reader with detail, then slather the adjectives and adverbs on with a trowel.

Good writing, instead, is to know when to use well-chosen words to add vivid and meaningful detail to a scene or passage…and when not to. And underline that phrase “well-chosen.” Many adjectives are overused, or bland, or contribute little to what is said on the page.

Let’s take color, for example.

Yellow, green, black, dark, light…what do all of these words have in common? They are broad and generic, painting color (or tint) on the mind’s eye with a wide brush (ow!). They are rarely helpful, so should be left out, or made more specific.

Leaving out color is often the wise choice, which can be surprising to beginning writers. Does it matter if she has “rich brown eyes,” especially when first viewed across a room? Not if she is a supporting character; even a major character can often get away with having those sorts of details left to the imagination of the reader, romances aside. If you do mention their eye (or nail or hair) color, never mention it again, even ten chapters down the line, unless it is important to the scene.

Using colors in a deliberate and thoughtful manner, on the other hand, can change the tone of an entire scene. Not convinced? Take the following two examples:

“He handed her his card. It appeared hand-drawn, crowded with tiny gold script on stock the color of a ripe plum.”

“He handed her his card. It appeared hand-drawn, crowded with tiny jaundiced script on stock the color of a bruise.”

Either example conveys far more than “yellow script” on “deep blue stock.”

In her excellent book on writing titled Sin and Syntax, Constance Hale references a passage by Diane Ackerman where a yellowish monkey is described as “a sunset-and-corn-silk colored creature.” Used sparingly, this is a strong sensory description that places the subject—and therefore the reader—into a particular frame.

The lesson here, and it is a lesson that will be repeated on this blog, is to use words as any expert craftsperson would use a specific tool. That is what writing is, after all—a craft, requiring the finest tools utilized with skill and purpose.

—Michael Fink

Terroir

Terroir is a wine term meaning the particular taste(s) imparted to grapes by the many different qualities of the environment in which the fruit was grown. I have also heard the term applied to cheese: the type of soil, grasses, even water that eventually creates the milk, among other factors.

Perhaps literature possesses a terroir, as well. There are cultural influences, of course, but what shapes a culture? “It’s becoming increasingly clear that the way we speak is shaped by external forces,” says Sean Roberts in a report from NPR.  The fact that a place is hot, for instance, may be one influence on how a language sounds, or is used.

As for literature, there are those interested in documenting the “place-ness” of writing. POECOLOGY is an example, with each issue attempting to “inspire and enhance the understanding of place and the environment through literary arts.” There are five issues, all accessible online. Unfortunately, their “Literary Locator” map does not appear to be operational at the time of this writing.

Not to worry, however, as Poetry Atlas has that covered. With a “Featured Place,” a “Poet of the Week,” and a virtual pushpin map, Poetry Atlas endeavors to put a place to written works. Want a list of poems about London? There are also lists covering rivers, or battlefields, for instance.

How does your writing reflect the places you have lived or worked?

—Michael Fink