Tag Archives: inspiration

The Pitfalls of Genre

Guest Post by Gregory D. Little

Greg LittleSo what genre do you write in?

I always inwardly cringe at this question. Genre is an inescapable part of fiction, and for good reason. It’s a useful tool. Necessary, even. Trying to talk about fiction without touching on genre would be like trying to describe the color red. The fact is that the human brain is hard-wired to simplify and categorize. It’s a necessary short-cut, one that keeps us from burning excess energy trying to remember too much detail.

Genre is just another means to that end. It’s a time-saver, a chaos-reducer. We all have limited time and money. Will I like this book? Well, it’s an epic fantasy, and I’ve liked other epic fantasies. Automatically your bet is safer. You pick up a book, quickly discern its genre, and are comforted. You can even tailor your decision to your mood. A mystery when you want to be thrilled. An epic fantasy when you want to feel wonder. Erotica when you want … well, you know.

So the genre of a story tells us what to expect. More than that, the tropes inherent in each genre know the shortest paths to evoking feeling. Every trope that exists does so because it’s tried and true. On some level, it works. When you select your fiction by genre, you are investing your money and time in that sense of certainty.

Yet the same part of our brains that excels in categorization short-cuts can lead us to prejudice and bigotry. And the certainty and safety of genre can quickly become a prison for the unwary writer. Must all noir begin with a mysterious woman entering the shabby office of a hard-bitten detective? Must epic fantasy always sprawl across many volumes and feature a world overflowing with detail? You’d be forgiven if you sometimes thought so.

Even more confusing, most genres have fluid definitions. Is Star Wars science fiction or fantasy? It has space travel, laser swords and aliens, but also magic. Most people would describe it as space opera, but I’ve also heard it referred to as a fantasy set in space. So it turns out the definitions of the various genres can’t even be agreed upon.

Yet fluid or no, the pressure to conform your writing to those genre labels is still there. Publishers love such labels. Categories make marketing easier, which makes selling things easier. Think how many times you’ve heard “If you liked X, you’ll love Y! It’s basically X with a new twist!” I think a lot of new writers feel compelled force-fit their writing into rigidly defined genres for the purposes of pitching and selling. I know I’ve felt that way.

Yet as I’ve started writing more frequently and regularly, I’ve begun to feel stifled if I try to color only within genre lines. It began with a shift in my reading habits. I still read plenty of works that fit comfortably within genre lines. But the books that really get me excited are the books that cross genres, blur the lines between them, or even actively subvert and reject them.

Perdido Street Station by China Mieville is a good example of what I’m talking about. Is it steampunk? Secondary world fantasy? Extra-dimensional horror? It could be all of these or none. All I know is that it blew me away when I read it.

Finding and reading such works is one thing. Writing them can be another. The tracks that familiar tropes wear into your mind over time are often so deep they are hard to notice. If you aren’t careful, you’ll find yourself tending to slouch lazily into those tropes even when you don’t mean to. Breaking out of them at all can be difficult. You’ll have to cultivate a healthy mistrust of your own brain, shooting down first, second, third ideas, anything that feels too comfortable. Because the brain will naturally default to ideas it’s seen and liked in the past. Learning when to trust such instincts and when not to takes practice.

Even if you succeed, there are pitfalls. Crossing genres in the wrong way can create problems with mixed tones. Avoiding or subverting too many tropes can undermine the emotional core of the work. If you tap into too few emotional shortcuts, the story will fail to satisfy the reader at all. It’s a balancing act, but in this writer’s opinion, it’s worth the risk. Because when those genre-busting stories work, there is-by definition-nothing else like them. And because the only thing more fun than reading such stories is writing them.

So by all means, experiment. Strike out in unexpected directions with plot, setting or character. Abandon your story’s genre entirely. Or if that thought leaves you too far adrift, pick out your genre’s more useful elements and lay them within your story’s foundation. Keep that foundation below ground. Then try to build something amazing atop it, something beautiful for its strangeness, something so different it worries you. Even frightens you. Follow your story wherever it takes you, even if that’s out across trackless ground.

Finding the Strength. . . .

Back over the summer I wrote a post on my blog about how I’d never run out of inspiration because I had children. You can find the post >here<.  The summer had my children (and I include my husband in this designation) building a boat in our pool (see, the photo). It also had the children playing putt-putt golf in a thunderstorm. Needless to say, at the first sign of lightning, my boys abandoned my husband, holding all the golf clubs, and bolted for our room. For more details, please check out my post on my blog.  Anyway, I have a somewhat colorful life. But sometimes even that’s not enough to get the words on the page.

Hopefully, you’ve read James A Owen’s fabulous post on this site. He might call it inspiration, but what he’s done in his life takes a whole heck of a lot of courage. He awes me.

A deep dark secret is I tend to lean toward the depressive side. It’s often hard to find the reason to get out of bed, or not crawl back into it, pull up the covers and hide in the dark once I’ve gotten out the first time. How strong the urge to hide is depends on what’s going on. My last three months have been chaotic. The law firm I was part of split up months before it was projected to and left me scrambling in the busiest month I had to make agreement for a new practice, whether it was solo, with most of the original partners but as an employee rather than a partner myself, or a new firm where I would likely be a partner by the end of the year. The woman I consider my second mother is dying of cancer. It was caught late, and  she opted not to undergo chemo. She’s getting hospice care now. My father has Lewey Body Dementia. It’s a nasty disease where, essentially your brain forgets how to talk to your body. He’s having more bad days than good.  My folks are trying to take a Disney cruise for their 51st anniversary this week, but now there’s a hurricane threatening. Thanks Sandy.  I have a crazy neighbor, and that’s a whole ‘nother story.  And that’s just a list of the big issues. There were, of course, other challenges. As a result, earlier this month, I learned what it took to break me. Not an experience I recommend to anyone or wish to repeat. So, lately,  my reason to get out of bed was solely that I had no choice.

Well, not solely. There were those pesky kids again. And the peskier husband. And James and his Superman ring.

Those pesky kids that spent all summer sailing that boat from one side of our very small pool to another. If we’d actually had a breeze, the boat probably would have broken the pool. But they loved it. My husband and I kept promising we’d get the boat out of the pool and into the nearby lake. Didn’t happen.  And the kids didn’t care.

We have fabulous kids even if they have no common sense. Even as I write this they are fighting over who has to change the “input’ for the TV so they get cable rather than snow. This fight become more ridiculous when you consider that the TV has to be turned on manually – we’ve lost the original remote and no universal one works with this TV- so my oldest was next to the button he needed to push to fix the problem had he waited 5 second instead of walking back to the sofa. Instead. I had to get up, go down stairs, yell/laugh at them for the lack of common sense and hit the input button. Sadly, this wasn’t their most asinine fight.

Here’s the thing, for me at least.  I’ve lived through some terrible things, and I’ll live through more as long as I keep seeing the sun rise. Although this last thought is a good argument for becoming a creature of the night. There are always going to be terrible things happening in life. Sometimes all those terrible things will happen at once.

And then there’s the Superman ring. For a very sick child, Superman became a symbol of hope. We still have James A. Owen because of it. Because of hope, James has found the strength to say “no” and the strength to go on through some really terrible things.

What’s my Superman?

My family.

My husband does fairly outrageous things to make me laugh. I can’t tell you what he just did without losing our “clean” rating, but I laughed so much I had tears streaming down my cheeks.  Where was I again?

Oh, yes, finding the strength to chase the life you want. Not the dream. Staying something is a dream means it’s not, and can’t be, real. You fight toward The Goal, the straight line James talks about. Life’s about finding the will to keep walking that thin line, even when you stumble, even whn you have to resist the urge to lie down and give up, it’s about moving forward when you have to crawl and your knees and hands are bloody from the effort.

You have to believe.

I believe in my sons’ laughs. I believe in fighting through one more day that brings me closer to The Goal. I believe that standing for what I want most makes me a better person for my family, makes me a better writer, makes me a better lawyer. Time in the crucible stinks, but it reforges us stronger.

What do I want most?

I want to spend more time with my family,  continue as a professional writer (to put the right words for the story on the page), and have the freedom to take the law cases I want, not that I have to to pay the bills.  I want to see my epic fantasy in print, to hold that book in my hands regardless of how long that takes. If I keep The Goal in mind, the choices I need to make are obvious, even though they are often not easy.  So, I get out of bed, throw the curtains open wide and get down to the job of life.

What do you want? What inspires you to keep pressing forward to that goal?

Honoring the Giants

A while ago, I was at a book reading by an intriguing new fantasy author at one of my local bookstores. I’m naturally curious about how ideas originate and evolve, so during the Q & A period I asked him what other authors in the genre influenced him. I had expected a laundry list of the classics of old-Tolkien, LeGuin, Eddison-or at least some mention of today’s bestsellers. But the stammered and confused response I received was along the lines of, “I don’t have any influences, I don’t want to talk about it.” I left the reading feeling a little perplexed and disappointed, yet not fully understanding why.

This wasn’t the first time that I had this kind of response. I’ve heard similar questions fielded at conventions with similar answers given. It’s not something that’s made sense to me-I’m always quick to spout off my favorite authors and the things they do that I think are amazing-and given my inclination for seeking the origins of ideas, I wanted to know why people were refusing to admit that they have been influenced.

Of course, there is the fear that of being called derivative. Many, if not most, authors fear this, myself included. In any genre, but especially in speculative fiction, originality is of paramount importance. After all, isn’t that what writing is? The creation of something new? This is a real, and I think legitimate, fear, but I don’t think it adequately described what I had been seeing with these authors’ reactions, since many authors who fear being labeled as derivative have no problem discussing their influences. Deeper digging was required.

I believe the answer lies with how many people view creativity.

On a superficial level, creativity is the process by which something new comes about. That’s not controversial, but there is dispute about where this new thing comes from.

The common view of creativity is that it is intuitive, that an idea is not truly new unless it plucked from the ether, and not at all associated with anything else in existence. This follows suit with how many of us actually experience a new idea: sometimes it just pops into your head, and you don’t know where it came from.

But if that were true, every new idea would be completely incomprehensible since it would be divorced from any context we could comprehend (which is much the state of nonrepresentational modern visual art, and why it turns so many people off). In order for this new creation to be meaningful to us, it has to have some place in the world as we understand it, and thus it has to relate in some way to the things we have experienced before.

I think that creativity works the same way, but in reverse: the creator takes elements of their experiences and combines them in new ways.

Einstein’s development of the theory of relativity is often considered to be a work of staggering genius and the pinnacle of scientific creativity, and rightly so. Most people have difficulty understanding relativity, and can’t imagine how anyone else could conceive of it. But Einstein certainly didn’t pluck it out of the ether (especially since relativity helped destroy the very concept of the ether); he developed it as an answer to the problems that had been found in Newtonian physics. He combined his knowledge of physics with observed measurements in a way that resulted in a completely new theory. Far from being divorced from reality, his achievement attempted to describe it totally.

Other forms of creativity are no different. The unicorn, for example, is a mythical creature that has permeated cultures throughout the world for hundreds if not thousands of years, and is often a symbol of the fantastic. Yet ultimately, the unicorn is just a horse with a horn on its head and magical powers. It is nothing more than the combination of these attributes, but that doesn’t mean that it wasn’t a completely original creation.

Imagine asking the creator of the unicorn to describe it. “Well,” he would say, “it has a horn, and magical powers, four legs, hooves, a mane and a tail… but it is definitely not a horse or related to horses in any fashion.”

This is akin to what many of these authors are saying about their own works in their frantic scramble to distance them from those of their influences.

Some of the greatest works of literature have clear influences. Tolkien was influenced by mythology (no, he didn’t invent the idea of Elves, though his Elves were nonetheless a remarkable creation), The Wheel of Time by Robert Jordan can in many ways be seen as a fusion of Dune and Arthurian legend (the Aviendha/Chani connection), and Steven Erikson proudly declares that he was shaped by Glen Cook’s writing, and a side-by-side read of Gardens of the Moon and The Black Company supports this (can you tell I’m biased toward fantasy?). Despite the fact that their works were influenced by many things, they still stand at the high-water mark of creativity in fantasy fiction.

Now, I’m not at all suggesting that you should become a complete hack. Tolkien already wrote The Lord of the Rings; we don’t need you to write it again. But that doesn’t mean that you can’t let him or anyone else inform your own stories, so long as your stories and the elements that comprise them are your own.

Nor am I trying to diminish your creativity as being unoriginal. Utilizing what exists in the world and combining it in new and fresh ways is really hard work. Just ask Einstein.

So if you find yourself famous someday and asked who influenced you, feel no guilt as you give us your laundry list, and honor those giants upon whose shoulders you stand.


If I have seen further, it is by standing on the shoulders of giants.” – Isaac Newton

P.S. My epic fantasy novelette, Dark Tree: A Tale of the Fourth World, is now available for free on Smashwords! I hope you’ll check it out!