Thursday, April 20, 2017

Vocabulary Quiz to come

I have a question about writing in two genres (having seen several times that you recommend against it for authors starting out, and suggest mastering one before adding the other).

As I see it, there are two types of genre: genres that talk about the plot, and genres that talk about the setting. Mystery, for example, defines a kind of plot and talks about what will happen. Historical defines a kind of setting and talks about where it will happen.

I can see the problem with trying to combine two type of plot genres, especially for new writers. If you're still learning how to plot out a good, compelling mystery, I imagine it'd be really hard to also figure out how to plot out a good romance, and then even harder to figure out how to tie those two plots together and balance them well. So I totally get that.

But it seems to me like if you have a mystery, it has to be set somewhere. Why not make it historical? If you don't make it historical, what is the non-setting that means you're not writing in two genres? Would it have to be modern day where you live? And similarly, if you are going to focus first on mastering historical fiction, what sort of plot would work for not combining two genres?

Or did you have more in mind trying to combine mystery and romance when you don't yet know how to write mystery or romance?

And are you ever tempted to make up new genres with esoteric rules to confuse and bewilder the authors who keep asking you about genres?

(Sharkian Fiction: The protagonist must be named Felix Buttonweezer, and he must be chased by a shark throughout the story. If he is chased by a dolphin, please see Delfine fiction. There should be at least three but no more than seven instances of key words used throughout the story (letters in consecutive order, but not necessarily in the same word); the words must be chosen from advertisements in the New York subways. Always submit on a Tuesday, and only to agents whose name begins with an F, Z or Ö.)

Thank you for your patience!

I'm not sure why you think there are only two genres, and that they are plot and setting.
That is simply not what genre is.

Genre is used to describe a certain kind of book. Genres are: crime, science fiction/fantasy, and romance.

Historical is NOT a genre. Plot is NOT a genre. Nor is setting.

Historical is a category. Any genre can have books that are historical (although historical science fiction defies easy explanation.)

YA is a category, because any genre can have books that appeal to young adult readers.

The reason I tell you to focus your writing in one genre (ie write crime novels, not crime and a romance and a fantasy novel) is because you need to be familiar with the books in your genre if you want to write something fresh and new.

That means you know the canon. Canon means the books that came first. Those are books that you see on lists like "100 Best Crime Novels of All Time."  Unless you know who murdered Roger Ackroyd, you're operating with a severe handicap if you want to write crime.

It also means you know who's leading the pack these days.  You want to read the nominees for Best Novel for the Edgar Awards, and you certainly want to keep up with what is selling well, and also what doesn't seem to be selling at all.

It's hard enough to do that in one genre, let alone two or more.

The larger problem is this: you're operating in a vacuum of knowledge here. You need to spend some time learning the vocabulary of your trade. It's essential that you know what genre and category are, and not just decide on your own.


Stephen G Parks said...

>Any genre can have books that are historical (although historical science fiction defies easy explanation.)

There's a sub-genre called Steampunk - science fiction applying cyberpunk rationales to Victorian era steam technology.

Theresa said...

This is a core part of any profession--mastering the language. Writers have to make sure that they're communicating effectively with agents and editors. And knowing canon will enrich their own work.

Carolynnwith2Ns said...

So is Dino porn historical or hysterical?

Jennifer R. Donohue said...

I always think I have a very firm handle on scifi vs. general fiction (what we separately mark and shelve as a different genre is very broad at my library. If it isn't Scifi, fantasy, or mystery they all go in the same room) until I'm looking at a near future thriller with very heavy science elements. Or until I'm deciding between something should go in mystery or not. For us, it comes down to where our patrons are most likely to look for a thing, and thus be better served that way (so a romance mystery we got lately stayed in general, because there are certain things our mystery patrons are looking for, but the subject traces did say both and argh). and murder and romance aside, books typically need both plot and setting, don't they? Among other things.

E.M. Goldsmith said...

I loved Who Killed Roger Ackroyd. It was one of the earliest books in my beach reading experience. It still sits in my parent's beach condo shelf, dog-eared and brown with age and this has nothing to do with anything. Pleasant memory. Although my beach reading had me sure I would be murdered in my bed or devoured by a shark all through my childhood. One of those things did come to pass.

Yes, OP, know your genre. Read deeply period with great concentration in the genre you wish to write. Or write a well-spun tale with rich characters and a well-woven plot and let an industry professional guide you as to the genre.

There are plenty of ways to get this kind of feedback- conferences and query shark type forums. Anyhow, that's all I got. Morning, Reef dwellers.

Donnaeve said...

Uhkay. Maybe it's me but just reading this question made my head spin. Now I have a severe case of genre/category bending vertigo.

Anywhoooo. What they said.

Mornin' y'all.

Melanie Sue Bowles said...

I earned my living as a firefighter. During the first few days at the academy, an instructor pulled all the hand tools off the engine and set them on a tarp. He went over the use of each one. Spanner wrench, anyone? The following day, he held up the Halligan bar and asked us what it was used for. We answered him. Then he asked what the hexagon opening in the flat part of the bar was used for. We all shrugged and smugly replied, "You didn't tell us." The instructor narrowed his eyes and scanned our faces, then said, "Not one of you asked. Get curious about your profession."

I'll never forget that. Nature abhors a vacuum.

Dena Pawling said...

OOOOOOOOOOOO pick me, pick me, pick me!

I know who killed Roger Ackroyd!!!!

Hey, I know the right answer. On THIS blog. That's saying something for this Thursday morning.

>>And are you ever tempted to make up new genres with esoteric rules to confuse and bewilder the authors who keep asking you about genres?

I can definitely see Janet doing this =)

I like the bottom line here, on why a writer needs to read widely, especially in the genre/category/type of book we write. We need to know what's selling, what's not selling, and especially what will be fresh and new. Thanks for that.

Jennifer R. Donohue said...

But, but, Melanie Sue Bowles, what IS that opening for? You can't do that to us!

Mister Furkles said...

Stephen Parks is right. Also, time-travel may be historical science fiction. My favorite genre would be hysterical science fiction if anybody would write it.

Craig F said...

But, but, but, butt...

Sci-fi works best if it has a mystery, crime, or romance built into it.

Some of the best sci-fi is built as high octane thrillers set in the future.

Colin Smith said...

Agreed: Writers should be readers, and those that intend to be published should be familiar with basic industry vocabulary so they can communicate intelligibly and effectively with industry professionals.

Question: How well-read must a writer be? Frankly, with Janet's critera (i.e., read your genre canon, and read award nominees and those selling well in your genre), I may as well quit now. I love to read, and I read as much as I can. But I don't have enough hours in my life to catch up on all the fiction reading I would need to do to fulfill this mandate, and continue to hold my job, and be a good parent, and keep up my studies, etc. I don't read fiction quickly, and both award nominees and best seller lists change constantly. There are new books coming out all the time. I honestly don't know who killed Roger Ackroyd (though I know of the Christie story), and may never know! Does that mean I shouldn't even try to write mysteries?

Yes, I'm stirring the pot a bit, though all of the above is true. Maybe I don't have enough depth in my fiction reading to be a successful fiction writer. If that's the case, then okay. But what happened to it all being about the story? If it's a cracking good novel, will an agent only take it on if the writer can demonstrate familiarity with genre canon and best sellers? Of course not.

Where I see this advice being valuable is for the writer who is struggling with their chosen genre, either to construct a decent story, or to understand why CPs and agents keep saying it sounds too familiar. Yes, definitely read deeper in your genre. And, of course, you should be writing a genre you enjoy reading, which implies you have read books in that genre.

But to say you can't write a genre until you've read the canon and know what's hot? There I think we might disagree...

Respectfully. :D

Casey Karp said...

Um. I'm going to argue that steampunk ain't (by and large) historical. Unless I'm totally off base, historical implies a certain respect for, y'know, history. I've seen very little steampunk that makes much of an attempt at historical accuracy.

Though, to be fair, I haven't read all that widely in steampunk. Not my sub-genre of choice. Good thing I'm not writing it.

Mr. Furkles, I'd class Douglas Adams as hysterical science fiction. And, yeah, time travel can be historical SF.

To Craig's comment, there's the difference between genre and plot in a nut shell. It's a question of emphasis and approach. And it's what causes Jennifer's headaches.

ObAdvertisement: The RagTime Traveler is a mystery. I could make a decent case for shelving it as SFF, but in the final analysis, it was written as a mystery and it's being published by a mystery-centric publisher. The SFF and historical elements are there, and it would be a different book entirely without 'em, but they're used in support of the mystery, not the other way 'round.

Cecilia Ortiz Luna said...

For me, one of the benefits of reading widely in your chosen genre/category is that you are able to check out whether your story idea had been used by someone else or thirty of them. It will give you an idea if you need course correction with regards to your WIP to make it fresh and attractive to agents and subsequently, to publishers.

Colin Smith said...

Cecilia: But "fresh and original" can apply to voice and setting, not necessarily plot. Have there not been plenty of classic story re-imaginings that stay fairly close to the plot of the original, but gain readership because of the imaginative take the author has on the story?

Hmmm... I'm being quite adversative today. Must need more tea... :)

RachelErin said...

Colin, Janet's advice about reading was the first piece I followed when I thought about querying WIP #1. What I found is that by number 10 or 15 of recently released books (I'm good on the canon side), certain elements of my story that were new compared to my old favs were boring boring boring. Yawning until the tears come boring. By 30 or 50, there were more subtle trends, things that felt fresh vs. old. I have since noticed that a lot of highly successful authors read 100-150 books a year.

It is a lot of time - I also have a day job, a passel of kids (only four, between 2 and 10), a DH in law school who will soon be working at a law firm in NYC away from home all summer, but I can still read 2-4 books a month (my goal is 50 a year in my area, not including craft books. I mix up bestsellers and award nominees/winners, but don't usually get to Everything). It takes me 6-9 months to draft a book. - maybe it would be 3-6 if I spent all that reading time writing (which realistically wouldn't happen. I can intelligently read when I can't intelligently write - especially since my day job is mostly writing). If reading those books saves me from writing 4-5 bad boring books, I still come out way ahead time wise.

I actually don't know how I would ever catch up to the amazing work coming out now, if I wasn't reading it. Maybe if I was able to go to a couple of conferences I would get some sense of where my category and genre are, but those are expensive and logistically a lot more difficult for a working parent than reading/listening to a book a week. And I would still have to read the books to fully get what was going on.

And in critique group, I can automatically tell the people who read vs. those who don't. The non-readers never hit the delightful twist/surprise note. Even when the writing is good, and all the right pieces are there, I always feel like I know the story, and I don't much care if they are there next month or not. The people who I am dying to hear the next chapter, I've gradually learned as I get to know them, are all well-read.

When I first started I thought Janet's standard was impossibly, unnecessarily high. Having tried it, I find it perfect.

RachelErin said...

Just wanted to add - I included my exact number in the spirit of encouragement - if you read more - you're awesome! If you read less, there's hope you can squeeze in a few more a year. I don't think my number is particularly remarkable; it is challenging yet doable for me personally, which is my only criterion.

I love hearing stories of high achieving authors who write on the train (e.g. Ken Liu), but if you find things like that stressful, ignore me.

Joseph S. said...

I guess I made the critical mistake of writing my WIP before reading any (or very few) books in my genre in recent decades. ( I did read a John Grisham and and James Lee Burke while traveling to Brazil to research the book). I’m trying to make up for it now while I’m revising the book. I’m often pleasantly surprised I intuitively did the right thing at the core level so (I hope) the manuscript is salvageable.

As for Roger Ackyrod, in my teenage years I read as many Hercule Poirot books as I could. Who Killed Roger Ackroyd is by far the best one and the one that shook me out of the room. I should read it again soon.

Colin Smith said...

Rachel: First, I don't think the "look at what I can do with all the responsibilities I have, so can you!" approach is encouraging. Our life circumstances are all different. It doesn't look as if you are trying to keep up with academic reading on top of your fiction schedule, for example. Perhaps that consigns me to writing boring fiction. And maybe I do, but my lack of canonical depth blinds me to it.

I could just say, "Well, that's it--I quit!" But that won't last long. My reading/life schedule simply isn't going to change anytime soon, so I'm looking for an underlying principle. Maybe I have to put up with writing crap until I can read more fiction. But I don't think that's what Janet's saying.

There's no doubt that being well-read can make you a better writer. Maybe even a very successful writer. But so can writing six hours a day, seven days a week, and attending workshops, and getting involved in writing groups.

Here's what I'm clinging to: I'm not going to be as well-read as Lee Child, so I'm going to try to read well. Select books that I think I ought to read. I may not get to the entire Agatha Christie canon, but perhaps I'll pick one or two. I'll try to read a couple of best sellers a year. But not just any old best seller. I'm looking for books I'll enjoy, and books that will teach me and stretch me.

Maybe that's not enough, but if I need to read 100 novels a year to join the Good Fiction Writer's Club, then I needn't bother applying, because it simply isn't going to happen.

BJ Muntain said...

Stephen G Parks beat me to the steampunk (and beat everyone else to the comment section.) Casey, historical fiction means it's set in a past time period. Just like science fiction can have various levels of scientific accuracy, so can historical fiction have various levels of historical accuracy. I've read some historical romance that really stretches history.

There's nothing wrong with blending genres. Many agents like blended genres. Many readers do, too.

When Janet talks about not writing more than one genre, it's about writing a fantasy novel, then a historical novel, then an interstellar romance.

I like to think I'm well-read, though not as much in current offerings as I probably should be, due to a health problem that makes it difficult to read at times. My novels are set in a science fiction near future, but include mysteries, thrillers, conspiracies, and sometimes psychological drama. And explosions. I like fictional explosions (though in real life, I'm afraid enough of fire that I can't even light a match without my hand shaking so much it nearly goes out.) I hope that all that makes my stories entertaining enough to keep people reading.

Sherry Howard said...

Understanding the craft makes your residence in it more of a cottage than than a shack with leaning walls. Before I wrote my YA I read nothing but YA for an entire year. I think I read every John Green book along with many others. If I hadn't done that, I'd have never understood how wide-ranging that category is, much less how "rich" it was.

Donnaeve said...

Two points I'm picking up on in the thread between Colin and RachelErin.

QOTKU said "...because you need to be familiar with the books in your genre if you want to write something fresh and new."

And she said, "That means you know the canon. Canon means the books that came first. Those are books that you see on lists like "100 Best Crime Novels of All Time."

First point, is around the word familiar. The second is relative to the statement about seeing books on the 100 list.

I would bet QOTKU is simply saying to read some of these books. Not all of them.

I can barely get 1 book a month read. I'm gonna sound like a broken record because I know I've said this before, but I only read at night. By then, I'm so tired I'm lucky to get in ten pages. If I have a 300 page book? It's gonna take me a month. I used to read 3-4 books a week. Sometimes more. That was then, this is now. I'm very selective and choosy about what I read. I have a TBR pile that is staggering by my viewpoint. If I didn't buy another book 6-7 years, I have enough to last me. And yet...I buy more when I see what I think is The One to help me with writing.

Amy Schaefer said...

Talking about sci-fi with thriller elements vs thriller with sci-fi elements, I suppose choosing a genre comes down to: where will your readers find you? Where will the people who would enjoy your book be likely to browse? The library and the bookstore have to shelve your books somewhere - you want them to put Amazing Book X where the right eyeballs are going to see it and pick it up. That's why we have category and genre labels.

As for reading, I stopped keeping count because it stressed me out. I make a conscious effort to read every day. Some days are easier than others. But I've stopped beating myself up over not finishing x books / week. I celebrate the good days, and shrug off the bad ones. Therein lies my recipe for mental health. (results may vary)

Stacy said...

There's no doubt that being well-read can make you a better writer. Maybe even a very successful writer. But so can writing six hours a day, seven days a week, and attending workshops, and getting involved in writing groups.

But... who writes six hours a day if they have a full-time job, a marriage, and kids? And a mortgage? In terms of time, it's six of one, half a dozen of the other. If you write six hours a day, why can't you cut that in half and read for three? I know it seems counterintuitive (Blogger doesn't think that's a word, by the way, speaking of vocabulary lessons), but I think reading makes it a lot easier to write well. I don't think writers waste as much time struggling to get the story onto the page if they read a lot. In that sense, I think reading a lot both takes time and makes time.

Julie Weathers said...

I don't have much to say because I'm happily meandering between a few pastures as if genre were still open range. Fences? What fences? The Rain Crow, Cowgirls Wanted, and La Patrona are historical whatevers. They are not crimes, romances, science fiction/fantasy. Far Rider definitely is fantasy. I will probably always go between the two genres because that's the way my brain works and I know it will drive an agent crazy. I apologize.

Historicals and fantasies both might rely more on world building, but you sure better have something more going on than a rich setting or it becomes a travelogue.

Louis L'Amour had to fight tooth and toenail with his publisher to write his medieval because they wanted him to stick to his westerns. I'm sure there was a battle when he wanted to write Last of the Breed also.

I'm like Colin. I don't have time to read all the latest best sellers. I know, blasphemy. I do read a lot. When I'm writing fantasy, I don't read fantasy. I do read historical when I'm writing historical because there's such a wide variety and much of what I read is research.

Anyway, reading is part of your education as a writer. It's one of the most weapons in your armory, but it does no good if the sword stays sheathed.

Barbara Etlin said...

Stephen King's 11/22/63 is an example of historical SF involving time travel, and I highly recommend it.

Amy Johnson said...

Helpful blog post and helpful comments today. I'm encouraged to read more. Thanks, y'all.

Now I must get back to writing. Last week, I decided to get rid of the magical realism element in my novel in progress. Also changing from present tense to past, and from first person to third. I'm finding it to be an interesting exercise changing first to third--probably works some particular writing muscles and might end up being some good training.

Casey Karp said...

BJ, maybe it's a sign of my inner snob leaking through, but I have to draw a line. If a novel diverges too far from historical accuracy, I don't feel comfortable calling it a historical. Alternate history, maybe.

Granted, your line may fall in a different place than mine or Janet's.

And, because I've been living between 1899 and 1902 for the past couple of years, I'm acutely aware of the fact that Victorian and Edwardian England were very different. And, as I said, I've seen very little steampunk that seems to make any effort to get the distinction right.

But then, in my own collection, I tend to file steampunk under fantasy rather than science fiction, so take my prejudices with a whole salt lick.

Julie Weathers said...


I'd suggest getting some audio books and listen to them while you're driving. Even listening to a good book can teach you a lot. It trains your ear to listen to the way a writer strings words together.

We were discussion description on B&W and some examples came up.

"A sky the color of torn plums"--James Lee Burke

“Don't tell me the moon is shining; show me the glint of light on broken glass.”
--Anton Chekhov

"The sky had cleared, the clouds raveled to tatters, and at four oclock, the sun broke through silver on the bright green of grass and leaves and golden on the puddles in the road in the road: all down the column of men quickened the step, smiling in the sudden burst of gold and silver weather. They would point at the sky, the shining fields, and call to each other: the sun the sun! Their uniforms, which had darkened in the April rain, began to steam-- "

Shelby Foote--from Shiloh

He had zoomed in from the snake of thousands of men slogging through the mud and rain, to their steaming uniforms. As Diana pointed out here, what makes this description work is not the weather change, but the emotion. They are sullen, soaked, worn out, weary, and dragging when all of a sudden the sun appears like a miracle.

"I had operated under odd conditions before, I thought, rinsing my hands hastily in vinegar brought from the kitchen, but none odder than this.
Relieved of his trousers, Myers lay tastefully displayed on the great mahogany table, boneless as a roasted pheasant, and nearly as ornamental. In lieu of platter, he lay upon a stable blanket, surrounded by a garnish of bottles, rags, and bandages. He was still wearing his beaded shirt, his silver earrings and bear claw necklace; a gaudy centerpiece waiting to be carved.--Diana Gabaldon

Even listening to these passages reinforces how a craftsman works. You can listen to books while you do other things. I used to listen to tapes while I was going to sleep every night and it was amazing how many things I retained. Your mind is much more remarkable than you realize.

Julie Weathers said...


Kurt Vonnegut recommended working no more than four hours at a time. I would think he might know a bit about writing.

Colin Smith said...

Stacy: Hyperbole to make a point, which you clearly got. No-one has time to do everything they could to do be a better writer. Which is why we have to decide what we can do, despite all the best well-intentioned advice as to what we should do. :)

Karen McCoy said...

Colin : adding to what Barbara said, I'd say know your canon, but also read books that are well outside your genre. For example, I am very well-read in YA, and I'm trying to expand more into the classics. Fahrenheit 451 totally changed my perspective and the way I wrote, for example. Find something that challenges you that's well outside your comfort zone.

Seeking clarification: I've heard that fantasy and science fiction are separate genres, and there is not a science fiction/fantasy genre. What's the most recent verdict on this?

Amy Johnson said...

“Don't tell me the moon is shining; show me the glint of light on broken glass.”
--Anton Chekhov

Thank you, Julie. Great timing! This morning I had a fire merely flickering in the fireplace. Ack! That'll never do. Never. Nevaaah. NevAAAAH! (As the composer puppet guy from Sesame Street used to say.) I can do SO much better. Here goes!

Lennon Faris said...

Usually you don't know you're in a vacuum till you're out. Don't ask me how I know... I'm still floating around in space in this whole 'writing world.'

I'm another slow reader with tiny spaces of time. BUT I've started carrying a book in my purse at all times. It's amazing how often you can whip that thing out for 5, 10 minutes at a time. The trick is, it can't be a riveting book or you'll take it out of your purse to keep reading.

Colin Smith said...

Karen: I do read! :) And I have been reading for a long time (I'm old). And I read widely. I just know I haven't read the canon of any genre I might write, and I can't live up to the kind of novel-reading schedule often proposed. Which is why I advocate reading well, being selective along the lines I outlined above.

Stacy said...

No, I didn't really pick up on that, but that's the way it's been for me today. :(

Craig F said...

I have long thought that a work of fiction with sci-fi elements was called Speculative Fiction.

Actual sci-fi is immersed in something other than the current time.

I actually think it is a good thing for writers to experiment in other genres. You should find the place you are most comfortable with before you query something. If that gets published you will be fairly well stuck in that genre.

When you set a scene(world-build) and determine a voice direction you write. It is all the same when you are pounding a keyboard.

Yes, you do have to read some in that genre. You don't need to be expert in it.

RachelErin said...

Colin, I absolutely didn't mean it that way, I'm sorry it came off as a I-do-this-so-why-can't-you comment. Your first comment came off as binary and defeatist in a way that's unusual for you - If I can't read X books I should quit writing...I was trying to describe how I haven't found it to be a zero-sum game, and the benefits to me from muddling through in my small way. You've been writing seriously longer than I have, and I would never expect our reading needs to be the same, even if our circumstances were identical.

Warning: Relentless optimism below.
In defense of writers sharing their specific goals and circumstances, however, I am frequently amazed and inspired by the creativity people show in arranging their lives to serve their passions, the multitude of circumstances that can be made to work, even around responsibilities or challenges that appear overwhelming to me. I am grateful for the people who had similar circumstances (e.g. academics who move constantly, day jobs, working parents) who shared the what and how of their goals. Some find that kind of sharing inherently advice-y, or competitive—I rarely do.

As a working mother I get so many How Do You Do Anything !?!?! comments that I often mention family stuff to counteract a limiting cultural narrative about motherhood/family and working that I encounter at least weekly. I intended the mention above as a positive one—I'm grateful for circumstances that are marvelous to me, (except for the one where DH works in the city for the summer, but I have too many friends in the military to really complain about it) and I'm doing my best to take advantage of them by improving as quickly as possible.

I shared my current reading goal within my current circumstance (both are subject to change) as a single data point in the scatterplot of the writing community, not to suggest anyone else needs to change coordinates. I like data, and it can be hard to find - no one wants to look like a boaster or a slacker.

To end on a more On-Topic note, I think the hardest part about mastering the vocabulary of genre vs. category in the beginning is that both are used in the same way to sort and shelve things in bookstores and libraries. The physical spaces treat them as equivalent levels in an outline. You have the Romance genre right next to the YA category (which can have stuff from all genres)..additionally, there are plenty of craft books where the author uses the term genre in their own made-up theoretical framework, without much reference to how the industry uses the term.

That's three - I'm out for the day.

Julie Weathers said...


Welcome. That was the lesson of the discussion we had. You can describe clothing, for instance, but if you put and action or emotion with it then the clothing becomes secondary underpainting and is much more effective.

Reflected red and yellow flames danced merrily on the brass andiron belly, only slightly marred by the dent where I had bashed John Frain over the head.

Karen McCoy said...

Ah, Colin, that makes sense! I wasn't implying that you didn't read widely, it was more along the lines of I used to think I read widely, but I recently discovered that there's a lot of territory I've left untapped (due to the time constraints you alluded to).

Colin Smith said...

Rachel: Please note, I said: "I could just say, "Well, that's it--I quit!" But that won't last long." COULD--not would. Unfortunately, some WOULD read about the large number of books successful writers read, and exhortations to read canon plus best sellers, and give up because they simply don't have time.

As it happens, I think my perspective is close to your optimism: Do what you can with what you've got. Each of us has our own load to bear. Some can give all their time to reading and writing, others can't. That may mean writing well is more of a struggle for some, but one's willingness to make the most of the schedule you have to do the best you can is what will make the difference, not how you compare with someone else.

Yes, some people are encouraged by stories of how busy writers manage to find time to write. But others find these stories demoralizing, finding such standards impossible to live up to. Which is why we need to be careful with how we share our journeys.

Thanks for the dialog, Rachel. :)

Julie Weathers said...


Everyone has to find their own path.

Diana was on a panel some years ago where an author and agent insisted that you had to outline your novel and write linearly or you'd not only never finish a novel, but certainly never be successful. Diana disagreed, saying writers can write any way they wish as long as it works for them. She writes in chunks and the pieces eventually fall into place. Then, when enough pieces are in place, she fills in the holes.

The author who insisted on outlines was aghast. "How can you build a house without a foundation?"

"If the builders deliver the roof first, I just hang the roof in the air where I think it will go. It's fiction. I can do anything I want."

You can write any way you wish. This is your magic carpet ride.

If I read too much of one kind of author at a time, I get depressed with my own writing because I feel so inferior. That's why I usually have more than one book going at a time.

Steve Stubbs said...

Very interesting. I thought I understood genre and category, but this has clarified my understanding some more. It is amazing how much there is to learn reading your blog.

It should be added that beginners might shy away froom historical because it takes SO DAMN MUCH RESEARCH. No matter how much you think you know about some vanished period, you are kidding yourself.

I know you have a birthday coming up tomorrow, so in case I don't wake up tomorrow or something else happens, HAPPY BIRTHDAY. I hope you have a good one and one of your customers sends you a big advance or royalty payment.

BJ Muntain said...

Something I've noticed is that heavy readers insist that everyone else needs to read a lot in order to write. I used to be a heavy reader. Not everyone can read that much, whether because of life or health. But you can tell from Colin's writing here on the blog (and, I hope, from mine) that you don't have to read as much to write well. Yes, reading a lot is preferable, but it's not the end-all and be-all to writing publishable fiction. It would be nice to have a degree in science when writing science fiction, or a degree in history when writing historical fiction, but that's kind of unrealistic for many folks, too.

Science fiction and fantasy are two genres that often fall under the general term of speculative fiction. They go well together, though, because they both deal with alternate realities, requiring more suspension of disbelief.

There does seem to be a subgenre of 'science fantasy' beginning to take hold, but I think lines are still being drawn around that.

Of course, if you ask any group of science fiction writers, you'll have a number who claim that space opera - or anything that isn't as hard as a rock - is 'fantasy'. And others telling this number to stop being so hardass and actually use some imagination. So the genre lines are not as straight as one might think.

As for genre vs. category - I do agree with our Queen's distinction, but not all people in publishing do. I see many agents and editors calling YA a genre, and genres categories. This hurts my brain. But then, a lot of things hurt my brain lately.

Dena Pawling said...

BJ re explosions - several years ago while camping with my husband and kids, I was asked to light the Coleman lantern. I slid the lit end of the match thru the slot. The lantern flashed really bright, poof! Being the seasoned camper that I was, I screamed. I thought it exploded but it didn't go out. It stayed bright. Way too bright. Hubby came and turned off the gas, but nothing happened. The lantern stayed lit and very bright. I don't have a good memory of what happened after that but I think hubby had to put on oven mits and unscrew the propane to shut it off.

After that, hubby had to buy a battery powered lantern for me. I still refuse to be anywhere near a propane lantern.

Joseph S. said...

Julie and Stacy

I naturally write “no more than four hours at a time.” Usually a lot less than no more than four hours. Unfortunately it often takes me four hours to gear up to write a lot less than no more than four hours.

It’s the typing what I write in not more than four hours that takes all day.

Casey Karp said...

BJ, science fantasy as a sub-genre has been around, going in and out of fashion as long as I have. Been around, I mean. I'm pretty sure I've never been in fashion. Come to think of it, when I was querying my first novel, I described it as science fantasy. For the record, I got about the same number of requests that way as when I called it magical realism. Go fig.

Joe Snoe, I've got the opposite problem. I spend four hours a day untangling my mangled typing enough that I'll be able to read and rewrite what I spent all day writing.

Steve, I think the same could be said of any genre and category. Why, I know some writers of memoirs who have been researching their entire lives!

And that's my three for the day. Time to [del]find a different way to procrastinate[/del]write something.

Joseph S. said...

Casey, I think we have similar problems not opposite ones.

It still surprises me that things get done and get done well,

Claire Bobrow said...

Long comment thread today - I'm afraid I only made it about halfway through. However, I'm glad Janet continues to refresh us on genre vs. category. It shouldn't be confusing, but sometimes it still is. Yargh.

I like Sherry Howard's analogy of improving our understanding of craft so it's more like a cottage than a crumbling shack.

Claire Bobrow said...

Forgot to say that I read every bit of Agatha Christie I could lay my hands on when I was a kid (Dick Francis mysteries, too). Roger Ackroyd was one of my favorites, but it's been so long that I can't recall the plot or the murderer or anything at all, frankly.

I believe beach reads came up in the thread today. If you enjoy laughing until your sides hurt, I'd highly recommend Paul Feig's painfully funny autobiography, "Kick Me."

BJ Muntain said...

Dena: That's scary! That would squelch any wish to light a lantern for me. (When I used to go camping, I always had battery powered lanterns.)

Casey: Ah, but now there is at least one zine out there calling itself a 'science fantasy' zine. The genre name seems to be making strides into the mainstream. Though no one still can quite define how it is different from science fiction...

Casey Karp said...

So much for getting any work done...

BJ, nobody's been able to come up with a universally-acceptable definition of science fiction, so why should we expect anything different for science fantasy?

My two bits* worth: Science fiction takes a idea that is or could apply to the real world, and extrapolates its effects on society. Science fantasy is the same, except that the idea can't apply to the real world. And yes, I'm well aware of the holes in these definitions.

* Today's fun fact: one bit is 12.5 cents because the Spanish dollar, aka the infamous "piece of eight," was designed to be literally broken into eight bits to make change. I've heard (but can't verify) that in the early days of the US, the American dollar was pegged to the value of the Spanish dollar, hence its applicability to US currency.

So next time someone asks you, "Brother, can you spare a dime?" give him one eighth of a dollar bill and tell him he can keep the extra two and a half cents.

(And then give him a twenty, or buy him dinner, or something. A dime doesn't go far these days.)

MA Hudson said...

Julie - 'You can write any way you wish. This is your magic carpet ride.'

OMG I love that! Completely sums up the writing experience for me (the first draft, at least).

Megan V said...

I'm not going to get into the discussion on reading other than to say I'm thankful that I read fast and thus get to enjoy many books at any given time. Books are one of the few things in life that are both good for my health and my heart.

Shoutout to Dena for knowing the answer to today's blog :)

As for the whole sci-fi vs. sci fantasy thing, well, I tend to differentiate between sci fi, fantasy, and science fantasy as follows:

science fiction—where the systems, worlds, occurrences, peoples have a scientific explanation (even if the explanation is based on the "fake" science of that world or impossible theories)

fantasy-where the systems, worlds, occurrences, peoples etc. have a mythical or magical (a fantastical) explanation.

science fantasy- a blending of the two. Some things are explained by "science" others are explained by "magic" and both things are most likely accepted in the book's universe as normative.

Gingermollymarilyn said...

Huh? No co-incidence it's 420 Day. This posting would also work on April 1.

Unknown said...

So many ideas and it's so late. I'll just share two.

EM Goldsmith "And one of them did come to pass." I assume you're not a ghost, so that leaves bitten by a shark. Do tell!

On reading: if we only based our writing on reading, it would be boring. If we only based it on life experience, it would not be well-written. We need both to make rich stories. And, while I understand the importance of reading one's genre, any reading piques interesting and creative thoughts.So does living life fully, with eyes and ears open.

Unknown said...

I think you can read a million books and it will never make you a good writer. What makes a good writer? Who knows? Some people will write all their lives and never be great at it. Ideas? Nope, just an idea wont cut it. Voice? Sure if you have the execution to back it up. Plot? Not enough if your characters are lacking. You have to be able to put it all together. I don't think the "G" word matters as much to a reader as it does to those in the industry who need a neat little slot to stick your book in. I will say that each type of book has certain rules that must be followed and some that can be bent to a certain extent. Again, I say its the execution that matters to me. I would rather spend my time writing than reading.

Panda in Chief said...

Dena, I can go you one better than the lantern. I burned my whole house down (well, the roof anyway) from a chimney fire from the woodstove. Needless to say, I no longer have a woodstove and am even squeamish around candles.

I should note, this was 20 years ago, and I haven't burned anything down recently.

AJ Blythe said...

Wow, lots of comments (and I'm very late to the party). Enjoyed reading through - some great discussions. Nothing insightful to add because I'm sure the conversation has moved to the next post so I'll see you there =)

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