Reckoning is an annual journal of creative writing on environmental justice. The first issue is out now and includes my people-riding-flying-bicycles-while-living-underground-and-fighting-smelly-worms story “Who Loves the Sun”… because nothing says environmental justice like fighting smelly worms.
In my last post I talked slight crap about fan fiction. And after a few moment’s reflection I thought, “Well, shit, have I really even read much fan fiction?”
So I sought some out.
I did a Google search for Firefly fan fiction and came up with gold. That’s been my reading material for the past two days. And beside the Craiglist personal ad aspects of some of it (erotic pairings of Book & Wash, Mal & River, and Jane & everybody), I think I’m getting a better handle on what it is in fan fiction that grates on me. But before I tell you that, let me say that reading these stories has made me realize that the thing I don’t like about fan fiction is also the thing I need to learn how to do.
Back to what bothers me about it – it’s the immersion level of the work. And this is where I think it overlaps with a genre hang-up I have. I don’t enjoy being so deeply immersed in a story. Sure, I love when I’m immersed in the act of reading, but extreme moment to moment story immersion feels confining. I feel drowned by a writer that describes everything, every moment, every thought of a character’s life. Yeah, that’s hyperbole, but with some books it feels that way. It feels that the writer is holding my hand and directing what I can or can’t pay attention to while they monologue about the movie going on in their head.
But the thing is for fans of shows, fans that would want to write about their favorite show, and a good number of genre fans that level of immersion is what they’re after. They want to be deep in the paracosm on the moment to moment level. It’s not a bug, it’s a design feature. And that’s something I need to learn.
So today’s piece of writer enlightenment:
The thing you dislike in other books is the thing you need to learn for yours.
I’ve read a few of these End of the Year posts now and they’re all starting to resemble: “I had a great year, three dozen stories published, my collection came out and got translated into 800 languages, and two agents fought a duel over which of them got to accept me as a client…”
Mine resembles: “I wrote a lot but only finished five stories, got nearly three dozen rejection letters, and failed to write a new novel.”
And when I say resemble, I mean that’s it. That’s my end of the year update.
Five stories written. Three dozen rejection letters. An unfinished novel.
But you have to take the bad with the good. You can’t hide under a rock simply because you’ve had a shit year. I could pull my output apart some. Two of the stories are what I’m calling “promising failures”, pointing me towards better stories. Not better drafts of these same stories, but better new stories.
I had one story published, Last Rites For A Vagabond. I like that story quite a bit and am pleased with it in so much as one can be pleased with these things. It’s bitter-sweet, discordant, and has a nice random sketches feel to it. If you listen closely you can hear it expiring quietly from neglect. But so it goes. Some folks might wish they had even my level of success. Shit, complete strangers left comments on the story and appeared to like it, so no complaints.
The novel on the other hand…
I am finding novel writing to be like this Bill Nye clip describing how scientists plan on determining the nature of Jupiter’s core. Of course, I’ve launched myself into this story somewhat blindly, and as I write I find I keep “wobbling” each time I encounter pockets of dark matter AKA plot holes. This is probably because I’m making my life difficult by trying to write a secondary world fantasy that doesn’t involve too many “the rogues crept from shadow to shadow” type sentences. So that’s where the writing goes and will continue to go for the near future.
Every now and then the debate over reading genre classics pops up and rears its ugly head. On the one hand you have folks who feel we’re losing a literary heritage and forgetting too many old great books as new great books get published. Mike Swanwick had a recent blog post to that effect. The genre was once smaller, you could read everything in it, and stay on top of it. It was easier not only to find the firsts in a genre, but also the outliers. Having a hungry curiosity for this stuff is good.
On the other hand you have the opposite position of just knowing what’s current, which in its extreme form might resemble this five year old blog post from Karen Traviss about not needing to read to be a writer. (I don’t know if Traviss still agrees with that blog post, but I’ll keep it until I learn otherwise because it’s useful.) In its milder form, it’s not needing to read every alien invasion story ever, but just those in recent years in order to see how alien invasion stories are being told now in this era.
There’s also a third hand, which shows up in the comments of Swanwick’s post, stating that the “classics” might not be so classic and why navigate through books dripping with the prejudices of their eras. This too is a valuable point, but my reading of Swanwick’s post is one not so much telling writers to know their history and cling to it, but to sift that history and find the gems in it, the outliers as he dubs them, or the books lost in genre’s shadow like the ones I mention here and here.
However there are ways to reconcile these three arguments when you keep these guidelines in mind:
1. Read only what you enjoy, but cultivate a curious and complex palette that enjoys challenges.
2. Make your own genre history. Lots of stuff gets lost in the margins or ignored because it doesn’t tidily fit in with someone’s imposed narrative. Bring these works to light.
3. The early work in a genre has more immediacy than subsequent iterations. It can sometimes be as fresh as more recent works.
4. As far as knowing your genre goes, once you’ve read the initial spark, focus on what’s been done with it in the past decade. But…
5. Always remember there are likely more amazing books that you haven’t heard of than ones you have.