Thoughts on Writing
#14: Know Your Territory
by Seanan McGuire
While the thought at the core of today's essay is a bit more
publishing-oriented than many of them have been (or will be), it can
still apply to writers of all stripes, whether you're writing for fun
or writing with the goal of eventually becoming the next big
best-selling author. This is another essay that's just as much about
being a reader as it is about being a writer;
hopefully, if I
write enough of these, people will realize that I genuinely mean it
when I say that without reading, writing starts going a little bit
stale. Here's today's expanded topic of discussion:
you're not publishing right now -- even if you're just hoping to
publish someday -- make sure you're reading as much as you can of the
genres where you're writing or planning to write. The line between 'new
and hot' and 'played-out and cliche' is a thin one, and while I'm not
saying 'throw away your baby because somebody else got there first,'
you need to know where that line is at any given moment, because you
need to be able to defend your work from an informed perspective.
you will hopefully remember that we discussed genre and what it means
in essay thirteen, 'Reading Outside the Box,' and I can thus continue
without going over old ground. If you don't remember that essay, or if
you want a refresher on its contents, that's okay. We can wait right
here while you get caught up. Once you're ready, we can continue.
All set? Excellent. Let’s begin.
Didn't You Just Tell
Us Not to Do This?
true that our previous essay discussed all the excellent reasons to
read outside your preferred genre as much as possible. At the same
time, that wasn't intended to mean 'you can never read the genre or
genres you enjoy again, because that will hurt you as a writer.' If I
decided that being a writer meant giving up reading horror and urban
fantasy -- my personal preferred genres -- there's a very good chance
that I would change my mind about that whole 'writing' thing and go off
to do something else. (Given that I view writing as a compulsion, and
would probably have an easier time giving up oxygen, this would be
funny, but not productive. Funny for everyone but me, that is. Well,
and the people standing in range of my inevitable psychotic break.)
The point of our last essay was that you need to read outside your
genre in addition
to reading inside your genre. That's what's going to help you change
and grow as an author. All reading helps us, one way or another;
reading outside our genre helps us to learn what else is out there.
Reading inside, on the other hand, teaches us what we're going to be
To draw a broad comparison, think of it as the
difference between visiting a foreign country and learning about your
home territory. When you're a tourist, you visit the attractions. You
see the sights. You let locals usher you around, showing off the very
best things that they have to offer. Now, these things are going to
vary from person to person, depending on your interests; I'm sure most
folks who visit Huntsville, Alabama do it for the space-related
attractions, while I did it for a haunted corn maze and a box-car
filled with cotton. At the end of the day, what matters is making the
visit, not the specific things that you chose to go and see.
home, however, you need to be a little more intimately acquainted with
what's going on. Most people don't even realize how familiar they are
with their home towns. We walk or drive or take the buses on a sort of
beautiful auto-pilot. We know what stores are open when, who makes the
best coffee, who always sells their day-olds at half-price. We remember
when that condo was an open field, when the elementary school basement
flooded, and that time the tarantulas took over the convenience store.
Most people start learning their home towns the minute they move in,
because it's important. Knowing your genre is like knowing your home
town: you need to do it. It's important.
As to why it's
important...towns change. Stores close, buildings are torn down, fields
are converted into condos. The bones of the place will stay the same,
but if you don't watch the changes as they happen, those bones can
become very difficult to see. Think about people returning to their
childhood homes after a long period of being away. It's like that.
Genres, like towns, can change -- but they change faster, because they
aren't limited by silly things like 'weather' and 'civic need.' The
things that were new and ambitious ten years ago are played-out today;
the things that were played-out ten years ago may have crossed the line
into 'retro' and become cool all over again. Unless you've been 'in
town' to watch the changes as they happened, it can be impossible to
tell what neighborhood you're in.
So...Where Do I Start?
if you've decided to write inside a genre, you've at least encountered
that genre in the past. (I say 'presumably' because it's entirely
possible to come up with an idea and not realize that it's been done
before. Social pressures tend to guide thought down certain paths, and
when those social pressures fall on creative people, you wind up with a
rash of zombie novels, or giant bug novels, or whatever. The cultural
hive-mind is a powerful thing that respects no genre boundaries.) This
should give you a starting point, a set of books that you can hold up
as an example of the genre in question.
From there, well, you need to start playing detective.
That Sounds Ominous.
I promise, it's not. It's largely just a matter of chasing things down
-- in both directions, both prior to your starting
point, and after your starting point. Let's see if we can't give an
fresh new writer -- let's call her 'Molly' -- has decided that she
wants to write an urban fantasy novel. Now, she's read some urban
fantasy in the past, most notably Emma Bull's War for the Oaks,
and it seems like a really fun genre to play in. Before she can get
started, however, she needs to get herself a little more grounded in
the genre, so that she can understand both its common tropes and their
There are a variety of ways that Molly can
get the information she needs. To find older urban fantasy works, she
can go online and ask people to list their favorite urban fantasies. If
she has a wide enough group to ask, she may find some really
interesting connections being drawn. After all, you can make a very
sold argument for Ray Bradbury and Richard Matheson being urban fantasy
authors, as both wrote dark fantasies in city and small town settings.
To find newer urban fantasies, she can visit libraries or well-stocked
bookstores and ask for recommendations.
Urban fantasy is an
interesting genre because its current incarnation also includes
elements which have traditionally belonged to the horror genre. How
many readers who 'don't do horror' are currently reading Tanya Huff,
Kelley Armstrong, and Kim Harrison? Vampires, ghosts, witches, and
werewolves are all horror creatures that have managed to make the jump
into 'supernatural romance,' which is commonly grouped with urban
fantasy. It's not unusual for authors to bring more standard fantasy
elements into their supernatural romances, muddling the waters even
further. Molly can either decide that she's not interested in the
various mainstream monsters, and stick to her fantasy creatures, or she
can decide that supernatural romance is the place to be, and dig a
When dealing with a fusion genre like supernatural romance, it's always
a good idea to look at the road that didn't
bring you into town. In Molly's case, she could definitely do worse
than taking the time to get at least a small acquaintance with horror.
She doesn't need to go deep -- if she's planning to approach things
more from the fantasy side of the fence, that's fine -- but she should
at least jaunt over long enough to get a stamp on her passport and buy
a few postcards. Ditto for visiting the romance side of things.
Remember, it may seem new and hot to us, but that might be only because
we don't know that it's been done in every book for the last fifteen
Remember that it's also important, in a case like this,
to read the bad as well as the good. When I'm branching into a new
genre, or researching a genre that I'm working in, I get tragically
non-discriminating. It's good to know what sucks. It's good to know
what makes your eyes bleed. If fifteen people tell you that something
is the worst book in the history of books, read it! Just make sure you
have something to take the taste out of your brain when you're finished.
What Do You Mean 'Defend My Work'?
with the genre will sometimes mean discovering that what we're writing
-- what we're totally in love with -- has been done before. It's
important to be able to answer accusations that your book, Diana
Among the Leprechauns, is a total rip-off of the 1985
best-seller, Blarney Stoned,
by saying 'actually, I read it, and here are the thirty-seven
differences.' It's better to be braced than it is to be blind-sided.
Perspective. It's fun for the whole family.
If you actually write Diana Among the Leprechauns,
I may have to throw things at your head.
© 2009 Seanan McGuire
Seanan McGuire is an author, poet, and musician who lives in the San Francisco Bay area with two cats and a small army of plush dinosaurs. She has recorded two albums, Stars Fall Home and Red Roses and Dead Things, and her fantasy novel Rosmary and Rue will be published by DAW in September of 2009.
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