Aphelion Issue 279, Volume 26
December 2022/January 2023
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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:

Even if 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.

Now, 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?

It's 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 living with.

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.

At 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?

Presumably, 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 example.

Our 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 current incarnations.

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 little deeper.

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 years.

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'?

Familiarity 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.

In Closing...

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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