The Genre of Literary Fiction (and Other Oxymorons)

I had to share this article which James Beamon posted the other day:

Fantastic Rant

It was written a couple of decades ago, but still holds true. It neatly sums up everything I’ve always found frustrating about the elitist distinction between literary fiction and genre fiction. I found its brief history of the literary movement especially enlightening. I think attitudes are beginning to change, possibly because popular culture has never been shared as freely as it is today. Genre fiction has always been popular, but I think it’s beginning to get the credence it deserves, if only because the people that like it are now as vocal (even influential?) as the people that don’t.

I’d rather like to frame and display this quote in particular, which sums up what really distinguishes a great story from a mediocre one:

“A story that fascinates is better than one that bores. A story that is eloquent is better than the babboon [sic] howlings of the verbally damned. A story that is profound, that transmits valuable insight, is better than one that is pedestrian or that is opaque. A story that speaks to many is better than one that speaks to few. A story that is beautiful in form is better than one that is inelegant, rambling or clumsy. A story that transports me to another world or that transmits experience is better than a story that leaves me sitting alone and troubled in my reading chair. A story that artfully moves me emotionally or intellectually is better than one that leaves me emotionally or intellectually anesthetized. A story that promotes understanding and creates a community of fans is better than one that seeks to isolate or divide.”

Hear, hear, I say – but take a look and see what you think.

Rare Insight

It’s a shame when something incredibly helpful also happens to be incredibly rare. The personalised rejection is one such thing. If personalised rejections were a species, they’d be on the critically endangered list. Personalising a rejection turns a slammed door into a gently closed one, leaving you with that touch of hope that the next door might actually open wide and invite you in. Not only that, it can give you an insight into what prevented that editor inviting you over the threshold, and that can make all the difference.

I had one such rejection this week. I’ve got a story that’s been doing the rounds for a while now, and I finally had it rejected with more than just a ‘Sorry, this isn’t quite right for us’. The personalisation was brief – a single line, actually – but it was something. And when I’d thought about it for a while, I realised it wasn’t just a token gesture of usefulness, it actually was useful. It made me look at the story again. I saw my opening paragraph in a new light, and revamped it as a result. It’s not radically different, but it’s stronger and more intriguing. There’s no question it’s better now than it was this time last week, and all because of one single line that gave me an insight into why one particular editor chose to pass on it.

It’s clear why personalised rejections are lesser-spotted beasts. The very few publications I see that promise something personalised over a form rejection are usually fledgling ones that have yet to be jaded by the amount of time involved in replying individually to every submission they receive. You see plenty that apologise for their lack of personalisation, often stating they used to offer more than a form rejection in their early days, but time constraints have taken over. It’s completely understandable, but it’s still a shame. We writers need all the help we can get to rise above the slush. One tiny piece of insight can make a world of difference.

Enter Title Here

I love it when I know a story’s title before it’s finished. Sometimes I even have the title before I have the story to go with it. My most recently completed story was like that. I had the title weeks, even months, before I knew what it was about. It was kind of fun coming up with something that fit, and when I found it, it was like meeting someone you know by name but have never met. “Oh, you’re Mr Tod! So nice to finally meet you!” Cue sly grin and whisker-licking on his part (yes, I have been thinking about Beatrix Potter lately). I knew the name. I knew the story existed somewhere. And discovering it was like reuniting two parts of something that had been separated but belonged together.

It’s great when that happens. Unfortunately, I find it to be very much the exception rather than the rule.

At the time I was writing that story, I was also racking my brains for a title for another one. In the exact reverse scenario, I had the completed story but I didn’t know what the heck to call it. Total mind blank. I didn’t even have one or two possible ideas to tweak. Nothing. And what do you do with a story that has no name? It exists. It’s complete… it has characters and plot and a setting that deserves summing up in a neat little title. But it’s not finished. You can’t submit it like that. Editors do have a habit of changing titles anyway (my last published piece, ‘Rule of Five’, was originally called ‘Five’ until the editor suggested the alternative), so there’s not much point in getting too attached to a title. It just seems wrong to send it out into the world without one. Like waiting until your child’s first day of school before settling on her name, and then just hoping the teacher will come up with something suitable because you still can’t decide what she’s called. It doesn’t bode well for your writing (or parenting) ability if you can’t think of a title to stick at the top of your manuscript (or on your child’s name labels).

The story in question finally has a semi-working title that I thought of before drifting off to sleep the other night. I’m not 100% sold on it, but at least I can send it out respectably until I think of something better or the title grows on me. But it’s been almost four months since I began its first draft. Four months without an inkling of what to call the poor thing, whilst the other one sits smugly next to it on my hard drive, all ready and titled before I even wrote the first sentence.

Titles are important. No, they’re not the meat of the story and you certainly don’t want them to be the only memorable thing about it, but they’re the first point of contact a reader has. How many of us pick up a book or choose a story based on an intriguing or unusual title? You want your title to engage people instantly; to make them want to know more. The first sentence is the hook, but the title should be your bait. It should lure your readers in before you snag them with that urgent first line.

That’s why it’s so gratifying when you know your title right away, and so frustrating when you just can’t grasp it.

First Aid

Injuries are inconvenient. Yeah, okay, they’re also painful, sometimes debilitating, and occasionally life-threatening. But for the purposes of this post, they’re mainly inconvenient. If you break your leg, hobbling around on crutches for weeks with no free hands to even carry your cup of tea from the kitchen gets old really fast. Having an arm in plaster means you have to relearn everything one-handed. If you’re lucky, that’s your dominant hand. You get a new perspective on what it’s like to live with a permanent disability, and new respect for those that do.

But even minor injuries are a pain (no pun intended). A paper cut makes it virtually impossible to slice lemons without working out a weird, awkward way to hold the injured finger out of acid’s way.  A scratch on your arm has to be avoided while scrubbing yourself in the shower. A painful bruise can make it awkward to lie on your preferred side to sleep. You just have to put up with it until the thing’s healed and you can go back to taking minor everyday activities for granted.

I guess we all know this. If you’ve ever sprained your ankle right before going on holiday or badly bitten the inside of your cheek on the day you’ve got reservations for that excellent restaurant you booked weeks ago, you know how inconvenient hurting yourself can be. But I’ll bet you’ve never read a book where one of the main characters gets injured and thought ‘Argh, how inconvenient for the author!’

When you injure your protagonist it sucks for them. But it also sucks for you, as the writer. Because now you have this character with some form of limited activity that they didn’t have prior to the injury and you have to be aware of it constantly. It’s very easy to forget that your protagonist has an arm in a sling once the initial injury and its aftermath has been dealt with. But unless he’s got superhuman healing abilities, you’d better be prepared for him to be below par for weeks. He can’t suddenly greet his girlfriend with open arms or hop on his bike to run a quick errand or fight off his antagonist with amazing karate moves. He’s going to be limited and awkward and inconvenienced at every turn, and so are you. Sometimes it’s merely a matter of continuity – making sure he only hugs his girlfriend with one arm, aware of the awkward immobile arm in the way, for example. But other times it can create entire plot changes as you have to re-plan something you hadn’t foreseen would be impossible before you injured him.

Sometimes injuries are useful ways of directing the plot; sometimes they’re crucial to it. But even on occasions when you’ve totally planned for this injury and the story’s outcome depends on it, you’ve still got to be aware that injuring a previously hale and hearty character makes a rod for your own back as well as theirs.

It’s a relief when they finally heal.