Over three years ago, I wrote a post in which I stated wholeheartedly that I gave a crap about genre. This post was in response to something I read that Jeff VanderMeer had written. I read my post again this morning and shuddered a little. It was the same kind of shudder I make when I read one of those early stories I wrote when I first started out writing. The reason for the shudder is that I no longer think the same way that I did back then. In the three-plus years since, my thinking on genre and storytelling has evolved.
I mention this, in part, because minds really do change. Even with things I care deeply about, like science fiction, thoughts evolve, and that is a good thing.
In that old post, I quoted VanderMeer from his own post:
I find it more and more alien and odd that someone’s taste in fiction could be determined by whether or not there’s a dragon in it or magic or whether it’s set in the future or not.
At the time, I didn’t agree with Jeff in his assessment. Today, I find that I do. Somewhere in the last three years, I’ve learned that for me, the single most important element in a work of fiction is a good story. This goes for things that I read, and things that I write. Especially things that I write these days.
I’ve given this a great deal of thought recently as I’ve struggled with the second draft of my first novel. While the elements of the novel would make it classic science fiction (far future, high tech, FTL, etc.) part of my struggle has been trying to tell the story as if all of that futuristic stuff was no big deal, a given. In some sense, I am trying to write a contemporary story that happens to take place in the future. The big challenge for me has been to make the story interesting in this context. In thinking about how I’ve come to this phase in my writing, two ideas keep returning to me again and again.
1. Genre as my training wheels
I think I’ve used genre as my training wheels, the way my son uses training wheels on his bike to avoid falling down. This is my assessment of my own behavior and I don’t mean to imply that genre is training wheels for all writers. But I think it has been training wheels for me. I grew up reading science fiction. Through science fiction I learned how to tell a story. Of course that is how I would start out my own writing. It felt safe, it felt comfortable, and I had countless examples of how to do it.
Sometime in the last several years, I’ve started to mature as a writer. For me, this is less about technical expertise and more about understanding the big picture. Storytelling is separate from science fiction. And while you can tell a story without science fiction, you can’t really write science fiction without telling a story. I’ve felt the desire over the last few years to grow as a storyteller, and to see if I could do it without my training wheels.
I wrote a fantasy called “Lost and Found” that appeared in Daily Science Fiction in the fall of 2011 that may mark my first successful attempt at this decoupling. I wrote a story called “The Negative Impact of Climate Change on the Unusual Beasts of the World” that was ultimately published in Analog that marked another move in this direction. Although both stories have elements of the fantastic, they are not the kind of straight science fiction stories I’d previously written. They focus much more on story and much less on the elements of what makes an identifiable science fiction story.
Most recently, I wrote a story called, “Big Al Shepard Plays Baseball on the Moon” which was published in InterGalactic Medicine Show in January. This was my first alternate history and the “alternate” aspect was about the only thing that made the story fall into a traditional science fiction category. The story itself was more about baseball than science fiction.
I’ve been working intermittently on a novella titled “Strays” in which almost no discernable elements of traditional science fiction appear at all. The story is another alternate history, but a contemporary alternative history. I’ve struggle with it, the way a child wobbles on her bike when the training wheels are first taken away. I puzzled for a long time over why I was having such trouble with the story, until it hit me that I’d taken away my own training wheels. Of course I was going to wobble. Likewise, I think this wobbling is what caused me trouble at the beginning of the second draft of my novel. I’ve removed the train wheels. Can I tell a good story without them?
What made me decide to remove the training wheels? What made me recognize they were there in the first place? For that I think I have Stephen King to thank.
2. Reading Stephen King
I’ve read a lot of Stephen King in the last three years and he has quickly become one of my favorite writers. One of the things that I admire about virtually all of his fiction is that he seems to focus on story first. He writes entirely without training wheels, and allows the resulting story or novel or novella to be branded in whatever manner the publisher sees fit. What I took from this telling a good story is the most important, and most fundamental part of being a commercial writer.
In many ways, this is freeing. I’ve felt a certain amount of weariness when starting a science fiction story, thinking about the stuff that I have to throw in to give it that sci-fi feel. But if I take off the training wheels, and just try to write a good story, those accessories seems to come much more naturally. Stephen King did this brilliantly (in my opinion) in 11/22/63. The novel is about an attempt by a time traveler to stop the Kennedy assassination, something that has been done in science fiction again and again until it is cliche.
But King’s novel doesn’t feel like science fiction. It has none of the tropes. It feels like a riveting story that pulls you in and doesn’t let you go. The story doesn’t need all of the trimmings of genre because it works so well without them.
King does this again and again in many of his novels and stories, and I’ve swallowed many of them whole over the last several years. I think this has had a big influence in my desire to take off the genre training wheels.
Today, I look at Jeff’s quote, and begin to understand what he was getting at. As a writer, I want to be constantly growing, constantly challenging myself. How else can I improve? Having that ah-ha moment where I realize that, for me, at least, genre has been acting as my storytelling training wheels was a big deal. I still love science fiction, but even more than science fiction, I love a good story. The writers that impress me most are those that can tell good stories. And truth be told, I think good stories are what readers want, and editors are looking for. “The Negative Impact of Climate Change on the Unusual Beasts of the World” is far from what I would call a typical Analog story. But Trevor bought it, and it makes me feel good because it was one of the first stories on which I wobbled about without the training wheels, and yet still managed to sell it.
I think my stories will almost always have elements of genre in them. But I no longer write them with genre in mind. I write them first and foremost to tell the best possible story I can tell. Elements of genre creep in along the way and I’m okay with that. More and more I find I’m trying to write without my training wheels.
And I’m having more fun than ever before.