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Thursday, November 29, 2012

GUEST POST: Cross-Genre Writing (Or, Attack of the 50-Foot Machine-Gun Toting Vampire) by Steven Montano

When I went to college for my Creative Writing degree, it was made very clear that there was fiction writing (which is a term English teachers use to refer to literature luminaries like Melville, Hemingway and Kafka), and there was genre writing (fantasy, sci-fi, horror, crime, western, etc, which was all written by hacks). Genre writing was highly discouraged in my Creative Writing classes, as it was the general belief held by my professors that constraining one’s self to genre stunted potential growth as an author. Or something like that.

Personally, I thought that was a bunch of crap, and I still do. A couple of my professors, however, who were apparently impressed with my writing skills but saddened by my insistence on writing horror and fantasy, suggested I explore the boundaries of my chosen genres to learn the full range of conventions, stereotypes and cliches. The idea was to understand the so-called “constraints” of genre well enough to stretch them when possible, obey them when necessary, and disregard them without making a fool out of myself.

Well, give my professors a prize, because learning the boundaries of genre convention actually wound up helping me quite a bit. (See Mom, I DID learn something in college!)

I have fairly broad tastes, but most of what I read, regardless of genre, has a very particular feel and mood: I like stuff that’s dark, gritty, dramatic, poetic, and moving. I've never once read an author whose work I completely wanted to emulate, but I've had plenty whose work I wanted to borrow from:China Mieville, J.V. Jones, John Marco, Cormac McCarthy, C.S. Friedman, Clive Barker, Tanith Lee. Clearly, when writing, an author should probably create something they’d also enjoy reading (or maybe that’s just me), and that’s something I always try to keep in mind when I sit down to create a rough draft.

I've tried my hand at epic fantasy a few times, but I could never get those works to feel like…well, like “me”. They felt more like “me trying to write like someone else”. My voice – my real, honest, personal writer’s voice – isn't like one writer, but many writers, and similarly my tastes in genre aren't bound to one, but to several. I love epic fantasy, but I also love dark fantasy, and science fiction (especially military sci-fi), horror, action, suspense, and even poetry.

When I sat down to write Blood Skies (originally titled Red) as a Nanowrimo project back in 2009, I decided to literally let my mind go wherever it wanted, so long as I enjoyed reading what I’d been writing. Very little planning went into the rough draft: I literally just went with the flow. The first pass was much more steampunk than the final version might indicate, with flintlocks and blunderbusses instead of auto-mags and sniper rifles, rapiers and cutlasses instead of machetes and katanas, and I edited all of that out because, once again, it didn’t feel like “me”. I made a conscious decision to upgrade things to a more modern time frame, and that was when I came up with the notion of a world literally forged around the concept of “anything goes” – a world very similar to Earth, but one that had also been transformed and resembled other, more fantastical places as well. And so the World After the Black was formed.

Now I had a world to work with that was populated by magic, monsters, vampires, some elements of steampunk technology (dirigibles, thaumaturgic implements), modern weapons (machine guns, modern knives, etc) and a bunch of other crap that had absolutely no basis in reality whatsoever (turbine-powered airships, undead cargo vessels, necrotic generators fueled by dead angels, etc.). The best part was it all made sense. It was a world where bits and pieces from other realities had been mashed together to form an entirely new place, where a wide array of traditionally disparate elements could be found operating in relative harmony.

So in a way my world became a metaphor for cross-genre writing: a very direct and entirely unsubtle way for me to throw bits and pieces of all the various fantasy/sci-fi/horror elements I loved without having the finished product feel unrealistic. You see, the trick to cross-genre writing is this: you can do whatever you want, so long as you follow the rules you lay down. If you want to use a telepathic Cyclops with a howitzer, damn it, use a telepathic Cyclops with a howitzer…but your world had better be set up for a telepathic Cyclops with a howitzer to exist in terms of the rules of that world, the tone of your novel and setting, and the general mood and feel of the story.

Any given genre already has a set of rules attached: these are the conventions of the genre, the things we take for granted. If we’re reading high fantasy, we expect magic and elves and trolls and swords; if we’re reading military sci-fi, we expect power armor and big guns and world-wrecking weaponry. There’s no rule that states you can’t have elves with guns fighting trolls in power armor, but it’s the author’s job to sell the reader on the fact that this is possible within the context of the story.

The world of Blood Skies, for example, certainly has its limits. Magic works in a particular way; vampires follow a certain model (albeit not one that involves sparkles or romance); and even though there are M16s and eyeless seers and bio-engineered troll mercenaries, everything makes sense within the context of the book, and I do my best to present these elements in a believable and realistic fashion, even in the scope of an entirely preposterous setting.

Genre writing is about working with conventions and filling certain expectations. Writing with more than one genre is simply broadening the playing field. No matter how big the field, you still have to follow the rules. The nice thing is the author makes those rules, and so long as the reader is willing to go along for the ride, anything is possible.

AUTHOR INFORMATION: Steven Montano is the author of the Blood Skies series. Steven attended college at University of Colorado wherein he graduated with a degree in creative writing. He currently works as a certified public accountant. He’s also addicted to caffeine, movies, and NBA basketball. He lives with his wife, two kids, and a dog of dubious intellect in south of Seattle, Washington. Blood Skies was his debut.

Official Author Website
Read FBC's review of Blood Skies
Read FBC's review of Black Scars


Bob/Sally said...

Great post, Steven - sounds like a really intriguing series you've put together here. Looking forward to giving it a read.

tlbodine said...

Glad to hear I'm not the only person who got the, "You're too talented to be wasting your writing on this genre crap" talk from a creative writing professor.

In other news: Your book sounds awesome and those covers are *hot*. I'll be keeping an eye out for them!

Daezarkian13 said...

Thanks everyone! =S

StellaMagic said...

I think fantasy romances are my favorites because I love magical creature

StellaMagic said...

I'm trying to make it through fantasy writing as well. Any advice?

Unknown said...

So my creative writing program wasn't the only one to push "true, respectable" writing over something people might actually enjoy reading?
Okay, maybe that's a little too skeptical but you get my point. And I think there's something to cross-genre writing that can bring in "literary" elements that might even make a stuffy old writing prof enjoy the work.
Good article!


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