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Friday, June 08, 2012


Warwick talk

Oh darn. Cleaning up my blog's drafts, I accidentally deleted a published post. It was a rendition of a talk I gave to a writing class in Warwick. Alas, the comments and intro are lost, but here's the talk, anyway: 

When I asked Laura what sort of thing you'd like me to talk about, she suggested three questions:

1. What were my thoughts on successfully combining literary style and technique with 'genre'?

2. What did I want to achieve when I did so?

3. What are the difficulties and rewards of publishing difficult-to-categorise work?

These are all good questions, but they run me instantly up against the embarrassment I often feel when asked perfectly sensible questions to which, I fear, I can only give rather inane answers. That's the trouble with writing; justifying yourself on the page is one thing, but explaining yourself in public is quite another.

The last of those questions, the one about the difficulties and rewards of publishing hard-to-categorise work, is the easiest to answer, so I think I'll tackle it first. The simple answer is this: it meant it took me an awfully long time to find a publisher. People kept sending it back with rejection letters almost all saying the exact same thing: we like this book, we're sure somebody will publish it (and let me tell you, that's an assurance that does not gain strength with repetition!) but we're going to pass because we don't know how we'd categorise this book. 

Hard-to-categorise work is, basically, hard-to-sell work. And this actually brings me towards my answer to the first two questions.

Laura asked what my thoughts were on combining literary and genre elements. I'm afraid the answer is a slightly slack-jawed, 'Er, I don't have many thoughts.' And the same applies when asking what I wanted to achieve when combining them. The thing is, when I started writing I was very ignorant and rather naive about genre; I'd read different books that would probably go in different shelves in the shop, but my only real categories were 'Books I think are good' and 'Books I think are bad'. If you'd asked me whether I wanted to write a literary or a genre book I would have said 'literary', because that's an accolade which basically means 'well-written', but I saw no reason to exclude non-naturalistic elements on that account. All I really wanted to achieve was to write some books I thought were good. 

But if you're asking my thoughts on how to combine genre and literature successfully, I think that's the only way to approach it.

The thing about genre is that it's a selling category, not a writing category. Booksellers devised it to make the delivery process simpler. Writing books, on the other hand, is a messy business: it may look neat on the outside, but the inside of my head when I write is an absolute jumble. You have to be open to anything and everything that occurs to you as you put each sentence down on the page, and to do that, you can't afford to be too rigid in your categories. For me, writing is not so much a process of organisation as an emotional extreme sport, a projection of myself into a state of mildly altered consciousness. Genre classifications are part of the conscious mind, and I'd lay a small sum that if you put electrodes on my head, you'd find that different areas of the brain were lighting up when I wrote than the ones that lit up when I analyse, categorise and classify. To me, thinking about what is genre and what is literary is simply going into the wrong room in my head; if I want to write anything, I have to close the door on it and go somewhere else. 

I learned to write in meditation workshops, in fact. These were places where we'd sit and practice mindfulness, and also play around with paints, and also do automatic writing: the technique was based on reading from Natalie Goldberg's Writing Down the Bones and Wild Mind, in which she counsels that you commit to writing three pages of whatever comes into your mind, without censoring or changing anything, and without allowing your hand to stop moving, even if what comes out is completely silly, offensive or boring. The point of the exercise - similar to the 'morning pages' advised by my other favourite writing teacher, Julia Cameron of The Artist's Way - is not to produce any particular effect, but to loosen you up and help you sensitise your inner ears to the sound of your imagination. I'm terrible at explaining my books to strangers - actually, last weekend I went to a wedding and on the way home I told my husband I wanted to stop letting people know I was a writer because they always ask me about it and I always feel a fool - and when it comes to classifying them, I just give up completely. They're written from a place that I only learned to reach through techniques that deliberately set out to bypass the tidy part of your brain. 

I actually learned a lot more about genre after starting to be published as semi-genre. I was told by my American publisher, for instance, that I might be the new Laurel K. Hamilton; not having heard the name, I went online to find out what the old Laurel K. Hamilton was like (not a writer I want to be like, is the answer), and from there I started reading websites in which people discuss science fiction and fantasy. The geek community, which is basically what we're talking about here, has undergone a massive explosion since the Internet allowed it to communicate widely, but as far as literature goes, I'm not sure this is an entirely good thing. Once you have a subculture established, it will have a lifespan: every subculture goes through a flourishing beginning, established middle, decadent phase and final dissolution, and when it comes to sci fi, the decadent phase is a fixation on 'tropes' - if you've ever seen the website TVTropes, you'll know what I mean - to the exclusion of style, freshness and individual voice. The more mass market end of sci fi is moving towards mash-ups, genre-savvy winks at the audience, all very much of the conscious mind. Some people like to incorporate genre back into their writing, in other words, and it's happening more and more in some areas, but frankly it gives me artistic hives. 

So since I'm talking to an audience with aspiring writers in it, I think I'm just going to give what advice I can, and none of it has to do with genre. What I'd actually advise you to do is forget about genre. Forget about your audience, in fact. Don't write for yourself, don't write for your readers: write for the story you're writing. Don't exclude an enticing whodunnit structure or a magic-realist idea because you want to be literary; don't stick in magic or a murder because you want to be genre. Work on hearing your imagination.

And beyond that, this is the only advice I can really give: your mind is to you what an instrument is to a musician. You need to take care of yourself. Get enough sleep. Stay out of destructive relationships. Don't - and I'm speaking as a mother here - do not have children until you can arrange some babysitting. Take moderate exercise. Be careful with drink and drugs; everyone's brain chemistry is different, and not everybody's reacts well to intoxicants. Read lots of books, but also watch movies and plays, listen to music, go walking in beautiful places; keep your mind fed. Don't write for any reason except to write. Live in a way that will have meaning whether you ever write anything successful or not. And really, seriously: get enough sleep. 


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