Genre and the Subconscious Toolkit

[Cross-posted from amwriting.org]

I’m a genre writer and proud of it. But here’s a thing that I came to realize a long time ago, right around the point where I was reading almost exclusively within the genres I loved and couldn’t figure out what was holding me back from becoming the writer I really wanted to be. The joys and pleasures of working within a genre you love come with a downside. Reading exclusively within your chosen genre as a writer can help to focus your creativity in ways that make you a better writer up to a point. But the focus you gain can eventually produce a kind of tunnel vision — an over-focus of the mind that makes it impossible to see beyond genre.

Every writer has had the experience of being hung up on a particular story problem — a plot bottleneck that won’t break, a character that isn’t working, a convoluted collapse of story logic that seems ready to force you back to page one. But most writers have also had the experience of having the solution to a problem suddenly pop into his or her mind fully formed, from out of left field. Unlooked for, unthought of, the answer is just suddenly there because the brain often does its best work when we’re not focused exclusively on the problem at hand. The best inspiration, the best creativity, comes in the act of not focusing, because the moment of not focusing lets us see beyond what we normally see.

The thing is, all writing by its very nature is a focused activity. The genre and styles we choose to write in are a huge and important part of that focus, and an important part of the process of becoming better writers as each word, each paragraph, each story is shaped and honed. But in the act of loving the genres we write in, that process of focus-turned-to-tunnel-vision begins to limit us to what I would call “expected inspiration.” When we engage with the familiar, when we surround ourselves with what we know, we let our imaginations loose only inside comfortable and preset constraints. We know all the variables going into the fictional equation, and so the outcomes can never truly surprise us. But the ability to be surprised by our own work — to seek and find the unexpected inspiration — is where the best fiction lives.

As a writer of genre fiction, whatever your genre happens to be, it’s necessary to find inspiration in the mechanics of genre. For fantasy and speculative fiction writers, the joy of mechanics lies largely in world building. From our imaginations, we sketch out foundational parameters of whole civilizations and cultures, the pantheons of gods, the hordes of evil, and the histories of nations that rose and fell without ever actually existing. For mystery writers, mechanics are largely the machinations of plot and puzzle — the pacing of events and irony that create the emotional and intellectual map that mystery demands. Romance as a genre focuses on the mechanics of emotion and relationships, whose rules are less rigid but still require a necessary amount of predictability in the end.

The thing is, no good genre writer can write only in ingenious isolation. We talk about creating our worlds from the whole cloth of imagination, but that imagination is always filtered through layers of knowledge from outside the genre. Scratch the surface of a great romance writer and you’re likely to find an anthropsychologist yearning to break free. The ranks of great fantasy writers are populated with fanatics for history and mythology, just as the best SF writers live and breathe the clockwork storm that is technology and sociology feeding on each other. The best mystery writers understand the processes of inductive and deductive reasoning down cold, as they do the equally distant dispassion of logic and psychopathy on which the most memorable mysteries are often based.

All great genre writers know this need for foundation; all writers who yearn to be great genre writers understand it. Less obvious, however, is the idea that embracing and consuming fiction outside our chosen genres is just as essential a foundational mechanical tool. And you can look to what a specific genre does best in search of particular narrative devices, to be sure — reading mysteries to add a little intrigue to your science fiction; reading romance to make the relationships in your fantasy feel more believable. But more important in my own experience is how reading outside genre adds in the most general way to the writer’s subconscious toolkit of creativity.

When we stop focusing, when we look away from the familiar — that’s the point at which the ideas and the inspiration truly come alive. We look away from the problem at hand in the hope and expectation that the solution will come out of left field. We push ourselves to read outside our chosen genres in order to break the focus that can too easily constrain the energy of imagination. No matter what your chosen genre, reading a great mystery can show you storytelling built around the relentless tightness of pure plot. Reading a great epic fantasy can bring the relationship between character and setting into the sharpest possible relief. Reading great science fiction can show you the art of extrapolating possibility to reality, even as it shows how not even the most drastic changes in environment can alter the essential qualities of the human spirit. Reading a great romance can expose you to the basic foundations of archetypal emotion. Reading beyond genre and into the realm of straight-up literary fiction can show you story at its most primal inside a single character’s heart and mind (notwithstanding the fact that you can find that kind of fiction within any of the so-called genres; but that’s another post for another time).

Loving a genre is a necessary part of writing great genre fiction. Being drawn to hammer and hone the particular sorts of narratives, characters, and drama inherent in a genre is fine. But if you realize at some point that you’re doing most of your reading only in that chosen genre, you’re the metaphorical equivalent of the writer who focuses on the problem at hand so intently that he or she can’t ever get past it. Reading only in limited genres narrows your focus. It turns your creativity into something homogenous — a straight line of thought and intellectual energy; a surface of smooth constraints and limitations. But the best creativity is fractious and fractured. The best creativity runs in a dozen different directions all at once. It has rough edges and cracks along all its seams, and those cracks are where the light of new inspiration flares, waiting to be seen from the corner of your eye.