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.


“The Summer Rain”

My books I’d fain cast off, I cannot read,
  ’Twixt every page my thoughts go stray at large
Down in the meadow, where is richer feed,
  And will not mind to hit their proper targe.

Plutarch was good, and so was Homer too,
  Our Shakespeare’s life were rich to live again,
What Plutarch read, that was not good nor true,
  Nor Shakespeare’s books, unless his books were men.

Here while I lie beneath this walnut bough,
  What care I for the Greeks or for Troy town,
If juster battles are enacted now
  Between the ants upon this hummock’s crown?

Bid Homer wait till I the issue learn,
  If red or black the gods will favor most,
Or yonder Ajax will the phalanx turn,
  Struggling to heave some rock against the host.

Tell Shakespeare to attend some leisure hour,
  For now I’ve business with this drop of dew,
And see you not, the clouds prepare a shower—
  I’ll meet him shortly when the sky is blue.

This bed of herd’s grass and wild oats was spread
  Last year with nicer skill than monarchs use.
A clover tuft is pillow for my head,
  And violets quite overtop my shoes.

And now the cordial clouds have shut all in,
  And gently swells the wind to say all’s well;
The scattered drops are falling fast and thin,
  Some in the pool, some in the flower-bell.

I am well drenched upon my bed of oats;
  But see that globe come rolling down its stem,
Now like a lonely planet there it floats,
  And now it sinks into my garment’s hem.

Drip drip the trees for all the country round,
  And richness rare distills from every bough;
The wind alone it is makes every sound,
  Shaking down crystals on the leaves below.

For shame the sun will never show himself,
  Who could not with his beams e’er melt me so;
My dripping locks—they would become an elf,
  Who in a beaded coat does gayly go.

— Henry David Thoreau


Freshly Wakened

Appendix S: Dandelion Wine

I’ve been wracking my brain since last week, digging through the depths of melancholy to try to sum up in some kind of cogent fashion exactly what Ray Bradbury means to me. And i realize today that i can’t.

Because Bradbury is magic. Bradbury did things that no other writer i’m familiar with could do, and that’s a rare freaking gift. With other writers — even the best writers, the writers that mean the most to me and have influenced, challenged, and inspired me — i see patterns and reflections of greatness. I read Harlan Ellison and I read Neil Gaiman (as arbitrary examples), and i think to myself, “These are like minds, whose views of the world complement and even mirror each other’s from time to time.” I’m not saying that one is simply following in the footsteps of the second or that A is the more refined version of B. Just that in the way those two authors’ works resonate in my own mind, i can feel layers of comfortable connections.

Ray Bradbury’s work is bereft of comfortable connections for me. His work stands alone — and at the apex of an era of speculative fiction and fantasy when no single person should have been able to accomplish that feat.

And so i realize that there’s nothing i can say about Ray Bradbury that will do justice to his work. So instead, i’m just going to let his work say it for me.

What follows is the opening to Dandelion Wine, courtesy of (which is to say, stolen from) the raybradbury.com website. Dandelion Wine is a book that everyone needs to read. It’s a book that i’m ashamed to say it took me a relatively long to get to reading, insofar as i consumed all of Bradbury’s fantasy and speculative fiction well before the end of high school but kind of ignored Dandelion Wine until well into college. Because it was “realist” fiction. Autobiographical fiction. A 1920s period piece, for crying out loud, and no Mr. Dark in sight.

A lot of Bradbury’s books play around with what might be called “magic”. The dark supernatural uncertainty of Something Wicked This Way Comes; the aching mythology of The Martian Chronicles. And sure, Dandelion Wine does have a touch of elemental enchantment to it, in its hints of witchcraft and the way that the connections between people and the world play out in the young protagonist’s eyes. Even so, it would be a stretch to call it a fantasy novel — but in the end, that doesn’t matter.

Because in the end, Dandelion Wine doesn’t just explore magic. Dandelion Wine is magic. And i know i’m going to spend the rest of my life looking for another book like it, and i’m pretty sure i’m going to fail.

• • •

It was a quiet morning, the town covered over with darkness and at ease in bed. Summer gathered in the weather, the wind had the proper touch, the breathing of the world was long and warm and slow. You had only to rise, lean from your window, and know that this indeed was the first real time of freedom and living, this was the first morning of summer.

Douglas Spaulding, twelve, freshly wakened, let summer idle him on its early-morning stream. Lying in his third-story cupola bedroom, he felt the tall power it gave him, riding high in the June wind, the grandest tower in town. At night, when the trees washed together, he flashed his gaze like a beacon from this lighthouse in all directions over swarming seas of elm and oak and maple. Now…

“Boy,” whispered Douglas.

A whole summer ahead to cross off the calendar, day by day. Like the goddess Siva in the travel books, he saw his hands jump everywhere, pluck sour apples, peaches, and midnight plums. He would be clothed in trees and bushes and rivers. He would freeze, gladly, in the hoarfrosted icehouse door. He would bake, happily, with ten thousand chickens, in Grandma’s kitchen.

But now — a familiar task awaited him.

One night each week he was allowed to leave his father, his mother, and his younger brother Tom asleep in their small house next door and run here, up the dark spiral stairs to his grandparents’ cupola, and in this sorcerer’s tower sleep with thunders and visions, to wake before the crystal jingle of milk bottles and perform his ritual magic. He stood at the open window in the dark, took a deep breath and exhaled.

The street lights, like candles on a black cake, went out. He exhaled again and again and the stars began to vanish.

Douglas smiled. He pointed a finger.

There, and there. Now over here, and here…

Yellow squares were cut in the dim morning earth as house lights winked slowly on. A sprinkle of windows came suddenly alight miles off in dawn country.

“Everyone yawn. Everyone up.”

The great house stirred below.

“Grandpa, get your teeth from the water glass!” He waited a decent interval. “Grandma and Great-grandma, fry hot cakes!”

The warm scent of fried batter rose in the drafty halls to stir the boarders, the aunts, the uncles, the visiting cousins, in their rooms.

“Street where all the Old People live, wake up! Miss Helen Loomis, Colonel Freeleigh, Miss Bentley! Cough, get up, take pills, move around! Mr. Jonas, hitch up your horse, get your junk wagon out and around!”

The bleak mansions across the town ravine opened baleful dragon eyes. Soon, in the morning avenues below, two old women would glide their electric Green Machine, waving at all the dogs. “Mr. Tridden, run to the carbarn!” Soon, scattering hot blue sparks above it, the town trolley would sail the rivering brick streets.

“Ready John Huff, Charlie Woodman?” whispered Douglas to the Street of Children. “Ready!” to baseballssponged deep in wet lawns, to rope swings hung empty in trees.

“Mom, Dad, Tom, wake up.”

Clock alarms tinkled faintly. The courthouse clock boomed. Birds leaped from trees like a net thrown by his hand, singing. Douglas, conducting an orchestra, pointed to the eastern sky.

The sun began to rise.

He folded his arms and smiled a magician’s smile. Yes, sir, he thought, everyone jumps, everyone runs when I yell. It’ll be a fine season.

He gave the town a last snap of his fingers.

Doors slammed open; people stepped out.

Summer 1928 began.


Three Thoughts on “Prometheus”

1) H.R. Giger gets a thank-you nod at the top of the end credits but Dan O’Bannon doesn’t? Not fucking cool.

2) I have to assume that Jon Spaihts’ original script was filled with little things like nuanced character, and layered exposition, and biomorphic consistency, and small moments of mystery slowly building to inevitable yet surprising revelations, and then Damon Lindeloff came in and said, “Kid, let me show you how we dealt with that kind of crap on LOST…”

3) Not really a SPOILER ALERT, but: Why the holy hell was the alien mound-complex a) called a pyramid when it wasn’t in any way, and b) lifted wholesale from the Castle Harkonnen design for Jodorowsky’s Dune? Like, what?


“Myths Have Staying Power”

“First of all, I don’t write science fiction. I’ve only done one science fiction book and that’s Fahrenheit 451, based on reality. It was named so to represent the temperature at which paper ignites. Science fiction is a depiction of the real. Fantasy is a depiction of the unreal. So Martian Chronicles is not science fiction, it’s fantasy. It couldn’t happen, you see? That’s the reason it’s going to be around a long time — because it’s a Greek myth, and myths have staying power.”

— Ray Bradbury


My Mission Statement

                                                      Be whores still,
And he whose pious breath seeks to convert you,
Be strong in whore, allure him, burn him up.
Let your close fire predominate his smoke,
And be no turncoats. Yet may your pains, six months,
Be quite contrary, and thatch your poor thin roofs
With burdens of the dead — some that were hang’d,
No matter. Wear them, betray with them. Whore still…

— Shakespeare, Timon of Athens.