Thursday, January 31, 2008

Martian Zombies with Heaving Bosoms and Dynamite: A Question of Genre

Writtenwyrdd and Bernita have both alluded to something that has perhaps baffled many of us lately: splitting hairs when it comes to labeling genres. Written has a great post about fantasy vs. urban fantasy vs. Christian fantasy, etc. In response, Bernita raises a great question: how does one know who to query when these categories start to become so arbitrary?

I first saw the term “urban fantasy” last year and thought it might have something to do with magical realism, such as setting a story with elements of fantasy in a real environment. I thought of W.P Kinsella’s Shoeless Joe, the basis for A Field of Dreams. Well, no, because Shoeless Joe doesn’t have much to do with an urban setting.

I have always thought the lines between thriller and suspense were intentionally blurred by publishers in order to get a marketing edge for various titles. And then there was Stephen King’s Lisey’s Story last year, which was supposedly King’s first foray into romance. The dust jacket even had an endorsement by Nicholas Sparks. I read the book and thought it was a typical King story (apart from endless repetition and a questionable editing job--SK switched editors for this one). Yes, it had a romantic slant but was by no means a romance IMHO. In fact, it bore a very strong resemblance to his Bag of Bones, based just as much on romance as Lisey’s Story, but which was clearly marketed as horror. Lisey's Story seemed a shameless attempt at cross-marketing by manipulating its genre designation. I guess a publisher can do that when the author gets a sixteen million dollar advance.

As several have commented on other blogs, genre comes down to an agent’s definition. Unfortunately, agent definitions don’t always tally. The more I think of it, however, the title of this blog just might stand a chance in the slush pile. It might grab someone’s attention for that all-important thirty-second first impression! I hereby copyright the title and will take everyone out on my yacht when I make my first ten million bucks. I mean, it can’t miss, right?

Picture: public domain.

Wednesday, January 30, 2008

Hemingway, Grisham, and Karma

I’ve never read a John Grisham novel. Hollywood always gets his work to the silver screen before I can get around to buying one of his books. Grisham, a laidback, amiable fellow, was interviewed on WNET by Charlie Rose last night. He said writing wasn’t really a job for him, claiming that it came too easily. He admitted that he didn’t like outlining very much and wasn’t fond of the editorial stage, but all in all, he counted himself a lucky man. He said he produced one novel a year and that each one took him only six months to write, leaving him plenty of time to spend around the house.

Even more interesting was his admission that he isn’t very interested in character development, in getting inside the head of his creations. He claimed that he was far more interested in what was going to happen in the next scene. The gist of his comments was that he wanted to write enjoyable books that would keep people’s minds engaged for a two or three days.

I suppose that some might feel he should pay more attention to character development—indeed, might even regard his statement as heresy. Whatever he does seems to work, however. By analogy, I don’t think Dan Brown’s novels would be such page turners if he delved into characterization. His forte is pacing--IMHO.

I must admit that I felt a little envious of this charming, unaffected man as he spoke of the ease with which he practices his craft. After a little introspection, however, I decided I’d have better karma by saying, “Good for you, John.”

Hemingway said that writing was simply a matter of getting the words right. It’s a simple definition that works for me. Not bad work when you can get it!
Picture of Papa: Public Domain

Tuesday, January 29, 2008

The Slings and Arrows of Outrageous Literary Fortune

Many years ago I submitted a horror novel to about fifty agents. Ten requested the manuscript. Five loved the style but not the story. Five loved the story but not the style. I yearned to be a mad scientist who could combine one agent from each group into someone who would say, “Great style, great story!” I realized, however, that it was just a matter of taste. No hard feelings at all. At least they all responded.

We all have our own stories about submissions, and one needs a sense of humor. I laugh when I think back to a novel I wrote, very quirky. I sent it to several agents whose listings or websites said, “Send me a story that breaks the mold, a story that creates a new genre! Be creative! Find a narrative voice that's never been used!” The responses I received all said, “This is great writing, but it’s too different. Study the market.” Go figure.

Agents are human, and most have treated me well. They have a tough job, not to mention slush piles that would make anyone weep. I respect them, and most reputable agents are tireless advocates for their clients. But some could ratchet down their pontifications a bit in light of the following.

I get cheesed when reputable agents demand professionalism and then send rejection letters with multiple (and glaring) grammatical errors. I get equally cheesed when they fail to respond to requested manuscripts. There’s simply no excuse for this. One top-of-the-heap agent (I'm talking big) once told me she had indeed received my manuscript but was behind in her reading, had jury duty, needed root canal work, had the flu, yadda, yadda, yadda. She finally stopped responding altogether after a year and a half … and then wrote a book on how to snag the perfect agent. Seems like she found some time somewhere, huh?

I don’t like wasting postage.

Picture: Public Domain

Monday, January 28, 2008

Zen in the Art of Writing

If there’s a better book on the craft than Zen in the Art of Writing: Essays on Creativity by Ray Bradbury, I don’t know what it is. You don’t have to be a Bradbury fan to savor this fantastic book on how to jangle your muse out of lethargy. Most writers I know, regardless of what genre they work in, have read this book numerous times. It energizes one to the point that simply sitting at the keyboard gets one excited, and hence the title.

And while we’re on the subject of Bradbury, I think people are mistaken when they regard him as only a sci-fi writer. His novels Dandelion Wine and Something Wicked This Way Comes are lyrical and beautifully written. They’re not “space tales”; rather, they delve into issues of fear, courage, love, the human heart, and childhood.

Not many people realize how versatile Bradbury has been during his career. He did much screenwriting for television and wrote the screenplay for the original Hollywood production of Moby Dick. He started writing it while in a taxi in London, one of the great stories in Zen in the Art of Writing.

Picture: Public Domain

Saturday, January 26, 2008


This isn't a review since I am in the process of reading Volume One of Zimmie's autobiography. All I can say is that it is has such a marvelous flow. It is straightforward and intelligible yet lyrical, if that makes any sense. And so much info! I never knew that he was almost considered for Albert Grossman's "super folk group," Peter, Paul & Mary, although his connection with the trio is legendary.

I also didn't know that Dylan had spent so much time in New Orleans or that he had recorded his album Oh Mercy here. What is impressive is that most visitors here never learn much about the city, but Dylan demonstrates an in-depth understanding of the city and mentions landmarks and restaurants where I used to go (and at the time when he was in NO!!!--late 80s). His portrayal of the city is not stereotypical at all (like Hollywood's).

One can clearly hear echoes of Woody Guthrie's authobiography Bound for Glory in Dylan's off-the-cuff style. It is an amazing look at his life and is rendered in prose that almost turns the pages for you.

Picture: Public Doman (was published between 1923 and 1977 without copyright notice)

Friday, January 25, 2008

Yearning at the Time of Equinox

(Another piece from my "w. s. merwin days," when I didn't use punctuation, and meaning relied on line breaks and an overall impression. Was going for the gestalt, with a series of images only tentaively related.)

my hand traces
the lines of your heart

so many summers
before and after

O that love
could last like a river

sweet bird
will you sing tonight

spring arrives
with old fevers broken

in the shed is a plow
that knows love’s invitation

we come back to play
like the shadow of mountains

the rain is a harvest
and you are my rain

fall gently now
into this yellow season

but be forever unbroken

Tuesday, January 22, 2008

Falling Off the Edge of the World

Falling Off the Edge of the World

I have done it more than once.
I sail too far, dream too hard.
There is nothing out there but the sun
and the broken bones of old mariners,
bold and drunk,
who lost sight of the stars
when they could not remember home.

But I have learned to climb water,
ascend the rolling falls
that washed Greek heroes into oblivion.
Back home, you wait by a fire
that needs no kindling but the would
and should that is your simple faith.
I will walk up the quiet lane,
open the door next to the yellow window,
and we will tell each other stories
of love and deep regret.

You will chide me for my foolishness
but forgive me.
You have always loved a man
who dreamed too heard.
But this time I will burn my shoes
and live the gospel of should.
The sun belongs beyond the farthest latitude—
not me.
Never again will I fall from the edge
of a world that looms so large in your eyes.

Picture: Public Domain (Poem: Copyright, William Hammett, 2006)