I read a nice quote recently in Bernard Mergen’s illuminating Snow In America: ‘As to all questions of quiddity, the answer to the riddle of identical snowflakes lies in defining the degree of similarity. The more interesting question is why we continue to seek twin snowflakes.’
I guess that’s where I’m coming from when it comes to genre manipulation and advancing the case for mixing and matching elements from different strands of fiction in order to best tell the story I have in mind. The question is not why some people want to bend genres, but why others are insistent on keeping them so damned straight.
”—Michael Marshall drops into Strand Magazine's mystery blog to muse about writing within the lines. If you agree with Michael's statements—or even if you disagree!—I urge you to RSVP to his forthcoming Google Hangout with authors Malinda Lo and Jaye Wells as they chat with moderator Amal El-Mohtar about writing genre-bending fiction.
“The chicken comes first, but so does the egg. And somewhere in the relationship between them coalesces a novel. I can’t necessarily recommend this approach, as it can lead to periods of ear-bleeding confusion and doubt, but it’s how I do. And it’s how life works too, of course. We perform actions in order to make things happen: but things happen, too, and cause us to perform actions as a result. Causality is not a one-way street, and neither is the relationship between research and creation. Research is a type of creation, or can be. I don’t want to impose a plot upon a novel. I would rather discover it within what transpires on the page in front of me—and in this case, growing of what I found, by accident, amidst the streets of New York.”—Michael Marshall talks to Ron Hogan’s Beatrice about conceiving of his new novel, We Are Here, by meandering through New York City.
Hey man, I finished reading Skinner today and I loved it. Your books mean a lot to me, and if you don't mind I'd like to ask you for a little advice. How much importance would you place on actual writing schooling (like college courses/programs) for someone that wants to be a writer?
My personal experience with writing programs was my first semester at CSUSF. I enrolled in the creative writing program, and by the end of the semester I was dropping classes to keep my GPA just high enough to land on academic probation instead of being expelled outright. The following semester I loaded up on theater classes to lift my GPA, and never took another writing course in my life.
But the only conclusion you can really draw from that story is that me at that age and that writing program in that year were not compatible. I’m certain that there are any number of terrific programs out there that are genuinely productive in terms of helping their students to become better writers.
That said, I imagine that the single largest benefit of any writing program is that it is a focused environment devoted to the act of writing. Unless you become a professional writer earning a living wage off your work, you are unlikely to ever again be in such an environment and have a concentrated span of time during which you can devote yourself to your writing with few other distractions. The irony being that most students will only be in a position to avail themselves of this environment when they are at an age where their long term prospects as a writer might be better served by doing a whole lot of shit so as to accrue that life experience stuff.
What we in the trade refer to as: Shit to write about.
There is no good answer.
I have only two pieces of solid advice to anyone who wants to write for a living: Read and write a lot, and repeat.
As brutal as it sounds, if you have to struggle to get yourself to write and produce pages, that probably means that you’re not a writer. Desire and ideas are easy; sitting down and putting them on paper day after day is hard.
If you are a self-motivated writer who can’t stop worrying away at a thing until it’s “finished,” you may also be a good candidate for spreading your energy around into other areas rather than living in a scrivener’s hot house. If you have trouble self-starting and keeping at it, a writing program might teach you a new level of self-discipline that will carry you forward.
Regardless, go grab something by the short and curlies and don’t let go.
This author panel brings together three writers of supernatural thrillers, published by three imprints of Hachette Book Group! —Michael Marshall, author of WE ARE HERE (Mulholland, February 2014). —Jaye Wells, author of DIRTY MAGIC (Orbit, January 2014). —Malinda Lo, author of ADAPTATION and INHERITANCE (Little, Brown Books for Young Readers, October 2013). Michael, Jaye, and Malinda will be in conversation with Amal El-Mohtar, short fiction writer and reviewer at NPR Books, about their new books, the blending of genres, and how to keep thrillers thrilling.
You guys! We haven’t done one of these group author chats in a while, but now we’ve finally got one on the books: this time around, we have three brilliant authors who play with the boundaries and conventions of suspense. Sign up to watch the conversation unfold on March 10th.
“It never occurred to me that there were elements of horror in my work until a review pointed it out. Most of my work is, at its heart, police procedural, which means that the narrative is bound by certain rules and measures—a body is found, police show up, science is collected, witnesses are interviewed, investigations begin. Perhaps it is because I am drawn to basements, catacombs, abandoned psychiatric hospitals, and crawlspaces—fertile landscapes all for horror stories—that components of my work are considered horror. That said, some of the greatest writers of all time (certainly my favorites) have written horror. I don’t mind the label at all. For some reason, my short fiction is more mainstream horror, and my screenwriting is fantasy. I think form often determines genre for me.”—Richard Montanari discusses his writing with fellow Mulholland author Michael Marshall. Both of these great writers have new novels on sale this week: The Stolen Ones (Montanari) and We Are Here (Marshall).
“Life is drama, and drama comes from conflict. There are many sources of conflict in the writing process. It most obviously comes from interaction between characters, and from the challenges they face in the plot you construct around them (it’d sound more poetic to say ‘weave’, but plot always feels to me more like slowly building a structure, block by speculative lock, and then sometimes having to knock down and rebuild an entire wing because it turns out the architect was distracted or drunk one afternoon).”—Michael Marshall, author of We Are Here, responds to SF Signal’s question about stepping outside one’s comfort zone when writing. Read the rest of his answer.
Or at least one of the plots of the book? Alright let’s start from the beginning. This is S.
S. is a piece of artwork conceived/produced by J.J. Abrams (That’s how it caught my attention) and written by Doug Dorst. It was designed as “a love letter to the physical expression of books” and meant to encapsulate an experience that couldn’t be captured by an ebook. What you’re looking at though is really just an outer sleeve that has all the information on the authors and such. This is the “book” itself, which makes no mention of them:
The book is called Ship of Theseus, penned by the fictional author V.M. Straka. Ship of Theseus was supposedly Straka’s nineteenth and final book, published in 1949, and tells the story of a man with amnesia on a journey to discover who he is. Alright, I can hear you saying right now. “So what? What’s so special about that?” Well, do you see all those newspapers and notes and postcards and the cipher-wheel in that picture up there?
You open the book, and this is what you get.
You see that? Those are “handwritten” notes. You see, your copy of Ship of Theseus had two previous “owners,” Jen (college senior majoring in English) and Eric (grad student researching Straka’s life with a particular focus on his last book). Jen and Eric communicate to one another in the margins of the book, revealing information about their lives but also trying to work out the puzzle of who V.M. Straka really was. Straka’s life is a mystery filled with political uprisings, whistle-blowings, supposed assassinations, and more. You watch their friendship unfold by the color of each note (blue/black, green/orange, and finally red/purple) as the notes mix and mingle and comment on one another and the text.
If one of them mentions an article they read that might provide a lead on Straka’s life, you’ll find a piece of paper shoved in the book within the next few pages. My personal favorite thus far was a clipping from the university’s newspaper. Not to mention the puzzles. Clues and messages are encoded in the footnotes of the book and as I said before there’s even a special cipher-wheel included that played a major part on one of Straka’s earlier books.
S. is a piece of art that works on three levels; the book itself, the mysterious life of Straka, and Jen and Eric’s saga. I was caught up because I saw Abram’s name attached to it. But really, this is a book for people who love books. It feels real. It feels like you really just checked this book out of the library and found these notes inside. S. wraps you up in a way that no other work of fiction has or probably ever will. It’s an amazing experience, you can feel yourself become a character wrapped up in all of the drama.
Riffle:Who or what were your inspirations for We Are Here?
Michael Marshall:Much is made of romantic love in fiction, and songs, and art in general. Far less time is spent on the kind of love enshrined in friendships, though often it’s just as important — and at least as structuring to our lives. The secret history of our friendships, gaining them, and perhaps more importantly losing them, runs like a hidden river through our worlds and our pasts and futures — and I wanted to look at that, albeit from a strange and uncanny perspective.
Yesterday morning through late last night, author Doug Dorst took over our Ask box to answer readers’ questions about S., The Ship of Theseus, V.M. Straka, The Princess Bride, and monkeys. (No really, all those things came up). You can see all his answers at http://wordbookstores.tumblr.com/tagged/ask-Doug-Dorst. A thousand thanks to Doug for his time, his good humor, and his H2G2 reference.
Jen and Eric were played (written) by two people from Melcher Media, the design firm that made the book so beautiful. Both are women, by the way—you don’t have to be a guy to write persuasively like one.
“Dominion is a spy novel, a love story, and also I hope gives some sense of the difficulties faced by dissidents under any totalitarian regime: the threat of imprisonment, torture and death; the threat to one’s family, the terror of being alone in a hostile world.”—C.J. Sansom answers questions about his new alternative history novel, Dominion, on Flashlight Commentary.
No. Really. She did. Emma Eldredge, a 63-year-old retired nurse from Gloucester, England, is remembering the time she broke into Paul McCartney’s London house in early 1969 and stole a pair of the great man’s trousers. “I just did it to have a look,” she says, matter of factly.
Loving William Shaw’s Rolling Stoneessay about the Apple Scruffs, the hardcore group of Beatles fans who loitered around the band’s houses and headquarters.
The Scruffs play a starring role in Shaw’s brilliant new novel, She’s Leaving Home, about a perplexing murder case in 1968 London.
Lloyd Paige:In the competitive world of crime fiction, what would you say makes SHE'S LEAVING HOME stand out?
William Shaw:Crime fiction is an astonishing genre. The supreme device of the crime plot allows you to take readers to extraordinary places. In fact I'm starting to realize that's almost the most important duty of the crime writer. We're used to being taken to locations like Turkey by Barbara Nadel, or Iceland by Arnaldur Indridason. And there's the historical novel, too, with C.J. Sansom immersing us in the 16th century.
Because I've spent a lot of time writing about culture, whether it be hip hop or art and design, I wondered if you could write a cultural crime novel in the same way as you could write historical crime fiction, so I set the trilogy at a time of enormous cultural change—and those changes are a crucial part of the plots.
William Shaw on his motivation for writing She's Leaving Home
London Calling:Where did the original idea for She's Leaving Home come from?
William Shaw:What music do you go back to when you're depressed? A few years ago I did my accounts and realised that people had started paying me exactly the same word rate as I'd got back in 1984, when I first started journalism. I was pretty depressed... I had a family to support. So I retreated into playing old music for a few weeks but along the way realised that the White Album is actually pretty disturbing mess of a record. If anything, it's about things falling apart. At the same time two friends, Jeff Noon and Alison MacLeod, were writing stories for a compilation inspired by The Smiths and I remember thinking, "What would a crime book inspired by that Beatles record look like?" I'm not sure that's what the book ended up as, but it's where it started. Out of a time when things weren't going too well.
London Calling:What makes your novel unique from other crime fiction?
William Shaw:I'm really interested in how music, clothes and slang and so forth can be a lens through which you can look at the bigger picture. Having been so much a child of the culture of that era I was aware of a massive seismic shock that separated my parents' generation from mine. Mine is a generation who experienced a real year zero culturally. Everything changed. The roots of our liberal, plural culture go back to that. The selfishness too. I wanted a main character who was set on the wrong side of that cultural dividing line. That's his strength. He can understand the passion behind the new emerging culture and he's fascinated by it, but he just doesn't get it. He succeeds because he's always on the wrong side of things, on the outside looking in.
So, I finished reading S. (Or, Ship of Theseus, depending on which you prefer) and I’m trying to find a fandom because I’m the only one who has read it in my house and I need someone to freak out with.
Seriously. That book. It may well be the best book I’ve ever read in my life. I want to read it again right now. But I have so many others to read!
If you feel this way, you’ll probably want to stick around for Doug Dorst’s Tumblr Q&A with WORD Bookstore on 2/19. Submit your questions here!
Want to know about V.M. Straka? Have burning questions about dialogue-as-marginalia? Wondering what it’s like to work with JJ Abrams? (We bet the answer is: awesome.) Pull out your books, put on your thinking caps, and ASK AWAY. You can submit your question any time up to/including on February 19. (And then if you’re near Brooklyn, you can join us for our final group discussion on February 22.)
“I wanted to portray Britain becoming a semi-authoritarian state. I wanted to show it happening over time, because that’s often how it happens. Sometimes it happens overnight, as when you had the coup in Chile. But more often, there’s a slow, grinding pressure that goes on for years. It’s a turn of a screw and a turn of a screw and then you wake up and find yourself in a vice.”—C.J. Sansom, author of the alternative history novel Dominion, in this illuminating interview with Kirkus Reviews.
“There are any number of flashier, more testosterone-driven thrillers than DOMINION but none, not even Robert Harris’ admirable FATHERLAND, that implicates contemporary readers so closely in the moral choices made by its characters or makes so eloquent a contemporary point.”—Reviewing the Evidence on C.J. Sansom’s alternative history novel, Dominion. It’s on sale tomorrow!
Experience V.M. Straka’s Ship of Theseus in a way the author could never have imagined: as a downloadable audiobook. Award-winning actor Grame Malcolm reads the forgotten classic from 1949, in which a mysterious figure, known only as S., struggles to discover, remember, or invent his identity.
Sample the audiobook above—and who knows? Perhaps by listening, you’ll be able to contribute to the conversation about Straka that unfolds in the margins of S., created by J.J. Abrams and written by Doug Dorst.
“Survive the night. Then, maybe, find paper and pen. Write down what you know, and what you suspect, about yourself — even if that won’t yet fill a single page. And then, maybe, start piecing together who you are.”—S., JJ Abrams & Doug Dorst (via sassyalone)
Cold in July, Based on a Novel by Joe Lansdale, Has Been Selected for the Sundance Film Festival
Sundance Film Festival:Looking at the U.S. Dramatic Competition program, is there a cohesion to this year’s slate of films similar to what we’ve seen in the past?
Director of Programming Trevor Groth:Another thing we noted this year is the use of genre elements in films throughout all of the sections. We've got riffs on horror, thrillers, musicals, sci-fi, even westerns, and you see that in the Dramatic Competition. Life After Beth, for example, fuses zombie and young love. Cold In July and Sleepwalker are both thrillers, which you might expect to see in Park City at Midnight, but they’re playing in Dramatic Competition.