Douglas Arvidson is a past winner of the WICE/Paris Transcontinental International Short Story competition. His short fiction has been published in Paris, Prague, and in literary magazines in the United States and he was recently invited to be a staff writer for the Prague Revue, a cutting-edge, online literary journal (http://bit.ly/1mMT6ZC). The novels in his fantasy series, The Eye of the Eye of Stallion, include The Face in Amber, The Mirrors of Castaway Time, and A Drop of Wizard's Blood. His new novel, Brothers of the Fire Star, was selected as a finalist in the ForeWord Reviews 2012 Book of the Year national awards and as a finalist in three categories in the 2013 New Mexico-Arizona Book Awards: Action Adventure Fiction, Historical Fiction, and Young Adult Fiction. It has become part of the pantheon of Pacific literature and is now included in school literature programs. Brothers of the Fire Star is an adventure story set in the Pacific during World War II and concerns two boys of different races and cultures who escape the island of Guam in a small sailboat when the Japanese army invades. They must then struggle to survive as they master the secrets of the ancient Pacific navigators. Appropriate for young adults as well as adult readers, Brothers of the Fire Star is available on Barnes & Noble, Amazon.com (http://amzn.to/1j3axVk) and Crossquarter.com. Visit the author's website: douglasarvidson.com
Thursday, June 9, 2011
Question: Should Budding Writers Start by Writing Genre Fiction?
Every passing hour brings the Solar System forty-three thousand miles closer to Globular Cluster M13 in Hercules — and still there are some misfits who insist that there is no such thing as progress.
Thinking I was a person who could provide an answer, a college-age creative writing student asked me this question: Should I try writing genre fiction to break into publishing?
After many years of rejections, my first published fiction was a short story in a small, "literary" magazine, and we know how difficult it is to impress those snooty, dressed-in-black, literary editors. When you get an acceptance letter from the Prague Review that says, "We love your work," you can dance around the kitchen and pour yourself a small dram of an expensive beverage. When you win an international short story competition in Paris, you can dance all around the whole damned house, make the cats and your wife think you're bonkers, and refill your glass several times. I did this, oh yes indeed.
So, I was already a published "literary" writer when I went the "genre" route in getting my first three novels published by a "traditional" publisher--that is, not a vanity press or another self-publishing deal like CreateSpace. I still don't know if it has opened any doors for me in the market place of "literary" fiction. This because I spent the last six years writing those "fantasy" books and have just now finished an adventure novel aimed at the YA market.
So, should we consider that time spent writing genre fiction wasted? Let's think about it: I got lots and lots of practice in scribbling prose with the freedom to experiment with plot lines and character development and prose style because I felt writing less "serious" fiction allowed me the latitude to do that. I had a wonderful time, I grew as a writer, and, of course, yes, I got published, legitimately.
The real lesson here, I think, is that word, "wonderful." I had a wonderful time writing and I tried to write as well as I could. I tried to grow as a writer, to expand and deepen my skills. Even though we might think of genre fiction as plot driven rather than character driven--that is, the development of multi-dimensional, fully-realized characters is less important in genre writing--I had a grand time developing memorable characters who in turn drove the plot, albeit along fantasy genre lines.
This has been done before and I was keeping good company. Take Kurt Vonnegut, for example. He's the alleged science fiction writer who really wrote good fiction, and who gave us such classics as Slaughter House Five and Cat's Cradle. Good stuff, yep, but was it genre or was it literary? Does it break the barrier between genres?
This from TOR.COM, May 11, 2011:
And what about the writing itself? Surely that’s all that’s needed to settle the matter. If enough of Kurt Vonnegut’s novels have science fiction in them, then Kurt Vonnegut is a science fiction writer. Right? Slaughterhouse-Five contains time travel and aliens. The Sirens of Titan features a Martian invasion made up of humans, mind control, and a robot alien. Cat’s Cradle depicts a fictional substance known as ice-9, which has incredibly destructive capabilities. Galapagos tells the story of how human beings eventually evolve into a furry kind of quasi-aquatic creature. However, there’s science fiction and then there’s science fiction. Muppets in Space may have a space ship in it, but no one is super concerned about what genre it belongs in. The test ought to be that if the science fiction elements are removed and the story ceases to function, it’s probably science fiction. With Vonnegut, this works for nearly all of his books except, oddly, for the most famous novel.
Bottom line with Vonnegut seems to be that well-written prose and fully realized characters are essential to "literary" literary fiction whether it's science fiction or romance or mystery. Trash is trash is trash is trash while good writing requires no apologies.
And so,after mulling it over here on the page, my answer to my young questioner seems to be, "Yes, it is easier to break into writing--that is get that first story or novel published--by aiming it at a certain genre market, but will a "literary" publisher take you more seriously if you are a published writer of "genre" fiction? Unless you are among the likes of Kurt Vonnegut, I think not.
Best to practice the stuff you want to ultimately write, whether it be "genre" or literary, but write, for crying out loud--write, write, write, write, write. Rather than immediately going the self-publishing route (any idiot can do that), take the time to learn to weave words into good prose and great characters. Man up, as they say, and take the pain of rejection. When you're good enough to get published by publishers who get to select from thousands of manuscripts a year, you're good enough to call yourself a published writer. Not before.