Monthly Archives: December 2013

Revision 04.1.09: Genre, Inspirational Fiction

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Christian fiction or inspirational fiction denotes stories centered on characters who find  religious faith, or rediscover or deepen it through their experiences in the plot. I have seen a few Jewish inspirational novels, but this field is mostly supported by evangelical Christian publishing houses. I’m not sure what most publishers would do with an inspirational novel about finding one’s faith in Buddhism or Wicce: probably judge it as a quirky lead character in another genre of novel: women’s fiction, mainstream, contemporary fantasy.

Inspirational fiction exists as a genre because some publishers do nothing else, not because it’s terribly different than related non-inspirational forms. A Christian mystery is on the same template as a regular one, as far as structure of the mystery, but it must also include one of the inspirational templates of faith found or renewed, for secondary characters if not the main detectives.

In Christian or inspirational romance, religion is important in a romance story. It also requires that the romance be a sweet one: lust and indecency are not what the readers are here for.

You can have inspirational historical romance or inspirational histfi straight. You can have inspirational Westerns, Napoleonics, and of course the first centuries CE have long been almost entirely the domain of stories about early Christians (Ben Hur, A Tale of the Christ; The Silver Chalice; The Living Wood).

You can also have inspirational fantasy, like the work of C. S. Lewis.

Two traps must be avoided when writing inspirational fiction, to keep it real and appealing (this is what the publishers like Tyndale say).
First, write a story, not a tract. Avoid one character lecturing another at length. Especially avoid “preaching to the choir,” expostulating to a believer. This is worse than “As You Know, Bob” or The Dreadful Scene, because the reader probably knows all this as well as the poor lectured character does (this fiction is only 5% read by anyone but committed Christians, fewer than men reading romance fiction). Discussions that present both sides interest the reader much more, especially those rare ones not converted. Yes, you must actually know what real objections real people bring up and how to answer them. Learning this will deepen your own convictions and contact with your faith, so it’s not unpleasant or irrelevant. You also provide your reader with answers for their own conversations.

Don’t reform a resistant or shallow character only as a result of a lecture. Any missionary may wish it were this easy, but knows it isn’t. The step-by-step redemption is the main template of this genre.

The second trap is literal deus ex machina endings. Randy Ingermanson’s City of God series held me for two volumes because I wanted to see how he won over his scientistic atheist. He used the ultimate cheat: he had God chat with the atheist. I don’t care how much you believe in miracles, this is past unsatisfying to actively annoying. We want to see how people can lead others to faith by normal means, or how faith can reveal itself to a thinking mind. All DXM does is reduce reader faith, leaving me thinking, “Well, I guess he can’t refute the atheist stance.”

Remember that other plots exist besides “saving non-believers.” A protagonist with shallow, confused, corrupted, or weak faith has a lot of growing to do, which automatically gives you a story readers can identify with.

Revision 04.1.07 Genre, Action/Adventure

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Action/Adventure is often considered Men’s Fiction, like Romance is Women’s Fiction, but women like good a/a, with either gender of protagonist, just like some men like to read romances (note: the same person often enjoys both).

Action/Adventure emphasizes just that. Personal relationships are strictly optional, though men’s fiction a/a often has the sexy babe who is kind of the hero’s reward at the end, or some along the way to create rescue objects, dead ladies to avenge, or heartless Delilahs who only use the hero in order to betray him. Okay, I’m assuming all sorts of gender things. Today we all know the he’s and she’s can assort all kinds of ways. Let me stick to the traditional and, still, marketing majority of hetero male a/a, or it’ll take five times as many screens to talk about this.

By default, a/a takes place in urban or suburban places unless otherwise marked. Think Bourne. Think James Bond. There can be elements of suspense, thriller, or mysteries here, but the reader is waiting for the explosion into violence, the honed ability to rely on oneself to get through, and even save others. It’s a matter of physical as well as mental or emotional adventure.

So, as the examples tell you, this is the place for your espionage fiction.

There are some settings that are so well-used that they form subsets. These can be contemporary or historical. Remember, in fifty years your contemporary will be historical, for all purposes. Make it rely on more than the gadgets (that will be so old then) or just accept that it’s going to have a short shelf life. As well, watch your world-presentation.

Outdoor adventure moves your hero into places where people are few and far between. It may be Man vs. Nature, or he may be pursued or pursuer.

Contemporary military fiction features the modern soldiers and pilots on various missions, overt or covert. Their being military counts in the plot, as opposed to just outfitting some other sort of tough guys. Historical military fiction might be typified by the Sharps series, of an English officer in the Napoleonic Wars.

Sea Stories have a wide range of subjects, from stories about racing yachts to the equivalent of wet outdoor adventures, to naval fiction. The contemporary naval fiction takes place usually in smaller vessels: it’s hard to feel significant as one of a crew of 1200. Historical naval fiction might include WWII or even WWI, but is especially popular for the Age of Sail, whether it’s the classic Horatio Hornblower series or the more modern Aubrey and Maturin stories. Both are set during the Napoleonic Wars, but Hornblower stays closer to home, I notice, rather than sailing for the Pacific.

Revision 04.1.1: Genres: Which Are Yours?

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Even writing 50-word definitions, this was too large a page. Instead, go down the alphabetized list of genres and subgenres (some of which are different names for the same thing). Click on ones you think may apply, and they’ll take you to the 400-word definition of a major genre (*) or the page that includes them as subgenres.

But first, the divisions of fiction that are easy to define by their audience’s age. Within that limitation, they may be any genre, like mysteries for 9-year-olds or quest fantasy for 14-year-olds.

Juvenile Fiction — any genre, aimed at children 12 and under. Formats vary by age.

Young Adult — any genre, aimed at readers 12-18, though most by 16 or 17 are reading adult fiction, even if they have to sneak it — and plenty of adults are sneaking these. Also called teen fiction.

They are usually lumped together as “juvenile fiction.” But this is not a genre: it is an audience reading level of maturity.

Now we also have one, not considered juvvy, called New Adult Fiction. If you ask me, it’s closer to YA than the other is. NA (as the shorthand goes) is aimed at those in their late teens or early twenties. It’s mostly used for mainstream fiction about this age bracket, dealing with their particular concerns.

All this age-sorting generally means that what you write has to be very up-to-date. You have to be aware of the language, the hot topics, what’s In or Out. This also means that everything you write will start feeling dated in five years, ten at a maximum. I’ve seen this when authors dress their protagonist in the fashion all must have, to indicate their character really is cool despite being an outsider, only now that indicates their character is a dweeb several years behind the times. Think of how passĂ© iPhones made Blackberries. What does this do to a book whose techie character has a laptop instead of a tablet? Well, this means that there’s always room in publisher’s lists for new YA and NA books as others age out.

The Real Genres & Sub-genres Read the rest of this entry

Revision 04: Genres as a Tool

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“Genre” is French for “kind, sort, category”: nothing more. Using it judgementally, pejoratively, is someone else’s decision. ‘”Oh, he writes genre fiction,” she sneered.’ You can change sneer to gush or boast without any lack of realism, depending on who’s talking. Except that the term “genre fiction” never made much sense to me: every piece of fiction can be shoehorned into one genre or another. But it’s normally used for “anything not mainstream or literary fiction.”

Shoehorned it will be, since a decision on genre is a marketing tool, whether yours when selling it to a publisher, the editor selling it to the editorial board of the house, the publisher’s catalog selling it to bookstores, or the bookstore clerk putting it on a shelf.

Admit it: you check out certain genres first at the store, whether literary or mystery, Western or romance, thriller or inspirational. You know you’ll most likely find something you like in that area. On-line publishers break down catalogs by categories, too, only they can put a book in two different pages. So right there you see it working as a sales tool to put your novel into the hands of your best audience.

My advice is always to just write the story in you have in your head and worry afterward about hunting a genre label for it. You can tweak it later — which is now, at revision time. Knowing what templates you’re working with can speed up and target the revision process.

I can hear several of you in the beginner rows declaring, “Oh, but MY novel crosses all genre lines! It combines six or seven!”

Like novels with twelve equal protagonists, this is something few but beginners would want to write. Multiplicity is not a sign of instant genius revealed. It’s more likely simple ambition without understanding that point and clarity are valued over tossed fruit-salad. You don’t have to break all the rules to get sold, or to convince people you’re brilliant. Anything that ornate is probably beyond a beginner’s ability to write. We don’t expect fourteen-year-old footballers to play the pros to win, or second-year ballet students to go on point. Writers shouldn’t expect to go straight to the wildly difficult as a beginner, either. Trust me: salable or not, it can be shoved into one pigeonhole or another.

Besides, if it “crosses all genre lines,” it will be sold as litfi “experimental fiction” or as fantasy, guaranteed. It will fit there.

When you start revision for a second draft, you should make some genre decisions. This will guide you in what you should emphasize or delete. You can also see then that you may have changed your mind about where this fits. You can start writing straight historical fiction and wind up in steampunk science fiction. You can start writing romantic suspense and wind up in mannerpunk fantasy, or vice versa. Anything is possible when you really start channelling your Muse, the part of your mind that creates wonderful things if you just let it.

Next, let’s look at what choices you have in genres.

All Fiction is Alternate History

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The minute you introduce your protagonist, if they are not an actual person, living or dead, you are writing alternate history.

That means that, to some extent, all fiction has the issue of presenting the world it takes place in to the reader.

I hear some of you mainstreamers now: “But it happens in a town like I live in and everyone knows –”

Except the people who don’t live in towns, who live on farms or ranches, or in towns in a different part of the country, or who have never been outside the big cities. Except for very regional fiction, your audience ought to include people that don’t live where and how you do. If you live in a Maine fishing village, let the rest of us live there for a little while with you and your characters by presenting their world, not just the events in it. Let the readers in Phoenix and Gilroy, Lebanon and Atlanta, Hilo and Adak and London and Rome, see what your world is like.

This is the business everyone must attend to in fiction, of world presentation. Some people say to not bother telling or showing the reader anything they don’t absolutely need to know for the plot — but I wouldn’t read a book like that. Would you want to read a novel where the writer never made you feel the air of the day, the sounds of the place, the scent of the garden or the garbage, the light through the window? You don’t have to do that constantly, but you need to do it enough that your reader isn’t left trying to fill in everything for themselves — which may do very wrongly — or Hanging In Formless Space. HIFS is a good way to get your reader to leave. They have to work too hard to make the story real and they are getting none of the rewards of being led into some place they either have never been or can only go through books.

As well, twenty years from now, O mainstreamers, will any reader be able to fill in the town you live in that will be possibly very changed, even if they live where your house used to be? You don’t have to describe how cell phones work, but give us a little visual, or even the perfect detail, like the way they heat up your cheek and after a long call you can rub them on a sore muscle for a little relief. Think of how, in the 2013 NaNoWriMo Reference Desk, people are asking for background on the 1990s, as already a foreign place (anyone having a cellphone was a rarity, f’rinstance, but pagers were becoming popular to let you know who to call when you could get to a phone).

So don’t leave your readers HIFS, whether you’re doing mainstream, mystery, historical fiction, and especially not in fantasy and science fiction. Give them grounding, but don’t drown them in details. It’s a pretty thin line between, and some readers can take or need more detail than others. You can’t tell which, so while you should go for The Telling Detail, don’t give us too little.