This should be short and sweet. What do you enjoy reading? I’ll give you a second to think that over. Got the name of the genre in mind? Good. Go write that. Oh if it were to be so simple. But no. No it isn’t so simple because we live in a complicated world and writing is often a complicated business. So if it’s not so simple as just writing what you like to read, then what’s it all about? What’s the score? Also why is it so damn important to have a genre?
Want to write the next great piece of literature? Want to be the next Anton Chekhov whose work will be read in college lectures for generations to come? Well, I have some good and bad news for you. The good news first. There is a genre for everything. I mean that. If there isn’t a genre, there is a subgenre within a larger genre umbrella or tree. If you can dream it, there will be a spot for it in the Barnes & Noble shelves. Also, there is the option of combining several genres all at once. That is quite common, especially in science fiction, horror, fantasy, comedy, romance. Really, I could go on but the important thing to latch onto is that the it is very unlikely any one of us will write something so crazy and revolutionary that it will not be in a genre. There are only so many stories to be told. If we listen to Ronald Tobias, there are 20 plots that are found throughout all literature. These are the essential stories that seem to persist as a matter of universal unconscious. We somehow shape our stories into these patterns. George Polti pegged the number of stories out there as around 36! So don’t worry, I’m sure there’s a genre for you. But now the bad news, or at least the less good news.
I don’t remember which source I picked it up from, but literature doesn’t sell as well as you’d hope. I’m pretty sure it was in Betsy Lerner’s book The Forest for the Trees: An Editor’s Advice to Writers. But in any case, what sells is genre fiction. While this doesn’t mean that you won’t be able to sell your book or short story since there are still magazines and publishers that publish that kind of work, it does mean that your readership will be much more circumscribed, probably to professors and academia. But that doesn’t matter. I’m going to assume you write because you have to, not because you want to win popularity contests. But in any case, the reason for this can probably be found in the way we consume our entertainment. Since everything is so fast, so streamlined, we want to know what we’re getting before we get it. When you go to the romance, the mystery, or the biography section, you go there because you are in the mood for that kind of entertainment. You know what you want and where to get it. The genre thus serves as a way of making things much easier to not just locate but to find that particular literary burr that will scratch the itch you’re feeling. This really isn’t a bad thing in my opinion and it’s served me just fine. But being a consumer and being a creator are two very different things.
This post could very easily tie nicely with my previous post about finding your voice and you’ll find similar themes in this post but while the former was a bit more ethereal, this has major implications for your writing. Again, a major component is self-awareness and I’ll tell you why. I’m going to assume you enjoy music. For some of you, I’m going to go so far as to say you’ve got a bit of the ol’ Charles Manson in you. As he said, “My relationship to music is completely subliminal. It just flows through me.” For you people, music is like a part of your soul. But do you want to make music? How about those times you picked up a book in a genre you were unfamiliar with and you ended up really enjoying it? Did you think, “I want to write this kind of story!” then run to your computer and start spraying words? The point here is that consuming and creating are different and they are different in that creation is all about what comes from within. You could really love a particular genre, even be so enamored that you want to write in that genre but getting through a story is just impossible. There may be a reason for this. As Lord Vader helpfully recommends, “Search your feeling, you know it be true!” Yes, finding a genre really depends on what the marquee for your internal movie says is playing.
When you daydream, what do you daydream about? What is it that preoccupies you and keeps you from doing your work? When you look to that, you will find your genre. If it involves machines, nanobots, and other technological things, you can bet it’s science fiction. If it’s swords, elves, dragons, and orcs, it’s fantasy land for you. But be honest with yourself and just as importantly, be willing to experiment. I’ve gone through many transitions and I have a feeling that I’m not done yet. You could wonder if maybe you just haven’t developed enough skills. This could be the case and you shouldn’t stop trying. But I think that deep down, there develops a sense when you’re not saying what you want to say, what you really need to say. When you get that little nudge, you’ll know it and the trick is not to resist it.
So why would you resist writing what you want? There are too many reasons to list. But I’ll try to give a few. The first that comes to mind would be fear. Yeah, that old chestnut. In this case, an old moldy chestnut that gives off noxious effluvia. But fear is very easy to give in to. The reasons for fear are numerous and if this is true for you, then you will know your own particular reasons in more detail than I could describe here. But fear is an obstacle that must be overcome if you hope to enjoy what you write. Writing may not always be fun or easy but it can be made infinitely more tedious if you resist what comes naturally to your mind. Another reason to resist what you want to write is shame. Books have a long history of dealing with subjects others would prefer to leave untouched. Sometimes books upset people so much they want them banned. A favorite of mine, William S. Borrough’s Naked Lunch, was reviled as pornographic and banned by many. If you don’t spark the ire of the congenitally small minded, you may run afoul of your friends and acquaintances. It is common knowledge that writers should write what they know. In other words, we’ll use snippets of people we’ve known or their stories to give some kind of real world traction to our own. But sometimes, the fictional representations aren’t quite far enough removed from the people we’ve based them upon. Essentially, books are not always harmless. They can be weapons or they may peel back layers of our masks we wear and reveal something perverse underneath. Some of us just go for that kind of stuff. We are ghouls who revel in that muck of human wretchedness. But it’s not always comfortable to write about these things. Here, it’s important to remember that the writing and the writer, while occupying the same space, may not occupy the same persona. The characters you release onto the page may be monsters but that does not mean that by writing it you become monstrous. And if you should find yourself with a little spark of glee in your heart while writing these twisted passages, just remember, Jeffrey Dahmer didn’t write about killing people, he did it. If you explore some of your darker impulses through writing then you are rerouting, successfully, impulses that were there anyway and using that potentially destructive energy to create something. Most people would probably better off if they could learn to do something constructive with their negative impulses. But now I’m getting into the archetype of the shadow that Carl Jung discussed. I do suggest reading about it though since it is quite interesting. So, now here is the last reason that I’d like to examine. Be assured, as I’ve said, there are many more than these. We all have literary heroes, people whom we admire and to whom we attribute the initial love of reading and story telling. Sometimes these people don’t exactly match up with what’s inside us and though we may enjoy their work, it doesn’t reflect what we are drawn to create. Finally admitting that what you may want to write is not what your literary heroes have done is a bit like leaving the safe and structured oversight of a teacher to go out and learn the rest of the lessons that they couldn’t teach. Moreover, it may feel like a renunciation of your allegiance. After wanting to be like someone for so long, you finally acknowledge that you want to be you and do what comes naturally to you. All you can do is to proceed and realize this is the process of writing. It is one of constant discovery and adaptation. To resist it is to stunt your own development. Besides, your heroes have imparted all they could through their writing and you’ve doubtlessly picked up on many techniques while you read and enjoyed the stories they had to tell. It is part of the evolution to take this and apply it to what comes naturally from within you.
So how do you do that? As I said towards the beginning of the post, the best way to determine what you want to write to pay attention to where your thoughts naturally lead you. What do you day dream about? Who are the characters and what are the places? Take note of what is going on. Can you place your fantasies in a genre? This isn’t saying you should just record what your idle day dreams are. It takes a bit more than that to make a story that will get published. This is just a (hopefully) way of learning what you want to write about, what really sparks you and, more importantly, sustains you. When you write what comes naturally, you will find that you are able to constantly generate new material. The grunt work of writing it may still be the same but you will have a far easier time in actually creating the world of the story and the characters that populate it. There will be, ideally, a greater sense of continuity and flow that will be a result of working in a territory that you have explored extensively yourself: your own internal world.
One of the incredible things about writing is how much introspection it requires. There certainly is an aspect of the Eastern philosophical tradition to it. But that is a post for another time. For now, my advice is to ask yourself what it is you have to say, what it is you want to say, then to belt it out on paper, not letting anything hold you back.