Reading, Writing And Breaking Free of Genre
It Started With A Book: The Villages by Dave Hutchinson
Originally, I wrote this review for the Amazon site. If you click the link, the review is the second on the page. There I admit that, for many years and with a few rare exceptions, I’d limited the genres of books I would read. I would literally take a swerve past particular shelves. Not for me were Mills & Boon, Sci Fi or Fantasy, and only Stephen King would do for Horror. Anything else I would read but, I vowed, very selectively – though there was that Michael Moorcock phase from 15-19. There were too many books and not enough time.
The review shows that I learned a big lesson – a ‘gift’ from Dave. To allow my curiousity enough freedom to break through my formerly narrow self-limitations on reading. Books I may have avoided (because of labels given them) opened my mind and gave me amazing new stories to enjoy, and writers from whom I could learn.
I am constantly learning. For a time, I didn’t know that much about Dave Hutchinson, apart from on Twitter. I’d heard of him as a Sci Fi writer – I’ve recently read some wonderful short stories in his collection As The Crow Flies – and member of the BSFA. I went along to a BSFA event and met him. Prior to that, I’d read his book The Villages while recuperating from surgery, frustratingly grounded. I didn’t write that review until some months’ later, still calling it Sci Fi. Now, today, I probably wouldn’t categorise it at all.
In the months prior to reading The Villages, I’d drafted and redrafted various versions of the current work in progress. Seeking the holy grail. The story that would be Just Right. No perfectionism there, then. All the while, I was trying to make the work ‘fit’ known genres so that my eventual submission letter and synopsis might be able to show that my work ‘belonged’ in a known, popular category, thereby giving it appeal.
I’d tried: A Romcom, A Crime, A Mystery, A Psychodrama, A Paranormal and was about to attempt A Sci Fi and finally allow my piece de resistance, the Big Idea. The Big Idea I couldn’t ‘fit’ into a genre. Those capitals are deliberate. I took pains to work within, and had my poor characters dancing awkwardly about, the conventions of those genres as (I thought I’d been ordered to do) in those twenty thousand books on writing I possess.
You see, way back in the early 90s when my submission mss went by Mammoth Mail, I got used to writing for magazines who usually had their own expectations, rules and guidelines for writers. I wasn’t rejected – except by Duncan Minshall at Radio Four (framed the truly helpful letter) when I was going for the afternoon short story slot. But, of course, I’m not bitter at all, and never, ever mention that to anyone. However, a tangent, but that illustrates how, as a magazine short story writer, I wrote then with particular genres and publications in mind – and how I thought that was the way to go. I got Radio 4 all wrong at that time.
Now I understand how I unintentionally got chained up in the dark and it was Dave Hutchinson who helped release me. His book, The Villages, is a great example of ‘not trying to write for, or fit a genre’. Yes, I know I reviewed it as Sci Fi – and you could possibly argue that it’s Fantasy. Or Thriller, or Suspense or Romance. But… Stop! Whatever. I hadn’t worked it all out yet.
Neither could I categorise The Snow Child by Eowyn Ivey nor The Unlikely Pilgrimage of Harold Fry by Rachel Joyce (apart from that ever-stretching label ‘literary fiction’), both equally enjoyable. Ha. The blinkers were off. I’d been stifling myself and prohibiting what I wanted to write in order to fit!
I’m the least likely person to say to anyone ‘you have to fit in’, or conform to, anything. I’m not sure I ever have, i.e. in groups, clubs, and such, so I’ve learned to accept myself and others, and am quite happy with that. Yet I was trying to make my writing do that very thing – to fit! And just what, exactly? I’d given myself huge, painful problems.
I would never advise anyone to do that! My own worst counsel, etc. Thanks to Dave – later when I met him, he said something like ‘don’t try to make it fit a genre’ when I wailed about my problem – he could see I’d been driving myself crazy with this. With Dave’s view and some readers’ confirmations, I see where I was going wrong.
This writerly enlightenment (but watch this space) compelled me to start my Work In Progress yet again, with all the enthusiasm of a woman released from her own self-imposed prison. I’ve kept some characters, the main settings and some of the story but there are plenty of ‘ideas previously forbidden or wouldn’t fit’ – and now the story has grown immensely.
It’s also become far more interesting and absorbing to me as a result. The characters are allowed to do all the things they would never have done if I’d simply imprisoned them within a RomCom, Thriller or Mystery or Whatever… of my own making. That was my own misconception and I have no-one else to blame. I reckon the next time someone asks me what I’m writing, I’ll say ‘I don’t know’. I don’t think I will know till it’s done!
So now, as a reader, I’m entitled to read (enjoy and learn from) whatever the Hell takes my fancy. But, as a writer, it’s important that I make this promise to myself never to deny or limit myself over genre ever again. I’d have too much to lose and I think it has much to do with my soul.
Just as with reading, as a writer I’m entitled to write whatever I want to write. I think Dave said that. I think many of the books say that. Except I’d formed habits useful to the short stories I wrote years back, and had forgotten to free myself from them.
If this novel’s never published, at least I will know I gave myself the sheer, joyful freedom to write my story, which possibly would defy categorisation or be called multi-genre. Then I hope I’d have a break… and write another one. Should books be as all-inclusive as we would ideally love society to be? I know (say, with libraries, bookshops) categories can be handy, perhaps vital. There will always be labels. They are comfort zones for some but some are most uncomfortable for me.
Genre is for the marketers to deal with, so I’m told and understand. They can give my work any label they like if they’re publishing it! Though I think I’d rather have no label at all. I may self-publish. Who the heck knows? But, for now, write and be damned, I say. Make the break, write first and see where it ‘fits’ later. It may be a different kind of ‘fit’ I was looking for all along. That’s not my business for now. Neither is self-imprisonment or restraint.
The reality is, even if I make huge mistakes and this book is continually rejected, I can learn, I can improve, I’m happy to have my integrity, plenty of ideas, the tools to write another – and three old novels in the drawer. I’ll call them ‘Learning Curves: Books 1, 2 and 3’.
Now, I must get on with it but I’d love to know – what does everyone else think?
A number of writers have generously helped me reach this point along the route. Bernadine Evaristo was the first, years back in a Deptford Writing Group. But you will see that I felt Dave Hutchinson, in particular, had given me a gift. It was a huge gift and it has layers and they are constantly unfolding to surprise me. So this is a kind of thank you note, to a terrific writer (and editor and journalist) who I’m so happy to know as a friend. His books, stories and blog aren’t half bad, too. His website is: www.hutchinsondave.wordpress.com
Picture credits: Worramu, Sira Anamwong, pixbox77, Sura Nualpradid, Rosen Georgiev and jannoon028 – all at http://www.freedigitalphotos.com