Have I ever told you guys about my creative writing teacher in college? On the first day of class, the professor explained that that this class was not for “genre” writers. Literary fiction only. I was a voracious reader, but I had to ask: “What is ‘genre’ fiction?”
Professor Suedepatches, with a lip-curl in his voice: “Romance novels, science fiction and other unrealistic nonsense.”
Me: “So, basically, books that make money.”
Professor Suedepatches: <hairy eyeball>
Wisely, I decided to drop the class.*
Now, I don’t think that “literary” has to mean “boring” any more than I believe that “popular” and “well crafted” are mutually exclusive. In fact, the genre/mainstream/literary lines are so blurred now, I think it would be hard for Professor Suedepatches to make that distinction. What would he say about Time Traveler’s Wife or The Yiddish Policeman’s Union?
Good writing is good writing. In many ways, it’s the audience and their expectations that define a genre. A reader of literary fiction expects the writing to illuminate the human condition, some aspect of our world and our role in it. A reader of genre fiction likes that, too, as long as it doesn’t get in the way of the story.
In his book Save the Cat (which I talked about in my blog yesterday, too, I guess because it’s open on my desk right now), Blake Snyder talks about coming up with a story that you could pitch to a caveman. I can just see Professor Suedepatches rolling his eyes at that. But it doesn’t mean a selling idea–a blockbuster idea–is a stupid or even a simple one, but that the stakes are clear and primal. (He talks about primal stakes a lot.)
Vital stakes that are easy to picture and identify with: survival (physical or emotional), vengeance, justice… We have to convince the reader of the importance of those stakes, and the worthiness of the hero to achieve his ends. Everything in the novel has to move the protagonist toward that goal.
Not even Professor Suedepatches could argue with that.
Question of the day: What primal goal is at stake for your protagonist?
*I realize this was not the universal opinion about books then or now. But it was MY second encounter with someone who told me I wasn’t good enough to write books. The first was with my guidance counselor, who said my spelling was too bad to be a writer. ‘Cause stone tablets didn’t have spell check back in her day. SO maybe this real point of this post is: don’t listen to anyone who says you can’t do something you dream of doing.