Sunday, July 28, 2013

To Genre, Or Not To Genre

I’ve been thinking a lot about genre lately.

Specifically, genre as it relates to the speculative fiction we write here at the Scribblerati, as well as my Work in Progress, To Kill the Goddess.

Exhibit #1

It all started while reading Life After Life, by Kate Atkinson. This was a recommendation by my editor (I’ve made a habit of asking her what’s good) and I read it over our Fourth of July vacation to San Francisco.

In case you’re not familiar with it, Life After Life is a story about this woman – Ursula – who is reborn into the same body every time she dies. Each life is a redo, starting in the 1920s, and going through World War II or beyond, assuming she lives that long.

It was a fascinating story – mostly. Sometimes she made terrible choices and the story was hard to read, other times she chose better and the book was fun. But the longer it went on, and the more times Ursula died, it became… tedious. This is not to say it was a bad book, or that it was poorly written, because it was none of those things, but the author shied away from getting into why Ursula kept being reborn. What was the point of it all? Was there intent behind this miracle? Was there a lesson to be learned? A change to be made?

None of those questions were answered, and maybe I’m reaching here, but I think I know why. The answer to those questions would have taken the book out of the realm of literary fiction and into genre.

Exhibit #2

My own writing has been coming along quite nicely. I finished a new draft based on my editor’s comments, and now I’m making one last cleanup pass before I send it back to her. The process has taken about six months, which is longer than I’d hoped, but not as long as I’d feared. During that time, I’ve become a whole new writer. I’ve refined and honed my style, vastly improved my self-editing, but the most important thing I’ve learned is how to focus the story around character.

Character, is entirely what Life after Life was about. Ursula was the same character throughout the book, but her character changed (impressive, eh?). In regards to my own work, To Kill the Goddess has (I hope) become as much about the characters in it as it is about the fantastic world they live in, or the terrible/exciting events taking place around them.

A confession

I have – and this is an entirely unexpected development – thought about giving up writing speculative fiction.

It is, I think, a bit of snootiness, and a notion that will fade with time, but there is merit behind the thought. I still think about those cool sci-fi/fantasy things that used to completely melt my butter, but the more I think about character, the less I think about the facets of my story that make it genre.

I see now why so many choose to write literary fiction. There is a purity there, a laser focus on character that can so easily get buried within the fantastic elements of genre.

Genre, whether it’s fantasy, science fiction, dystopia, or something in between, allows the writer to confront their characters with challenges entirely outside the experience of our normal lives.

If I wasn’t writing genre, I could never so completely turn my characters’ lives upside down, not in any sort of way that wasn’t retreading events we’re all intimately familiar with (e.g. World War II), or turning it into a historical fantasy. Genre lets me tell a story that is fresh, engaging, and exciting.

Could I tell a fresh, engaging, and exciting story without writing genre?


And I might even do that someday.

But I could never write To Kill the Goddess that way.

Thursday, July 4, 2013

Great Retellings of Classic Stories

“There are no new stories.”
Ah, yes, that old trope. Tarantino took all of his ideas from Asian films, Kurosawa borrowed all of his plots from Shakespeare, Shakespeare ripped off everything from Homer, and I suppose then Homer fashioned all of his stories from the cave drawings of that great prehistoric storytelling duo, Thog and Uk. 

I’m not sure I believe it, honestly. I can buy that there are no new stories, thematically, certainly, but as Aristotle told us a very long time ago, there’s a lot more to drama than just plot. Character, setting, etc., but also there’s the unique voice of the storyteller. Even sometimes when an auteur is deliberately ripping off a plot, they can come up with something brilliantly new. I’m not talking about remakes or movie versions of 1970’s sitcoms here, I’m talking about reworking a classic drama by making it a comedy, modernizing it, or setting it on an entirely different world.

Of course, in the case of Shakespearean theater: ONION ARTICLE

Here are just a few of my favorites:

Clueless (Film, 1995. Plot based on Jane Austen’s Emma.) How does one modernize Austen, with so much of her plot depending upon out-of-date caste systems? Why, set it in a high school, of course. A hilarious modern take on an already witty tale. Young Alicia Silverstone is spot on as the shallow but completely adorable Cher, a girl obsessed with matchmaking, makeovers and clothes. The lower-class farmer is now a skate punk, the nanny is a teacher, and the ‘secretly engaged gentleman’ is gay. Pitch perfect.

Throne of Blood (Film. 1957. Plot based on Shakespeare’s Macbeth.) Akira Kurosawa takes on Shakespeare, and sets it all in 15th century feudal Japan. Starring the incomparable Toshiro Mifune. Nuff Said.

His Dark Materials Trilogy (Books. The Golden Compass, The Subtle Knife, and The Amber Spyglass, by Philip Pullman. Plot based on Milton’s Paradise Lost.)
I love these books. They are usually housed in the children’s section of a bookstore, but, as I’ve mentioned in previous posts, they are no more children’s books than the Lord of the Rings trilogy. Parallel worlds. Talking warrior polar bears. Parents trying to kill their children. Trips to Hell. Epic battles with God. You know, typical kids’ fare. Read these, they’re terrific.

Young Frankenstein (Film. 1974. Plot based on Frankenstein.) There are many genre and film spoofs out there, but let’s face it, this is one of the best. It's certainly Mel Brooks’ strongest film. Also, it remains funny after many, many viewings. 

The Gap Cycle (Books. The Real Story, Forbidden Knowledge, A Dark and Hungry God Arises, Chaos and Order, and This Day All Gods Die, by Stephen R. Donaldson. Plot based on Wagner’s Ring Cycle.)
Donaldson takes an opera, and turns it into a space opera. I read his Thomas Covenant books when I was 14, and these books when I was in my 20s, and honestly, I’m not sure if I’d have the patience for either series today. That said, I’ve recently read all of the extant Song of Ice and Fire books, so perhaps I would. Be forewarned: the Gap books are terrific, but harsh, especially the first book, which sets up the whole story, but provides you with no relief or redemption. No, as in all of Donaldson’s books, redemption is very hard-earned, mostly because he has his characters commit seemingly irredeemable acts, and then spends several dense books having them attempt to crawl into the light. Sound painful? Perhaps – but these books are also nail-biting, addictive, well-written and complex.

O Brother, Where Art Thou (Film. 2000. Plot based on Homer’s Odyssey.)
This one is a family favorite, and one of the most fun of all the Coen Brother’s films. It's set in the deep south during the great depression, and stars a never-livelier George Clooney: if you haven’t seen this flick, run home and rent/stream it now. Very quotable. Plus, that soundtrack! 

Other goodies:
Scotland PA. (Another Macbeth)
Roxanne (Cyrano)
My Fair Lady (Pygmalion)
West Side Story (Romeo and Juliet)
Bridget Jones’ Diary (Pride and Prejudice)

What are your favorites? Again, not remakes, but reimaginings? ( And I’m really sorry for using that word.)