Genre, Storytelling, Literary Fiction

I recently applied to a contest that asked, as part of the upload, what the genre of my novel is.  I answered dutifully, Thriller.

Yes, I know that the judges have to have some way to classify submissions, and I have just read a bit about plot, timing of events, when backstory is best introduced, and so on.

Problem is, I am reading Redemption, a fine story of New Orleans by Frederick Turner.  I have studied New Orleans music and give presentations about it.  Turner creates 1913 New Orleans – Storyville in particular – with such skill that you swear you’re there in that so steam, seamy, funky place right along with his protagonist Fast-Mail Muldoon.  When you read his descriptions, highly articulated, precise, and unafraid to use a full vocabulary, you think “Literary Fiction.”  Turner doesn’t mind taking a healthy paragraph to describe the quality of the mud on the banks of the Mississippi or a chapter to let Fast-Mail Muldoon ponder lost love. But if Turner were to submit to my contest, Redemption’s genre would be Historical Fiction/Suspense.

Just a reminder for me that fiction writing is story-telling.  Storytelling is about language; thus all fiction ought to be “literary,” and the whole point of telling a story is having a compelling plot.

Perhaps a banal observation, but I’m relatively new to the business side of writing.  It’s easy to get lost in trade arcana.

Sailing and Editing

cotuit-skiffs-racing

Cotuit skiffs a-racing

At risk of straying into overwrought metaphor, editing is a bit like sailing. My wife’s family is of New England whaling stock. She grew up sailing the flat bottom, gaff-rigged skiffs that evolved from the workboats designed to sail the shallow bays and shoals of Cape Cod. Her grandmother wrote a wonderful story, The Cut of Her Jib, which she took from a journal and letters of her grandfather, a whaling captain, and her grandmother. Have a look.

cover-cut-of-her-jibOkay, back to torturing the metaphor. When I go to my critique groups, I get gusts of wind coming from different directions. They’re like the changing winds that bedevil sailors near the shore. But those contrary breezes, if you read them right, you sail a better line. Same with the critical comments. I’m somewhere just off shore with my third novel, Open Circuit, tacking and backing, trying to maneuver.

After you pull free of the shoals and into the ocean, the wind steadies. You have to trim the sail and determine which line work best. Not unlike the work of editing once the story’s laid out. I’m halfway through the first substantial edit on my second novel, Skins and Bone, realizing I’m in deep water. I better navigate right or I’ll miss the point of the island.

Awright, awright. I think I’ve bludgeoned that metaphor enough.

Back to the editing …

Art, Wisdom, and the Comics

Sally ForthI must admit that I glance at the front page of the paper, scan the news of the day and go to the comics page for wisdom.

So, here you have it.  We writers often miss this truth, vainly trying to lock the reader into our own special vision.

(from www.sallyforth.com)

Best Mysteries/Thrillers — Fall and Winter Reading List

I am reading through a list of 15 36 48 books that I believe define the genre I’m writing in, Mystery/thriller.  I’ve attached my list as a separate page.

When I began writing, I didn’t choose a type of fiction or a genre. I just started  telling stories. To my surprise, I found I was writing what is now classified as a Thriller.

Trouble is, the Mystery (subcategory: Suspense, sub category: Thriller) world is huge, particularly since publishing houses discovered calling a book a thriller is a marketing advantage. In a thriller, Hero, frequently an ordinary person, Stack of booksdiscovers a big, bad problem, and we’re off.  My two novels, one complete, one almost so, run that way.

After a couple of years of research on my own (aka stumbling around), I ran into a lively discussion of fifteen great mystery writers at Minnesota Crime Wave. Energized, I made a list and amplified it with suggestions from my writers groups. The list includes mystery, suspense and thriller titles. Most mystery writers produce series (after all, when you’ve created discovered a good character, you have to let him or her live a little), so tried to find the single title in a series that best represents the author, with some outstanding help from the fine folks at the bookstore Once Upon a Crime and Karl Jorgenson, who reads widely and has encyclopedic knowledge of the genre. (See his reviews at Goodreads.)

Most of the authors on my list are famous, established writers.  I’ve added a few less famous writers whose works I’ve admired, including books from members of writers groups I’m in, Tim Mahoney (gangster-era noir) and Carl Brookins (several mystery series).  I did not include mystery categories distant from adult thrillers. That means I left out some fine works of writing group members. The cozy mysteries from Monica Ferris aren’t on the list, nor is Susan Runholt’s YA story, The Mystery of the Third Lucretia. Also missing are Karl Jorgenson’s (oops, John Sandfraud’s) send-up of John Sandford (a short novella) and Kara Jorges’ mostly romance novels. (There’s a fine caper mystery coming soon.)

I’m halfway through my list.  Trouble is, it keeps growing.

Herman Melville … Sore Butt?

I wonder if Herman Melville’s butt got sore.

He looks comfortable enough here, doesn’t he?Melville  Or is that a look of pain?

I mean, the man wrote 206,000 words, then apparently did a rewrite, all in just a year and a half. . How many hours is that? Figure 100 – 200 words an hour and we’re talking 1,000 – 2,000 hours for the draft, and … I don’t know about you, but rewrite is twice as long.

So, let’s say at least 3,000 hours with butt planted firmly. Spread over a year and a half, that’s five and a half hours a day with no break, no vacation. Ouch!

I only mention this because my own backside has been complaining since I started writing. It’s an uncomfortable and unwelcome transition to add having a pain in the butt to being a pain in the butt (a somewhat longer-lasting problem).

Of course I live in a world of technology. Poor Melville! No FitBit or Apple watch to remind him to get his butt off the chair. No Herman Miller Aeron chair. (He probably couldn’t have afforded one, anyway.)

My butt still hurts if I write more than 1,000 words in a sitting, regardless of technology.

The Value of Literature in 30 words or Less

It was a simple statement on a subject too often drowned in words:

Study of the Liberal Arts “is for developing the muscle of thoughtfulness, the use of which will be the greatest pleasure in life and will also show what it means to be fully human.”

It came from Anne Hall, a lecturer at Penn, as quoted in a New York Times column by Frank Bruni. He remembers being transfixed by her lectures on Shakespeare.  His telling took me back to my undergraduate experience, where I, too, realized the power and depth of Shakespeare because of a gifted lecturer.

These days, I am greedy for examples of good writing. I see in this short phrase the brilliance of an analogy that packs a world of meaning into a few words.  Would that we might often write with such clarity … and brevity.