Tag Archives: genre

Ruddy Dreadful

saw this a little while ago and grimaced.

My problem?

At the moment, people are just writing stuff, fast and loose, that other people can read and enjoy. These writers might even revel in the idea of being called ‘New Pulp’ but pretty soon it will be a whole thing. You know, one of those things where people tell you what something is without letting you make up your mind for yourself. You know… a thing.

It rapidly moves from being descriptive “wow look at what these guys are writing” to prescriptive “you can’t write sentences like that, that’s not new-pulp enough”.

To which the only rational answer is, “sod off”.

Writers won’t be doing this, because writers like to experiment and play (though some might like to be the big fish in a little pond and will grasp this newly defined genre with a grateful death-grip — but they won’t be the good ones. They’ll be the one-good-novel-on-infinite-repeat ones). The general readers won’t be doing this, because readers just want to read good stories well told. No, the fans-from-hell will be doing this. The ones that populate every genre forum they can find trying to define an art-form along strict illogical lines.

So what’s the problem? Just ignore the muppets, right?

I wish it was that simple, because what happens is that some journalists and some (the ones that don’t think for themselves …you know, most of them) literary critics, hear of this thing, this new thing, and they leap on it. It saves them having to actually read stuff that wasn’t written by some dead middle-class person before the end of the Boer War. You know the sort, I call them ‘Perkinses‘.

And then this definition becomes a sneer, a twisted lip, a guilty secret to hide under plain white wrappers.

And then novice writers think this is how you write and churn out tones of derivative crap that buries the good stuff.

And then readers move on to the next big thing, and miss the gems for half-a-century. Only discovering them when the author is dead and buried, which is no flaming use to anyone.

Oh I know, ‘Ruddy Dreadfuls’ yeah, that’s the next wave, look out for the ‘Ruddy Dreadful’ wave. It’s acoming. Forget New Pulp, that’s so last month, jump on the ‘Ruddy Dreadful’ bandwagon.

“Come on spring-heel, we have a reefer-mad dragon to save.”


PK’s Caveats: Caveat 1: I may not know what I’m blathering about. Caveat 2: There are no rules about writing, there are just things you can get terribly wrong. Caveat 3: If people apply the words never or always to storytelling techniques, ignore them.

First posted to ‘of Altered States’: http://www.ofalteredstates.com/blog/

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Fan Fiction and World Building

I’ve had a couple of revelations recently or the heading might have read: Fan Fiction. Why?

The first revelation came in the comments over on the Passive Voice blog. My standard ‘why’ question was being debated, and I was sticking to my standard ‘I don’t understand the impulse’ position, when  I remembered writing a Dr Who story in my teens. Bang goes my ‘not understanding the impulse’.

The second revelation came when talking my nephew, who does like his fan fiction. I understood the impulse now, but I still didn’t understand ‘why’ people chose to invest so much energy into something they can’t sell. He was adamant that some fan fiction was better than the original fiction. You still can’t sell them, was my response to which he agreed, albeit a tad reluctantly. [EDIT: Kindle Worlds seems to be allowing people to sell fan fiction now, not sure how that is going to work out. A watching brief seems to be in order.]

However, this blog post is more about an insidious problem for writers of fan fiction rather than the legal and ethical concerns. I’m just mentioning them to get them out of the way—and to nail apologists for plagiarists hides to the wall (see below).

The final revelation came from an argument on another blog—I’m not sure which one—where the whole ‘nothing is original and therefore I can plagiarise to my heart’s content’ argument came up. That argument is bogus, bullshit, and should be thrust back down whichever throat it issues from whenever it is spoken, typed, or in any other way preached to the hard-of-thinking.

Philosophical bullshit based on a grain of truth (no story is truly original, but all creative stories are unique to the author) is still bullshit. If you don’t have any ideas of your own then don’t go stealing mine and asserting your rights to do so with sophistry and pedantry.

So, taking all three revelations as read, that pretty much everybody who writes will at some point write some form of fan fiction, that some fan fiction is extremely well written, and that it is still technically plagiarism and expect to see the inside of a courthouse if you try to steal another writer’s work and sell it without their consent, why do I still have a bit of a problem with fan fiction?

It’s to do with the fan fiction writer themselves. The most common reason people give for writing fan fiction (in my experience) beyond sheer love of the world and characters, is that it allows the writer to explore character and plot without them having to explore world building at the same time. In short, it’s easier for the tyro writer to focus on these aspects of writing rather than have to deal with the whole thing.

So what’s the problem with this?


Characters and plots are intimately linked to setting. If a writer creates a character, that is not the main protagonist of the story they are fanning (is that a term?—it’s a good one, because fan fiction does fan the flames that can lift a story or a series to a higher level. I’m not against fan fiction, I’m just against people thinking they should be ‘paid’ for writing fan fiction and that the original author should not get a cut—a big cut) then that character is linked to that world. Even if you file off the serial numbers and publish that work as being set in a different world, it will still bear the imprimatur of the original world being fanned.

The world you are born into, that you grow into, defines who you are. If I wrote a novel based in the… um… yeah that’ll do… the Star Wars universe and the story went so well that I decided to file off the serial numbers and release it as an original work then no matter how deep I go with the cutting and the editing, no matter how hard I try to create a different world, the character will still bear the marks of being born into a Star Wars world. Otherwise, it won’t be the same character.

So the story will be lesser for that reason. It’ll be a copy of a world run through photoshop. Jedi becomes some other warrior monkish order, the Empire becomes some other overpowering enemy, droids become some other semblance of AI. But all have the creative DNA of Star Wars running through them like “bloody prequels” through a stick of Blackpool rock.

(And yes I am well aware that people will start yelping about how Star Wars took this from here and that from there and then mashed them all together to make this amalgam of stuff that they called a universe. I’ve got news for you, that’s called World Building. If you take a whole bunch of stuff from a whole bunch of sources and create a world that works without looking like any other world that some other writer created using the same sources then you have committed World Building. It’s a skill, a craft, and in the hands of a master like Frank Herbert or Iain M. Banks [EDIT: RIP. Damn, I hate writing that, one of the finest writers of his generation] or Terry Pratchett, it is an art form. And I’m not talking about the gross level of this is a Space Opera world, or this is a Medieval European Fantasy world, or this is a Cyberpunk world. Those are genres and tropes. Not excuses for plagiarism using the NIO—nothing is original—defence.)

Plots are slightly different, this is where the NIO bullshit comes from, because plots really can be grouped into strands of creation running back to the dawn of time. So much so that modern writers of original works have to takes this into account when storytelling. “Look look, it’s a love story, oh… she died… look, look it’s a revenge story… oh he died… look, look it’s a legal story…” And so on.

You don’t actually have to kill off your characters, but you do have to point one way (the way everybody expects the plot to go) and go another. Unless of course you are so good at this writing malarkey that you can keep the readers on board because they love the characters so much that the plot is just what needs to happen to show the characters off (that is my favoured approach by the way: it is the most fun and the most difficult to pull off, which are my prime motivations for writing stuff in the first place. Though you do still need a strong storyline for them to follow. You don’t get anywhere with characters just wafting around with nothing to do).

But plots are constrained by the world. The byzantine politicking of Dune is entirely different from the more direct politics of the Hyperion Age. And, just as with characters, you can grind off the serial numbers to your heart’s content, but the story will still bear the faded marks of the world it was originally set in.

So what’s my problem with this?

When you are learning to write (particularly in the field of SF&F). You are essentially learning to balance character against plot against setting against idea and/or theme (I throw that last in because some people seem to think it’s important. It is, but I never think about it myself. To my mind, theme is a critic’s bread and butter. I’m a writer not a critic…snobby? Yup, you betcha, after all ‘snobby’ should be part of the definition of the word critic, so sod ’em.)

So you are only learning to balance character against plot when writing fan fiction. The world is already there, it’s set in stone, if you’re writing fan fiction then you have probably read it so many times that it is more real to you than the world you actually live in. You are not learning how to balance the character and plot against the setting (the theme/idea really will just take care of itself—really, stop thinking about that nonsense right now. Unless of course you like writer’s block because you get a lie in).

And you only have so many stories inside you. There are only so many characters and plots you can utilise. As time wears on you may find more, but they will still—essentially—derive from your earliest work. That’s just a fact of creative life. The thread of your thematic concerns, your characters, the plots you develop, can be traced all the way back to the first thing you wrote.

A fan fiction writer chooses to constrain those formative writing experiences in another writer’s world.

I’m just not sure that is very wise at all.

[EDIT: Since writing this, I have become aware of Mash-Ups… they do sound like fun :grin:]


PK’s Caveats: Caveat 1: I may not know what I’m blathering about. Caveat 2: There are no rules about writing, there are just things you can get terribly wrong. Caveat 3: If people apply the words never or always to storytelling techniques, ignore them.

First posted to ‘of Altered States’: http://www.ofalteredstates.com/blog/

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Filed under Character, Character Dynamics, and Character Interactions., Fan Fiction, Storytelling, Art, and Craft, World Building

Why Her World Shouldn’t Fall Apart

What makes Speculative Fiction (SF) — Science Fiction, Horror, Fantasy, or any of the many sub-genres — different from other forms of fiction?

Simple really: in SF the normal everyday experience of the reader and writer need not apply — the position’s already been taken by ravening cyber-witch-dragon-riders from the outer reaches of the twilight zone. Weird stuff happens and as a writer you have to make sure that only the weird stuff you mean to happen…um…happens. You don’t want to add an entire other level of inadvertent weirdness through sloppy phrasing. Keep your weird under control with accuracy. And a bullwhip.  And maybe some cream puffs, because ravening cyber-witch-dragon-riders from the outer reaches of the twilight zone are notoriously lactose intolerant.

Other genres (OG) have their own sweet irritations, but in SF you have to be precise, very precise.

In the OG the line, Her world fell apart, is a little melodramatic, maybe a little clichéd, possibly a little meh. Soap opera stuff, not a deal breaker with the reader, just a shrug of the shoulders and a “Come on, pal, entertain me since you can’t write a decent sentence. Full plot-speed ahead and damn the conjugations.”

But in SF you have to allow for the margin (as Samuel R Delaney put it) that her world might literally fall apart. Poof, Earth gone, everybody floating in space, wondering whose turn it is to put the cat out, where the cat is, and why exactly can they still breathe if the world is in tiny pebbles all around them?

Another classic example of this sort of line.

He threw his eyes down the road, remember Tom Cruise doing this in Minority Report?

Well, to be accurate, he dropped his old eyes down a concrete corridor, chased them as they bounced and skidded and squirted out of his clumsy hands until finally he just managed to catch one of them as it tumbled down a drain. Carefully scooping it up and then merrily using that very same eye to open a biometric lock. He must have corneas made of diamond — well, I suppose he is Tom Cruise after all.

You throw your *gaze* down the road (and that is still a dodgy line in any genre (AG)) not your eyes. And if you have delicate organs covered with a material, which can be scratched by a SPLINTER, and then proceed to play football with it, it is entirely possible that an extremely sensitive device that has to look through that self-same material to see either the iris (or worse the retina) might, just might, throw up a false negative, don’t you think?

Don’t write her fingers pierced his bicep, because they might if she has talons.

Don’t write he was overcome with the fragrance of the flowers unless you mean he passed out.

Don’t be sloppy.

Think about what you are saying, take each word literally and make sure they say precisely what you mean them to say.

This is of course good advice in OGs as well as in SF, but it is right up there with adverbs and said bookisms in the world of the weird. Getting this stuff wrong makes you look like an amateur, it means you haven’t thought it through.

Now, maybe editors don’t care these days, maybe this is considered pedantic, maybe the X-Factor is the finest TV programme ever produced.

But do you really want to take the chance of an editor sighing, hitting delete, and then the “Thank you…but…” lands in your inbox, just because you couldn’t be bothered to rephrase an already sloppy line?

Just saying.

Take it or leave it,

So sue me (no, please don’t do that, that’s not what I meant at all).

PK’s Caveats: Caveat 1: I may not know what I’m blathering about. Caveat 2: There are no rules about writing, there are just things you can get terribly wrong. Caveat 3: If people apply the words never or always to storytelling techniques, ignore them.

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Mainstream Fantasy: There’s Craft in Them There Words.

There are so many sub-genres of Fantasy Fiction now that it is sometimes difficult to know where to place a particular work. So let’s look at just one major sub-genre.

Mainstream Fantasy, at least to me, is straight Fantasy. It may be epic or it may be heroic, but it isn’t trying to reinvent the wheel or trying to capture the lightning of somebody else’s ideas; it’s just straightforward fantasy.

Set in a secondary, or alternate, world, which has its own history and geography and ethnicities, it does not impinged upon our world in any way, shape, or form. It may have impossibly tall mountains, incredibly wide seas, impassable deserts or impenetrable jungles. It may have creatures that strike fear into your heart or wonder into your gaze. It may have other races of humans or other species that are definitely not human. It may have politics and intrigue, dark deeds and brave acts, love and hate and everything in between.

But it will always have magic.

The magic may be filled with rules that make it a system akin to science, with checks and balances, and experiments that always give the same result when repeated, or the magic may be as wild and fickle as the wind, or the sea, or the earth, or the flame, or the world, or the universe itself, impossible to fully comprehend and dangerous to misuse.

There may be gods and monsters and wizards and witches, powerful beings who can interact with the stuff of magic in ways that no mere mortal can. There may be immortal beings or beings who stretched out their lives with magic. There may be wise herbalists and generous healers, wild warlocks and dangerous enchantresses. There may be strange necromancers and stranger spirits: ghosts, and ghouls, and things that stalk the night.

Lands of kings and queens, warriors and poets, harlots and matriarchs. Men and women of worth to be respected or worthless people to be avoided at all costs — and it is not always easy to tell the difference. Magic and humanity, prophesy and fate, weirds and geasa will spill over this land and make it different from ours.

The connection between a secondary world and the world in which we live is a fragile thing for it is based on the willing suspension of disbelief. We, the readers, will believe that a dragon can breathe fire and covert gold, that a ghost can creep through the night and steal your soul, that a wizard can change the weather or make a flower bloom out of season, these things are easy to believe because they are fantastical.

But have a man or a woman with no training pick up a sword and fight off an attack from seasoned warriors, or get up on a horse and jump the high fences, or simply fix a leaky roof first time out, and we will start to doubt. Have people talking like a yokel one moment and a king the next and we will frown. Have a peasant disrespect a king and not lose his head and we will wonder.

All these things can work: if the sword does the fighting instead of the man or the woman wielding it, if the horse is sentient and keeps the rider in the saddle, if the novice roofer is being taught by some sort of telepathy, if the man whose accent changes is a spy about his business, and if the culture is created so that a peasant can disrespect a king: then we will be ready for such things to happen.

If it is part of the magic or the difference of the world, and makes sense, then we will happily believe it, but if it is just sloppy writing then the story will fail.

There are those that disparage Fantasy. They think it is simply fairytales where anything can happen. They are wrong. Only things that work within that world can happen and when you are dealing with the fantastical then the normal has to be pitch-perfect or it will throw the reader out of the story and they will probably never return.

Mainstream Fantasy is Fantasy without any bells and whistles, which makes it the hardest form of Fantasy to do well. There’s craft in them there words.

PK’s Caveats: Caveat 1: I may not know what I’m blathering about. Caveat 2: There are no rules about writing, there are just things you can get terribly wrong. Caveat 3: If people apply the words never or always to storytelling techniques, ignore them.

First posted to ‘Firedance Blogs’: http://firedancebooks.com/blog/

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Three Genres to Rile Them All

Ah genre, how I loathe thee. First we have to understand that the majority of subgenres, those hair-splitting, anal-retentive, formulaic, bollock-fests, are marketing tools. They should have no bearing at all on what you write or how you write it. You really shouldn’t write to a market, because the market is a moving target and your aim should be to hit the story not a demographic.

I think there are only three actual Genres.

  • Historical  — set in the past.
  • Mimetic* — set in the present.
  • Speculative — set in a world that does not exist.

Because the term genre has been muddied by marketing speak let us call them Super Genres (or Über if you prefer — I don’t). These are genres that hold all other genres within them. If you can think of a genre that doesn’t fit into one of these groups, don’t hesitate to tell me. I doubt you will, but if you do manage it I would be ecstatic — I did mention that I am not actually a fan of genres, didn’t I? Yup, there it is…loathe.

Historical Fiction is fiction set in the past. It is not fiction written in the past. Dickens did not write Historical Fiction (in much the same way that Jules Vern did not write Steampunk — he just didn’t so get over it. What’s that? He wrote about airships and steam-engines? Yes he did, but they were cutting-edge, state-of-the-art, technological wonders when he wrote about them. To a Steampunker, they are retro, nostalgic, technological curiosities. Spot the difference. Or can’t steampunk, which is a wonderful sub-genre in its own right, stand on it’s own two feet and instead needs to big itself up with great novels from the past. Throw off that inferiority complex, it makes your arse look so big it covers your mouth.)

Where was I? Oh right, yeah, Dickens didn’t write Historical Fiction (Okay, ‘A Tale of Two Cities’  was set in his past and I’m sure there are others, just like ‘A Christmas Carol’, which could be called Speculative Fiction…it’s got ghosts in it. What? How stupid… look do ghosts exist? Well? I don’t care about the grey blob you saw in a forest once while mushroom hunting, are ghosts a scientific certainty?…sigh…Yes, and the moon landings were faked too.)

Anyway…um…oh yeah. Most of Dickens’s stories were set in his present. They were Mimetic, not Historical, Fiction. Hilary Mantel’s ‘A Place of Greater Safety’ (which is brilliant by the way) is Historical Fiction because it is set during the French Revolution…yes, just like ‘A Tale of Two Cities’. What can I say? If you are inclined towards writing books set in the past then the French Revolution must be almost irresistible. All that lovely reportage, pamphlets, documentation, all that stuff you can use, plus beheadings, betrayal, and people who think cake is a substitute for bread (yeah, I’m aware she didn’t actually say that but it’s a good shorthand for the rich and powerful muppets without a clue. The 1% should take note.)

I quite like reading well-written Historical Fiction, but I’m not sure I’d actually want to try to write it. The constraints must be a nightmare. The writer is (IMHO) psychoanalysing figures out of history from their laundry bills. I think I’d rather sit in the corner going blah blah blah, but I am very glad that others don’t feel the same way.

Mimetic Fiction is fiction set in the present day. It is fiction that tries to imitate reality in prose. Some people seem to think that this is a higher calling and some writers (like Dickens) answer the call with powerful stories that help to change public opinion. Other writers however seem to think that readers are interested in a 2000 word scene about doing the washing-up, or the writer’s (barely-hidden) autobiographical, self-justifying, non-stories about their last divorce, or the writer’s pontificating drivel about a third-world country they visited once on a school trip.

It’s a difficult thing writing something set in your present, particularly when technology is advancing so quickly. The writer is plundering their own life for material (we all do that of course, but the rest of us can hide it a bit better — a Tudor baker or a green-skinned future-human automatically makes the character less like ourselves). If a mimetic writer needs to write about a character with the latest bit of technological kit they simply go out and buy it.

(BTW..Can you write that sort of stuff off against tax as research? If you can, then I may well write a techno-thriller set in the present that uses all sorts of technological wonders, and travels between all sorts of really cool places in the world that I have always wanted to visit. ‘It’s research, guv. Yeah, well the character stayed in a seven star hotel for four weeks so I had no choice but to do the same. Mimetic innit, guv?’ )

Mimetic Fiction can be wonderful and glorious but it is not inherently superior to the other Super Genres. That is where the trouble lies. People who, for whatever reason, have no sense of wonder, who think fiction should be a variation on a newspaper column, who, essentially, having no imagination, spout balderdash about the other super genres (usually Speculative Fiction if we’re honest. Historical Fiction allows them to nit-pick about the length of the teeth on a Victorian nit-picking comb, so they tolerate its imaginative use of historical fact in the pursuit of their insipid exercise in onanist one-upmanship. Whereas Speculative Fiction brings them out in apoplectic rage, and snobby sneering (they think it makes them cool — it doesn’t) about how none of this can really have happened. These creatures don’t exist. Those places don’t exist. This technology doesn’t exist. Strangely, most of these people seem to have studied classics at university.)

Speculative Fiction (Full disclosure: this is my genre, this is where I live, breathe, and exist. I read it, I write it, and I would roll around in it naked if I could) is fiction set in a place that doesn’t exist. That sounds simple doesn’t it?


Does the place not exist, because it is in the future and therefore it doesn’t exist…yet? Or does the place not exist, because it is set on an alternate (secondary) world and therefore it doesn’t exist…at all? Or does the place not exist, because it places things in our reality that don’t actually exist in our reality and therefore it might exist…if the world is really really crazy.  

Or to put it another way is it Science Fiction, Fantasy, or Horror?

None of this matters when defining the Super Genre of Speculative Fiction, what matters is the non-existence of the universe.

Ah yes I used the term defining in relation to genre, which is always a call for a flame war on Speculative Fiction sites. You can quite easily make yourself troll-bait by engaging in the deviant behaviour known as “Is this Science Fiction or Fantasy?” To which the only sane answer is “Dunno, bruv, is it any good?”

Yes, Science Fiction has to be scientifically plausible, absolutely (though the dogma style mania for Mundane Science Fiction is a little OTT. It is a lovely writing challenge to write something where all the science is theoretically possible at our present level of scientific knowledge (No FTL [Faster than Light] drives for instance) but it is not inherently better than some mad-arse Space Opera with galaxy spanning empires crumbling slowly away at the edges. If you think it is then you are, not to put to fine a point on it, no better than the other fashionistas who witter on about Literary Fiction all the time. You are putting limits on the imagination of authors because of your fetishist tendencies. Do you really want to be classed alongside the dinner-party set who think reading should be a difficult thing only to be undertaken by trained professionals? Seriously? So Mundane SF is a cracker of an idea, but it is not the only form of SF that deserves to use the name).

And yes, in Fantasy anything goes, but it kinda has to be consistent. (Non-consistent fantasy novels are called magic realism and written by literary writers slumming. That is a bit harsh on Magic Realism of course, but don’t blame me I didn’t nick the entire genre for the purposes of strip-mining Carroll, Blake, and Milton. Blame the literary establishment’s snobbery towards Speculative Fiction in general and Fantasy in particular. (They dismiss the Fantasy elements of Pratchett’s work with a sneer and a snigger then go all “So is this werewolf motif a reference to the beast that lies within all men.” “Um…She’s a woman.” “So it’s about the feminising of the male psyche then? Or are you references Medea? Or…” “It’s fantasy, pal.” (I doubt the good Terry, says pal much, but he should.) So when a writer they admire (for his magnum opus on fairy liquid) writes Fantasy badly, they call it Magic Realism, which is a shame because that is a grand genre now ruined by stupid white males educated past their level of intelligence.)

I find Horror the most difficult part of this triumvirate, mainly because I can never quite make up my mind if Horror is a stylistic genre rather than a setting genre. Horror can take place anywhere, it can cross all the boundaries (Yes, all genres can mash with all others, Mimetic and Historical is a stretch but it can be done with parallel storylines) and still remain Horror first and foremost. Horror is about dread, which does not rely on setting — which is my main point of reference to defining Super Genres. But hark what light of wisdom falls soft upon this aged pate? Oh yeah, I forgot, Horror is part of the Super Genre of Speculative Fiction, therefore it doesn’t matter if it is a setting based genre or a stylistic one. Problem solved.

*Mimetic is a way around using the word ‘Contemporary’, which is a little too ambiguous; contemporary could mean ‘written in the last ten years’ as well as ‘set in the present’. Mimesis means imitation, which in literature is used to mean a ‘representation of reality’. Not a great fan of the term because it is something the literati probably debate on the dinner party circuit** but there no real way around it. Clarity is all; which is why vocabulary is really quite important to a writer.

** Dinner party circuit, where the pretentious go to use their expensive education to hide their limited intellect.

PK’s Caveats: Caveat 1: I may not know what I’m blathering about. Caveat 2: There are no rules about writing, there are just things you can get terribly wrong. Caveat 3: If people apply the words never or always to storytelling techniques, ignore them.

First posted to ‘of Altered States’: http://www.ofalteredstates.com/blog/

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