GENRE THOUGHTS – Part II
OK. Descending to the personal (later we'll go on to the practical [g])…
So far, I've seen my books shelved and sold (with evident success) as:
Fiction (or Literature; some bookstores have separate categories for Fiction and Literature, some don't)
Historical Non-Fiction (no, really. Foyle's bookshop in
Science Fiction (This is why I hate reviews and marketing stuff that refers to "a magic stone circle." 'Tisn't magic at all.)
Fantasy (Fantasy and sf are indeed separate things—and it's totally possible to use them both together, too.)
Romance (this is a whole discussion unto itself, so we'll leave it as a simple statement for the moment)
Mystery (the Lord John books are (sort of) structured as mysteries, but the main OUTLANDER novels each include a complete murder mystery—though most readers don't notice)
Military History (true. The Military History Book Club now and then lists my titles in their catalogue)
Gay and Lesbian Fiction
Horror. (Really. A BREATH OF SNOW AND ASHES won a 2006 Quill Award, in the "science-fiction/fantasy/horror" category—beating out Stephen King's CELL, and thus allowing me to say that I've beaten Stephen King for a horror award. [g] (Beat George R.R. Martin's A FEAST FOR CROWS, too, which was very flattering.)
Putting aside the question of just how appropriate any of these categorizations may actually be [g], I think the point is obvious: my books don't really have a genre. Or else they have all of them (the Prologues are often poetry, and while I've never seen the books sold as Westerns, we do employ a number of the concepts central to Westerns: the notion of what "law" means, as an ideal and in practice, and the notion of the lone hero fighting for his home and family). The effect is pretty much the same, though—the books are impossible to describe to anyone in twenty-five words or less, and they have no easily attachable "label" that a sales rep could use when pitching them to a bookstore account, or that a publicist could use when trying to line up interviews and appearances.
By all conventional publishing wisdom, these books should be impossible to sell. So why the heck did I choose to write a book that couldn't be sold?
Well, easy. I never intended to sell OUTLANDER.
See, I just wanted to learn how to write a novel. And, having written a lot of other stuff over the years (everything from Walt Disney comics to a 400-page Ph.D. dissertation on "Nest Site Selection in the Pinyon Jay, Gymnorhinus cyanocephalus" (which my husband says should be subtitled, "Why Birds Build Nests Where They Do, and Who Cares, Anyway?), and having had no one ever tell me how to write any of it…I just read some examples, wrote whatever it was, and if it didn't look quite right, I poked it until it did.
"OK," I said to myself, "you've been reading novels for thirty-odd years; surely if you write one, you will recognize it." So fine. I'd write a novel, learn how—and then I'd consider picking some commercially feasible premise and writing a "real" book that I intended to submit for publication. But this one was just for practice.
That being so, it didn't matter what I did. I wasn't meaning to publish it, I didn't intend even to tell anyone what I was doing (and didn't, for a long time)…it just didn't matter what "sort" of book it was. It was just a book.
So I chose historical fiction as a place to start, partly on grounds that historical fiction has no real genre constraints, other than taking place at some past date. You can do anything in terms of a historical novel, from very light historical romances to THE AUTOBIOGRAPHY OF HENRY VIII, WWII thrillers, Civil War espionage stories…you name it. And since I had no idea what I was doing, the idea of having fewer assumptions about what I was doing seemed good. Besides, I was a research professor; I knew what to do with a library. It seemed easier to look things up than make them up—and if I turned out to have no imagination, I could steal things from the historical record.
Where to set this putative novel? Again—anywhere. But I happened to be watching a very old "Dr. Who" rerun on PBS, in an episode featuring a young Scotsman—a 17-18-year-old kid who appeared in his kilt. "Well, that's fetching," I said. "OK.
So I loosed this Englishwoman into a cottage full of Scotsmen to see what she'd do. Whereupon she promptly started making smart-ass modern remarks about everything—and she also took over and started telling the story herself. I fought with her for several pages, trying to beat her into shape and make her talk like a historical person, but she wasn't having any—so finally I said, "What the heck. Nobody's ever going to see this; it doesn't matter what bizarre thing I do. Go ahead and be modern; I'll figure out how you got there later."
Well, once you have time-traveling Englishwomen in your historical novel, plainly anything goes. So I proceeded to use anything I liked, in terms of plot, literary device, structure, the Loch Ness monster, etc., etc. After all…nobody was every going to see it.
And here we all are, 15 million books later. [cough]
So essentially, I wrote a book with no genre because it didn't matter, since I wasn't going to show it to anybody anyway. And since that seemed to work all right, I just kept doing it. [g]
Tomorrow….Should YOU do it? (or, How Publishing Works—or Doesn't)
To be continued…….