Friday, January 18, 2008

Genre Thoughts - Part II - The Personal, or Why _I_ Do it.


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 Fiction

Historical Non-Fiction (no, really. Foyle's bookshop in London shelved them under Historical Nonfiction, when I saw them there a few years ago. As it was explained to me, shelving decisions were made by Miss Kitty Foyle (since deceased, alas), and Miss Foyle believed in time travel. Ergo…)

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. Scotland, 18th century." And on the third day of writing, I decided to introduce an Englishwoman, so as to have an element of sexual tension—I mean, I had to have a lot of Scotsmen because of the kilt factor, but had also decided to use the Rising of the '45 as backdrop, that being Conflict with a capital "C" (all I knew about writing novels was that they should have conflict. That's still the best thing I know about writing novels), so if she was an Englishwoman, we'd have lots of conflict.

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…….


  1. I just wanted to say... from the colourful tidbits I've read here and there... your husband has a fantastic sense of humour!

  2. Okay, this is Part One of my comments....... I stopped reading at, "'ve been reading novels for thirty-odd years; surely if you write one, you will recognize it."

    See, Diana, that's the issue -- just because people read books doesn't make them able to write. Lots and lots of people attempt it, but how many are truly great at at? It is my opinion that the writer has to have a certain level of intelligence to do it well. Though, intelligence doesn't make a great writer, either. Some smart folks can be boring as hell, we all know that.

    Is it a God-given talent, latent perhaps, until it's accidentally or situationally uncovered? Do you think a person has to relish words, the way they trip off the tongue or roll around in the mouth? For me, it's the smell of a book that makes my blood pump and get all twittery inside that's compelling.

    I look forward to more of this....

  3. are you also a fan of the new doctor who series? i'm hooked on them and it gave me a little thrill when i read (in the outlandish companion) that part of your inspiration had come from the old series. they reused the name james maccrimmon as an alias for the doctor in the new series and i have often wonder if it was an omage(sp?) to your books.

  4. merrymags,
    i agree that it is not just about intelligence, good ideas, or good intentions. there is something indefinable that i have come to call "the touch", which sounds a bit spacey i know. it has to do with understanding people, how they are and how they work, not how they should act or how we want them to. i think that this happens when a writer not only allows the character to tell the story, but is forced to follow what the character is telling them, regardless of what they originally intended for that character. i think so often that writers get stuck using the character as a literary tool for something they want to say or do.
    the former are connected to something greater through their insight and i think that is, at least a large part of, what we respond to in great works.

  5. I am just wondering about these mysteries imbedded in each Outlander book. [g] I have read them more than once. I must be getting distracted by the hot men in kilts, Claire's attitude and everything else [g]

    I am glad your books don't fit into a specific genre. Keep it up!!

    When I write my dissertation it should be titled: Enzymes, let's catalyze this reaction baby!

  6. Totally has nothing to do with your post (althought I really enjoyed that too), but do you remember which episode of Dr. Who you were watching? I was absolutely addicted to the show when I was little.

    I'm glad you wrote the first book with no intent of selling it or showing it to anyone. You probably hit something huge because of it, since you weren't afraid of anyone's opinion or the need to "fit" into a genre.

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  8. It´s funny that you talk about genres in these days, because in the Diana-Gabaldon-Fan-Site of steffis-buecherkiste in Germany we discussed it last week and couldn´t find a result. Mainly we think, it´s a historical romance.

    I´m very thankful that you once "just tried to write a novel". I´m trying too at the moment and when I´m getting in write-crises I then think about your words and keep on trying :o)) . Doing this I have now over 400 pages and am very happy.

    Thanks for a genreless book :o)) I think, they are the best, because they are for everybody.

  9. Tammy--

    It was "War Games." And it was one line spoken by Jamie MacCrimmon (acted by Frazer Hinds--oddly enough, I didn't know what the actor's name was until long after I'd written OUTLANDER, because our PBS station always cut off the credits at the end of the episodes so they could stick in fund-raising commercials) that attracted my attention.

  10. Merrymags--

    Yeah, the key word there was "IF". [g]

    As to what makes a great writer...I honestly don't know. I had the great good fortune to be born a storyteller (which is not necessarily the same thing), so I don't know whether or to what extent people can _learn_ to do it. (I mean, I work very hard at writing--don't mean to suggest I sit down and "it just pours out" (appalling, how many people think that's the case with _any_ writer). But the knowing what a story is...I was born with that.)

  11. Diana,
    First I have to apologize. I'm the guilty party that posted the genre comment the other day. I deleted the comment, however, when I realized it was likely bad form to ask you such a question on your personal blog, particularly when it was off topic. But I'm glad you've answered it in spades.

    What made me really consider this entire topic was partly the reaction (which was on the whole positive) of my writer's group, or at least, a couple of people in my group and secondly due to Russell Galen's essay on Hyperreality:

    The question of genre has always been something I've fought against, especially with my writing professors. Of course they were helpful and supportive but on the flip side of that some of them were not accepting of what they considered 'genre fiction.' I should clarify that I try my level best to write intricate plots, well developed characters, et al; but I almost always seem to 'have' to include a supernatural aspect. Be it ghosts or simply faith that forms into tangible ability, its something that I seem partial to include in my stories.

    But I get the sense that 'genre fiction' is no longer the ugly step child of literary circles anymore. Alice Sebold wrote a ghost story of sorts with "The Lovely Bones" which was beautifully crafted and embraced by literary critics and the publishing industry. Yet her protagonist is a dead 14 year-old girl. Alternatively, one could argue that Morrison's "Beloved" is also a ghost story...brilliant and the work of a true genius, but still a ghost story of sorts. This is all I mean by my personal preference for 'supernatural' aspects that could be considered genre fiction. I don't write fantasy or even sci-fi, simply stories that may or may not contain all aspects of human nature including the tendency for the supernatural world to play happily within that sphere.

    So, whether or not I'm ever published, I'll be happy with the stories I write. Those may fall into the 'genre fiction' category or other 'less respected' circles, but at least I'll be writing stories that satisfy me and my muse.

    I utterly adore your work and am thrilled that you've decided to discuss this. You have given me so much to contemplate and so much joy with Claire and Jamie's adventure.

    Biggest smooches and hugs,

  12. Dear Tee--

    Many thanks. [g] Henry James wrote ghost stories--you don't get much more literary than that!

    Actually, many "literary" writers have written ghost stories or other stories that deal with the supernatural. I should perhaps note here--though it's part of tomorrow's topic--that "genre fiction" vs. "literary fiction" is often not a real distinction, but a marketing one. If Nora Roberts had written "The Turn of the Screw," it would be on the supermarket bookracks in paperback.

    But I can't talk about that now--gotta go work!

  13. in case there is any confusion with my last post, i in no way think that writing "just pours out" of anyone. i also don't think that the things i mentioned are the only elements of importance in good writing. they were just some of my ideas on one aspect of the topic.
    (i also don't mean this as a confrontational response - i was already worried that what i wrote would be misunderstood, diana's post just gave me a way to explain.)

  14. LOL! For the love of go write/work, hurry, hurry now!

    But you're right...I imagine the whole idea of genre is a business decision rather than a literary one. Shelley, Poe and indeed James wrote stories that today wouldn't be in the lit fic section, I don't think. Yet, they're all considered 'classics.'

    Looking forward to your post tomorrow.


  15. Part of what I like about your books is the mixture of so-called genres. I mean, I really like historical romances and fantasy and sci-fi and mysteries. I like books with strong (and strongly drawn) characters (females especially) that I can identify with and rollicking plots that pull you along. The cool thing about your books is that they combine all of the above. Is this what makes it good literature, that it transcends genre? I just finished reading Deanna Raybourn's "Silent in the Sanctuary" and thoroughly enjoyed the Victorian mystery and sexual tension, but she stuck to the mystery genre and never allowed her characters completion.

    Another thing that has kept me thinking about the Outlander series is the whole concept of going back in time and trying to fit in. Especially the second time Claire goes back or when Briana goes back, they have to think about what to bring with them. It's been an interesting intellectual exercise to think of what I would bring with me in such a situation, and whether or not I would tell someone about it. I mean, will Jenny ever learn about it? She's so close to Jaime that it seems like it would be at least fair for her to find out-but how would you tell her that she would believe?

  16. Diana wrote:

    "that being Conflict with a capital "C" (all I knew about writing novels was that they should have conflict. That's still the best thing I know about writing novels), so if she was an Englishwoman, we'd have lots of conflict."

    I was reading James Lipton's "Inside Inside" last week. In case you don't recognize this book, it is the memoir of the host of Bravo's "Inside the Actors Studio." He has been associated with the Actors Studio for years, both as an actor and teacher and host of the show.

    He was discussing some of the things he learned to become an actor, and one of his famous teachers was talking about conflict and that there had to be a connection between the characters so that the conflict would be interesting enough to draw us in and care about the outcome.

    I think this need for context is what makes it so difficult to write a believable villain. Who cares what a bad guy wants, right? He's just a plot device to make it possible for the good guy to shine. Yet it is the connection between BJR and Jamie that makes the conflict so real and painful. BJR really connects with and understands Jamie in a way Claire never will because he wants to hurt him, and Claire wants to avoid hurting him. That's what makes his treatment of Jamie so awful - he knows exactly what he is doing and gets pleasure from the pain he inflicts because it forms the connection.

    I hope we will learn more of BJR in books to come because he is a fascinating and horrifying character, one of the best villains I can recall outside of Anthony Trollope. He makes my skin crawl.

  17. You are absolutely right, your books are a catagory to themselves. It takes me the whole 45 min of cleaning a patient's teeth to explain and recomend them. :)

  18. When I recommend Cross Stitch/Outlander to friends and they ask me what genre it is, I reply: "If you don't fall at least a little bit in love with Jamie then you're not a real human being."

    I can see Borders having difficulty putting that up on a sign ;-)