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Know Thy Genre

It’s less than a week from the release of the next Star Wars, and even though I still won’t see Episode VII for still few more weeks, I still can’t contain my excitement for the new trilogy. The Cantina scene on Mos Eisley was one of my first movie memories as a kid, and the franchise – from movies and TV shows to the comics and books – certainly played a big role in putting me on the path of a geeky science fiction writer. But in spite of my enthusiasm, I have to point out an obvious fact: George Lucas did not invent (or even re-invent) science fiction.

I say this out because a friend of mine once gleefully told me he had an idea for a science fiction story without laser guns or sword fights. And he’s not the first person to tell me they have an original science fiction story that’s not Star Wars, or Star Trek, or Battlestar Galactica or Babylon 5.

No genre exists in a vacuum. Science fiction dates back to the works of Jules Verne and Mary Shelley. Mysteries can be traced back to Sir Arthur Conan Doyle and Edgar Allen Poe. The roots of fantasy can go all the way back to mythology and folklore. It is ignorant – and borderline arrogant – to assume TV and movies are accurate portrayals of genres in and of themselves.

Honestly, I think most writers know their genre pretty well. After all, something must have inspired you to become a writer in the first place. Whether it’s a healthy diet of space opera or cozy mysteries, beginning writers often have a solid knowledge base in their primary genres. It’s when they start to cross the border into a different genre – or subgenre – that issues arise. Fortunately, there are few ways to ensure a seamless transition from story to story.

First of all, if you want to write in a genre, you have to read that genre, plain and simple. Fortunately, there are many resources to point you in the right direction. Goodreads is an invaluable resource when it comes to genres. Probably the best way, however, is to just ask someone you trust. I recently started working on an urban fantasy. I asked a friend for some recommendations – not only did I get a better understanding of the genre with regards to audience and POV, but I also added a few new favorite authors to my list. Not a bad deal.

Secondly, don’t be quick to discard an idea if you find out it isn’t as original as you hoped. Originality can be highly overrated. Often times, it’s not so much an idea that matters as much as the personal touch a writer brings to a story. For months, I’ve been hard at work on a story involving the great-great grand daughter of Abraham Van Helsing – only to find SyFy Channel is also working a project involving such a character. But in truth, a female Van Helsing is nothing new – such characters have appeared in both Hammer films and Marvel comics. While I’m curious what the SyFy Channel comes up with, I’m continuing my own project because it gives me a chance to further work my particular vision, my individual voice on the subject.

Ultimately, writing isn’t about mastering a genre – it’s about mastering several different genres. Love him or hate him, George Lucas didn’t re-invent sci-fi – instead he combined several different genres a time, mixing together the pulp sci-fi of the Golden Age with Kurosawa’s samurai epic “The Hidden Fortress” and the works of Joseph Campbell into a wholly unique vision. Want to follow in his footsteps? Then find your voice across numerous worlds and infinite stories.

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The Myth of Exceptionalism

Let’s get one straight: being a writer is exceptional. It takes focus and determination to stay productive in the face of a day job, other commitments and an endless supply of rejection letters. Lucky for us, there’s nothing our culture likes more than an underdog, with names ranging from “Rock” to “Rudy”. But this also a danger a sense of exceptionalism – the notion that we are special enough to overcome anything on our path. This is what happens when we won’t take “no” for an answer – and “no” is exactly what we need to hear.

Exceptionalism happens when we are so determined overcome the obstacles in our path that we fail to recognize the only one standing in our way is ourselves. This could happen when we are so protective of our story, we refuse to send it to a critique group. Or it could be when we are dead set on publishing an unpolished work, as almost happened with me. And the other side of the spectrum, it can happen when we won’t let go of a project to move on to other things.

The myth of exceptionalism constantly urges us to move forward – a sentiment that really isn’t helpful in the middle of the crossroads. The problem is, it takes more than talent and determination – it also takes patience, discernment and a challenging combination of self-confidence and humility. And since every writer is different, each of us has a different blindspot bedeviling us somewhere in our attitude.

Had everything gone according to my master plan, I would have probably self-published my first novel by now. For a while, I was absolutely determined self-publish by the end of this year – until I realized my motives weren’t as clear as I wanted to believe. The problem wasn’t that I wanted to be a successful writer – probably all of us want that in some way. There’s nothing wrong with that desire, in and of itself. The problem was that I didn’t just want success – I wanted to be validated. I wanted notice and appreciation. Eventually, I realized I wasn’t in it for the right reason. After reviewing all the feedback I received from the Out of Excuses Writing Retreat, I knew this was definitely for the best. I just wasn’t ready. Yet.

The biggest myth of exceptionalism is that good writers are born prodigies instead of works-in-progress. In high school, I was always asked if I would write the Great American Novel when I graduated. To this day, I still don’t even know what the Great American Novel looks like. But one thing I have learned is that you never graduate from writing, even with a high school diploma, a Bachelor’s, an MFA or PhD. If you are still learning and you are still writing, then congratulations, you’re a writer. There’s just one fundamental rule to keep in mind.

Never ever believe your own hype.