The Momentum Blog
Posted July 15, 2014 by Craig Hildebrand-Burke
So when I’m not writing posts here I’m actually living a whole other secret life full of action, teaching secondary students about books and writing and stuff. Kind of like Batman. Just without the hero status and heaps of money. But otherwise just like Batman.
Anyway, one of the enviable tasks I get is to introduce fifteen year olds to the subject of Literature. Which means a type of explanation needs to occur where what distinguishes Literature from ‘normal’ English is clarified, and why the books read in Literature are different to those read in English.
It’s a strange conversation, and it’s noticeable just how much the students struggle to articulate the difference between something that is literary and something that isn’t. To be honest, I’m not sure if I have yet worked out a way of making this point clear. What is clear is that they quickly discover that they need to divide their reading, between what is serious and worthy of study, and what is enjoyable.
I loathe this moment. The point where teenagers feel they must put away childish reading and grow up, as if that’s what literary means. Yet we see this distinction reflected everywhere.
In her piece for Slate, ‘Against YA’, Ruth Graham argues that adults should be embarrassed for reading a novel targeted for a younger audience. Titles like Divergent and Twilight and The Fault In Our Stars are singled out for being pleasurable yet trivial moments of escapism, and far beneath a mature and ‘adult’ sensibility.
A cursory glance at the book reviews in last weekend’s papers reveals something in the region of seventeen titles that would appear on the literary end of the bookshelf, and three toward the genre end (if one is running with the literary-genre dichotomy). Of the three genre reviews, two are under 200 words long, compared to the 800-plus afforded to the literary reviews. The genre titles are described as ‘taut’, ‘terse’, and ‘well-structured’, whereas the literary are allowed to look at ‘complex and persistently myth-confused questions’, with characters who are ‘witnesses to extraordinary revolutions [yet] resigned to their fate.’
Even more, one of the genre titles is unfavourably held against Donna Tartt’s The Goldfinch – which is comparable neither in plot, style or genre – and Charles Willeford, whose entries into the genre have been around long enough to earn literary esteem.
Okay, maybe it was a bad weekend. But I hazard not. We seem unable to escape this idea that one type of book is worthy, and another not. That one type gets all the ink and the awards and the measured reflection, the other is sidelined and measured against redundant standards. One gets festivals, the other conventions.
And when one might stray into the other, there’s short shrift that borders on disdain.
But I think there’s something in this idea that (some) people view genre as childish, and therefore embarrassing to read – as Graham suggested – and that it is a guilty pleasure and we should really be above such indulgences. It’s the moment I see in the classroom, when the students feel like their childhood imagination is being frowned upon.
It’s hard not to see why.
With almost clockwork regularity, the books that top the lists of favourite/best/most acclaimed young fiction are distinctly genre titles. They involve magic, talking animals, imaginary lands made real, wizards and witches and adventures through time and space. There are distinctly dystopian stories, and others that are pure fantasy, others that push magic-realism into childhood imaginations, and collisions between one genre and another, between one real world and one entirely fantastic.
And like that, we ask it all to stop. All these award-winning titles must then be shelved, and we must go and read serious things. And yes I know we don’t, but this is the illusion that is presented. This is the fallacy that is created by calling a subject Literature, by classifying and critiquing one set of stories one way, and others entirely differently.
What is so wrong about the types of stories we read as children that so many are afraid to recognise their worth as adults? Why can we easily view The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe alongside Anne of Green Gables in children’s book lists, yet shudder at Doctor Sleep occupying the same space as The Perfect Scent, as ABC’s The Book Club did recently?
If we consider genre titles to be enjoyable, even necessary for children, there is something in that for us adults. In spite of the limitations of a subject called Literature, the one thing I try to impress on my students is that once upon a time, Romeo and Juliet was popular, genre fiction. As was (and is) Frankenstein. The only reason they can be classified as ‘literary’ now is the good grace of time, and familiarity.
The stories that last are the important ones, and the ones that will last are the ones we read the most. And just like Batman, they may not be the books we feel we need but instead they’re the books we deserve. And keep coming back to.
Tagged: Books, children's books, genre, literary fiction, reading
Posted March 4, 2014 by Craig Hildebrand-Burke
A recent article posited the theory that the economic mood of society could be reflected in the stories society tells itself. By analysing millions of digitised books, the researchers constructed a ‘literary misery index’, which miraculously correlated with the ‘economic misery index’ to show that societal economic downturn can be mirrored in the mood and tone of books.
The study presented the idea that there was a rough ten-year lag between economic misfortune and when that would become manifest in books, the idea being that it takes time for so-called ‘misery’ to be processed, digested and translated into narrative.
This, in itself, is hardly surprising, if taken as a face-value overview. What else are stories but reflections, refractions and interpretations of the stories we face in life? Even in escapism, one can trace back a root cause to the need to escape.
This is not wholly isolated to books, though. The parallel between popular mediums and societal climax is well-documented. But does that mean we can anticipate genre trends from political, economic and cultural climates? Can we predict that the current political mood in Australia is going to prompt a raft of anti-establishment narratives? Or that the GFC will similarly produce economically-depressed stories in the next few years?
The glut of dystopian narratives – particularly in YA books, but also then crossing to films – does seem to suggest this. That this trend is in its final throes appears, however, more symptomatic of an audience moving on from favoured styles and tropes, rather than a creative collective feeling hope where once it was only cynicism.
In film, it’s much easier to diagnose and dissect trends in genre, given that it’s a medium that wears audience popularity on its sleeve, a touch more than literature does. The constant insistence on darker, grittier and ‘more real’ qualities to films in recent years is testament to the overt displays of trend and trope. This wonderful analysis looks at the genre trends over a hundred years of cinema and throws up some interesting suggestions.
Documentary, horror and pornography all appear to have benefited from the loosening of censorship guidelines in the 1960s, allowing for not only more overt depictions of sex and violence on screen, but also perhaps a truer portrait of society. Inversely, the western is all but dead and buried after 1970, and crime, adventure and romance appear to be on downward trends in recent years. The release of Star Wars and Raiders of the Lost Ark at the beginning of the 1980s was seen not only as a revival of the action-adventure genre popular in the early-20th century, but also as a salve to the political and economic ills of the 1970s, bringing hope and naivety to a cynical world, documented and translated so thoroughly in American cinema at the time.
So, genre appears then not only as a reaction to the outside world, but also as a response to the outside world’s influence over genre. Societal thesis breeds narrative antithesis, which in turn begets narrative synthesis. The extension of this is at what point the narrative synthesis – stories challenging how we see the world we live in – starts to effect the world itself and then it all becomes quite interesting.
Our ability to predict or anticipate genre trends based on world events is not really surprising. But sometimes the cause of a trend is less overt. The popularity of The Hunger Games potentially has less to do with the strengths of the writing, rather than the strengths of the story’s ability to channel its teenage audience’s frustrations with the adult world. That this sentiment was coupled with a dystopian narrative then appears as a combination of right-time-right-place, more easily understood in hindsight than as prediction.
So maybe the deluge of dystopian stories has done its dash in illustrating our less-than hopeful view of the world and the future. Maybe the trend has rightly identified that we see difficulty in imagining the future as anything but corrupted. But perhaps that trend will now trigger a response, a vision of the world that can once again give us reason to believe that optimism and understanding are not lost to stories, nor to the world.
A ‘genre optimism index’ might be a better option than a ‘literary misery index’.
Tagged: Books, films, genre, society, writing
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Posted February 17, 2014 by Craig Hildebrand-Burke
Recently, there has been a flurry of scandalous debate about a report and analysis into the changing world of publishing by Wool author Hugh Howey. Howey’s exceedingly detailed report suggests that – based on an analysis of Amazon sales – genre authors are much better served by going the independent and self-published route, as this will offer greater yield financially for their efforts.
Howey admits aspects of his analysis are speculative and inferential, as data on raw book sales is often undisclosed or incomplete. This, admittedly, offers the first point of interest. While box office on films, and sales and downloads on music and television are all widely available (allowing for elements of bias), figures on book sales remain obscure and coded behind veils of good intentions. There is the suggestion that book sales are undisclosed for our benefit, the implication being that perhaps we wouldn’t read what we read if we knew what everybody else was reading.
The report concludes with Howey wishing for greater transparency, greater understanding of how traditional publishing models lead to a benefit in sales. Others have criticised Howey’s lack of understanding in data analysis, and that he is offering a post hoc inference about data that wilfully ignores its limitations.
Regardless, the report comes at a time when many are looking and questioning the cost benefit of writing for a living. This recent surge of attention in demanding payment, and demanding transparency in the finances of writing suggests that writing as a profession has until now existed (and subsisted) on a level where we feel it lives beyond daily wages. How do we measure writing? Per word? Per hour? Per book sold? What constitutes a financially successful career as a writer?
And is that different from being a good writer?
Do we regard certain writing as ‘good’, even if it doesn’t make money? And does writing that makes money necessarily qualify for public recognition as ‘good writing’?
Howey directed his report at genre writers – mystery, thriller, science fiction, fantasy, romance – as categorised by Amazon. The suggestion is that the rise of self-publishing, and the rise of digital publishing, is seen as an opportunity for genre writers to earn more from non-traditional publishing pathways.
What I find odd is that this categorisation places genre as a money-defining result. That the genre – the label prescribed upon the writing upon publication (on Amazon) – is all important, and is placed as a premium ahead of any other qualities the story might contain.
And here we have the tricky problem of genre – as it currently is the dominant way we categorise the stories we read and the stories we write. Bookshops, real and digital, organise their shelves according to genre. But this is an imperfect system. Stories often defy genre, or alternate and transcend; stories combine and manipulate genre and set it upon the reader via subterfuge. How would Kazuo Ishiguro feel if Never Let Me Go was shelved in science fiction, given the very late and shocking reveal of that element within the story? The genre here is one part of the book, not the whole, and certainly not the label.
To follow further examples in my favourite field, this genre categorisation becomes even trickier when looking at an author like Stephen King. Once upon a time, in the world where Borders still existed, Stephen King books could easily be found in the horror section. He practically was the horror section. And while many of his books, particularly the early ones, are horror, this is again an imperfect system for categorisation.
Of his recent books, 11/22/63 is listed under fantasy, where it places #3 in a subgenre of fantasy. However, it is also listed under horror, placing at #92. And yet the book is clearly not a horror book. In fact, it relies really on only one element of fantasy to even qualify as that type of story. His earlier collection of short stories, Different Seasons, is also listed under horror, and yet is the collection that spawned the films The Shawshank Redemption and Stand By Me. Again, clearly not horror. So do we make excuses for writers who cross genres, but still define them (and their books) by the genre they started in, or dominate?
If we follow the idea of using genre to define stories, then we will end up with a never-ending spiral of subgenres upon sub-subgenres, to serve every whim of the reader, and every style of the writer. I would hazard that writers rarely view genre as a defining boundary on their imagination – so should genre be the label that prescribes expectation to the reader on what type of book it is? Should it explain exactly what it is?
Will we end up with a Science-Fiction>Alternate-Reality>Victorian-Gothic-Robotics>Anthropomorphised-Rabbit>Western>Young-Adult subgenre?
Obviously we do need some method of organising, and at the moment genre works – to a degree. But as a financial imperative? What about all the books that don’t fit genre? Why does Howey not include literary fiction as a genre itself?
There are many questions that come from the report, and many that suggest our way of viewing books, writing, and sales is imperfect at best, and fundamentally flawed at worst. The most positive take away for me is that everything’s changing very rapidly – how we write, how we publish, and how we read – and this can hopefully lead to a future where we can write and publish and read with greater ease, and freedom, and enjoyment.
For more on genre, Momentum authors Nathan M. Farrugia and Luke Preston, and Anne Treasure and myself are discussing Genre In The Digital Age for the Digital Writers’ Festival tonight at 6:00pm.
As it’s a digital festival, you can attend via the magic on the internet, and watch us all talk at digitalwritersfestival.com.
Tagged: Amazon, digital, digital publishing, genre, publishing, technology, writing
Posted February 4, 2014 by Craig Hildebrand-Burke
While we are still being fed tiny morsels to whet our appetites for an adaptation to Stephen King’s Dark Tower series (Aaron Paul! Javier Bardem! Netflix!), it still remains an extremely unlikely prospect that the hybrid TV-film series will ever get off the ground.
At least we have the books. And such books. Eight volumes spanning decades in publication history, thousands of pages, numerous revisions and revisitations, all depicting an epic quest in search of the elusive Dark Tower.
And yet it remains a series unlike many others, and quite (understandably) resistant to the bandwagoning that has seen other epic series like A Song of Ice and Fire hurtle into the stratosphere of public acclaim. It is a difficult series, strange and evolving, and defying genre classification. It isn’t even easy for regular Stephen King fans, many unsure how to place the series in his oeuvre, given how it seems to reference and influence many of his classics.
Here then, for those considering beginning their own journey, is a brief introduction to Stephen King’s Dark Tower series.
Eight in all, published between 1982 to 2012.
The first, The Gunslinger, was actually started by King as a university student and took him over twelve years to write before it first saw daylight as serialised short stories in The Magazine of Fantasy and Science Fiction, only bundled together as a complete novel a year later.
It is possibly the most difficult of the books – a dense, ambiguous genre-bender that introduces the main character, Roland, and his pursuit of The Man in Black; the first stage of the quest for The Dark Tower. King drew inspiration from the Robert Browning poem Childe Roland To The Dark Tower Came, and fashioned a story that was part-Western, part-Jodorowsky acid trip, part-knight’s tale of chivalry and exile, with doses of fantasy and horror thrown in for good measure.
From there, the story picks up with The Drawing of the Three, where King happily admits his style and narrative really takes hold. Roland draws forth supporting characters for his quest, pulling them through portals between his world and (supposedly) our world. This continues in the third book, The Waste Lands, which leads Roland and his group further into a decaying world, full of abandoned cities and malevolent technology, as it becomes apparent Roland need not just find the Dark Tower, but he must actually save it.
It was six years until King wrote the fourth book, Wizard and Glass, and at this stage the series had already been going for fifteen years. Easily the most divisive novel in the series, this is effectively one big flashback into Roland’s past, where much of his world is explored and established so as to give further urgency and agency to his quest. It’s also some of King’s strongest writing, in what is really an old-fashioned tragic romance.
In 1999, King was hit by a car and nearly died, with the series incomplete. Having this knowledge of the writer’s reality in mind when reading the rest of the series is necessary. The Wolves of the Calla was published in 2003, followed shortly by Song of Susannah in 2004, and The Dark Tower in 2005 – King evidently charging to the finish with a clear idea of the importance of this series in his career. As one reads these final books, it becomes frighteningly clear how important these books are to King, and how he views them in contrast to all his other writing.
In 2012, King published a short re-entry to the series, The Wind Through the Keyhole, a book that surprised some and added much to the journey of Roland – and is best seen as Book 4.5 in the series.
First and foremost, it is the story of Roland Deschain, the last gunslinger of Gilead, the last great city of his world. He is seen as a descendant of a King Arthur-like mythical figure, and yet for all these knightly qualities, his persona is borrowed liberally from Clint Eastwood’s Man Without a Name gunslinger in his spaghetti westerns. It is his quest for the Tower, his journey that binds the tale, and is for all intents and purposes, the defining hero for Stephen King’s imagination.
Roland brings with him Eddie Dean, a recovering heroin addict and small-time grifter, Odetta Holmes, missing both her legs due to an accident and suffering from schizophrenia, and Jake Chambers, an eleven-year-old figurative ‘son’ of Roland’s. All three are pulled out of New York and into Roland’s world, to take up the quest with him.
These three – and a few others here and there – form Roland’s ka-tet, a term King uses to signify the bond of a group unified by a single purpose and destiny. It is a concept King returns to in many of his novels, but it is in this series that he gives it particular significance.
Roland’s world is similar to our own yet not. He journeys from In-World to Mid-World to End-World, noting often how death, decay and ruin seem to befall everywhere he goes. The world’s moved on, is the repeated phrase, and it becomes clear that Roland’s world is merely one level of the Dark Tower, which is in danger of crumbling and thus bringing about the end of his world.
However, with the introduction of the New York characters, and others, it becomes clear that The Dark Tower connects many worlds, and that all are in danger. The Dark Tower is both literal and symbolic, an axis mundi to the universe, but also to Stephen King’s imagination.
It’s an epic series, a unique series, one that covers a scope quite beyond this short introduction. It’s difficult for me to think of a series that stands not just as a thrilling and imaginative journey, but also as a personal document, a story that attempts to explain a storyteller. If you’re at all interested, I suggest opening The Gunslinger and just reading the first line. It won’t let you go.
Tagged: fantasy, genre, horror, reading, Sci-Fi, series, stephen king, the dark tower
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Posted January 31, 2014 by Mark
In this episode we’re joined by new recruit Patrick Lenton, and discuss what we’re looking forward to the most this year in pop culture. After that, we discuss the emerging Marriage Thriller genre that’s been highlighted with the arrival of Gone Girl. Finally, things get a bit lewd as we discuss beast erotica. WARNING: Spoilers for Gone Girl and both the TV and novel series of Game of Thrones.
Tagged: audio, Books, ebooks, Game of Thrones, genre, gone girl, movies, podcast, podmentum
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Posted by Craig Hildebrand-Burke
Alfred Hitchcock famously quipped that ‘television has brought murder back into the home – where it belongs.’ In fact, many view Psycho as a direct correlation of that thought, in that Hitchcock created a horror mystery that dared to suggest the evil that lurks in the heart of men is most often exercised at home; domestic horror being the hardest to endure.
The irony is the success and legacy of Psycho has translated best not through a raft of dismal sequels and remakes but through a TV show, dramatising and serialising the life of Hitchcock’s antagonist and his fated mother. Horror has once again come home.
When we add to this Hannbial – doing likewise with Thomas Harris’s Hannibal Lecter – as well as The Walking Dead and the continuing themed miniseries American Horror Story, there seems to be a growth in shifting the genre to the smaller screen. So why has horror come back into the home?
There are several reasons that I can see, and the first is really levelled at what’s happened to the horror genre since the advent of television. Let’s take IGN’s list of the top horror films as fairly representative of most.
- The Exorcist
- The Silence of the Lambs
- The Shining
- Bride of Frankenstein
- Rosemary’s Baby
- The Texas Chainsaw Massacre
- Night of the Living Dead
Not bad, nothing outrageously against conventional thinking there. But what do we have? Five monsters, four killers, and zombies. No vampires, thankfully, though I suspect Nosferatu isn’t far off the Top Ten. But we also have seven book adaptations. The three that aren’t – The Texas Chainsaw Massacre, Night of the Living Dead and Alien – all borrow extensively from heavily established horror conventions and tropes, as well as factual accounts and cultural traditions.
They are all excellent films. A few are truly great exponents of the cinematic medium. But in the breakdown of what’s what, we have the origins of what’s gone wrong with cinema horror.
The most recent film on that list was made in 1990. The second was 1980. Too many horror films since are remakes or reworkings of original ideas. Even more, like many in the list above, are just needless sequels and spinoffs of, again, original ideas. We have the reliance on standard fallback horror cliches – serial killers, supernatural serial killers, vampires, werewolves, zombies – and very little when it comes to imagining new, original horrors.
Additionally, how many new horror films are looking to books for inspiration? If seven out of the ten are book adaptations, doesn’t that say something? Even when we do get one, like Let The Right One In, and it astounds us with its originality and clarity of vision in telling a horror story, it’s then bundled up and remade a couple of years later.
We need new ideas, people. Cinematic horror is not offering them. Except in one really awful way.
I make no secret I dislike the trend of excessive gore in horror. None of the above films trade in that currency. The only one close to it, The Texas Chainsaw Massacre, is tame by today’s standards of gore, and unfortunately appears to be left with a legacy of kickstarting this more-is-better gorefest.
But okay, people still watch these films, it doesn’t necessarily spell the end of horror. Or does it?
Horror cinema made its name in the thrill of the experience, seeing something visceral and challenging in a shared environment. It was something people took others with them to see the horror, to make you feel okay, to commune in the adrenalin. This then lead to horror as the date movie and the drive-in experience, where couples could do much of the mentioned sharing but add an extra dose of anticipation to the mix.
That’s all gone with excessive gore. Now it’s just a Youtube sensory viewing. Ingest what you can, so that you can add your name to the list of those who have seen it. The films are aiming for vomit, not screams, and the genre loses its appeal of being a shared viewing. Aspiring couples are more likely to want to scream their way through Alien than they are wanting to spew through Hostel.
By returning horror to TV, it brings with it a level of censorship. Even in these HBO days, there are visual limits to which TV shows are allowed to go, and we have a restoring of old elements to the genre. Suspense, anticipation, fear of the unknown, rich and dense narrative: these are all part and parcel of the new wave of horror TV.
I’m not holding onto much hope that cinema will return to the cinematic heights of The Exorcist and The Shining, but perhaps this boost of the genre through a different medium might reignite some of that lost flame. Rosemary’s Baby is scheduled to be adapted into a new series and Hannibal and Bates Motel have both been renewed for more. Hannibal itself aims to not only tell the story before The Silence of the Lambs, but also retell the film’s plot, and move beyond it. TV is allowing the horror to be once again told in an original way.
With the publication of Doctor Sleep late last year, as a sequel to The Shining, we’re left with the possibility that someone might perhaps try to do a cinematic sequel to Stanley Kubrick’s film. And yet a better opportunity is afforded here – serialise the character of Danny Torrance, the now-adult survivor of the Overlook Hotel, as he tries to find a life to live among the horrors of the modern world.
There’ll be more horror on TV, I’ve no doubt, more horror brought into our homes, and perhaps that will give audiences an opportunity to rediscover the almost-lost magic of the genre.
Tagged: genre, horror, movies, series, television, tv
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Posted November 27, 2013 by Craig Hildebrand-Burke
Recently I finished reading John Safran’s new true crime book Murder in Mississippi, and like most in the genre, it was clear that the bulk of the narrative is there to clear up what happened, who was involved, and why. Ultimately, it’s a search for truth.
What else resonates with this book and other true crime stories, is that the more you look the less you know. Safran comments that if he visits a town and interviews one person, he leaves that town with a very clear, definite idea of the place, of the incident, and of the person that he met. However, if he stayed just a day longer, or talked for a bit more, or to someone else, that definite idea suddenly becomes less clear. The more he looks, the less he knows.
While this is patently obvious in the sense that one does need to investigate further in order to understand the complexity, it does reveal the goal of a story: tell the truth.
Is this true in other styles of writing, other genres?
It’s often said that writers starting out should write what they know.
It’s also said that writing what you know is crap, that writing fiction is clearly about writing unknowns.
I like to think it comes from a bit of both. For example, you can write about what you know and then start to creep into territories that are yet to be found. Imbue and extend the known world into undiscovered countries. Or, write about something completely different and distinct from yourself, but then enrich it with details and sensibilities brought from your own parallel experiences. So, either way, whether you’re starting with what you know or what you don’t know, you seem to end up in the same place.
This is where the truth comes in. Somewhere, in the middle of what you know and what you don’t know, there’s the truth. And that’s the story.
‘To read fiction means to play a game by which we give sense to the immensity of things that happened, are happening, or will happen in the actual world. By reading narrative we escape the anxiety that attacks us when we try to say something true about the world. This is the consoling function of narrative – the reason people tell stories, and have told stories from the beginning of time.’
So stories are told in order to get at the truth. This is the glorious nature of fiction for me. By the concoction of a fiction, of a lie, we get to a truth. By obfuscation and masquerading, we reveal.
The writer is allowed to lie and deceive the reader, take them somewhere that doesn’t actually exist. But then, by the end, the truth is revealed. We were talking about the real world all along; we were writing and reading about fictions, and all the while a growing realisation occurs. The real world has changed, we see it differently now, a truth – no matter how small or how large – has been revealed.
For Safran, and I assume any investigation into a known event, the more you know the less you’re certain.We all know Oswald shot Kennedy. Or do we? Maybe he did, but why? Maybe he had help, but who? Life doesn’t fit itself into three acts, or developed arcs, or moments of revelation. We aren’t all on a hero’s quest. We don’t all cross thresholds from ordinary worlds into extraordinary worlds, charged with creating our own mythology. The more we look at life, the less it is a story.
Story is rather the way we can look at life and understand it. Make sense of the disorder and discontinuous moments. We rely on pattern recognition to read, to communicate, to recognise and interact in our daily lives – the use of narrative is merely another pattern we overlay in order to get to an understanding.
The emergence and reliance on tropes and archetypes, genre and style is evidence enough that we can – as readers or writers – take a gathering of events and orchestrate them into a fashion, a pattern, that makes them coherent. The more we sift through the confusion, the more we explore the complexities, the more we can make sense of the uncertainty.
So write what you know. Write what you don’t know. Write both. It doesn’t matter. Somewhere in the middle is the truth, and that’s worth aiming for. Never one to dress up the facts, Hemingway said that ‘all you have to do is write one true sentence, write the truest sentence you know.’ Whatever that might be, it’s worth trying to find out.Tagged: advice, fiction, genre, true crime, writers, writing
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Posted October 18, 2013 by Craig Hildebrand-Burke
There’s a section within William Gibson’s Pattern Recognition where the protagonist is on her computer, sifting through posts on a message board. It runs as follows:
She automatically clicks Reload, and his response is already there:
Where are you? nt.
London. Working. nt.
And all of this is hugely comforting. Psychological prophylaxis, evidently.
The phone rings, beside the Cube, mirror-world rings she finds unnerving at the best of times. She hesitates, then answers.
There are a countless number of these throughout the book, where the character of Cayce juggles multiple strands of communication, flipping instantly from a text-based conversation on the internet to one on a phone. What I found fascinating as I read it was how rare it is to see someone effortlessly weaving in multiple strands of communication without drawing too much attention to it.
There are anachronisms throughout Pattern Recognition, which is to be expected, given that it was written in 2003. Given that so much of the plot is based around information and communication carried across the internet, and that the internet of 2002/3 is a vastly different landscape to the internet of 2013, it makes it quite fun to read the now-antiquated shorthand that dotted the forums ten years ago, the searching for crucial plot points in a web browser’s history, and the fact that all the characters in the book are obsessed with discovering the source of anonymous video clips on the internet. It’s almost quaint.
But I guess that’s the point now. Technology is so pervasive these days, and so ingrained into our daily routines and communications that it’s logical to include it in such a normal, effortless way as Gibson does. The problem is that is changes so readily that even a story written two years ago instead of ten will quickly appear outdated in how it references our use of technology.
Gone are the days where anything technology-related in the plot is farmed out to the token hacker character (otherwise the velociraptors will eat us) or that a character’s affinity for technology becomes the driving force for the plot (we can’t always rely on Sandra Bullock to save us from the internet).
Anyone uses technology these days. Everyone. It’s practically banal. So do we include phones and tablets and wifi and whatever else we invent tomorrow in our stories?
It’s not such a problem if the genre demands it. But what if it’s a story where technology is not necessarily inherent to the traditions of its genre? Can you make an iPhone romantic?
Use of contemporary technology can make a story relevant and effective for its immediate audience. Douglas Coupland’s early novels Generation X, Shampoo Planet and Microserfs all went a long way towards defining a large section of early 1990s culture, particularly in the proliferation, usage and inundation of rapidly developing technology.
And there’s the benefit – I think – for featuring technology in stories: it makes them immediate.
But the exponentially evolving path of technology these days has meant that the window of that immediacy grows ever shorter. Coupland’s more recent novels have failed to strike as much of a relevance to a 21st century audience as they did to a late-20th century audience. Or maybe they did, but they then quickly became out of date.
In the 1999 film The Insider, Al Pacino’s character ropes Russell Crowe’s whistleblower into an interview through a series of unanswered phone calls, fax machine notes and answering machine messages. It’s ridiculously dramatic in the steps their protracted conversation negotiate. It’s also ridiculously ‘90s.
Technology quickly becomes laughable as it becomes obsolete. There is the potential a story can live or die by this, in the sense that unintentionally jarring and comical references occur out of nowhere.
So do we avoid technology, if it’s not needed? That seems almost odder, given how infected we are with it these days. How much we do seem to need it.
Maybe it’s just that awkward middle ground, the time that occurs between a book being shockingly relevant and now, and it becoming quaint and nostalgic. Maybe that’s it. If we’re daring enough to throw in iPhones and Twitter and Facebook and whatever else we’ll use to generate and communicate information in the future, if we risk a brief period of obsolescence, we can eventually reach that time when a reader gets to look back fondly at the way things were and see with fresh eyes how far we’ve come, just like in Pattern Recognition.Tagged: communication, digital, genre, technology, William Gibson, writing
Posted September 27, 2013 by Alex Christie
The perils of reading outside your comfort zone is a topic I’ve come across on a few book blogs and I thought I would add my two cents.
We all have a comfort zone that we like to stick to in our lives whether we are aware of it or not. Some of us like to break out of it from time to time on holidays, bungy jumping or in relationships, but we rarely think about our reading habits in relation to our comfort zone.
Often I have found myself in a reading rut, starved for a good book and I have come to realise that I’ve generally always stuck to a certain type of book. This phenomenon is similar to your friend who is always dating the wrong kind of girl/guy for them – they are constantly seduced by the initial connection and often let down by their own choices. Breaking out of your reading comfort zone is analogous to finding a really cute, lovely guy for a summer fling: it’s refreshing, it’s invigorating and when you get back to your usual dating circles, you’re ready to give it all another go. Reading something really different can have the same effect, leaving you with a sense of satisfaction and accomplishment.
Even better, if you’re a writer of any kind, widening your reading habits will make you a better wordsmith. Making sure you’re not limited to one genre or author will help you get a better understanding of how writers construct their stories and the techniques they use to better express them. If you’re a sci-fi nut, why not pick up a romance? Moreover, don’t limit yourself to just one form of literature, break out of your fiction routine by picking up a memoir, a short story, a book of poetry or a history book. It’s important to remind yourself that an author’s skills aren’t necessarily specific to their subject; you may be inspired!
Lastly, whether you’re a reader, a writer, or both, reading things outside of your comfort zone stimulates your brain. Whether consciously or unconsciously, you’re exposing yourself to new ideas, new words and new ways of thinking, and there’s no doubt that acquiring knowledge and learning about the world keeps those little grey cells active! I guarantee you’ll feel more creative and ultimately be more productive.
P.S. You may suddenly be able to fill in those crossword clues your missing or win a game of Trivial Pursuit- you never know!Tagged: Books, genre, reading
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Posted September 24, 2013 by Craig Hildebrand-Burke
After lamenting the lack of monster books on our shelves, I thought I’d turn to another stock character that seems to be missing in action when it comes to the books we read and the books we (might) write.
Why are there no superhero novels?
Now I realise that there are some. Every now and then we’re treated to a book that utilises the superhero character and it takes us by surprise. These, though, are usually different to the traditional superhero, in that the stories are either literary inversions of the superhero mythos (The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier & Clay), wish-fulfillment coming-of-age narratives (The Cartographer), or are those ensconced in another genre already to not necessarily define themselves as a superhero story (Jumper). They’re not superheroes in the way that we now familiarise ourselves with the term.
It’s odd, though. It seems to be a character-type and genre ripe for longer written narratives. Given how pervasive and all-consuming superheroes have become in cinema in the last decade – which in turn has boosted the resurgence in the comics original and new, animations, TV shows – it really is surprising that it’s a character that seems resistant to making the leap onto the pages of a book.
I’m hard pressed to think of another hugely dominant stock character, genre or subgenre that has as much difficulty transcending the boundaries of its original medium.
The adaptation of comics into cinema is a logical step. The mediums share so much of a common language in visual storytelling that the ongoing obsession with comic book superheroes broadcasting their origin stories to audiences through cinema screens is really an inevitable result. It was always going to happen.
It might have taken a few years and quite a few missteps before mainstream cinema found the right formula, but now that Marvel and DC have it, there’s no way they’re letting go. Here there’s an established audience that is migrating with the character from comics to films, so there’s a guaranteed baseline of earnings, and that’s before any walk-in audience is even factored into the equation. The bigger the original character, the bigger the star you hire to play them, the bigger the director you get to reinvent them, the bigger the earnings. Multiply the superheroes, multiply the earnings, you end up with The Avengers.
So why not books?
I can’t quite see Batman or Superman going through another incarnation in a 250-page novel. That would run the risk of becoming too much like a novelisation. Less credibility, less desire from an author to try creating a narrative around a pre-existing character. But we all understand superheroes, we all understand how they work and how they function in narratives, surely there’s a genre ripe for the picking then? One that could sustain a brand new superhero in a different medium?
The more I think about it, the more it does seem odd that it’s not attempted more by writers. Those in love with the character-type are in a position to add to the legions with their own creation, complete with his or her own origin story, psychological complex, jettisoned family life and desire to fight for good and for truth and for the 21st century way.
Or those sick of the endless origin stories, the flimsy psychologies, the procession of reinventions upon reimaginings, sick of the Muscle-Clads and the Buxom Superiors, sick of the stereotypes and regression, those sick of it all in the traditional mediums can finally take a stand and write their own superhero. Write a superhero that exists in their own world, in their own way, who can stand on a milk-crate, lean out an open window and cry out that they’re a mad-as-hell superhero, and they’re not going to take it anymore.
It would certainly make a change from all the chosen-one plots that seem to be clogging up the store shelves, in that there’s a clear distinction between a hero in a literary sense, and a superhero in a comic sense. From the origins as an inked image of a character with speech-bubble dialogue, to a Sunday-morning cartoon on TV, to a character defined by a major studio and a major actor, the superhero is ready for another reinvention.
Writers and artists have always tried to mould the superhero to their own devices, whether continuing or enhancing or bucking the trend. The superhero as a character is strong enough to withstand the journey into a story that relies not on the drawings, nor on the acting or the effects, but on the strength of a writer’s prose. Prose that fights for truth, fights for justice, or maybe just prose that likes to watch the words burn.
Tagged: comics, film, genre, novels. books, superheroes, writing
Posted August 27, 2013 by Mark
Steven Spielberg and George Lucas recently spoke about an upcoming implosion in Hollywood, predicting that a string of $200 million blockbusters would fail and that would spell the end of the blockbuster era. If they’re right, soon we’ll be in an entertainment landscape where better, smaller films dominate, rather than a handful of uber-budget franchises.
What I want to argue isn’t that Spielberg and Lucas are wrong, but that the era of the blockbuster has already ended, and that we are in a new and more frightening era – the Age of the Franchise.
Are franchise movies and blockbusters the same thing? No, even though one gave rise to the other. The main difference in my definition is that a blockbuster is a film in which there is a clear beginning, middle and end. It’s a film that dominates the box office over a sustained period of time. It’s a film that only has a sequel if the box office justifies it. And many blockbusters weren’t blockbusters until after their release date. Examples of blockbusters: Jaws, Star Wars, Independence Day, Jurassic Park.
A franchise movie is a different beast. Franchise movies are made with the express purpose of getting not just one, but several sequels. More often than not it comes from source material, such as comic books, novel series, television or older movies. The franchise movie dominates the box office for a brief, intense, period before being pushed aside by the next franchise film. Rather than a sustained box office run, franchise movies make the bulk of their money in the first three to ten days of release. These are movies that have guaranteed box office. Examples of franchise films: Any Marvel film, Transformers, Harry Potter, etc.
It used to be the rule that sequels were all about diminishing returns. The first movie would make the most money, and the sequels less and less. A three film series was the best anyone could hope for, and if a fourth movie went into production, it was almost embarrassing, and usually direct to video (of course there are exceptions such as the Star Trek series). Now, the first movie is pretty much a marketing campaign for the sequels, with a follow-up only deemed successful if it significantly out-grosses the previous film. This has already been taken to its logical conclusion with the Iron Man movies, Thor and Captain America essentially being expensive ads for The Avengers.
So if the blockbuster era is bookended by Star Wars movies, the franchise era is bookended by Harry Potter and, well, who knows? Maybe Batman v Superman?
Tagged: films, genre, Harry Potter, movies, star wars
Posted July 3, 2013 by Mark
Not having a lot of time to watch TV these days means I have to be pretty selective with what I watch. And that can make me a lot less forgiving when a series begins to lose its spark. So I wanted to come up with a few ways to determine whether a series should be given up on.
1. You finish the first season and there’s no potential
Sometimes a good TV series doesn’t find its feet until the second, or even third season (think most incarnations of Star Trek or, if you have a life, 30 Rock and Parks and Recreation). Sometimes all the elements for greatness are there, but they just need time to gel. Other times, none of the elements of greatness are there and you should run, screaming.
2. There’s a really awful, awful season
I’m looking at you, Red Dwarf season 7! This is the kind of season that changes characters, shifts tone, dicks with the format. Usually accompanied by the departure of some of the creative forces behind the show.
3. Two bad seasons in a row
*cough* Dexter *cough* Sometimes a show loses steam, and that’s ok. So long as the story is still progressing, there are still good performances and the occasional moment that reminds you why you started watching, then you can bring yourself to stick with it. But don’t be too forgiving, life is short.
4. The main character leaves but the show keeps going
Remember when David Duchovny sort of left The X-Files and they replaced him with the T-1000? I don’t. It took a bit of therapy and a lot of hypnosis, but I really don’t.
5. You don’t really like it, you’re just watching to get closure
Lost syndrome. The show started with an intriguing premise but after a few seasons it was clear that the showrunners either had no idea where they were going, or were trying to stretch it out for as long as the show had good ratings. As it turns out, both were true.
What are your TV deal breakers? And what shows have you given up watching?
Tagged: genre, list, science fiction, series, tv
Posted June 1, 2013 by Tehani Wessely
In less than two weeks, I’m heading to Melbourne for Continuum 9, a speculative fiction convention. It will be my third Australian spec fic event this year (I also attended Conflux, this year’s Natcon, in Canberra in April, and the Aurealis Awards last in mid-May), which is pretty exciting, especially considering I only made it to one for the entire of 2012 (the Aurealis Awards), and I might yet make it to another, GenreCon in Brisbane in October!
You’ve not heard of Continuum? What about Swancon (Western Australia’s annual convention)? Or Conflux (in Canberra)? If we’re lucky in Australia, we usually get two to three fan-run conventions a year, which average 200-400 members, depending on location. The Natcon usually garners the most interest, and is hosted by a different convention city each year. There have been less frequent or one-off conventions in Hobart (Thylacon), Adelaide (Conjecture) and Brisbane (Conjure), but Melbourne (which also has an occasional Convergence, run by a different fan-group to Continuum), Perth and Canberra have been the most prolific, in the past decade or so. Sydney hasn’t hosted a Natcon in over 20 years! (come on, Sydney fans, take one for the team!).
Events such as SupaNova and Oz Comic Con get a lot of publicity, with their big name media guests, cheap entry fees and massive numbers. Continuum and its cousins receive far less fanfare, and tend towards literary guests (Natcon international guests of honour in the past couple of decades have included Anne McCaffrey, Harlan Ellison, George R. R Martin, Michael Whelan, Terry Pratchett, Robert Jordan, Kim Stanley Robinson, Neil Gaiman, Connie Willis, Robin Hobb, Robert Silverberg, Anne Bishop, Cory Doctorow, Julie E. Czerneda, Ellen Datlow, Justina Robson, Kelly Link and Nalo Hopkinson – you may have heard of some of them…). But I would rather attend one of the smaller, volunteer-run conventions over a huge media one any day.
Why? Simply put, conventions of Continuum are much more friendly – you have an opportunity to meet people, indulge in conversations, and frequently, hang out with the guests on a really informal level. The membership fee might be higher than SupaNova, but it’s generally all-inclusive, with Masquerade Balls, Awards events and Guest of Honour speeches mainstays of the programming, alongside widely varied programming and plenty of time to chat with friends new and old.
I’ve been attending these sorts of events since 2002; there is a big group of people I consider good friends, and a number of people I work with, who I almost exclusively only see at conventions. Of course, with social networking I get to interact with them much more regularly, but nothing beats the face to face reality! I always come home from conventions buzzing with creative drive, spawned from a weekend of engagement with creative types from all over Australia (and beyond), germinating new projects and the seeds of future ideas for weeks to follow. If you’re a fan of science fiction and fantasy in all its incarnations (writing, reading, publishing, tv, film, books, anime, cosplay, the works!), I recommend checking out one of the local events – they’re great!
Tehani Wessely is an editor, publisher, teacher librarian and mum, not always in that order. You can find her on Twitter at @editormum75 or at fablecroft.com.auConventions, genre, speculative fiction, Tehani Wessely
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Posted August 9, 2012 by Emilia Bresciani
I wrote The Raw Scent of Vanilla as a memoir through the lens of magic realism. In Latin America, where the genre of magic realism originated, daily life is imbued with what many would call ‘raw magic’. It’s all a product of sacrifice and sorrows, Catholic ceremonies, Andean mysticism, Amazonian animism and, an spicy imagination that come to affect daily reality. In the end, the view of life becomes almost multidimensional. Spirits are alive, the dead become companions, curses cause diseases and shamans work their magic. In other words, magic realism is not only a genre of literature, but a way of viewing life. As a writer born in Peru, it is natural for me to also look at life under such colourful lens.
But what is magic realism, the literary genre? It has a number of definitions. For me who learned from Gabriel Garcia Marquez, author of One Hundred Years of Solitude, magic realism is simply realism with a twist. In the genre of fantasy, the world is created with different rules; in realism the world is shaped by conventional wisdom. In magic realism however, one or two elements in the story break the rules and disrupt the fabric of realism. The rupture is the result of imbuing reality with added meaning or symbolism. It also occurs by creating a twist in the reality. How we present the twist is up to the writer as I did with this memoir
It may be that some people believe that a memoir cannot be written with the plume of magic realism because it deals with facts. True, a memoir is a collection ‘real’ moments in life experienced by an individual who has a story to tell. But this factualism can be done through a narrative that reflects feelings, dreams, conflicts and aspirations. Our dreams can add colour to our narrative. Our feelings give meaning to our life allowing us to interpret it. For example, I chose to give meaning to my pain by looking at how my ancestors’ culture dealt with tragedy, and how this view affected my reaction to it. In the process I learned how tragedy was transforming my life. Time of course helped. It was the effect of time that allowed for the transformation to occur. Time provided the distance, and distance revealed the meaning.
Maybe not all of us need to find meaning in life. And that is fine. For me, writing the way I did was beneficial because I could make meaning of my ancestors’ story. Interpreting their story the way I did allowed me to deal with the painful events that took place in my life. At the same time, writing under the lens of magic realism allowed me to unleash my creativity and reach planes I never thought I could. The process filled me with excitement and delight. This, I believe, is the magic of life.
Emilia Bresciani was a television journalist before her husband was tragically killed, and she became the prime suspect in the murder investigation. Her memoir is an account of her life around the tragedy. Read more here.Tagged: digital publishing, ebooks, fantasy, fiction, Gabriel Garcia Marquez, genre, magic realism, memoir, reading, writing
Posted July 19, 2012 by Anne
I’ve recently become utterly obsessed with old pulp fiction novel covers thanks to this website, and am now on a mission to convince Joel that all of our book covers should resemble pulp novels from the 1950s. So in the spirit of my crusade, here are my purely hypothetical suggestions for some of the existing books on our list.
Okay yes I know this is from the opposite pole but just pretend that polar bear is a penguin.
Thanks to Andrew Nette for the inspiration. You should follow him on twitter, he is tops.Tagged: cover design, covers, digital publishing, ebooks, genre, pulp fiction, pulp novels
Posted May 16, 2012 by Anne
“Are traditional publishers starting to realise that publishing first, and perhaps only, in digital format is a legitimate business practice? Possibly. A few of the big publishers have announced digital only lists recently, usually in genre fiction or wrapped around some kind of self-publishing initiative.
There’s also a good deal of experimentation happening around publishing e-book exclusive shorter novels and non-fiction off-cuts, and of course a welter of digital imprints focused on re-discovering the backlist. But even so these still seem to be exceptions to the rule. The general view seems to be that proper publishers should focus on proper print books, and while they are happy to use digital to reach some other destination (build sales, break a new author, road-test), it is not yet the goal in itself. But a high profile digital list backed by a big publisher with some big titles could radically re-write the landscape.
For starters, removing the safety net of print will sharpen publishers’ digital skills. As Joel Naoum, who runs Pan Macmillan Australia’s digital-only imprint Momentum, suggests in this blog, being digital-only will allow publishers to demonstrate an expertise in an area otherwise dominated by Amazon and those attention-grabbing indie heroes. It will also allow publishers to tap into that growing body of authors who appear to work better in e-book format than print. Most importantly, though, it will demonstrate that we are focused on the content rather than the medium, and the most effective ways of getting that content to readers, rather than how that content fits our perception about how a publisher publishes.”
Sign up to the FutureBook newsletter here.Tagged: digital publishing, FutureBook, genre, self-publishing, The Bookseller
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Posted May 14, 2012 by John Birmingham
I just e-mailed off a draft of the manuscript for Stalin’s Hammer: Rome. That’s the working title I’m going with for now. I got this idea that Stalin’s Hammer will play itself out over half a dozen books, most of which will be set in a different city, hence the subtitles.
I’m not going to get into any spoilers or even much in the way of detail about Rome. It still needs a fair bit of work, being only a first draft, and even more importantly being my first attempt at standalone e-book. It’s been kind of fascinating the ‘challenges’ that the new format has thrown up. Mostly in terms of structure and pacing.
Some things never change, however. Making stuff up and blowing stuff up is always great fun. One of the really interesting things I’ve had to grapple with in this project is ‘the shape of things to come’. Just where have technology and society developed on both sides of the Iron Curtain in the 10 years since the end of the war?
Again, no spoilers from me, but I did see this great piece in Wired the other day about the future of the Israeli Air Force. I’ll clip in the paragraph below:
“Nano drones that an infantryman can pull out of his pocket; helicopters piloted by robots who extract wounded soldiers from the battlefield; micro satellites on demand; large spy balloons in the upper reaches of the stratosphere; virtual training with a helmet from your office; algorithms that resolve pilots’ ethical dilemmas (so they won’t have to deal with those pesky war crimes tribunals); and farming out code to a network of high school kids.”
I can remember when I was plotting out the first part of Weapons of Choice how much time I spent poring over stories like this. It was partly what motivated me to write the book in the first place, the idea of mashing up old and new tech together.
I doubt that will be seeing many nano drones, even in The Zone. Ten years is just a bit too short an horizon to pull off a technological acceleration like that. But given how much military and civilian technology and information came through Manning Pope’s wormhole, and given that the world has had 10 years of relative peace and prosperity to exploit them, I’m fairly confident there would be some quite massive leaps forward over the original timeline. Even if it’s only a leap into, say, the 1970s.axis of time, ebooks, genre, john birmingham, nano drones, technology, weapons, weapons of choice, wired, writing
Posted May 8, 2012 by Simon Brown
Like a lot of my work, the Chronicles of Kydan started with an idea that fermented in my brain over many years before the story itself started to jell. The original idea was to set a fantasy in a society crossing over from the medieval period to the renaissance. This meant including changes especially in learning (the development of evidence-based scientific research), technology (the use of firearms, for example) and politics (the slow evolution from monarchical-style governments to oligarchies and then republics).
I knew it was the first of these that would present the greatest difficulty, since fantasies traditionally include a good wallop of magic, something diametrically opposed to science. The first challenge was to invent a system of magic I hoped would be unique, internally consistent and provide its own narrative drive. Hundreds of fantasy novels have dealt with the cost of magic, but in most cases these had always seemed to be one of two kinds: you pay in karma (or some spiritual equivalent) or you pay physically (usually through exhaustion). Instead, I wanted magic to have a strong emotional cost, and developed the idea that magic users would have to sacrifice something they loved to access the source of magical power – the Sefid. The greater the sacrifice, the greater the power available.
I now had a good basis for a society structured specifically to allow its ruling family – the Kevlerens – access to the Sefid, a structure than institutionalised a form of slavery. It also allowed me to introduce the grammarians, researchers who investigated the Sefid scientifically, which in turn allowed me to introduce academics who were interested in exploring ways the effects of magic might be reproduced naturally through technology, engineering and evidence-based research.
Although not my original intention, as I wrote the Chronicles of Kydan I found myself interested in showing how a relatively free society using science and technology could challenge an empire based on magic and tyranny. The trick was not to preach, but to provide both sides of the conflict with valid reasons for doing the things they do, and to present characters on both sides of the conflict that were sympathetic (if not always likeable) and interesting.
Ultimately, I think the Chronicles allowed me a good deal more freedom to explore issues than I expected – a gratifying result of the societies and magic system created for the story – without losing the energy and pace that should be the hallmarks of adult fantasy.
Chronicles of Kydan, fantasy, genre, writing
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Posted May 4, 2012 by Anne
Head on over to Dark Matter for Nathan M Farrugia‘s thoughts on reading and writing in genre fiction. While you’re there have a look at their competition page – they’re giving away a copy of The Chimera Vector.
“There’s something about crossing genres that scares people. No one knows quite what to do with them, how to sell them, how to market them, how to read them. So it’s strange in a way for me to write The Chimera Vector. It’s a thriller that’s science fiction but isn’t. I guess you could say it’s a techno-thriller that teeters on the edge of sci-fi.”
Read on here.
For more on The Chimera Vector, step this way.Tagged: competition, fiction, genre, reading, techno-thriller, thriller, writing
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