Let Me Digress

Kathryn Hore - Writer

Category: Unsolicited opinion (page 1 of 19)

And there I thought I’d seen every genre distinction possible…

Well, obviously, not every genre distinction possible, because genre is a mutating beast that shifts and shapes and becomes something else again at a moment’s notice. But when it comes to the SFF genres and how they’re broken down into ever more minuscule sub-sub-sub genres, I thought I was across the commonly accepted terminology.

Apparently not. For there I was, scrolling through Facebook, when an article from a good half-decade ago was thrown up in my face which made the distinction between “Science Fiction” (i.e. good, intelligent, thoughtful, hard-science) and “Sci-Fi” (i.e. ostensibly crap, mass-market populist space opera bullshit based on dodgy science). Yeah, it’s that kind of article. Full of hierarchical dichotomies positing the author’s passions at the top and everything they’re not down the bottom.

Look, I only clicked because the person posting it said it was funny.*

I’ve not seen that particular distinction made between Science Fiction and Sci-Fi before, and considering the amount of reading I do on genre theory, I’d have expected to have come across it. If it really were a thing, I mean. Which it’s not. It was just one guy’s not-so-subtle argument that what he liked = good, and what he didn’t like = bad. He was wrong in just about every way, because mass-market or populist or space opera can be as high quality as any other type of fiction, and hard-science science fiction can be as dull and boring and awful as… well, any other type of fiction.

Human beings do like to categorise the things they love into boxes of ever diminishing size. I write Speculative Fiction myself and if that’s not an umbrella term for every fantastic and fantastical genre, up to and including the ones claiming Science with a capital Sci, then gothic-urban-bodyhorror-posthumanism is not the classic field of literature we all know it is.

It’s a patterns thing. We’re undoubtedly hard-wired for it because, I don’t know, primitive man needed to see patterns to escape tigers in the jungle or something. I’m sure the evolutionary biologists could tell me. That ain’t my field. But one thing writing and reading over the years has taught me, it’s human beings like to break the universe around them into ever smaller bits and fit those bits into easily classifiable categories and then argue about them with a passion that defies religion.

Believe me. I’m a librarian and information manager by training. I know about classification.

And the one thing I do know very well, after a long career in taxonomy creation and information organisation in any number of forms, is that such classifications and taxonomies are never, ever, neutral. They’re simply loaded-up with meaning and bias.

Anybody who studies genre knows this already, of course. Most casual readers of genre are pretty well aware of it too, at least the self-aware ones. And certainly librarians, information managers and anyone even vaguely acquainted with taxonomy creation is well aware of the human bias that comes with any classification system.

Just look at good old Dewey Decimal Classification, probably used by more libraries worldwide than any other system. Christianity and its related subjects get practically the entire class of ‘religion’ to itself, 200 right through to 289, while “all other religions” get clumped together under class 290-99. Meanwhile the parapsychology and the occult is shoved in under psychology, because yeah, it makes sense to shelf clairvoyance next to clinical psychology, sure.

But it made sense to Melvil Dewey, a man who reduced his own name to the most minimal letters possible, who was stringently Christian and who also, interestingly enough, had quite a thing for the ladies. In particular for harassing them. Not one of nature’s advocates for human equality and diversity, was our Melvil.

From the vitally important fight to remove homosexuality from the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders back in 1973 to the less-important arguments floating around my social media feeds recently inspired by an article on Cyberpunk arguing modern incarnations of the genre just don’t match its former mainstream hold (hint: original cyberpunk was never a mainstream blast, it was always on the fringe and a niche genre.) Human beings likes to classify, and classifications have consequences. Sometimes big weighty consequences.

In the book industry, genre is a marketing category. It’s a shelf-location so booksellers can sell books and publishers can market them. Personally, I prefer the view of genre as a shifting context, suggesting different meanings depending on its historical and cultural point of reference. Genre is not fixed. And the meanings of genre, of the classifications placed on a work of fiction, are not immutable.

Something to remember next time you’re tempted to put those Sci-Fi books on a different shelf to the LitFic ones.

Anyway, enough from me. I’m off to go write some edgy post-cyberpunk urban decay, deal with literary themes and references, and full of ultra-violence and failing technology.

Or, as I like to think of it, a romance.

‘Till next….

K.

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* It wasn’t.

** No, I’m not linking to the article. It’s a work I’m critical of. If someone asks me to critique their writing or other creative output, or if I’m writing a formal review, then I will give my full opinion, positive and negative, in appropriately considered terminology. But in all other cases I live by the simple rule: if you don’t have something nice to say, glue you’re damn lips shut, because no-one is going to be helped by you pulling apart someone else’s work entirely unasked. Seriously. Critique, feedback and constructive criticism is a very necessary thing for any creator, but there are ways and means, and anonymous hate for the purposes of jaded humour on the internet isn’t going to help anybody.

Endings. (In which I enjoy arguing over bad horror flicks while drinking too much wine.)

I’ve thinking about endings. Story endings. 

See, a horror loving friend had a movie night the other night and, as one does, decided to stick on an “old” and “classic” movie. Did she pick something like, oh, James Whale’s Frankenstein? What about Invasion of the Body Snatchers? Perhaps The Shining or The Exorcist, those 70s classics? But no. She didn’t even go Hammer Horror from that period, which I would’ve loved. Look, I’m not picky. I’d consider the original Freddy Krueger Nightmare on Elm St a classic. 

But my friend is significantly younger than me, so what she picked was… The Mist. From 2007. Hmmm.

Anyway, after having some severe words with her about what constitutes a ‘classic’, or even ‘old’, and after said friend mocked me in return for being middle-aged and out of touch – all undoubtedly true – we all sat down with several bottles of wine (necessary for this film) to watch it. Then we all got into semi-drunken arguments about the ending. As a bunch of horror readers, writers and pop culture consumers are wont to do. 

Oh, and before I forget: spoilers ahead. I don’t know if it’s possible to spoil a move that’s a dozen years old, especially in a blog post titled “Endings”, but I did see someone put a spoiler warning on an online forum discussion of Alexandre Dumas’s The Count of Monte Cristo once, and that book’s well over 170 years old, so what do I know about modern spoiler culture?

Um… where was I headed, before I paused to roll my eyes at spoiler warnings?

That’s right. The Mist, circa 2007. If you don’t know the ending by now, here’s my rendition of it: after surviving the endless horrors that usually occur in a Stephen King tale, the protagonist and his plucky band of survivors (read: a nice older couple, a love interest, and his 8yo son, the protection of whom has hitherto been his entire character motivation), give up and he shoots them all dead. This is instead of letting the monsters get to them, or something. Even though they’ve risked far more multiple times than stepping outside of the car into the mist and seeing if they maybe can walk it. Anyway, thirty seconds after he literally kills his own child, the army rolls in and he finds they were all saved after all. Oh, the horror.

People hated this ending. 

I hated this ending. 

But my movie-night-hosting-friend *loved* this ending, and knows just how controversial that stance is, hence her desire to ply everyone with wine and stick this particular film on. She loves the ending because it’s grim and brutal and horror. She also loves a good argument. Her argument to those of us who hated the ending was we’re just not tough enough to cope with a downer ending and wanted some kind of happy fairytale finale. 

Let me tell you, in horror writing circles, thems fighting words. 

So I’m here to tell you why I hated the ending and it’s nothing to do with not being able to deal with grim, brutal, horror movie endings. It’s because that particular ending is entirely unearned in a storytelling sense. It makes no narrative sense. It is plonked on purely for shock value.

In a story, your ending has to be earned. That version of The Mist is a damn fine movie which I absolutely loved… right up until the end, which destroyed it. Because the ending was unearned and unrelated to the actual story. If the protagonist had been struggling throughout the film with a dark part of himself that didn’t want to protect or care for his kid, while still loving him, then having to shoot the child dead right when he’d finally embraced a protector’s role would have been a truly tragic, gut-wrenching end. 

That’s not what happened. There was no fatal flaw in the protagonist that he finally gave in to which provided our tragedy. It’s one thing for the external end goal to be survival, but they fail and all die. But story endings are wrapped up in the protagonist’s internal journey, their character arc, and this ending made zero sense to any character’s arc in the film.

Which is a shame, because otherwise it’s a note-perfect flick which shows that no matter what external monster horrors threaten on the outside, the worst horror will always come from inside human beings. 

Maybe that’s why I hated the ending so much. It destroys a film I otherwise loved. Anyway, I haven’t seen the more recent Netflix remake, nor have I read the original King novella it’s based on. I’m not likely to watch/read either after the scarring left by version 2007.

So here’s the lesson of the tale, folks… make your ending count for the characters, not merely for the external plotline. That’s where it’ll hit your readers with a real emotional punch. 

And for the love of the old gods, do not stick on this flick when having a semi-drunken movie night with a bunch of horror movie fans. Please.  

Spoiler Alert

It’ll come as no surprise to anyone that my social media feeds include a lot of nerdy geeky types. You know, considering I’m one of that particular SFF loving, comic-book reading, pop-culture enjoying, fandom participating, fanfiction obsessing, book nerd crew.

And in case you didn’t notice, the world of geeky fandom has kind of blown up over the last week with the release of the latest Marvel superhero flick which kind of, well –

SPOILER ALERT

– kills everyone in the entire history of the MCU, as last as far as I can tell.

Or not. I haven’t actually seen it as yet. With two kids under 6, a full time info governance career, my own writing pursuits and the usual domestic/life/family things to be done, I don’t get to the movies so much anymore. I’m the type of person who has to schedule in downtime – I’m serious here, 3-4 nights a week between 9.45-10.30pm I have literally calendared “do nothing but stare at a screen playing mindless entertainment”. It’s probably not a good sign when you start scheduling relaxation into your calendar. It’s undoubtedly worse when you regularly skip it to get work done.

Personal life-choices aside, I will eventually get to see the latest Avengers flick in which everyone dies – spoiler alert? – but it won’t be until it turns up on a streaming or download service of some kind, so we’re talking some while away yet.

In the meantime, my social media feeds are filled with friends and acquaintances and those weird randoms I must’ve followed for some reason once, but can’t remember now who they are or why I wanted their trivia in my feed, and who are all currently posting exactly the same thing:

Just seen the Avengers – OMG! NO SPOILERS! DON’T READ ANY SPOILERS!

Because apparently it’s no longer merely a sin to spoil plot twists in pop cultural products for other people, but it’s now some kind of geek-fandom sin to just spoil it for yourself.

Hmmm.

So for all you MCU lovers, and for all you lovers of cinema in general – and books and any other story-telling medium – who like to go in fresh and unspoiled, I wanted to tell you something. Know what I did? Deliberately did within barely a few hours of the latest Avengers flick hitting the worldwide cinemas?

I googled “Infinity War spoilers” and ventured out to the internet to read every damn spoiler for the movie I could lay my hands on.

See, I love a good spoiler. I often enjoy a movie more if I go in prepared for what I’m about to see. Perhaps that’s because I like to think about the pop culture I’m consuming within its broader cultural context – blame that old cultural studies honours year of mine back in the “yay postmodernism!” 90s – or maybe it’s just because I don’t have time to waste on something that doesn’t pay out, so I want to know in advance it’s worth it. But I certainly like to go in knowing what’s going to happen.

It can be a useful thing to be happy with spoilers. I’m one of those Australians who loves Game of Thrones but who’s not prepared to give Bad Old Uncle Murdoch a single red-cent, so I won’t subscribe to his pay TV channel to see it fresh. Instead, I wait until the season ends and buy it to download, after everyone else has already watched it. But as the season plays for the first time I do read all the recaps of each episode and follow what’s happening as it happens. I’m full up with spoilers by the time I get to actually watching it for myself.

And I’ll let you into a wee secret: not once in my entire history of seeking out spoilers have I ever experienced a moment of consuming pop culture where I felt I had a lesser viewing, reading or entertainment experience for knowing what was going to happen. I enjoy it all as equally as if I’d gone in blind. Every second of it. Indeed, I’d argue I enjoy it more.

Maybe it’s just me. Going by the reams of internet “no spoilers!” obsessives cluttering up my feeds at the moment, I’m pretty certain I’m in a minority on this.

As I’m of a generation which grew up without the internet – I didn’t get my first email address until I was a post-graduate student, that’s how old I am – there are movies I have seen where I went in entirely unspoiled, and I’ve tried to recall if it made a difference. I guessed the twist to The Sixth Sense while watching it (I’m a huge fan of ghost stories and the “he’s actually dead the whole time” twist appears in several major ghost tales, so I was actively on the lookout for it), but I loved that film regardless. I grew up watching The Sting, so can’t remember a time when I didn’t know all the twists and turns of that one.

I didn’t know or foresee the twist at the end of The Usual Suspects, and I adore that film, but would I really have loved it any less for knowing? I’ve watched it, just as I have the others above, multiple times since first seeing it, and I love it the same on each repeated viewing.

So does it really spoil anything to know the twist, or plot points, or who dies in advance? I’d argue not.

Now, I’ve been talking mostly about movies here, with a bit of TV thrown in. But when it comes to books, I don’t seek out the spoilers so actively. Someone’s suggested to me in the past that perhaps I don’t invest as much in movies as I do in books, so I’m still going in unspoiled when my fiction is prose and written down on the page. But I’d argue it’s actually because I don’t read that many modern books, especially ones that rely on twists or unexpected plot points. It also takes me longer to commit to a novel than it does to a TV show or film, so I’m not as emotionally engaged when I start a novel and it’s not until I’m well into it that I’ll be interested in finding out spoilers. I also love to re-read novels, and read classic novels, that I already know intimately, so for much of my reading I’m long spoiled already.

So did I really enjoy The Count of Monte Cristo the less for knowing who was behind all those masks and schemes right up front, simply because the book is over 170 years old? (Though I did see a Spoiler Alert posted for it in an online forum once. Seriously people, I think a book dating to the 19th century is probably beyond the spoiler alert requirement.) Do I somehow have less of a reading experience as a twenty-first century reader for knowing ahead of time that Wickham is a cad in Pride and Prejudice, long before Lizzy realises? For knowing that dissolute Sydney Carton gives up his life in heroic sacrifice so Charles and Lucie can be together in A Tale of Two Cities? For knowing that Gatsby dies well before the end?

I’ve never gone into most books fresh and unspoiled. I go in knowing their plots well in advance and loving them for it. And I don’t see how that enjoyment changes just because I’m reading a modern works or watching new films, or TV, or other stories regardless of medium, where it’s technically possible to be unspoiled. I still like to know what I’m in for.

So I’ll say it, loud and proud – I love a good spoiler.

Still, one thoughtful anecdote, to end…

Many years ago, I was going out with a chap who’d grown up loathing Shakespeare. No, I don’t understand it either, and its probably unsurprising our relationship didn’t last the distance, but the fact is he’d actively avoided having anything to do with Shakespeare-related stuff all his life. Until he went out with me and I dragged him to the theatre on a regular basis. For his 30th birthday I took him to see a production of Hamlet. And because of the way he’d grown up, he had no idea what it was about. Not a single clue of any character, plot point or thematic emphasis at all. At the age of 30, this chap was watching Hamlet for the very first time and went in totally cold and unspoiled, if also cynical about the likelihood of enjoyment of it.

I have never in my life seen anyone grip the arms of their chair the way that chap did through the climax of Hamlet. He cried at the death of Ophelia. When Hamlet and Laetres are fighting, and Gertrude picks up the poisoned drink, he literally burst out loud to say “oh god, no, don’t”. This guy was the literal personification of “edge of the seat”. The sheer tension and terror he experienced watching it – and it probably helped it was a very fine production with excellent acting and direction – was amazing for me to witness sitting next to him, and the chance to watch something like Hamlet fresh, without any prior cultural knowledge, as an adult, is an experience I don’t think many in our society have.

So maybe there is something in avoiding spoilers after all.

It still won’t stop me seeking them out at every given opportunity….

Why hello there, 2018

This writing lark is a fickle business. I fizzled out on NaNoWriMo 2017 because my heart was with a different project and I just couldn’t devote the thinking time to the NaNo one, let alone the writing time to it.

Then December hits, I play around late one night with an old manuscript idea from a few years back because I’m too tired to do anything serious, kind of figure out where the scene was going, and…

…next thing I know, I’ve written 65k words on a new project in five weeks.

Bad first draft words, obviously. Not good words, not by any stretch. And I’m still not quite finished the story yet, so I’m ploughing on until I do, get a full Draft Zero down on the page to kick of 2018. It’s a nice way to start the year, if entirely unplanned, because frankly the last thing I need is yet another long-form writing project to think about.

But hey, whatever works.

It has made me revise my 2018 working plan, though. So, here’s my current whiteboard:

Yeah, I know, the image is a bit unclear, but that’s deliberate. There’s a few scribbled notes on there that are my thinking/planing I wanted to have blurred out for the rest of the world. But to give you a thrust of the main bits, these are my writing goals for 2018:

Long Form projects –

  1. Continue querying/subbing the completed MS (a.k.a. The Cards One), trying to find a nice publishing home for it. This will take as long as it takes.
  2. Finish Draft Zero of new project (a.k.a. The Thief One), however bad the words, just get it down on the page and then let it sit and percolate untouched for a while. D0 to be completed before the end of Jan.
  3. Finish editing/redrafting to Draft 2~3 of the current WIP (a.k.a. The City One), getting it to the point where I can seek professional feedback/structural editing feedback so as to identify where to focus efforts on the next draft after that – work on it through Feb/March, and maybe another cut in July/Aug, depending on time taken for other projects.
  4. Edit/redraft/polish the Novella (a.k.a. The Library One) that was originally drafted in 2016-2017, and submit it to an already identified novella market in Sep/Oct. Work to begin in March(ish), after Project 3 editing round 1 is done.
  5. Either – 5(a) redraft The Thief One to a coherent, sensible, readable-by-others Draft One which can be shown to peers for feedback, or 5(b) work on redrafting of The City One after professional feedback received – timing entirely depends on the other projects above
  6. Bonus Project #1: if there’s time, finish Draft Zero of a full length manuscript version of a novella written 5~6 years ago (a.k.a. The Western One)
  7. Bonus Project #2: start thinking about the other contemporary story that’s been kicking about in my head for a while (a.k.a. The Wedding One) for possible initial drafting in 2019

Will I get time to do all of the above? No fucking way, folks. But I think I will get through a good chunk. I’ll finish this Draft Zero of The Thief One I’m on a current roll with. I’ll finish editing The City One and hopefully get it to a point where I can seek detailed professional feedback. And The Cards One, the completed manuscript, will continue to be sent out to the publishing & agenting world with fingers crossed throughout the year.

I really really really want to finish the Novella – The Library One – but I’m feeling a bit dodgy about the overall plot at the moment and it really needs some concerted thinking time attached. We’ll just have to see how that goes.

And none of this makes any room for short fiction, which I’ve been promising myself I’ll get back to writing more seriously soon, because while I have a couple of short stories lined up for publication in the next few months, and while I have a couple of others waiting to hear back from possible publications, I really want to be submitting more stories more often to more markets. Publishing short stories is a numbers game. You’ve just got to keep sending stuff out there.

But I’m a lover of novels at heart, reading them and writing them, and so short fic keeps getting pushed out the way. Ah well. I’ll try to squeeze some in through the year somewhere.

Right, that’s my year planned. Not counting my professional full time day job, being a mother to my two little kiddies, one of whom starts 3yo kinder this year and the other starts primary school, squeezing in exercise and trying to achieve some physical health goals, plus occasionally remembering to see my family every now and then.

So, you know, 2018 looks busy. Lucky I work best that way…

 

Ready for NaNoWriMo?

I am. Oh, I so am. Which means I’m so totally not, but I’m hyped for it anyway, because I love NaNoWriMo and will do it any year it can possibly be slotted into the work schedule.

I’ve no idea how I’ll manage it this year. I’m working full time, have two kids under 5 and a whole host of writing projects on the go. But there’s a novel I’ve been trying to knock off the first draft of for some months now and this is a good excuse to focus. I’ve 30k words already written, so if I can get 50k more in a month – and that’s a mighty big near impossible if – I figure I’ll pretty much have completed the thing. Bad first draft thing, anyway. Which is what NaNo is all about, really. Bad first drafts.

And I’ve said before just how much I love writing bad first drafts.

In terms of writing, 2017 for me has been about polishing up the final draft of the major WIP, gaining some professional editorial feedback, and starting to  shop it out to the world. I also wanted to get a few more short stories out there, which I’ve managed to do, with a couple of acceptances in the publishing queue for 2018. But those short stories were already drafted, and the full length manuscript is almost five years in the making, so it’s been a while since I was really focussed on writing new, new, new words onto the page.

Since I sat staring at that blank page waiting for me to fill it up, I mean.

So I’m hanging out for NaNo this year. There’s something entirely freeing about throwing words onto a page and not needing to worry about how good they are or it they’ll make sense to anybody other than myself. Stephen King, in his oft-quoted memoir/book of writing advice, On Writing, talks of the first draft being a ‘closed door’ draft. It’s just for him. The redrafting process is about opening the door, turning that bad first draft into something readable by other people, but initially, no-one else is allowed in the metaphoric room. Screenwriters I know call it the vomit draft. The best writing advice I ever received from a creative writing teacher was to allow myself to write badly.

Even this year’s Nobel winner, Kazuko Ishiguro, went the bad first draft route with his most celebrated work, Remains of the Day. Four weeks of focused, obsessive, putting words onto the page. “…and at the end of it I had more or less the entire novel down: though of course a lot more time would be required to write it all up properly, the vital imaginative breakthroughs had all come…”

So there you go. Maybe it wasn’t officially NaNoWriMo, but it was effectively the same process. And Ishiguro scored a Nobel for his efforts.

This will be the third time I’ve attempted it. The first, I got to about 45k and was well on track, when a publisher asked me to submit something and I had to switch gears right at the end of the month. The second time, I got the 50k and then some, yay, and now I’m just going back to that manuscript and pulling it together into something interesting. I’m thinking I might even redraft and refine that one further.

Third time lucky. I have less time this year and I can in no way imagine managing to write a full 50k, but I’ll give it a damn good go. And after a year of editing and revising and redrafting and submitting, I’m looking forward to going back to a bad first draft for a few weeks, writing just to please me.

So if you’re doing it to, come buddy up – here’s me: https://nanowrimo.org/participants/kahmelb

And after NaNo, I’ll be refreshed and ready to get back into the actual hard work once of redrafts and edits and rewriting for an audience of other people.

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