October 19, 2006

NaNoSeconds, Part I

Most of my online writing these days, it seems, is on the NaNoWriMo fora, where, contrary to my presence almost everywhere else on Teh Internets, I can't seem to shut up. I have, indeed, been well-nigh pontificating on a number of writing-related subjects, for all that in measurable terms I have as much authorial cred as your average poetry.com prizewinner. But I've never let that sort of thing stop me before, and I'm not about to start learning humility now.

So, this being the case, I figured I may as well spread the ego-onanism around as much as I can manage before all my writerly energies are directed elsewhere, and I'm reposting some of my Collected Dubious Wisdom here. For posterity. Or something.

Anyway, this first one is from the Fantasy genre forum, where every year the NaNoZeitgeist seems to bring a new tide of neurosis about something or other; one year it was everyone worried about writing Mary Sues, and another it was avoiding cliches. This time around it's a sort of free-floating anxiety about what actually qualifies as Fantasy, and you can probably imagine about how much patience I have for that. It was quickly apparent that expecting my little screed be a preemptive strike against every young fantasist's genre dysphoria was too much to ask, but I suppose it was worth a try. So, then:

Some Not-Rules

In an effort, however futile, to hopefully forestall a tide of threads on some variant of "Does This Qualify As Fantasy Or Will The Genre Police Come Get Me In The Night," a few points bear making. Thus, a preliminary-if-of-necessity-incomplete list:

1. Not setting your novel on another world does not disqualify it as fantasy.

2. The absence of magic in your novel does not disqualify it as fantasy.

3. The absence of elves (dragons, unicorns, cockatrices, manticora, Generic Evil Hordes, or what-have-you) does not disqualify it as fantasy.

(3a. The absence of elves-as-rock-stars does not disqualify it as urban fantasy, but that's really another rant.)

4. The absence of epic quests, bildungsroman'd formerly-humble heroes, Feudalism Lite, and/or the stark division of the fictional cosmos into Good and Evil, singly or in any combination, does not disqualify it as fantasy.

5. The subtlety with which you treat the otherworldly element(s), whatever they may be (and however you want to stretch, bend, fold, or spindle the meaning of "otherworldly"), does not disqualify it as fantasy.

6. The presence of gunpowder, clockwork, the printing press, the seed drill, the steam engine, the incandescent lightbulb, or any other technology that would have given Paracelsus a headache does not disqualify it as fantasy.

7. The presence of rayguns, supercomputers, antigravity, faster-than-light travel, or any other fx-laden ultratech shininess does not disqualify it as fantasy.

8. The presence of elements, either of plot, style, or tone, normally associated with the various modes of Horror does not disqualify it as fantasy.

9. The use of any narrative or character voice other than the stentorian and faintly purple This Be a High and Valorous Narrative, Forsooth does not disqualify it as fantasy.

10. And so on. You get the idea.

...which is not to say, by the by, that there's anything at all wrong with doing fantasy that's Exactly What You'd Expect. This is not a discussion about cliches or the anxieties thereof, which is probably also worth having, but not on this thread, i'faith. If that's the book you're doing, you are almost certainly confident in its fantasyness, and this list is not about you.

This list is about everyone who approaches genre with a great idea dampened by fear of breaking the Rules.

And I am here to say: Cut it out. The Rules you're worried about don't exist, or they've been broken already so badly they might as well not. If you think you might be writing fantasy but are concerned that you're violating some sort of protocol if you deviate from the standard (whatever that is), I can give you a long list of folks who have already shattered those icons and danced among the shards.

(Oh, alright: Gene Wolfe. Jack Vance. Ellen Kushner. China Mieville. Kelly Link. Jeff Vandermeer. John Crowley. Sarah Monette. Garth Nix. Hal Duncan. And that's just for starters.)

Look: Genres (and subgenres) are not checklists, they're not pigeonholes, and they're most definitely not straightjackets. Genre is not prescriptive; when it works, it's descriptive, saying "If you liked that, you might also like this." (Or not.) Fantasy in particular is an elusive quarry, and changes shape as soon as you pin it down, but it's enough to say that it isn't only what's considered "generic." It probably has room for whatever it is you're doing too, so for the love of all the gods and muses, resist the urge to second-guess yourself on whether or not it "fits" and come let your work join the conversation already in progress. (And if you're still worried that it doesn't fall under the definition, consider the possibility that the definition could stand to be expanded; fantasy, of all the modes of Lit'rature, has enormous capacity to grow and include.)

Here endeth the ranting. Additions and expansions welcome.

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