by Jean Synodinos
“One way to write a novel is to fill it with everything you like. And that’s one way of the ways to end up with a genre-bent novel—because you like a lot of things.” – Matt Bell
A core principle of adult learning theory goes like this: relevance matters. We’re all in for any new concepts or skills that we can apply to our own work ASAP. We’re hungry to learn anything that will help solve the conundrum(s) on the plate in front of us. And I can’t help but think that relevance is what drew so many people to WLT’s September Third Thursday: On the Craft of Writing. This month’s topic? Genre-bending fiction.
Logging into Zoom, I was curious to know if there were hard and fast rules I’d need to learn for my cli-fi-meets-ghost-story work-in-progress—some kind of secret checklist I should follow to guarantee a good story. I wasn’t alone in wondering how to weave genres together—or at least find relevant inspiration in the words of Rachel Heng, Matt Bell, and moderator Becka Oliver.
Inspiration came right out of the box. Both authors reminded us that genres are, above all, great fun. Rachel Heng, author of The Great Reclamation, noted that she didn’t know genres existed until she started to write as an adult. She recalled walking through the library as a child, taking her time, choosing whatever books seemed interesting regardless of genre; it’s a memory I suspect many of us share in our own happy way.
Matt Bell, author of Appleseed and the (excellent!) craft book Refuse to be Done, described himself as “genre-agnostic” with the (possibly tongue-in cheek?) career goal of writing in every genre he loves to read. It’s why he added a heist to a novel that’s generally considered climate or science fiction. But most importantly, he reminded us that, “Writing the kinds of stories you like is a real joy.”
Why is this often so easy to forget?
Joy—and its sibling, Play—were the common themes throughout the evening. And a common denominator for both authors was finding joy in writing more—much more—than they needed and then paring down their texts to works that felt richer and fuller. Matt Bell, for instance, talked of overwriting around world-building. It allowed him to create more fully realized characters who intimately know their worlds, and this “embodied perception” freed him to remove much of the original overwriting.
Rachel Heng’s novel wanted to be as big as the country she writes about (Singapore), and its genres include historical fiction, romance, coming of age, and magical realism. Many agents she queried, however, asked her to cut sections of the book. Trusting herself and the story she wanted to tell, Rachel held out for the one agent who urged her to go bigger. She wrote another thirty thousand words—with great enthusiasm. Even though she ended up removing almost an equal number of words in revision, what remained was the truer “polyphonic nature” of a nation.
Moderator Becka Oliver noted that genres can be employed in service to the larger themes of a story. But she also suggested that the publishing industry has certain expectations when it comes to genre. Building off of questions submitted by viewers, she asked how writers can bend genres when the industry wants to put each work on a specific shelf? And how can writers meet readers’ expectations around genre? Can literary and genre fiction comfortably coexist?
Matt Bell sensed that any “snobbery” from the literary world is diminishing, and he sincerely seemed not to care about industry labels associated with any given genre. He noted that the job of comp titles is to get you “a seat at the table.” From there, he suggested writers can “code switch” as they talked about their work to different people.
Rachel Heng acknowledged that different readers will have different expectations around genre; their disappointment may be inevitable. But for the writer, “Ignorance is bliss” when you don’t know the rules of genre. Instead of worrying about breaking rules, she encouraged us to make sure we always return to the question of whether our story—and the way we’re telling it—excites us. As she reminded us, “You only write because you presumably love it, and it brings you joy.”
I might have been expecting a prescriptive set of how-to tips for blending genres in fiction, but what I got was so much more… relevant. If, like me, you could use a fantastic reminder that genres are wonderful fun, we can play with them as much as we like, and writing is a true joy, then treat yourself and give it a look. I’ll just be in my office, reading a good climate-fiction-meets-heist tale.