Saturday, August 20, 2011

What Do I Write?

This is a question I've gotten asked a lot at cons. And unfortunately I don't really know how to respond without sounding like a douche. I was thinking about this the other day and decided it would make a good blog post and maybe even help me figure out what to tell people.

I don't know how other people can handle this question so easily. Well, no, I do, they just say what genre they write in. I guess I wonder how people arrived at that decision. Is it that they just said "I want to write in this genre because I really love it?" Do they never want to write anything else, or are they just unable to? I wish I could ask the writers I know of who, to me, don't really write in specific genres but they don't respond to my Tweets or Facebook posts because I'm a freak or I've probably drunkposted too much. What can I say, most of the time I'm playing with social networking I've just got off a 13-hour shift and crawled into a bottle of Scotch and then I get the urge to socially network with people on the Internet.  Sometimes I think to other people I must seem like the freaky karate sperg from SMOKIN' ACES (which I just watched parts of the other night and seemed like a cool movie).

Maybe people pick a genre because it just makes talking about your writing easier without sounding like you're putting on airs. When you can just fire back "paranormal romance," or "urban fantasy," or whatever trendy neo-genre bandwagon you've jumped onto, it must be a relief. And it's an important question to be able to answer, because if I'm a reader I want to know if I will have any interest at all in your writing. No one wants to meet an author at a con and spend twenty minutes talking with them and get guilted into buying their book before you realize it's an erotic horror novel that's basically SEX AND THE CITY if they chicks were all lesbian vampires and the guy from LAW AND ORDER was an incubus with a dick made out of ivory or some crazy shit like that. Even if you would like a book like that you would probably just want to grab the book right away instead of wasting time you could be spending waiting in line to get Linda Blair's assistant to sell you an autograph or something.

My problem is that I tend to like a lot of different things. Here we go. I'm really not trying to make myself sound more intelligent than other people who are so dumb or limited that they only like one genre or whatever. And I don't tend to have favorite things, mostly. Hell I just decided one day that my favorite color was blue even though I like just about all colors, so that I wouldn't have to spend a half hour thinking about it every time I had to answer the question. Maybe that's why people end up saying that a certain genre or movie or song or band is their favorite, I don't know. I try to tell myself that I'm not too different from other people and that problems I think are my own are really ones other people have too, but then sometimes I find out I'm just a really weird person.

I never set out as a writer thinking how much I wanted to write in one specific genre, even one as broad as "horror" or "scifi" or whatever. I just read great books and wanted to write books like them, and I read lame or mediocre books and thought "I could do better than that".

I've ended up hanging out with the horror crowd just because it seems to be the most popular and also has a lot of room for all different kinds of fiction right now. Which to me makes it not that useful of a label, but there it is. People still seem to react to it and seek it out and that's enough for me. Unfortunately, with HBVK, I think people would look at the cover and the description and think "WTF is this?" and move on to books with covers that had zombies or things bleeding on them. If I had to guess just from observing people as they looked at my books, or talking to people about them, I think ARENA did better with the straight-up horror crowd because it had a scary-looking cover and is generally darker in tone than HBVK. And it had a werewolf in it as the hero, so they knew there would be some dudes getting torn up.

HBVK was a lot of things for me: my reaction to a lot of the lameness of genre fiction and what I thought was the muddleheadeness of people wanting to be vampires and thinking they were cool. I wanted to write a book about why people were awesome because to me a lot of the supernatural fiction tends to not make sense if people are unimportant and it comes off as slash fiction if it's just something like a bunch of vampires that are all chefs (I've actually seen that book, or should I say series of books). HBVK was also my tribute to John Carpenter, which I wish I could've told him but didn't, a lot of the story and characters are homages to BIG TROUBLE IN LITTLE CHINA, which I must've watched about 30 times when I was a kid. Yeah, I was the guy who always had it checked out of the Video Stop, sorry. Actually I could spend all day talking about all the different things I threw into this book, taking what I liked and leaving what I didn't from different genres, books and movies and comics that inspired me. "Like your salad bar." And that's my problem.

I've tried saying "Men's Adventure" because I like the term and I don't hear it used and in a generic way it describes what I like to write. But it doesn't really seem to work as a conversation starter because people don't know what to say to that, I guess it makes people think of Clive Cussler or something. It's really more my philosophy, though, than a specific genre. There was a time when men read books that were not about war or historical events or just non-fiction subjects. I think there are a lot of reasons for that but that's a different post. I'm just trying to do my part by writing books that I would like to read (even if reading my own writing is often painful for me). Since a lot of the tropes of modern fiction piss me off I figure that's a good start.

Labels are important. As much as I'd like to think that I can just write good books and the writing will sell itself, I don't think that works. Especially these days - anyone who says people don't read anymore because of the Internet or TV or whatever is not paying attention and probably just stating their own biases. Every con I've been to, even the tiny ones, I'm just one small fish in a big pond, writers are fucking everywhere and the amount of books that get put out is kind of crazy to me. So when people are looking to entertain themselves with a good book they need help finding something they'll like. And the easiest way to do that is to go by categories. As far as I know Amazon doesn't have an "awesome books" section. Without them you're relying on word of mouth and reviews to drive sales. Hell, even if you do have them.

It figures. Something in me always wants to do things the hard way whether I know an easier path or not. I'm rarely satisfied with what I've accomplished and usually embarrassed by it. I thought when I was able to say that a publisher had liked my book and bought it and printed it and I was selling it that I'd feel proud and elated, and instead I just feel kind of goofy about it and almost sheepish like I don't want people to know about it or it doesn't mean anything. My friends and other people say "wow that's awesome, you wrote a book" and my mother is practically selling my books on the subway and my dad is handing out books in the chow hall of whatever FOB he happens to be on and I just feel like a teenager getting his class picture taken. I would say this makes me your typical overachiever but then I checked out of that rat race when I saw what it did to people, how it chewed them up and made them miserable even as their list of accomplishments got longer and longer.

I've looked at the stuff I've written, either the treatments and story ideas or the finished products, and tried to analyze myself and see what I like to write about. I come up with some general themes but nothing I could really say is a genre. Maybe YA if you took out the cussing, but so help me God I don't ever want to write a YA book. I'm thinking about what would get me to write a book like that and  I can't think of a dollar figure really. That's another post, though, I don't want to get started.

Maybe I'm just a negative person but it would be a lot easier to tell people what I don't write, but that would just set me off on an angry rant that might make people laugh and might piss other people off and I don't know it would really sell books. I have strong opinions about a lot of stuff and to me it's a disservice to fans to just let fly. People only let Harlan Ellison, for example, get away with his shit because he's Harlan "Fucking" Ellison. If he were Harvey Englebert and just starting out I think a lot of people would just say he's an asshole. I think he's great and love his rants, don't get me wrong, but he's put in the work that gives him the credit with people where they pay attention to him and care what he thinks about so that they like to hear him cuss people out and things like that. And hell, people still hate him anyway. So if people ask me what I write and I start out with "I'll tell you what I don't write, mister!" I think people would just smile and nod and back away slowly and hope I don't have a knife on me.

Maybe part of declaring yourself a member of one genre or another is just about being part of a crowd. If that's true it would make sense why I have a problem doing it because I've never felt like I fit in anywhere with anybody at any time. People have told me that maybe I could write crime fiction but I feel too stupid to hang out with those guys because whenever I try to come up with a mystery or something it hurts my brain and I feel like it's obvious from page two who did the deed or whatever, or the ending will seem random and crazy. I don't fit in well with the horror people because things like zombies bore me to death and scary books just scare me and I don't want to read them because they're alternately boring, depressing and scary. A story about a guy who runs around killing people is just not my bag and so many of these stories are like that even if they are really good. I couldn't make it through three chapters of Jack Ketchum's OFF SEASON, even though it was really good, because just goddamn I don't want to ride that rollercoaster, a bunch of crazy kids running around killing the shit out of people. I don't fit in with the scifi people because I generally ask myself "why does this have to be on a spaceship?" and don't really give a shit how the hyperdrive works even though I know you really want to tell me.

Horror does seem to have its misfits, though, people who write books that aren't what you'd call your classic horror books. Jeff Strand is a great example of this, even though the books of his I've read tend to have a lot of splattery gore in them they're still funny and come at stories from different angles. I tried to talk to him at WHC but he just kind of swished his Snapple at me and I went away before I dug myself a hole I couldn't get out of. Anyway my point is that if I can't fit in anywhere I figure I can at least do okay in the horror crowd.

Except every idea I've had and the projects I've been working on lately have been about as far away from horror as you could get.

Chris Morey had me do an interview for the Dark Regions newsletter (I don't know if it appeared or not) and in there I said something like "I want to be Tim Powers when I grow up". There is a guy who can write stories about ghosts, pirates, particle physics, time travel, weird history type stuff and just about every book he writes is something different and it's all great. He usually gets filed under "Fantasy", so maybe I could just say that. But to me if you say "fantasy" people think "oh, it's about elves." NO. FUCK ELVES. See my problem, here? Actually I have always wanted to do a fantasy-type story, I think it would be kind of a Robert Asprin kind of thing, not really a parody but screwing with the genre. But then all the elves and swords and stuff, I never really got into it all that much so it would probably end up way far away from that kind of story.

What about bizzaro? I like a lot of the bizarro I read and they are all cool people. But I don't really come at things from an absurdist direction so I don't know how good of a fit it would be. Really I think I'm not weird enough, but maybe that's just me. And anyway I can't go around telling people I write bizarro, I think, until they jump me in and put the brand on my ass, so I'm going to have to leave that out.

As I get to what I hope is the end of this post ("Thank the Christ!" say the readers), I think part of my problem is I've only written two books so far, and the second one is a novella so really that's only like half a book. Maybe I need to write more to figure things out better, and maybe it doesn't matter so much. It could be that I'm just intensely socially awkward and can't talk to people and people asking me what I write is just more small talk that I don't really understand all that well, the little conversation starters people use when you don't know other people and you're trying to network because you're at a con and if you don't you're wasting your money unless you're just there to party and hopefully see some naked chicks.

So as usual I think it gets back to the actual ass-in-chair writing part of things. Fortunately I'm getting better at that. I really pushed myself this week and I was a little surprised at the results. It used to be that even writing a thousand words was an effort and it often left me physically exhausted, I don't know how that works but there you go. I think part of it was just accepting that I am going to have to cut a lot of stuff when I finish a first draft, instead of feeling like I'm just wasting time writing five thousand words when I know I'm going to cut four thousand of them later. It's like a conversation I'm having with myself, or more like an interrogation where I'm having to drill down to get to what I really want to say and really want on the page, and that means I'm going to leave a lot of rubble and crap behind that will have to be swept away when I want to clean it up and polish it and make it look good.

Of course the other part was, like I said above, there are tons of people churning out thousands and thousands of pages all the time and I don't want to get left behind. This writing thing hasn't been everything I thought it would be, and maybe some of that is in my head, but I want to stick with it. I've had some great times along the way and the more of this life I see the more I like it and see how things, how I could be different, the guy in my head who does the writing instead of the guy who walks around making the money and living his life the rest of the time. That was part of the reason I started writing under a pseudonym. I never really thought the everyday me was all that interesting of a person and I didn't think people would want to read his books. But Jim Gavin, the guy who does the writing, I think he is weird and cool even if he is an asshole a lot of the time. It's the whole duality-of-man thing, I guess, but that's yet another post.

And yeah, I should probably go back through this blog and find all the times I say "that's another post" and write them.


  1. I really like "Men's Adventure" as a label. Before getting to the part of your post where you mention that term, I thought "Gentleman's Adventure". But that probably sounds a bit too much like soft-core pornography.

    Anyway, back to the point. I think it's perfectly OK not to fit into a pre-defined genre. In fact, it's a great branding/marketing opportunity, because people are always interested in hearing about something new. And like any brand, you have to come up with several forms of it. In your case, I think you want a one or two word descriptive label like "Men's Adventure". And then when people give you the inevitable "WTF is that?", you can follow up with the one sentence version, and the one paragraph version. And then eventually the one-page essay. Go to whatever level matches your audience's interest and time constraints.

    The longest form is exactly like writing a "Vision Statement" for a company. Except that most of the time companies have no awesome vision, so their vision statements are just meaningless claptrap.

    The Broken Spokes faced a similar genre-bending problem. I don't know that I dealt with it very well at the time, though we did invent the phrase "Honky-Tonk Reverb Explosion". But it was often difficult to move on to the one-sentence and one-paragraph versions of that.

  2. Hey Jeff. Thanks for reading this. Funny story, I asked my wife "hey, what did you think of my latest blog post?" She said "I didn't read it, it was soooo long!" I really need to set a limit on these.

    Yeah, I want to stick with using the MA label, too, though I'd basically be hijacking it. I hope you're right about the no-genre thing, as the CW is completely the opposite. Viz. marketing departments creating loose sub-genres like "urban fantasy". But in a conversation you're spot on. The couple of times I tried out telling people I wrote "Men's Adventure" it definitely sparked interest as it wasn't what they were expecting, but I failed on selling it.

    I was thinking along the same lines you were and appreciate your laying it out as it makes a lot of sense.I think I will work on that and it may put it up here since this is the place where I keep sending people to find out about me.

  3. Forgot to mention that "Honky-Tonk Reverb Explosion" would be a great band name if you ever can get back into music. Also I'm not sure you really needed more of an explanation that that one phrase as it's pretty damn good.

  4. Jim, as crazy as this might sound, I feel the same way. I hate saying I write "fantasy" because of all the shitty elf shit out there, and then, when people want to know what kind of fantasy, I'm really stumped. I'm too short-winded to be epic, too manly to be high, but too heroic to be sword and sorcery. That's why I usually stick to Action-Adventure. It's simple and most people know right away if it's for them.

    I fucking hate marketing, man. It's a soul-killing machine. Hey, that gives me an idea for a...Nah, fuck it.