Wednesday, October 2, 2013

More than just a story

One way I can tell when a novel is likely to be problematic is if the writer describes it as more than a genre story.

This first happened when I was discussing a heroic fantasy manuscript with someone online. Despite being queried in this sub-genre, the manuscript didn’t actually have much action, and all the queries stressed the main character’s thoughts and emotions rather than what she was doing, much less who she was fighting. The writer explained that he was trying to say, “My book has more than just heroic fantasy elements.”


I love originality in fantasy. But if you’re selling a book as part of a sub-genre, you need to show how it fits into that sub-genre, and you absolutely don’t want to give the impression that you look down on that sub-genre. It’s like querying a romance by saying, “My book has more than just people falling in love.” People falling in love is what sells the genre to fans.

In fact, if I were looking out for a romance, and I read an interview where the author said that, I would be turned off. I'd feel the author didn't have much respect for romance, and I'd get the impression that his or her book would sideline the love story in favor of the style or the action or whatever that author thought was more important.

Another time I read an interview where the author of a SF novel was asked what her goals were in writing the book, and whether there was a message for readers to grasp. Apparently the author wanted to express her “philosophies of life” and make readers more aware of the world, whatever that meant.

The interview concluded with “And yes, that means there’s more to my work than just an entertaining story”.

I always like the word “just” in claims like these. As though it doesn’t take much effort to tell an entertaining story, as if this is some lowest common denominator and the truly memorable books are supposed to provide much more.

The first duty of a novel is to tell an interesting story. Perhaps with the exception of books intended for a certain niche audience where the message is as or more important, but that wasn’t the case for this novel. I had actually read it prior to finding the interview, and unfortunately it wasn’t entertaining at all. By putting that requirement last (and probably least), the author ensured I would never want to read anything from her again.

If a reader picks up a novel and gets a new appreciation of endangered tree frogs from it, that’s good. But that’s not the main purpose of the novel. And if it’s not telling the readers a great story, then they probably won’t end up liking the tree frogs either.

Don’t do that to the tree frogs.

Or the readers.


Maria Zannini said...

I call this self-stroking. It's putting the author's agenda before the needs of the reader.

In his mind, he may have lofty ideals, but it's still self-serving.

Ruth Hull Chatlien said...

I couldn't agree more. Yes, sometimes genre fiction will tackle big themes, but it only works if it grows out of and is integral to the story. If you don't respect a genre, you shouldn't be writing in it.

Linnea said...

Crumbs, if I wasn't concentrating on telling a good story first and foremost, I'd get bored writing it.

Marian Perera said...

Maria - You're right, he does have some very high ideals regarding the story's meaning and purpose. Unfortunately that's like trying to build the penthouse apartment before you have the foundation in place.

Ruth - Exactly. If a writer thinks a genre is simplistic or dull, such that a book in this genre needs to be spiced up with much more than just an entertaining story, it will show.

Linnea- And telling a good story isn't effortless (not for me, anyway!). It takes a skill that deserves respect, whether the story has a greater theme or message or not.