In the latest of our guest blogs, novelist, screenwriter (among other media) and former 2000AD editor talks us through his experiences in keeping it real.
My name’s David Bishop and I’ve been known to fake it for money.
Obviously, when I say fake it I’m talking about writing, specifically genre writing. [What you do in private is between you and your sex mech.] I’ve had twenty novels published, all of them genre narratives. I’m proud to be a genre author. I don’t have any time for those who sneer at genre novels, as if it’s a lesser form of creativity.
Great writing is great writing, with the quality of your prose determined most by your abilities as an author. The presence of spaceships, murder or magic in your story doesn’t make it any better or worse. [I’d argue your ability to take on board feedback and criticism is far more important – but that’s a topic for another time.]
Anyway, a few years back I wrote two novels based on a role playing universe. They featured many of tropes you associate with fantasy as a genre – magic, elves, dwarves, a late medieval society, anthropomorphic creatures, necromancy, cursed artefacts, and so on. My novels had all the trappings of fantasy fiction, but I was faking it.
Far as I was concerned, I was writing police procedurals that just happened to be set in a fantasy universe. Hill Street Blues crossed with Lord of the Rings, if you will. All the fantasy tropes [or clichés, depending on your point of view] might have been present and correct, but I couldn’t invest in them as a writer.
That’s not to say I didn’t try. The novels took place in a pre-created universe so much of the world-building had already been undertaken by others, but I still had to built on those foundations. I learned all I could about the particular corner of that universe entrusted to me. My goal was to make it seem as real and convincing as I could.
But I was faking it. I could tick all the boxes, but as a writer I simply didn’t believe in the fantasy elements of my narrative. My heart wasn’t in them. I tried to treat the genre with respect, but readers will always sense if a writer’s faking it. They might not be able to articulate why, but something feels wrong. A bit off. Hinky.
You see this sometimes in genre TV dramas. Set up the most fantastical world imaginable and so long as the internal logic of that world remains consistent, audiences will go with you. But abuse that logic or treat the genre with contempt, and audiences will desert you. Witness the demise of Heroes, a victim of scrambling its own logic repeatedly.
No doubt you can think of TV fantasy dramas where the writers use magic as a get out of jail free card whenever they need to resolve a tricky plot point. For the audience, it’s insulting. You can almost hear the executives saying, you don’t need to worry about story logic – this is magic! [No, it’s bad writing, you cretins.]
I teach part-time on a Creative Writing MA at Edinburgh Napier University. One of the things making our course unique is we embrace genre. Most every other such course in the UK – and many in the US – treats with contempt students who dare utter appreciation for science fiction, fantasy or crime fiction.
When applicants come to us for an interview, we can tell within two questions whether or not they share our enthusiasm for genre writing. How? We ask what they read. Never, ever, ever try to write in a genre unless you already have an enthusiasm for reading within that genre. Ideally, it should be your default setting as a writer.
But I read a lot of books, you think, most of them for research or study. How can I know what my default setting is as a writer? Simple. What do you read when on holiday? What do you read for comfort? What novels do you re-read on a regular basis? Chances are, one genre will stand out if you’re a genre writer.
Me, I’m a crime fiction reader. That’s why when I wrote fantasy novels, I was faking it. I was getting busy with elves and dwarves and magic, but I was thinking about policing and perps the whole time. My advice: be faithful to the genre you love. Doesn’t mean you shouldn’t experiment, but your natural tendency will win out in the end.
[To find out more about the Creative Writing MA at Edinburgh Napier University, go to: http://www.courses.napier.ac.uk/W54718.htm ]