Tag Archives: genre fiction

How about a little nonfiction?

On the heels of publishing my new novel, If Souls Can Sleep, I penned a couple of guest posts for blogs devoted to the readers and writers of speculative fiction.

The first article describes in painful detail how unwary readers can be bitten by the writer’s bug. It published on Jan. 29 in Rising Shadow. The second guest post focuses on the dangers of genre fiction. That one published on Feb. 4 in Sci-Fi and Scary.

Here’s a peek at both of them:

Dragon logo of Rising Shadow

The best books make readers want to become writers

We all begin as oblivious victims.

Maybe it happened when you were a child, cracking open the cover of a surreal Seussian story. Or maybe the transformation transpired during adolescence when you first confronted the consciousness-expanding, mind-bending narratives of that pantheon of authors who enthrall the human psyche with the outlandish and otherworldly.

Whatever the circumstances, the books you’ve explored have changed you. You are a reader. Moreover, you are a reader of fantasy and science fiction.

Oh, the words on the page seem innocuous enough. It’s just fiction, after all. But make no mistake: you’ve been infected by imagination.

And I’m sorry to report that sometimes creativity is contagious.

Read on!


Tentacle-centric masthead of Sci-Fi & Scary

Why genres must die

Imagine coming face to face with chaos incarnate.

Maybe it’s an ancient abomination awakened by a sorcerer’s incantation. Or a rogue AI, unburdened by conscience, bent on overwriting our reality. Or perhaps you’re confronting some failed science experiment, a monstrosity fixated on destroying the very order upon which our civilization thrives.

Now, whichever form you wish to give this anarchic force, imagine it has done the unthinkable by destroying all notions of genre.

That’s right. The man-made system for distinguishing offshoots of speculative fiction from one another as well as Westerns, romance and even more remote boughs of the fictional family tree has been uprooted. You’ve been cast into an overgrown wilderness where fiction is just fiction.

Your skin prickles as you consider the implications. Pushing back panic, you type the URL to your preferred bookstore. But you’re too late. The functionality to filter by category is gone; the shortcut to your favorite stories, snuffed out.

How will you ever sort through the thousands—no, millions—of books that have been published to find the science fiction, horror, and dark fantasy books you cherish?

Read on!


If Souls Can Sleep

I contributed the above articles to gain some exposure for Book One of The Soul Sleep Cycle, which is now available in paperback and for Kindle.

Order it here!

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A different class of writing

Spending time with young people can make you feel old, but it can also make you feel young, too.

I had the pleasure of talking with students at Waupun High School yesterday. My mission: to share my educational background, professional writing experiences, writing advice, and tips for getting published with the fledgling writers—in 45 minutes or less.

waupun-warriors

Despite my best efforts, I might have uttered “when I was your age” at least once.

In all seriousness, it was a very casual environment, and even though I did most of the talking, I couldn’t help but be a little inspired as we went around the circle, and the students told of their current projects and future ambitions.

Because I’ve been up to my (pointed) ears in editing a certain fantasy trilogy, I hope you’ll forgive me for taking a shortcut here by repurposing my notes from yesterday’s spiel—quasi-transcripts, if you will.

Hopefully, you’ll find a nugget or two of wisdom regardless of where you are on the path to authorhood.

My story

I started writing in earnest in high school. My fantasy tales bore a resemblance to the books I was reading at the time: DragonLance, Forgotten Realms…you know, books with dragons on the covers. Mostly, I engaged in world-building exercises and episodic storylines, though there was at least one false start to a novel

By senior year, I knew I wanted to be a novelist. At UW-Fond du Lac, I signed up for an independent study writing course. It turned out to be a one-on-one with a professor, where I delivered a chapter for her to critique each week. This was one of the most valuable college courses I ever took, and I learned an awful lot about the basics of storytelling, the importance of word choice—and how to meet deadlines.

In those two years, I wrote two-thirds of what would come to be Volume 1 of The Renegade Chronicles. When I transferred to UW-Milwaukee, I completed the first draft and then rewrote the entire manuscript from scratch senior year since my writing style—not to mention skill level—had dramatically changed since freshman year.

I submitted chapters of my book for various writing workshops, and peer review also proved incredibly valuable. (Though in one class, I had to convince the professor that genre fiction had merit before we were allowed to present fantasy, sci-fi, romance, etc.)

Meanwhile, I took as many literature and linguistics classes as I could. Beyond English courses, I signed up for philosophy, psychology and a ton of history courses. An all-too-common adage dictates one should write what one knows. Ergo, the more you know, the more you can write about.

I somewhat regret I didn’t take any journalism, marketing, or radio/TV/film classes. At the time, I wanted only to write fiction, so none of those related disciplines appealed to me. Then again, I picked up many of those skills later in life.

After graduating with a bachelor’s degree in English with an emphasis on creative writing, I taught for a year in China, where I had my favorite job title to date: foreign expert. While overseas, I wrote a sequel. I also tried to publish a short story I had written in college (to no avail) and researched agents to represent my fantasy novels.

When I returned to the U.S., I got cracking on Volume 3—while racking up rejections for Volumes 1 and 2.

I was fortunate to find an entry-level position at a newspaper. As a news clerk, I mostly was responsible for formatting lists, such as marriage licenses and school lunch menus. (Have you ever questioned the proper spelling of “tri-tater”?) I typed up letters to the editor, too.

But I also got to do some proofreading and wrote an article here and there. In less than I year, I was promoted to entertainment writer and editor. I picked up a slew of skills in the newsroom—writing and proofing using AP style, headline writing, lead writing, pagination/layout, the basics of photo editing.

Most importantly, I learned the virtues of brevity.

After a few years, I went to the “dark side”—public relations and marketing. At UW-Oshkosh, I wrote press releases, coordinated interviews with faculty and staff, wrote articles for the online news publication and the alumni magazine, became a wiz at Word Press and other content management systems, taught myself project management, and supervised student interns.

I learned even more when I became an account executive at BrownBoots Interactive, including more website skills, search engine optimization (which injects a lot of science into the art of writing), writing for TV and radio commercials, managing multi-channel marketing campaigns, estimating on projects, blogging, and much more.

That’s right, the guy who couldn’t care less about journalism, public relations, and marketing in college grew to appreciate them and, if I do say so myself, excel at them.

But my dream has always been to be a novelist…

About 10 years ago, I joined Allied Authors of Wisconsin. Because I couldn’t get an agent to bite on The Renegade Chronicles, I decided to go outside of my comfort zone and wrote a sci-fi novel that got very good feedback from my beta readers. An agent, who is also a member of AAW, elected to represent If Souls Can Sleep.

And because I didn’t learn my lessons with The Renegade Chronicles, I wrote a sequel before selling the first one.

My wife and I wrote a children’s chapter book to test the waters with self-publishing. (More on that here and here.) But between a full-time career and family obligations, I always felt as though my fiction got short shrift.

Earlier this year, I decided I to take a chance and put my fiction on the front burner. I transitioned to a new role at the agency to allow for larger pockets of time for writing and editing fiction. I created a business plan and am committed self-publishing The Renegade Chronicles in 2016.

My long-term goal—my dream—hasn’t changed remains the same: I want to make a living writing fiction.

Writing advice

There’s no shortage of writing advice out there (and sometimes tips contradict). But here is some advice my mentors gave me “back in the day”:

  • Margaret Weis: “Treat your writing like a job. Write on a schedule.”
  • R.A. Salvatore: “If you can quit, then quit. If you can’t, you’re a writer.”

I’ll add a few of my own observations to the mix:

  • Embrace a variety of life experiences—everything is fodder for your writing.
  • Learn as much as you can about the industry and gain related skills. Even traditionally published authors have to be business-minded marketing experts.
  • Write as many different kind of things as you can because you might be surprised at what you’re good at…and what you might enjoy.
  • Don’t turn your nose up at any writing gig—even if it’s the company newsletter—because everyone has to start somewhere.
  • Get feedback from others (e.g., writers groups, online forums) but realize that not all critiques are created equal. Not everyone is your target audience, and ultimately, it’s your story.
  • Always write what you love and do whatever you can to hold onto that passion.
  • Most importantly, don’t give up.

Tips for getting published

A lot has changed since I was in high school. Back then, you were supposed to write and publish short stories (which I sucked at), and you couldn’t hope to publish a novel without an agent. Also, self-publishing was for losers, and vanity presses that preyed on amateur writers made it expensive, too.

Today, self-publishing is both respectable and profitable. Print-on-demand means publishing a book is relatively inexpensive, though there are outside costs like proofreading and cover design. The biggest challenge is getting noticed above the noise.

As someone who is still on the path to publication, I don’t have any surefire secrets for becoming a bestseller. I do, however, have a couple of tips:

1. Don’t publish before you’re ready. After more than a decade between drafts, I’m now hacking apart The Renegade Chronicles, and they’ll be much better for it. And do your homework to avoid wasting your time…or getting sued.

2. Don’t be afraid to take chances. By the time you’re ready to publish a novel or a comic book or your memoirs, a lot is going to have changed. It’s never been a better time to be a writer, but it’s also the Wild West of publishing right now. If you want to get noticed, you have to experiment.

If you follow the crowd, you’ll always be behind.

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The problem with invincible protagonists

I must have killed hundreds of people over the years.

Since I’m a writer of sword-and-sorcery fantasy, death come with the territory. That’s probably true for any genre that requires the choreography of combat. And when it comes to world building and mapping out a timeline that covers centuries, the beginning and end of a lifespan can occur in a single sentence.

Angel tombstone

If your character’s death didn’t significantly impact your plot or elicit an emotion from the reader, you might have done it wrong. | Image source: morgueFile.com

Some of these folks—from kings to commoners—died of natural causes. But many of my murders were quite violent, depicted in gory detail on the battlefield or in the shadows. One can hardly write about a war without tallying up the corresponding casualties. While some of that body count can be attributed to unnamed warriors, a fair number of major and minor characters have met their demise by my hand.

One of the first main characters I killed off occurs midway through my first novel (The Road to Faith). In truth, that knight’s unceremonious decapitation brought tears to my eyes as his comrades—and I—reacted to the tragedy. It wasn’t personal, you see. The story simply demanded it.

If the best characters take on a life of their own, then their deaths must be dished out judiciously.

That notion occurred to me recently while reading Veronica Roth’s Divergent series, which boasts a relatively high death toll. Major and minor characters alike fall in the three installments, but it wasn’t until the loss of a key player in the final book that my mind wandered through the pros and cons of killing off a main character—not to mention the courage it takes to pull the trigger.

It’s a topic I’ve pondered since before becoming a writer, back when I played the role of reader only and was at the mercy of other authors’ decisions when it came to the survival of the people populating their stories. Whether a character lives or dies is one of the most important decisions a writer can make. (It takes the adage “Kill your darlings” to a whole new level.)

Death tends to make a statement.

A certain self-indulgent character’s sacrifice in A Tale of Two Cities comes to mind. Heck, many classic children’s stories are none too subtle with the theme of life and loss. I’m looking at you, Charlotte’s Web and Where the Red Fern Grows.

Yes, death is a powerful tool in an author’s arsenal. And it can be abused. A friend of mine once remarked that when George R. R. Martin wants to inject tension into his A Song of Ice and Fire series, he kills off a character. I suspect that that’s an oversimplification, but none can argue that the fantasist is far from timid when it comes to the mortality of major characters, including chief protagonists.

In my opinion, those deaths don’t come off as wanton. True, not every one of them accomplishes a vital plot point (many do, however). And even if one of the first significant deaths in A Game of Thrones is steeped in shock value, it doesn’t come off as gimmicky. In fact, the deaths in Martin’s series seem not only realistic and warranted, but also necessary, which brings me to my next point:

The absence of death also makes a statement.

Nothing saps the tension from a story quicker than the realization that the main characters are invincible. No matter what sticky situation a protagonist finds herself, you just know she will escape unscathed. Granted, “life-or-death” aren’t the only stakes in the game, but I, for one, can’t abide a battle where the victor is guaranteed.

Perhaps the “unkillable” protagonist is a symptom of today’s writers’ (and readers’) appetite for sagas that go on forever. These never-ending series seemingly can’t commit to the loss of key characters or any ending whatsoever.

See also: Dissecting the difficulties to writing a sequel.

This phenomenon isn’t limited to fantasy and science fiction; Alex Cross and Stephanie Plum aren’t going anywhere soon. For that matter, Robert Langdon might be the most resilient mortal ever to solve a mystery.

Speaking of mysteries, Sir Arthur Conan Doyle tried to weasel his way out of a never-ending series by killing off Sherlock Holmes. Outrage from his fans (and undoubtedly his editor) forced Doyle to rescind the expiration of that most-famous detective. This example seems to suggest most readers don’t want to see a main character die, least of all in an unsatisfying way.

Which means that when an author decides to slay a character that readers have come to appreciate, admire, or even abhor—and, above all, come to think of as an actual person—he has the responsibility to make it meaningful.

Plot twists have their place, but key deaths should make a big splash, not cause a momentary ripple. Story arc aside, a character’s death can be a profound milestone in her development—a final, important act that epitomizes how far she has come from the start. Or how far she has fallen.

If the best characters stand up and cast a shadow, then snuffing out their light must serve a greater purpose.

Naturally, there’s no formula to determine how long a character should live or whether his final moments should be detailed in the pages of a book at all. As with every aspect of this craft, a writer must stay true to the story, whatever that story happens to be.

Slashing copious throats for the sake of bloodshed alone only serves to dilute the effect. Likewise, pulling punches out of cowardice could sterilize an otherwise honest account of the human condition.

But certainly, anyone who is brave enough to write about life must also embrace the subject of death.

Readers and writers: Do you disagree? Should main characters be invincible? Please comment below!

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Dissecting the difficulties of writing a sequel

Writers tend to be their own worst enemies.

Sure, some amateurs might cast aspersions at agents and publishers who reject their works.  And maybe published authors occasionally gripe about critics and other ungrateful readers who fail to find the genius in their words.  Some scribes might even eye a fellow writer with envy, casting a commercially successful contemporary in the role of rival.

But at the end of the day, a writer is solely responsible for the success of a story.  Notice I didn’t write “the sale of a story” or “positive reaction to a story.”  I happen to believe that a story can be perfectly wonderful without having earned a single cent—or even a second pair of eyes.

1024px-Dissection_tools

What’s inside a successful, satisfying sequel? | Image by Retama, via Wikimedia Commons

Whether a bestselling novelist or an introverted dabbler, each writer decides which tales get told and which don’t, whether a concept is worthy of composition or destined to be forgotten.  The writer hones her craft, or she doesn’t.  He perseveres or surrenders.

Don’t get me wrong.  Obstacles abound, and the outside world conspires.  For instance, I can’t think of a single writer who doesn’t wish he had more time to devote to writing.  However, external forces can be overcome—or at least mitigated—if the will is strong enough.

But a writer’s mind can be a dangerous thing.

Perhaps the most notorious form of self-sabotage is writer’s block.  A related syndrome—which can traipse hand-in-hand with writer’s block—is a phenomenon that transcends writing (and the arts as a whole) to plague anyone who has tasted some measure of recognition in her field: the sophomore slump.

Or, in this case, the mind games that a writer’s brain engages in when he worries that what he produces next will pale in comparison to the premier effort.

A few years ago, I read a book by a first-time author and was surprised by how much I enjoyed it—not because he was newly published, but because I was burned out on the sword-and-sorcery fantasy genre and was pleased to find a tale that made it feel fresh again.  I eagerly awaited the sequel I knew was coming.

And waited.  And waited.  And…

I can’t, with all certainty, ascribe the tardiness of the sequel to a sophomore slump (though I’m withholding the author’s name and book’s title just in case!), I’ve heard enough stories of writers who miss deadlines on subsequent assignments to suspect that many writers do, in fact, psyche themselves out when it comes to book number two, regardless of whether it is a direct sequel or not.

Perhaps it’s inevitable.  Before a writer has a contract for a book, she operates on her own timeline.  She can take as much time as she can to prepare her first novel, moving words around on the page for months before she decides it’s ready to send to an agent or editor.  She can take a decade or more to make his first book as perfect as possible.  But a publishing house won’t wait that long for the next offering.

I’ve been thinking about sequels a lot lately.  Even as my diligent agent continues to shop around If Souls Can Sleep, the first book in my Soul Sleep Cycle, I’m rethinking and reworking Book 2 (tentatively titled Almost a Fantasy).  During a recent conversation with my agent, he mentioned that because the events in If Souls Can Sleep and Almost a Fantasy take place concurrently, I should consider the possibility that Book 2 could be a better entry point into the series—that Book 2 might make a more suitable Book 1 (and vice versa).

Granted, this is a somewhat unique situation.  Most series move forward in a linear and chronological manner.  The plot of Book 1 precedes Book 2, which precedes Book 3, and so forth.  However, in the case of the Soul Sleep Cycle, I envision the possibility that some events in Book 3 could even take place prior to those in Book 1 before eventually catching up—and passing—the timelines in Books 1 and 2.

I suppose “straightforward” just isn’t my style.

So I now find myself dealing with some of the inherent challenges of writing a sequel, only they are exacerbated by the fact that the sequel could be the prequel, so to speak.  One of the biggest questions that needs to be asked of any sequel is how much of the first book’s plot needs to be filtered into the pages of its successor.

Readers need reminders, but a writer can’t spend too much time rehashing what came before.  Prologues and introductions can help set the scene for readers who are new to the series as well as readers who didn’t immediately pick up Book 2 after closing the cover of Book 1, but such devices can do only so much.

It takes a deft hand to weave relevant details into the narrative at the right time, to provide readers with helpful sips of backstory rather than drowning them in oceans of exposition.

On the opposite end of the spectrum, if there is to be a sequel to the sequel—that is, a Book 3—one must decide where to end Book 2.  How much should a writer save for the third entry of a series?  And how much should she know about what is to come in Book 3 so that she doesn’t paint herself into a corner, as it were?

When it comes to trilogies, whether books or films, the second installment tends to be the weakest.  (Yes, there are exceptions, you rabid Empire Strikes Back fans!)  Generally speaking, the first episode of an epic franchise is the strongest.  It’s the audience’s first thrilling glimpse at a new world and new characters.  The best first books do the same thing: leave the reader wanting more.

Book 2, on the other hand, can’t provide that magical first kiss of Book 1; neither can supply it the climax everyone expects at the end of Book 3.  So what do writers do with Book 2?  Build upon the problems of Book 1, set up the dominos for Book 3, maybe toss in a new character or two.  Those aren’t the only options, of course, but all too often the second installment serves as the less exciting but certainly necessary scenes sandwiched between the engaging beginning and the awesome ending.

If a series, such as the Soul Sleep Cycle, ends up being four or more books, the challenge to sustain a high level of interest only grows from novel to novel.  Every book must have its own story arc—a worthwhile and autonomous beginning, middle, and an end.  That is to say, even the middle of a bigger story needs its own satisfying ending.  (Yes, you can leave some plot points hanging to entice the reader to return, but sheer cliffhangers are cop-outs.)

One would think that building upon an existing work would be easier, but I contend that writing sequels becomes an increasingly complex process.  Maybe over a long enough timelines, the pros and cons of developing sequels vs. starting from scratch for each standalone even out.  Meanwhile, I’ll eagerly dig into the conundrums of rewriting a novel that could end being Book 1 or Book 2.

If nothing else, it will force me to make sure both books can stand firmly on their own.

As for why fantasy and science fiction stories so often become series—from the ubiquitous trilogy to those best-selling, never-ending saga—is a topic for another day.

Perhaps a sequel to this article about sequels…

What do you like to see in a sequel (as a reader or a writer)?

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Want to write? Get a life

Close your eyes and imagine a writer.

What do you see?  A free-spirited young woman writing in a leather-bound journal beneath a tree?  A middle-aged man with a cup of joe in hand, hunkered over an antique typewriter?  Maybe a tortured soul pouring over his or her laptop well into the wee hours of the night?

No matter the person and setting you envisioned, one fact remains consistent: that quintessential writer was working alone.

Even if you pictured a hip twenty-something tapping away on a tablet in some coffee shop, the rest of the patrons surely faded into the background.  That’s because writing happens in an impenetrable bubble on an island of solitude in a galaxy far, far away.

It’s a lonely job, but someone’s gotta do it.

The worst-kept secret about writers is this: We’re all control freaks to varying degrees.  When writing fiction, an author pretty much gets to play god.  We mold the world, birth a cast of characters (oops, I mean people), and direct the action from the safety of our own mind.  What we say goes, and even if we, every now and then, have to consider the proverbial reader who will one day adore our published work, at the end of the day, we pen the tale we want to tell.

As previously confessed, I’m addicted to planning.  I love to get lost in my own little worlds, considering plot problems from every angle and examining the protagonist’s motivation from prologue to epilogue.  I use an outline for novels, construct a timeline to ensure consistency, draft character profiles, and narrate my brainstorming in Microsoft Word—the whole nine yards.

Worldcon/Chicon logoChronic planning is a part of my personality even beyond the craft of writing.  So when I had to make a decision about whether or not to drop everything attend Worldcon in Chicago last weekend, my first instinct was to forget the whole thing.  You see, if I don’t have time to plan, I tend to navigate down the path of least resistance.  Maybe it’s because fictional messes are fun to invent and clean up, while real-world complications cause stress.

But here’s the thing: A writer doesn’t exist in a vacuum.  There isn’t some literary fairy who swoops down to scoop up a finished manuscript, waves a magic wand, and disseminates the supposed masterpiece to the masses.  We writers need people (whether we want to admit it or not), and that’s why I took an impromptu personal day at work, recruited my sister to accompany me on the three-hour drive down to Chicago, and dropped the 70 bucks for one-day admission to Worldcon (hosted by Chicon this year) in the hopes that I would run into a certain editor who has expressed interest in my novel, If Soul Can Sleep.

For someone unaccustomed to—and certainly uncomfortable with—taking risks, the trip was a considerable gamble.  After all, the editor in question was scheduled for only one small-scale event that day, and the kaffeeklatsch required on-site registration, which opened the day before.  I arrived an hour before the intimate Q&A was scheduled to begin and signed up as a third alternate.

Miraculously, the stars aligned, and there was just enough room for me.

Defined as “the premier gathering of authors, artists, fans, dealers, and more in the world science fiction community,” Worldcon covers the many aspects of speculative fiction, including fantasy and sci-fi, the two genres my novel straddles.  Of course, peppering this editor of a major publisher was a highlight of the day—not to mention being able to introduce myself afterwards.  (No “yea” or “nay” yet, but hopefully soon!)

But surrounding myself with thousands of fans and aficionados of science fiction—and books in particular—served as a stark reminder that few, if any, successful artistic endeavors center on a single individual.  For novels in particular, agents, editors, artists, and many others play a role in getting the writer’s work to the widest possible audience.  Considering how much time I spend typing the hours away, alone, in my home office, it was a blast to spend some time as part of a community.

In addition to the kaffeeklatsch, I attended a panel comprised of new writers.  One of the best question posed to the group had nothing to do with tips for getting published.  When asked, “What do you do when you’re not writing?” I was floored by the wide array of answers that came up when these fine folks talked about their “day jobs,” hobbies, and past careers:

  • A former hard rocker who became a database builder
  • A professional storyteller at Renaissance fairs who also blogs for Reading Rainbow
  • A manufacturing professional who wrote his last book on a smart phone while soaking in the tub after long shifts on the floor
  • A stay-at-home mother who’s planning to go back to school for a doctorate so that she can build robotic legs for paralyzed children
  • An administrative assistant who is going back to school for become a special education teacher

While listening to their anecdotes, I amassed a plethora of proof that real writers don’t live in seclusion; in fact, they grab life by the jugular, have fascinating experiences, and take risks. After all, how can you write what you know if all you know is a glowing computer screen and a bottomless mug of coffee?

Being a writer is only as lonely as you let it be.  And if you want to write about exciting, adventurous characters, you have to take a page out of their book.

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Why sci-fi and fantasy?

Map of All Things Fantasy

There are no shortage of alien worlds to explore…or create.

In hindsight, I was a fan of fantasy from almost the beginning.

While I didn’t become addicted to books with dragons on the cover until freshman year of high school, I had more than a few flirtations with the genre as a child.   Consider the following brushes with science fiction and fantasy:

  • Medieval cartoons like Gummy Bears and Smurfs introduced me to the idea of magical spells and mythical creatures.  Meanwhile, Transformers and G.I. Joe wove sci-fi into their action-packed storylines.
  • In my earliest days as a LEGO builder, I gravitated toward the Space and Castle sets over the run-of-the-mill Town sets.
  • I devoured Fantastic Four, Iron Man and plenty of other Marvel titles as a teenager.  These serials explored otherwise ordinary folks imbued with super powers and the extra-terrestrials that made occasional layovers on planet Earth.
  • Although I never got into Dungeons & Dragons, I got hooked on the original Final Fantasy video game in sixth grade.  That 8-bit role playing game borrowed a lot of conventions from its paper-and-dice counterpart, including white, red, and black magic; healing potions; enchanted weaponry; and an epic quest that crossed a vast world and millennia.

Before I began building the world that would become the setting for The Renegade Chronicles, I dabbled with different ideas—scenarios that, while not sword-and-sorcery fantasy, fall into the umbrella category of speculative fiction.  It started with  a failed novel about an alien with an unpronounceable name who owned a robot and cruised the galaxy in a space ship.  In junior high, I created a G.I. Joe- and comic book-inspired reality in which a top-secret government-funded agency routinely saved the world from terrorists.

Although the DragonLance saga held up a big billboard sign for me, I was already well on my way down the road to becoming a sci-fi and fantasy author.  Books with dragons on the cover didn’t convert me into a fan of the strange and supernatural; they simply gave me a reliable source of that which I craved and paved an entry path to drafting fiction rife with wizards, warriors, and (yes) dragons.

The lure of the unusual—that’s what gets me to pick up a book, turn on the TV, or start a video game.  And never has there been a better time to be a connoisseur of speculative fiction, whatever the medium.  In fact, one could argue that we’re in the midst of an oversaturation of fantasy, sci-fi, horror, and multitude of subgenres therein.

Too much of a good thing (even when it’s mixed with plenty of subpar samples) is a problem I can deal with.  Straightforward sword-and-sorcery has lost some of its allure over the years.  And straight-from-the-mold space opera fails to get my pulse pounding.  It takes an innovative twist to hook me these days.

Looking ahead, I see many more years of enjoying the innumerable realms of “what if?”  When strange, new worlds become predictable and clichéd, the fantasy addict seeks out stranger, more unique fare.  Or makes his own.

Either way, it’s a worthy quest in my estimation.

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Battling genre bias with the magic of an open mind

Reading books with dragons on the cover says something about a guy.

In high school, the fact that I elected to read novels in my spare time sent a message of its own, never mind the cover art.  Other than a debate with another student over which books were better sellers, those that comprised the DragonLance series or the works of John Saul, I didn’t get much guff from my peers for reading fantasy fiction.

Cover of "Dragons of Autumn Twilight"

This book, which I read as a sophomore in high school, opened the door to a life of reading and writing fantasy fiction.

No, it wasn’t until college that I got my first real taste of genre bias. As an English major, I earned college credits for writing a sword-and-sorcery short story and the opening chapters of my first fantasy novel.  However, in my sophomore year, I took a writing workshop where one rule not so much rained on my parade as washed it away in a deluge of biblical proportions: no genre fiction.

For my first assignment, I churned out a quasi-autobiographic “campus life” short that was an interesting exercise inasmuch as I found myself—for the first time in a very long time—writing scenes that took place in modern-day Earth.  At the same time, it was a dull plot that satisfied the letter of the law, if not the spirit of it.  My classmates gave it passable reviews.

Weeks later, I critiqued a classmate’s short story that followed an arguably familiar path: a college student dealing with relationship problems.  Blah blah blah.  When the professor questioned my criticism on the basis that my own story suffered from similar problems, my retort went something like this:

“My story was boring because I wasn’t able to write what I wanted to due to the ‘no genre fiction’ rule.”

To my delight, the professor repealed that unjust decree, and I was able to submit more chapters from The Renegade Chronicles, which got better feedback than my obligatory stab at writing a more realistic (and more mundane) story.  And I would argue that the rest of the class’s offerings were richer and more enjoyable—to me, at least—once the restriction was lifted.

Nevertheless, I never rid myself of the feeling that academic types—including most professors and a good many of the students—looked down on my interest in (gasp!) genre fiction.  Whether science fiction, romance, mystery or Western, true artistes don’t dabble in anything as juvenile as genre fiction.  Real literature is about realistic people in realistic situations doing perfectly normal things.

Yawn.

I was wont to tell the anti-genre contingent that modern (non-genre) literature didn’t generally interest me because I get enough real-life troubles in real life without willingly submitting myself to stories about people whose problems come woefully close to the mark.  In many cases, I find these books lacking in creativity because of that fact.

Now don’t get me wrong.  There’s a reason why various genres get a bad name—namely, clichés.  Some writers use genre tropes as a paint-by-number template for storytelling.  Those who don’t “get” fantasy fiction, for example, dismiss it because it can be very formulaic: Chosen One + motley companions + two-dimensional evil guy = every fantasy novel you’ve never read. Multiply by the square root of “magical sword,” and you might get a movie deal out of it.

Clearly, “speculative fiction” isn’t inherently more creative than its non-genre cousins.

So here’s the thing: there are well-written Westerns and poorly written ones, brilliant non-genre novels and agonizingly uninspired ones. Genre—or lack thereof—doesn’t determine the merit of fiction.

While most genres provide no shortage of shortcuts for writers to take and a plethora of stereotypes for them to try to pass off as interesting and fresh, it’s no more fair to say all genre fiction favors whimsy over substance than it is to declare all non-genre fiction is dull.

A skilled author can breathe fresh life into any genre or take an ordinary storyline and present it in an extraordinary way.

It still rankles me when someone—and fellow writers, no less—dismisses fantasy and science fiction as a waste of time because it couldn’t possibly be relatable to readers.  The existence of magic or advanced technology in a tale does not preempt the inclusion of the themes we humans have grappled with since time immemorial.

The good news is that discerning readers don’t need to choose between high-quality genre fiction and fantastic non-genre fiction because examples from both categories contain no shortage of pathos and creativity.  With so many talented genre and non-genre writers out there, we can have the best of both worlds.

And sometimes those worlds just happen to have dragons.

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