Monthly Archives: June 2013

Genre-Bending: What are the Rules?

I recently enjoyed a concert by the Spampinato Brothers, an ensemble that featured Joey Spampinato, bass guitarist and a founding member of the fabulous eclectic band NRBQ. If you’ve never heard the music of NRBQ you’re missing something special. If you didn’t get a chance to see the line-up of the band that featured Spampinato on bass, Al Anderson on lead guitar, Terry Adams on keyboards and Tom Ardolino on drums, you really missed something special.

NRBQ, which is the acronym for the New Rhythm and Blues Quartet, has drawn the attention of prominent fans, including Bonnie Raitt, Paul McCartney, Elvis Costello and Keith Richards, who invited Spampinato to play bass guitar on one of his solo projects. Bonnie Raitt has reportedly called NRBQ the best live band she’s ever seen.

What does all this have to do with fiction writing? Music critics have described NRBQ is a genre-bending band, a gifted ensemble that could move effortlessly from rockabilly to jazz to Beach Boys-style pop, to R&B and even country music. Fiction writing gurus warn aspiring authors to stick to one genre. There are solid reasons for this advice. Your genre is your brand. When you think about JK Rowling, Young Adult/fantasy comes to mind. Robert B. Parker? Crime stories. John Grisham? Legal thrillers. You get the picture.

This subject is on my mind lately because my latest project is a radical departure from the genre in which I normally write. My genre is family sagas. That’s what I like to read (though I read widely from a number of genres) and that’s where my comfort zone is as a writer. My self-published novel, Small Change, is the story of two families in the Midwest who become intertwined after meeting each summer at a lake resort in Wisconsin. My three unfinished drafts are likewise family sagas, though one includes a murder-mystery.

Earlier this year, the urge hit me to do something totally outside my genre. I wanted to leave what was familiar and try something totally different. At the time I had been working on a political novella that I eventually abandoned. However, the main character stayed with me. I just had to develop him. The original story was the wrong vehicle, but there was a minor scene in it that had the potential to take this character in a new direction. So I pursued it.

That wasn’t the only leap outside the comfort zone. My good friend, Jamie Beckett, another self-published author, told me he had embarked on a serialized science fiction story consisting of multiple parts that he was going to release, one at a time, on Amazon.com. Another writing colleague was doing the same thing. I was intrigued, especially since I wasn’t sure my new project had the potential as a full-blown novel. So I approached it as a trilogy: three short stories, the succeeding one picking up where the last one left off.

That mature voice in the back of my mind keeps telling me, “This is a bad idea. Stick to what you know.” I usually listen to that voice, but my heart is telling me to plunge forward. I can’t think of a good reason why not. What’s the risk? If I don’t like it, I don’t have to publish it. If I publish it and it takes off, it makes me a much more versatile writer.

Though the conventional wisdom is to stick to a single genre, there are exceptions. Stephen King is one shining example of an author who has branched out. King’s stock-in-trade was horror, but he has expanded his horizons into science fiction and even historical speculative work with his 2011 novel, 11/22/63 about a time traveler who tries to prevent the assassination of John F. Kennedy.

Of course, King is a huge name. He can afford to do genre-hopping. It’s a much riskier strategy for an unknown author looking to break into publishing. I’ve never advised genre-jumping, but I do believe a writer must follow what’s in his heart. A writer must write about that which stirs him. A writer must follow his passion and if that means writing in a different genre, so what? But a writer must also have the judgment to evaluate his work in other genres. Is it as strong as the work in the writer’s best genre? If so, go with it. If not, every writing experience is a growth opportunity.

What about you? Have you stuck to a single genre? Did you ever have the urge to write outside your genre?

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Doctors and Writers: What They Have in Common

A comment by author Khaled Hosseini in a recent New York Times Book Review interview caught my eye. The reporter asked Hosseini, who is also a medical doctor, what his training as a doctor has brought to his work as a writer?
Here is Hosseini’s response:

“Qualities you need to get through medical school and residency: Discipline. Patience. Perseverance. A willingness to forgo sleep. A penchant for sado-masochism. Ability to weather crises of faith and self-confidence. Accept exhaustion as fact of life. Addiction to caffeine a definite plus. Unfailing optimism that the end is in sight. Qualities you need to be a novelist: Ditto.”

Let’s take a closer look at these parallels. Words like “discipline,” “patience,” and “perseverance” struck me as essential qualities of a successful writer. Writing, like medicine, is not something a person can dabble in or approach with anything less than full commitment. Sacrifice is implicit in “a willingness to forgo sleep” and a “penchant for sado-masochism.” There are many times when writing is not fun. Getting through that first draft is work. Revising that first draft is harder work (at least for me). Finding the energy to get into that deep, intense state of focus needed to write feels impossible on some days. But we writers do it. We persevere.

Of all of the qualities Hosseini listed, I believe the essential trait was the last one: “Unfailing optimism that the end is in sight.” The payoff is a completed novel that the writer is ready to let go—either through self-publication or submission to an agent. That’s what gives we writers that giddy feeling, that pride of accomplishment.

Hosseini has just released his third novel, “And the Mountains Echoed.” I enjoyed “The Kite Runner,” and I liked, “A Thousand Splendid Suns,” even more. I am looking forward to reading Hosseini’s latest work.

Read the complete interview with Khalid Hosseini.

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Book Review: The Fault in Our Stars, by John Green

Teen-agers believe they are immortal. We’ve all heard that bromide and there’s a lot of truth in it. But, what goes through the minds of teen-agers afflicted by a terminal disease? How do they view the world differently than other teens? How do they approach life when their days are numbered? When they know they will never experience many of life’s milestones: a job, a career, marriage, children, grand children, professional and personal achievements? How will they be remembered (She fought a courageous battle)? More importantly how do they want to be remembered?

John Green explores these questions and more in his heart-wrenching, incisive and at times witty novel, The Fault in Our Stars. Hazel Grace Lancaster suffers from thyroid cancer. She almost died when she was 13, but miraculously survived and now the cancer has settled in her lungs. Hazel is taking an experimental drug which is prolonging her life. She breathes with the help of oxygen tanks. At one point she corrects her mother, who uses the phrase “if you die.” Hazel responds by telling mom “when,” not if.

The story opens with 16-year-old Hazel in the depths of depression. Her mom prods her to attend a youth cancer support group that meets in the basement of a local church. There she meets Augustus Waters, a “hot” former basketball player whose leg was amputated below the knee to stave off, as he put it, “a touch of osteosarcoma.” Augustus is cancer-free. He is also completely in love with Hazel.

Hazel loves Augustus, too, but fights her feelings, knowing she will die soon. She doesn’t want to be a “grenade” exploding on Augustus, scarring him for life. Hazel is a realist and an acerbic critic of the culture of cancer support groups, while she fully understands how difficult and heartbreaking it is to be a parent of a cancer victim. She continually uses the phrase “cancer perks,” the Make-A-Wish trips and the people who provide them, who she refers to as “the Genies.”

Equally clear-eyed, Augustus reminds Hazel that the world is not a wish-granting factory. Nonetheless, Augustus uses his wish to take Hazel, accompanied by her mom, to Amsterdam to meet an author, Peter Van Houten, whose novel, An Imperial Affliction, about a young girl dying from cancer, has deeply affected Hazel. The novel ends in mid-sentence, leaving Hazel to speculate that the girl died or was too sick to continue writing. Hazel has written several letters asking the author how the story ends, but he hasn’t answered any of them. Augustus managed to reach the author’s assistant, who has promised to answer Hazel’s questions in person if she travels to Amsterdam.

I won’t spoil the story by revealing much more than that. Although the meeting with Van Houten is a disaster, in a strange way, Hazel finds answers in Amsterdam, though not the ones she was seeking. As for Augustus, his biggest fear is oblivion, the notion he will die without making an impact on the universe. What I believe Green’s touching and heartbreaking story tells us is that our legacy is not what we leave behind for the universe to remember us by, but the impact we have on the people who matter most to us.

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Writing on the Spot-Prompting Waves of Anxiety

I never appreciated the value of writing prompts. They struck me as devices other writers used when they couldn’t come up with original ideas. After last weekend, I’ve changed my mind.

On June 1, I attended a fiction writing workshop presented by Ken Cormier, writer-in-residence at the West Hartford (Connecticut) Public Library. Ken’s pre-workshop instructions were to bring a pen and pad and leave the laptop at home. We would be writing on the spot, using prompts. Nothing brings terror to me like being asked to write on demand. What sort of rubbish would spew from my pen? Though I am a pantser, when I come up with an idea for a story, I do a lot of pre-writing in my head and then I prepare a basic outline of milestone events before I sit down to write. I would not have the luxury of this type of preparation this time. I was at sea without a life preserver.

Ken read to us a hilarious flash fiction piece about a crazy, drunken grandmother at Christmas, which set the stage for his first prompt. He instructed us to write about an episode involving one of our relatives. We were given 15 minutes. Sticking with the grandmother idea, I wrote about my Nana, who was deaf, and her attempts to carry on a telephone conversation with her sister, Theresa, who was also deaf. The words just flowed. I wouldn’t call it brilliant but it was the best work I’ve done in weeks.

The second exercise was interesting. He asked us to write a basic character sketch (name, age, address, occupation, most important person, and that person’s relationship with the character). Then we handed our character sketch to the person on our left and they had to write a story based on it. Again, we had 15 minutes to do it. The results were fantastic. Every writer in the room wove a vivid narrative that made each character come alive. I was amazed to see what a talented group of writers could do without the time to think.

I left the workshop feeling energized. I had been suffering through a serious creative block the past few weeks, for a variety of reasons. These writing prompts unblocked me.

To read more on writing prompts, check out these sites:
Writer’s Digest resource

Creative Writing Prompts

The Teacher’s Corner

Good essay on the value of writing prompts

Poets & Writers page

Do you use writing prompts? Do you find them helpful?

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