November 26, 2016

On Writing

After being part of several conversations and seeing many reviews that used (and misused) the word “predictable,” I thought I’d write a post on genre conventions because the difference between genre conventions and “predictable” is significant.

First, so we’re all on the same page, let’s establish what genre is. When you google “genre definition” this is what comes up: a category of artistic composition, as in music or literature, characterized by similarities in form, style, or subject matter. Examples of genre include: drama, comedy, romance, horror, action, western, science fiction, thriller, suspense, etc. Then there are subgenres: romantic comedy, cop comedy, historical drama, historical romance, horror western… You can basically do whatever you want. Whether or not you do it well is a different story.

Genre conventions is the part of the definition that talks about “similarities in form, style or subject matter.” For example, if someone says you’re going to see a western movie, what are some things you automatically expect to see in the film? A cowboy, a sheriff, a saloon, a shootout, horses, and, most likely, a setting somewhere in the wild west. If you love westerns and you go to see a movie that has none of these things, you’re probably in the wrong theater. Genre conventions are kind of like how every McDonalds in the world is designed to look and feel the same as the others: so you know what you’re getting. When I moved to China I didn’t speak Mandarin, I couldn’t order at any restaurants, and I barely knew what food I was looking at when I went to the grocery store. McDonalds had a Big Mac that was exactly like the ones I got at home. The fries tasted the same. No vinegar, but whatever.

Romance gets a bad rap in the “predictable” world, largely due to the requisite happy ending. (Happily ever after = HEA.) What are some of the things that first come to mind when you think of a romance? A couple, a meet cute, kissing, maybe some sexytimes, funny sidekicks, an obstacle, a grand gesture, a HEA? This isn’t predictable, it’s expected. (Being clever in how you work with/against those conventions while still being true to the genre is the hard/best part.) People read and watch romance for the HEA. They feel robbed if it’s not there. They feel cheated and betrayed. (Just check out some of the reviews for J. R. Ward’s The Shadows. The heroine dies—and stays dead—and people were furious.) Just like a western without a cowboy or a slasher flick with no slasher—we want what we want, dammit. Make it the same, but make it different, too, okay?

What if you went to see a mystery and at the end there was no reveal? “Yeah,” the detective said, looking around the parlor full of well-dressed suspects. “I mean, I did a pretty thorough investigation and you all have motivation for killing the duchess, but, like, I can’t be certain who did it. I guess you’re free to go!” If you just invested 400 pages in this story, you’re going to be choked. Because the big reveal/sense of justice at the end of a mystery is a genre convention. We’re willing to spend 400 pages stumbling over red herrings and dead bodies because there’s an answer at the end.

Horrors have scary parts. Thrillers make you jump. Suspense makes you antsy. Mysteries make you wonder. Romance makes you smile. Erotic romance makes you smile in a different way. If you went to see the mystery movie and at the end you were like, “That was predictable because I knew there was a killer and he’d be discovered,” no one would applaud you for being insightful because that’s obvious. Predictable is “I knew from page ten that the butler did it because the butler always does it…and the butler did it. Plus, he had blood on his shoe.” See the difference?

Genre conventions make things both easier and harder for writers. On the one hand, you have a fun framework to play with. Likely if you’ve chosen to work in a particular genre (or subgenre, or mashup of genres) it’s because you like them. That’s fun for me. It’s kind of like getting all the ingredients you want and being told to just go for it. The hard part is that thousands of other people got those same ingredients and you have to do something that stands out. You have to work within the conventions of the genre, but also make it different. (When I was at a busy market in Thailand the vendors all sold the same items, and they used the same line to lure you in: Same same, but different! They know how comforting genre conventions can be.)

This is the gray area of predictability. When a trend becomes really popular, you start spending more time in that gray area. I read a few motorcycle romances when they first came out, and I loved the first one I read (it was Joanna Wylde’s Reaper’s Property, if you’re wondering), but every one after that left me less and less excited, because there were too many similarities. This isn’t necessarily because they’re predictable (though without question there are people who churn out trendy books that don’t bother to diverge too much from the inspirational material; those are knock-offs and that’s a different post), but because the first one felt new to me. I liked it, but not because I love MC romances. If I did, maybe I could have read the thousands of titles that followed, but I couldn’t. The novelty wore off and I moved on. This is a subjective quality that’s particular to each reader. Some people love every book with dogs. Some people love stepbrother romances. Some people will read anything with a firefighter. That’s not predictable, it’s comfortable, and we’re all guilty of needing our creature comforts.

When I write, I try to find something new. I’d never read a book about ex-pats living in China, so I wrote one (Going the Distance). I’d never read a book about an ex-con reconnecting with the girlfriend who abandoned him for a better life, so I wrote one (Time Served). I’d never read a book about a girl you thought would fall for one guy but fell for his best friend in a non-love triangle way, so I wrote one (Undecided).

Undecided is a title I feel particularly irritated by when someone calls it predictable. I don’t think people say it’s predictable because there’s a HEA, I think it’s because of the structure I chose. That word is key—I chose it. The book starts off revealing the heroine’s secret to the reader right away: she had a one-night stand with the hero’s best friend in her first year of college, but that guy forgot about it. When she unexpectedly falls for the hero, that secret is one she hopes will stay a secret, but the more their feelings evolve the more the ramifications of that secret change. At first it’s just kind of embarrassing and irritating that the guy doesn’t remember; then it’s a relief; then it’s a source of stress when the possibility of having the secret revealed means more than a loss of pride, but losing the guy she’s fallen in love with. When people say, “It was predictable because obviously the secret was going to come out,” I want to underscore that obviously. What if you’d finished the book and the secret had never come out? Would you think, “That was unpredictable but I still feel completely satisfied!” I doubt it. Because genre conventions—and not just the romance genre, pretty much any genre—is going to require that if you set up something major, you pay it off. It’s how you pay it off that determines reader/viewer satisfaction. You can dislike the story. You can say you didn’t care for the way the secret came out or the secret itself or you weren’t invested enough in the characters for the outcome to hold any value for you. But you didn’t predict anything. If the secret were revealed on page 10, 50, 100, or 200, you would still expect it to be revealed. That’s why it’s there in the first place.

I remember seeing an old episode of Oprah where she spoke to Janet Fitch, the author of White Oleander, and commented on the loveliness of the writing. (I haven’t read it, so I can’t say.) Fitch said she’d been taught that anything you’d heard before was a cliché, so she consciously tried to write descriptions/phrases she’d never heard before. Can you imagine how hard that must be? Predictable kind of falls into this same category, though instead of the aspects of the writing, apply it to the story. Are you writing a character or plot point you’ve seen before? It’s okay if you are—some are staples, some are genre conventions, some are tried and true and very beloved tropes. (Tropes being things like enemies to lovers, opposites attract, secret baby, best friend’s brother, etc.) Now ask yourself what you’re doing differently. Have you put your spin on it?

You can subvert genre conventions, you can put your own stamp on it. They can be big changes or small. The TV show Pitch is about an up and coming baseball player—who’s the first woman in the MLB. You knew there was a killer in the movie Scream, but you didn’t know there were two killers. Gone Girl is about a guy accused of murdering his wife but swearing he’s been framed—and he actually was framed. By the “dead” wife. Think about those stories without the spin. “It’s a story about a baseball player!” “Teenagers get killed in this horror movie!” “This guy’s wife is missing—but he says he didn’t do it!” They meet all the basic genre conventions but they’re not special. They’re same same, not different.

Now that I’ve written 1700 words on the subject, let me add the caveat that “genre conventions” is not a defense against criticism. Some things are predictable. Some things are boring. Some things have good intentions but poor execution. Some things have great execution but get poor reception. Almost everything is out of your control, all you can do is tell the very best story possible, and that means working hard, learning as much as you can, then learning some more, then making that knowledge work for you. Success is not predictable, it’s earned. I’m still working at it.

I knew that was going to happen...