No Excuses

Why in the heck did I stop listening to the “Writing Excuses” podcast? (Stylistic note: I know the punctuation rules for plays, books, movies, and songs … what’s the rule for podcasts? Italics? Quotation marks? Bracketed with cats?)

For a guy in as much doubt as I am about my current novel (or, okay, novelS — I’ve still got that time-travel story locked in a drawer, just waiting on me to finish this superhero thing so that I can do some much-needed editing), it seems foolish to ignore tips and advice that are just floating out there in the open air. I’ve literally had episodes downloaded on my phone for months that I’ve not listened to, and I have no idea why.

This morning, for whatever reason, I turned it on.

<Writing Excuses> is awesome, it really is. If you are a writer like me (that is to say, a writer who maybe doesn’t fully, 100% consider himself a real writer because he has not as yet received any payment for anything he’s written; or perhaps a writer who doesn’t consider himself a real writer because he can’t shake the notion that he doesn’t know what he’s doing), you owe it to yourself to give it a listen. Their most recent spate of episodes (they’re in season 11 now) deals with this thing they’re calling “elemental genres”, which is a different way of thinking about stories. In short, and to sum up episode 1, elemental genre is not your bookshelf genre: horror, sci-fi, mystery, romance. Elemental genre is the thing that drives the story itself: heist, discovery, love story, quest.

For example, Die Hard is an action movie, but it’s really about a man trying to reconnect with his wife. Star Wars: TFA is a sci-fi space opera, but it’s really about a girl trying to find out just who the hell she is. The Hunger Games is a dystopian action story, but it’s really a story about political issues surrounding the balance of power.

In other words, genre as we typically think about genre is just the trappings of the story: the costume, the setting, the recognizable figures and signposts dotting the landscape. Sci-fi stories feature futurism or far-off planets or silvery bodysuits or aliens. Fantasy is gonna have knights and dragons and magic and names with lots of apo’str’ophes. (If I ever write a character with an apostrophe in their name, you can shoot me. Preferably with a word-gun loaded with exploding apostrophe bullets that explode and attack my face like a swarm of angry be’es.) But that’s just form.

When it comes to function, there is a world of possibilities lurking under the shape of the form. I listened to that, and realizations started crashing down around me like anvils in a Bugs Bunny cartoon. I’ve been writing my stories as genre pieces without thinking too hard about what’s driving them. Which is why I’m off the rails and stalling out.

My current superhero story? The protagonist wants it to be a coming-of-age story, but it’s really a heist novel, because there’s a thing that the hero needs, and it’s closely protected by the bad guys.

My sci-fi time-travel novel? The protagonist wants it to be an action story, but it’s really an identity crisis, because the girl knows who she’s supposed to be but she doesn’t know why.

My head is exploding.

I have to go write some things down.

And then I need to listen to more %Writing Excuses%.

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