The Books That Don’t Fit

light-bulbs-1125016_1280There are two types of fiction books‌—‌literary and genre. At least, that is what perceived wisdom seems to say. There are the ‘deep’ novels that win awards, and then there are the exciting, throwaway stories that are pure entertainment. And within the genre field, there are many subcategories, each with its own rules and guidelines, its own expectations and fan-bases.

To make it as a successful author, independent or traditionally published, many say it is best to stick to these rules and expectations. They say you should give the audience what they want. The phrase ‘write to market’ is bandied about. Some use it as a guide to success (if such a thing exists), and others decry it as an affront to artistic integrity. Most people sit somewhere between these two extremes.

But it does seem that more formulaic books find more success. I’ll mention again the Sterling and Stone team (Johnny B Truant, Sean Platt and David Wright). Their most successful project is the seven-book Invasion series, written specifically to appeal to alien invasion fans. Likewise, when Chris Fox very openly wrote his Void Wraith series to fit the space opera market, he enjoyed far more success than he had done with his earlier books.

I don’t write this in any negative way. This kind of success does not mean the book were poorly written. I’ve read both Invasion and Void Wraith, and enjoyed them both.

But I far prefer their other work. Platt and Truant’s Unicorn Western is a lighthearted fantasy/cowboy mashup (although it grows more serious as it goes along), and I love it. Fox’ earlier Deathless books (Vampires Don’t Sparkle, No Mere Zombie and No Such Thing As Werewolves) manage to combine horror creatures, Egyptian mythology and sci-fi in a way I found extremely inventive and entertaining.

Yet the sales figures would suggest that I am in a minority. The more straightforward books sell more, suggesting they have a broader appeal, but I prefer those that push at the boundaries. I like stuff that takes chances. If an author is told a book won’t work, but they write it anyway, I’ll want to read it.

One of my favourite authors is the late Iain Banks. He produced books under two brands — Iain Banks for his ‘literary’ books, and Iain M Banks for sci-fi. But two of his ‘literary’ books were strong on the sci-fi, most noticeably Transition, with characters jumping between alternative realities. And his sci-fi, while being big on ideas, worked so well because of his writing. I’d rate the M Banks books as some of his finest work.

Yet, as I start on my own author journey, I am constantly receiving advice to stick with a particular genre, or a particular style of writing. I should study what works in that field, and apply it to what I’m working on. I should follow the tropes, because otherwise I will upset readers.

There are loads of these tropes. In romance, the couple have to meet at the start of the book. There should be no infidelity, and there should definitely be a happy ending.

And yet, I like Wuthering Heights, a story that has no happy ending. And look at Romeo & Juliet, one of the greatest love stories ever‌—‌it ends with the couple killing themselves, each believing the other is dead. There is no happy-ever-after.

Of course, these are love stories, not romances, and I know that if I wanted to write a romance, I would need to have a happy ending. If the story worked better with a tragic close, I’d have to rebrand it.

If I write, and I want readers, popular reasoning says I have to stay within the confines of my chosen genre.

But what of the stuff that falls between the gaps? What of the books that don’t fit squarely in one particular genre?

I think these are the more important books. Yes, many of them will not be ‘popular’, and they will not sell as well as those that meet reader expectations. But, over time, these are the books that may well mean more.

Clownfellas_CarltonMellickIIIA couple of years ago I read a book called Clownfellas, by Carlton Mellick III, in which the mafia consisted of clowns, who were a different species (I think). The book was funny and violent, and definitely strange. It didn’t fit in any one category, and I thoroughly enjoyed it.

I recently read Mr Ruins by Michael John Grist. I thought I was going to be reading a sci-fi thriller, but the story delved into mysteries of the mind, and left me with more questions than it answered. And I loved it.

As another example, look at Mervyn Peake’s Gormenghast books. They seem to be fantasy, but there are none of the usual range of creatures, and there is no quest. They also seem to veer from deadly serious to comedic. And yet, they are incredible (I have my reservations about the third book, but I definitely recommend the first two).

Think of Robert Prisig’s Zen And The Art Of Motorcycle Maintenance. Is it a story or a text-book? Is it fact or fiction? It’s both and neither, but it’s a fantastic book. I’ve read it a number of times, and on each re-reading it opens up a little more. It might not be a ‘story’, but it’s a wonderfully involving piece of writing.

Think of Bret Easton Ellis’ American Psycho. There is very little ‘story’ in this book, and the descriptions (and the language used) are as important as anything that ‘happens’, maybe more so. To some people it’s horrific, but to others it’s a comedy. Ellis seems to have something to say, but he doesn’t make this obvious, and again it is a book that repays repeated readings.

And I realise, as I’m writing this, that there will be people who look at that list of books and see only ones they don’t like. They will find Zen boring, and won’t see the point of American Psycho.

That’s fine. I don’t think these books were written for everyone. The authors had a particular story to tell, and a particular way they needed to write. I think they were simply writing what they wanted (or needed) to write, regardless of audience.

So, of course, these books struggle to find a place. Of course they won’t appeal to many, at least not initially. The fact that all these books are well-known is down to how well they are written (although savvy marketing no doubt played a part, and I’m sure the subject matter of American Psycho helped it achieve a certain notoriety).

They are different. They don’t give the reader exactly what might be expected. They don’t fit neatly into a particular box.

And that is why, for some of us, these books are so successful, and have become firm favourites. The very fact that they don’t fit is a part of their appeal. Because, for all this talk of writing to market and of giving the reader what he or she wants and expects, there are many of us who want the unexpected. There are many of us who don’t want a repeat of what we’ve read before. There are many of us who simply want a good read, regardless of genre or tropes or any other standards.

Many books can be entertaining. They can thrill us and excite us, or make us hold our breaths as the characters come up against all manner of difficulties. They can draw us in with their language. But the books that stick are the ones that go beyond. The books that last are the ones that are written because they have to be.

The books that follow all the rules can be entertaining, and can be wonderful reads. But the ones that stick are the ones that go beyond expectations.

‘Expedient’ now released

Expedient (A Dominions Story) is now available from all major e-book stores, for the bargain price of 99p/99c.

Expedient (A Dominions Story)Expedient (A Dominions Story)

There are reasons to kill.

Those who threaten the courier, or threaten Rodin himself‌—‌well, they know what to expect. And his one professional hit? The man deserved to die. The world’s better off without him.

But Rodin needs to build his reputation. And that means showing what he’s capable of.

He can kill to exterminate vermin. He can kill to stay alive.

But can he kill for personal gain?

This 25,000 word novella (roughly 100 pages) contains characters from the Dominions series, but can be read as a separate story. If you haven’t tried any of the others yet, this could be a great place to start.

To get Expedient, click here. To find out about other books in the Dominions series, click here.

I understand my own language, just not how others use it

A few weeks ago, I wrote about a couple of the things that annoyed me in books, and how I’d since discovered that one of these things (the use of the word ‘decimate’ as an alternative to ‘annihilate’) was now, according to every online dictionary I found, not in fact an error.

Today, I’m going to look at another of my pet peeves, and this is another one that I’ve been forced to rethink.

This ‘problem’ shows itself in a sentence like ‘he was one of those people that couldn’t abide poor word-choice.’ Some of you will probably read that and think ‘problem, what problem? Makes total sense.’ But to me, the use of the word ‘that’ rankles.

‘That’ indicates an object‌—‌‘the building that collapsed in the storm’, ‘the car that was rusting on the driveway.’ If the ‘object’ is a person, I’d replace ‘that’ with ‘who’‌—‌‘he who laughs last, laughs longest’, ‘The Man Who Knew Too Much’.

If we use ‘that’ to refer to a person, they become an object, and to me this feels wrong. Every time I come across a sentence like this I find myself angrily replacing ‘that’ with ‘who’ in my mind, and it drags me out of the story. I tell myself that a good editor should have spotted this. Sometimes it occurs in otherwise well written books, and I can’t fathom how this error slipped through the editing and proofreading.

problemBut recently I came across something on Twitter that threw some light on this. It showed me that the ‘error’ I’m seeing is not an error to everyone. I only see it as a problem because of my background.

I’m British. It’s all down to my parents. And their parents. We’re British going back quite a few generations. And so I’ve learnt to speak (and read and write) UK English. To me it’s simply English, but I have to set up my computer to work in UK English, so I suppose that is what I need to call the language I use.

This is different from American English. We all know this. But one thing I didn’t know, until recently (thank you Twitter) is that in America, the use of ‘that’ when referring to people is acceptable. So if you’re an American reading this, and you’ve been wondering what the problem is, now you know. I’m British.

That could explain a lot.

However, I don’t think everyone (on either side of the pond‌—‌which is a stupid word to use to describe an ocean like the Atlantic) realises this. Some books get slammed in reviews for their spelling, but it is all down to these differences. Color and colour, flavor and flavour.

I came across a great way of describing this, in a note at the start of a book by Issy Brooke. It simply said ‘This book is written in British English. It’s like US English but with more vowels.’ If my own books had a lighter tone, I’d steal this line.

But it’s not only the individual words that are different. Mention fanny packs over here in the UK, and there’s a good chance you’ll be met with a blush or a giggle, because to us the word ‘fanny’ has a very different meaning than it does in America. Then there’s what we put in our cars. Over here, we use petrol or diesel, which are liquids, but over in America these liquids are called gas. And over here, we wear our pants next to our skin, not on show for everyone to see. Maybe Krypton studied Britain, so when Superman landed in America he misunderstood their dressing instructions.

The English language has spread far and wide, and wherever it has been adopted as the main language it has also been adapted. From what I understand, there are differences in the way the language is used in Australian and New Zealand, and there are also Indian versions of English. And even in the UK, it is constantly evolving. There are regional variations, and each generation claims its own variations (which is why ‘sick’ can be good, like ‘wicked’).

I try not to let this bother me. On the whole, I don’t care if someone is talking to their ‘mum’ or their ‘mom’ (of even their ‘mam’). I know that a lift is an elevator, and a boot is a trunk. And now that I know about the whole who/that thing, I’ll put this in the same category of ‘things that aren’t correct according to what I was taught, but that’s my problem, not the writer’s.’

And I like the fact that I have only just learnt that I’ve been wrong, because it reminds me that there are likely to be other things I don’t know. I’ve been learning this language for the whole of my life, and I still don’t know everything. Each new thing I read teaches me something more about words.

The next time I come across something that annoys me in a book, it will drag me out of the story. There’s no avoiding that. But rather than getting annoyed, I should take a moment to question where the error lies‌—‌with the author, or with myself. Or maybe it isn’t an error, just a different way of using the language.

After all, how dull would it be if everyone used this thing called the English language in the same way?

‘High Stakes’ – new short story

Another free short story this week‌—‌High Stakes, which you can read (along with my other shorts) here. Hope you enjoy it.

I’l love some feedback on this, or any of the other short stories I’ve put out‌—‌what you like, and any constructive criticism. And if you have any thoughts on what I could tackle in other shorts, let me know. I can’t promise anything, but I’ll give it a go. After all, keeping these stories to 1000 words or less is great writing practice.

Check out High Stakes, or any of my other stories, here.