Making Good Choices as a Writer
There are a number of choices one has to make, early on in one’s writing career, the most important of which is: should I write in a particular genre? Should I write, for example, in the genre of science fiction or fantasy, mystery or horror? If I like magic realism, such as that of Gabriel Garcia Marquez, should I push my work in that direction? The choices that you’ve got really go to the heart of the writer-reader relationship, which, in my view, is the key element in addressing the issue.
For any writer just starting out, or perhaps hitting the midpoint in one’s career, you’re confronted with the choice of adhering to the formulas of genre fiction, or carving out your own path. Because genre fiction makes up about 90% of a publishing house’s fictional work (with the remaining 10% falling into the rabbit hole of literary fiction), you can easily see that, without question, you’ve got an important choice to make. As Yogi Berra once said, “If you come to a fork in the road, take it.”
My answer is that the road will take you. The best writing comes from a part of the human imagination that science has yet to discover, and the only way you can get better as a writer is to allow your passion and energy to take you there and return to the page with fresh knowledge and insight. Readers want to go where they haven’t gone before, and they want you to take them there, too. Of course, the tradeoff with genre writing is that you can make a pact, as it were, with your readers: I’ll take you where you’ve been before, and in so doing, you’ll continue to come back to me for future nourishment.
It’s a trap. Screenwriters know and understand this better than anybody else. Your script must belong to a particular genre or it won’t get read (unless you’re a famous actor or director who writes). Years ago when I interviewed Alfred Hitchcock and asked him about why and how he made thrillers, he told me: “It’s always about the innocent man caught up in bizarre circumstances, like Cary Grant atop Mt. Rushmore.” He made no apologies for the formula or for the fact that he was a cinematic shoemaker, repeating the same work over and again.
All screenwriters (well, maybe not all of them) live, breathe and die by the 36 plots and dramatic situations defined by Georges Polti, and, for the sake of survival in a brutally competitive field of writing, work their stories around them. (Just Google 36 plots to see what you come up with.)
In fiction writing, as I’ve done it for better or worse over the years, I find that if I’ve got a strong character or group of characters in my narrative, I won’t be able to fit those characters into the conventions of genre fiction. It’s just not possible. The characters take on a life of their own. I hear their voices, listen to their griefs and pain, feel their suffering and struggles to move ahead in the world. You become your characters and they become you. And for me, being able to create a great character or family of characters is the most important thing that propels my stories forward.
Am I wrong? Wide of the mark? How do I create an Emma Bovary, an Anna Karenina, or a Leopold Bloom? Can I do it in genre work?