I had promised some more availability details for my short story, “Diaspora,” which was recently published in eSciFi Magazine. While previously available only at Barnes and Noble, the issue is now available at the magazine’s website in a variety of formats, including Kindle and Nook and even good old fashioned PDF. It’s also available directly from Amazon, as well. I’d love to hear what you think of the story!
Several years ago, I was working on a play. I had written the script, and was attending the rehearsals periodically at the director’s request to consult on the production. Seeing something that you’ve written go through the rehearsal process is always…odd. Hearing an actor give voice to the words that you’ve written, to the character that formed in your head, can be simultaneously exciting and disconcerting. You really have to try to separate yourself from how the character was saying those lines in your head, because there’s a completely different aspect to a performed piece than to a piece that’s only read by your audience.
I remember walking into the auditorium one night late in the rehearsal process, looking up on the stage, and seeing my character. I’ve always called that moment the “spark.” It’s the moment in which I stop believing that the person on stage is the actor and begin believing that it’s the character that I’m seeing. For the actor, it’s the moment when the character takes over…also simultaneously exciting and disconcerting. When it’s your character that you’re seeing and in which you’re believing…well, there’s something holy about it at that point, as well.
I’ve never had cover art drawn for anything that I’ve written. My work has always been published in magazines, journals, or the like, or on the web. I recently arranged with a colleague to have some cover art drawn for two short stories that I’ll be self-publishing in the near future. I confess that I briefly considered attempting it myself, but, some shaky Photoshop skills aside, I’m no graphic designer. I decided to leave it to the professionals, and I’m excited to see the result.
I’m excited because I was laying in bed a couple of nights ago re-reading a book from my childhood, when I realized that the way I was viewing the protagonist…the way that she sounded in my head, even…was directly connected to how she appeared on the cover of the book. There’s an interesting connection there, the way in which one art form informs your interpretation of another. I wonder how I would have “seen” that character if the cover art had been different? I wonder how much differently I see characters in books that do not feature a character on the cover?
More to the point, I wonder how I will react when I see one of my characters on a cover? Will they look the way that I envisioned them? Likely not, and neither did the character in my play years ago when I watched her come to life…as I have many others through the years…in the skillful hands of that actor.
Writing fiction involves, by nature, more description than playwriting. I generally spend a couple of paragraphs describing a character’s appearance, what they’re wearing, their body language, etc., the first time that they appear, and re-visit at least general appearance at key scenes later in the work. When writing a script, I may make mention of a clothing item critical to the scene, but I intentionally leave a lot of things blank, because they’re up for the director and actor to fill in. It will be interesting to see how a designer fills in the fewer blanks left by fiction, but I think that it will be very similar to releasing that character to be interpreted by an actor and director. Because, as with all art, there’s a subjective element to it. The designer will see my characters differently than I do.
I can’t wait to see how it turns out.
Earlier in the week, I saw a literary agent proclaiming on Twitter the importance of knowing one’s genre. After all, she insisted, if all of the characters in your manuscript were of a certain age, could you really label your submission as Young Adult?
I understand her point in a way. After all, agents specialize in certain types of books. They have their niches, so to speak. If an agent represents literary authors and I send him or her a high fantasy novel claiming that it’s literary fiction, then I’ve wasted both of our time. Except, the line between those ideas…and, by that, I mean, what exactly do we call literary?…becomes blurred.
In my perspective, genre labels are used for two basic reasons. The first is to give the (potential) reader some idea of what to expect when they open the book. I’m immediately open to certain conventions when reading science fiction, for example, that might give me pause when reading a mystery. I know that an espionage thriller will contain certain plot formulae that would be resisted in other settings. In that way, I think that they’re useful.
The second is to allow booksellers to categorize them. When you’re in the mood for a certain type of book, you can find that shelf in your local bookstore, or browse to that category on your Nook or Kindle. In that way, brick-and-mortar bookstores aren’t all that different from digital storefronts…they have large amounts of products that require a hierarchical structure in order to organize them that they may better get them before potential readers.
And, I’m all for getting books in front of potential readers, because I want people to read my words, just as I want any writers’ hard work to be read and appreciated. And, earning money from that hard work, while it’s not really why we do it, is always an amazing feeling.
I foresee this near-future scenario, however, in which our still somewhat basic genre categories become overbearing in their volume and weight. Those of us with a taste for these things can become a bit obsessive over the categories of what we read. To draw a musical parallel, you may be one of those people that disagrees with the genre labels for your iTunes purchases. When I buy music, I almost always go about editing the meta-data to reflect what I feel the true genre of the piece is, not what Apple’s marketing department felt that it is. We may enjoy listening to the same artist, but call the music different things. Alternative to me could very well differ from what you would consider alternative music, because there’s a perceptual lens that comes into play there. Think I’m wrong? Let’s have a discussion about where the line between country and southern rock lies. You see my point.
Along those same lines, knowing that different readers will often gravitate to a writing style or a story moreso than a type of story, I think that genre descriptions are not foremost in many writers’ minds when we are crafting a story. Because of this, our stories can often cross the lines between those genres. I don’t think that’s a bad thing. I think that, as new ideas for stories and characters are woven in an author’s mind, the equivalent to a new type of music can be created. How would iTunes have categorized hip-hop in a world where only jazz and R&B existed? How would we have classified science fiction in a world before Shelley gave us her Frankenstein monster? I don’t think that most readers are quite as fixated on genres as we might believe.
It’s in our nature to categorize things so that we may understand them. That’s what genres do. I don’t think that they’re a bad thing. I do think that making them laser-specific and rigid is a bad thing, because bending categories and creating things that prove elusive to labels is a beautiful experience in any art. It’s how an art form grows. And, when an art form grows, so do those who engage with it.
It might be true, as it turns out, that some of the best ideas come to you in dreams.
Just before our daughter was born (almost two years ago now!!), I woke one night from a dream that remained clearly in my memory until the following morning. I knew that I had to write it down, because it was quite obviously the foundation for a story that needed to be told. We were in the early stages of planning our move northward at the time, and I think that’s what brought this dream about. In the dream, Karen and I were standing on a hill in our former city in Virginia, except the city had been abandoned, and we were looking out over the expanse of what used to be and remembering our lives there in whispers to each other.
A few seconds of dream, ultimately, but the ideas that followed took a life of their own, and I wrote as a labor of love in whatever free moments that I could find after our daughter was born, because she was forever connected to this piece of fiction in my heart. A few months later, it was edited and finished, and I’ve been shopping it around since. It was accepted for publication this week!
So, I’m excited to let you know that “Diaspora” is published in the May issue of eSciFi magazine. You can currently purchase a copy directly from Barnes & Noble, and I will keep you posted as it becomes available other places, as well.
I’d be honored to hear what you think!
In retrospect, my parents modeled a bit of an “us vs. them” thought process during my childhood. This showed up more profoundly in some spheres than others, and there a few ways that it was actually helpful. For example, my parents were careful stewards of our finances. Frivolous expenses were quickly identified and pro-actively prevented, and advertisements selling such wildly un-necessary items were painted as someone wanting to trick you into giving up your money to them for something that was far from worthwhile.
As I moved forward into the world and into various educational and professional pursuits, I found myself quickly disabused of this “us vs. them mentality” in most areas of life. It has unfortunately and persistently hung on in some ways, but most frequently its just a whisper in my head that tells me to not spend the money on something that I was considering purchasing.
Even there, though, I have to be careful. Being impulsive with one’s finances is never a good thing, but there’s such a thing as letting those same finances rule you, as well.
Last week, I had a break from class. I’m not on a large campus right now, but attending a small arts school that’s far detached from the parent university’s main campus. As such, I spend my time in one of two buildings that are across a pleasant Massachusetts street from each other, and nestled among various other small, local shops and restaurants. Immediately next to the building in which I have class, there’s an independent bookstore that I wandered into during my break. I love these types of bookstores… an environment that feels precarious in our digital marketplace. This one had a wealth of different books in different genres, ranging form political non-fiction to plays to current bestsellers. I paused and glanced through some acting books, and then flipped quickly through a book on dancing. I found myself wondering about the number of titles on performing arts, such as acting and dance. While I’m certainly no dancer, I’ve read my share of acting books, and I know that a very few of them would be classified as excellent books. I’ve become a bit wary, in fact, of such non-fiction, and found myself glancing dismissively through the dancing text. I could suddenly hear that old caution from my parents echoing in my subconscious…this was someone trying to trick a reader into paying for something that wasn’t worthwhile.
Now, before you look at me too judgementally, I stopped this thought process in its tracks quickly. I can’t judge the quality of that book, because, as I said, I’m no dancer (even though I did marry one). I think that the “us vs. them” mentality is harmful in this area, though, because a desire to be a good steward of one’s money can lead one to forego books with suspicion that may, in fact, be excellent books. I hold onto what may perhaps be a naive belief in other writers: most books aren’t written to take advantage of a marketplace in which they can make money for stringing together words. The vast majority of writers are honestly trying to contribute their thoughts to the public sphere, and we all benefit from this.
Now, of course, the opposite can be true, as well…readers that will buy any book because of its subject matter, with complete disregard to the fact that it may well be a poor book. I see this often in religious spheres, my own faith included, and perhaps specifically. This is an exception, though, and not the rule.
What this comes down to is my tendency to distrust others, which frequently isn’t a good thing. We are all better for hearing one another’s thoughts, and we can’t truly know if we disagree with those thoughts until we’ve heard them out.
I’m not saying I’ll buy that book on dance, but the next time I see a book like it, I’ll do my best to push down that nagging suspicion in the back of my mind.