Experimental fiction is pretty self-explanatory in theory…except when it is not, and that is where I’ve found myself as I’ve begun a short piece that is totally unlike my usual fair. In the world of self-publishing being able to categorize and understand the possible audience for your story is key to unlocking marketing practices that most benefit you. Outside of that world being able to explain you story whether to potential readers, to workshops, to agents, or to yourself can be incredibly important in coming to understand what your fiction gives in terms of knowledge, entertainment, or even just understanding how it’s experimental. So not knowing what to call your story can be a real kick in the nards. So how do we come to begin unlocking what your story is? We start with a story. I’ll use my current work as an example, not because I am the authority but because you need to understand where I’m coming from first.
I didn’t intend to write the story, but somehow it spilled out of me when I had been experimenting with Written Kitten a site you can type stories into and assign certain goal posts to reward you with images of kittens or puppies (and one scantily clad 3D rendering of a lady someone accidentally tagged into the photo album the site uses)
Three hours later I had written the key components of a story that blurred science fiction with fantasy, and engaged in metaphysical visionary fiction. At the time I didn’t know if the last genre existed for certain, but apparently it does. It has it’s own wiki page and everything. I don’t know exactly where this story came from but as we speak I’ve taken a break from editing my CampNaNo novel to work on this book by writing this post. How does this help me? Well it’s more like how this conversation can help you?
How do we begin understanding our experimental fiction in order to begin learning how to describe it?
I tend to look at stories as integrated parts.
The Heart (the characters)
The Brain (the plot)
The Muscle (the obstacles surrounding those things)
The Skin (The set dressing/mood)
All of these come together in unique ways to tell your story, and how you begin to understand how they fit makes a difference in continuing to write your story, improve through edits, and enticing people. It is what you put down and how those things come together that define your story best.
The Heart of my story, Mind and Frost, are Daniella and Kenda, two Mentalists in a world were those with telepathic and psychic powers are viewed as suspicious especially Kenda whose powers have caused incredible heartache in the past. Their desires are mutual in one respect because they desire to be together, but what that means and how are constrained by the muscle and brain of the book. This aspect of the heart gives it a sweeter and more romantic edge…but how Kenda and Daniella interact is what has pushed me away from categorizing the book as a straight romance.
Now here is the critical part, and something I think people often forget in talking about genre, which is there are aspects of every genre in most fiction. People I know who say “I can’t stand romances” often still like romances in fiction, but they don’t like the manifestation of romance in the romance genre. A good friend of mine has told me he can’t stand science fiction books that lean towards the space opera genre, but he absolutely adores the use of technology and plot in The Windup Girl. The story is certainly not a space opera, but it has many of the same elements from warring factions to questions of humanity and survival. Yet for him the differences make all the difference just within that genre, and separate the two. How you use an element like romance and how the relationship is conducted should be useful in determining what your story is.
In my story, Mind and Frost, the couple has many theoretical conversations about the nature of existence, as well as, their own semi-imprisoned state and relationship to their doctors/caretakers. This goes beyond what is normally within the romance genre that readers have come to expect.Even in terms of language their interactions differ in basic ways. What is real to them is something outside of what you and I have been taught to conceive of. Time itself is different for them as in their dreams capes they struggle to differentiate between present and past.
While I’ll be sure to highlight the love story as a key component of the book I’ll avoid using the word romance to describe what Mind and Frost is for kindle marketing purposes. However, the key nature of their relationship is what drives the book, so I may in this blog and elsewhere describe the book as “Metaphysical romance” or “Romantic Science Fantasy”.
So what of the brain and muscle? By the time we meet them they’re in love, but Kenda is in a medically induced coma and their doctor fears her interacting with his dreams will cause him to wake up in a traumatic and destructive way. This forms the Muscle, and this muscle can be flexed melodramatically with Daniella weeping over their being apart; dramatically with her screaming at their doctor to have a heart and free him; or as I’ve chosen to handle it with a dry cynicism on her part. Kenda, not accepting of his fate now that he’s found love and finally realizing regardless the stories he’d told about freedom were lies, ceases to expect much but remains hopeful towards something else. How the heart responds to the muscle is what drives the actions of the brain. Random nerves fire between all these organs and the brain regulates it all by giving structure and guidelines.
In my work I have begun using questions to help guide thematic development once I’m past chapter two, which ultimately helps me understand what I am writing. The questions themselves can sit beside the short explanations of the plot as quick ways to tell you what your book should be about.
In Mind and Frost the brain is concerned with the question of both “what will you do to be free, and can you be free while bound by the customs and norms around you?” and “Can you be devoted to someone or something and still claim to free?” More simplified the brain is Freedom with a capital F. It isn’t in the context of just love or just a relationship. Because the relationship merely functions as a way to better understand those questions, I won’t call it’s genre primarily romance. Instead this makes it drift towards speculative fiction.
For your story the brain may be concerned with coming of age in a hostile environment, “Can we live a good life and still say we want to change”, or the meaning of privacy. It could simply be that you have two factions warring over territory and what it means to survive. All of this comprises the brain as you tie each scene together, coincidentally it also drives the heart and develops it thus forcing the other muscles–barriers, obstacles, incentives, and wants– to move as well.
Dr. Cohen-Sloane, Kenda and Daniella’s doctor and perhaps antagonist, function in ways deeply tied to questions of both spiritual and scientific importance. He questions his ethics, and so do his patients. The world is turning on Mentalists and he is responding to it while still trying to preserving his life and late-wife’s work, which forces this couple to respond. The brain, questions of spirituality/love/freedom, happen in the context of that plot. They get the muscles moving.
Much of the story’s design evokes some of what I loved about Ursula K. Le Guin’s Left Hand of Darkness in that the science fiction elements are grounded not with marvelous wonder or trepidation, but with the practical eyes of people we would recognize in our lives. In fact Le Guin, somewhat of an experimental via speculative fiction, manages to provide insight in a society without true gender and uses elements of psychology and social understanding to create not just science fiction, but truly speculative and feminist science fiction. The brain of Left Hand is distinctive, challenging gender and cultural absolutism within the context of this complex and rich relationship that is in this conflict ridden world where trust is hard to come by. The government officials using Genly Air and Estraven as pawns in a greater game are muscles, pulling and constraining, as much as the differences arising out of the heart(the character’s backgrounds and existences) are.
And let’s wrap it up with one of the hardest and easiest aspects of figuring out just what the hell you’re creating…the set dressing and mood, which make up the skin in this analogy. The skin is an organ, binding everything inside like a nice package. For literature, this isn’t just the cover, but time period, the world you’ve chosen, the class/ethnicity/etc of the world’s characters, and also the style you’ve chosen to write with. Very few true romances begin with the same set up as a grisly murder in a romance novel. You can easily experiment with that, but that’s the general rule of thumb. What sort of skin does your story have?
Are the characters prone to brooding and the atmosphere echoes that? Do scenes often feature cramped corridors or evoke a sense of being trapped? Do you go into detail describing cotton fields and hot southern Louisiana summer days in the year 1910? How you construct the world of your story and the type of world you construct work with all those other parts to more clearly define what your story is even if it is experimental or an unconventional book or unconventional short story.
So often people will say that figuring out genre is the easiest thing in the world, but non-traditional or genre blurring stories don’t have it so easy. I’ve even been told by an experienced author that if a person doesn’t have a set genre they may as well put the book aside or publish it under an alternative pen name. Yet I think we can find a happy medium between saying “just experimental” and perhaps misnaming our book’s genres, but taking the time to dissect the body of our work. Ironically that may just give it the most life.
Disagreements? Questions? Comments? I’d truly love to hear your thoughts below.!