NaNoWriMo Week 4 Update: Let’s Talk Genre

Alright, it’s the last Saturday in November, so this will be my final NaNoWriMo update for the year in a blog post. Two days and some change remain, and I am currently sitting on 45,000 words. I have surprised myself by actually getting closer to my goal of writing 50,000 words this month toward the first draft my next novel (name has changed to Carmilla’s Ghost) than I thought I would, and now I may actually reach that goal. That in itself is exciting, but I’m also proud of the story as it’s developed from my outline. And in that vein, let’s talk today about genre and plot.

Let’s start with a pair of definitions before we discuss the topic. Genre is a category of a work of art, literature, music, etc. and is characterized by similarities in form, style, and subject matter. Plot is defined as the main events of a narrative created by one or more authors/creators. So, hopefully it’s clear that Genre does not dictate the plot, but it plays a major role in structuring the events linked together in a plot. Most heroic stories with male protagonists slavishly follow Campbell’s idea of the hero’s journey, meaning we know a “hero narrative” by the following hallmarks (abbreviated): a young man meets someone/thing that calls him to leave home to seek adventure and, often, a macguffin that will bring some boon to his home. He either voluntarily leaves or gets evicted, crossing the threshold, and then he undergoes a series of trials where he succeeds and fails as needed, meets and overcomes his psychological shadow, and then completes his objective, becoming a hero who brings some boon back home. And we can see this structure in tales as diverse as Gilgamesh, Parzival, Star Wars, and most superhero stories regardless of medium. The plots of these stories differ greatly, but the structure is largely similar. Additional similarities include a largely hopeful tone, which argues that human action (if one is male and in possession of a proper “destiny”) can cause change in the larger world, that the problems we face are things that we can overcome. Again, these problems and their solutions differ from tale to tale, but the theme remains.

So, let’s talk about the genres I work with. I know I’ve called urban fantasy a genre/subgenre, but as I think about it, urban fantasy is more of a setting. Urban fantasy includes Harry Potter, Percy Jackson, The Dresden Files, the Anita Blake novels, the proliferation of paranormal romances that fill the genre today, and the tabletop RPGs by White Wolf (Vampire: the Masquerade, Werewolf: the Apocalypse, etc.). The only things share among all these products are: a world that’s pretty similar to our own, the existence of mythical and/or supernatural creatures who live and walk among us, and that magic is real in some way. This seems like a genre, but a paranormal romance urban fantasy barely resembles the more pulpy adventures of Harry Dresden or the heroic journey of Harry Potter or the dark, gothic fantasy of the White Wolf World of Darkness games. So, if we think about genre as something that transcends setting, then we start to see genre’s real use: helping us tell the stories we want to tell, regardless of setting and plot specifics.

Now, I’m not a genre purist. I believe that we can mix genres that work well together or choose genres that may clash structurally if we know how to use those clashes to highlight tension. My upcoming debut novel, Liam’s Doom (available for preorder at all major retailers!), is a fairly straightforward urban fantasy adventure story with noire elements to add flavor. I used the structure and hallmarks of an adventure novel where our heroine ventures into a series of locations that are increasingly strange, contends with a series of increasingly difficult and deadly challenges, and interacts with strange characters. The noire detective elements (an investigation, the heroine’s aesthetics, and some of the first-person narration) add color and, hopefully, help distinguish my work from other urban fantasy adventure novels.

For the novel I’m currently drafting, Carmilla’s Ghost, one of my intentions is to play with the structures of two genres: the adventure story and the traditional gothic romance (pre-Dracula). What I really want to play with by juxtaposing the structures of these different genres is the tension arising when hope stares into the abyss of despair. I also enjoy the many avenues that gothic romances offer for symbolism and mystery, which pairs nicely with the noire elements that color my brand of adventure story, especially how different supernatural elements relate to different forms of trauma and emotional distress. And this last bit is something I only learned while doing research for this book. My literature graduate program didn’t discuss gothic fiction or any “genre” fiction because the faculty consider such things to be “unworthy” of academic study.

So, in short, I think I’ve mentioned three of the biggest things worth considering when planning a novel: setting (where/when it takes place), genre (themes, structure, etc.), and plot (what’s going to actually happen). Genre can be tricky to pin down because not all scholars and thinkers agree on what actually “defines” a genre. However, learning about genre and the types of stories usually told within that genre can help a writer craft a story. The biggest problem that “genre fiction” (the derisive term used for any fiction that is not “literary” by the definition of scholars) is that it becomes easy to slavishly follow the structure to the point that the tale becomes a cliché.

So, now I need to get back to drafting, because this might be the first time that I “win” NaNoWriMo!