Monthly Archive: March 2006

We Now Pause For Station Identification

I was talking to Gary last night, and he told me he’d just found out that there are still copies of his limited edition chapbook “We Now Pause For Station Identification” available.

In all my wifely bias, I have to say that this is a kick-ass chapbook. It’s not a funny zombie story, but it is a really good one. What’s it about? The narrator, a talk-radio DJ, is trapped in his broadcast booth, low on food and water, dangling at the end of his sanity as the dead walk the earth.

“We Now Pause …” is on the preliminary Stoker ballot, and if it gets on the final ballot, I’m hoping that the publisher will let me put up a movie I shot of Gary reading the story at the Stokers last year. I think that if people can hear even just a bit of the story, they’ll know it’s worth having.

Forget Genre

by Gary A. Braunbeck

This is going to bounce around a bit like a paper cup caught in the wind, but will hopefully come together at the end, so bear with me.

One of the things I promised myself when I agreed to take part in this blog was that I would try to avoid offering advice to aspiring writers. This is not arrogance on my part, nor is it my assigned covert role in some labyrinthine conspiracy designed to make certain that basic necessary knowledge for starting one’s writing career is kept concealed from you, thus eliminating any potential competition you and your work might pose in the marketplace.

The reason I am uncomfortable offering advice to aspiring writers is simple: I’m still learning how to do this myself (and I hope that I’ll never stop learning). Many of the things I discovered through trial and error no longer apply, and I wouldn’t dare try to tell someone else how they should go about managing a writing career.

But there is one piece of advice that, when pressed to, I gladly offer to aspiring writers — and it’s one that is often met by blank, confused stares: Forget Genre.

If you sit down and say, “I’m going to write a HORROR story,” you might — consciously or not — start grafting traditionally horrific elements onto a story where they don’t belong, and you can hobble a story by trying to force it to fit within the “traditional” (read: popularly accepted) boundaries of a particular genre, rather than expand those boundaries by not worrying about how it’s going to be categorized. View it only in terms of the story you want to tell, not the one you think readers are going to be expecting.

Two things happened recently that prompted me to revisit this subject for myself: 1) Reviews for my novella In the Midnight Museum and my new Leisure novel, Keepers started appearing, and, 2) A member of a local writers’ group made a statement so naive as to be almost — almost — laughable.

About the former: much to my relief, the reviews for both Museum and Keepers have thus far been overwhelmingly positive, but in almost every case, the reviewers have said something along the lines of “…it’s both horror and not”, or, “…I guess horror is as good as anything to call it…”

You get the idea. Neither work fits easily into any single category, and it’s making some people crazy trying to figure out where to put them. My response is: how about just addressing them as stories and leave it at that?

My guess is that readers and reviewers begin reading a story labeled “horror” (or “cyberpunk”, or “fantasy”, or “mystery”, or what have you) with certain ingrained expectations; they have come to anticipate certain elements to appear to a particular type of story, and are surprised — sometimes not pleasantly so — when those expectations are not met and/or indulged.

Only half a dozen times in my career have I sat down and said, “I’m going to write a HORROR story,” and then proceeded to do just that, always bearing in mind what readers expect in a horror story, and making damn sure I worked in as many of those expected elements as I could. Six times I’ve done this, and six times I’ve produced stories that are just, well…awful. And they’re awful because I did not forget genre, genre was the overriding factor in their creation — and telling a good story was secondary.

Shame on me.

Now to the latter point before I bring all this together.

I belong to a local writers’ group that is composed mostly of fantasy and science fiction writers. Many of these folks are unpublished or have just begun publishing; some of the folks have a decent amount of fiction already published; and a small handful of them, including myself and Charles Coleman Finlay, have got a fairly decent body of published work out there.

In a recent discussion, one of the members — who writes heroic fantasy — commented that she’d noticed a “…larger than usual number of horror-type stories” being submitted for critique, and could we possibly cut down on that because she and several other members don’t ‘get’ horror. When prompted for further comment, she also admitted that she’s read “…some Stephen King” but otherwise tends to read almost exclusively in the field of — you guessed it — heroic fantasy.

She is not alone in this; members who write exclusively mystery fiction have quit the group because they didn’t ‘get’ fantasy, and the science fiction folks didn’t ‘get’ mystery.

What’s to ‘get’? Somebody explain this to me — on second thought, please don’t, it wasn’t an actual request.

It doesn’t matter a damn if your story is horror, or mainstream, or fantasy, or erotica, or any other genre or sub-genre — it is, must be, must always be, first and foremost a good story.

Why don’t more readers and writers understand that? Have we become so tunnel-visioned in our expectations that we have given up the hope of ever seeing any genre attempt something new and/or different? Or have we been trained through a steady diet of the same old same-old to want nothing more than journeyman-level storytelling, storytelling that challenges neither the mind nor the heart (forget about those “traditional boundaries” I mentioned earlier)?

If you answered “yes” to either of those questions, I think it’s quite possible that you’re the type of reader or writer who’s come to think in terms of “genre” far too much for your own good.

Far too many writers — both new and established — think too much in terms of the type of story they’re writing — and what’s worse, far too many of them read almost exclusively in the field in which they want to publish. While it is important to be be well-read in your chosen field, it’s vital that you read outside that field as much as possible, otherwise you’ll eventually be writing nothing more than a hip imitation of a pastiche of a rip-off of something that was original two decades ago but has now fallen far too deep into a well-worn groove to offer a challenge to either writers or readers.

I read all over the place, and do not restrict my influences to those giants in the field from under whose shadows I hope to emerge.

As a result, yes, both of my recent works are and aren’t horror; they’re both also fantasy and not; each is and isn’t a mystery, a romance, a mainstream character study. What they are, are two pieces of which I am very proud because they were the best stories I could make them … because I followed my own advice and Forgot Genre.

Approach any work as being simply a story, and you’ll always “get” it; think only in terms of “genre” and you’ll have a hobbled story by the third paragraph.

That is the best piece of advice that I have or will ever have for aspiring writers. I hope you found something useful contained here.

Now go read Theodore Sturgeon’s magnificent The Dreaming Jewels and put someone into brainlock when you ask them to tell you what kind of a novel it is.

Gary A. Braunbeck is the author of 14 books and over 150 short stories. If you enjoyed this article, take a look at his book Fear in a Handful of Dust: Horror as a Way of Life.

In Praise of Proofreaders

by Gary A. Braunbeck

After a while, regardless of how well-focused, disciplined, and determined you are when writing a book, you just don’t, well… see it any more. It happens to all of us at some point on every project. You spend so much time writing, cutting, revising, and polishing, that you risk either not seeing the forest for the trees or become so over-focused on one particular tree that you don’t notice the forest fire until it’s too late.

Okay, carried that metaphor just a little too far, sorry, but hopefully you’ve already discerned the point: that there comes a time during a book-length project when you’ve spent so much time working on it that you lose perspective.

Here’s the thing: by the time you, as a reader, pick up a copy of an author’s book, the author him- or herself has read it over at least three times — and this is after the countless hours spent writing, re-writing, and polishing. If you want to include all that, as well, then I think it’s safe to say that by the time a book goes to print, its author has read it through, from beginning to end, a minimum of seven times, probably more.

This is a necessary evil. Editorial suggestions and changes must be considered and/or made, the manuscript must then be read through to make certain that these changes mesh with the overall story (tone, narrative arc, continuity, etc.), and if a problem is then discovered, it must be fixed, and the whole process starts over again.

I’m oversimplifying this because to describe the process in painstaking detail would not only rob the reading experience of some of its magic, but bore you to tears.

But when the book is finally out there, and everything looks good, the author and the editor can sit back and smile at having done their job to the best of their abilities. Authors often cite their editors as having been “instrumental” in helping to shape a book that may have encountered some rough spots along the pot-holed road to publication. Editors deserve all the credit that an author cares to cast their way, no arguments here.

But there is a group of unsung heroes in the publishing process, people whose names often don’t appear anywhere in the book, but without whose effort, insight, and input, a lot of us would look like illiterate fools.

I am talking about proofreaders, those folks whose thankless job it is to go through your manuscript once you’ve ceased being able to see it anymore and look for the signs of a possible forest fire (see over-extended metaphor at the beginning). Many people think a proofreader’s sole responsibility is to check spelling and punctuation.
While that is definitely right up there on their list of duties, many of them go the extra mile — hell, many of them go several hundred extra miles — to ensure that the book they’re working on is the best it can possibly be.

And they do this by deliberately searching out those elements that you, the writer, ceased to be able to see somewhere around Draft #3.

Two personal examples: a few weeks ago, right before my second Cedar Hill collection, Home Before Dark was being prepped for the printer, one of Earthling’s marvelous proofreaders noticed that in my story, “Palimpsest Day”, the age of the mother did not add up if one stopped to consider her dates of birth and death. Now, I know that a lot of people tend to read such details with a quick eye and don’t stop to do the exact math … but that’s no excuse for sloppiness, and that is exactly what this mistake was — sloppiness on my part. I had become so over-focused on fine-tuning the story so that it fit into the overall arc of the Cedar Hill cycle that I overlooked a small but significant detail — making sure the mother’s age added up. While a mistake of this sort probably wouldn’t have ruined the story, its mere presence would have lessened the story’s value. I had read through the manuscript so many times that I simply didn’t see this problem any more, and thanks to a sharp proofreader, neither will you.

Second example: up until its fourth round of proofreads, my novella In the Midnight Museum contained a glaring continuity error that, while in and of itself quite small, would have damned near pulled the rug out from underneath the entire story had it not been caught by the proofreader. It was a quick, minor detail that very well might have been overlooked by most readers, but those readers who would not have missed it would have had the entire second half of the story ruined by this nagging inconsistency. (You’ve noticed, haven’t you, that I’m not telling you the exact nature of this mistake? That’s because I am so embarrassed by it that I dare not share the specifics, lest you think me, well … simple. “My God,” you’d say. “A sponge would have seen that.” And I’d prefer you leave this essay thinking I have an IQ higher than my shoe size.)

But, again, this potentially destructive detail was overlooked by me because I had stopped seeing the whole of the moon and focused only on the crescent (I figured it was time to switch metaphors).

So consider all of the above to be a preamble to this: a song of gratitude to all proofreaders, those unsung heroes who labor over our manuscripts almost as long and intensely as we do, whose unblinking eye often catch the flaws that we can no longer see, and whose objectivity gives us a fresh perspective just as we need it the most.

I’m going to end this by getting even more specific: Paul Miller, Don Koish, Deena Warner, John Everson, Ron Clinton, Robert Mingee, Jack Haringa, and — my own personal major domo, Mark Lancaster … thank you. A thousand times, thank you. Thank you for caring about my work enough to go those extra hundred miles and always pointing out even the smallest problem, no matter how testy I get about your nitpicking. You are why I look like a good writer.

My gratitude and admiration knows no bounds.

Now see how many mistakes you can find in this blog entry. Just don’t tell me about them or I might throw a hissy fit.


Gary A. Braunbeck is the author of 14 books and over 150 short stories. If you enjoyed this article, take a look at his book Fear in a Handful of Dust: Horror as a Way of Life.