On learning genre beats in story telling

Reading books to learn their beats is a surreal exercise. I’m currently 3/4 of the way through the second paranormal noir thriller I’ve read in two weeks, and my brain has been lining up the scenes of each to see where they match. By the time I’ve hit my goal of reading ten of these, I’ll have a strong sense of the genre and hopefully be able to write my own.

It’s a rather abstract thing, to notice that the main character briefly making out with a werewolf she thinks she hates is the same beat as the PI’s cop friend taking care of him after his ass was beaten to a pulp. But I can see it, and I’m debating watching a bunch of old noir mystery films to take the same kind of notes.

I think the key to doing it well is that people who don’t understand story structure don’t notice the similarities, and anyone trying to study it has to ask if a scene definitely is a certain beat. I’m sure there’s more to it that I haven’t figured out yet, the stuff that’s particular to paranormal fiction, to protagonists of a certain gender (I’d love to find a book that plays around with that).

Beats are important to a genre; if they aren’t done well, you get one of two responses, with readers complaining of it being “formulaic,” or even worse, beats were missed and the story didn’t feel right and failed to entertain.

One thing I’ve noticed and will be paying attention to is that the main characters are some variation of irrational and just plain stupid about some things. In the first book of The Dresden Files, Harry Dresden made a couple of incredibly stupid decisions about what he did and did not tell the police, which contrasts so much with all the other ways that he’s smart that I just could not believe his reasoning for it. In Night Shift by Lillith Saint Crow, Jill Kismet is both batshit insane and an idiot, but she’s been so consistently crazy and stupid that I’ve come to believe the ridiculous decisions she makes. I’m curious to see if this pattern holds in the next book I read.

It’s a fun game to break down these stories and figure out how they work, but I may never again be able to just casually read this genre without thinking about their structure. That’s not necessarily a bad thing, but when I was younger this genre was definitely a fun form of non-challenging escapism. I may have to find a new form of brain junk food.


Feature image: Photo by Elti Meshau on Unsplash

Armadillo Con 39

 

My husband and I spent the weekend at Armadillo Con 39, a literary science fiction convention that has been happening in Austin, Texas, since 1979. This was, for all intents and purposes, my first writers convention, and it was really cool.

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I met some amazing people, hung out a bit with some of our writer friends, and completely embarrassed myself by fangirling at a childhood hero. Most of the panels I went to were fascinating discussions that ranged from the craft of writing to “what is genre X” to presentations by people from NASA. A couple of panels were duds, one due to poor planning, one because the moderator didn’t understand the concept of moderating.

I got to watch Nisi Shawl, Tamora Pierce, and Stina Leicht discuss slavery in speculative fiction, with L. Timmel Duchamp moderating. The biggest takeaway from that was that you can’t  casually toss slavery into a world or spec fic story without doing the work to understand how that form of slavery would affect the world or your characters. To do so is at best lazy writing, at worst using something with a million layers of complexity and nuance as a cartoonish plot device.

Another excellent panel was Religious Horror and Horrific Religion, which was moderated by Matt Cardin, and included Derek Austin Johnson, Gabrielle Faust, Nate Southard, and the hosts of feminist horror podcast Women in Caskets. This was, for the most part, a fascinating conversation about religious themes in horror. Matt Cardin, a practicing Christian who teaches religion and has several books of occult/religious horror, discussed how so much of the imagery and themes in the Bible are actually terrifying, pointing to the “Hell House” movement of Evangelicalism and the irony of how much of Evangelical culture condemns horror books and films. Great panel.

The NASA stuff was really cool. The first panel we went to was about Space X and more generally how NASA has been fueling private space enterprise to kick start innovation and get us back out there. There was a panel on asteroid mining that I learned a lot from, in regards to the difficulties of making asteroid mining worth the initial cost of experimenting and developing infrastructure for everything from transport to processing. These guys from NASA prefaced several statements with, “I shouldn’t say this, but…” That was so cool.

I turned into a lump of awkward babbling when I tried to introduce myself to Tamora Pierce. I was probably 11 when I found Wild Magic at the library, and I was instantly hooked on her books. Back in a time when there wasn’t much high quality YA, Pierce stood out, and she still does. She’s one of those authors that I like to hand out to my friends’ kids the minute they’re old enough for it.

My husband is a fan of Stina Leicht, and she was so chill that we ended up just hanging out with her for a chunk of the con. Her stories about meeting Neil Gaiman are hilarious. Through her we met William Browning Spencer, who is a delightful and particular flavor of old Weird Texas writer.

I also saw for the first time some of the ickier stories I hear about cons on Twitter. At the slavery panel, this guy asked a panel entirely of women talking about slavery themes in speculative fiction what could be said about the psychology of women who like 50 Shades of Gray. That was pretty gross; Stina Leicht pointed out it wasn’t relevant to the panel, and they took another question immediately. There was a climate change denier at one of the NASA panels, and it was unclear what he was trying to ask the panel.

There was a panel on world building that included Tamora Pierce and Nicky Drayden, and some guy named J. Comer. Comer did quite a bit of cutting people off and dominating conversations. During a discussion on language building, he claimed that missionaries were an excellent resource for how to romanize languages, and that got Tamora Pierce fired up about the need to respect cultures that you draw inspiration from. I’m so glad that Tammy was on that panel.

One good thing I got from that panel was Tammy’s explanation of how she uses older ethnic cookbooks. Apparently vintage cookbooks from Europe include all kinds of holidays, what food is appropriate for those holidays, customs around the food, culturally appropriate substitutions around the world, etc. Meals can accomplish a lot in a book, from showing elements of a culture to hierarchies in a family. That is going to end up being useful.

It was an intense three days. I think, except for a lunch break on Saturday, we managed to hit a panel in every single slot. There were hard choices to make about those panels, too; usually at least 4 different topics, plus several author readings, in every slot.

I learned a lot of things about the industry of speculative fiction, and I came away from the experience wanting to bust my ass to break in.


Feature Image: Photo by Katie Montgomery on Unsplash

What Ray Bradbury Told Us To Do

That silly, minimalist story I published yesterday was a proof of concept and writing exercise to show myself that I can, in fact, writer a linear story with a beginning, middle, and end. I am a bit embarrassed by the largess of this revelation, but the most basic mechanics of storytelling clicked into place in my head during that exercise, and I find myself eyeing the plastic tub of old notebooks and abandoned projects through new eyes and an understanding of how to make all those ideas work

I feel like I just bit into an apple from the Tree of Knowledge, and I want more. I want the skill that this understanding leads to.

Next I intend to throw myself into Ray Bradbury’s most important advice to writers:

“Write a short story every week. It’s not possible to write 52 bad short stories in a row.”

I do believe that in art, repetition is key to developing skill. Skill is what one needs to transmute the conceptual lumps floating about in our minds into real pieces of art, into stories we can give to other people so they can take those concepts into themselves.

I’m going to post the weekly story here, good or bad. I’ll only give myself three rounds of edits. One year of free stories from someone learning to be a writer.


Header image original photo by Andrew Neel on Unsplash