Posts Tagged Ian Fleming

Literary versus genre fiction – what’s the difference?

How do you define literary fiction?

Is it the writing? Do literary novels do it better than genre novels? You’d certainly expect them to, and it’s true that some writers of genre have a tin ear. Equally, many genre writers are terrific wordsmiths – Ian Fleming, Thomas Harris. Anyway the best writing suits the job – whatever that job is.

Is it insight? You definitely can’t have literary fiction without it. Although some genre writers get close. Is John Le Carre a spy novelist or a literary writer?

Is it that literary fiction doesn’t follow rules?

With a genre novel, tropes must be respected because they are what the reader enjoys. A family saga must run a well defined gamut of black sheep, poor relations, blissful marriages and disastrous elopements because otherwise the reader feels that the writer missed the obvious opportunities. The entertainment is in how these obligations are met in a fresh way, the individual writer’s ingenuity within this formal structure.

If genre authors bust out of their boxes, they risk disappointing their readers. Ruth Rendell, who you’d think has a reliably adoring fan base, was careful to adopt a different name to explore beyond conventional crime fiction. When Iain Banks wrote sci-fi as well as lit fic, he stuck an M between his names. But then some writers jump categories and face their public with no disguise – Robert Harris with his modern thrillers and historical fiction. Perhaps it all comes down to how hard he can argue with his publisher.

If rules, or the lack of them, are the crucial difference, does that make genre benders literary? Maybe, if the blend creates a provocative and resonating tension. But sometimes fusing genres is no more than a simple exercise of this-meets-that (or adding freshly boiled zombies).

If a literary novelist writes about a murder, they certainly don’t have to meet the expectations that a crime novelist or detective writer would – think of Donna Tartt’s The Secret History. If genre is about the reader’s expectations, perhaps literary is an anti-genre.

Let’s take Woody Allen as an example. Yes, his medium is celluloid, but it all starts with words and pages. His body of work includes character pieces (Annie Hall, Vicky Christina Barcelona), madcap sci-fi comedies (Sleeper), cosy mystery spoofs (Manhattan Murder Mystery) bleak examinations of morality (Crimes And Misdemeanours). Sometimes, but not all the time, he breaks the bounds of reality by adding time travel (Midnight in Paris), fantasy (The Purple Rose of Cairo). Or singing, flying and ghosts in Everyone Says I Love You. In his latest, To Rome With Love, a character turns invisible.

With Allen, you never know what rules will be followed – and yet you do. They are Allen’s rules, created by his own themes, obsessions and humanity. They’re what we come back for.

So perhaps each literary writer creates a genre of their own, invents the colours they paint in. Like with genre fiction, it makes its own expectations. Perhaps the two are not so very different.

Thanks for the pic pedrosimoes7

What do you think? Is ‘literary’ a genre? What makes a writer literary? What makes them not? Are there any writers you’d say were both genre and literary?

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If something matters in your story, your characters must earn it

Here’s one of the timeless problems with novels. The reader knows the author can do anything they like. And one of the things I see in manuscripts is that the author has the story firmly by the ears and is steering it. Enough to make me wince.

Being killed or falling in love

In real life, love can just happen, right? A glance across a crowded room might be enough. And, at the less optimistic end of the spectrum, people do just die.

But in stories they can’t if it’s convenient for the plot. You have to work harder to earn that development. There may have been a time when you could erase a villain by striking him down on the golf course, but very few readers will swallow that now.

Finding the murderer

In some manuscripts, detectives find their suspects far too easily. If the murderer is Chinese, all they have to do is go to the Oriental supermarket and chat. Hey presto, a vital clue.

When characters get information they badly want, it needs to be hard won. It’s a way for the character to demonstrate resourcefulness, bravery, doggedness. Or maybe gullibility, if that’s what you want.

In fact, it’s better if they chase the wrong lead for a while. Suppose the person he talked to was protecting the real villain. Remember, stories aren’t a linear escalator to a success, they need slips and reversals. In Silence of the Lambs, a SWAT team stakes out a house – and it turns out to be the wrong one. This blunder dramatically raises the stakes for the heroine who is about to confront the killer on her own. In The Day of the Jackal, the police seem to have discovered the assassin’s true identity but at the end he’s revealed as the wrong guy – a neat twist in the coda that preserves the mystery. (If you didn’t know that, um sorry…)

Fight scenes

Many writers mistake where the real drama is in a fight scene. They think it’s the trading of blows, or perhaps the natter that goes on (rather unrealistically) between them. But readers know that the writer can keep all that going as long as needed. The police won’t burst in until the right moment. The roof won’t collapse, no matter how much it’s wobbling.

What makes a satisfying end to a fight? It has to be a surprise. Perhaps it’s storytelling sleight of hand. In the film of Georges Simenon’s Red Lights, a whisky bottle bought earlier by the protagonist is smashed and turned into an impromptu weapon.

Perhaps the reader is convinced the hero can’t win. In the climax of Goldfinger the story has established that James Bond can’t beat Oddjob in a straight fight – so when he outsmarts him and electrocutes him with an electric cable, we’re so surprised that we feel the win is deserved. (Moreover, Oddjob had sliced the electric cable with his hat – a neat comeuppance.)

Another satisfying way for a protagonist to win a fight is if they complete an arc – perhaps defeating the monster inside themselves. Or – like in Blade Runner when Roy Batty saves Deckard instead of killing him – a complex victory for both.

A story is not just what happens, but how and why. And one of your jobs as a writer is to make failure possible and triumph surprising. The more an event or discovery matters, the more your characters have to earn it.

Thanks for the lightning pic, Opacity

Do you have favourite examples of earned victories or discoveries? Share in the comments!

The first edition of my newsletter is out now, including useful links and snippets about the next Nail Your Novel book!  You can read it here. And you can find out more about Nail Your Novel, original flavour, here.

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How to write fights, games, races and chases – in three easy stages

Action scenes can be tricky to write. Here’s
a three-step plan to nail them

1. Write first, fix the pace later

‘He stepped back to avoid the fist that came at him like a sledgehammer. Then he grabbed the arm and twisted, but his opponent had already recovered his balance and the teapot was whizzing towards him.’

Writing action is slow. Dead slow. When you’re plodding through every blow, twist, feint and reaction your exciting scene becomes a dire trudge. But you need to get the details down because those are your raw materials.

I remember in one early thriller I wrote there was a cliff-top chase, which culminated in the MC diving into the sea. It was supposed to be spectacular but dear me, it crawled. In desperation, I took out every other sentence (yes, that’s how much I had to cut). Suddenly it had the pace I wanted – the slick, breathless scene I imagined when I put it in the synopsis. Now I could see what speed the choreography should be, I checked the details, swapped some in and out – and it worked.

2 You don’t have to show absolutely everything

You don’t have to show the scene blow by blow. You can give a sense of what the scene feels like without showing every step, every blow, every thrust and counter-thrust. As with every kind of description, telling details that give the emotional feel of the scene are the most important. For instance, this excerpt from Ian Fleming’s Goldfinger:
‘Ten yards away, Oddjob hardly paused in his rush. One hand whipped off his ridiculous, deadly hat, a glance to take aim and the black steel half-moon sang through the air. Its edge caught the girl exactly on the nape of the neck.’

3 Make it more interesting than just a fight or a chase

Prose is an internal medium, and is much better for internal, or emotional, action. A scene that is just a set of physical instructions is never going to be as interesting as one with significant character interaction, or humour, or a development that matters to someone on an emotional level.

Screenwriter Jane Espenson said she always found it hard to write the fight scenes in Buffy The Vampire Slayer. So she would design the scene about something else – an argument or a revelation between the characters. When that was established, she slipped the fight in around that.

Thank you, Simon Wicks on Flickr, for the photo

Do you find action scenes easy to write or hard? Do you have any tips? Share in the comments!

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