Tag Archives: genre

Genrecon 2013

Last weekend I went to Brisbane for the second annual Genrecon event.

It was my first time in Brisbane and the weather was perfect, just as the tourism board promises. Genrecon was set amongst the brutalist installations of the late 80s (Southbank was tidied up for Expo 88) and the cultural precinct was a great place to wander around nursing a coffee or a hangover.

Genrecon 2013 itself was, as 2012 had been, an amazing experience. Huge thanks to Peter Ball and Meg Vann and all the QWC ninjas for making it happen.

I came straight from the airport to the Opening Night Reception where I caught up with some of the 2012 veterans such as The Mercieca boys, Chris Andrews and others, and met several new and exciting young writers (like Chris White), editors, agents, publishers and genre-fiction lovers. Special mention here to the Romance writers,  some of whom I knew already, others of whom I met for the first time (such as Cathryn Hein, who was happy to talk footy with me). They were, universally, a pleasure to speak with.

On Saturday morning I made my pitch to Alex Adsett, agent extraordinaire. She was interested enough to request a partial, so I will be emailing that off this week. Having the pitch done early meant I could relax and enjoy the rest of the weekend.

Scott Baker‘s talk on book trailers was (although I missed the start while pitching) a fascinating insight into how new or established authors can build a profile, or open themselves to a diversified market. His own example (for his novel The Rule of Knowledge was excellent. “It’s better to have no book trailer, than to have a bad book trailer.”

Patrick O’Duffy, Kate Cuthbert and Kim Wilkins dragged the workshop on mixing genre into the realm of Dino-erotica, complete with role play. “It’s easier to market a story that is at the centre of an established genre, but that’s not (an author’s) job. Just write the damn book and let the marketing department decide how to sell it.”

The conversation event with John Connolly was fantastic. He’s such a witty and entertaining speaker and shared a lot of wisdom about persistence, effort, professionalism and the need to finish things. “You will always be an amateur if you don’t finish things.”

The Kimonos and Cutlasses Dinner was great. Chuck Wendig gave a live action rendition of his famous “25 lists”. This time ’25 Reasons Why I Fucking Love Genre Fiction”, and followed that up with an interview with Kate Cuthbert that had the room in great spirits. Special mention here to the lovely Denise Rosetti, whom I met at GC 2012, an Erotic Romance writer who has been wonderfully generous with tips on writing craft and the publishing industry.

The post-dinner party was a great night. A chance to debate the relative merits of Kirk and Pickard with Kate Cuthbert (she for Pickard, me arguing for Kirk. Something surely must be said for romancing the unfettered masculine, rather than the dignified and refined. I saw Picard as too staid and paternal. She saw him differently. I think we decided on the terminology ‘Gent in the street/Beast in the bed’).
Later I had the chance to have a few drinks with Scott and John. Here I am then, a young writer, finding his way into the industry, sat at a table with an international best-seller and someone who helped create the Hobbit films… I probably didn’t take full advantage of that, but it was a great conversation. I won’t reproduce it here, but after those trapped in the elevator (including the lovely Gemma Smith) escaped we turned our musing toward cannibalism, and I think that raised the tone.

Sunday began with an almighty hangover, but I made it to the Leanpub presentation, which gave a very interesting history of genre fictions origins in Dickensian serials. Alex gave an insight into the business of being a writer and what to look for in publishing contracts, and Anita Heiss told some hard truths about sales, genre, and finding a niche.

One of the absolute highlights was Charlotte Nash and Rebekah Turner‘s workshop on Action films. Die Hard, Terminator, Aliens, Predator, Speed and The Matrix, all used to show universal truths about how Character, Conflict and Context can be used to tell a compelling narrative.  “You need to give the characters authentic reasons to act in character. There has to be a reason in the context for the characters to act as they do.”

The panel on antagonists gave Chuck and PM Newton a chance to get side-tracked by The Wire and discussing the various ways in which McNulty, Stringer, Barksdale and Marlo were mutual antagonists, and Omar was everyone’s antagonist. Interestingly the discussion turned to the dearth of female antagonists, and it seemed that when they were present it was often opposite female protagonists or as the face of some larger systemic antagonism. “A good antagonist is the hero of his own story.”

And a wonderful event ended with a debate over whether “Genre just wants to have fun,” and despite the best efforts of John “Paris” Birmingham and his impassioned call for the negative team to stop hating life, it was Scott Baker’s reworking of Poe’s ‘The Raven’ that won the day.

Next Genrecon is 2015. I cannot recommend it highly enough. The genre writing community is so supportive and the whole event was so inspiring. There is a diverse range of perspectives, from Horror, to Romance, to Crime, to Sci-Fi, to Fantasy; novelists, short story writers… all sorts. And my people.
Any room where you can get cheered for knowing the significance of LV-426 is my kind of room!

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Grimdark

So I’ve basically played the role of a vaguely interested observer in all this, but something Joe Abercrombie tweeted today – a piece by Daniel Abraham in Clarkesworld – has finally motivated to reach into my proverbial pockets and draw out two-cents, which I now humbly submit to the debate.

As Abraham notes the moniker “Grimdark”  is taken from Warhammer 40,000 (affectionately known as 40k). I played the game as a young fella. I had my armies (Eldar predominantly, but I did put a bit of an Orc Horde together and was compiling some Imperial Guard when I gave it all away. The miniatures  including some incredibly carefully and poorly painted Banshees and Scorpions, were sadly lost in a house-fire) and would spend long afternoons plotting the fractional movements required for victory or poring over a codex seeking some tactical advantage. I didn’t get too much into the surrounding mythology of the 40k universe, but it grew exponentially whilst I played and subsequently. I am aware now that entire novel series are devoted to the expanded universe, in much the same way you’ll find with Star Wars and Dragonlance and such.

I am familiar with the line from which “Grimdark” apparently comes: In the grim darkness of the future there is only war.

Two of my favourite modern Fantasy authors (Abercrombie and Richard K Morgan) have been labelled as writing Grimdark, as well as Mark Lawrence,  an author highly recommended to me and near the top of my to-read list (after I finally finish Red Country, which I am powering through at amazing pace). Judging by Abercrombie’s thoughtful response, and Richard Morgan’s, neither of them are thrilled at the assignation (though Joe seems to have embraced it with his twitter handle), but more on that latter.

Mark Lawrence’s response basically summed up my own, but seeing as we’ve made it this far, let’s unpack it a bit.

Genre is a fraught concept. At its best it’s a useful framework for understanding tropes and narrative archetypes, at its worst it’s a cage, a ghetto, a straight-jacket. Mieville’s reference to Tolkein as the “Big Oedipal Daddy” of Fantasy is perhaps a starting point in identifying how the Fantasy genre came to be seen both from within, and from without. Fantasy was escapism for nerds. It was largely derivative to its progenitor (and “Author of the Century” no less) and it operated within variations of his British agrarian idyll being threatened by malevolent forces.

Arguably this continued until recently, arguably very recently, arguably it continues still. Many would point (as Abraham does) to Thomas Covenant, and fair enough. Others would point to George RR Martin, whose Game of Thrones was published in 1996 and featured many of the traits now assigned to Grimdark: the amorality, the incest, the rape (so much rape, so casually put to the page), the murders, the attempted (and successful) infanticides, regicide, ultimately (spoiler alert of sorts) the death of the apparent protagonist before the end of the first book.

But Grimdark seems a more modern label than either of these. Perhaps it is the HBO effect and GRRM’s ever-growing fanbase, but even that is older than Grimdark, being in place for two years at least. And so the finger is pointed at Abercrombie (whose First Law books were published in 06,07 and 08), Mark Lawrence (Broken Empire 2011, 2012…), and Richard K Morgan (A Land Fit For Heroes 08, 10…).

Morgan is particularly interesting, because it’s his Fantasy books that see him labelled as Grimdark, but his previous series (published between 2002 and 2005 and focussed on Takeshi Kovacs) wears a label of sci-fi/noir. As Morgan himself points out it is the elements of Noir that he brings to Fantasy which are most likely what is used to label his work Grimdark. The Kovacs novels have been credited with reviving Cyberpunk (the genre spawned, or at least identified, by William Gibson‘s Neuromancer) by grafting “the Gibsonian subgenre” back onto pulp fiction, and I think particularly in this Noir Pulp. It’s a link Abraham makes as well in his Clarkesworld piece, though by Abraham’s distinction I personally see Kovacs as more Hard-boiled than Noir. Kovacs does make moral decisions that go against his self-interest, the difference perhaps is that Morgan makes his protagonist pay the cost of those decisions. Kovacs gets no free pass for having done, or having tried to do, the “right thing”.

Likewise with Abercrombie’s flawed “heroes”.  Logen Ninefingers has a past he wants to escape, but can’t. In much the same way as Morgan’s protagonist Ringil Eskiath (who shares a name with a Tolkeinian sword), Ninefingers isn’t given the freedom to just put aside the consequences of his past acts. He wants to be a better person, but it’s not going to be easy to change, and will be harder still to convince others of the change. Shivers suffers even more-so. The change in the Northman is pronounced, from when we first meet him during the final stages of the First Law, through his Styrian experience and his final, decisive, blow in The Heroes. It is not a change for the better. And yet it is a change we, as readers, can understand, perhaps even sympathise with. Is it enough to mean well, even if your actions bring ill consequences? Can we redeem our wrongs by good acts? Would I not too struggle to maintain the finer parts of myself if I had suffered as he suffered? I think these are essential questions for readers of this sub-genre, whatever we decide it should be called. I think these are essential questions for readers of all literature. Especially that last one.

Is it not this question that we ask ourself as Casablanca ends? Would I send the woman I love away, on a plane with another man? Would I risk something of myself for others, even if there was little hope of personal gain and a genuine risk of personal suffering?
When Harry Lime, atop the ferris-wheel in The Third Man, asks how much money it would be worth for one of those specks to simply stop moving, are we not being asked how much we value human life, being challenged to explain that value, or at least to respond in some way to a character who values it little at all?

Certainly in gritty stories, in amoral characters – or just overly pragmatic ones – we are challenged. I enjoy as a reader that I am. I enjoy as a writer exploring those questions and developing ways in which I can use characters to provide different perspectives on these questions and others like them.

The problem then with Grimdark is that it is used so often pejoratively, and often by those who are seeking to define what they dislike about a certain type of story. Abraham sub-titles his piece “Literatures of Despair” – a phrase he explains, but which I don’t accept. Morgan’s response dialogue is telling. The complaints (of the straw man) become ones of taste and of subjectivity. Some blood, but not too much. Some danger posed to the protagonist, but don’t kill him. Some hint of the enemy being evil, but no rapes or torture. A little military-based murder is ok, but no gore please.

I think allowing anyone – even a readership – to define a genre in such a way, to set up boundaries and borders in which writers should (or must operate), is a stultifying influence. Even more so if those arbitrary borders are then policed by self-appointed guardians, wielding indignation and harking back to a supposed Glorious Age.

If Grimdark is Noir come to the Fantasy worlds then it is no new thing. Indeed it’s taken a generation or two to move from the mainstream into Fantasy. In 1991 Silence of the Lambs swept the Oscars:  Best Adapted Screenplay, Best Director, Best Actress, Best Actor, Best Picture. The cinema-going audience were ready for a story in which the secondary character, an advisor to the FBI (and thus in some way on the side of the ‘good guys’ even if reluctantly) was a cannibal serial-killer. Lector’s escape was celebrated, anticipated not as a defeat of the ‘good’ but as a victory for a character with whom the audience had become fascinated.

On television we watch Dexter, the serial-killer with a ‘Dark Passenger’ and a mission, and hope he doesn’t get caught. We admire Omar Little, a man we have witnessed murder and steal. We hope that Walter White can keep cooking and distributing crystal-meth, because doing so doesn’t make him a bad guy… not exactly… kind of… I don’t know. And that’s the point. These characters are fascinating and exciting and wonderful precisely because I can’t answer that question.

Is it any wonder the audience of modern Fantasy is ready for similar characters? Is it not a good thing that I started questioning why I should still be barracking for Monza to get her revenge, that I should question whether the world wouldn’t be better off if the ‘bad guy’ had’ve just killed her off in chapter one? I want characters who are flawed, who make mistakes, who do things I would never do, who suffer in ways I hope never to suffer. If it serves the story, put those guys through the wringer. Carve them up, piece-by-piece, and let’s examine what’s left at the core of them.

All of that’s fine. All of that means that I – now only two chapters into Red Country – honestly don’t know if I want Shy South to catch up to the bandits who took her brothers or not… and surely that uncertainty, that hesitancy, surely that’s a powerful narrative force.