I’m part of “Women In Genre”? Yay! Have some free fiction.

Several people are writing about their favorite “Women in Genre” this month. There’s even a hastag for it on Twitter if you’d like to see more of the discussion. Haralambi Markov (a Bulgarian writer, editor, pop culture geek, and avid reader) is writing a blog post each day, featuring his favorite women working in speculative fiction.

Today is Day 9 on his blog. Today, he wrote about me.

It basically says that I edit as well as write, and that with both of those together I’m putting out short fiction he thinks people need to read. He also recommends my blog, since I post about being a writer and editor in the midst of a change in how genre – and women in genre – is perceived Plus, you know, trying to balance my career with everything else.

Markov says that when you read my work, you can tell that:

Cuinn lives for genre and Dagan Books is a direct reflection of her passion and love.

That’s true, and I’m tickled that other people can see it. I know I’m at the beginning of my career. I have only put out a handle of books as a publisher, and have maybe twice that number in fiction sales myself. But – I do love what I do. I love spec fic. I love reading it, and I love being a part of where it’s going.

Markov mentions that he hasn’t read very many of my stories, coming to me instead as a reader of the anthologies I’ve edited, so here are links to where you can find a couple of my favorites online:

Mrs. Henderson’s Cemetery Dance” published by Red Penny Papers in their Summer 2012 issue.

Call Center Blues” published at Daily Science Fiction. Sent to subscribers Nov 2, 2011; posted to site Nov 9, 2011

Monsters, Monsters, Everywhere”, published by Crossed Genres Magazine in issue #34 (MONSTERS), October 1, 2011.

Annabelle Tree“, published in the Southern Fried Weirdness: Reconstruction anthology to benefit tornado relief efforts, May 13, 2011.

Click on the story name to read it. “Mrs. Henderson” is playful fantasy bordering on horror without actually being scary. “Call Center” is science fiction, and short – a little less than a thousand words. “Monsters” is sci fi but much creepier than the others. “Annabelle” is magic realism, and is sad but – I hope – beautiful, too.

Please let me know what you think, or if there’s anything you want to see more of. And thank you for thinking of me when you think of Women in Genre.

You Should Read INTERFICTIONS: An Anthology of Interstitial Writing

Synopsis: Nineteen writers dig into the imaginative spaces between conventional genres—realistic and fantastical, scholarly and poetic, personal and political—and bring up gems of new fiction: interstitial fiction. This is the literary mode of the new century, a reflection of the complex, ambiguous, and challenging world that we live in. These nineteen stories, by some of the most interesting and innovative writers working today, will change your mind about what stories can and should do as they explore the imaginative space between conventional genres. The editors garnered stories from new and established authors in the United States, Canada, Australia, and the United Kingdom, and also fiction translated from Spanish, Hungarian, and French. The collection features stories from Christopher Barzak, Colin Greenland, Holly Phillips, Rachel Pollack, Vandana Singh, Anna Tambour, Catherynne Valente, Leslie What, and others.

At Readercon this last July I got both Interfictions: An Anthology of Interstitial Writing and Interfictions 2, collections of short stories that are considered interstitial – not necessarily of one genre or another, but something in between. Strange but not quite speculative; often based in realism but still unreal. They were put out by the Interstitial Arts Foundation (disclaimer: I’m a member and you should be too), and I’ve been working my way through the books. Since it’s just been announced that the anthology series is moving online and will be open to submissions in February, it’s a good time for a review of book one.

I’ll give my quick thoughts on each story and then an overview at the end:

Christopher Barzak, “What We Know About the Lost Families of – House” – Easily my favorite story in the collection. The first person collective voice fits the story perfectly and adds that little bit of a strange, not the same kind of strange as reading a ghost story (which it also has), but the “what kind of story is this” strange that makes it interstitial. Loved it. Continue reading

A Better Class of Genre

I think that way that we, as booksellers and publishers and reviewers and readers, use the descriptive labels we have to define “genre” is wrong. What we commonly consider to be major genres, aren’t.

Simply put, there are two kinds of genres: one set describes an aspect of the plot or characters; the other set are much broader terms that should be used as adjectives. They can be used together, but using the umbrella terms alone doesn’t give enough description to accurately place the story within the context of surrounding literature.

The major umbrella terms, which I’m calling metagenres for the purposes of this discussion (because they don’t describe a genre as much as they describe a class of stories, or settings, which also have other genre lables) are Fantasy, Science Fiction, Westerns, Literary Fiction, Alt-History, Historical, Horror, and Weird. There are probably others but these are very common. If you think about it, none of those labels actually describes a story enough to tell you what it’s about. All a story has to have to be Science Fiction is an element of fictional science. Fantasy requires some kind of magical element, a Western is set in the American old West, Horror is meant to be scary, and a Weird story has a strange or occult element, meant to disturb the reader in some fashion. Literary fiction is fiction without a speculative element. Historical takes place in the past, and Alt-history stories take place on a world similar to ours but that evolved differently. That’s it. That’s all. Those labels cover much of fiction, and yet, they tell us almost nothing.

But as adjectives, tacked on to other genre labels, they better fit the stories we’re discussing. Just as calling something an “apple” isn’t as descriptive as calling it a “green apple”, but calling something “green” tells us very little about the object we’re looking for. Calling a story “romance” tells you that it centers on a relationship between two or more people. The story may have other elements but what’s important is that relationship. A reader will pick it up to experience the joy and longing and romantic tension between the characters. Compare that to “scifi” – right, that just means it has science in it. What’s it about again?

We don’t know. But if your romance is set in space, you can call it a SciFi romance, and suddenly you have a much better idea of what the story is about. The romance is with a vampire? Ok, call it paranormal romance, and you’re all set. Story has dragons? Fantasy romance. Love interest is a cowboy? Western romance. A Shoggoth? Weird romance.

What other genres describe parts of the plot? An adventure story is focused on action, moving forward, exploring, brave new world/frontier mentality. Military stories are centered around characters in the military, following or rebelling against orders, being part of a unit, some battle, some interacting with the government. Spy stories are similar but usually have a solitary character being a lot sneakier. Detective stories involving solving a mystery, whereas noir stories may have a detective (and may not) but are noted for being setting in a noir world, where the character either dies, or fails to solve the problem, or solves it but nothing changes. Humor stories are funny, and will end in a light-hearted and happy way. Thrillers show characters trying to escape from danger or unravel a mystery but also imply that the answers are kept from the reader too, so that they and the characters figure out who the bad guy is at the same time.

There are more, of course, but don’t they give you a much better idea of whether you want to read a story than any of the broad metagenres do? And by putting a genre lable with a metagenre label, you get very well defined categories… think Military Fantasy, Weird Noir, Erotic Horror, SciFi Adventure, and so on.

We need genre labels to sell books to new readers without giving away the whole plot. We have to have accurate labels in order to make sure that what we’re selling is what the reader wants to buy. They have to be able to trust us, trust our recommendations. It also helps us as writers to be able to describe our own stories – if we can clearly define it to ourselves, it gives us a better idea of whether we end up with the story we meant to write.

I’m not sure if breaking it down this way is the best answer. I do think it’s better than simply saying, “Oh it’s fantasy,” or “Oh, that’s science fiction,” which all too often can be said in a dismissive way, as if the book isn’t good enough for the reader, or the reader isn’t smart enough for the book.

But you tell me. I want your opinions. I am working toward a more thorough explanation of genre and even if I don’t agree with you I want to be sure I considered all the options.

You Should Read: Aimee Bender’s THE GIRL IN THE FLAMMABLE SKIRT

I find myself wondering what genre Aimee Bender’s work falls into. Perhaps not all of her writing, but this collection of short stories. It is literary in the sense that she writes with an eye to the experience of having read her work, in addition to telling a story. There are elements of weird fiction, fantasy, science fiction, erotica, and other hints of genre in the stories, as if her writing is a bumper car and she’s bouncing off the edges of genre, trading paint. There are whispers of genre, where she never comes right out with it.

Like Kelly Link and Karen Joy Fowler, nearly all of her protagonists are women. Is it feminist fiction, then? I don’t think so, no more than anyone else who writes a female main character could be labeled as such. Her women are by turns lost and needy and heartbroken and seeking male approval and inappropriately sexual (and, also, sexy and smart and loving and warm and witty). It’s a collection of stories about a range of people who happen to be, mostly, women.

There is an intimate quality to Bender’s stories, as if we’re being let in on secrets. We’re reminded of the time that we, too, were empty or lost or aching to be touched, and it seems that we can only be reminded of those feelings by someone who has been there as well. Bender reads as a comrade. A fellow wounded soldier, marching on, because the only way is forward.

I think Bender falls under that umbrella we’re calling “magic realism” these days. You can determine the difference between magic realism, fantasy, and paranormal*, by the reaction of others to the weird events which are occurring. In a fantasy setting, magic occurs naturally. It may not be everywhere, but the world at large is not surprised by its existence. It is a thing that happens.

A paranormal or weird fiction story also features creatures or powers or events, such as a haunting or a mutant child or a werewolf running loose. However, society deems this strange. Government agencies get involved, or the townspeople hide the weird out of fear of reprisal. Everyone knows this should not be.

In a magic realism story, a weird thing happens, and everyone thinks it’s wrong, but no one does anything about it. The weird event serves to teach the main character something or to unsettle the reader. It doesn’t change the world but it may change the life of one little girl.

Bender’s collection is full of these stories. A woman whose boyfriend devolves, taking the evolutionary path back to the ocean. The authorities don’t get involved. He isn’t taken by a research center. His friends and coworkers stop calling to ask about him because she asks them to stop – simple as that. She watches him become ape, baboon, turtle, salamander, and yet, the story isn’t about his change. It’s about her discovery of what she can live with, and what she can’t – a theme I see time and time again in Bender’s work. In another example, a woman gives birth to her own (elderly, previously dead) mother, and the obstetrician, once he gets over his surprise, sends them all home. The story here is about letting go of the people you’ve lost, and the consequences of not letting go enough. It isn’t about the impossibility of having given birth to a full grown woman. That’s just the thing that happens in the midst of everything else.

I loved this collection. It’s another one that I have to pause while reading, to come up for air. Each story is its own moment and has to be felt as an individual experience. They’re moving, carrying themselves forward, taking you along for a stroll. You can’t stop the effect it will have on you once the story has started, and I’m certain that’s a good thing. It’s important to be powerless in the face of your fiction sometimes. We need to let go. It refreshes our brains and reboots our spirits and we can carry on with our own lives, a little changed, a little bit bigger than we were before. “The Girl In The Flammable Skirt” is a walk worth taking.

* I would argue that you can use “urban fantasy” instead of “paranormal” in most cases.

What Makes A Thriller?

This was originally posted at Jenn’s Bookshelves on October 26, 2010. You can read the post there at What Makes a Thriller. Since we’re in the nearly-to-Halloween period, I thought I’d re-post it here, and get your take on it. Comments encouraged!

What Makes A Thriller?

To describe a story or novel as being a thriller means to relegate it to a category of writing that is overwhelmed with expectation. A “good” thriller meets these expectations, while a “bad” thriller does not. Somewhere near the beginning, we need to be introduced to a main character who will be our avatar for the story. For the purposes of this example, we’ll pick an accountant from upstate New York, and we’ll call him Jack. Jack will live through the whole story, and possibly even through the ending, though that remains to be seen. It will be Jack’s story that we’re reading, and Jack who we identify with. In caring about Jack, in eventually fearing for his safety, we will expose those emotions in our own chests, and the book will rub them raw.

Which is the point of reading a thriller, anyway.

But let’s get back to Jack. Perhaps we meet him at the funeral for his wife, or a friend, or the family dog. Perhaps he’s been fired under mysterious circumstances, or his car’s tires have been slashed. These events, when they happen in the first chapter of the book, tell us that something bad is already after Jack, and gives us insight into his predicament that he himself probably doesn’t have yet. Depending on the author, the bad thing hiding in the shadows of Jack’s life hasn’t noticed him when the tale begins. We might get to see his life the way it was before all the pain and terror and loss begins to rain down upon him like snow falls during a New England winter storm. His happy life, then, will be shown as safe and cozy, in a comfortably lived-in house with a warm fireplace and double-paned windows insulating his perfect family and their lovely afghan (because you know that these winter scenes always include a couch that no one sits on, decorated with an afghan that no one uses, probably crocheted by a lonely aunt).

One day, that will change for Jack – one day he’ll cut someone off in traffic, who will then blame Jack for their lateness to a crucial job interview, and because they didn’t get the job, the loss of their already disaffected wife. Maybe it isn’t even Jack’s actions which begin the bad things soon to happen to him; out in the shadows, Jack’s daughter has a new boyfriend she doesn’t want to bring home. The daughter will be a little afraid of this boy, and use her father as an excuse to break things off with him, and Jack will spend 18 chapters trying to figure out why someone he has never met wants to set his afghan on fire.

Poor afghan. Poor Jack.

A thriller is a story where a basically innocent person endures increasingly terrible events until they can’t take it anymore, and in a fit of fight-or-flight syndrome, they choose to run. The dark and disturbing pieces of Jack’s life swirl around him (and us, the readers) in an external way, while his heart races and his fear grows and he loses sleep and we feel his panic setting in. One day, he can’t take it any more, and he rabbits, grabbing the wife and the daughter and the family station wagon and heading for his family cabin in the woods, which surely the bastard ex-boyfriend won’t know about. Will he? Probably not. At the cabin, Jack will be safe, certainly, and by the time the family arrives there we should be about 2/3 of the way through the story, and in dire need of an emotional break. We need a happy scene to brighten our spirits, and to remind us again that Jack still has something to lose.

Let’s give Jack the day off. Let him take the daughter fishing, roast s’mores over a campfire, tuck the daughter into bed (under the afghan, which finally has a use, and is feeling pretty pleased with itself at that moment), and then, finally, let Jack make gentle and only slightly awkward love to his wife. Let them all go to sleep, finally safe, finally alone.

It’s just one day, and we can give it to him.

He’ll need it to be refreshed for what comes next: the climatic ending. A thriller always have to have one, and Jack’s in for a surprise when he wakes the next morning to find his daughter gone. Thinking that maybe she went for a walk – perhaps the romp with the wife tired Jack out a bit more than usual, and he overslept – Jack goes outside to find a tiny scrap of brightly colored acrylic yarn resting gently on the dew-moistened grass. It’s a bit of his aunt’s afghan, the one which last covered his sleeping child …

Oh dear.

Whatever happens next, Jack’s going to go through something life-changing. If he survives, he’ll probably have to choose between his daughter’s life and his wife’s, or endure a cat-and-mouse game of terror, running through the woods at night without a flashlight while the ex-boyfriend chases after him. The boy has youth on his side, and insanity-fueled adrenaline, and Jack will be regretting letting his gym membership lapse. Escaping this madness will give Jack a better understanding of how precious his life is, and he’ll be a stronger man for it, at the end of the book. It’s just as likely that he and his whole family will die, and leave someone else to finish telling his story, one that won’t be completely revealed until the last page. We’ll read it, and fall back spent, being both awed at the author’s ability to drag us along for Jack’s hellish ride, and at our own realization of how precious our lives really are.

A thriller exposes your fears to you by showing them reflected on a fictional character’s life, so we can experience them in a safely controlled environment – after all, you can put the book down whenever you want to. It’s fear in small doses, in manageable amounts. It’s a roller-coaster ride that you control. Knowing this, we can appreciate a thriller for what it is and what it gives us. We’ll go to bed, happily snuggled up under the brightly-colored afghan we found at that yard sale last month, the one with the tiny piece missing from the corner, and we won’t think twice about how Jack’s own afghan was never found …