Tuesday, July 13, 2010

Which comes first: character or story?

Most writers would agree that the first thing you have to have in order to write a story or novel is an IDEA. Something or someone appears in your mind, requesting that you write about it or him or her. Personally, I find that my ideas are usually about a story line. For example: There's a house that's rumored to be haunted. The house looks like a duplex I used to live in.

This idea spawns a number of questions such as: Does anyone live there now? If so, who? Who is supposedly haunting the house? Where (in what city, country) is the house located? Who are the neighbors? Has anyone investigated the rumors? What happened?

From there, I would probably start to hone in on a particular character from whose point of view I think I might like to write -- for example, someone who lives in the house, someone who lives nextdoor, someone who investigates paranormal activity, the ghost him/herself, the house itself.

I usually don't start with a character, but I can see how that could happen. Perhaps in your mind there's a tall, gangly boy with straw-colored hair who is running away from home. From there, you would try to discover who he is, why he's running away, where he plans to go, and so forth.

So what usually comes first for you? A character who insists on your attention or a story that wants to be told?

Monday, July 5, 2010

Literary Fiction or Genre Fiction?

Once upon a time, when I was in college, a creative writing professor read a draft of the first few chapters of a novel I was trying to write. One of his comments was that it seemed as though I wasn't sure whether I was writing literary fiction or commercial fiction. I got the sense that I needed to choose one or the other.

Fast forward too-many years and here I am, still working on my first novel (the first one I've brought anywhere close to submission status anyway). I'm still wondering about the whole literary fiction vs commercial/genre/popular fiction thing.

My novel is intended for a Young Adult (YA) audience, and I would categorize it as High Fantasy. So it must be genre fiction, right? Well. . . I don't know about that. The book is intended to get people thinking about a serious, complex issue from both a philosophical standpoint and a real-world standpoint. It's not meant to be an "easy read" during which the reader can turn off his mind and simply be entertained. The ending is satisfying, yet leaves a lot of questions (at a higher level) unanswered.

I feel that my writing style in this book is more compatible with literary fiction than commercial fiction, but maybe I'm kidding myself. The more I learn, the more I realize how little I know. Do I need to be concerned that I may be combining literary and genre fiction rather than being firmly in one camp or the other?

I'd love to hear from anyone in the field on this issue. If you are writing or have written a novel, are you clear on whether it's genre (commercial) fiction or literary fiction? What makes this clear to you? How or when did this become clear? What criteria are you using?

Meanwhile, here's an interesting blog post on the subject: Writing YA Literary Fiction: What It Is and Why You Shouldn't Hate It.