When a Window Is a Mirror

What motivates us to create something?  If you’re a painter, why do you paint?  If you’re a chef, why do you experiment with new recipes?  And if you’re a writer, why do you write?

There are many answers to these questions, of course.  Perhaps you want to paint a beautiful scene, something that inspires you.  Maybe you want to mix in various ingredients that, at first blush, do not seem to mesh but you strive to complement the yin with the yang.  And maybe you want to write a personal essay, a brutally honest and difficult piece dealing with an old wound.

But what if you are seeking recognition from others?  You want your painting to be showcased in a gallery.  You want your recipe to be featured in a magazine.  You want your novel to be the next big thing.  What then?  Before you begin, do you step back, analyze the market, pick and sift through possibilities, trends, genres?  Perhaps.  It depends.

Since I am a writer, and not a painter or a chef, I can speak from experience only about writing.  And let’s take a look at that word–genre.

genres

 

When I published The Eye-Dancers, the various retail sites where it’s available all required basic information regarding the book.  Obviously, these details include author name, sale price, blurb, and things of that nature.  But they also required a genre, a label, if you will, with which to tag the work.

Let me step back.  At the point of conception, when The Eye-Dancers was only an idea, a potentiality, with no guarantee that it would ever be completed, did I think of and consider the book’s genre?  Yes and no.  I did not select a genre ahead of time and say, “I want to write a book for that market.”  I had a story–the story came first.  But I knew the book would center around four adolescent boys, about to embark on a dimension-shattering adventure.  And I knew the plot would take readers on a wild ride, complete with ghost girls, swirling, hypnotic eyes, dreams that are much more than “just” dreams, and alternate worlds and endless blue voids.  Given all that, the novel was clearly Young Adult Science Fiction/Fantasy.

througheye

 

Or is it?  Since the protagonists in question are twelve years old, some would further classify the book as middle grade.

When I summarized the plot to a friend, he said, “Yeah, but remember, most young adult readers like to read up, not down.  Why don’t you make the characters seventeen instead of twelve?  And girls read more than boys.  Maybe you should make one of your main characters a girl.”  I just shrugged my shoulders.  If this were a purely marketing project, perhaps he had a point.  The problem is–ideas don’t work like that.  Creativity doesn’t work like that.  I have tried to alter ideas before for reasons other than the story.  It never works.  The Eye-Dancers is a story about Mitchell Brant and Joe Marma and Ryan Swinton and Marc Kuslanski–all boys.  And all preteens.   That’s how the story came to me.  That’s what I had to write, and to share.

Apart from the issue of the characters’ age and gender, there is also the sci-fi/fantasy element.  But there again, is it science fiction and fantasy?  Of course it is.  The premise is based on parallel worlds and quantum physics and the ability to communicate across the void.  And yet–to me, at least, to classify The Eye-Dancers as strictly sci-fi/fantasy doesn’t tell the whole truth. For instance, there are many mainstream aspects to the story.  One of the driving forces that urged me to write The Eye-Dancers was a desire to get inside the four main characters’ heads–to present them as three-dimensional, flawed individuals who are thrust into a dangerous and life-altering predicament, one that will force them to confront their own insecurities, biases, and points of view.

When I first told my mother about the book, she said, “Oh, really?  But I don’t like science fiction!”  I said, “Mom, don’t worry about the label.  It’s not a story about space ships and little green men [not that there’s anything wrong with such stories!  I happen to like them!].  It’s a story about adolescence, growing up, learning new things.  Hopefully it challenges people to view reality in a more layered way.  A lot of it actually feels mainstream.  Really.”

This is true of so many novels.  Today, more than ever, we like to put a sticker on the fiction we read.  Steampunk.  Dystopian.  Urban Fantasy.  Soft Sci-fi.  The list goes on and on.  Such labels have a purpose, of course.  They serve as guideposts to would-be readers, telling them ahead of time what to expect.  If a genre (or subgenre) tends to have several dos and don’ts attached to it, a reader feels safer purchasing a book in one of his or her preferred categories.  At the same time, so many stories cross multiple genres.

Reading a novel is often like looking through a window, but also, simultaneously, seeing your reflection in the glass.

windowmirror

 

On the one hand, you are peering into a new world, complete with imaginative vistas and unexpected twists and turns.  On the other hand, the characters in the story share some of your own struggles.  When you laugh with them, cry with them, care about them, you do that because they speak to you on some innate and mysterious level.

The window into this “other” fictional world has, in turn, become a mirror, reflecting your own.

cat2

 

It is certainly my hope that The Eye-Dancers can create in readers this window-and-mirror duality.  For the twelve-year-old who knows, firsthand, what Ryan feels when he desperately seeks favor and fears rejection, sure.  But also for the fifty-three-year-old office worker who recalls his own struggles in middle school; for the thirty-four-year-old engineer who often looks at her universe with the same logic-oriented lens as Marc; for the ninety-year-old great-grandmother who remembers her first kiss, all these years later, and is right there with Mitchell when he experiences his.

It seems to me that writing about adolescence is not a narrowly defined subgenre at all, but rather, it addresses a period of life that we’ve all gone through, can all remember, and can all relate to.

Is The Eye-Dancers a Young Adult Sci-fi/fantasy novel?  That’s what it says on Amazon.  Heck, that’s what it says in the headline of this very website!

But, first and foremost, I believe it is what any creative writing project should be, above all–a story.  A story that came to me, unasked for, unplanned.

In the words of novelist Jose Saramago,  “The novel is not so much a literary genre, but a literary space, like a sea that is filled by many rivers.”

Thanks so much for reading!

–Mike

 

68 Comments (+add yours?)

  1. sknicholls
    Jun 20, 2013 @ 18:21:08

    I like this post. I read so much about learning the genre, what do they want, how does your novel fit the genre, what is your audience, what is your genre’s expectations, how can you please the readers of your genre, and so on. I like that you call yourself a writer of the story. That’s what I want to read, a story. My reading is not genre specific. I read all sorts of Stories. When I write, I am a storyteller. I refuse to cater. My book has a brief but pertinent romance in it, but I would not call it a romance. There is so much more to this story. If I had to pick a genre, I guess it would fit best with Southern fiction, even tho it is faction. BTW, Southern Fiction is not even a category on Goodreads or many seller sites…so I have to go with Fiction. Actually, it is a story, and being faction, there is a lot of truth to it. Some sites categorized it into Historical Fiction, which freaks me out. It appears with war stories, and stories of medieval heroes and heroines that, of course…like any good romance…live happily ever after, of which it is mine is neither. And don’t let me get started on branding….

    Reply

    • The Eye-Dancers
      Jun 21, 2013 @ 17:24:20

      Great comments! And, paradoxically, I actually think that by not catering to a specific audience/genre, a writer has a better chance of reaching them. Catering to a genre will invariably affect the story in a negative way–which, in the end, defeats the purpose of catering in the first place!

      Reply

  2. Yheela
    Jun 20, 2013 @ 18:30:38

    My current project has changed at least three times when it comes to genre, that I’m not even going there again until I’m done with it. It has a life of its own.

    Reply

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  4. mandyevebarnett
    Jun 20, 2013 @ 20:45:43

    Writing to a specific genre results in poor writing to my way of thinking. To follow your creativity results in truly wonderful stories, no matter the genre label we have to attach to it later.
    I love the mirror duality.

    Reply

  5. worldsbeforethedoor
    Jun 20, 2013 @ 20:50:03

    I couldn’t agree more! I have had a horrible time deciding what genre my work fits into. Yes, on the surface it looks like an urban fantasy – and I tell people that’s the short answer of what I write. The long answer is that I write warrior stories. I write stories about the men and women who sacrifice a normal life to keep the bad things of the world in check so the rest of us can continue being who we are. I write about the Aragorn and rangers of the worlds who make sure we can keep being Hobbits. 😉 And I chose a fantasy platform to do that. That’s the long answer. 🙂
    Thanks for sharing and writing!

    Reply

    • The Eye-Dancers
      Jun 21, 2013 @ 17:28:41

      Always great to hear from you, Abby!:) And, you know, it seems to me that the more layered and thoughtful a story is, the harder it is to “classify” or pigeonhole. When we begin with story, and story alone, it’s awfully hard to tag a story with a genre label. I wish genre hadn’t become quite so specialized in terms of marketing/selling books these days . . .

      Reply

  6. Briana Vedsted
    Jun 20, 2013 @ 21:23:09

    Bravo! Excellent post Mike!

    Reply

  7. Joanna
    Jun 21, 2013 @ 01:54:45

    On one level this story is about…on another level it’s really about… you have written a book which is rich and multi-dimensional and bound to mean different things to different people. I love that you were unable to change anything about The Eye-Dancers for any reason other than for THE STORY. Marketing kills the magic! My hat off to you for being true to yourself and to The Eye-Dancers.

    Reply

  8. honeydidyouseethat?
    Jun 21, 2013 @ 03:07:29

    Love you mom’s comment! Straight up. Just reading how much thought you put in to who your audience is, ultimately everyone, stuck with me. Just look at who follows your blog. Great answer. Hard to market??

    Reply

    • The Eye-Dancers
      Jun 21, 2013 @ 17:31:40

      Always great hearing from you! As for marketing, well, I market it as Young Adult sci-fi/fantasy–but I’m not sure if when people read the synopsis and see that the characters are in middle school that they decide, just from that, “No thanks.” I hope not!:)

      Reply

  9. sakuraandme
    Jun 21, 2013 @ 06:10:31

    I so love mums comment! Gotta love your mum!! 🙂
    Have a great weekend, Mike! Hugs Paula xxxx

    Reply

  10. Tricia Drammeh
    Jun 21, 2013 @ 06:16:58

    I’m looking forward to reading your book. I don’t care what genre a book falls into, or what labels or categories we choose to tag it with, ultimately, it’s the story that counts.

    Reply

  11. Lyn
    Jun 21, 2013 @ 06:55:35

    “Yeah, but remember, most young adult readers like to read up, not down. Why don’t you make the characters seventeen instead of twelve? That is exactly what was said to me about my YA crime/mystery novel. Originally my heroine was a twelve-year-old girl. My editor said, “no, they need to be older.” the publisher said, “no, they need to be older.” Now she’s fourteen, but I’m not happy about it.

    Reply

    • The Eye-Dancers
      Jun 21, 2013 @ 17:35:54

      I know exactly how that feels.:) Very frustrating. I think the publishing world fails to give enough credit to readers. I still think most people, if they pick up a story, will keep reading if the story draws them in, irrespective of characters’ age, genre, or anything else. If a story draws them in, they will want to read it! Always great hearing from you, Lyn!

      Reply

  12. Fashion Mayann
    Jun 21, 2013 @ 07:33:45

    Really interesting ! I really appreciate the fact that you didn’t compromise : to me, that’s the biggest talent that an artist, designer or writer can have ! When you’re true to yourself, people can feel it …

    Reply

  13. valentina
    Jun 21, 2013 @ 18:56:29

    Reblogged this on and commented:
    Excellent read!

    Reply

  14. valentina
    Jun 21, 2013 @ 18:57:20

    Shared on my blog, dear Mike! 😀

    Reply

  15. reocochran
    Jun 21, 2013 @ 21:52:19

    I think that 12 year olds are very bright, the ones that pick up books or read Kindle are going to enjoy the way you feature the characters. I think about ‘smart’ movies that feature teens who rise the the occasion of tough situations and know that there is a market for your book and possibly a movie deal someday! I know it is strange to compare but I liked the little older 14-16 year olds in “Super 8” if you have never seen it, there is pathos and definitely a blonde quiet girl who draws your eyes to her face, it is so pure and true of how a neglected teen looks like. That and “Stand By Me” movie (based on a short story by Stephen King titled “The Body,” again featuring teens who witness a horrific situation and rise to the occasion. Both would not seem to be “selling plots” but once they are read or viewed, they are great! Being a middle school Language Arts teacher, I read older type books to the students, I read them a chapter after lunch, with their eyes or head resting. (“The Yearling” was my first book I chose at age 22, students were 11 and 12.)

    Reply

  16. Sam Han
    Jun 22, 2013 @ 11:25:17

    This post is so timely and well written! I have been asked to “genre” my blog by some friends. I just want to write at this moment to keep my mind active. I do not have specifics for now, maybe later. Thank you for sharing this, Michael. Once again, I like to congratulate on how much and how far you have achieved with The Eye Dancers and staying true to your passion. 😀

    Reply

  17. lolarugula
    Jun 22, 2013 @ 17:27:01

    Since I’ve always, deep down, longed to write a novel, I find this post very interesting. And as an adult who’s read your book and truly enjoyed it, I can see the dilemma you must have faced having to select just one genre. Interesting stuff, Mike!

    Reply

  18. eemoxam
    Jun 23, 2013 @ 00:50:49

    Great post, changing something for a reason other than story has never worked for me either, lesson learned!

    Reply

  19. Christy Birmingham
    Jun 23, 2013 @ 16:17:03

    Hi Mike, great details here for writers of any genre. You’re right that we like to classify books by genre – I classify my poetry as ‘christyb style’ – does that work? 🙂

    Reply

  20. WordsFallFromMyEyes
    Jun 23, 2013 @ 21:18:14

    A literary space – I like that quote at the end.

    Great article, Michael. I don’t think an artist of any sort creates a work TO be noticed/read but a strong desire to be read/acknowledged of the work does come about.

    It was interesting to read of you ‘back then’, how you had to provide the genre etc. And I loved the cat gazing out – perfect for your words at then – just lovely 🙂

    Reply

  21. RESHU MALHOTRA
    Jun 23, 2013 @ 22:20:10

    Mike, You are a great writer, as your focus was your story which should be the priority for every writer, Sometime we have so many distraction’s that we forget our focus, I am glad you dint get distracted. Very well expressed.

    Reply

  22. Jane Dougherty
    Jun 24, 2013 @ 06:53:50

    It’s true some writers write to a formula, trotting out more or less the same themes each time. They write ‘genre’ and they stick to it. Others just write a ‘story’, telling it as best they can. I couldn’t agree more, that labelling is more often then not a marketing tool and has nothing to do with writing. Like books and plays written hundreds of years ago, a universal truth is always relevant. A welll-written story is always just that, a story to be enjoyed by everyone.

    Reply

  23. joseyphina
    Jun 24, 2013 @ 15:48:35

    Nice read! 🙂

    Reply

  24. Carol Wuenschell
    Jun 24, 2013 @ 23:26:14

    I like your approach to the problem. Labeling things is very human; our language is basically a system of labels. But it’s important to realize that the labels are arbitrary. To paraphrase something my son said recently: Humans want things to be either trees or bushes, but the plants don’t care.

    Reply

  25. Jilanne Hoffmann
    Jun 25, 2013 @ 17:25:07

    I’m glad you stuck to your guns. I see middle schoolers “reading up and down,” so it’s not so cut and dried. In a year or two, our son will be ready to read your book, and I’m sure he’ll enjoy it! I also am not a fan of adjusting the gender of characters just to fit a model, unless it doesn’t really matter. And if it doesn’t really matter, does that mean there’s something vague about that character, something that means the character isn’t fully drawn? So much to think about. Even pressure from your mother! It never ends, does it?

    Reply

    • The Eye-Dancers
      Jun 25, 2013 @ 19:21:28

      Thanks so much for your comments! I always enjoy hearing from you! And yes, you are right–the pressure never does end.:) And that would be wonderful if your son reads The Eye-Dancers!

      Reply

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  27. likeitiz
    Jun 25, 2013 @ 21:20:26

    Thank you for your honest account of your journey through writing your book. What you have said is quite the revelation. We all think this in the back of our heads when we are poised to write, whether it’s a novel, or an essay, or even a blog post. Are we supposed to cater to a specific audience in mind? I suppose this may be true if we are to be commercial writers, like commercial artists. I have often wondered if I should write about matters that are popular, more generally liked, not too opinionated or controversial so as not to offend certain groups. But then, why am I writing or blogging in the first place? Right? So, thank you for concretizing and expressing what many of us probably agree on.

    Reply

  28. Kim 24/7 in France
    Jul 09, 2013 @ 18:28:02

    Hope your book sales are doing well and yes, we can all relate to our adolescent years!

    Reply

  29. CanineTrackers
    Jul 10, 2013 @ 01:47:29

    Amazing. And the cat photo beautiful. BTW, it just dawned on me that to be an opthamologist requires a greater aptitude in math, I think. 🙂

    Reply

  30. ptero9
    Jul 12, 2013 @ 16:31:32

    Good point about writing the story as it comes to you. Although I don’t write fiction, when I write, it is ideas that come through me for whatever the reason, which has more to do with the thoughts currently present in my life. If challenged I could write about a topic that someone suggests, but if it did not come from the heart, I don’t think the writing would be persuasive to the reader. Thanks for the follow!

    Reply

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  33. joseyphina
    Jul 17, 2013 @ 12:46:03

    Very inspiring, mike. Thanks for posting. 🙂

    Reply

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