Genre Soup

Genre bending and blending has gone mainstream. (Vampire-romance-coming of age tales anyone?).  It’s really not anything new (Think of The Odyssey:  paranormal-action adventure-romance), but lately it it seems to be the golden road to standing apart from the crowd, and to blockbuster sales, action figures, and movie deals – except when it doesn’t work.

I once heard a literary agent explain that one reason the first Harry Potter book was rejected 23 times was because J.K. Rowling mixed the conventions of middle-grade and young adult fiction, which was a no-no at the time.

So if you feel the urge to cross the boundaries, whaddya do?

First, realize you are in good company.  In his introduction to Stories, Neil Gaiman says: I realized that I was not alone in finding myself increasingly frustrated with the boundaries of genre:  the idea that categories which existed only go guide people around bookshops now seemed to be dictating the kind of stories that were being written.

Literary agent, Joanna Stampfel-Volpe discusses the question with advice and cooking metaphors:  She boils it down to some common sense guidelines.

1) Write the stories you’re dying to tell.
2) Don’t try to please everyone.
3) Know your story and intended audience well enough to identify your “base genre.”

I’d add one more, based on something I saw the first time I told a story from a stage. Almost twenty years ago, our local storytelling guild was preparing a show for “Tellabration,” a day in November set aside by storytellers around the world to bring this most ancient art form to as many people as possible.

It was the first Tellabration for a young woman and me. The old timers had coached us thoroughly. My inner-ham emerged and mine went pretty well. Then it was my fellow newbie’s turn. She was telling a spooky Eskimo story called, “The Skeleton Woman,” but when she got to the first chilling moment, everyone started to laugh! The hero of the tale, a young fisherman, was out in his kayak and managed to hook a skeleton which rose to the surface and pursued him as he paddled like hell, and that image struck the audience as funny.

With no indication of how nervous she was (she’d confided to the group before we started), the woman turned on a dime, and played the story for laughs, making it up as she went along. She finished with a well-deserved round of thunderous applause.

Horror and comedy genres are not “natural” companions but ever since I saw that switch,  my fourth rule for genre – and maybe my first rule for everything else would have to be:

4) Flexibility and a sense of humor are highly recommended!

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