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[GUEST POST] Jeff Somers (WE ARE NOT GOOD PEOPLE) on The Lazy Writer’s Guide to Mixing Genres

jeffsomersJeff Somers was first sighted in Jersey City, New Jersey after the destruction of a classified government installation in the early 1970s; the area in question is still too radioactive to go near. When asked about this, he will only say that he regrets nothing. He is the author of Lifers, the Avery Cates series from Orbit Books, Chum from Tyrus Books, and the Ustari Cycle from Pocket/Gallery, including We Are Not Good People.

Jeff’s published over thirty short stories as well; his story “Sift, Almost Invisible, Through” appeared in the anthology Crimes by Moonlight, published by Berkley Hardcover and edited by Charlaine Harris and his story “Ringing the Changes” was selected for Best American Mystery Stories 2006. He survives on the nickels and quarters he regularly finds behind his ears, his guitar playing is a plague upon his household, and his lovely wife The Duchess is convinced he would wither and die if left to his own devices, but this is only half true.

He has published his own zine, The Inner Swine since 1995, once in print and now in digital format only. A few hardy fools still read that rag, believe it or not. So can you!

Today, he makes beer money by writing amazing things for various people. Favorite whiskey: Glenmorangie 10 Year. Yes, it is acceptable to pay me in it.

The Lazy Writer’s Guide to Mixing Genres

by Jeff Somers
As a professional writer, there are a couple of things you learn are expected of you. One, you are apparently supposed to post word counts of your latest Work in Progress (WIP) all the time, everywhere. I was not aware of this during my amateur training for the Writer Olympics. Also, you’re suppose to have read every single book released, every year, and will suffer pitying, crestfallen expressions from people if you haven’t—you can literally see their admiration of you wither and die when you admit you haven’t read their favorite book.

One of the most difficult things I’ve had to do as a professional writer is discuss my own work; Not only do other human beings frighten and alarm me, as a rule, but the normal questions you get asked don’t have easy answers. The most difficult one is always seemingly the simplest: What kind of book is it? The reason this is tough is because I generally mix my genres like a drunk behind the bar: Liberally, a bit sloppily, and usually without a plan. Or pants, but that’s a whole different essay.

Genre Bouillabaisse
For example, the Avery Cates novels are science fiction, but they’re also heavily influenced by noir detective fiction. To a certain extent, if you take away the cyborgs and the future dystopia and replace them with, say, mafia enforcers and the present-day dystopia, Avery Cates could be a simple assassin-cum-detective. In my most recent novel, We Are Not Good People the main characters are magicians using blood sacrifice to fuel spells, but the tone and structure of the novel is taken straight from old-school detective pulps.

So when I’m asked to describe the book in a pithy media-friendly soundbite, I usually end up spinning out the longest run-on sentence in history as I try to sum up the un-sum-uppable. Because these books aren’t just one genre or another, they’re a tasty melange.

This technique is becoming more and more common in both genre fiction and even in mainstream fiction (the kind where they publish hardcovers that require a mortgage to afford) for a simple reason: It’s getting harder and harder to find something surprising in the usual convention of genres. But mixing genres together is like that party game where you take all the cleaning supplies out from under someone’s sink and mix them together—every now and then you get something explosive and beautiful.

The Pivot Point
Mixing genres is much easier than you might imagine (as a general rule going forward, if I do something chances are very good it is designed for the lazy and easily distracted). The key to doing it well is simple: Find the Pivot Point.

The Pivot Point is that moment when your story tears open and the second genre comes rushing in to fill the void. As a made-up example, say you start off with a story about a private detective hired to follow someone’s husband … and discovers the husband is a time traveler from the future, and you pivot from detective to speculative fiction. Or you’re writing a story about a grunt in the space marines who’s best friend is killed, but not in action … and you pivot from science fiction into a murder mystery.

The Pivot Point is obvious once you start looking for it, and the new vantage point allows you to see both genre conventions more clearly. More importantly, it allows you to discard the conventions you don’t need, because you have a fresh supply to replace them with. Here’s a fun game: Find some mixed-genre books and see how quickly you can spot the Pivot Point in each one.

I know that I sometimes make writing novels seem like an exercise in binge drinking, spirit quests induced by alcohol poisoning, and interpretive dance, but there’s a method to the madness. And that is a surprisingly accurate description of How I Do.

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