Michael A. Arnzen is the co-editor of 'Many Genres One Craft: Lesons in Writing Popular Fiction. Michael is a college teacher by day and a horror writer by night. He has been educating novelists since 1999 as faculty in the Writing Popular Fiction graduate program at Seton Hill University in Greensburg, PA, where he is currently Chair of the Humanities. Arnzen's energetic workshops on genre fiction writing have been popular at Odyssey, Alpha, World Horror Convention, Context, Pennwriters and the Horror Writers Association's annual Stoker Weekend event. His often funny, always disturbing horror stories have won four Bram Stoker Awards, an International Horror Guild award, and several "Year's Best" accolades.
An Introduction to Many Genres, One Craft
Michael A. Arnzen
Once upon a time, writers worked with editors like apprentices under master craftsmen. Writers were understudies to their editors, who would patiently walk them through every step of the revision process, teaching them about the finer points of style and training them in the business side of publishing along the way. Editors were a kind of educator, and writers were their students, working on their final thesis: a published book.
Yes, once upon a time, in a galaxy far, far away, the writer-editor relationship was like getting your Master's degree in fiction writing. Writers, once they got their foot in the publisher's door, worked with mentors who they could call or lunch with for advice as they collaborated on a title, refining a raw book into a bestselling work of great merit. And, just like Pygmalion, these advisors would transform the writer from a hack dreamer into a celebrated master wordsmith along the way.
As you might guess, this "My Fair Manuscript" scenario is a nostalgic fantasy. It simply doesn't work that way in publishing. Today, more than ever, economic need drives the business -- which in most cases is a relatively cold corporate business that can't afford the luxuries of yesterday's independent operations -- and editors have to answer to a publishing house's marketing team more than they do the literati down the street. It is true that writers learn a great deal of their art from their editors, and editors often do have to educate their writers about the way the book business really operates. But the rules of the game have changed drastically since the early days of publishing and the writer-editor relationship has sadly suffered.
Editors don't teach writers so much as they manage them and usher their manuscripts like footballs through the corporate goalposts. Writers are already expected to be "masters" of their art when they first come knocking on their door; there is no time for teaching and that's not what editors are paid for. The competition for an editor's attention, moreover, is tougher than it's ever been, because so many of the manuscripts that come over-the-transom are written by well-educated writers. Publishing is more like Donald Trump's The Apprentice than a true apprenticeship, and if you don't know what you're doing when you enter the board room, you're going to get fired (imagine the trademarked finger point when you open your letter: "You're rejected!").
Writing is a tough business and it's only grown colder as the trade has evolved.
That's why writers turn to each other for a little human warmth. They find communities of like-minded people on the internet, whether on genre fiction discussion boards or in mutual support systems like National Novel Writing Month (NaNoWriMo.org). They join local writing workshops or travel to conventions; they take seminars and read scores of how-to books. They find mentorship in writer's groups or unions or graduate schools, or they head to the library or the bookstore to give themselves a crash course in the art and business of writing.
They turn to books like the one you are holding.
Many Genres, One Craft is like a graduate writing program housed between the covers of a book. We mean this quite literally: every author in this collection of instructional advice is a college teacher, published graduate, or visiting writer of merit attached in some way to Seton Hill University's MFA program in Writing Popular Fiction -- the country's only graduate writing program exclusively dedicated to writing novels intended for the mass market. Our program is custom-tailored to commercial novelists who want to write genre fiction well. We are an educational community like any other graduate writing program, but unique because we are more interested in helping writers produce books that are actually read by a wide audience than we are in debating inside the funhouse of literary theory. Our pragmatism sets us apart, but we are not a hack factory: we are driven to help others succeed as freelancers and entrepreneurs, and our advice about the entertainment industry is hard-nosed and realistic, earned from hard-won experience. Our teaching is not crassly commercial: we know that writing popular fiction takes as much craft and thoughtfulness as any other form of storytelling, and that it carries as much influence on our culture as fine literature. Perhaps its writers carry even more responsibility for what they write because of their potential impact on readers worldwide.
If you're just getting started, you might be surprised to learn that your interest in writing in the genre you love may identify you as a lowbrow hack. A bias exists against those who want to write for profit and fame, because writers -- ostensibly -- are producing literary art in the service of mankind. But all books serve mankind equally, and it is a shame that our society tends to separate books into "literary" and "popular" works of fiction. We know this boundary between "high" and "low" is arbitrary, based on the assumption that it takes one part genius and one part schooling to become "literary" and write the books that will stand the test of time, while -- the logic goes -- any dumb clown can write the dross that the masses consume like so much prefab macaroni and cheese.
Yes, and anyone can write a book, right? If you've tried, you know how hard it really is. And how many obstacles there are along the way from inventing an original idea to seeing it ushered into print. Even Shakespeare and Dickens -- some of the most popular writers of their day -- knew how hard this craft really is.
Everyone enjoys a good read, and most of the literati will concur that yesterday's pop fiction is today's classic literature, but the prevailing attitude that genre fiction is gutter entertainment still circulates -- especially in academia -- because, for many, entertainment is a guilty, almost bodily, pleasure. The notion that popular fiction is easy fiction is a self-congratulatory myth perpetuated by elites. Most graduate schools won't teach it, not only because it is "mere entertainment," but because their faculty are trained in scholarly approaches to highbrow literature that eschew popular genres. And, perhaps rightfully so, they know that teaching good writing in general will benefit any writer, whereas teaching, say, science fiction writing will only make their students better at writing science fiction, and worse, may produce formulaic rubbish. Thus, most grad schools focus only on the craft and spend time amplifying the writer's individual voice -- and often will reject genre writers from their ranks.
We realize it takes good writing to break into the literary marketplace at every level. Whether highbrow or low, literary mainstream or categorically genre, there is ultimately one core skill that all writers must have: the ability to tell a good story through effective writing. But when a writer is spinning a yarn of a particular type, a genre tale, then even more special knowledge is required to win over an audience. On top of voraciously reading within the genre to know its history, genre writers have to meet particular requirements that editors are looking for. This is why you find so many amateur workshops at genre conferences, or even full-fledged genre writing retreats hosted by veteran authors: because genre writers need to learn about their genre's elements to write it successfully. It's too bad the traditional world of academia can't find a home for many of these groups, which are often far more professional and literary than most people realize.
We believe that an open-minded, concentrated study of popular fiction can only build on the more general craft of writing. And we believe that when writers -- no matter what their genre or background -- put their heads together, shamelessly, they write better books.
We have put our heads together to create this book, in the hope that it will help you write a better book, too.
As you'll see, there is a rich diversity to this collection, and this is intentional: we feel that writers of all genres benefit from studying all elements of the craft, even in genres that they might not normally read. Indeed, in our program at Seton Hill University, "inter-genre" learning is one of the unexpected benefits that students often discover. A vampire novelist might learn a great deal from a category romance writer if, for example, their neck-biter happens to be a seductress. Likewise, if a romance writer's alpha male lead character is a firefighter, she might pick up some great tips for depicting a suspenseful firefight scene from a horror writer. And if you are a writer interested in writing "hybrid" or "cross-genre" fiction like paranormal romance, then you've found a handy resource in this anthology, which combines such a rich spectrum of genre advice between its covers.
A book is no substitute for the hands-on experience of a writing workshop or the one-on-one mentoring one would get from a faculty member assisting them with their novel. But Heidi Ruby Miller and I like to think of this book as a "snapshot" of any given residency in our college's Writing Popular Fiction program, and we followed its model in organizing its contents. Half of the program's curriculum is focused on "core" classes in the craft of writing (seminars in the basic elements of fiction like character, plot, setting, and dialogue) in addition to practical elements of the profession (like critiquing, researching, marketing manuscripts, etc.). This establishes a common dialogue and a foundation for learning that all writers share. The other half of the curriculum allows students to pick and choose elective courses in their chosen "genre" -- with course titles ranging from the necessary and important ("Marketing Mysteries ") to the quirky and wildly specific ("Elves in the Hood: Setting in Urban Fantasy "). The diversity of our program, like the diversity in genre fiction, emphasizes a balance between fresh invention and familiar convention.
Here, in Many Genres, One Craft, you'll get a smorgasbord of genre learning that has a similar balance. But devise your own curriculum: you can pick and choose chapters according to your special interests, skipping the parts that seem irrelevant -- or you can read it cover to cover in order, absorbing every speck of wisdom and inspiration that awaits you. With about sixty contributors on board, I think you'll find this a satisfying buffet.
They say writing can't be taught. There's some truth to that. Writers must write to learn. Only by applying ideas do we really learn what we need to know. We learn from our own mistakes, as much as from the wisdom of others. And the learning process is often fuzzy and highly individualized. But in the decade-plus that I have been teaching in the Writing Popular Fiction program at SHU, I have learned that there is no such thing as a wasted effort when it comes to improving. Every act of writing -- even when it seems like busy work -- pushes you one step closer to mastery. We don't always learn how to write from "how-to" books; instead we learn how readers read, how editors think, and how people experience this funny business called fiction.
You could just as easily learn all of this on your own from the proverbial school of hard knocks, but why bother with the hard knocking when you can get all this advice here, in addition to so many other shortcuts and tips? Knowing the experiences of others helps to prepare us to engage them in our own writing. There is a lot of wisdom in this book. Wisdom you won't find elsewhere.
A fringe benefit of attending a graduate program -- perhaps the primary benefit -- is building a network of partners, a community of kindred spirits. We hope that you will find those like-minded colleagues in the pages of this book. We're all in this genre business together. We suspect you'll get just as excited reading this book as we do when we assemble together on campus to study the genres and craft that we love so much. At the end of each graduate residency, our students and faculty alike depart inspired, eager to put into practice all that they've learned. We hope that -- above and beyond all the valuable information and instruction you will pick up in this rich and diverse anthology -- you will be just as energized, just as excited to return to your own writing, renewed, empowered and ready to tackle the challenges that every writer must face, ultimately, alone with the blank page.
But if it gets too lonely, look us up. We're online at http://fiction.setonhill.edu We offer a Master's degree to those who are qualified...but we also have an annual conference and retreat that the alumnae host, which features great guest editors, agents, and writers, and is open to all comers.
However, this is not a sales pitch for our program, nor an advertisement for our school. This is a writer's residency in a bottle. In fact, coffee break is over and class is about to begin. Let's get started, shall we?