Thursday, 6 January 2011

Does growing as a writer mean moving away from writing what you love? - My Writing Dilemma

To be a Norse Fantasy Writer or not to be a Norse Fantasy Writer, that is the question?

That is the question I am now faced with following feedback and advice given to me by my good supportive friend and former writing tutor at uni after he told me my newest contemporary norse fantasy short story didn't make it into his inspiring competition that he created specifically to help new writers break out.
The story in question is posted below this one, it is titled The Trickster and The Tease and is based around the idea of the fallen Norse Gods of old getting into some very naughty trouble, in particular the characters of Freya and Loki.
Now I accepted the criticism he gave me on the story about it being overwrought (that could be due to me being brave or stupid enough to write it in present tense) and how it takes a long time to get the setting and characters explained to the reader etc but its the advice he gave me on my overall writing approach that worried me the most. Here is what he had to say:

"I really do see a step forward though and I’m encouraged by this submission. If you are entering competitions such as Grist though, which searches for fresh approaches you do need to move away from Norse Mythology which seems to be what motivates you as a writer, so my advice would be, find fantasy/Viking genre outlets for your work.
A writing apprenticeship is a long one. At some point you will need to make a decision – whether to develop your craft as an original voice in contemporary fiction or whether you continue to plough the Norse Myth inspired niche you are currently following.
I think it’s a very narrow niche and my advice, if you want to be a writer, rather than a Viking enthusiast who is using writing as a way of expressing that enthusiasm, is to ditch it altogether and focus on developing the craft of writing."

It is the idea that I have a choice to make, between writing in my own original way of casting characters from norse mythology in a new light or trying to write about something more real and less magical.
I admitt I am a HUGE enthusiast of anything viking hence how it so often does weave itself into my writing but quite often the stories I create using such characters, folk lore and magic are often original or new interpretations of old legends. Hence why I created Soul Chaser my very humble and rough WIP novel. Yes it features Norse Mythology but not any of the main and often used characters such as Odin, Thor or Loki, even Freya only appears a little bit. The main characters taken from this pantheon are the little known about Valkyries and the whole idea behind the novel is 'How do the old gods survive in the modern secular society of today?' Well my Valkyries provide the answer to that in that they still collect souls of the dead but sadly no longer souls of fallen warriors apart from in countries where there are conflicts occuring. Through this I can explore the many questions I pondered such as how do you become a Valkyrie? What do Valkyries do when they are not collecting souls or serving the Gods in the great mead hall? Do Valkyrie's age? And so on.
Now in answer to my tutor's comment about norse fantasy being a small niche well I agree but it does have some presence in the world of fiction. Betsy Tobin, Joanne Harris, Neil Gaiman and M D Lachlan are three very good and popular authors I can name and have read who have written books deeply steeped in norse fantasy and mythology. Even quite a few young children books feature elements of norse mythology such Cressida Cowell's How to Train Your Dragon Series. Yet I personally feel that Soul Chaser combines this small niche with the new genre of modern fantasy/magical realism which so far has contained stories set in present day involving characters from old folklore and myths. Vampires are a famous character of legend and mythology and Twilight has shown that people are willing to accept, believe and enjoy the addition of something supernatural happening in our modern world. I mean to be honest Harry Potter broke that mould many years ago after all his entire magical world exists and is active within our real world isn't it? And as time goes on Angels are beginning to become more powerful characters in modern fantasy over vampires although other such mythical creatures are appearing too such as Succubuses, Werewolves, Half Angel-Half Vampire, etc. So I honestly think that Soul Chaser may well fit in between these two worlds of fiction genre as Modern Norse Fantasy and why wouldn't it?
To be honest though I don't think I am capable of writing anything else. When I look back over all the stories I wrote during my degree with creative writing they are either set in a medieval norse world or a have dollops of norse fantasy in a contemporary setting. I've never been good at writing about real life, real people, real events although in my other style I do deal with real emotions etc.
I know in my heart of hearts it may be many more years before even Soul Chaser is worthy of sending off to agents or a publisher but if I can't write stories involving norse fantasy which is a topic I genuinley love and have an interest in then what can I write? I've always been told you must write about what you know not about what you don't know? All I can think of is sob stories about growing up with an alcoholic father as that is the only large topic I know about. I did use to write general epic fantasy when I was younger but it was all fairly predictable and typical in its plot and characters.
What do you think? Do you write about something you are interested in? A topic that you love? Or do you write whatever new idea comes to you and learn about stuff from scratch? Which style would you prefer?

2 comments:

  1. This is quite a tough piece of advice to have to face up to, and it's to your credit that you haven't just dismissed your tutor's words. I'm sure a lot of writers would.

    Speaking for myself, I can't write about things that don't interest me either. But are there not other aspects of history/fantasy that appeal to you? None-Norse themes, I mean. I think your tutor is right that Viking subject matter alone will leave you with a comparatively narrow patch of fiction to roam in (and grow in), and ultimately a limited readership, which won't help when you approach agents and publishers. But I really don't think you should feel compelled to write gritty realism, especially if you don't want to.

    My advice (for what it's worth!) would be write some urban fantasy but Viking-free short stories and see what pops out. What's the worse that can happen? And it's always good to stretch:)

    Good luck with it!

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  2. Something to consider while you weigh this question and your options is that academia has a long history of looking down on genre fiction-- this doesn't mean that writing genre fiction is bad, and it definitely doesn't mean you should completely disregard your mentor's advice, but it does mean that you should consider the perspective he's coming from.

    If you write genre fiction (it sounds like and reads like urban fantasy to me, to an extent) then your writing won't be accepted by academic journals or magazines--university presses are more interested in literary fiction, and so are university professors. But that's okay! There are plenty of other magazines for genre fiction, you just have to find them.

    That said, sometimes stretching outside your comfort zone does help you to become a stronger writer. It does NOT mean you have to give up writing what you love entirely. It just means that once in a while you try writing a short story that's more literary, or maybe you write a horror story here, or a psychological thriller there, or what-have-you. Stretch yourself and play with new characters, but I don't believe this has to be all or nothing! You can be a serious and good writer, writing genre, you just have to know where to target it when you're done! And it sounds to me like that's what he was saying, too-- "If you are entering competitions such as Grist though," is kind of the key phrase there, in my opinion.

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