I’ve reached the stage where I’m tired of the Not-Quite-New Black in SFF. I would very much like publishers to stop pushing gritty urban noir fantasy at me right now, whether it has elves or not, whether it’s derived from ancient gods or not, whether it’s set in London (which most are) or somewhere else. I’ve loved this sub-genre for a fair while in book terms, but there comes a moment when you read something sparkling new and it feels you’ve read it before. Just to clarify, I’m not talking about the moment it becomes clear that a sub-genre has codified and events are predictable: that was three years ago for my particular example. Now it’s “I need to come back to this book when I can read it for what it is, rather than expecting it to be dangerous and new.” The problem with reading novels as dangerous and new when they’re not is one starts to look for flaws. Not even the best-written novel can stand up to this.
There’s another style of book I’m tired of, but this second type is much harder to pin down. Some groups of writers develop their own style. I read the first novel by one of them and that author gets all the advantage of newness. I tell everyone “read this author.” Then I find other books by the same closed circle and I discover that they’ve infected each other with style traits in their beta reading process. Sometimes this is good, but more often it means that reading more than one writer from a given circle feels like reading story after story that are the same.
I’ve worried about this before. I’ve been working on teaching methods to break this down. While it’s nice to know I can break it down and can ensure it doesn’t affect my writing (all my faults are, alas, mine own) it doesn’t help when I encounter it in others.
Often it’s linked to a teaching writer surrounded by non-teaching writers. The teaching writer doesn’t realise they’re teaching their own method of writing and only their own method of writing. It’s the main reason I do fewer writing exercises in my classes than I used to, for I discovered that it was when I corrected exercises that I pushed writers towards my perfect text. I’m coming out the other door on that, for I’ve been working on to improve my teaching in this regard. My priority now is to find out who people are, how they write, where they want to go as writers and what kinds of paths they have open given their abilities and background and can open given their aptitude for language and learning. I analyse their speech and their attitude to language and people as well as their writing, for I need to know what they can be if I don’t want them to become me. And I load them with tools that can be twisted into various direction so that they are forced to make choices for themselves before they use those tools. And it works. All my Wednesday students have their own voice, despite years of Gillian.
Only one writing circle out of maybe ten becomes this inward-looking self-replicating story-telling machine. That one, however, makes me weep. I deal with it by never reading books by these authors within 2-3 months of each other. Sometimes I have to leave books for two years.
It’s not a sufficient way of dealing. It’s the best I can do.
When I discover writing groups that don’t have this inwardness, I grab everything I can by every single writer in the group for I know the various writers in the group will be the richer for the interaction.
The first few pages of any new book is checking to see if that novel is not-quite-new or whether there is an inward writing circle involved. Discovering either of these things will entirely change the way I read a book.