Sunday, September 23, 2007

Exotic Writing, Part 1

One of the attractions of Science Fiction and Fantasy is the taste of the exotic that these genres provide. I’ve never seen in real life the rising of two great moons over the scarlet ruins of a vampire city. I’ve never seen a galleon with sails of white careening through the sky before a dark storm’s winds. I’ve never watched a star eaten by a black hole. But I’ve imagined them.

I remember as a kid how much I hated most “approved” reading because the books locked me into a world with which I was already familiar. The Grapes of Wrath was about farmers, for example. I lived on a farm. Other approved books I read were about people who worked in factories, people who lived in small, rural southern towns, people who struggled to deal with crop failures, people facing religious persecution, people dealing with the tragic deaths of loved ones. I’d think, OK, that was kind of like last Tuesday. Couldn’t I read something that I hadn’t lived through? It was such a relief to toss these “relevant” books aside and join John Carter on a desperate ride across the dead sea bottoms of Barsoom with swords gleaming beneath twin moons.

As I got older I came to appreciate realistic fiction and I enjoy it to this day. I appreciate the effort that goes into telling such tales and I find much of worth in stories of “universal” suffering and joy. But I always still crave that touch of the exotic, that little bit of something that shocks my imagination. I want to see the world as I’ve never quite seen it before, as I don’t see it when I look out my window.

Tomorrow I want to post on ways to work the exotic into one’s fiction. How do you create a meld of the exotic and the real that becomes seamless for the reader. It’ll be a work in progress, because right now I don’t know exactly what I think about this topic. I think it’ll be fun to find out.


Lisa said...

I can't wait to see what you come up with. I'm reading a book right now that is such a blend. It's called The Children's Hospital, by Chris Adrian. One night there's a terrific storm and suddenly the whole earth is under seven miles of water, all life wiped out except for this children's hospital that's floating around. There is an angel that speaks from inside the walls -- lots of humor, realism, fantastic elements -- it's very weird and wonderful. I'm not finished, but I'll probably write something up on it when I am. Now there really isn't another world created, beyond endless ocean and the strange transformations that take place to the actual hospital itself -- but it's a little different than my usual fare :)

Steve Malley said...

I figure it's something that lives in your heart or it doesn't. And even if it does live in your heart, you've got to be open to it.

Every work of fiction is a work of fantasy. Some are just more fantastic than others. I don't (at the moment) have quite the world-building impulse that would lead to the scarlet moons of Barsoom, but too much of my life experience involves the world getting wierd around the edges for me to simply leave that out.

Sometimes I think that all stories are Out There, being broadcast by pirate satellite from the Vaults of the Molemen, or the Icy Orbital Sepulchre of Hog Thaloth. Some 'tune in' to certain stories more than others.

It's an imperfect process. There's a lot of noise in the signal, and we writers are but imperfect receivers at the best of times...

Ello - Ellen Oh said...

I think reading fantasy and science fiction was a great escape for me - reading about worlds fighing for survival was vastly different from having to do homework or chores, it relieved the burden. But strangely as I got older I too began to enjoy realistic fiction or historical fiction better. Can't explain why. But I realize I've drifted away from fantasy and science fiction. I'd like to pick it up again.

Would the mix you are talking about encompass what they are now calling urban fantasy? Where it is set in our reality but has fantastical elements? Or are you thinking of something entirely different?

Charles Gramlich said...

Lisa, that sounds like a cool story. I like that kind of stuff.

Steve, you're right, and I can appreciate the more subtle fantastic elements these days. When I was young I craved the more obviously exotic, and I still like that. But I can appreciate better the weirdness of the actual world.

Ello, urban fantasy would definetely fit the mold for what I'm talking about. Horror fiction has a lot of it in that it's basically the real world but with exotic elements.

Angie said...

I've never figured out why anyone ever though a "kid" would be interested in reading Grapes of Wrath in the first place. Or The Scarlet Letter or The Good Earth or 90% of the other classics groaning schoolkids are forced to read (or to lie about having read) every year.

I don't know that it's even a matter of exotic settings versus mundane ones. I mean, I grew up in cities and farm life was different and exotic to me as a kid, but the rural classics never interested me until I was an adult. And if you handed something like Dhalgren or Dune or even Lord of the Rings to a ten-year-old, they'd probably toss it into a pile with the more mundane classics, with no more interest than they'd have in Moby Dick.

An exotic (cool, neat, rad) setting would certainly help capture a kid's interest, but I think other aspects have at least as much to do with it. Action and pacing are more important IMO -- kids aren't generally interested in slow, thoughful novels of character development, or the careful exploration and development of some philosophical idea. Kids want to see stuff happening, whether it's a mundane YA about a kid their age having trouble with bullies in school or dealing with divorcing parents who are each fighting to get the kid on their side, or whether it's a space explorer running from aliens or an Elf trying to solve a riddle in a magical maze. There has to be stuff happening, things going on, and more action than talking or pondering, no matter what the setting is.

That said, I think it's certainly true that if you have a smartly moving story with interest and some adventure and cool stuff happening, setting it someplace fantastical, whether it's slanted toward SF or fantasy or horror, is definitely going to add extra interest for younger readers. And a lot of older ones too. :)


Bernita said...

The lure may also have something to do with the ideal of heroism as well as sheer adventure.
Weeding carrots does not compare with a sword fight and the idea that the impossible is possible.

Charles Gramlich said...

Angie, definetely I would not have been interested in Dhalgren. Dune I probably would have been. For relatively realistic fiction, I did like stories about football and animal stories when I was a kid, and I played football and had animals. But I liked the element of the exotic here too, seeing the world through the animal's eyes, or the world of horse racing or pro football.

Bernita, yes, I was always drawn to heroic stories. Still am.

Michelle's Spell said...

I laughed so hard when I hit the line -- that was like last Tuesday! My God, we grew up in the same place, I'm thinking, spiritually if not exactly. I loved novels about New York for that reason -- exotic people in the big city, living lives that I couldn't even begin to imagine. I spent most of my time with Erica Jong and Philip Roth for this very reason. I love your question -- how to meld the exotic and the known. I'm always trying to do a little of that, but it's tough. I guess I try to see the world that most people ignore -- the side view. I'm looking forward to your post on this one!

Erik Donald France said...

If I wake up and see two moons, well . . . I'll be surprised. But I did dream about such things.

I also loved John Carter tales growing up, and tended to rebel against "approved reading" unless it was on my terms.

Exotic? All for it.

AvDB said...

I think the trick to melding the exotic with the mundane is your characters' reactions to the fantastic. You want the reader thinking, "Holy sh*t! Did you see that?" while the characters are giving a mental shrug, as if the scaly, eight-foot demon opening a massive portal in front of them is as routine to them as cleaning the toilet. Even if one character isn't used to magic or fairies or whatever, they have to grow accustomed to it (even if not comfortable with it), so everyone in your world is operating inside this bubble where crazy things are the norm.

Anonymous said...

For some reason I liked the Scarlet Letter when I first read it in school. I too, like you, wanted SF and Fantasy worlds. Today, I do enjoy stories that have a realistic base, but SF and Fantasy still captivates me.

Travis Cody said...

I appreciate the writers who can make the things we are so familiar with into interesting tales. And so often there are important lessons in stories about ordinary people dealing with and overcoming the same challenges we might face in our own lives.

While I enjoy some of those stories, I'd much rather reach into something fantastical. And I'd rather write that way too.

Charles Gramlich said...

Michelle, the people of Arkansas and Texas aren't that different, especially the country and small-town folk. We probably knew a lot of similar "types" at least.

Erik, what can I say, multiple moons are just cool.

Avery, good point. That really calls attention to the exotic when characters react differently to it. Also, of course, what is one person's exotica is another's typical Monday.

Jack, "The Scarlet Letter" was one of the better ones for me too. I think "Silas Marner" was the worst.

Travis, I'm with you. I sometimes crave completely realistic stories, but they're not my favorite literary meal.

Shauna Roberts said...

I never lost the craving for the exotic and the heroic in what I read and read little fiction set in contemporary times for that reason.

It's not just that the setting is familiar, but also that too often the characters' lives are so mundane and far less eventful and interesting than my own. I want to read about decisions and actions that matter, that change lives, that influence history.

writtenwyrdd said...

Stories of the fantastic just plain old do it for me! Ever since I discovered sf and fantasy, I've been hooked. I also read cheesy romances, which are another sort of fantasy, just as improbable.

But the fictional worlds that gleam in teh minds eye like pears and gems...Gimme!