Sources Of Inspiration

I see quite a few genre forums out there, populated by people tinkering with their novels. Those same novelists-to-be also talk a lot about the books they’re reading and nearly all of them are within the genre. This is, of course, a good thing at heart.

Personally, for a writer of SFF, I would find it odd if I drew solely upon SFF, especially core mass market genre releases (of which I’m one, I know). As much as I love it, I would be worried if I read totally in the genre all year round. It seems unhealthy for me, to digest things that have already been digested several times over. I’d worry where any new influences might come from. How could I bring new ideas into play? I’m only saying this since I found it incredibly useful when writing the current series to draw from as many – if not more – non-SFF influences (crime, lit-fic, non-fiction, and so on) than from within the genre. 

I guess the notion occurred to me again when I saw Larry’s post:

What I’ve noticed when reading several of these blogs is that the focus not only is very much contained to the above genre(s), but that the terminology employed is that which crops up almost exclusively in such genre(s) – words such as “worldbuilding” or “infodumping.”

What I would like to see, just as an experiment I suppose, is for several such bloggers to take just one (although more would be welcome) fiction that cannot be remotely connected to SF/F/H and review it.  Curious to see if the terminology in the reviews would change or stay the same.

Perhaps the same applies to new writers, too. Maybe you can find different dimensions to your own writing skills by reading widely. There’s a whole load of material out there than you can bring into the genre and help make your work more interesting. Don’t get me wrong: this is not an instruction to not read genre, but surely if you draw upon genre completely for your inspiration, surely things become a little… stale? Predictable? Dull?

I imagine it would be difficult to broaden one’s sources of inspiration for those reviewers who are also writers. Indeed, could genre discussions benefit from a wider literary context? I could see that it would help get rid of such self-conscious and internal labels, as Larry implies.

Just a thought.

Share this Story

About Mark Newton

Born in 1981, live in the UK. I write about strange things.


  1. Sources Of Inspiration: I see quite a few genre forums out there, populated by people tinkering with their novel… http://bit.ly/mFse2o

  2. When looking for SF/F inspiration, look outside the genre (@markcn) http://bit.ly/iPjGVW

  3. Well, world-building — and paricularly info-dumping — are actually things that come up outside of SFF as well. Maybe not so much in “purely literary” reviews, but I can guarantee that they are no strangers to other genres*. Which isn’t strange, after all: any novel, no matter how mimetic/realistic/whatnot is going to have to build its own world, and yes, there are many non-SFF authors who have problems with dumping information to their readers. So it doesn’t seem to be so much a question of genre-narrowness.

    On the other hand, I confess that staying strictly within one genre can get old quickly for me, both in reading and in writing. When I write, particularly, I have to read outside the genre I’m writing, for fear of picking up too many direct influences.

    *well, romance and crime, since those are the genres where I follow reviews as well. I don’t know anything about westerns or military fiction, but I suspect they touch the same issues, too.

  4. Interesting points, Milena. I think people seem more conscious about things info-dumps or the old dodgy classic of show vs tell in genre than they do in other types of fiction. Or perhaps genre communities are more vocal about such things, and the info-dump thing is more noticeable when a writer has to explain another world entirely.

  5. Good blog post on #writing #scifi @MarkCN http://bit.ly/kFAA2n I constantly say: Know your genre, but don’t need your audience to know it

  6. You know, this year is going to be a bad year of non-genre reading for me. So many good genre books out this year! So little time!

  7. I wonder what blogs Larry is reading because the people I tend to follow are pretty varied in what they read, as far as I know. Though, I think it is good advice to read both within and outside of the genre you’re currently working in.

    For fantasy, some of the most interesting story ideas can come from outside the norms of the genre. I sure enjoyed Jeff VanderMeer’s gray caps and the noir influence in Finch, to name an example. That’s not a combination you come across every day in the fantasy world.

    I do get sick of seeing the same ideas and tropes being recycled in fantasy (and this applies to cover designs, as well), so if I pick up a fantasy novel it’s because I think it’s doing something unconventional for its genre. Cross-genre especially appeals to me for this reason—like God’s War from Kameron Hurley and her bugpunk variety. Very original. (And I find her interviews where she discusses the sources of her inspiration to be equally fascinating.)

    As far as writing fantasy goes, I think I’m most inspired by paranormal topics (ESP especially) and historical fiction and non-fiction than fantasy—the paranormal because it lends itself nicely to fantasy and is slippery enough that it naturally holds the capacity for cross-genre exploration, and history because it’s a great foundation to start building a fantasy world from. (And I must admit that I generally appreciate fantasy that’s not set in or inspired by medieval times more than fiction that is, for the simple reason that this is the more traditional route to take.)

    Btw, Mark, as an aspiring novelist I appreciate you using the term “novelist-to-be” rather than “would-be novelist.” As subtle as that may be, I think you avoided the more condescending approach there and I don’t think I’ve ever heard another published author use it before. I can’t say if you were the first, but I still think that deserves kudos. 🙂

  8. Adrian – the reading list never gets any smaller!

    Tiyana – Thanks for sharing those points.

    I think I like what Larry says there partly because of the challenge aspect. It’s more a self-conscious thing: can I, as a reader, better my critical facilities by reading a wider selection of books?

    And I don’t think tropes are bad per se (they help define genres, after all) but I do think that by bringing in other influences then those tropes can evolve into something else.

    No problem – we’re all writers, after all; I just realise I’m lucky enough to have already been picked up by a publisher. It’s likely to be a matter of time for some others, too, and I know how seriously we all take the craft. I remember well what it was like to be a novelist-to-be!

  9. We review a lot of non-“genre” (that is, non-SF/F/H) books as well, especially crime, gothics and period romance. Really, whatever we’re reading.

    I totally agree that people should be drawing influences/writing lessons/learning from a wide variety of sources. And many of the better contemporary SF/F authors (you, Abercrombie, Morgan, Miéville, Parker, etc…) are all quite open about it. For example, Westerns had their gritty revisionist “nihilist” movement almost 40 years ago (shameless plug):


    So I understand the challenge to budding writers to “get out a bit more”, but I don’t think a new vocabulary is needed for reviewers. Speaking solely from personal experience, infodumping is infodumping, and it is just as awful to read in period romance as it is in epic fantasy.

  10. You can plug all you like! Yes, that’s a good point about other writers being open about it. It’s why I wondered about the forums, and writers-to-be seemingly just reading the same kinds of book. Not healthy.

  11. Well, after working 10+ hour days most of this week, I finally have enough time/energy to respond a bit. Milena, it is interesting to see you’ve internalized that insidious “world building” term to the point that you feel it needs to be applied to realist/mimetic settings. Setting I believe is a much more accurate word for these type of fictions for two reasons: 1) one doesn’t create a “world” in locales where one can go visit, and 2) setting carries connotations of “placement,” which serves to center the text and establish certain “ground rule” expectations based on one’s understanding of the real world.

    As for the blogs I’ve viewed recently, some of that was referenced in the part of my post that Mark didn’t include: the more core genre-specific blogs; my own is these days far from core genre-specific. Take for instance my review of Cormac McCarthy’s Child of God. I am a native Tennessean, albeit a Middle Tennessean rather than an East Tennessean. I am quite familiar with the setting, having attended college at the University of Tennessee and having been to Sevier County on a few occasions and meeting fellow students from there. I wouldn’t describe Child of God in terms of “world building,” because that would be ridiculous to me; the speech patterns of Lester Ballard are quite familiar to me and the locale is one that I’ve visited.

    I see the “infodumping” comment, made in passing (I could have tossed in facile references to “likable characters” or “fast-moving plot,” except those are a bit more universal to the various plot-centric literary genres), has generated some reaction. Yet I believe that reaction here does not go far enough. Too often one reviewer or another might toss about that term cavalierly and not explore the import of what that means for the development of the story. Sometimes, reviewers ought to eschew received code words and just be more explicit about the mechanics of a story.

    Yet it is harder to do that with fictions to which one is so accustomed in terms of narrative approach, tropes, etc. I recently made a joke on Twitter at another reviewer’s expense that if he were to review Téa Obreht’s wonderful The Tiger’s Wife, he’d probably make references to the sort of fictions that he grew up reading (Salvatore, Weis and Hickman I believe were mentioned in that tweet). Yet I could make similar jokes about quite a few reviewers who approach any given story through the narrow critical lens of what they typically read. One ought not to review a work by Derrida in the same fashion that one reviews a story by Dickens or Dreiser. Yet too often online reviewers in general settle for generalizing statements that serve only to produce a surface awareness of the frisson generated by divergent works. My open challenge was made in hopes of people becoming more self-aware of the crutch descriptors that they employ in writing their reviews and to see if new critical approaches could develop in the wake of this self-discovery. Still curious to see the results of it, as is Mark, it seems.