genre stuff writing & publishing

Bored of the Weird (Fiction)

The final book in the Legends of the Red Sun series is now in with my editor, where I await her Imperial thumbs up or thumbs down. So I now have a fresh piece of paper before me, and on this I won’t be writing what gets categorised by some as Weird Fiction*.

This is mainly for two reasons.

1) I’m bored with it.

2) I don’t think most modern readers really respond all that well to things that are out-and-out Weird.

The first is simple. I’ve written four books which grew increasingly weird and experimental, and I need to clear my head. I don’t want to be one of those writers who keeps churning out precisely the same thing book after book – because that would kill the whole process for me. I enjoy having new territories to explore.

The second reason is more complex, and your milage may vary. From a casual gander at the blogoshpere and forums over the years, I think bloggers and readers – on the whole, in general – really celebrate traditional fantasy, without much appreciation for hybridisation of genres. (I don’t mind this at all; it’s just how it is out there.) Readers tend to dislike being taken out of that experience by and large. Experimentation and innovation is seen as not coming from narrative trickery or prose style, but from messing about with archetypal characters.

I can’t understand why people enjoy aesthetic conservatism, and who don’t enjoy trying different things. Perhaps it’s because readers like something that’s vaguely familiar, something which they can jump into easily. It’s accessible. It’s reassuring when they take their heads away from reality. And conservatism in this sense is different than borrowing from the Dark Ages: for now, I mean it in terms of the anti-weird.

Also, whenever I speak to general book clubs, I’ve got a sense that there are definite barriers to genre: and one of those is definitely the inability to imagine something strange and surreal. (That’s an audience I’d like to reach out to, admittedly.) Some people just don’t like strange things, but that doesn’t put them off reading fantasy – if you see what I mean. More than ever, modern audiences are interested in story. I think the Weird gets in the way for many. The Weirder the fiction, the greater the barrier.

So all these signs, to me at least, tell me I should try to take aim elsewhere. I’ve read it in the entrails. I know there’s a good niche market out there for Weird Fiction. I know some of my readers probably enjoyed the strangeness the most, but there’s more styles out there for me to experiment with and right now I’d like to concentrate on a smart and powerful story without relying on the pyrotechnics too much, without trying to gross people out, without trying to impress surreal images upon an diminishing appreciative audience for those things.

So part of this is me wanting to expand my horizons, sure, and part is me contemplating who I’m aiming future novels at, but for the foreseeable future consider me hanging up the tools of Weird Fiction.

*Weird Fiction? Means different things to many people, I guess, but I always take it for having absurdities, unusual aesthetics, creatures and so on; something to give either an unsettling or alienating experience perhaps. In a broader sense, I’ve always appreciated it to contain experimental style or themes.

By Mark Newton

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

30 replies on “Bored of the Weird (Fiction)”

(a) was in reference to the same thing as what I normally do each book. Could be read as same setting / series / vibe or whatever. Didn’t want to repeat and fade. (b) the ‘same thing’ in what others wants is the repetition of traditional, conservative aesthetics. The anti-weird being more comfortable.

The same things are not the same thing. 🙂

I think.

If I’m honest, Mark, and you know this from Twitter, but I’m not a fan of that weird plotline in Legends. I understand where you’re coming from with it, and can kinda see it making sense, but to *me* as a reader, it took away from the otherwise sensible and enjoyable books. That’s not to say it’s bad, of course, just not to my taste.

I’d quite like to see you take a traditional fantasy tale and spin it in your own way. Malinda Lo has done so by having two young women adventure together and fall in love with each other. Tad Williams has managed to make one last something like 3200 MMPB pages. I wonder what you could do?

I think you have to write for yourself first and an audience second. If your heart is not in the New Weird at the moment, don’t write it. I also think that whatever you write will retain enough of ‘you’ that your fans will follow you. My only wish is that your books continue to have those big epic moments as that’s something I think you do exceptionally well.

Good luck. I think you are making the right decision

Thanks. I’ll always write what I want to write (what I’m moving to is something I’ve been itching to write for ages!), but I’ve always thought it’s useful – if you’re writing commercial fiction – to have some sensibilities for what an audience may or may not prefer.

I loved the first three books of the Legends but as a reader I’m not disappointed with your decision. I would definitely be curious to read what you’re writing next. I think it is very natural and healthy to experiment something different artistically. I’m just hoping that “reaching as many people as possible” is not your main goal. Because cheesy plots or vampire-werewolf-human love triangles are not my thing. 😉

All the best with the book.

Frankly, I looooove the Weird. But you’ve earned my ‘trust’ as a reader, and I’ll follow wherever you may lead.

That said, if you’re changing tacks to write what you think people want to read, I’ll come through the internet and smack you.

Jared – no need for smackage! I’ll always write what I want to write, it’s just that I’m choosing something that is probably more accessible at a cultural level.

David – nope, genre through and through! Very much a fantasy project, just not as out and out weird.

I’ve had a similar experience, and similar thoughts about the epic fantasy (not fantasy as a whole — just that subset of it) readership. Most readers have been fine with the frankly minimal literary tricks I employed in my own first novel — nothing particularly experimental, nothing they didn’t read in James Joyce back in high school — but the few hostile reactions I’ve seen have generally come from people who were expecting another “Song of Ice and Fire” or [insert epic fantasy series of preference]. They were really, really angry that they got something different.

I don’t think that’s a reaction to the weirdness, though. I think that’s, as you suggest, because of a culture of conservativism that’s prevalent in the genre, which resists experimentation. I quite liked your novel, Mark — but as I read the first few pages, I remember thinking, “Wow, those people who hate my book are going to really spew bile over this one.” Or maybe not; you lavish a lot more time and attention on setting than I do, and one of the conservative aesthetics in epic fantasy is that readers seem to want to know exactly what everything looks like, feels like, how to use the five-pronged Weapon of Awesomeness, what kind of clothes are the characters wearing and how do they lace up the corset, etc. I skipped a lot of that because I, too, get bored with the traditions of the genre, just in a different way. 🙂

Still, I understand the impulse to try something new and different. (I’ll be doing the same thing with my Dreamblood duology next year.) Personally, though, I like your books’ weirdness and hope you don’t completely discard it. There is a substantial subset of the fantasy readership that likes weird — they’re the ones supporting China Mieville’s career — and is interested in people taking literary chances. Granted, the writers who do so aren’t likely to ever sell movie options and the like… but we won’t have to change our names and start our careers over, either. (I hope.) So good luck in your next venture!

Thanks for the lovely words there! Yeah, I guess a few people have spewed a bit of bile now and then, but I’ve always defended my sanity by saying that it’s good to get a wide range of reactions. And I think the same could be said for your own work: that it causes passionate responses either way is a great thing.

A lot of what I’ve observed has not been specific examples, but general trends – and especially when I get out to book groups, who seem to react as much to the aesthetics but can be open to the literary experimentation. Part of me really wants to reach out to those readers as well.

When I wrote this blog post, I tried to work out what the weirdness actually is/was within the books, and I concluded that I didn’t specifically know. So perhaps echoes of it will linger down the years; perhaps that’s something I can never remove entirely. How much of what an author does is subconscious?

I’m interested to see what you’ve got lined up next: I don’t know about you, but it’s certainly a fascinating point when you’ve finished your first series and reflecting on the work you’ve done.

It seems to me that the general interest in weird fiction is growing. Partly this is due not to the growth of “The (New) Weird,” but rather “weird fantasy,” or fantasy infused with weirdnesses which it could not have possessed without the (re)vitalizing New Weird movement. Although the shelves are still mostly filled with dragon-riding king-killing fire-wielding lame-onstrosities that amount to the same old garbage, I keep reading about more and more books that, at least on the surface of it, seem more willing to push the genre in new directions. Although I hate to say/hear “New Weird is dead,” it seems to me now that New Weird was more like a flash-point/catalyst than anything else.

Good luck with the new projects. I doubt you’ll ever be able to regress from the weird – it’s like those memes, “once you see it, you can’t unsee it.” But as long as you’re writing what makes you happy as an artist, you’re golden.

Having read the books so far Mark, I doubt that anything you write could be accused of being run of the mill, whether you choose to employ overt weirdness or not.

As in, if you DID write a human-vampire-werewolf love triangle novel, I might even read it.

Ben – I’m not really sure the New Weird ever had any impact, especially at the time; to me it seems the name is being used merely as a descriptive term, so any literary ambitions, on the whole, don’t seem to be present in the mainstream. Certainly the internet has given niche parts of the genre some coherency, some connection, and that’s a good thing; and in general perhaps people are more accepting than they were several years ago, but it still feels like conservatism wins.

That said, I like your comment about “you can’t unsee it”. I’m sure that’s true.

Rachel – why thank you. I’ll get working on that love triangle plot after all.

I too see a bit of a disjunction between the seemingly frequent call for, say, something different in epic fantasy, and the actual popularity of the familiar in epic fantasy.

Mark, I’d love to see you figure out a way to get it all – write something that feels fresh to you, keeps a weird element and satisfies a large audience.

I think that many/most fans of fantasy, particularly epic fantasy, largely read to escape rather than be challenged. First and foremost they want entertainment that is a true ‘fantasy’ that is clearly seperated from their day-to-day lives. That doesn’t (necessarily) mean that there can’t be truly weird pieces or challenging elements, just that the greatest need must be satisfied first.

I believe that the prevelant conservatism comes from this point because one way to entertain is to become nostalgic in a good memory kind of way. Fantasy tends to look backward in some for or another and its this type of fantasy that often seems to be the most popular. Your first series has spent most of its time looking forward in one way or another, which is at odds with the conservative backwards view of more traditional fantasy.

But, whatever you do, I’m looking forward to seeing it.

95% of people don’t care about the writing – unless it goes bad, and even then they’ll often blame their poor experience of the book on something else. I think for most people the prose that I’m so concerned with is ‘under the hood’, the unseen engine.

I’ve noticed that books that care about character are doing better in the genre than they used to – almost as if the readers are growing up with the genre. It is true that lots of readers want to know what everyone is wearing, what their eye colour is, what their hair looks like, what they ate for supper and the shape of their house. Some writers like GRRM can supply a lot of this so masterfully that it’s painless – a lot can’t. When as a writer you opt not to fill in this full resume like this you’ll find (or at least I have) that a lot of readers are pleasantly surprised. Others think they’re holding the rough notes for a ‘real’ story 🙂

Kate – neatly put!

Neth – well, that’s what I’m working on certainly. I’m still looking at ways of putting all my usual tricks to work, but in a more subtle way that embrace’s people’s desire to escape.

Mark – well, you can’t please all of ’em certainly, but I think you’re right about the importance of characters for readers of fantasy. And in addition to the 95% of people who don’t care, there’s a very vocal minority who believe themselves to be authorities (usually those who dispense advice constantly) on perfect writing who lead others astray (don’t even get me started on the ‘Show don’t tell’ brigade…!)

I’m looking forward to seeing whatever the next Big Project is. I must admit, the conservatism of a proportion of fantasy fandom surprises me sometimes. Even those who don’t require their fantasy be consolatory often still require it to stick within well defined borders of ideas, ideologies, narrative structures and prose styles. That’s not to dismiss consolatory fiction as worthless, pointless or boring, by any means – I enjoy a ripping yarn as much as the next person; it’s just nice to know there are people willing to play inside their own, rather than the cultural, imagination.

Maybe that’s why “weird” is the niche-within-the-niche? Unless you happen to share a particular aesthetic sense with the author, it feels too alien to truly immerse and transport the reader to the world in question? I’m thinking as I type here, so probably not. Please forgive the tangent.

I’m with you 100% on the slavish devotion to Show Don’t Tell. If an author *only* shows and never tells the reader anything, you risk ending up with ciphers instead of characters. Blank slate protagonists work very well in some kinds of story, but not in every kind.

I wouldn’t be surprised if people have conservative reading tastes because of the familiar experience. With the world shifting and changing, often beyond our control, there is something comforting in knowing you can go to X-type books and get an experience that doesn’t change, for the most part. Traditional fantasy is that way. Comforting in its familiarity.

I’m not saying that to poo poo on fantasy or other “repetitive” forms of genre. They serve a vital function in our culture and I am kind of over the whole “let’s treat people who don’t read “good literature” like garbage because they should know better” nonsense. Literature serves a lot of cultural functions. We have to accept that.

But anywho: looking forward to your experimentations!

Dan – I think you may be onto something with “Unless you happen to share a particular aesthetic sense with the author, it feels too alien to truly immerse and transport the reader to the world in question?” There are some common notions with conservative fantasy that it’s so easy for people to immerse themselves.

And I think I might start the anti-Show Don’t Tell movement now I know there are others out there!

SMD – Yes, absolutely. And I like the way you say “Literature serves a lot of cultural functions” – that’s easily forgotten in the debates isn’t it?


And no-one says boo?  Well, I’m understanding you, and finding it as usual, very interesting food for thought.

Surrealism is not for everyone – not even most.  Back from surreal landscapes and adventures, I can understand this – just.

My kids hit that point sooner than my wife or I. Wanting comfort food, comfort climate, comfort full stop.  Me, I keep wanting to swim out a little further, spend the night on the beach, go a little deeper into the cave even though the torch was growing dim.

But then I’m still out there, and not even reached the first circle, still banging my toes and baring my teeth in the darkness.  I like it out here, but then I’ve always been drawn to the Weird.

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