Wednesday Writing Tip: The Best Genre is the Genre Mashup

This video, brought to us by the fine – and brilliant – folks at Postmodern Jukebox – is a stunning example of what I like to call a genre mashup.

Assuming you have any perspective on 20th century music and 21st century TV, it’ll be easy for you to get most of the references above. For those who need an education, here’s a brief breakdown.

  • The song itself is “Pompeii” by the British alternative rock band Bastille. It came out in January 2013. If you listen to radio at all, you’ve probably heard it somewhere recently.
  • The intro (bass riff, clap, “ahh”) is a direct homage to “The Time of the Season” by the 1960s rock band The Zombies.
  • The horn section at 00:38 harkens back to vintage 1960s Chicago.
  • The instrumental break at 1:05 is a portion of the main title them to the TV show “Mad Men,” set in the 1960s.
  • The look of the vocalist (and the rest of the band) is informed by that of the early seasons of “Mad Men.”
  • The vocalist’s singing and performance style owes a tip of the hat to Bobby Darin.

So that’s six direct references – musically and visually – that you can pick out from the video of one cover version of one song. It spans styles and centuries without seeming forced or phony, and takes what to me is a pretty mediocre pop song and turns it into something truly awesome.

And that’s the tip for today – taking a bunch of otherwise disparate and unrelated themes, influences, settings and styles and jamming them together to make something far more awesome than all of those parts would have been separately.

Some of my favorite reviews among those I’ve received for Immaculate Deception have been those that said, in some form, “I don’t know what to call this novel, but I liked it!” Here’s a great example from an actual Amazon review:

I don’t know what kind category this book belongs in (mystery, sci-fi, metaphysical…?) It’s really pretty out there on its own. Yet, somehow entertaining.

In hearing that, I know that I did something right, because in crafting the plot, the characters, the themes and the setting, I was trying in a lot of ways to throw in everything I’ve ever loved in music, literature, movies, TV and … hell, just life, and stir it up to make something fun, enjoyable and a little thought provoking.

Is it hard to describe in a 30-second elevator pitch? Sure. Is that a problem when pitching to potential readers? I suppose, but I’ve been pleasantly surprised by how many folks are intrigued by both the sheer scale of the story and how it doesn’t fit into any prefab literary or genre box.

That’s because holding to strict genre orthodoxy is boring and appeals to – I believe – boring readers. Someone who can say, “I only enjoy Genre X and refuse to read anything outside of it” without a hint of irony is someone A) I’m not going to have a lot in common with, and B) Probably wouldn’t enjoy a genre-busting book like mine or those I like to read.

My recommendation to any writer getting started would be to forget about genre both in your reading and your writing. Some of the best writing lessons I’ve learned didn’t come from reading sci-fi or fantasy authors – they came from Ernest Hemingway, Mark Twain, Tom Wolf and Hunter S. Thompson. Everyone who wants to be a writer should actively read, and make sure that some of that reading falls outside one’s genre comfort zone.

And when it comes to your writing, consider which author is filed where. Christopher Moore, who consistently writes in the comedic-urban-occult realm, has never been filed among those particular genres, instead ending up in General or Literary Fiction. Meanwhile, William Gibson – best known for his novels of the future – gets filed in Science Fiction even when his later novels have been set solidly in the present and make use of readily available technology.

What determines genre? That usually depends on how you see the finished project and to whom you’d like to market it. And really, that’s all genre is – marketing. It’s deciding how you’re book is going to be labeled to best appeal to readers, and it’s a process that should come at the end of the crafting of a novel, not at the beginning.

All you really need to know is the story you want to tell, and when you’re finished you can decide where it might fit along the genre spectrum.

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