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I belong to a local writers' group that is composed mostly of fantasy and science fiction writers. Many of these folks are unpublished or have just begun publishing; some of the folks have a handful of fiction in print. A couple of them have got a fairly decent body of published work out there.

In a recent discussion, one of the members -- who writes heroic fantasy -- commented that she'd noticed a "...larger than usual number of horror-type stories" being submitted for critique, and could we possibly cut down on that because she and several other members don't 'get' horror. When prompted for further comment, she also admitted that she's read "...some Stephen King" but otherwise tends to read almost exclusively in the field of -- you guessed it -- heroic fantasy.

She is not alone in this; members who write exclusively mystery fiction have quit the group because they didn't 'get' fantasy, and the science fiction folks didn't 'get' mystery.

What's to 'get'? Somebody explain this to me -- on second thought, please don't, it wasn't an actual request.

It doesn't matter a damn if your story is horror, or mainstream, or fantasy, or erotica, or any other genre or sub-genre -- it is, must be, must always be, first and foremost a good story.

Why don't more readers and writers understand that? Have we become so tunnel-visioned in our expectations that we have given up the hope of ever seeing any genre attempt something new and/or different? Or have we been trained through a steady diet of the same old same-old to want nothing more than journeyman-level storytelling, storytelling that challenges neither the mind nor the heart?

If you answered "yes" to either of those questions, I think it's quite possible that you're the type of reader or writer who's come to think in terms of "genre" far too much for your own good.

If you sit down and say, "I'm going to write a HORROR story," you might -- consciously or not -- start grafting traditional or clichéd horrific elements onto a story where they don't belong, and you can hobble a story by trying to force it to fit within the "traditional" (read: popularly accepted) boundaries of a particular genre, rather than expand those boundaries by not worrying about how it's going to be categorized.

While you're writing a piece of fiction, view it only in terms of the story you want to tell, not the one you think readers are going to be expecting.

Why do so many writers hobble their stories? I'm guessing that readers and reviewers begin reading a story labeled "horror" (or "science fiction", or "fantasy", or "mystery", or what have you) with certain ingrained expectations; they have come to anticipate certain elements to appear to a particular type of story, and are surprised -- sometimes not pleasantly so -- when those expectations are not met and/or indulged.

Only half a dozen times in my career have I sat down and said, "I'm going to write a HORROR story," and then proceeded to do just that, always bearing in mind what readers expect in a horror story, and making damn sure I worked in as many of those expected elements as I could. Six times I've done this, and six times I've produced stories that are just, well ... awful. And they're awful because I did not forget genre, genre was the overriding factor in their creation -- and telling a good story was secondary.

Shame on me.

Far too many writers -- both new and established -- think too much in terms of the type of story they're writing -- and what's worse, far too many of them read almost exclusively in the field in which they want to publish. While it is important to be be well-read in your chosen genre, it's vital that you read outside that genre as much as possible, otherwise you'll eventually be writing nothing more than a hip imitation of a pastiche of a rip-off of something that was original two decades ago but has now fallen far too deep into a well-worn groove to offer a challenge to either writers or readers.

Approach any work as being simply a story, and you'll always "get" it; think only in terms of "genre" and you'll have a hobbled story by the third paragraph.

Now go read Theodore Sturgeon's magnificent The Dreaming Jewels and put someone into brainlock when you ask them to tell you what kind of a novel it is.

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