Plotting at the Desk of Genre

Plotting at the Desk of Genre.

By Nicole Van Den Eng

Most of us, wandering through a bookstore, know what genre we prefer; we beeline it quickly to romance, mystery, or science fiction. But what about that other section—literary fiction? Those are just the normal books, aren’t they? It often feels that way, that those are simply books that are not mystery, romance, or sci-fi. It contains things as different as George Orwell and Kristin Hannah. Kind of like the pop/rock section in music, where Taylor Swift shares a category with Disturbed even though they’re vastly different and you can’t figure out why no one has put more descriptive subcategories in place yet.

Fiction means a story that has been made-up. Literary means writing of high quality. But, is Little Women better than The Hound of Baskervilles just because of where it’s shelved? I’ve also heard that literary fiction is mostly concerned with character, while genre fiction is more concerned with plot. But that can also be argued because everyone recognizes the character Frodo Baggins, while half or less will recognize the character Holden Caulfield. And a story, no matter which kind, must have both character and plot. Must.

So what the hell is with this fiction section? Can’t we divvy it up into coming-of-age, social commentary, historical, Hallmark, and really-pretty-writing? Sometimes I think the more questionable ways we do things stay the same just because they’ve been done that way for so long. People resist change, anyway. I want my ABBA and my Red Hot Chili Peppers together, thank you. I want to have my cake and eat it too.

I only just learned the true meaning of that proverb, by the way. I was always confused because I would think: but you can’t eat your cake unless you have it first; the saying is wrong. But the “have” is actually possessive. It means that you can’t eat your cake and also keep it. It represents two things you cannot have at the same time.

I cannot split up the fiction section and have everyone be pleased with the way I split it up. Stories are, by their nature, multi-dimensional. Many mysteries also contain love interests. Yes, I see that time travel in your historical romance! I see you!

Likewise, I can’t have a clean, child-free office and lead a life of spontaneous creativity too.  I recently read a comic strip by Stephen King about this enormous desk in the middle of his study. It resonated with me because I did exactly that in the home we just moved into five months ago. King got a new home and plopped a massive desk right in the middle of the study. It was his writing desk (something of great importance to those of us who write.) Me, I got an over-sized, shelf-lined room in the finished basement. And it had doors! That was the greatest part because in our other, smaller home my desk was between the living room and the kitchen, which was the main walkway of the house.

I set my office up; I put books on my shelves and sci-fi posters on my wall and a story board next to my desk and my Power Ranger action figures next to my old-school typewriter and a table for puzzles and book binding crafts and I loved it… for about a month.

Then I got bored. It was great writing in the quiet for once, but when my kids would peek their heads in the door I would often invite them in because I didn’t like being alone as much as I thought I would. It was conductive to the word count, sure, but without the colorful noises they brought with them, my creativity sputtered.

Over the next few months I moved in a Disney Cars-shaped TV, an enormous stuffed dog, and I let my table be covered with coloring books, Legos, and Thomas the Train tracks. They’ve got Battleship pegs strewn all over my floor, DVDs are tipped off the shelf, Pokeballs and dress-up crowns tossed about. What’s great though is that stuff moves around, giving the room a sense of life instead of sterility.

The reason stories and music can’t be categorized by size, color, or flavor, is that they are made to represent life. Can we classify lifestyle and experience? Should we? No. To both; no. We’re already being as polite as possible by classifying broadly.

The reason Stephen King and I both found our isolated desks inadequate is because when you’re trying to create something isolation is not the best ingredient.

The reason you read and the reason I write are the same. It’s because we’re attempting to map our journey from one stage of life to the next; to name our feelings and demystify our relationships. We’re trying to make sense of the stuff of life. The stuff of life is mess: conflict, lies, kindness, devastation, commitment, joy, obsession…

There’s a fair possibility that when I do get my cake, I’m going to drop it. But we are never as defeated as we think we are. Sometimes we get down and lick the cake off the floor.

I think writing ought to be approached in the same way we approach life in general. We don’t go around saying we’re designing our next boyfriend to be a little more Scottish Highlander and a little less noir detective. We don’t go around saying, “But rule 17 says never use the word very.” No.

Reading and writing will never benefit from restriction. Throw out the rules you don’t like and experiment once in a while. Plot yourself in the direction of things you don’t already know. Eat your cake with your fingers and let the crumbs fall all over your desk.


George Orwell wrote 1984 and Animal Farm
Kristin Hannah wrote The Nightingale and Firefly Lane
Taylor Swift signs poppy ex-boyfriend songs (I’m sure you know that)
Disturbed plays heavy metal
Little Women is written by Louisa May Alcott
The Hound of Baskervilles is a Sherlock Holmes story by Arthur Conan Doyle
Frodo Baggins is the main character in Lord of the Rings
Holden Caulfield is the main character in The Cather in the Rye
ABBA was a Swedish pop band from the 70s
Red Hot Chili Peppers play funk rock
Power Rangers action figures are actually for really cool people
Link to the Stephen King comic titled The Desk

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