Some Habits Of A Sleepless Writer
Last Update June 19, 2014
Mastering Night Sherrida Woodley 2014
May 11, 2014
After having written two complete novel manuscripts, beginning another, and now well on the
way to finishing my third, I’m still vaguely concerned with genre. It’s no wonder, because it seems
the subjects we writers take on can shape-shift themselves from what we perceived in the
beginning stages to a different critter altogether by the end. Genre has seldom defined the writing
trail for me. . . but it’s certainly had a lot of bearing on what happens once the writing stops.
There are those who say they want to know genre before anything else (many literary agents stake
their living on it), and there are those who say it’s all part of the process of predicting how the
book will be viewed through time. Many of these folks slice genre into even finer slices to
compartmentalize the story even further. To me it’s all very confusing. I re-phrased the genre of
my only published novel to date (Quick Fall of Light) at least half a dozen times. Finally, when it
was all said and done, the term “eco-thriller” was probably the best description of all, and it came
from a fellow writer. Like so many things in writing, objectivity eludes the author. Sometimes it
takes fresh eyes to sum up the category of a 90,000-word manuscript.
I’m already considering the basics of querying publishers/agents, even this far out from the
completion of Ancestral, and one of the fundamentals of doing so is being able to identify genre.
So, this week I looked at various identifying elements, starting with a neat little writer’s book
called Some Writers Deserve to Starve by Elaura Niles. In it, she quotes Jacquelyn Blain, a
producer/writer for television as saying, “Genre is mostly a shorthand way of talking, a way of
placing a story within a certain tradition,” but that “too many writers try to play by the rules
within each genre/subgenre,” putting that first instead of writing the story they intend. She adds,
“The truth is that there’s room within each genre to do all kinds of interesting,
out-of-the-ordinary things.” And, from what I’ve found, it’s often those out-of-the-ordinary
things that skew the genre one way or the other, finally giving it the definition it needs in the
What’s interesting is that I’ve known for a long time there’s a key difference between the novel
I’m working on and Quick Fall. A strong element of the supernatural exists in this book (which
also happens to contain a healthy dose of mythology) that didn’t exist in the earlier work, this
supernatural quality bringing in something more grim, more dark than fantasy, and yet leaning
that way. Science plays less of a role, merely hinted at in condor research and the idea of a
mega-quake threatening worldwide upheaval. If I haven’t switched genres, I’ve certainly tweaked
them, and I don’t know as that’s a bad thing. It can certainly happen within a genre as wide as
speculative fiction, but remains a teasing, tantalizing bit of definition right down to the end.
Now, over half way through, I’ve come to grips with the fact that I’ve written something
supernatural and fantastical with a touch of drama and perhaps thriller. In Ancestral, I’ve written
what’s sometimes referred to as supernatural fantasy. It’s that definition that I’ll stand by, at least
until told differently.
When writing the long story then, I don’t believe setting too many parameters does me a good
service. Genre is one of those “open to conjecture” kinds of deliberation that writers, publishers,
and readers struggle with all the way along. Why would I want it to overshadow a perfectly good
writing plan? As Jacquelyn Blain says, “The best books within a genre are often ones that push
the boundaries in some way, even if they’re still working firmly within that genre.” I think of
some of their writers now---Diana Gabaldon, Alice Hoffman, Margaret Atwood, M. Night
Shyamalan, and Peter Morgan (the last two screenwriters)---brave writers, who waxed between
genres, and realize they’ve created new worlds, well-loved worlds. They mixed it up and gave us
an ingenious, suspenseful, and long-lived supernatural reality.
Watercolour Courtesy of Roland Clement
June 19, 2014
Upcoming Article in Bird Watcher's Digest:
In September 2014, I'll be thinking about Gene Stratton-Porter. Not that I haven't been for quite
some time now. After writing about her rare encounter with a bird believed to have been extinct
for a dozen years in the wild, I continue to be intrigued by this woman of the last century. We
share some preoccupations, she and I. Some of it hinges on where we were brought up. And
some of it reflects our inner nature.
Gene was raised in a time when Victorian ideals were still demanding and limiting, especially in
young girls. But, through a series of circumstances, one of them being her birth order as the last
of a dozen children, she was allowed almost unlimited access to the farm country in which she
was raised. Rural Indiana in those days, especially that of the Wabash country, teemed with bird
life scattered among orchards, sunny corners of dense vegetation, and a dismal swamp known as
the Limberlost. Eventually, she would scour these swamplands for herself, but before that her
father assigned every bird that made its home on his land to her, as an endowment from the
Creator. The little girl, Gene, took it all very seriously. She'd been given keys to the kingdom of
birds of all kinds, hummingbirds to orioles, and she visited their nests, sixty-four of them, daily.
All of this was to prompt her lifetime fascination with birds, in particular, and would later
eventuate in photographic discoveries far beyond those of her contemporaries.
As a natural consequence of writing about Gene's single enchanted moment with a wild
passenger pigeon in about 1912, I thought about her upbringing compared to mine. As the only
child of a hardworking Midwest couple who'd relocated to the wild state of Washington after
the war, I lived on the outskirts of a rough-and-tumble town closely associated with logging and
railroading. Until my sister was born eight years later, I lived much as Gene did, free to explore
close-by wildlands. Nowhere was life as interesting as in two massive vacant lots behind our
house. There I took the dog, a Boston terrier named Suzie, and built mini tree houses and mud
pies and watched birds and butterflies by the hour. Not unlike Gene, I considered it all mine,
eventually sharing it by coaster wagon with my little sister. Then in the fall of my eleventh year
groundbreaking began on houses to fill those two wooded lots. And my entire world changed.
Turns out, Gene's childhood and mine would inevitably draw us toward nature. Born deep into
the next century beyond hers, my observations were still very similar. The natural world around
me continued to flourish---enough to bring in hordes of wildlife, including raccoons and robins,
field mice and long-legged killdeer. I probably felt some of her sense of ownership, of
responsibility for animals surrounding me daily. And I would've recognized many of them, even
more, welcomed them, years after they disappeared from my world.
This fall an article I've written about Gene Stratton-Porter, the novelist, naturalist, and
photographer who gave us a haunting look at the diversity of life within one of America's most
beloved wetlands, will spotlight her affection for one species in particular, the now-extinct
passenger pigeon. I will be with her all over again that day in the field when she was preparing
to photograph a little hen goldfinch and in so doing heard the plaintive cry of a male passenger,
one alone right above her. Never confirmed as a sighting, her essay "The Last Passenger Pigeon"
nevertheless brings me closer to understanding what she witnessed and carried with her the rest of
her life---the belief that she'd seen perhaps the very last wild pigeon on earth. I'm grateful she
wrote of this personal moment in her life inasmuch as the world would know little enough
about passenger pigeons after they were all gone. Through her, I see the bird alive again, hoping
for some sign of recognition. I see it for the great lesson it gives and the woman who valued it
enough to share.
Please look for "The Woman And The Passenger" due to be published in the
September-October 2014 issue of Bird Watcher's Digest at various bookstores and newsstands this
Also, I hope to visit the Limberlost area of Indiana (Geneva, IN) over Labor Day Weekend,
2014, where I'll be fortunate enough to visit with Friends of the Limberlost, a local Audubon
chapter, and many regional folks who remember Gene, her era, and her contemporaries. It's an
honor and privilege to be part of the celebration of her life and the 100-year centennial of the
extinction of the passenger pigeon that originally brought me closer to her life's work.
Sources for the contribution above:
At Home on This Earth, Two Centuries of U.S. Women's Nature Writing, "The Last Passenger
Pigeon," by Gene Stratton-Porter, page 123
Gene Stratton-Porter, Novelist and Naturalist, Judith Reick Long, "The Hum of Life," pages 49-50