Symbols in fluxAre you a cowboy? A spy? A sexy lover? A  child at heart? Somewhat intellectual? If so, you probably read in a genre like children’s books, westerns, mystery, romance, or literary.  Publishing is defined by specialized categories of book, which also identify readers by age, gender, interest, locale. These seem to become more targeted by the week. The process helps greatly in marketing books to try to insure readership.

No longer are these groups simple and innocuous. Sub-genre succeeds sub-genre. I’m not sure I even know what some of these mean. For example, urban romance fantasy. Is this several dragons who live in a large city off-world and become enamored of one another, or an historical period piece in which Cleopatra and her lover Marie Antoinette battle the evils of Czar Peter the Great in St. Petersburg? Or both?

My publications are classified as clean or sweet romance. Devoid of overt sex, this category can incorporate a great deal of passion, depending upon author, plot, and publisher. I prefer to think of them as “women’s fiction,” a bit closer to my approach, because the journey of the main characters is to succeed in meeting life’s challenges, not simply discover love. Of course, being a writer and always ready to split hairs or argue until I’m blue in the face, I don’t like to assign labels at all.

Which brings me to authors who defy categorization and leap-frog genres: Michael Chabon, Margaret Atwood, Doris Lessing, P.D. James, among others. I’m sure their publishers would prefer they didn’t. It makes marketing their work more difficult. But these are big names, and they can do as they please. Successfully.

A  challenge for newbies, especially in more structured, dare I say rigid?, genres. Publishers, bloggers, book sellers want to know the type in a 30-second elevator speech. For example, when I sent my first novel to an online reviewer, she declined it despite its HEA ending because she felt it was chick lit.

But this blog ISN’T about genres. It’s about excellent writing. Even if a book is a particular genre (i.e., waddles like a duck), I think good writing should be possible in any genre. I’ve just finished a book that explained an area of writing that I’ve never heeded. When discussions centered on symbolism, I poo-pooed the theories. Who knew or cared if a rope meant characters were tied together, or if waves crashing on a cliff substituted for sexual fervor?

A major shift in my attitude occurred with How to Read Literature Like a Professor.” Author Thomas Foster hand-led me through weather, violence, flying, seasons, and other topics serving as symbols for life’s issues, such as love, freedom, and depression. Giving examples from classics and popular books, he showed how use of symbolism gives added depth and enhances the reader’s understanding and appreciation.

Hmmm. As I thought back over my own work, I realized it contains a fair number of sequences that can serve as symbols. A storm in the middle of a confrontational camping trip. Seeking shelter with a potential partner during a snowstorm. A wildfire engulfing adversaries. Did I intend these as symbols? Not at the time, but unconsciously I must have absorbed cultural cues. Henceforward, I’ll incorporate these deliberately. I’ll have more fun, and perhaps my readers will, too.

So if you read about a telephone in my future writings, don’t assume it’s just a chat. It might represent confusion, ambition, or, who knows?, sex. A duck can always morph into a swan


sheepMy awareness of the publication of a piece entitled “Wool” grew bit by bit. I started seeing references to it in the news, on book blogs and sites, eventually via word-of-mouth. I heard it was a self-published genre (sci fi) success and without taking time to sample it, I pooh-poohed exclamations about its excellence. I knew from reality TV, fashion fads, and politics that popularity rarely equates with quality.

Then a friend of mine with terminal cancer mentioned it. He’d been trying desperately for decades to get his work in print and wondered if he could beat his life’s deadline by going the self-publishing route. After researching “Wool’s” progression a bit, I learned author Hugh Howey had written the first section as a short story, and reader response motivated him to continue with four more sections. It became a huge best-seller and found a mainstream publisher. Still not convinced, I purchased the first section of the novel.

“Holston,” part one, deals with a law enforcement officer who rejects his post and his society (located in an immense underground silo) to commit suicide by venturing into the toxic outside. Say what? A protagonist who’s killed off in the beginning of the plot? Surely a violation of one of the canons of writing a novel. Plus the title made almost no sense. The major mention of “wool” was its use as a material to clean screens.

What kept me reading the entire work? The initial section left enough puzzling points, raised sufficient intriguing questions that I was drawn in and hoped the rest of the novel would address these. Another strong reason—Howey’s world was absolutely real from the get-go. In fact throughout the 500+ pages, I never forgot the majority of the settings were deep underground; and I got claustrophobic!

Now, weeks after completing the book, it dogs me. Howey’s writing style isn’t especially compelling, although it’s solid. The plot and characters aren’t peculiar or unique. Yet I find myself thinking of it often—how it captures personalities, contains compelling conflicts, moves faster and faster through crises. And I realize I’m using “Wool” as a kind of primer for novel-writing.

As time passes, I also find many instances in which wool can apply to the novel.  Examples: pulling the wool over your eyes. . .dyed in the wool. . .wrapped in wool. . .woolgathering. . .cotton wool. Then add in terms associated with sheep (sheep to a slaughter, stupid as a sheep, wolf in sheep’s clothing) and knitting-related terms. The depth of the book expanded exponentially, its pertinence to contemporary life became obvious.

Serendipity occurs frequently to me when I discover books that seem to illustrate or complement other books I’ve read, I’m now scrutinizing How to Read Literature Like a Professor (Thomas Foster, 2014) with its wealth of information about symbolism and irony in fiction. I’m again returning over and over to “Wool” for examples to show me about incorporating a new, perhaps deeper level into my writing.

So hooray for “Wool.” No alien monsters. No mystifying technology or eons-away science. At the conclusion of the book, we’re left musing over ethical dilemmas and diverse characters, all in a fast-paced plot. We confront personalities familiar during our own times, perhaps even the faces we see in mirrors.