‘Oh!’

‘Oh!’

It’s not so much the word that tends to come back as the response as the sheer sense of surprise that seems to be put across in a single syllable. It’s not annoying; not exactly. It’s something else. It’s… frustrating, I think.

‘Oh!’

That’s the response I’ve been getting when people ask me what it is that I’ve been writing. When I say that my first novel is tie-in military science fiction, I appear to be crossing about seventeen bajillion invisible literary lines and encroaching on Planet Propriety.

Alright, maybe seventeen bajillion lines is a bit of an exaggeration, but there are definite lines that I appear to be crossing with my foray into the world of literature. If you look at it objectively, I couldn’t have made it harder for myself if I had tried. After my weekend at alt.fiction, I have come to realise quite a few things that I had hitherto only suspected. So here’s some thoughts on some of those lines and why I appear to have crossed them. These are the statements that seem to generate the ‘Oh!’ response.

I’m writing genre fiction.

Genre fiction is really now the blanket term for fantasy/sci-fi/horror/urban fantasy/young adult and any number of other sub-categories that loosely fall into the ‘back of the bookshop’ category. A comment that was repeated over the weekend was that genre is perceived as something of a ghetto, where we all stand defending our territory and not letting anybody else in.

Here’s something I’ve heard many times. ‘Genre fiction isn’t proper literature’. What a load of snobby tosh that is. If anything, the capacity to write in a fantastic world demonstrates a much better connection with the long-lost art of storytelling than these awful ‘I was abused by crabs as a child’ type books that seem to be so popular. Where is the ‘Schadenfreude’ section in the bookshop, hmm?

So yes. I’m writing genre fiction. Does that  not make me an author in some way? You know what, get over yourself. What I’m doing is writing stories that I hope people will enjoy reading.

I’m writing for the Black Library.

Actually, this usually gets a ‘who?’ response before the ‘Oh!’. It’s only when I clarify that the Black Library is the publishing arm of Games Workshop that people make the connection. Then they sort of glaze over as they recall that strange little shop with the sweaty teenage boys lurking within and the toy soldiers in the window. You can see it in their face. They’re bewildered by this announcement and don’t know what to say. So they say ‘Oh!’ Sometimes, they say ‘Oh!’ in a bizarrely enthusiastic way as though they can encapsulate everything in that one sound.

This is probably the line that confuses most people; because Black Library is pretty genre-specific after all. Say ‘fantasy’ or ‘sci-fi’ to most non-genre readers and they’ll come back with ‘Oh, you mean Tolkien and Star Trek’.

Uh-huh. Let’s get to the biggy, shall we?

I’m writing military sci-fi featuring seven foot tall, genetically engineered post-human warrior monks who carry chainswords and guns. Big, big guns. Oh – and whilst I’m digging my own grave, it’s tie-in fiction.

‘But…’

Yeah, I think. I know what you’re going to add. And they invariably don’t. Some do, of course. But…

…you’re a girl.

I am! Thanks for noticing the 38C’s there! Oh, wait – that’s ALL you noticed? Are you a PC World reject? (Clarification: I went into PC World once to buy a new printer and the sales assistant addressed everything to chest level. In the end, I actually crouched down to get his attention. I laughed about it, but I wanted to punch him).

Let’s break this down gently.

1) Yes. I’m a girl. Does this mean I am precluded from enjoying military sci-fi? I also happen to enjoy books by Marian Keyes who is as far removed from outer space as you can possibly imagine. My taste in reading is like my taste in music, films and television. Eclectic. I like lots of things. Women who read genre are, in my opinion, likely to be far more intelligent and more widely-read than many of the men – particularly the younger men who have yet to go against the grain and break out of genre for a look at the World Beyond.

So yes. I’m a girl. Reading and writing science fiction of a military nature. Why is this? Because it’s fun. There’s nothing more sinister to it than that. I’m not some sort of rampant feminist trying to make a point. When I first got the writing gig with BL, I worried about writing under my own name. But in the end, I went with the best advice I got.

‘You wrote it, didn’t you? Be proud of it. Not ashamed.’

So I have gone for using my Actual Name. It will be something of an interesting social experiment in some ways and indeed already has been. (Again, for clarification, in a review of one of my short stories, the only thing the reviewer could comment on was that I ‘spent too long describing how handsome the sergeant was’. There was one line in which I mentioned his appearance. That was it. That was all he could find to say on the story. Several people have said to me that they’d never seen such a blatantly sexist review and not to let it bother me. It didn’t bother me, I assure you. In fact, I laughed at it. I am, however, reasonably sure that if I had written using just my initials, or under a male name, he’d have not even mentioned it). Still, that’s his opinion and he’s more than entitled to it. Sirrah, I salute you.

It was just one comment, but I’m sure it’ll happen again. There seems to be a (thankfully small) sub-section of genre readers who instantly despise a girl coming into their precious world. I hope I can at least change their minds a little.

Additionally, if other female authors feel more confident about submitting work to BL because I’m there and not afraid of who I am, then that can only be a good thing. Certainly the dynamic of the game is changing; there are far more girls buying and painting Warhammer armies. I sometimes feel, along with the other BL short story-writing gals out there, something of a trailblazer.

And as for the tie-in fiction stigma…

Even my own dad said, when I told him about The Gildar Rift, ‘but it’s not real fiction, is it?’

There was a pause of aeons. Icebergs formed, got embarrassed and melted.

‘What do you mean, exactly?’ (Inside, I was saying ‘you mean, “well done, Sarah”, of course you do.’)

‘Well… you’re not making anything up. It’s all already there.’

‘I’m creating all my own characters and my own story. The rest of it is just a prop.’

‘Oh!’

And we were back to square one.

Incidentally, he has since told me how proud he is of me. Heck, I’m proud of me. Tie-in fiction or not, writing a 100k+ word novel is no easy feat. Let the snobs look down from their pedestals and sneer at my work of lesser fiction. I’m the one having fun and enjoying what I’m doing. I’m proud to be a part of the W40K (and WHF now!) worlds.

So, quite frankly… in your face, literary snobs.

You go back to debating the hidden meaning of ‘My Life as a Crustacean’. I will let my imagination run free in a world of either my own, or someone else’s devising, where all the pressures of real life can be left at the door for a few quality hours. Because – and let’s combine all of these things and slap the label on – I might be a female military sci-fi tie-in genre reader and author for the Black Library… but I’m happy doing it. And when someone says to me ‘I loved your story’, then I’ve shared that happiness.

Given the choice of literary recognition or making someone happy… hearing that someone’s joined me in my made-up world, I know which one I would choose any time.

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34 thoughts on “‘Oh!’

  1. Schafe says:

    If it weren’t for the fact you were a girl I’d say the points you make in this blog were good. Alas for that cruel twist of fate that undermines everything you do.

  2. Anne Lyle says:

    Good on ya, Sarah! We didn’t get a chance to talk at AltFiction (so many people, so little time!) but I’ll look out for you at future cons. I’m another female author writing under her real name in a male-dominated genre (noir-ish historical fantasy), so I expect I’ll get a bit of flak when my book comes out – but I refuse to write under a gender-neutral pseudonym and further reduce the presence of women in the genre.

    BTW, I find it bitterly ironic that the Google ad on this page is “9 Dangerous Mistakes Women Make That Men Find Totally Unattractive.” 🙂

    • Hi, Anne! I recognise you from your picture on your website and you’re right. So many people, so little time! Plus, this was my first such event and I was a bit… OK, a LOT… overwhelmed by it all. We should make a point of saying ‘hi’ next time!

  3. Liz says:

    LOL @ Schafe’s comment. But, this is a fantastic blogpost. I applaud you, you girly writer of Big Men with Guns.

    I have started seeing more and more people “coming out”, if you can call it such, reading genre fiction. During my commute this week I’ve seen countless books by Stephen Baxter, Charlaine Harris and George RR Martin being read by people you would not normally assume would read these books. And I know I for one do not “conform” to what a genre reader tends to look like. 1. I’m the wrong age of 30. 2. I’m a girl. 3. I’m a big girl working in very smart offices in the West End. 4. Most people probably think I read genre fiction to make sure my kids (which I don’t have) are reading good books. 5. I spit in their faces <- not really, but I LOVE playing against what people expect so I love turning up with my Sandman and Lucifer graphic novels only to see their faces contort in these WTF expressions.

    But, having said that, I've come across some very funny things at Games Workshop. Walking around the shop you are approached by assistants less than half your age. Their voices haven't even broken yet. And then they enquire if we are buying stuff for our kids. Mark just thunders at them. Or, we watching a young boy, maybe 9 walk up to the counter and the guy behind the till goes: "Hello little girl, what can I help you with?" and the kid goes "I'm a BOY!"

    Pigeonholing people is WRONG. Pigeonholing readers and writers is WRONG. I have been reviewing for six years. I occasionally fall into this trap myself. It is WRONG.

    But I have hopes, seeing my fellow commuters reading books that they normally would not be seen dead reading in public, sitting there, quite happily showing off their Robin Hobbs or Jaine Fenn's. And I applaud the publishers I work with for publishing such a diverse range of people and to be honest, if their books didn't sell, publishers would buy them, right?

    • One of the conversations over the weekend was that ‘non-genre’ fiction writers are eyeing up our toybox. You watch them take over and pretend genre never existed…

  4. Oh, this is an interesting post. It’s not going to be easy is it, I personally feel the term ‘Literature’ should be banned from anything to do with fiction…

  5. David Langford has been railing against this sort of snobbery for years, and can be very entertaining with it. For example: http://www.ansible.co.uk/sfx/sfx107.html

  6. willhowers says:

    fragile as well, remember!?

    I think it is a shame that people are quite so mind-bendingly shallow. But you’ve definitely got the cahones to carry on regardless!

    I’m quite looking forwards to when you get around to writing about your life as a crustacean. Although it does sound kinda dull.

    Just dont let it make you bitter! We are all massively proud of your achievements so far!

    Squiggle

    x

  7. Good blog post, but, I have to say one thing: Fcuk the doubters. How many can write a book in the first place? How many of those can actually get a publishing deal? How many of those have to face and cross the lines like you have?

    Your success to get this far is admirable, and for those on the outside who can’t see it are just ignorant. It’s the opinions of your readers and peers that matter IMHO, not the outsiders

    I look forward to reading your book, but I really do hope you feature crustaceans in some manner.

    • Thanks, Colin, I appreciate the sentiment. I actually can’t remember if there are any crustaceans in ‘The Gildar Rift’, but if they’re not immediately obvious to the naked eye, just know that they’re lingering somewhere in the background…

  8. Wouldn’t worry about the parental thing! About four books in my father asked when I was going to write a real novel 😉

    (And yes, he obviously meant, ‘I really liked your book and when’s the next one out…’)

  9. helbling says:

    I want to give this rant about 1000 internets. Bang on point.

    People seem to underestimate exactly how hard it is to get a fiction book published. Any kind of fiction book. Frankly the sheer awesome of you’re PUBLISHED should have anyone who isn’t (myself included) worshipping at around knee height.

    On top of that, you’ve beat gender stereotypes and been judged a good enough writer that you’ve actually been accepted into an existing genre and setting, rather than creating your own, which I think is probably HARDER. Screw anyone who thinks differently.

    I tend to think of those who sneer at anyone who’s pubilshed as the same idiots who claim teaching is an easy job and people who go into it are ‘copping out’ – which they’d know isn’t tru if they’d done even an iota of research. Same here. And most often aren’t worth bothering with. It’s hard whenit’s your loved ones though – I’m in a similar boat to you. Being published is one of my life goals – it’s something I’ve wanted since I can remember, and something I’ve devoted large chunks of my free time to over the past 4 years. My parents haven’t bothered to read my completed novel. When I told them about my most recent one which I think has enough reader-appeal to be submitted to an agent, they were luke-warm at best…and when I mentioned one of my female characters was in a relationship with another woman, the only thing my Mum enquired was whether I would be publishing under a pen name, because she didn’t really want to be connected to that sort of thing.

    I despair. And they have no bloody idea how hurtful they can be by this simple lack of interest and the amount of dismissal that can show for it.

    Thank god for enthusiastic beta readers – I have no idea how anyone who doesn’t have some sort of positive affirmation does it. Without them, I’d have walked away from the game convinced I was crap long ago.

  10. Ilmarinen says:

    Oh!

    Hehehe…

    Well I can’t wait to read your novel and I’ll add my congratulations on becoming a published author. Personally, I think this snobbery about genre/tie-in fiction is ridiculous. I read a lot of BL books, ‘unassociated’ books and other genre fiction lines and I can tell you that there are just good authors and bad authors. I therefore hugely look forward to reading novels by good authors who also understand their genre …like you!

    • I hear you. Does it matter what genre (or not) a book is if you enjoy reading it? No. No, it really doesn’t. It’s sad that a lot of non-genre readers are probably missing out on some of the best stories.

  11. Black Sam says:

    Oh! Right!

    Because that is my reaction to being told absolutely anything I didn’t know before. Although, male poetry writers tend to get the same reaction.

    Generally, the best genre fiction I’ve read is by female writers. And there really arn’t enough, as far as I know, female BL writers. I’ve always wondered if it’s actually harder writing around all the pre-existing cannon created by GW, rather than the other way round.

    So yes…awesome post.

  12. Well said, sistah.

    “So, quite frankly… in your face, literary snobs.”

    By this oath, I so swear.

  13. Fantastic post! Go you! (And hello from another female tie-in writer – ST: DS9 and Doctor Who.)

  14. Aegnor says:

    I agree with everything you say… But shouldn’t you be writing Sisters of Battle stories?

    (joking! joking! joking!)

    Nah, well said and congrats on getting the book done. Shall await its appearance in the shop eagerly, not because you’re a female author, but because it sounds damn cool, and your blog and tweets are consistently interesting. Good luck with it.

  15. AJ says:

    *wonders how he missed the latest blogpost*

    Well, I gotta ask first, how cathartic was writing this? Sure feels like you zapped a lot of it 🙂

    Everything other people have already said does not bear repeating, except that you SHOULD be writing Sisters of Battle stories!!!!! 😉

    Jokes aside, I was quite surprised to read your name next to TGR when I first saw it on the BL site. I was like whoa! THAT ROCKS! By way of explanation, that was quite a bit before I found out about the Bolthole. So yeah, I’m an original fan 😛

    And I will definitely be getting my copy of TGR signed by you and I shall bring along Victories as well!!!!

    Yaya for female authors in 40k!

  16. Jos Mertens says:

    Can’t wait to read it, I’m a huge 40k nut anyway.

    Also, didn’t Dan Abnett’s wife write one of the short stories in the Sabbat Worlds book? It was some very enjoyable reading and I see absolutely no reason why gender should figure into this in the first place. Yes the hobby is mostly dominated by males but that doesn’t mean A female can’t do it just as well, if not better.

    So yeah… MOAR BOOKS!

  17. Oh….

    Well I’m obviously a know nothing, misogynistic retard.

    ’cause I’m looking forward to reading it. I’m fairly sure the nah sayers said something similar to an unknown author, something Rowlings? Wrote some fantasy fiction, I’ve heard it did ok.

    Good luck, may you do as well, if not better. Hugs.

  18. Alastair says:

    I must admit to being continually confused about this whole genre / gender thing – if a book is good enough in any genre in any style, it should be accepted by the people who like that kind of book. I just don’t get why someone would reject an otherwise good book just because of who wrote it. But then, I have been told I can be naive…

    That being said, I’ll look out for your book. I am curious whether male and female writers of mil SF have different takes on it. Would you have any other suggestions for female authors of the sub-genre I could try as well?

  19. Persephone says:

    <>

    Point one, kudos for what you’ve been doing! as a fellow lover of 7ft tall men with big guns I’ve gulped down your Silver Skulls stories and am hoping TGR will deliver more in this vein.

    Point two, re: the first part of the quoted post: it would be interesting one day to see some statistics on gender breakdown in submissions to BL, because some gut feeling tells me it’s not because female authors have been such a negligible minority among submitters that all these years BL had no one to choose from. To introduce female authors into the writing stable looks more or less like a marketing solution – which is great, because even if it’s only business reasoning alone that makes this niche expand, the resulting opportunities are what really matters. good writing is not gender dependent, and neither is hobby 🙂

  20. AJ says:

    Was just talking to a cousin of mine I haven’t talked to in ages… asked me about my blog and what kind of writing I am doing… no prize for guessing what my answer was 😀

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