Thoughts on “Conventionality”

The two mentions of Moth and Spark in review publications thus far (Publishers Weekly and School Library Journal) have both used the word “conventional” to describe the book. This is true so far as the plot and much of the setting, and I have used the word myself. The conventionality exists because the book has its origins way way back in my teenage years, when the fantasy available to me in the relatively small town where I lived was mostly Tolkien knock-offs. That’s what I read, that’s what I wrote.

As I got older and my reading widened, my writing changed too (though never departing very far from worlds where magic of some sort mattered, which can be the subject of a future post). Most of the time I spent learning to write involved working on things such as creating tension through dialogue, experimenting with verb tense and point of view, cutting off dead wood, structuring a story, not being too wordy, and so on. I was also trying to be daring, original, and experimental.

In those years, I wrote my MFA manuscript, a fantasy novel, a bunch of unfinished stuff, and a major rewrite of the fantasy novel which was more innovative for me in terms of structure. (I also wrote a dissertation in there too, ahem.) But all this time the romantic fantasy story with the usual trappings (dragons, princes, magic, etc.) has been struggling to get out of me and trying to hijack my other writing.

So finally I decided to get the story out of my system and write the book my 15 year old self was craving, and then I could get on with other books. I did move the setting from a faux-medieval era to one much more like the early 1800s, mostly because I had tired of medieval a long time ago and because I really wanted to steal from Jane Austen. (Every time I read Pride and Prejudice, I am surprised by how contemporary her language seems.) But I didn’t push any major plot or setting boundaries – instead I worked on character development and language.

After several drafts, I realized that I really did want to give a shot at getting the novel published, and I started playing around with various other less-used mythical elements, none of which made it to the final round. When I acknowledged that my inner romantic had won, that was when I had a story.

A conventional story – a love story, a quest, dragons.

So . . . Is this a bad thing?

The answer is yes if conventional means relying on stereotypes. But there’s a difference between a familiar trope and a sterotype.

In Vladimir Propp’s Morphology of the Folktale, he lays out patterns and elements common to folk and fairy-tales, elements which necessarily fall in a sequence. Not every story has every element, but the elements in the story are familiar and come in a predictable order. I don’t want to go into great deal about Propp here since it’s a long time since I’ve read it; what is relevant is that he finds the same tropes repeated over and over. (A.S. Byatt’s story “The Story of the Eldest Princess” is a great take on what happens when the tropes are pushed aside; the Eldest Princess realizes that she won’t achieve the quest no matter what, so she decides to leave the path and make a new story.) Part of the human appetite for story and narrative is an appetite for familiarity.

Stories and novels are wonderful when they push limits and create a level of discomfort in the reader that makes the reader self-examine. They are wonderful when they have amazing ideas and are creating new things or mashing up stuff that is never found together. When they fiercely tackle cultural norms, they can be spectacular.

And, stories are also wonderful when they are familiar. Kids like to hear the same story or watch the same show over and over. Adults re-read and re-watch too, just not as insistently. Stories themselves endure for centuries. Fairy tales and legends especially seem to get retold over and over. The stories we hear since childhood become a part of our identity, our self-narrative, our sense of culture and world.

Obviously that can be restrictive and even damaging – think of the stories and expectations surrounding how women should behave. But familiar stories are also a home base of sorts, a place to retreat to and regather, a way to restore order to a fragmented self.

Fantasy and science fiction books being published now have such awesome and creative stories, and I love the genre blending that is in so many books. I wish there had been that much variety during my formative years. In my next books I hope to be a lot more innovative all-around. I need to keep pushing myself and beware of getting stale.

But I don’t think it’s chance that Moth and Spark was accepted for publication when my previous books weren’t. It’s a better book. And some of the reason that it’s a better book is that it relies on my oldest experiences with stories instead of fighting them.

1 comment

  1. Brian Foster

    There are few things I hate more than criticism that an idea is too conventional. Honestly, I couldn’t care less what your plot is as long as you draw me into the story.

    It’s not like there is anything really new under the sun anyway. Yes, a story may be about a love story between a goblin and a unicorn, but, at its core, it’s still a love story.

    Good luck with you novel.


Comments have been disabled.