Put Yourself in a Box – Loving Genres

One of my inspirations is William Friedkin.

His excellent memoir, The Friedkin Connection, got me thinking about the tricky balancing act between personal artistic expression and commercial appeal.

Early in his career, producers David Wolper and Mel Stuart hired him to direct network documentaries. These were very mainstream assignments, intended for prime-time broadcast on ABC. For his first documentary, Friedkin handed in a nouvelle vague-inspired cut, very experimental. The producers predictably lost their shit – “A simple idea, and you assholes made it incomprehensible!”

The producers scrapped the cut and refashioned the footage into a mainstream piece.

Friedkin writes: “It broke me down, and was an invaluable lesson: go straight for the story, don’t clutter it with gimmicks, ‘technique’ or director’s touches … My Wolper documentaries led to future work, but they stripped me of the ambition to make films that reflected my own sensibilities …”

Later, in his best films, he would find a way to express his sensibilities in commercially viable genres. These films – The French Connection and The Exorcist among them – exemplify the values I hold dear. They are powered by the vitality of pulp fiction, but are thematically complex. Slippery and ambiguous, they refuse to tell the viewer what to think and feel. They’re driven by a delicious friction between commercial and subversive impulses.

That’s the kind of balance I aim for in my genre writing. Genres are flexible instruments. As long as you deliver the thrills, you have a lot of latitude to explore themes that are personally meaningful to you.

Short Sharp Shocks – How Not to Be a Productive Writer of Short Stories

I’m not a very prolific writer of short stories. In the past five years, I’ve completed some thirty-odd shorts, including flash fiction. That’s in the ballpark of 15,000 words a year. Not a heck of a lot.

There’s a reason for that.

My mantra is: Don’t repeat yourself.

It’s a compulsion. Every single short story I write has to be very different from those I’ve already completed, whether in technique or genre. I want to learn something new from every piece I write. So I hop from traditional horror to avant-garde wordplay to crime to literary fiction, whatever feels interesting to me at the time.

This comes with a downside. If it looks like a story I’m planning will end up being too similar to an earlier piece, I lose interest in it and go back to the drawing board. I can’t even guess how many short stories I’ve started but then scrapped.

But why not? The short story, as a form, is perfect for experimentation.