So long, Stan.

You don’t know the things that shape you.

And I mean it. You don’t. They’re so big and so important to you that you have no perspective on them. They’re such a constant presence that you can’t tell them apart from air. You can’t feel them affecting you, influencing you. To you, they’ve always been there, and always will be.

But maybe you get a chance to understand them, when you move away from them. When you grow up, move on, seek to explore. And once you’ve moved on, once you’re wandering a strange new world, you see things and think, “Haven’t I seen this before?” Or you find yourself thinking along a certain process of logic every time, looking at the same things and doing the same things with them.

And you wonder, “Where did that come from? How do I know this? Why do I do this? Why is this so interesting to me?” And you start to think about it.

I stopped reading Ray Bradbury when I went to college. I haven’t really returned to him since then, not in earnest: I started writing, and to write better I felt you had to read things you’d never read before, and expand your horizons.

But the more I write, and the more I think about the things I want to write, the more I find myself returning to Bradbury’s world, to his ideas, to what he wanted things to be like, and what he wanted to warn us about.

It made me proud to hear people say The Troupe felt, in parts, like a Bradbury story. And when they said that, I realized he was who I’d gone to for my next one, one I was still writing, American Elsewhere. I’d been writing in his shadow. I’d sought him out specifically, without even knowing it. I was continuing a conversation I’d been having with his work since I was a child.

It’s okay to write in his shadow. It’s too big to get outside of, really. It falls across so many genres, so much of history. It’s layered in the earth like strata of stone. We carve pieces out of his stories without even knowing it, and stack them up on top of one another. And we work and live with them beside us, unaware they’re in the background. And I think they will be for a long, long time.

So long, Ollie.

So long, Stan.

So what the hell is Urban Fantasy, anyway?

Here’s a confession: I usually have to be told what my books are.

Well, not what they are. I know that they’re squarish piles of paper with writing on them that have been bound together in a great big factory somewhere. But I still remember the day when I was told that my second novel, The Company Man, was not, in fact, science fiction, but was instead “dieselpunk,” a subgenre I was totally ignorant of. And just the other day, I happened to mention to someone that my third novel, The Troupe, was Urban Fantasy. And the response I got was a cringe, a slow shake of the head, and: “Nnnnnnoooot really.”

I’ll be honest: Urban Fantasy has always confounded me a little, and I think this is mostly because I’ve always chosen to define it quite broadly:

Urban Fantasy: a speculative fiction story with fantastical elements in an urban setting of what is very recognizably the real world.

I asked about this on Twitter the other day, assuming my definition was more or less correct.

I then received, at last count, 132 responses.

Some of them were part of an ongoing conversation I was just copied on. But the opinions about exactly what the hell Urban Fantasy is varied so wildly that I started taking notes, like I was caught in a storm of butterflies with especially outrageous colors.

For starts, some define Urban Fantasy as having a definite style, akin, I think, to noir. Justin Landon of “Staffer’s Musings” made this point, saying Urban Fantasy must have a “thriller” structure to it, and Kristin of “My Bookish Ways” supported it by saying that in Urban Fantasy, the singular city itself – Chicago, New York, San Francisco – must have a very distinct character of its own. All very much like a noir novel with fantasy elements.

This crossed over a bit to the repeated assertion that Urban Fantasy must take place in modern times – a fantasy story set in 1870’s Chicago was not Urban Fantasy. If Urban Fantasy is a cross of Fantasy with another genre – noir, thriller, and so on – Historical Fiction is not an ingredient in that cocktail.

So far, it sounded an awful lot like modern noir with magic. Which is a lot more specific than my definition.

Stina Leicht, however, made the point that Urban Fantasy has elements of the punk music scene, and contains much of the same underground, gritty, artistic style, specifically referencing Charles de Lint and Emma Bull. She also very clearly said that Urban Fantasy is not Paranormal Romance, and many agreed that these two often get confused, when they’re actually quite distinct.

I can’t possibly go over the full conversation here (and I thank everyone who contributed), but I started to feel a little confused about some of the definitions I was hearing. Because nearly everyone had a very, very specific idea of what Urban Fantasy was, and had books and stories to reference and back up that idea. And when I checked them out, those books and stories claimed to be Urban Fantasy, even if this put them in loud disagreement with one another.

The feeling I got from all of this was that a specific appeal is now more commonly found, and more prized, than a broad one. Urban Fantasy is itself a subgenre, but within that broad definition there are hundreds of little mini-sub-genres, Balkanized little genre city-states that are, to some degree, quietly at war with one another, each claiming to be different from the next – even though, to the uninitiated, they all look more or less the same. A reader unfamiliar with SFF will simply look at it, and say, “Oh, there’s magic in it? Then it’s fantasy.” Though this might incur a long expository argument from the initiated.

Our entertainment is now created with a set of very specific reference points in mind, and our love of that entertainment is increasingly impenetrable to outsiders. In today’s time of constant information flow, we expect our fiction to be informed by that same amount of information. You must know the background of several pop culture and literary touchstones in order to begin to understand the work.

So, we don’t want a broad following – we want a cult following, an intimate, intense, historied relationship with the work. And for some, you can’t just love a book : you have to create a whole new category for it, and a history of that category, and you must compare and contrast it against the others. It’s like literary criticism on methamphetamines, only now you aren’t comparing literary movements that take place over decades, but genre trends that emerge and dissipate within months.

Book awareness is now viral – but don’t forget that viruses tend to exhaust themselves fairly quickly.

Is this a bad thing? I’m not sure. I definitely think that the internet, whose feed is so huge that people will find themselves restricted to narrow avenues of information, is going to increasingly Balkanize nearly every form of entertainment. We’re going to start a lot more conversations with, “Oh, you don’t know about _______? Really?” Soon, we’ll all be the record store clerks from High Fidelity on some subject or another.

While this does build a close bond with your entertainment, it’s obstructive to nearly everyone else. A work’s following will grow much more slowly, if it grows at all. And it’s going to get increasingly hard to figure out the lasting power of a work: do you think that audiences in twenty years will be able to look back and decipher the reasons why we laud the work we do today, untangling the history and genre qualifications that make us categorize it as we do? Is a work that is considered great within the genre system capable of lasting outside of that system? I find myself doubting it.

And writers, who probably don’t fashion a story with a specific subgenre in mind – and how could you, since they’re often so narrow, and change so much – will flounder more and more when it comes to the question of, “What genre is it?”

Whatever answer a writer might have to that question, I think they’ll be told more frequently that it is the wrong one.

It’s happened.

Well. It’s happened.

You’ve been tapped. Touched. Selected. You have received communication from the distant, bustling publication world – probably via agent – and have been told that they want you. You are now, surely, anointed, blessed, poised to ascend into the heavens and take your place within the firmament as one of the hallowed constellations of the literary world.

Except kind of not. When they first start out, writers typically conceptualize their careers as occurring in huge increments, usually structured around a “I have to get ____” mentality. It usually goes:

  1. I have to get my book finished.
  2. I have to get an agent.
  3. I have to get published.
  4. I have to figure out how to deal with my huge success, like what to do with my plethora of purebred Shetland ponies and whether these ponies understand and appreciate my guitar music

But that’s (huge surprise coming) not actually it at all. It does not, unfortunately, follow the simple structure of “caterpillar -> chrysalis -> butterfly.” There’s a lot of crunching, observing, thinking, stressing, hair-splitting, and good ol’ fashioned shit-eating that comes with being a writer. When you’re down in the trenches, trying to move your career forward just a few inches more, those gigantic milestone increments completely dissolve.

For instance, if you’ve just gotten an agent, they’re not just going to tap an editor somewhere and say, “Here, publish this,” and off we go to press. It’s likely your agent is going to ask you to revise, and re-revise, and rethink. Because they want the work to be ready. Agents really only get a handful of chances to give editors a book, and they’ll need every chance to count.

So, listen to them. They know a lot. They know what editors are looking for. If you’ve got a good one, they’ll try and make your work “more of itself” – always a good thing – rather than saying, “Throw some vampires in there, and maybe some teen girls.”

Remember – if you question the importance of any scene or line, cut it. If you’re questioning it, the reader will likely skip it. You don’t want white noise in your writing.

And then, once you’ve trimmed the fat, it’s back to the rejection process. Your work will go to editors, and many of them – most of them – will say, “Sorry, no.” This rarely has anything to do with the quality of your work. When someone says, “It just wasn’t a good fit,” they likely mean it – it didn’t fit with the schedule, their marketing, the brand, anything.

As always, keep trying. Learn from your bruises. And listen. Writing is work – keep working.