What is Your Web of Life?

You can’t escape the web of life

Maintaining and protecting your web results in a bounty for all. Photo by Cherie Ude. Previously published in Interpretative Guide to Western Northwest Weather Forecasts.

(See Natural Resources, the environment and eco-systems)

If you could separate yourself, you’d destroy your connections to life itself. The Web of Life confirms that, contrary to what we might think, humans are not self-sufficient.

For instance, if you eat, you’re dependent on microbes that maintain soil health. You’re dependent on insects that pollinate crops. These microbes and insects are dependent on clean water and soil.

In other words, if you want breakfast, you need a healthy habitat. Such an environment is good for crops and one in which birds, lizards, and amphibians thrive. These, in turn, help manage insects (both those that pollinate and those that don’t). The entire system maintains clean water and air.

Food Chain or Web of Life?

Perhaps you think of this as the “food chain,” but that is limited and no longer useful for understanding our connections and dependency on the environment. A food chain refers to who eats whom in the wild. A web illustrates where all creatures find what they need to survive in order to be part of that food chain (Food chains & food webs).

Humans have sometimes tried to manage without considering the Web of Life. For instance, in the past, some farmers tried raising crops by plowing without regard to soil damage and by saturating the water, plants, and soil with poisons to kill insects. In turn, they’ve harvested dust bowls, abiotic crop diseases, and residual poisons that have negative effects on people and animals through contaminated food and water. WWF–Sustainable Agriculture

Who Needs Plants?

Perhaps you think you’d get along fine without plants. However, if you eat animals, those animals depend on plants for food. Even wild carnivores, such as lions, get their meat from herds of animals that graze on plants.

So if you eat, you depend on biodiversity and a healthy environment.

In other words, biodiversity is crucial to successful life on Earth. Humans can’t, on their own, create conditions to raise enough plants to feed all the animals and people on Earth. Each living thing has a role in sustaining life. The more this is maintained, the more you’ll have to eat. This is the web of life.

Breathe a Little Light

The sun brings power to plants. Plants pass that power on to all life. Photo by Marian Blue

Taking a step back, plants need more than water. They need the power of sunlight for their complicated process of photosynthesis (6CO2 + 6H2O + Light energy → C6H12O6 (sugar) + 6O2) (Smithsonian Science Education Center-What is Photosynthesis?). In this process, plants breathe, and what they exhale is the oxygen you need to inhale.

If something interferes with the balance and quality of sunlight, the entire system begins to fall apart. That’s why horrible clouds of pollution can kill people (Great Smog of London–Britannica).

Every breath you take is thanks to plants.

So your very life itself–breath, water and nutrition–depends plants.

You depend on an environment in which plants can remain healthy. This is the Web of Life.

Habitat, Ecosystem, & Biomes

You’ll often hear people refer to environment, ecosystem, habitats, and biomes as though the terms are interchangeable. They aren’t. (Wilderness Classroom–Understanding Habitats, Ecosystems and Biomes)


A habitat is where something is native, where it can grow and thrive naturally without over-populating the area. Habitat consists of what you need in the way of food, temperature, humidity, and space. In one sense, your home is your habitat (where you can find food, water, safety, and shelter). (For more on conserving water, see Share the Joys of Water )


An ecosystem is the neighborhood, functioning as a whole. In one sense, your habitat is sustained by connections to water and sewer systems, by trash collectors, by power lines, and more. In the wild, an ecosystem is sustained by water and food supplies. Often these are maintained through plants, both as food and filters to maintain fresh water. Those things encourage animals to move in. In turn, predators move in.


A Biome is a large geographical area. I live in the Pacific Northwest which is a moist temperate coniferous forest biome. It includes some high and low elevations (sea level to 14,000 feet). We have beaches, lakes, and rivers along with a number of different ecosystems for each. Habitats support everything from vast fungi networks to grizzly bears and cougars.

Pacific Northwest Biome

Many kinds of fungi love snags. Critters love fungi. Photo from Interpretative Guide to Western Northwest Weather Forecasts.

The Web of Life in the Pacific Northwest depends on basic plants and fungi. Fungi operate largely unseen, but they play a major role in breaking down organic material in the forest, which, in turn, provides nutrients for growing things.

Many creatures eat fungi as well. Plants, from tiny mosses to giant old growth trees, are all part of the underground root system that provides healthy habitat for microbes, bugs, arachnids, slugs and more. These, in turn, provide a smorgasbord for frogs, salamanders, lizards, snakes, and birds.

This is also excellent habitat for small mammals such as squirrels that thrive on tree cones. Here, too, you find raccoons that enjoy meals of small mammals and fish and other water-bound life on beaches. Beavers build dams and create small lakes that provide bountiful habitat for fish and birds. Salmon that come to spawn provide meals for bears, otters, and eagles. Salmon spawning, in turn, is vital to a host of whales, dolphins, otters and more that live in the ocean biome west of the Pacific Northwest.

This extensive biome Web of Life thrives, as always, from plants. For more, check out Web of Life–Nature North West.

Another Web of Your Life

During Covid, many people discovered how important their social webs are. They depend on other people for recreation, social networks, income, package delivery, manufacturing (clothes, kitchen appliances, cars and more), growing food…the list is extensive. What we sometimes forget is that, in the Web of Life, connections only to people will eventually lead to a dead end.

Everything is connected. We need to protect all the biodiversity and health on our planet, which includes ourselves, our families, our friends, and even things we can’t see.

Protect and maintain your Web of Life for yourself, your family, your Earth. (6 Ways to Preserve Biodiversity)

Marian Blue is pleased to announce her publication of her prose poem, “Wild Spaces Without and Within” in the current issue (Spring/Autumn 2021) of Snowy Egret. This outstanding magazine celebrates the “abundance and beauty of nature and examine(s) the variety of ways, both positive and negative, through which human beings interact with the landscape and living things.” It’s an honor to have material included.


Plant a Tree

“The best time to plant a tree was 20 years ago. The second best time is now.”
― Chinese proverb
Big Leaf Maple-Photo by Marian Blue

To plant a tree in the 21st century is to think in more complicated ways than in the past if you consider today’s conservation needs. Providing for wildlife and planting for future climate changes are considerations, along with concerns people have always had: beauty, shade, and other value.

Planning for wildlife has become increasingly important as pollinators (such as bees and butterflies) are on the decline. Yet we often think in terms of flowers or shrubs only. Pollinators also rely on trees. Trees provide shelter, food, and nesting sites for birds, bats, raccoons, frogs, and more.

When you plant a tree, you’re creating a substantial resource for decades, maybe centuries.

To Plant a Tree

Step One

Red-bellied woodpeckers love trees and the food they host. Photo by Cherie Ude

The first step in planning is to consider your site, both geographically and in details. What seed zone are you in and how is climate change apt to affect that? The forest service has a mapping tool for considering both these issues: USDA Seed Zone Applications. If you want something less complex, many nurseries and other organizations provide seed zone maps online or in their garden centers. If you’re thinking in terms of climate change, don’t make significant changes–move south one or two hundred miles and go for that seed zone.

When you know your seed zone it’s easy to find out what trees are recommended for your area. Local conservation districts are a good source (as well as nurseries). My local conservation district provides information, resources, and an annual plant sale: Whidbey Island Conservation District. Because it’s local, the plants are already selected for the area. Note that for pollinators, the trees Madrone, Big Leaf Maple, Black Hawthorne, and others are included. Sometimes species that provide important resources for wildlife might surprise you.

Some northwest recommended wildlife trees are included at National Wildlife Federation Ten Favorite Trees for Wildllife

Step Two

The northern cardinal brings flashes of brilliance.
Photo by Cherie Ude

Consider your specific site and personal goals. Even sites in the same area can vary radically.

Space–how much open area do you have? Does it suit the future size of the tree you’re considering?

Location—will roots be too close to septic tanks, power lines, or house foundations? Will spreading branches overshadow gardens that need light? Will the tree eventually be tall enough to threaten buildings from falling branches or the tree itself? Also keep in mind that different towns have different rules about trees; some neighborhood associations are particularly restrictive. Even if no restrictions are enforced, consider how your tree will affect your neighbors.

Light—Shade is lovely, almost as effective as AC, but will the tree eventually block a view or windows? Also, how much light is available for the tree? Some trees are shade tolerant…some are not.

Drainage—What kind of soil do you have? More clay means slower drainage whereas sandy loam will drain well. Also, is the tree in a low wet spot? A high, dry spot? You can dig a hole, fill it with water, and see how quickly it drains to get an idea of drainage. You might want to also evaluate the pH values of the soil.

Future plans and goals—If you’re thinking of enlarging your home or putting in gardens or selling in the near future, consider how the tree fits into those plans. Do you want the tree to be a legacy tree, a place for a tree house, a graceful setting for family gatherings or lounging in a hammock? Are you thinking long-term?

Douglas Squirrels cone-bearing trees, favoring those such as Douglas fir.
Photo by Cherie Ude

Pests–Will this tree lure in unwelcome guests? Consider what sort of insects and animals are apt to arrive as the tree becomes more inviting; this will vary with geography. Some people, for instance, want squirrels, raccoons and/or opossums; some don’t.

Purpose of tree–Perhaps you want something that provides color changes through the year or maybe an evergreen that keeps its foliage. Maybe you want to harvest fruit or berries. Maybe you want to plant memories. To this day, I remember the weeping willow that filled my aunt and uncle’s front yard. We played hide and seek among its branches that swept the lawn, and we could swing from those same branches.

Step Three

Planting a tree should be a thought-out process. Depth and width of hole, root conditions of sapling, etc. Remember that this is a future fulfillment. This Seattle government site has a ton of good information about planting: Planting and Care of Trees

Deer and rabbits can be hazardous to young trees.
Photo by Cherie Ude

Protect the tree after planting. Rabbits and deer are particularly hard on young trees. Deer can damage or even kill older trees by rubbing their antlers on trunks and foliage to remove velvet. Many products are available, from fencing to repellents, to help with this. Humanely Protecting Young Trees and Shrubs provides some quick tips on ways to protect your plants.


Every day we’re learning more about trees and their roles in our world. A delightful Webinar about how trees communicate and bond with each other and with us is at Daily Dose of Nature Webinars.

When you’re planting a tree, you’re making a statement about the future and how you want it shaped. Remember, trees are valuable even after they die; see Snags . Consider getting the whole family involved in the process.

“On the last day of the world I would want to plant a tree.”
― W.S. Merwin

Next month’s blog “Invaders!”


The Nature of Pets


Haiku and Rhododendron
Photo by Marian Blue


is it in the nature of pets to love the environment?

Are we damaging nature with our pet love–fish to cats, birds to dogs, snakes to rats?

If we answer these questions honestly, we have to admit that pet care often equals environmental damage.

Here we’ll pause to acknowledge that pets provide many benefits.

It’s the nature of pets to:

  • assuage loneliness.
  • help us stay physically fit.
  • probably help lower blood pressure, lower heart rate, aid sleep.
  • teach children responsibility.
  • act as service and rescue animals.
  • and, if nothing else, make us laugh and play.
  • and more Benefits from Pets.

Few (any?) people advocate eliminating pets. Does that mean that environmental damage must continue to be in the nature of pets? Or can changed human behavior change that?

Change Can Happen

In the past, people have adapted, changed their behaviors.

For instance, when I was a kid in the 1950s, leash laws were a rarity; dogs trotted freely from yard to yard and even from neighborhood to neighborhood. My mother and other shoppers regularly included one or more of their small dogs in the cart kiddie basket as they wandered grocery store aisles.

Buying pet food was optional. Dogs usually got scraps off the table. Cats earned their living off rodents and birds as well as scraps from dinner tables and trash cans (where dogs also often dined).

As for picking up poop–! I was an adult before I saw a person cleaning up after a dog. Not until the 1970s did poop laws appear.

Today, leash laws are common, poop bags are ubiquitous, and pet food is a multi-billion dollar a year business.

Change For the Good

Unfortunately, many of those changes are now damaging our environment, not because the changes are bad but rather because hindsight is better than foresight. The changes didn’t incorporate today’s awareness of environmental issues. Consequently, pets and the pet industry contribute tons of plastic, carbon, and waste to the environment.

The good news is that we can make wise changes to improve the situation and keep our pets, too.

Pick It Up—Then What?

We mostly acknowledge that picking up pet poop is essential for the environment and for our health (see…Scoop the Poop). Unfortunately, we mostly use plastic bags to do the job. Even worse, some people leave the poop-filled bags on the beach, hanging from branches, or hidden under rocks.

First, you have alternatives to plastic: Paper waste sheets, paper bags (such as Pooch Paper), newspaper, portable tools, and some bags that aren’t plastic (plant-based). Unfortunately, there are a host of bags marketed as compostable or biodegradable that aren’t.

Picking up poop and leaving it for someone else to pick up? Pick up then dispose of responsibly. Photo by Abandoned Poop Bags

Read the label, which should advise what the bag ingredients are, how long break-down takes, and how to best dispose of the bag. Using alternatives to anything plastic is best. However, if you’re a user of plastic in the home, at least re-using the plastic is helpful rather than buying poop bags.

Once you’ve picked up, dispose of poop appropriately, usually in the trash.  The city of Bothel has these excellent hints. Safe Poop Disposal

Cats Poop, Too

While thinking about poop, remember that cat poop isn’t sweeter, better for the environment, or cleaner than dog poop. Dispose of cat poop and litter in the same way as dog poop. Avoid using plastic to line litter pans.

Cleaning up after cats is complicated by the fact that cats, unlike dogs, wander where they want. Unfortunately, that means cat poop can wind up in someone’s flower or vegetable garden or even in children’s play areas. This saves concern for owners who chose to let their cats wander, but makes cat poop other people’s problem.

Don’t believe that cats are somehow wilder than dogs. See Wild Things Sanctuary. Why do we treat cats as free agents? This site addresses some our social history regarding cats and why they aren’t legally required to be contained: Michigan State University

Attitudes about cats are changing. Keeping your cat on your property (or on a leash) might well be required in the near future. People are building catios and making their yards secure. Check out the Humane Society page. This not only benefits people who object to cat poop, it also protects birds (American Bird Conservancy), squirrels, and the cats themselves U.S. National Library of Medicine.

Beyond Poop

Plastics for pets: leashes, treat packaging, the lining of food cans, can covers, dental supplies, water/food dishes, toys (and even squeakers in toys), medical containers…our pets are plasticized. Photo by Marian Blue

When buying pet accessories–toys to food to beds to dishes to cleaners–consider ways to avoid plastic, especially one-use plastic. This includes bags and packaging. Pets, like people, aren’t helped by ingesting plastic. Plastic and Your Pet Note that plastic is often hidden in what you buy, such as the lining of pet food cans.

Other information abounds, including

Changing Lives

Every day brings opportunities to live harmoniously with all other life (see Living In Harmony With Wildlife ). By thinking more deeply about how to care for both our pets and our environment, we can bring ecological awareness into loving our pets. Then we can say that the nature of pets is good for people and the environment.

Next Month’s Blog: What Trees and Plants are Best for Your Yard?

Saving the Natural World

Saving the Natural World Feather by Feather
Photo by Cherie Ude

For those of us who love wild and natural places, saving the natural world for future generations, both human and wildlife, takes priority. Obviously saving the natural world isn’t a one-person job. Yet each of us plays a significant role by sharing our love of the natural world with people, showing them ways to enjoy and interact with wild and natural places. People love what they know.



Educating people about our world doesn’t mean telling them what to think, how to think, or what to do. Nor do you have to be an expert yourself. Sharing your experiences doesn’t require an impressive resume.

Everyone has stories about nature. Even if you live in a megalopolis high-rise, you, yourself, are a part of the natural world, sensing the air, temperature, breezes, rain, and sun every day. You can find a lifetime of writing from your own backyard or window box.

You’ve interacted with fall leaves drifting down or you’ve fed wild birds or seen a butterfly exploring a flower. Books have been written about spider webs. Anything that captures your attention is subject matter.

Your encounters suggest ways in which other people can both experience the natural world and share those experiences.

If you enjoy photography, you’ve got people’s attention–perhaps without writing a word! For instance, this kayak photo lures the eye and mind out into the open water.

The story: Calm open water ahead!
This photo was used by Sound Water Stewards in their book Getting to the Water’s Edge.    Photo by Marian Blue

If you’re a little uncertain about your photography or how you can use it for saving the natural world, check out Court Whelan As a professional photographer, he provides these free Webinars that explore ways to tell stories through photography.

Combining a few written words with a photo can help someone’s imagination catch fire.

Type conservation in Twitter and see the many examples; some of these have thousands of likes. Photos catch the eye on Facebook but even a few choice words or a link in a colored box can have an effect.

One of my books, How Many Words for Rain, includes my poetry and Lynne Hann’s photos. These poems and photos aren’t meant to educate so much as to simply show beauty in the world and human connection to that beauty.


  1. Re-create the experience. Provide the colors, sounds, emotions. Let readers know how you felt at the moment, how you feel when remembering, or why you want to share. Don’t tell them; show them.
  2. Avoid expressing your personal opinions. Let the experience speak for itself. If you start lecturing, people will leave. For instance, my opinions about hunting crept into the first blog of this Conservation series. A professional forester called me on it, and I revised it.
  3. Read other nature blogs and newsletters from organizations such as Audubon. This is an international interest. Reading about conservation is a great way to find inspiration.
  4. Your writing can be in any genre: poetry, essay, fiction. It can also be for any audience, adult or child. You can slant it for interests, fantasy to realism.
  5. If you do wish to provide researched information (as I did in my two past blogs), make sure your sources are legitimate and vetted. Don’t grab information off a social media site or other random site. The best sources are .org or .gov or such. Check out this site for evaluating your sources: CMU library


Many magazines that focus on nature love to receive submissions. For instance, Snowy Egret Magazine, published a short story of mine called “Badlands” years ago. This fictional story about an elderly man’s connection with his land was reprinted in my collection of short stories Sailing Off the Hook. Meanwhile, I have a short essay about a memories journey into the wild forthcoming in Snowy Egret.

A day in Viera Wetlands! Photo by Cherie Ude and poem by Marian Blue published together at Points & Parks online magazine.

Recently, one of my poems, combined with one of Cherie Ude’s photos, was published this year at Parks & Points Parks & Points Magazine.

The poem tells a story about a day at Viera Wetlands, and the photo illustrates both dawn and twilight.




Your only limitations come from doubt. In essence, writing about and helping to save the natural world is as much a part of you as breathing.

Get started now by taking a look at  International League of Conservation Writers


Next month: Preserving the wild while living with pets.

Free Critiques

Workshop Suspended?

Staying Home?

During these “stay at home” days, many writers are unable to gather for their workshops, classes, and interactions that help keep them motivated. To help in a small way, Marian Blue will be offering one free critique a week based on a random drawing. This will continue as long as the “stay at home” restriction is in place for Washington State.

To apply:

  • Send an email to Sunbreak Press with Free Critique in the subject line.
  • Attach, in a Word document, your manuscript.

Manuscript requirements:

  • Must be a Word document.
  • Must be 5,000 words or less.
  • Any genre (fiction, poetry, nonfiction), but only one complete work. (One poem, one short story, or one essay/memoir). Please don’t send selections out of larger works.

New Drawing Each Week

Every Wednesday, a random drawing will take place from all of those manuscripts submitted. If your work is selected, you’ll receive a critique via your return email address before the next drawing. If your work isn’t selected, it will be eligible for the next drawing.

Looking forward to reading your work

Wish more could be read, but time doesn’t allow. However, your critique will be thorough. You’ll receive a Word document response (with Track Changes) on your manuscript.

View more about Marian Blue at About Marian BlueBlue & Ude Writers Services, author bioAmazon Author page, Marian Blue; or The Independent Author Network, Marian Blue.

Creating Book Collections–Five Steps to Success

Compiling your short stories, poems, or essays into a compelling book collection involves alchemy.

You’ve written, revised and published several dozen short stories or poems. Editors like your work. Friends suggest a collection. You realize that if you collect your work in one book, it comes to almost 400 pages.

You compile your book and receive, at best, a lukewarm reception to the collection. Why?

Creating compelling collections involves more than a table of contents. To understand, imagine that I’ve taken five of my favorite foods–maybe ice cream, lasagna, eggplant, strawberries, oatmeal–and mixed them together. Want a taste?

Collections alone don’t improve your stories or poems; however, poorly designed collections can detract from good writing.

Similarity is a place to start. Coins in a butterfly collection? Probably not. Similarity alone, however, isn’t enough. Even if you have all poetry or fiction or nonfiction, the alchemy might fail. In fact, you can mix those major genres, and if you’ve performed alchemy, the collection can still work.

Many collections fail because writers forget that they’re no longer working with individual stories or poems but with a whole. Because of this, the first step in putting together a collection is changing your role. You have to transform yourself: You must stop being a writer.

Become an editor.

An editor is aware of alchemy: weave connections through juxtaposition and suggestion within the title and the cover illustration. Everything is brighter. The collection changes everything.

Becoming an editor requires increasing the distance between you and your work. Granted, this is easier to say than do. This is a little like treating your child as a separate individual (individuation) and not as your intelligent, attractive, kind, creative … you get the idea.

Step 1

Do you have enough material?

If you must include everything you’ve written to meet the minimum requirements, the answer is no.

Go back to writing. You need to have so much excess material that you can readily exclude material during the selection process.

Another option is to think smaller. Instead of a full-length collection, think about a chapbook.

This Differences Between a Short Story, Novelette, Novella, & a Novel is an article by Syed Hunbbel Meer that discusses lengths of different formats from flash fiction to novel.

Step 2

A compelling collection needs a theme. Become familiar with your own themes.

You can do this by reading your work with the idea of finding a one-word theme for each piece. Including a word about tone is good, too. When you’ve finished, you can sort material according to theme, topic, tone.

As you do this, you’re sneaking up on identifying your worldview as an author. Most authors aren’t aware of their own worldview or style as they write. That identification is often relegated to reviewers and editors (and often authors disagree with those evaluations).

Sometimes it helps to think about the style, tone, and worldview of a favorite author or two. For instance, Terry Pratchett uses humor, puns, irony, and sarcasm to display the illogical behavior of people and interactions with their own cultures. Although the books are purportedly about non-human cultures in a fantasy world, the wit is obviously directed at human foibles. The wit is sharp, but the attitude toward characters is benevolent. His work has an overall expectation of good.

You should be able to explain your work in these terms. If you can’t, seek help (from your workshop, reader friends, or a professional editor).

Step 3

Getting Your Ducks in a Row

After you’ve become familiar with yourself as author, again consider the work. Read it again while taking notes about theme, tone, and topic. Make marginal notes about repeated images or phrases. This can help you recognize connections within the work. Think about flow. If your work is dark, a little comic relief might be needed. Try not to have all the long poems or prose together. Think about the emotional play. Where will your reader need breathing space?

As you arrange your work, consider which story or poem is weakest. You want the best work in the beginning. Then consider a very strong piece for the middle and the end. You can use that strength to build energy.

Of course, collections don’t have to be read in chronological order, but most readers do so, at least for single-author collections. This comes, in part from experience. The flow in many classic collections builds and weaves; the nuances are lost if readers jump about within the pages. For instance, James Joyce’s collection Dubliners ends with the story “The Dead.” In the final scene, the main character is staring out his hotel window at the street.

His soul swooned slowly as he heard the snow falling faintly through the universe and faintly falling, like the descent of their last end, upon all the living and the dead.

The book has opened from the perspective of the street looking into a lighted window. It ends on the inside looking out.

Winesburg, Ohio by Sherwood Anderson is another collection that, in my opinion, builds nicely when read in order and feels choppy when read out of order. The material resonates as the chapters continue.

Step 4

Your collection, now arranged, is ready for some finishing touches.

Should you have sections? If this is prose, you probably don’t need sections. The titles alone can work, especially with a clear break (extra page) between stories and table of contents. Poetry sometimes works better with clear breaks.

First, consider the length you now have. If you’re down to a chapbook, sections might create a choppy effect. If you have a full-length book, lack of sections could bog the material down.

If you use sections, you have many options. You could just create breaks where you have clear transitions, such as tone or setting. Or you can have a blank page and then just a number for the new section. For another option, you could add an appropriate quote. For instance, when organizing How Many Words for Rain, I used quotes that were in the public domain for section breaks (such as Shakespeare). Sometimes a poem title is a link to all the work in a particular section.

Step 5

Collection title. Your collection should now be composed with an overall theme within which the individual titles and sections all fit. Your title should integrate your theme, worldview, and emotional tone.

Whew! That’s a lot.

Sometimes, the title of your strongest story/poem/essay fits. Sometimes you can combine a couple titles. Sometimes you need to reach outside the collection and come up with an umbrella word.

One of the best ways to come up with a title is to have a conversation about your writing, your themes, and your worldview with a friend. Explaining yourself sometimes gives you a different perspective. Then the right title words align themselves.

Another route is to work with an illustrator for the cover. After the illustrator reads the work and responds artistically, a title can come along like the tail of the dog.

Titles help unify collections. Remember that a collection, unlike an anthology with many authors, suggests the works have been chosen out of a wide selection to represent some particular aspect or theme within the author’s work. Collections often have titles that indicate themes.

The stories in these collections deal with refugees; libraries/books/language; and men without women. No surprises. Throwing a story about a dog’s love for a duck into any of these books would be like inserting a recipe for dog biscuits into this blog.

The Parts Become Greater

This article on poetry collections by Jeffrey Levine has been around a while, but the good ideas haven’t faded: Making the Poetry Manuscript.

When a collection has been put together with a theme in mind then arranged for emotional resonance, each piece is even better than it was on its own. In essence, new creation has taken place.

  1. Illustration to Shakespeare’s ‘Macbeth’ (act IV, scene I), the three witches around a cauldron, proof state. 1806 Etching and engraving on chine collé Courtesy of British Museum.
Marian Blue has taught writing, literature and communication for Skagit Valley College, Writers Digest University, Old Dominion University, and Portland Community Schools as well as many writing conferences. See longer bio at “about Marian Blue”



Starting Your Book: Three Blocks to Smash

TMI! Don’t let too much advice about book openings stun you into silence! Starting your book today smashes the blocks!





The idea of starting your book is often held at bay by three simple blocks. Avoid them!

  1. Panic.

Don’t Let panic keep you from starting your book!

This means

  • don’t look up 5 million Google listings on how to create a famous opening line
  • don’t chew your fingernails over point of view, characterization, or other craft issues
  • don’t sign up for conferences, workshops, classes, and/or university MFA programs

These activities are procrastination. Any activity except writing is not writing!

Just write. Start your book with anything. Picture your character in trouble and start writing her or him out of it. If you can’t think of a first word, steal a beginning. It isn’t plagiarism if you revise before you publish.

Here’s an infamous book opening by Edward Bulwer-Lytton:

It was a dark and stormy night; the rain fell in torrents — except at occasional intervals, when it was checked by a violent gust of wind which swept up the streets (for it is in –pick your own city– that our scene lies), rattling along the housetops, and fiercely agitating the scanty flame of the lamps that struggled against the darkness.

Now keep writing with your own character. That’s how a writing prompt works.

  1. Overcrowding.

When starting your book, don’t introduce more than two or three characters except as a background crowd (Five thousand people stomped their feet, yelled, and Ellen began to fear the stadium itself would collapse). A milling throng at a rock concert can provide tension, but don’t try to introduce the names of a dozen people attending with the central character.

Trying to balance too many primary characters is tiring for both the author and the readers.

Be a good host

Think about hosting a party. A guest shows up, someone you met in your apartment building, but she knows no one at the party. Greet her, let her know where the food, drink, and bathroom are. Introduce her to a small conversational grouping. Provide snippets of conversational tidbits about each person as you introduce them.

That’s good hosting etiquette.

Avoid those broad, sweeping introductions of “Hey, everybody! This is Jan. Make her welcome!”

That’s a good way to send Jan back to her cozy apartment.

You’re the host for your readers. Let them get to know a character or two before you throw other people at them or your own brain. Make them welcome by giving them some familiar grabbing points for the start. The “dark and stormy night” above might not win awards for innovation but all readers are familiar with stormy nights.

Even if you’re starting your book about a strange planet or the future, you can provide clues. The following is the opening to my new novel Quantum Consequences, which takes place in Seattle in 2029:

Vala jacked her pod into one of the few slots available at the Pike’s Place Market floating lot and clambered out. The weekend before the Fourth of July had all of Seattle jammed, including parking lots, not with individual pods, such as Vala Glen’s, so much as extra renta-chairs, carts, and scootbots. Even the glide-walks were jammed with people, hopeful tourists or holiday-crazed locals.

The Fourth of July is familiar, as are crowds and Seattle. Other details set up the idea of changes. With luck, the reader isn’t lost yet. The central character is the only one named, and her name appears twice.

  1. Following the “rules.”

When starting your book, ignore rules (except for mine, of course). Don’t exclude, limit,or conform when you first start a book.

You and your book need to fly free for a while. This first draft won’t be your last draft (or shouldn’t be).

You don’t need to be limited to “what you know.” You don’t need to have a story arc worked out. You don’t have to know the end. You don’t have to even know your genre or market at this point.

Allow the book to surprise you, and you’ll have a better chance of surprising readers.

After you have started your book, write a little every day. If you have trouble “getting to it,” limit your time. Write no more than 10 minutes a day. That will be enough to keep the book in your thoughts but not so much that you feel as though you need a huge block of time to write.

Just keep moving forward. The writing doesn’t have to be brilliant. The spelling doesn’t have to be correct. The setting details don’t have to be accurate. The plot doesn’t have to make sense.

But your story needs to be told. Just tell it the way you would to your friend over lunch.

Everything else is revision.

Take the plunge and start writing your book now! Don’t turn your back on the excitement of what’s waiting below the surface.



Publishing Choices: Going Indie or Traditional?

A Google search of “How to Self-Publish a book” produces about 282 million results.

The Publishing Swamp

No, they don’t all agree. Nonetheless, the amount of information available provides a clue as to how many people are considering self-publishing. This feels a little like landing in a swamp with a large gator.

Rather than starting your search with 282 million suggestions, start with yourself. Your goals are unique. Your work is unique. Make some deep dives into a study of your writing and goals before making a publishing commitment.

As you take that dive, try to set aside any bias that has grown out of what you’ve heard about Indie or traditional publishing. Other people will have had experiences that come out of their own journeys. Yours will be unique. Start by asking yourself some specific questions.

  1. Why do you want to publish and should you do so?

            Personal Writing

Perhaps you write away your tensions or write in journals to create a family keepsake (such as pioneers kept when crossing the country). You might write poems or essays or even fiction, but you’re not into revision and editing. You write and then move on.

Maybe you’ve shared some of your work and have been told “Wow! This is good! You should publish.”

That doesn’t mean you should do so, particularly if the process is going to steal time and energy from the ongoing writing you love. You might consider using nice journal bindings or even scrapbooks. Let your creativity sparkle. If you do a book, you might want one or two copies from an organization like Shutterfly with a mix of your pictures.

            Specific Audience

On the other hand, maybe you want a more traditional book for a specific audience. Perhaps some relatives are having a golden wedding anniversary, and you’ve penned some family stories, poems, or essays that will help celebrate that event.

A specific audience might be slightly broader but not on a commercial scale. For instance, a local environmental organization in my region has talked to me about reprinting its guidebook for water access in our county. Tourists and residents find the book useful to find small coves, hidden beaches, and small parks that are public. It’s unlikely anyone other than this audience will be interested in the book even though it includes some good environmental information. A commercial, traditional publishing house wouldn’t be interested. Self-publishing is the way to go.

Family histories, biographies of little-known individuals, memoirs of military experiences: many books fall into this category. Rarely will traditional publishers be interested unless the person’s story is of national interest such as Margarethe Cammermeyer’s book, the second edition of which I edited for her, Serving in Silence. Her work changed military policy and was made into a movie, which moved it into a larger audience.


You enjoy writing and you want to share what you’ve written with as many people as possible. Your work may not win a Pulitzer, but you hope it will bring pleasure or instruction to anyone who picks up the book. Having the book “out there” is all you want. Again, trying to market to traditional publishers will likely drown your enthusiasm.

My books How Many Words for Rain and Interpretative Guide to Western Northwest Weather Forecasts are examples of “gift” books or specialized books. The first, a mix of photos and poems on rain, was actually accepted by a university press just before the press closed. The second one has done quite well as a humor/gift book but no press would have wanted to risk it, especially for expensive color printing that was essential for the photos to come across well.

            Professional writer

You think your work will interest a broad audience. You have confidence in your writing and public response. You want to be able to do readings, appear at conferences, get reviews, maybe win prizes. Trying the commercial publishers and small presses first might be the best way to go. Indie books can and have done all that, but because of negative attitudes in the industry toward self-publishing, reaching your goals will be more difficult.

  1. What skills/resources do you possess to produce the book?

Throughout much of the 1900s, writers focused on their craft. Publishers had readers, editors, copyeditors. In-house production included designers for the book and cover. The publishers took care of distribution and marketing.

As computers became the norm, many publishers cut back on their services. Writers today are expected to turn in manuscripts that have been edited and proofed (unless the writers have a proven track record). Book production is like a self-checkout line unless you’re a guaranteed best seller. Nonetheless, the publisher carries the financial load and a significant part of the process.

If you go Indie, you become the publisher.

            Basic requirements

Your manuscript will require revision, editing, and proofing. Few writers are good editors of their own work. Editing one’s own work parallels Abraham Lincoln’s comment that any lawyer representing herself has a fool for a client. That doesn’t mean you can’t do it, but you need to be skilled.

All good editors aren’t housed in publishing houses. Are you part of a writing group who will help with critique and proofing? Or do you have the available funds to hire an editor, consultant, or proofreader?

If you opt to hire someone, plenty of professional services are available. Do your homework, and make sure that you’re trusting reliable people and that you’re not over-paying. You can find a list of standard rates at Editorial Freelancers Association. The Literary Marketplace, available at most libraries (it’s expensive) also has extensive listings of all sorts of literary services, including agents and publishers.

Some printers, such as BookBaby also offer such services. They’ll work with your manuscript through design and printing. Again, do your research. Some are very expensive and might not produce the results you’d like.

            The finishing touches

Once the manuscript is ready, the book has to be designed. This includes title choice, basic interior layout, and cover design. Do you have the skills?

Again, you can find millions of Internet sites about book design but, again, they don’t all agree and some suggestions might not apply to your book. If you go with an all-in-one service such as BookBaby, you won’t need to search for a designer.

When working with designers, you’ll walk a fine line between your own interests and the more commercial look most designers suggest. For instance, my last book Quantum Consequences, doesn’t have a cover that “looks like all the other books in its genre,” a recommendation by one design site. However, I had my own reasons for using that cover. Period.

Again, your goals determine your choices. And you can always pursue self-publishing options while you submit your book to agents and publishers: you’ll have plenty of time.


Realistically your cost for self-publishing might be higher than any return you’ll receive from the book, especially if you’re hiring professionals for the final stages. Plan your budget based on what you can afford before publication, not after. Stick to the budget. Turning the book into a huge debt takes all the pleasure out of your success.

Of course, if you go the traditional route, the idea is that the publisher thinks your book will make enough money to pay for costs and provide a profit. For them. You might never receive more than a small advance. Small, nonprofit presses might think the possibility for profit is slight, but they rely on funding from universities and/or donations, and they want good books to build up their reputations and donor lists, not their coffers. Authors often receive only copies as payment, however. Be prepared to spend time in lieu of money; the traditional route allows travel at the speed of a slug on sleeping pills.

  1. Understand distribution.

Even if you decide to go with a publisher, make sure you understand the distribution agreement. Some small publishers offer books only on their Websites. Others use SPD (small press distribution). Large publishers might agree to national distribution but only to those stores that order a certain quantity and with a limited shelf life (maybe only ten days). If enough haven’t sold within that time, you could find your book remaindered before it’s been out a month.

If you self-publish, where your POD/digital book is set up will determine where the book is available. If, for instance, you go with Kindle Publishing, wholesalers can’t order your book. You’ll have to go to bookstores and sell the book yourself.

Other POD companies have broader distribution. For instance, IngramSpark has a large distribution system and within days after your book (print and/or digital) is uploaded, it will be available to wholesalers around the world. You’ll see it placed on Amazon, Barnes and Noble, and even Wal-Mart. Your local bookstores can order the book on their own computers.

The question of where you want the book to be available is tied to why (see #1) you want to publish.

  1. Marketing

If you want your book to be noticed, you’re going to have to shoulder marketing responsibility whether you choose Indie or a large publisher. Often called “building a platform,” this includes social media, maintaining a Website and blog, making personal appearances, e-mailing friends/family, submitting press releases…the extensive process steals time from writing.

Don’t get frustrated!

To cut down on the post-publication frustration, limit the time you spend on marketing. Plan your activities to get the most out of each minute you spend. You can find a lot of information online under 5-minute book marketing tips.

Again, you can hire a professional, a publicist. Make sure you’ve done your research to find someone who is respected and affordable. Poets & Writers has an interesting article on this.

     5.  Know the History

Once you know your own goals, understanding publishing history will help you understand the processes. Most people know that printing presses and publishers have been around for centuries. Not everyone knows that self-publishing also has a long history (the Internet didn’t birth the idea) with many famous authors. Edgar Allen Poe and Charles Dickens as well as Walt Whitman join contemporary writers John Grisham and Beatrix Potter as self-published authors. See Poets & Writers for a timeline.

Nonetheless, the advent of computerized POD in the 1980s was the start of serious negativity toward self-publishing. The stigma’s heart beats to the drum that the best product comes from a large company, that a self-published book is inferior to those that make their way through the mazes of large houses or small presses.

Some of that bias is justified.

The 1980s birth of POD companies offered few choices. Marketing options were scanty, expenses were high (in time if not money), and the results were unpredictable. Self-published books tended to look self-published: poor paper quality, odd sizes, print variances, uneven pages, etc. Poetry usually was scrambled.

The industry has improved, at least in regard to looks and publishing quality. In fact, many large publishing companies rely on POD or digital resources these days after that first rush following the release date. However, some wholesale buyers still check stocks (trying to weed out Indie books) because returning POD books can be an issue. Indie publishers must consider allowing returns of books to offset that concern.

Another problem with the initial stages of self-publishing in the late 1900s was that everyone could and did publish anything. The only limitation was financial. A flood of books that needed revision, editing, and proofing dampened reader enthusiasm, turned off reviewers, and frustrated wholesalers.

Keep in mind that commercial book quality also varies from publisher to publisher. Some big houses turn out cheap looking books that sell cheaply. Also, reviewers’ negativity extends to the writing now and then. Just because something comes from a big press and is written by a famous person doesn’t protect the work from reviewers. An example comes from the The New York Times about Sleeping Beauties by Stephen King and Owen King:

What you may well come away thinking is: meh. For a book about resetting gender stereotypes, this one clings surprisingly tightly to them.

That best seller, released by Scribner, was obviously not injured by negative reviews. The key to that paradox is our love of branding/love of the popular. Many people would buy a Stephen King book even if they first had to slay dragons.

Our belief in branding, again, is one reason we don’t trust the “anyone can self-publish” concept. Children make out specific Christmas lists (no surprises, please) and people get mugged for particular shoes. I knew a kid who was bullied in school because he wore K-mart clothes.

Consider how we brand authors, expecting them to stick to one genre, even one character. One of my friends who writes for a major publishing house had to start using a pen name when she wanted to write a different genre. Striking out on your own is challenging (even frightening) in our cliquish society.

Because of all of this, if you go Indie, expect to be marginalized. This applies to anything you do, not just books. For instance, Stagecoach Mary Fields was the only woman allowed in saloons in Montana in the late 1800s, but she wasn’t welcome at church socials.

So if your Indie books are apt to be marginalized–shunted aside by book stores, libraries, and readers–why bother? As mentioned above, a lot of that depends on your goals.

In addition to the reasons mentioned earlier, some of us are worn out on the pitching, wooing, and begging that often goes along with submissions, query letters, and maneuvering through the conference and workshop networking.

Forty years ago, the process felt a little more like professional networking. Over time, as publishing companies continued to merge and gobble up smaller companies, the ability to be unique, an individual, in the publishing world lessened. Respect for authors dwindled. These days, months can pass with no word back from agents/editors; in fact, some never reply at all.

Even if a book is accepted, the results could be disappointing. If the book is low on the publisher’s list, even placement in bookstores can be a problem. You won’t find your book in the window. Some books never make it to market even after being accepted.

Disappointments don’t happen to only “bad writers.” John Gardner wrote for 15 years before The Resurrection was published.

I was furious. You know, I’d read novels by people I thought were awful compared to me. And I’d read my rejection slips. . . . But I was stubborn. And I covered myself. I became a medievalist. I wrote many articles and translations so that I knew I’d be safe all my life, and then I wrote [fiction]. If people asked me what I was I’d say ‘I’m a writer,’ because the next question was ‘What have you published?’ And I’d be embarrassed. . . . by Louise Sweeney, interview June 26, 1980     The Christian Science Monitor

No Easy Answer

To succeed with an Indie or traditionally published book, you’ll need tenacity and patience. For an Indie book you’ll also need to either study your craft intently or pay for experts who can help with the editing, proofing, designing and maybe even the marketing. In my opinion, learning ever more about writing and publishing will benefit all writers no matter which route they choose; you can’t lose by knowing your craft.

Before I reached the decision to go Indie from now on, I had forty years of publishing, editing, and teaching writing to back me up. My work was included in many books from different presses. Although I was still marketing to magazines for short work, I no longer had patience for spending years running in a hamster wheel to get a book read and accepted. Sometimes marketing a book takes longer than writing one. I’d done that with earlier novels that now sit in boxes (maybe I’ll resurrect them).

Acceptances were often worse than rejection. I’d had books accepted by both agents and publishers only to have train wrecks: the agents couldn’t sell the book in their allotted time; one publisher accepted one of my books then backed out because his partner didn’t like the book; in another case, the publisher who accepted a book went out of business before the book was printed. Bah! Humbug!

Find your own path!

Now, as a practicing curmudgeon, I’m most interested in doing what I want to do. I’ll switch genres. I’ll set up covers or designs for personal reasons that don’t fit with current marketing trends. “Indie” stands for independent: don’t let the industry creep in and convince you that what you want to do is “wrong.”  I’m independent in every sense and loving it.

In other words, I’m having fun writing again, a quality that too often has become lost in the “industry.”

Having fun is perhaps one of the best reasons to self-publish. Enjoy it!

Why Write?

Finding Your Inner-Writer Self

Not long ago, I received a Facebook message from a stranger. She asked if I had authored an article in the 1990s about cruising aboard a Montgomery 17’ sailboat and, if so, would I send a copy.


That Cruising World magazine article predated the “everything-you-ever-think-is-online” days. Who remembered a magazine article from a quarter of a century earlier, an article archived only on the writer’s shelf and maybe in a basement somewhere?

Since writing that article, I’d taken a teaching job from which I’d retired after 20 years. I’d published short stories, poems, essays, interviews, and books. I’d edited books and magazines, in print and online. Boxes of clippings and shelves of publications with my work take up more room in this small house than makes sense. And I’d all but forgotten that article.

I’ve loved the teaching, the writing, the editing. I was delighted with each publication and thrilled by any favorable review. Yet having a person ask for that old article gave me a new thrill. The individual’s follow-up note that the article was being shared and enjoyed by people added to my sense of delight. What a special affirmation that my writing mattered, that it lived on long after I’d moved on, maybe not in a “change the world” importance but in a way that touched people’s lives.

Is that why I write?

I had to give that question some thought. Just having something survive didn’t seem to be an answer.

To that question, many writers throw out remarks about “writing is its own reward” or “I just love writing.” But that leaves the question: why? Writers specialize in diving into human emotions; surely they can dive more deeply into the question and identify why in detail.

For me, creating something that survives in physical form doesn’t matter much. As I thought about that Cruising World article, I realized I was thrilled that the piece had survived as a part of a reader. Somebody somewhere had remembered. The story was being passed on.

Story telling weaves in and out of our collective unconscious. Oral tradition came early and telling stories, fact or fiction, vibrates in our bones. Stories stick. Most of us remember stories from our childhood, stories that influenced us, even if we don’t remember the story teller.

Now that most stories are written, we writers often have no idea if anyone has connected with our work. We move on, wondering if we’re leaving a wake sloshing along the shores we pass. Then, if we keep working, small things such as the request for a copy of an old article come along.

Affirmations are important. Not just in writing. I was stopped in the grocery store not long ago by a woman who looked at me intently and said, “Aren’t you Marian Blue?”

I studied her unfamiliar features and tried to recall who she was. She had two children with her, one about 8 and the other younger. I took a deep breath and said, “Yes?”

“You were my favorite teacher at the college!” she proclaimed. “I always tell my kids about you.” She called the older girl over and said, “This is Marian Blue!”

“Your favorite teacher?” the girl said, her eyes wide.

We had a nice conversation, and I did finally remember her, but it was that expression in the child’s eyes and the warmth in her mother’s voice that lodged in my heart and still resonates today. A story about me was being passed on.

When I’ve been lucky, I’ve had small windows into people’s immediate reactions to my work. In the 1970s I was working as a journalist in Santo Domingo in the Dominican Republic. I wrote for the only English language paper, The Santo Domingo News, so it was distributed in all the tourist spots, including hotels. I had a membership at one of those hotels, so I could use the facilities: pool, sauna, tennis courts and such. One of my favorite activities was to lounge by the pool, secure behind sunglasses, and watch people read and discuss the articles and essays I’d written. I enjoyed facial expressions and comments immensely and no one had to worry about the feelings of the person who’d written the material. Reactions weren’t always favorable, but the honesty was important, and I always felt a warmth toward the people reading my work. Authors, who tend to be voyeurs, generally enjoy hanging about a bookstore and watching people react to their books, the covers, and blurbs.

While I was thinking about these memories, I was jogged into another moment. Last week, I read someone else’s blog about collaboration among writers, How to Write with a Co-author by Stewart C. Baker. The blog prompted a memory of a time I and two friends brainstormed a story idea. When we were through, we agreed that we’d all write the story and see how the results compared. I was the only one who finished a story, B-Flat Overtures, one I couldn’t have written without that discussion. It was later published, but as I recalled the incident, I couldn’t remember the publication. I went to my shelves to track it down.

I found it: Eureka Literary Magazine. Then I found something else I’d forgotten. In the same issue was a poem by Ray Bradbury, one of my favorite writers: I had shared the issue with him! How could I forget that? A connection with one of my favorite authors!


That word resonated!

In every case, it’s not the survival nor is it the affirmation: the connection with people and their lives and the world itself! Even if no one reads the final work, even if it fades off into cyberspace, I have to connect with the world and her creatures in a physical and emotional way before I can write anything.

That’s the first connection, the reason I love to write.

Then the work’s connection resonates. It’s like graffiti, like yelling into the Grand Canyon to maybe hear an echo, like posting a picture on social media. Maybe it’s a poem that inspires a person to gaze out the window, notice the beauty in the world. Maybe it’s the short story that results in laughter. Maybe it’s the essay that encourages people to understand how to make a difference in their lives. Maybe it’s just an emoticon response on social media. The connection possibilities are endless and each is satisfying in a different way.

If a magazine article published in 1993 can resurface to bring pleasure into people’s lives in 2019, then all of our writing–even if it isn’t selling well at the moment, even if it isn’t receiving rave reviews, even if it doesn’t get lots of hits on Twitter, Tumblr, or Amazon–is out there. The important part of writing is that we’ve joined in a massive, vibrating connection, the spiritual web of thought and activity, we all share.

Writers, indeed, work alone physically, most of the time. However, our writing rides the wind of oral tradition, slakes someone’s thirst, eases someone’s pain. In that sense, we’re never alone; we’re integrated in the world.

And that’s a great reason to write.

Genre Discussion: Helpful Guide or Straitjacket?

The other day, I ran into a friend while I was talking to a librarian about my new book. My friend asked to see my book. She looked at the blurb on the back and said, “Oh, dear, I have a terrible time with books like this. Fantasy. I just don’t understand it.”

“Well, it’s science fiction…” I began, but she was shoving the book back at me.

“I just don’t like dragons and swords and stuff like that.”

“Not all fantasy has that,” I said, abandoning a discussion of both my book–which lacks dragons and swords–and science fiction.

“Yes, it does,” she said.

I started listing some books I thought she would like, everything from The Golem and the Jinni by Helene Wecker and Redemption in Indigo by Karen Lord to Mists of Avalon by Marion Zimmer Bradley. Most she hadn’t read (because it was fantasy) but “Oh, I loved Mists of Avalon!” she said and then added, “But that’s not fantasy.”

“Of course, it is,” I said always willing to state my opinion.

A couple days later, I ran into this friend again, this time at the post office. She was bubbling over with excitement because she’d talked to her son about the Golem and the Jinni and found out he’d read it and loved it. She’d started it, and she loved it, too. I don’t know if this is going to open up her thoughts to reading outside her “usual” genres, but it points out how writers can fail to reach readers and how readers can miss out on great books because of genre:

  1. Readers become trapped in the idea that genre defines a book’s content, theme, style.
  2. Writers find themselves trapped into writing stories that don’t take unique paths.

Writers suffer the most damage. Genre conventions dictate what they can write and/or how they can write it. That can smother creativity. This starts early in a writer’s career. For instance, one of my friends was denied admission to a university MFA program because she wrote science fiction. Many programs still limit work to “literary.” It’s not just academia. For instance, writers in the fantasy genre must be careful to not mix character origins. Take care not to mix a mythological god in a story with randomly chosen creatures such as dinosaurs and the Cheshire Cat. 

Of course, all these genre boundaries shift about. What a shock when genre fiction writers became recognized for their literary accomplishments; for instance, writers such as Vonnegut and LeGuin have work that science fiction writers sometimes now claim as “literary science fiction” and the academic world calls, simply, “literary.”

Sometimes this classification game begins to look as complicated as listing all the animal species (a couple million or so). Wikipedia breaks down the “common fiction genres” into 25 categories. Various departments of education often cut that down a little, but in reality the genres multiply as professors of literature (one of the fields I taught for decades) bring books into the classroom. The classifications become as narrow as the hair on a villain’s chin.

Of course, many writers shrug off the rules and write what their imagination dictates. This often results in wonderfully imaginative and unique books, which is what I’d say about Redemption in Indigo and Going Postal by Terry Pratchett. Each page is a surprise.

Even cross-genre (or genre bending) writing has become a genre. I keep seeing articles such as “Three rules for writing a cross-genre novel.”

Don’t get me wrong. I’m all for writing rules. Grammar and punctuation (I was a teacher after all) are essential, in my opinion, for clarity. Rules also apply to style: show don’t tell, for instance. Essentials of plot and scene building keep a story from dying on the page. On the other hand, one purpose of learning rules is to know how and when to break them effectively. For instance, a well-used sentence fragment adds spice and characterization.

“Ticket-sellers in the subway, breathing sweat in its gaseous form…. Farmers plowing sterile fields behind sad meditative horses, both suffering from the bites of insects….Grocery-clerks trying to make assignations with soapy servant girls….”            –from “Diligence,” A Mencken Chrestomathy–H. L. Mencken

So sometimes, if you’re willing to pay the penalty, genre rule breaking is an option (including cross-genre rules). For instance, in my last book Quantum Consequences, I used science fiction as the main genre; however, I took on fantasy to account for the origin myth of elves and dwarfs as well as some abilities of central characters. I was aware of the fact that I was violating many traditions of the fantasy field. In so doing, I also knew I was limiting publishing options. Few big publishers want to risk a book that breaks with genre tradition unless the writer is already well-known and popular.

Look how hard it was for Stephen King to move out of horror. Even so, his work is sometimes still restricted. I recently read an article that said he had mastered almost all the genres except literary. I guess that means that his nearly 20 awards for writing won’t ever include a Pulitzer.

So who wins in this genre box building?


In literary circles where analysis is the name of the game, genre allows for historical, social, and cultural contexts. Taking something apart to study it is SOP.


Libraries and stores know where to shelve books. Publishers and publicists know where to market.


Marketing is easier if you write mysteries that follow the genre boilerplate. Finding publishers and readers is marginally easier. One writer I know has churned out five or six books a year by following this practice and now has almost 200 books attributed to his name. Readers devour such books in the same way that my husband eats potato chips (except the books aren’t fattening). Likewise, getting publicity is easier if you have a clear genre.


Readers who don’t want surprises, don’t want their assumptions challenged, also benefit. If they pick up a Regency romance, they already know the time period, the basic plot (romance), the likely class of characters, and the outcome. Readers who don’t find the expected in such a novel will be as upset as a Texan who orders sirloin steak and gets tofu. That doesn’t mean either the Texan or the tofu is bad. Likewise, genre preferences don’t make advocates “bad readers.” Books for escape (entertainment) have an important place in our culture. This, for the same reason, means that writers of such books are not “bad writers.”


With all that said, the controversy over genre continues. Some writers and readers like risk, like taking a literary journey where no one has gone before. Natural rebels? Eager to tell their own stories in their own ways? More in love with the art and craft of writing than publication? Or, for readers, more in love with meeting unexpected people and traveling on unexpected paths with uncertainty always in the balance and utter delight only one sentence away?

We need those who write within conventional structures and those who don’t.

Sometimes the unconventional becomes conventional. Edgar Allen Poe and Anton Chekhov pioneered the short story. Murasaki Shikibu penned the world’s first novel (according to most sources) The Tale of Genji in the early 11th century. Short story and novel are now standard conventions.

Who knows what the next convention will be?

Whatever it is, the result will no doubt be named and placed in the growing hierarchy of genres becoming standard, like steampunk novels today.