Dr. Una McCormack Blurs the Literary/Genre Divide

Una McCormack

A favorite 2020 read of mine was Star Trek: Picard: The Last Best Hope by Dr. Una McCormack, New York Times and USA Today bestselling writer specializing in TV tie-in fiction.

Una McCormack has published more than a dozen novels set in franchises like Doctor Who and Star Trek. A former university lecturer in creative writing, she continues to mentor writing students and supervise PhD candidates. In 2017, she was a judge for the Arthur C. Clarke Award, given annually for the best science fiction novel published in the UK, and in 2020, she gave the Guest of Honour lecture at the Tolkien Society’s Annual General Meeting.

It was a pleasure to ask her some questions about reading, writing, and what advice people maybe shouldn’t listen to.

Una McCormack’s novel Wonderlands is out in May 2021. You can pre-order it here.

Todd Wellman: In your lifetime experience with reading, how has your personal relationship with books evolved?

Una McCormack: I read a great deal more fiction now than I used to. As a teenager, I mostly read non-fiction, partly because of the school subjects I was studying. I went into social sciences (my doctorate is in sociology), and didn’t really go back to reading fiction seriously until my mid-twenties. Now I more or less entirely read novels, which I think satisfy both my desire to understand human motivation, and my intellectual interest in how narratives are structured.

TW: What’s some writing advice you hear that doesn’t quite meet the mark? How would you alter it?

UM: People are often told to ‘show not tell’, and I think that’s not the best piece of advice. We are story-tellers, after all – not story-showers. What I think that advice is trying to do is to get people to think more carefully about point of view, i.e. the perspective through which their story is being told. Too much emphasis on ‘show not tell’ can lead to a very bland, very samey style – but if writers have a solid grasp on the principles of point of view, and how that relates to the language choices they make, this can often transform their writing.

TW: What do you wish various media discussed more about writing or reading?

UM: I think that the literary/genre divide still shows up in surprising places. I’d like to see much more blurring of this divide, and more discussion of what different genres are trying to achieve. Sometimes genre fiction can have quite un-fussy, even workmanlike, prose – but this is offset by the kinds of ideas or estrangements that the narrative is trying to explore. Rather than setting one against the other, I’d like to see more discussion of trying to understand what genres are trying to achieve on their own terms.

TW: From reading your work, I have the sense you care about plot and story, as well as how you get those on the page. When you’re writing, how do you care for, or take care with, your sentences?

UM: Crafting good sentences is by far and away the most pleasurable part of writing. I don’t worry so much about them in the first draft – I try to get the story down, the shape of the whole book. That can be a little dispiriting as I’m writing, as I often know that what I’m putting down on the page isn’t the best prose I can write! But you need to have material to work with – and this is what I do in second draft. I spend time with the sentences and make them work as well as I possibly can. This means layering in tone, theme, imagery into word choice and sentence structure. This process is probably the most satisfying part of weaving a novel.

Read more about my nonfiction writing here.

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