My drug of choice is writing––writing, art, reading, inspiration, books, creativity, process, craft, blogging, grammar, linguistics, and did I mention writing?

Friday, January 24, 2014

The Mailbox: What Genre Should I Write In?

How does a writer decide which genre to write in? 

[Remember, keep sending in your questions to chris.brecheen@gmail.com with the subject line "W.A.W. Mailbox" and I will answer each Friday.  I will use your first name ONLY unless you tell me explicitly that you'd like me to use your full name or you would prefer to remain anonymous.  My comment policy also may mean one of your comments ends up in the mailbox. And it's really okay to ask multiple questions.]    

Jennifer asks:

I see that you are still looking for questions, so I will ask another even though I feel like I am taking advantage of you, getting your advice for free.

What are your thoughts on genre, specifically how does one decide in what genre to write? I also see this as tied up with what a person likes to read, for instance, if I like to read sci-fi perhaps I should be writing sci-fi. Somehow in my head this also ties into what I "should" be reading and writing and then I realize that I am also asking for your permission to never pick up a Dickens novel again and write whatever I want (if I only knew what that was).

My reply:

For starters, don't worry about sending me multiple questions. I live for this shit. Without questions, my Fridays are an existential crisis of staring at myself in the mirror and spitting at the reflection while saying, "Nobody likes you!  NOBODY!"

Several people who have sent in questions have sent in multiple questions. (Seriously sometimes I wonder if I just have half a dozen fans who each click a hundred times a day.) I often end up answering questions people have asked me in person or on Facebook or something to kind of fill in for weeks where I haven't actually gotten questions though my e-mail. There's still a lot of jazz hands going on at The Mailbox. I haven't actually been inundated with questions since last summer when I had that article going viral.

I'm lucky if I have the first fucking clue what I'm doing a week out.

But let's get to your question...

There are two answers to this. One would be irresponsible of me not to tell you as a writer. The other would be criminal of me not to tell you as an artist.

Let me let you in on one of the tragic "business-end" realities of being a non-uberfamous writer: it is reDONKulously hard to cross genres as a writer. This is one of those things they tell you early on if you take some sort of business of writing class or that comes up when there's some kind of Q&A with an agent or publisher.

You're basically going to be "locked in" to whatever genre you first gain traction in. Not that Stephen King can't write a fantasy saga or the world wouldn't read the shit out of J.K. Rowling's gunslinging western, but this is kind of like how Marky Mark was an "actor" before he became a "no, seriously" actor. When you're that big, you get to do whatever you want.

For most working writers, crossing genres is a no-no.

Try to imagine all life as you know it stopping instantaneously and every molecule in your body exploding at the speed of li-- No wait. That's crossing the streams. But crossing the genres is still a no-no.

It's such a no-no, in fact, that you will have more trouble finding an agent and a publisher to take a chance on your cross-genre work than you would if you were a brand new author.


Think about that for a second. MORE.

Sounds totes ridic right? Published author. Built up fan base. Probably some kind of pre-established promotional infrastructure. But if you're writing science fiction and you show up with something that's clearly more in the literary genre (banal events, deeply troubled characters, ambiguous ending, focus on linguistic flourish over story, etc...) your agent and publisher are probably going to take a pass, and any new publishers and agents are actually going to consider your existing audience a strike against you. You may even have trouble with your old publisher and agent if you go back to writing in the original genre.

And those money grubbing publishing industry people know what they're talking about too.  Fans of yours probably WILL be upset and abandon your "brand name."

Turns out all those readers expect pretty much more of the same, and they will become strange and disillusioned--pumped to the gills with bile and haterade for being forced to buy a book that was not what they expected. And can they trust your future books to be what they want or have you shaken their trust in the universe down to the foundations?

I'm on page 250 and the zombies still haven't shown up!
And this Trevor dude just kisses her and talks of undying affection.
When is he going to get his gatling gun arm, already?

A writer is kind of like a brand, and a writer who crosses genres is a bit like a McDonalds with lobster thermidor on the menu.

I'll pause here to tell you a little anecdote. Usually once or twice a month, someone takes time out of their day to tell me that, whatever the poll is for that month, it's all wrong. I have included in my SciFi authors, a writer who is clearly in the fantasy genre--how dare I! Even though the polls are reader generated, and I usually let people use their best judgement, some people decide they really need to get up in my grill and set the record straight. The take home here is not that sci-fi readers are sometimes scary about being prescriptive (they are, but they'll hurt me if out them), but rather your readers will have a sense of what genre you're writing in (perhaps even if you don't), and they will be very sensitive if you try to step out of that.

There are a few exceptions to this: you can probably write across the fiction/non-fiction divide without too much trouble, and that means something like a memoir will probably do okay, even if you're established in writing detective fiction. Also, readers seem to be pretty comfortable with writers crossing the sci-fi/fantasy genre without any trouble as the dovetail between those fandoms is enormous. You can also use a pen name. And even if it's the worst kept secret in publishing who you really are, that will––for some reason––take the curse off of it.

Are you getting the feeling your author name is your brand? You should be.

But for the most part you should be aware that in terms of your marketability on the business end of creative writing, be ready to basically be expected to stick with whatever you start in until/unless you become a household name.


And this is a big "however." It's a huge "however."  Perhaps the biggest "however" that exists within the arts.

What do you want to write?

The only thing you should be writing is what your soul burns to write. Write that book that is dying to get out of you. Write the book you're aching to read.  If that's science fiction or fantasy, write that. If it's one novel in each of six different genres, write them. Hang the industry. Trust that with passion and determination, you will somehow find a way to make the business end work (especially with all the exciting e-pub and self-pub developments in the industry).

Too many people have tried to write what sells or what they think would be popular and simply couldn't make themselves interested enough to really keep writing. They ended up with two chapters they thought were going to "make so much money" and a strange aversion to their writing desk. It's hard enough to sit down on the best of days and grit out the work you absolutely love; imagine writing something your heart isn't into. Imagine if your readers pick up on the fact that you just don't really care about what you're writing. Imagine if your lack of passion comes through each page, every paragraph, every line.

Because it will.

Writing isn't lucrative. It's not glamorous. The only reason to do anything as a fiction author is because you really, really want to. If you happen to write something that's popular, wonderful. If there's a way to market your book with a few tweaks, that's up to you. But the only question you should start with is what book are you simply dying to read that hasn't been written yet.

Now go write it.

Down the road, if you're writing novels for a living, maybe you have to make a slightly different choice–put that cross-genre book on the back burner or publish it under a pen name or something. But for now, just write what you burn to write.

Now as for your reading follow-up question, that's a little easier to answer. You probably don't want to limit your reading diet to the same thing you write. You can "concentrate" there but it will be really good for you as a writer to sample vastly different word-smithing as often as you can. Art is fundamentally about looking at things in new ways, and a writer is no exception--as many fresh perspectives as possible are absolutely essential.

(I mean imagine if Picasso never got into African art because it wasn't what he was doing himself, or never studied that "cubism stuff" that was going on in France because he was dedicated to his blue period.)

You should read constantly both in and out of the genre in which you write just to have fresh ideas, non-derivative devices, and a sense of your genre's style.  It's like hearing your own accent. It can be hard unless you spend some time listening to other accents.

Most writers you probably love are incredibly well-read. They may know their genre (though it's often funny how many of them don't) but they usually have an amazingly broad sampling of many, many other forms of writing as well--from classics to other genres, to non fiction. Stephen King probably could teach a Literature Classics course to grad students without missing a beat (and with lots of focus on the grisly deaths), but from what I know about him, he probably wouldn't know what the latest Koonz novel was about.

I suspect you might be able to skate by with a blank spot like Dickens--I have a troubled relationship with many Victorian authors myself--but in general, you should expect to read a lot outside of your genre.

1 comment:

  1. I was really shocked at the amount of backlash Rowling got for writing Casual Vacancy. I was less shocked when she was revealed to be writing under a pseudonym for her mystery novels, but I notice that most of the news about her lately has been about her Harry Potter plays.