There is a question that we as writers are often asked:
What do you write?
You’d think this would be a nice simple opener. It’s a natural response after “hi, I’m a writer” but I dread this question. Hate it indeed. For starters, it is impressively vague. I won’t lie – there have been times, normally at social gatherings that have inflicted upon me their prerequisite small talk, that I have flippantly responded “books”. Chances are, in that environment anyway, the other person is just relieved not to be forced into listening to a twenty-minute monologue on my latest bestseller idea. For the particularly judgmental (you know, the ones that raise their eyebrow and metaphorically pat us “struggling artist” types on the head), I reserve the wonderfully obtuse “words”.
(Warning: Rant in progress: If you want to skip my opening rant *cough* I mean musings, and go straight to the tips, scroll down to the main image)
But that is not the reason that I hate this question. I hate this question because it demands a specific answer and I just don’t have one to give. And for a long time, that made me feel like I was doing something wrong. It took a lot of soul-searching and depressing dinner parties before I realised that the flaw wasn’t with me, it was with the question.
Suppose for a minute that JK Rowling was posed this question (because yes, I suspect there are actually people living on this planet who have no idea who she is). How would she answer? “Urban fantasy fiction adventure novels for children”? Except well… by the end they are sort of for adults too. And then there is the play. Oh and that screenplay she helped on. Oh and those pesky Galbraith novels. Those are contemporary detectiving for adults. And I have absolutely no idea what to call The Casual Vacancy. Social Commentary? Human drama? A four-hundred page rant on why modern life sucks?
But you see my problem with this question and moreover the question generally where writers are expected to place themselves into nice neat three hundred word summaries. If we assume for the moment that the inquirer is not seeking the vague or obtuse, and something a little more expansive than “fiction” – then it demands that we, as writers, put ourselves in a definable category – not our books, but us as writers. To put a label on our lapel that makes us nice and conformist.
Writing just does not work that way.
I find this approach, amongst other emotions, highly amusing as the one thing writers are typically not, is conformist. And yet you see it again and again on advice on how to get published. Stick to a genre. Find your niche and stay there. Publishers like consistency. Which brings me onto my main topic –
It was something I was advised of right when I first started exploring publishing options and namely the so-called traditional route. Agents like consistency. Publishing houses really like consistency and marketing departments love it. They want writers to be a brandable commodity. Not just our books, but us as people. It isn’t enough to just write any more. You are the “Detective Smith author” or “Surreal Fantasy Novelist Mr Smith” or “the one that writes the war books”. We see it on covers all the times and hear it in interviews. We are boxed up before the end of the first sentence.
Now, of course, each individual book must have a clearly defined genre, but the author? Nora Roberts (JD Robb) and JK Rowling (Robert Galbraith) are not alone in creating entirely new personas to carry their crime genre books while writing fantasy under their given names. It is said we form our opinion of a person within the first thirty seconds of contact. Books and writers faster. We quickly become defined by our work until bizarrely it is our own work that is suddenly trapping us in a given genre and defining our future work. Arguably indie publishing has lessened this impact but whether we like it or not, it is something we have to think about.
So here are just a few common talking points to think about when considering genre and “what you write”…
1. Write What You Know:
This is an overused idiom you hear all the time in writing blogs and advice books. “Write what you know”. To me, this is a bastardisation of a more general idiom “Play to Your Strengths”. Most people (and I emphasise most because there are many writers out there who can change genre like clothes and do each with ease and finesse) have a particular genre at which they are strongest. For me personally it is fantasy. Why? Because I’ve been writing it for years and years. Because it is my favourite genre as a reader and viewer. Because I grew up on a healthy diet of local folklore and Disney. Or maybe just because I have an overactive imagination. My strengths (or so I’m told) are world building and a writing style that has a poetic, lyrical edge (not my phrase) to it. Both lend well to fantasy.
Sticking to one genre allows you to focus on your areas of strength. You are giving yourself a natural advantage and in the brutally competitive book market, we need every edge we can get.
2. Practice Makes Perfect:
Another idiom and a fairly self-explanatory one. The more you do something, the better you get at it. Writing is an art. It is not something learnt once and then applied. It is something that is constantly evolving. We are always learning and the best way to do that, is practice. Sticking within one genre allows you to spend time honing skills. Each time you try something and it doesn’t work, it makes the work that follows stronger.
3. Consistency boost Commerciality:
I touched on this above. At the end of the day, it is easier to sell yourself as a brand if you have one coherent message. Promoting a fantasy writer has a very different feel to promoting a crime novelist. Chances are you won’t really be able to discuss both in the same interview. They appeal to different audiences. A Sci Fi writer is going to be perfectly placed talking at a ComiCon but a Romance novelist is much better suited to bookclubs and female dominated events. The more genres you write across, the more work you will have to put in. Even if you don’t give yourself different personas, each marketing campaign will need its own personality, own audience, own requirements and demands.
Equally, beware of confusing the audience. People think in soundbites. “That Sci Fi dude” or “the one that does those Tudor books”. It sends a confusing message to go “Tudor book written by that Sci Fi dude”. Normally the first question will be “are there space ships?” It’s human nature. We are creatures of habit and routine. Be braced for a few “huh” faces.
4. Plot Bunnies Must Be Free To Roam
I don’t know about you but my plot bunnies are very definitely free range. They go wherever they want to. I spend half my time retrieving them from the most unexpected of places. I have started books on such basis as “I want to write something with a steam train in it” or “ooh a tiger, how cool would it be to have a tiger”. And for me, this is the joy of writing. It is the challenge of musing, “what story can I come up with that features a steam train” (ended up being a steampunk fanfic of Night Circus). Plot bunnies should be tamed only when they are given a home. But this does mean bunnies of all shapes and sizes, which can result in broad spectrum genres.
5. The Broken Record Phenomenon
Consider Jodi Picoult or Nicholas Sparks for a moment. When I picked up my first of each of theirs (My Sister’s Keeper and The Notebook) I loved what I found. The books were engaging and surprising and emotionally devastating. The writing was refreshing and innovative. So obviously, I reached for more. Nowadays, I rarely pick up either author. Why? Because I got bored. Now, I am aware I chose two authors who are particularly formulaic in their stories – with Picoult in particular, if you’ve read one, you’ve read them all – different story, different characters, different moral dilemma of the week but all the shock and awe is gone because you can predict each turn. As for Sparks, I go back to my favourite jpg.
They are both, very much, single genre writers. And very specific at that. They have found a niche and they are working it (to death). I’m actually somewhat impressed both are still coming up with new variations upon their themes. That is not to say, in any way shape or form, that their books are bad. They aren’t. They still write now with that same engaging, exciting voice they wrote then, my problem is I’m not surprised by them any more. I’m bored. I like books that surprise me. That’s what keeps me engaged. It isn’t enough for me to have just great characters and a strong story, that story will only be compelling if I can’t predict the ending from chapter three.
I should caveat this strongly though with the note that there are authors who stick with their thing and keep it fresh. For example, Torey Hayden has never (to my knowledge though I haven’t read her full back catalogue) moved away from her, what I like to think of as, “tortured children” model but each one I pick up still hits me with the full force of a sledgehammer. But I do think this is why I’m not a big fan of crime books, particularly series, as they get very formulaic. This is a very personal opinion but I regularly speak to other readers who have similar feelings, so it is something worth keeping in mind.
6. Hard to Break Free:
I go back to Ms JK for this one as she is a perfect, if heightened, example of this. She wrote Harry Potter. It became a global phenomenon and made her very famous. She became “the woman that wrote Harry Potter” but then the series ended but she still had other stories in her. She wanted to try new things. Now, I don’t think many would dispute her ability to write or come up with engaging stories but she felt the need to create a whole new persona to get her crime fiction launched. Now, yes, I know there are lots of contingency factors (like she wanted to be successful for her writing etc. etc.) and I do find it hilarious that some agents and publishers turned down the Galbraith novels – bet they are kicking themselves now – but I truly believe that at least part of this choice was her attempting to break free of the “Harry Potter” label.
Once you are known for something, it is hard to kick the stereotype. Things I’ve noticed over the years: it’s much easier to transition from adult to kids books than VV, particularly if you are trying to move from YA to A; fantasy and crime seem to be a popular/unpopular mix, with the most examples of authors writing under two names to cross that bridge; generally speaking, not always, but generally speaking, whichever genre comes second, does less well.
Again, there are always exceptions but just something to keep in mind when you are seven book down in an eight book fantasy series and suddenly you realise you want your next novel to be a spy thriller.
7. Practice Makes Perfect:
Yup. I know I’ve already used this one but I wanted to separate out the two variations as they directly contradict. This time, I mean it in the simple sense of if you don’t try something you’ll never know. If I only wrote fantasy, how do I know that actually I’m a secret regency romance genius but I’ve never given it a try? Plus the more genres you play around with, the more you hone different sides of your craft. Crime and thrillers are great for working on suspense writing. Sci Fi and Fantasy are the obvious choices for world building. Psycho thrillers are excellent for character work. The more you write, the more you can write.
This post was not written to draw to any particular conclusion. I have my own opinions but I think on this matter, it is up to each writer to decide where they sit and what is right for them. But whether you agree the debate should exist in the first place or not, I think the above are some things to just keep floating in the back of your mind. If you are writing for pleasure, then feel free to ignore this whole post, but most of us are writing with a commercial path in mind and that means turning ourselves into a brand. Whether we want to or not.