Monday, February 07, 2011

The Genre Pigeon Hole

From @Charlesatan: Fear of getting typcasted/ghettoed in one genre.

So this is a question that I see often on writing forum boards, and asked at conferences etc. What do you do when you write many different genres?

It's a complicated question, and now that an author these days must become a brand in and of herself, has become even more so.

I suppose there once was a time an author could sit in her garret, write marvelous prose, send it to her publisher and there's an end. But that time has long passed for most of us (there are of course exceptions to every rule). We live in an age where authors have to be accessible, especially writing in the children's/teen market, where social networking is expected and an online presence is essential. And with it goes a persona. An easily identifiable, "Oh you know Jane Smith, she writes books about exotic birds."

In some cases, it's rather easy to create a brand. There are certain authors out there who have an interest in a particular genre, so much so that they are happy to continuously mine that genre for new and exciting material.

But considering the "question" at the beginning of this blog had the word "fear" in it, I suppose the author to address in this blog post is the one who enjoys writing in many different genres, in many different styles.

I consider myself one such author actually. Possibly it comes from the fact that I get easily distracted by shiny objects, and so constantly need to switch things up. Possibly it comes from being a fan of neat ideas, and neat ideas aren't the property of just one genre. Possibly too it comes from a game I used to play when I was younger, which was to emulate in a piece of writing an author I was reading at the moment, to see if I could write like that author, how closely I could mimic her. Not to copy, not to claim the style as my own, but just for the fun of trying.

Actually I can go on a bit of a tangent here . . . when I was writing ALEX the first thing I had to do was figure out voice. Being a bit of a chameleon as I've said I was, it was kind of hard to find what was the "real" me. Finally, after some false starts, I just took a step back and asked myself, "How would you just tell this story out loud to someone?" And that's where I started from, hence the breaking of the 4th wall etc that you'll find in ALEX.

Anyway . . .

I also really love almost all genres of fiction out there as a writer. Some I like more than others, but I can usually find merit and something to enjoy in most any of them. And so I never really had an affinity for one genre, one genre didn't get me through high school when times were tough, one genre didn't get me more excited than the other. I suppose the one thing I liked in general was a sense of humour and of the ridiculous, but even then . . .

So when it comes to my own writing, when it comes to that blank slate of: "So what are we going to write about today?" . . . well it can be rather intimidating. Because, for me, it could be ANYTHING.

I don't like talking about unsold projects but let me just say that the two on submission are nothing like ALEX and TIMOTHY, nor is THE FRIDAY SOCIETY like them. I think I always have an underlying theme of strong women in my work, so that does tie them all together (and hopefully a sense of humour), yet if you read my adult novel . . . it's almost all men.

In any event, sorry, rambling. This question wasn't about "what do you like to write" but about the fear of getting pigeon holed, and I will say that I do have that fear. Because I don't like the idea of having to just write one thing for the rest of my life.

But what do you do about one's brand?

This is where I believe you need to make some concessions. You need to pause when you are working on a particular project, and be the author of just that project. You need to understand that when it gets published you have to spend time building a fan base, writing sequels, focusing on one thing. You can't be too scattered, though of course you're allowed to work on other things in the background. But not every project can have equal weight at the same time. You have to trust that eventually you will move onto that second and third project. That life doesn't have a timeline and you don't have to rush. I really believe it's about taking and giving the time required for each new book.

I also think there's some strategy to choosing one project and making that a clear goal for now. The more successful you are as a brand, the more people buy your books, the more freedom you can have down the line. At this point, JK Rowling could write any genre and still be an instant bestseller.

But it still is a risk writing in different genres, you may never find your audience if you constantly confuse them and there are other ways to handle it. Publish under your name with one genre, under a pen name in another. Or maybe, if you're really lucky, foster a reputation of being an author who doesn't fit in one category. These days the latter is very difficult to accomplish, but not impossible.

I think too you need to make the choice to work possibly harder than some others might have to. It's likely harder to write in different genres, harder to get published, harder to become successful. It will probably take more work. But if you feel that passionately about it, it's probably worth the effort.

I once saw Helen Mirren interviewed on stage at the National Theatre in London. Someone in the audience asked her what her advice was to young actors, and she replied with, "Don't let yourself be pigeon holed." At the time I thought to myself, "Easy for you to say, you're Helen Mirren. You get your pick of scripts. We just have to take whatever is offered to us." And there is that sense when you're starting out at writing too. A sense of beggars can't be choosers.

But while we're in that early phase of little choice, we can still set a path for the future. So long as we take baby steps to get there. As I've already said, you must be focused. There's one thing to say you like writing many different genres, it's another to use it as an excuse as to why you can't finish writing a book. Once you choose the book you want to write/get published, that becomes the focus. As a business person you must think about what happens after it gets published, is this a single tome, or is it a series. Can you commit to doing a series at all? Make a game plan.

For me it's to be a writer of many different kinds of books, but to give focus to whatever book(s) take off. This means if a book of mine comes out that suddenly has this crazy upwards trajectory, well, I'll have to put other projects aside to make sure that book doesn't suddenly lose momentum and come crashing down to earth. I also concluded early on that while most of what I write has series potential, I wouldn't accept that as a standard truth. I didn't need to be the author of trilogies. I could write series of 4 or 5 or 6. I could write duologies. I could write standalone novels. But whatever I wrote it would get the full attention it deserved.

I guess what I'm trying to say in all this is you make the choice. But it can't come from a place of ego: "I'm super special, I write lots of different things, no one can tie me down to one genre!" Because invariably you will have to compromise. You might have to write a sequel to a book when you wanted to start a brand new one for example. Nor can it come from a place of indecision/boredom: "I don't know how to write this next bit so instead I think I'm going to write this other book!" Because most of the time (not all of the time, but most) this means you never actually finish writing a book.

It has to come from a place of: "I like to write many different things. But it's difficult to be such an author. So I am going to have a tough road ahead, and I am going to have to plan extra carefully, be extra professional, and probably put in even more work to keep juggling all those different genres."

I hope this sort of answers the question. It's not an easy one to answer, and to be honest, I'm still at the beginning of this road and I have no idea if my game plan will work for me. I also want to say that there is nothing wrong with finding a genre that you adore and sticking with it until the day you die. After all, think of all the different books by different authors that get published in just one genre. There is so much to mine on one topic alone, so many different exciting stories to tell.

It's up to you. But whatever you do, keep an open mind, and put in the work.


Nicole said...

Ugh trying to decide what my book came under is still a headache! Fantasy with an urban feel romance/action/adventure, someone called it paranormal.. How bout it just kicks arse ;p

The Arrival, only .99c on Amazon

Dolly said...

Great post. Thanks for sharing you view. I am still revising the first book I want to submit, but until then I was writing in various different genres. Thinking more ahead, accepting that at least initially I need to focus in one area, I chose Fantasy and at least for now, I am sticking to it, working on other projects only when the inspiration insists.

Michael Offutt, Phantom Reader said...

I hate genre-pigeon holing. This was a provocative post and thank you for the read.

Josin L. McQuein said...

I hope that "strong woman" never becomes a genre unto itself. It should be a viable component of every genre, just like strong men should. kudos to writing those types of characters.

What you said about Helen Mirren made me think about an interview I saw with Judi Dench after she did the Pitch Black sequel. Someone asked her how she could have let herself take part in (what they felt was) such a trainwreck of a movie. She said she leapt at the chance to do something in sci-fi because she's never offered those roles.

I write in different genres, to a point. They're all YA or kid-lit and mostly fantasy. I think that right now, fantasy sort of serves as a bridge between sci-fi and contemporary (at least the UF variety) so it makes skipping from one to the other less jarring.

Jimbo G said...

I'm a reader, not a writer. I don't focus on a genre so much as on an authors 'voice'. I gravitate back to certain authors because they feel like a comfortable pair of shoes. They fit and they make you feel good. Maybe a really good author can be like a mechanic? Sure they can work on any automobile and do a good job but they specialize on one type and are really good at that.