Friday, July 10, 2015

Genre: Shackles or Rocket-Powered Jet Pack?

If you put any serious effort into writing stories, regardless of whether they’re 400,000-word epic fantasies that stretch the limits of Microsoft Word’s ability to keep your words safe without getting corrupted or a short story hand-scrawled on the back of a new band flyer, sooner or later someone is going to ask you what it’s about. Which is good, because you should probably want to talk about what it’s about, at least if you have any interest in having people who aren’t your mother read it.

All too often, though, on the heels of being asked about the subject, comes the standard assessment of your work’s perceived genre.

“Oh, I don’t read fantasy.”


“Wow, sounds awesome! I love Sci-Fi! Have you written any others?”

And just like that, your work will forever be pigeonholed, and may the Three Laws of Robotics save you should you find the inspiration to veer off course and work on something—gasp—off genre.

“I liked your romance novel. Why didn’t you stick to that?”

You subversive radical, you!

The problem gets even stickier as you carve out success along your journey as an author.  Most publishers will want you to build an audience with each new book, and there’s not nearly as much reader crossover between Historical Mystery and Science Fiction as you might think. So if your first book is a fictionalized version of Betsy Ross solving the mystery of the White House while spy single-handedly fighting off Redcoats, it’s going to be a bit of a trick to get them to buy your follow-up, where four orphan kids befriend a lonely ghost who leads them on a rollicking adventure through space.

I’m not saying that no one will want to read about both Betsy Ross and four orphans with a restless spirit in the Pegasus galaxy, but it’s probably a pretty small set of people. Not exactly how you want to build an audience. You know, an audience that pays you to write?

As you can probably tell, I’ve spent a lot of time thinking about this. That is, considering whether genre, as a label, is a blessing or a curse. Because I’m the guy who’s writing Betsy Ross and the Spirit Space Gang.

I mean, I’m not exactly. I haven’t written those books (although I might have to now…that Betsy Ross adventure sounds pretty cool and who doesn’t love orphans in space?), but since I began writing, I’ve written one fantasy horror for adults, MG novels in science fiction, mystery, horror, and fantasy, as well a second adult novel that’s kind of, sort of, fantasy. Or maybe Sci-Fi? I’m not sure what you’d call it just yet.

Well, besides awesome, but I’m not exactly objective about it.

And as my agent and I stalk the corridors of publishing in search of the right editor, I understand that sometime soon I’m going to have to limit my expression to fit a publisher’s marketing concept. Which scares me a little, since I started writing MG because I wanted to share my writing with my kids. Those rascals, it turns out, have tastes that are just as varied as my own.  They don’t want to read just fantasy. They want fantasy and mystery and origami science fiction.

Wait…is that a thing?

Either way, it’s hard to argue that genre won’t become a shackle around my ideas. That’s especially an issues for new authors.  I mean,  sure, if you’re Stephen King, you can write The Shining and The Shawshank Redemption and  The Gunslinger and no one’s going to bat an eye.  He could probably write stereo instructions at this point, and as long as there was a bloody corpse in there somewhere no one would complain.

Which I guess says a lot about King’s genre. He’s the master of the that “Bloody Corpse” section of the bookstore.

But the options seem a lot more limiting for you, and me, and anyone else just starting the trek down Publication Road.

Maybe, just maybe, you don’t have to let that genre label own you. Sure, a publisher might not want to pay for a cozy mystery when they just signed you to a three-book deal for dragon stories. But that doesn’t mean they control what you write. They may control what you publish, and, admittedly, squeezing in time to scribble down a few lines about Miss Ginny’s search of the stables at the Brokeback Bed and Breakfast might be a challenging when you’re on deadline to deliver Dragon-Hearted Two, The Enflamaning, but if her story means that much to you, you’ll find a way.

Or at the very least, you’ll occasionally give your imagination a 10 minute break to run with it.

Because, really, isn’t that what got us all here to begin with? Not genres labels, or shelving locations, but an imagination strapped to a rocket-powered jetpack, screaming around freely and coming up with exciting stuff.

So not matter what I end up getting paid to write, I always intend to give my mind a little jetpack time.

After all, pen names exist for a reason, and you never know what story might launch your career into new and exciting heights.

What genre(s) do you write? Do you stick to one primary one, or let your mind bounce around like a Super Ball in a glass laboratory?


PS: Don’t forget that tomorrow is MG BOOK BOMB 2015! Don’t miss out on the fun!

1 comment:

  1. I dunno, I think famous authors have genre issues too. Sure, they'll sell anything so they're not really shackled by publishing standards but reader expectation? That's a big one. Take J.K. Rowling. She's the biggest author ever and she decided to use a pseudonym. Could you imagine Nicolas Sparks writing a cozy mystery with NO romance? It definitely ropes you in, to some extent but some people learn to work around it.