A change of genre?

by limebirdsally

I recently re-read City of the beasts by Isabel Allende, having forgotten that I found the characters unconvincing caricatures and the plot far too worthy and slow-moving to be engaging. It did make me wonder whether this book would have been picked up by a publisher if it wasn’t for the strength of her name and past work, which got me thinking more widely – would I even know who Isabel Allende is had she started her writing career writing for young adults (as in City of the beasts) rather than adults (e.g. The house of  the spirits)? Personally I don’t think she’s convincing a as young adult writer and the inference that this was the new Harry Potter on the book jacket actually made me a little bit angry!

Other writers have crossed genres more successfully for me – such as Philip Pullman’s stretch from his children’s books to his fantastic fantasy series, His Dark Materials. I thought Stephanie Meyer’s The Host was brilliant and completely different to her YA Twilight saga. I’m sure you’ll have lots of examples of your own.

It got me thinking about genre and writing for a particular audience. Do you tend to keep to a certain genre or do you experiment with different audiences? I’m sure some writers are multi-talented and able to write convincing, engaging works in a range of genres (even if their publishers discourage it because it risks diluting their brand!) But I should think most of us have our comfort zones – perhaps the kinds of books we enjoy reading, or just a style that feels natural…

but is it the right genre for you? Perhaps your heart lies with contemporary literature, but you’d actually be able to pen a pretty mean thriller; or you’re pushing a creative fantasy dream because it’s exciting when really your talents lie in the observational humour of chick lit.

Personally I’m still not confident I’ve found the right audience for my writing. I know what I’d be terrible at, but have I found the perfect home for my style yet? What do you think – how confident are you that you’re writing in the right genre to really make the most of your writing talents?

Maybe it’s good to experiment once in a while – test the water with different genres and audiences. You never know, you might find a whole new inner writer  just waiting to be released!

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34 Comments to “A change of genre?”

  1. I like to stick with horror or fantasy. If I’m not writing about people getting their guts ripped out, I’m writing about kids in fantasy settings. I find it hard to stray from either of those, honestly. Sometimes I try straight up drama or something, and I begin to hate my characters (I think I only tried that once really, I just wanted to choke them all out before it was finished). I do like comedy too, but only if I’m writing short things I think… I’ve never tried a really long comedy piece.

    • You see, reading your stuff I think you’d be great at Jacqueline Wilson-type middle grade humorous books. Your characters are always so lively and fun, but I can see you be able to to give it some good horror action but with the humour to make it palatable!

      • As a kid I started to form two loves around the same time – horror , mostly cheesy horror, and fantasy kids stories. So there is 7 year old me either watching A Nightmare on Elm Street, or reading the Chronicles of Narnia LOL
        I would like to write a kids book though. I think more like a kid than an adult I think.

    • Or kids in fantasy settings getting their guts ripped out?

  2. I don’t know if I’m necessarily writing the right genre for my writing ‘talents’ ( I say it like this because I find it weird haha) but I seem to always steer towards a mish mash of romance and fantasy. Or to the other extreme family based realism stories with some kind of tragic story to tell (in this sense I think I’m kind of like a Jodi Picoult writer, I do love to tug on heartstrings!)

    Anyways, I’ve always LOVED the thought of writing a children’s book, and I know there’s a story in me to tell. However, I’m a bit petrified of trying… who knows!

  3. I’m in the experimental stage. I started in a very serious way and came to realise that my voice was more suited to something lighter. I do like to come back to the heavy every now and then as I think it improves me.

    • It sounds as if you’ve got a really good approach to your writing – almost as if you’re doing the same kind of exercises that a musician does to keep challenging yourself, but all as you develop a good sense of what your voice is!

  4. I lean towards sci-fi that’s approachable to a wider audience—or so I hope. If I do find a publisher for my “mainstream” novel, I’d bet good money they’ll want to change it to “speculative.” Maybe I should just beat them to it and call both works speculative!

    This is a little sideways to your point, but I think it’s related. In that “mainstream” book I found it hard to write about one main character’s clandestine sideline—I don’t do spy thrillers or intrigue. But that’s very much part of her. I tried to focus more on her perspective as a “field researcher,” but the hardest part of the rewrite was adding scenes back home on the agency front. I finally forced myself to remember that she’s in an alternate universe—I can write things how I want and they don’t have to match what things would really be like here!

    Will that lead to me ever writing a “real” spy novel? Probably not! But my passing dance with it has been intriguing and has widened my horizons for what I could try if I wanted….

    • That sounds like a genre that publishers may not immediately embrace because they like things that fit neatly into boxes, but with a bit of imagination could be really appealing to readers who wouldn’t expect to be interested in sci fi! It must have been quite fun to have that little segue into another genre within your world. I guess that’s the difficulty with something like a thriller where you need to have specialist knowledge, so the my-world; my-rules thing is definitely a bonus!

      • I think that science fiction (or speculative fiction ;) ) is very open to crossing genres. That is what I love about it! There can be police procedurals on another planet, a love story involving a human and an alien, an investigation of Catholicism v technology… All three of those have been covered in famous and groundbreaking SF books.

  5. This very topic is part of what I love about the NaNoWriMo experiment: for 30 days or 50,000 words (whichever comes first), I can try my hand at something new! The one genre I don’t think I could ever write is suspense. My style is just too wordy, that – even when I’ve tried to write a fight scene – readers tell me things happen too slowly. (Or, worse, “boring!” :D)

    I do think it’s a good idea to try different things, though. Just like when we look for a course of study, or a job (or a mate!), it’s just as important to know what we *don’t* like, as it is to find out what we *do.*

    Nice post!

    • Thank you! It’s really interesting that you mention about finding a mate as I almost included that as an analogy, talking about how whenever I used to go clubbing with my uni friends we could always look around the room and pick out which men each of us would go for, but I tend to get a bit waffly with my posts so I wanted to keep this one to the point!

      Using NaNoWriMo to challenge yourself in different ways is a great idea as the timeframe gives you a finite time to invest in experiments. I’m going to try and use it this year to give myself licence for planning (aka procrastination!) in the next few months so when I next sit down to write it’s very focused and well-planned.

  6. I think it’s a good idea to be experimental as far as genres go: as a writer I don’t want to be hemmed in by one in particular. That said, I’d have thought that many writers have one or two areas they excel in and love, so why would they do anything else? They shouldn’t feel they have too.

    That said, one reason to try something new is to practise, to learn, and to stretch ourselves. Other arts do this all the time. For example, a painter might favour acrylics, but every so often paints in oils, or perhaps uses a different kind of brush. What we get out of the learning experience can be very valuable when we return to our normal practises.

    I can’t say I’ve found my genre yet (actually, I’m not expecting to) but my first novel, The Darkness Beneath, is a horror/vampire, while the second is a romance. The third one, if everything goes to plan, will be about surviving a shipwreck in the late 1800s. Apart from that, I also write short stories, micro fiction and poetry. All of which I use as writing exercises, to some extent or other. I see writing as a non-stop learning experience, so my advice to all writers is to branch out, try something new. You don’t have to abandon doing what you like, but take a chance once in a while, you never know what you might discover. :)
    Cheers.

  7. BTW, great website and idea, I look forward to hearing more from you.

    • Hi Mick, welcome to limebirds, thank you for stopping by. I think that’s one of the advantages of writers being able to take control of their own publishing as they’re not forced to keep to the same genre by their publishing house and can instead just work on what interests them. It’s great that your writing is so diverse and you use it so productively to constantly develop. I completely agree with your closing comments – well said!

  8. I like to push myself and think differently when I can. Some of my best short stories started with subjects I found difficult, or things I found hard to do, like dialogue.
    Great post, I think as writers we should push ourselves whenever we can – that’s usually how you grow!

    • Thanks Neeks. Such a good idea to use short stories to force yourself to work on things that you find difficult!

  9. Excellent post, Sally. I was fortunate enough to do a bunch of genre-hopping when I was first writing and I’m pretty settled into Adult Fantasy for my genre. It didn’t surprise me, as it’s most of what I read these days (when I step away from the keyboard long enough to reach much), and it’s where my ideas seem to want to go, so I go with them. That said, I’ve had this killer idea for a mystery rolling around in my head for years, but that’s a whole different story. Maybe one day I’ll feel up to writing it.

    As an aside, I always laugh at those book-jacket marketing pitches that tell you it’s the next X. I find them funny, but I also find them sad. I tend to want each story, both my own and those of other writers, to be their own, not limited to trying to be a version of something previously successful. That’s why I love reading, exploring other worlds, lots of other worlds. Wouldn’t it be boring if everything was some version of a past idea? Some of the new ideas and stories that are becoming successful would never exist if that was all we were striving for!

    • Thanks Julie! You manage to get so much achieved with your writing that I could quite see you deciding one weekend to write that mystery and have it finished by the following weekend!

      Some of those book marketing pitches are terrible – it’s not only unimaginative to label it the next xxx, but a complete lie! Word of mouth is so much better!

  10. Apart from my poetry (which can touch upon anything!) I write mainly in the science fiction genre. However, as I mentioned above, science fiction is a very open and forgiving genre!

    The collection that I am putting together currently includes:

    Time travel/alternate history
    Coming of age (on a generation ship)
    Social commentary (the CCTV generation)
    Crime (If memories can be backed up, what is murder?)
    Comedy (a lighter future than that envisioned in Terminator…)
    Social commentary (transgender steampunk)
    Fantasy (steampunk/Shakespeare/Sherlock Holmes mash-up)
    Social commentary (what is identity when anything can be faked?)
    Social commentary (colonialism)
    Social commentary (what happens when the unemployed become the majority?)

    And that’s just the main short stories! When the sf poetry and nanofiction is included the spread is even wider.

    So come on over to science fiction. You have a genre? We do it!

    (Although, I promise, I will never write in the mundane science fiction subgenre!

    • I don’t know enough about sci fi as a genre. It’s one of those things where I instantly think of pre/early-teen boys as the audience, but I don’t think that’s the case! What makes it different to fantasy or paranormal?

      I studied identity politics and colonialism as part of my course at University (e.g. Edward Said and orientalism) and have always wanted to do something around the themes of colonialism (but without being literal), but I think I’d spend too much time getting back into researching around the history of it to actually create anything!

      • One could write numerous books on the difference between the genres!

        For what it’s worth, here’s my take (please take this with a bucket of salt as I am drastically summarising!):

        Science fiction deals with imaginary settings but that are plausible in some way or another. For example, while we have not met aliens there is a scientific argument that can be made that they could exist. Science fiction often takes a known (for example current technology, society etc.) and says “what if?”. i.e. it changes one thing and postulates how that would play out in the future. Another whole subgenre of the “what if?” is alternate history; how would history have played out if something had changed? e.g. in “Pavane” by Keith Roberts, protestantism was destroyed during the wars that resulted from the aftermath of the assassination of Queen Elizabeth in 1588 and we see a very different 19th century to the one that the world actually lived through. Then we have dystopian fiction (The Machine Stops by E. M. Forster, Brave New World, 1984, The Knife of Never Letting Go, The Hunger Games etc.). There are too many subgenres to list here…

        Fantasy has many of the traits mentioned above, the main distinguishing feature could be said to be the milieu in which the story is set. Two of the main settings being either ‘medievalist’ (for example Lord of the Rings, Game of Thrones, the Narnia books etc.); the second being worlds in which magic, Gods, mythical beasts etc. are real (including, recently Harry Potter or Percy Jackson). Or a mix of the two milieu!

        Paranormal fiction could be said to be a blend of traditional fantasy, science fiction, or horror (sometimes using a fantasy/magical explanation of the phenomenon and sometimes using a scientific explanation).

        The three definitions above are very broad brush strokes; there is much crossing over between the genres. (The third of Arthur C. Clarke’s “laws” states that any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic.)

        Once again, apologies for any offence caused to fans of a particular genre for my shorthand descriptions!

        Oh, and while many pre/early-teen boys enjoy SF, it is enjoyed by all! ;)

        P.S. My story that talks about colonialism and empire is a far future galaxy-spanning story of a male “odalik” in a matriarchal version of the Ottoman Empire.

      • A very useful overview on the different genres, thanks very much Dennis!

  11. I love YA. Currently I’m doing an alternate reality but I think I could get into fantasy or dystopia if the right world flew into my brain. :-) and I think I could do poetry if I tried. But it bugs me to death when somebody say their book is the next Harry Potter or Hunger Games! Have a little humility, people! :-) great post.

    • Thanks Laura! That’s one of those things that surely by now every writer knows when writing a submission to an agent – do NOT say, “This is the next Harry Potter!”

  12. I have always considered myself a mainstream fiction writer. Then, as you may recall, I did that 50 first lines contest, and most of my ideas were sci-fi or fantasy based. Say what?! Rather than laughing at myself or telling myself, ‘no, no, you write commercial fiction, not fantasy, stop this foolishness’ I rolled with it. Now I have this story idea that I actually want to pursue.

    So, yes, I think writers can (and should) cross genres with their writing. But the wisest course of action is to remember that the writing would be different in some ways. For instance you wouldn’t be a YA author writing a genre mystery without first boning up on the ins and outs of that particular genre. I do think each genre has its own particular set of “guidelines” which help delineate it from another genre. Before I start diving into that sci-fi story idea, I would definitely take a course or get a book on that genre to see how best to write my book.

    • I guess it’s all about testing the water and going with whatever comes! I’ve never really been sure what sci fi is (and how it’s different from paranormal etc.), but Dennis’ explanation above is very useful. If sci fi is based in the potential for this to be real I should think a grasp of the science behind it would be pretty important to avoid upsetting the die-hards, while paranormal feels a biut more forgiving of making up the details!

      I do find there are lots of different ‘rules’ or accepted myths that writers in particular genres seem to follow (for example traditional fantasy I imagine is a whole minefield!), although I do find each new vampire fiction author in particular tries to put a different spin on it e.g. coming out in daylight, reasons for not looking in mirrors etc.

  13. I’m just jumping into the fiction waters, so I’m still trying to pinpoint my genre. I like to write about people and their inner struggles and growth. Right now I’m reading Plot and Structure by James Scott Bell. His instruction and advice are giving me a fresh look at my writing style and theme, and how to use those to create a good story. My genre? I’m thinking literary/mainstream fiction. Now you’ve got me thinking …

    • Trying to pin-point who you’re writing for from the start can feel a bit counter-intuitive and I never used to do this because I wanted to start with the creativity of the story…but then I’d end up with something where I wasn’t entirely sure who the audience was or how to describe it and that’s pretty useless when it comes to finding an agent!

      If the aim is to get published when submitting to agents you really need to be able to give a clear summary of who you’re writing for and what genre this book is in as they need to know how to market your book. It’s not nice to think about the business side of marketing when writing, but thinking about it from the onset does help you balance your needs as a writer with your audience’s needs. Kourtney Heinz recently had a great idea of writing your synopsis and agent submission at the start (and obviously revising again at the end) so you know who you’re writing for and what your key themes are.

      Hmm, I was wondering what to write my next limebirds post on. You’ve given me a good idea for writing something around this, thank you!

  14. I wrote two fantasy YA stories before moving to contemporary and I think i’ve found my voice there but I’ll keep my mind open. It’s hard to know for sure and I like reading both. But I’m sticking with YA, I love it too much. I’m excited to read JK Rowling’s adult story, that’s going to be interesting!

    • Yes, keeping an open mind sounds like a good idea. I worry that my current penchant for writing YA is because I love reading it (well the good ones rather than the ones that are clearly children’s books!), but I think I’m gradually changing the way I write to fit the genre more.

      I know, I’m really excited to read JK Rowling’s new book! She’s taking so long over it, that I know it’s going to be as well crafted and planned as the Potters rather than just getting the next one out there – frustrating as it’s means a long wait, but I’m sure it will be worth it!

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