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Genre Writing: Are you Really Scary, or Literary?

Elvis Elvis

Here’s a question from a reader:

Genre writing seems confining to me. Is it possible to have a successful career in more than one genre?

Here’s the problem with writing in different genres – particularly ones that are sold very differently (i.e. literary vs. horror): to the world at large, it appears as a lack of focus. The whole system gets behind you if you focus. By that I mean your agent, your editors at a house, your publisher and your readers. All will focus their efforts on what you’re doing if you focus on a particular genre. This is especially critical early in your career.

Most of us, as artists, would like to simply write what we like and leave it to others to categorize later. But as soon as you start considering writing for a living, like it or not, you become a “commercial” writer – and you must at least consider what that means in terms of marketplace. Genre writing is the marketplace. The vast majority of bestsellers are easily identifiable as thrillers, detective stories, mysteries, romance.

Although fiction bestsellers are most often novels rather than short story collections, you will find that short story markets look for genre writing in the same way. Reading issues of a magazine you’re considering as a possible market will tell you a lot about the kind of fiction they publish.

As you create your work, the aforementioned agents, editors and publishers all want to create something, too: a brand name. Is this a purely commercial consideration? You’d better believe it. It’s about how to sell you – not just your stories, but your first book, the next three, the next five, the next ten.

Genre Writing: Are you Really Scary, or Literary?

It’s about getting an audience, keeping it, and building on it. You want your second short story to attract more readers than your first. You want your third novel to make the bestseller lists – and you want your fourth to “break out” and catapult you into worldwide popularity, fame, riches, the whole nine yards. Everyone will tell you the odds are ridiculously long against, but in my experience, this is not an odds game. J.K. Rowling is now the first person on the planet to become a billionaire writing books. It’s possible, and that makes me want to go for it in a big way. Go for that Ferrari!

Sorry. I digress. Back to topic!

Think about your favorite writers and how they’re identified. Clive Clussler? Men’s adventure. Tom Clancy? Military thriller. Terry Pratchett? Fantasy.

It’s simple. Concise. Genre writing, from the publisher’s perspective, is a selling tool. Booksellers have about fifteen seconds to “pitch” books from their list to the major booksellers. Fifteen seconds decides whether Barnes & Noble carries your book. Scary? Crazy? Maybe. It’s life – your life, if this is your chosen path. Better to know about it and accept it than be ignorant and write into the dark for the rest of your life.

So. What happens if you sell science fiction stories this year, building up a good track record with editors of SF magazines, and next year you decide to publish a piece of literary fiction? You might as well be trying to publish your first short story again. You will be writing to a completely different audience. Starting over from ground zero. What you think of as branching out, growing, and maturing is what book people call career suicide.

Genre writing helps establish familiarity. A fan base. If Tom Clancy had written a romance novel immediately after The Hunt For Red October broke out, what would have happened to his career?

If you tried this as a novelist, your agent would say, “write a couple more thrillers. Then we’ll see. If you switch now, you’re dead before your career has even begun.” If you turn in a literary novel, your publisher may not accept your manuscript (publishing contracts give them the right to refuse your book if they don’t think it’s publishable). In fact, it’s likely you won’t even make it that far before finding yourself without an agent. Or a publisher.

If you try it as a short story writer, there’s no agent to tell you it’s a bad idea. So here I am to tell you – it’s a bad idea.

Even if you’re self-publishing, you’re setting yourself up for a serious challenge by radically changing genres between stories. Scott Sigler, author of Ancestor and Earthcore, recently made big news by pursuing a unique path to publishing that made him a bestseller at Amazon. The paperback versions of these books were published by Dragon Moon Press, but Sigler started out on his own – with titles that fall squarely in the same genre. Whether or not his success is a result of happy accidents or careful, shrewd planning and marketing, Sigler knows what he’s doing as a writer. He’s building himself as a brand name. And that’s how you survive.

In a way, I think the whole argument about bucking industry standards and pursuing the “freedom” to write whatever you want is moot. If you wrote horror stories this year and you’re thinking about trying literary fiction for next year, you’re not ready to publish yet – because you haven’t really decided who you are.

This is the flipside of the genre writing coin. Is it a label that restricts you, or one that defines your voice, your concurrent themes, the issues that carry you through your life, that continue to matter? Is it your voice? Your style?

I throw the whole package together and call it your identity. You will hear me jump on this soapbox repeatedly. It’s the overall theme of my soon-to-be-published e-book, Become You: The Art of Creative Centering (and before you get all mad at me for plugging that darned book again, just remember: it’s free).

You write as you are – and much as you may like the idea, you are not both a writer of pulpy horror novels and a writer of elegant literary prose. The two are mutually exclusive – unless you create a whole new genre through experimentation, which I of course encourage. Creating your own thing is the best job security there is. It makes your brand name exclusive, and instantly identifiable (“oh, nobody writes like _____.”) If you’ve read Tim Powers or Michael Chabon, you know what I mean.

If you’re going to do that, your should do it with the first story you submit for publication. Let that be your focus.

Okay. Now that I’ve completely bummed you out, take heart. This may not seem true now, but you will look back on it as good advice: enjoy where you are. Don’t be in a hurry to get published. In this moment, you are working strictly for yourself, discovering yourself and your work, your voice. You will never experience greater freedom in your writing than right now. Be grateful. Appreciate it. And write whatever you want. Now is your chance to do that. Once you are published and begin your career, there will ever be voices in your ear, convincing you to write this, cajoling you to write that.

Were you studying to master a technical trade, you would be an apprentice for many years before you were considered a master craftsman. The writing you’re doing now is your apprenticeship. Get all the guidance and instruction you can, read as much as possible, and push your talent and craftsmanship to the limit. Find out what you’re capable of.

So do what you want. If you wrote unpublished horror stories last year and you want to try a literary story this year, go for it! This is your training. This is how you figure out what kind of writer you are. Write a lot. Test your boundaries. Find out who you are.

Do this first, put all your passion and effort into it, and your worries about what kind of published writer you’ll be will take care of themselves.