Monday, April 07, 2014

Literary genre: haven or prison?

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A little over a year ago, I wrote a post for the Guild of Dreams blog where I wondered about how important it is for a writer to remain within a genre. Now that I have just sent my third manuscript to an editor, I find myself wondering about that again. Without asking anyone’s permission, I am re-examine that issue.

When you start out writing fantasy — or romance, or science fiction, or mystery, or any other category — do you have to stay within it? Is writing something in another genre akin to crossing a border into a foreign territory?
For a novelist, is the genre a prison or a haven?

It looks like my career as a novelist is turning into an experiment to measure that.

My experience in the fantasy genre

My first published full-length novel qualifies as epic fantasy. I prefer the term “historical magic realism,” because  The Bones of the Earth has realistic, fictional characters alongside real, historical characters. It’s set in a real time and place, and then adds fantastic or magical elements. But for most people, “fantasy” is the shorthand term.

My next novel, One Shade of Red, stepped way out of epic fantasy and history. It’s a comic, erotic parody of Fifty Shades of Gray, and qualifies as romantic erotica. Or erotic romance. NOT porn.

My third novel (to be published) is one I started over 10 years ago, a memoir of my father-in-law’s experience as a draftee into the Soviet Red Army during World War II. So far, I’m calling it Between the Vise Jaws. But that may change.

Return to fantasy

With that done, I am now turning to a contemporary urban paranormal type fantasy, Dark Clouds. I posted the first chapter on this blog a couple of years ago.
Dark Clouds grew out of a pre-Hallowe’en writing challenge, the source of which I cannot remember. But the challenge was to write the scariest opening line I could, and in a humourous mood, I thought of “Matt always knew when his mother was coming over.”

Photo by Garry Knight via Flickr Creative Commons

And I took it from there, making Matt’s mother a witch, then the Queen of all witches. Then I thought “what if Matt, the Witch Queen’s son, was immune to all her spells?”
Once I finished writing the story, I thought it could be the beginning of a novel, or at least a series of stories. So I thought I would call the novel The Mandrake Ruse, in the style of 60s-era spy stories like Man from U.N.C.L.E. And I could write a bunch of novels about The Witch’s Son.

Now that I’ve been toying with the idea for a couple of years, I realize that I have those titles mixed up, so when I do publish the book, it will be called Dark Clouds, and the first chapter will be “The Mandrake Ruse.” It just makes so much more sense.

Does genre-hopping hurt my credibility as an author?

A number of readers, and my family, too, have asked for a sequel to The Bones of the Earth. And as you can see from the cover, it’s “Book One of the Dark Age Trilogy.” I do have rough plot outlines for two more books about Javor and his adventures in the seventh century, but I also have this burning desire to write some other stories, first.

Had I a contract with a publishing company, my publisher, editor and/or agent would gripe about this. “Readers who liked your first book want more of the same!” I can hear one of them saying. “You’ve proven there’s an audience for that story, and they’ll be disappointed if your next book is totally different.”

I think every artist or creative person faces that dilemma: those who liked your first work will come back expecting more in the same vein. Delighting them with something new and completely different is a steeper hill to climb — you’re working against the very expectations that you created.

On the other hand, I am a writer because there are stories that I want to write, and my imagination doesn’t necessarily fit into categories defined by someone else.

I don’t read in just one genre — why should write in just one genre?

The most commercially successful authors stay within the categories they’re known for: John Grisham, Jodi Picoult, Tom Clancy, Dan Brown, Stephenie Meyer … it’s a long, depressing list.

On the other hand, some of the best writers have written in more than one genre, or have succeeded both artistically and commercially when they’ve gone beyond the slot assigned to them at some point in their careers:

Ray Bradbury — known for science fiction, especially Fahrenheit 451 and The Martian Chronicles, Bradbury’s also celebrated for Dandelion Wine, the story of a young boy’s “magical summer.”

Stephen King started with horror and is still best known for It, The Shining and Carrie, but he has successfully transitioned into science fiction, non-fiction and, it could be argued, literary fiction.

Guy Gavriel Kay began writing fantasy fiction with The Fionavar Tapestry series, continued with his almost-historical magic realism, and moved to historical fiction with Ysabel in 2007.

Margaret Atwood went the other way. Established since the 60s as a main force in current literature, she surprised the book world with the dystopian science-fiction The Handmaid’s Tale, more recently Oryx and Crake — although she denies they’re science fiction.

The big question

What will this do to future sales prospects? Will readers of The Bones of the Earth who check my new publication be disappointed or delighted by Between the Vise Jaws?

Will fans of One Shade of Red be totally turned off by a war memoir?

Or will my hopes be realized: that writing in different genres will spread my appeal to new audiences?

What do you think? Leave a comment!


  1. As a reader, I like my authors to stick to their genre. If I pick up a book by an author I have previously read and they are writing something different, I will be hesitant to choose that author again. However, if I know they write another genre under different name, I am likely to check out the other one or avoid the other one. As an example, I enjoy Rita Mae Brown books written with her cat Sneaky Pie Brown. Her other books written without Sneaky Pie are not for me. I am wondering if you could add a tagline like Rita Mae Brown does so th reader quickly knows what they are getting?

  2. I think about this a lot too. Jack Ketchum is my favorite author. Most of his novels are horror, but here and there he has mixed in other genres. I did read them because I buy everything written by him, but I honestly did find myself not as into them. In saying that though, he did warn the reader that the this novel would be different. I thought that was a great idea. Make sure you the reader knows so they won't be surprised or disappointed. Then it's all on them on whether to make the decision to check it out.

  3. I think about this a lot too. My favorite author is Jack Ketchum. He writes mostly horrors but has a few different genres out there. Sometimes his style even changes a bit from dark and disturbing to a bit of comedy and less gore. What always kept me buying his books no matter what was the fact he warned the reader that this novel was going to be different. I thought this was a great idea. That way the reader isn't surprised or disappointed in the end.

  4. Anonymous11:54 AM

    I am embroiled in this right now - and while all my books have some sort of fantastical element, I switch from YA to Adult genres. I've had some people think I only write YA so when they've gotten an adult book of mine it's been a shock to say the least. I don't want to be stuck in one genre and you hope readers will read the blurb to know what the book is about. Good luck!

  5. You raise some interesting questions, Scott. I've written a series and a few stand-alone books, as well. The books in the series far outsell the stand-alone offerings, although they're all in the mystery / thriller genre. I'm trying to balance what the market tells me my readers want with what I want to write. I'm curious to see if more readers respond. I found Alta's comments enlightening.

  6. Interesting. Though my books are non-fiction, I've already given some thought to when and if I will write fiction - which was my first love, and what teachers in school thought I was good at writing. Hmmmm… It will be a branding issue I'm sure. LOL

  7. I have always felt writers should not be "type cast" into genres, after all this is a CREATIVE process right? Good to see discussion on this topic!

  8. Interesting post, and something I've been struggling with. I write stories for kids and adults as well as non-fiction. I get bored if I'm always writing the same thing...

  9. I suspect that for high, ongoing sales and devoted readers, sticking to one genre is best. But some writers (including me) just cannot resist exploring new fields, against all commercial advice. And it's good for our souls.