Being Practical about Writing in Multiple Genres

Don’t worry – the snow is all gone now and we’re back to spring sunshine. I just thought it looked really neat, the way the snowy tree made a cave with treasures beneath.

So, Rachelle Gardner, literary agent, posted on her blog today a whole bunch of really good reasons for debut authors, in particular, to stick one genre. Yeah, we’ve all heard this advice multiple times. Stick to one genre. Build an audience. Develop your brand so readers know what they’ll get when they pick up your books.

It’s undoubtedly good advice. Angela James, who you all know I think is a smart cookie, gives the same counsel. I appreciate that agents and editors take the time to explain these things. It’s helpful for writers to get the business perspective.

But that’s exactly what it is: the business view of things.

Of course that’s how editors and agents see the world of writing. That’s their job. Books are more clear from their side of the desk. They like the genre to be clearly defined, from manuscript to where it will sit on the bookstore shelf. They know about building readership and how that best works. Thus it’s easy and simple for her to give advice such as:

If you’re writing in several genres and you’re not published yet, be aware that the first book you sell and publish will determine the genre you’ll be working in for quite a while. Choose carefully!

To me, this is akin to the advice to pick your top three dream agents and direct all your efforts to winning their representation. Again, I’m sure this seems very clear from the other side of the desk, but for a writer who’s trying to wedge her stories into a difficult market, this is far from an easily defined effort.

For example, let’s talk about me. (My favorite topic!) I started out writing nonfiction – personal essays, creative nonfiction, narrative nonfiction. I did fine. But not well enough to make a living at it. Then I got the Burn to write this fantasy, full of sex and romance and science. All you writers know what I mean by the Burn, right? It’s when that story idea is smoldering away, like money burning a hole in your pocket, dying to be spent. The Burn is what makes the story come to life for me. And when it’s not there, it seems the story just stays this wooden construct, a corpse on the slab.

Unfortunately, my wonderful fantasy was not a clear genre. I couldn’t sell it. (Though I have now – that’s Rogue’s Pawn which comes out July 16!) So I wrote the next book. And in between there, I did what Rachelle says not to do. Rather than focusing on one genre, I wrote a BDSM erotica, Petals and Thorns. I sold that nearly immediately.

See, the thing is, agents and editors make these things sound like they’re under our control. From their perspective, I’m sure it seems that way. Choose carefully! But very often what sells first is dictated by the market, not by what we decide.

Rachelle says: I don’t hear Stephen King bemoaning that no one wants to read an Amish romance from him.

This is actually a really bad example because, as many writers know, Stephen King really wanted to write more literary, contemporary fiction. He has written some of it. And I’ve read interviews where he talks about how, by selling Carrie first, that set his path. He didn’t choose it. He was poor, eking out writing time and trying lots of different stories. That’s the one the market fastened on.

Rachelle says we need to focus on our main goal: to sell books. Now, while all authors love to sell books, I feel it necessary that it’s really the agent’s main goal to sell books. As it should be. Selling books is a wonderful thing because it means people read what we write and it brings in the monies, which enables us to write more books. Because, really and truly, for most writers, our main goal is to write. If my main goal was to sell books, I’d be an agent or a publisher or a bookseller.

I’m not those things because I’m a writer. Writing stories is the most important thing to me.

So, while I think it’s good for us to consider the marketing perspective, in some ways I think this kind of advice is fundamentally unhelpful. It’s how the agents and editors would like us to think and we can try to harmonize with that. But I also think that writers are dancing to a different melody. We’re following the Burn.

There’s rarely anything practical about that.