Crossing (genre) borders

cross-border

When you cross a border, sometimes you don’t know what’s on the other side. Image source: Creative Commons

By Scott Bury
How important is genre to an author? When you start out writing fantasy — or romance, or science fiction, or mystery, or any other category that’s been labelled a “genre” — do you have to stay within it? Is writing something in another genre akin to walking the surface of the moon without a space-suit?In other words, for the 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.

The fantasy genre

My first published work, The Bones of the Earth, qualifies as epic fantasy. I would prefer the term “historical magic realism,” because it has realistic, fictional characters alongside real, historical characters, set in a real time and place, and then adds fantastic or magical elements.Bones Cover FINAL FOR WEB

But for most people, “fantasy” is the shorthand term. My next work, now at the editor, definitely does not fit into that pigeonhole. It’s a comic, erotic parody of Fifty Shades of Gray, called One Shade of Red.

After that, the next book I want to publish 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. Only after that one will I return to the fantasy genre, with Dark Clouds (which I have previewed on this blog as well as on my own). However, this has a contemporary, mostly urban setting, completely different from The Bones of the Earth.

I wonder what this kind of genre hopping might do to my credibility as an author.

I have a feeling that, 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?

“Marketing, publishing, audience expectations” say my imaginary publisher, editor and agent.

Reality

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 into science fiction (The Dark Tower, 11/22/63), 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.

And let’s not ignore some of the members of the Guild of Dreams, like Autumn Birt, who writes fantasy (Born of Water)

Autumn Birt

Autumn Birt

as well as travel (Danger Peligros!)

The big question

What will this do to future sales prospects? Will readers of The Bones of the Earth (not that there are all that many) who check my new publication be disappointed or delighted by One Shade of Red?

Will fans (assuming there are any) of One Shade of Red then 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!

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6 comments on “Crossing (genre) borders

  1. Do you think authors that stay locked in one genre go “stale”? I think I would. Having the freedom to explore different types of stories and finding the best genre fit keeps my creativity humming! Though I suppose someone could argue the opposite: that I’m never master my style if I keep changing it! lol

    The memoir of your father-in-law’s experience as a Russian draftee in WWII sounds amazing! Happy genre hopping, Scott!

  2. I know it runs against industry best practices, but I refuse to be boxed in to one genre. That’s not how my brain works. I have my dystopian series, my standard fantasy series, my tribal dark fantasy trilogy, my horror short stories, my myth-based horror /dark fantasy novels and I tried my hand at urban fantasy romance, paranormal thrillers and science fiction shorts. If this were just about selling my work, I’d be writing chick-lit and erotica and I’d forget about what I want to write. I will write anything, but until someone drops a contract in my lap with an offer too sweet to resist, I’m going to write what I want to write.

  3. David eddings did fantasy all his life apart from Feiry Tale Losers and Reginas Song
    They were all great storys
    I think authors should now and again change so they dont get stale
    Juliette e mckenna fantasy novelest (15) has done steam punk scifi and has some project for the future to come

    Stephen

  4. I think writers should write in whatever genres they want. The challenge is, your readers do come to expect a certain thing from you, and the last thing you want to do is alienate the people who pay money for your work. I don’t think switching around in sub-genres is that big a deal–no one is morally offended by Jim Butcher’s epic fantasy series even though he’s best known for urban fantasy–but you have to be careful going further afield. I’ve heard of a number of other indie authors who, when they want to write something totally different, will write it under a not-so-secret pen name to keep from catching their regular readers off-guard. That’s what I’m planning to do for some of my upcoming work–some YA and some erotica (don’t worry, that will be two different pseudonyms!).
    Great post, Scott. Thanks!

  5. From a purely commercial point of view, authors are best served by sticking to their genre. Only when they have established a loyal following are they usually granted the freedom to explore. The bottom line is, if you genre-hop excessively, don’t expect to do well (financially) any time soon.

    However, in the realm of artistic expression genre-hopping is an exciting and stimulating exercise, for writers and readers alike.

    Good luck!

  6. If I really love an author, I’d be willing to follow them no matter the genre. If they write in a genre I’ve never read, I might be willing to give that genre a try just because an author I liked wrote in it. Who knows, maybe I’ll end up liking that genre and read books by other authors.

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