Monday, November 18, 2013

Getting To Grips With Genre

I used to think that writers were born with a writing skill.  

End of story.  

But I’ve since changed that point of view. 
(Okay, I needed to get that off my chest.)

You may or may not have a talent for writing, but you can develop it. It requires hard work. I’ve also learned that a certain streak of stubbornness coupled with the development of a thick skin really helps.

So the no#1 issue on my mind is - genre. There are a variety of genres to choose from, sci-fi, romance, horror, mystery/suspense and I’ve noticed that most writers find their niche all wrapped in one. To make a comparison, it’s specialist versus the handyman. A specialist is highly skilled. The handy man has knowledge of a number of jobs required around the workplace, like a little bit of plumbing, some electrical, some painting, a little carpentry. A jack-of-all-trades, he has basic knowledge and knows a little something about them all.

In general, writing can be like either, specialist or jack-of-all-trades. Even the great writers will break form or genre from time-to-time. Just look at Fantasy author JK Rowlings of Harry Potter fame, who has recently revealed that she is actually Robert Galbraith, the writer behind The Cuckoo’s Calling, which is a detective novel. The great poet and dramatist, Oscar Wilde, known for his clever, pithy sayings, penned one work of fiction, The Picture Of Dorian Gray.

Reality check. Not just anyone can become a JK Rowlings or Oscar Wilde, even with development. But you can grow as a writer, get published and feel a sense of personal pride... and even become a fairly well-known author... who knows?

It has been said that newbie writers shouldn’t worry too much about genre. They should focus on getting words on the paper. Let the genre manifest itself as the writing develops...

That’s good and well. But we need to think ahead.

I am no master when it comes to the publishing process, but I always say – logic prevails. So further down the line, logic tells me that playing coy with your genre may present a three fold problem. As a reader, I have no idea if it’s a book I like. As a book seller, I have no idea where to put it on the shelf. As a publisher, I have no idea if it’s a genre I represent or if there’s enough of a market to justify the time/money that accompanies the publishing of your book.

A writing buddy once said to me: Write what you want to say. Worry about the genre once it's finished, not earlier.  And who cares if you end up not fitting in any specific genre?  There's always *literary* Or maybe you'll invent a new genre of your own: "In the tradition of the marvellous Writer-In-Transit's unimitable style…."? Ha! Yeah... right...

So back to the question of choosing genre. I’ve heard a writer say that she did not choose a genre, but the genre chose her. Fascinating thought. Maybe I should just continue with my flash fiction pieces and wait for a genre to come knocking on my door?

Knock. knock.

Who’s there?


Horror who?

Eeeeeeeeeeek! It’s you. *takes one look at my face and bolts*

You get the idea?

But to be serious, I’ve always imagined that I would write mystery/suspense. But that’s only because it’s my preferred reading genre. Is that reason enough? I don’t know. Probably is. I do know that I feel comfortable writing in this genre.  

So what if you decided that you wanted to try something in another genre. Where do you start? When stuck for inspiration, anyone can use a picture, word, statement, or even an idiom/proverb as a starting point, for example: “between the devil and the deep blue sea.”

Now, if you want to create a story from that, do you take it literally and write a non-fiction about the freedom of choice and the difficulty that lies therein? Or maybe a sci-fi story featuring parallel universes and a devil attempting to take over a planet? What about a Seussical-styled tale filled with rhythm and rhyme.  Or a fantasy about  merfolk and a devil? Or a steampunk adventure with a steam-powered boat? What about a romantic suspense/thriller, involving a devilish rogue, which takes place aboard a luxury liner? The possibilities are endless. A simple prompting word or phrase can take you to so many different places. You need to begin to see the world from differing perspectives.

So does that mean I’ll be writing a horror or sci-fi story some time in the future? Probably not. The point is that we need to stretch the imagination... experiment... get out of your comfort zone... keep an open mind... it’s not only about genre, but also about growth!

Develop different ideas. 

Put them together. 

Your story starts to take shape.

That’s a large part of the growth process...  and the essence of good story-telling.


Susan Gourley/Kelley said...

Great post, Michelle. I write in a few different genres but I read in many different ones. I hope to expand my writing into some new areas but I admit to feeling unsure about it.

Alex J. Cavanaugh said...

That was cool seeing all the possibilities with that one line.
I write what I enjoy reading and always imagined I would write science fiction or fantasy. And I'll most likely stick with that.

Robin said...

This is the second post today that I have read about Knowing Your Genre. There are MANY possibilities out there and we do tend to write what we read (so read as much as possible in your genre). Writing is often like a map and if you don't know your start and stop place, as well as how you're traveling, it makes the trip difficult. There are some things you MUST know... and your genre is one of them!

Pat Hatt said...

Kiddie books, rhyming posts and sci fi, yep, cat is kinda scattered about lol

shelly said...

Excellent post, Michelle.

Robyn Campbell said...

Heyya pal! :-) Loved reading your post. The growth process. I've spent a looong time in this. Hoping it pays off soon. Kinda getting depressed about it all. Thinkin' maybe I should just write for me. And end the torturous querying.

I agree with you that you can use anything as a starter for a story. Even one word. Poets do it all the time. (Been studying poetry)

Great job Michelle! Hugs and squeezes pal. :-)

J.L. Campbell said...

Hey, Michelle,
I like the thought of going with the flow and developing ideas as they come.

I started out writing ya fiction because someone on my writing network thought I should write more than short stories.

Then, because romance is my favourite genre, I tried that too. I did the studying of the genre after I started writing. Backward, I know, but some of us tend to do things the hard way. :)

Lynda R Young as Elle Cardy said...

Keeping an open mind is definitely key to finding your place. And growth is a definite factor too. Great post, Michelle

Michelle Wallace said...

@Susan - Different genres? Wow. You belong to that rare species...
I think I can count on one hand, those people within our blogging circles who are multi-genre writers. Though I'm sure there are those who I'm not familiar with.

@Alex - And you do it well. As they say, why fix something that isn't broken...

@Robin - Thanks for the reminder.

@Pat - Scattered cat? We all know that. LOL

@Shelly - Thank you. Have a great day and enjoy the loppity lopping.

@Robyn C - The learning never ends, which is a good thing, right? Because the growth comes with it...
Poetry studies? Go girl! That is cool. (Confession: poetry is my first love, but it has since been ousted by flash fiction...)

@Joy - I'm wondering what's better, studying all those writing guides first and then writing; or just writing what's on your heart and mind, and take it from there? Sometimes 'backwards' does have its advantages, and I'm sure you can bear me out here?

@Lynda - The only thing is that keeping an open mind, and the possibility of the "writerly unknown", is a scary thing! But also quite exciting...

Hilary Melton-Butcher said...

Hi Michelle .. I used to think authors start out with an idea and write their story ... and then 'worry' about the what next ..

Interesting post - as there are so many different genres out there ...

the anthologies are good places to whet one's appetite as to reading .. and blogging certainly opened up the steam-punk genre to me ..

Good luck with your writing .. Cheers Hilary

Unknown said...


Wonderful post! I'm still undecided on mine, and will most likely just write what comes to mind and market it for that specific genre. At first, I chose MG/YA because my flash fiction and shorts had that tone to it...but my longer fiction and novels have a definite adult feel to them.

Another novelist who changed genres: Ian Fleming. James Bond and Chitty Chitty Bang Bang creator.

M.L. Swift, Writer

J.L. Campbell said...

I don't think there's a better way, but basically what works for us individually. I basically learned on the job and then read everything I could to improve. I guess most of us start out that way.

I say jokingly all the time that writers shouldn't go for a novel until they know what's involved in writing a book. But that is based on my own experience. My first book took me about 6 months to write and then nearly 5 years to edit. :) And it's the same with all the novels I wrote in year 1 - 3.

Couldn't do without that period though, cause it served as my apprenticeship. What is hard going is just slogging though that first edit realizing what a terrible job I did writing the book. :D Luckily, I'm almost done with those early years books.

Elsie Amata said...

I don't have any genre in mind as I write. I write what I love and hope one day it will get published. That probably means I live in a fantasy world =P

Julie Flanders said...

My biggest problem is I never know what genre I am writing in. I feel like both of my books are a mash-up of genres. Kind of frustrating sometimes!
Excellent post, Michelle.

Crystal Collier said...

Love it! I've always been of the opinion you should dabble. Try on a little bit of every genre. Ply your hand at writing something in each realm and let the writing tell you to which area you're most aptly suited. It's like college. How many people only check out one subject before picking a degree?

Murees Dupè said...

This is a really great post and you make so many valid points. Funny enough, I write romance, but I read so many other genre's. I hope you find the genre you like writing best.

Suze said...

Michelle, this was a wonderful post. Not only was it smack-dab on a topic that I have been turning and turning and turning over in my mind but you wrote it in such a way that I almost felt like I was listening to a podcast! I felt like I could really 'hear' you.

Jemi Fraser said...

Great post! I spent almost 3 years trying writing in a variety of genres to see which one fits me best. Lots of fun as I love lots of genres :)

Melissa said...

Agree with Alex. That was cool seeing all the possibilities from one line.

Very thought-provoking post. Kudos. :)

klahanie said...

Hi Michelle,

As promised, I'm here to check out your "I Was Seeking Gary" post.

Some very interesting points you make and I shall take notes.

However, I do any kind of genre that I fancy at any particular moment. If I don't feel like writing, Penny the Jack Russell dog and modest internet superstar, takes over. She does, just like me, variety. Lots of fun and we never think of specialising.

Nice one and I'm going now...


Chancelet said...

Generally, writing is hard enough without being stuck with the idea that you have to write within a particular genre. When I started my first book, I had no idea where it would fit either, other than literary fiction. I hadn't heard of Christian speculative fiction until way after completing it. Luckily Christian speculative is kind of a catchall for other than ordinary Christian fiction... sic-fi, horror, fantasy. So I'm wide open, in my eyes! Writer’s Mark

Michelle Wallace said...

@Hilary - Steampunk is also brand new to me. I'm still in the process of 'wrapping my brain around it...'

@M.L.Swift - Sounds like you may fall into the multi-genre category? I remember the Chitty Chitty Bang Bang song... very catchy tune...

@Joy - Thanks for the clarification.

@Elsie - Isn't that the way it's supposed to be? Maybe there's too much of a fuss about genre. Shouldn't we just focus on producing the best story that we can?

@Julie F - Then I don't feel too bad.

@Crystal - I like your train of thought. Dabbling sounds like the way to go.

@Murees - I'll just experiment and see where it leads me.

@Suze - This has been on my mind for a while... glad you 'heard' me...
The hybrid genre makes me wonder what the future holds with regards to the 'genre debate'?

@Jemi - I'm all for fun! So I'll play around with a few...

@Melissa - Thanks Melissa.

@Gary - Variety is the spice of life (so they say)... have fun taking notes!

@Nancy - Sounds like you've found your niche.

Stina said...

Great post, Michelle. I tend to write what I enjoy reading. Right now it's NA contemporary romance. Tomorrow it could be something else.

Bevimus said...

On the first point: I lived under that distorted belief for a LONG time, but mine was universal. I.E. if you're going to do anything well it's because you have an almost migical innate ability to do so. It's only been later in life that i've finally realized that ANYTHING done well takes incredibly hard work for a LONG time to get that way. Lesson to live by, for sure.

On the second point: I know for me, that if I think about publishing and everything that comes with it (like categorizing within a genre) it will outright poison me. The draft has to be the draft- not the thing you're marketing or planning book tours or radio shows about. Otherwsie the words won't come because you'll be editing before your fingers hit the keyboard.

I agree with those other authors: write what you need to write. Worry about genre way down the road when you're publishing.

Carol Kilgore said...

Genre. Just a mention of the word and I cringe. I would LOVE to write solidly within a genre. So far, that has eluded me.

Most of my readers call my novels romantic suspense. But according to romance rules, they are not.

If an old-school mystery reader picks up one of my books, chances are they won't enjoy it because there will be a love story. And most mystery lovers want just a mystery.

So I continue with what I like. And I know that readers who like my books really like them a lot.

Knowing I give some people the books they love makes everything else worthwhile.

Sherry Ellis said...

Most writers are comfortable with one or two genres. I think that's natural. But it would be kind of fun to experiment writing outside the box!

Anonymous said...

I think about the story first and genre later. I write in different genres since I have it in me.