Wednesday 28 October 2009


I had a question the other day from a blog-reader and I thought it might apply to several of you, or at least that you'd be interested in the answer. So I asked if I could reproduce it here. And of course the answer was yes.

The email started with all sorts of thanks, which I gratefully accepted, since it's frankly all I'm going to get except the occasional [too occasional] chocolate gift. And then it went on:

"But to the point: the reason I'm mailing you is because I have a question. It developed after reading your most recent post (A True Story of a Stuggling Writer), though I've had it for as long as I've been writing; I guess I just never thought of asking. If it's a ridiculously stupid question, then I'm really sorry, but nevertheless:

In your post, you said: BS is serious about her writing, as she should be. The fact that she crosses genres tells me so  -  she just loves to write and is doing it from the heart.

So let's say a published writer has three works in progress, and each is a different genre. One is horror, one is contemporary romance, the other is fantasy. And each is completely different from the last.

My question is, would a publisher be willing to publish all these stories by the same author? Aren't authors usually encouraged to write under a single genre. I'm thinking of most of the famous authors I know. Like Meg Cabot, for example, has written a multitude of books, but they all contain romance. Would it be possible for an author to go from complete romance to complete fantasy? Like jumping from Pride and Prejudice to Lord of the Rings?

Again, I'm sorry if this is an insanely weird question. Hopefully it won't get you crabbity."
Course it didn't get me crabbity. It takes a lot more than that.

Firstly, let me say that although I write for teenagers, my books very much cross genres  -  YA fiction includes the same genres as adult fiction. So, I have written historical, futuristic, psychological and crime thrillers, light-hearted (though that was for younger kids) and adventure. And let's not even go down the Thomas the bloody Tank Engine route. Or track.

So, on that basis it would appear not to matter. But before I go on let me say that sometimes even then (as in, even granted that I'm reasonably doing okayish with my skittery bumble-bee approach) it doesn't feel particularly sensible. The disadvantages are that someone who likes my historical fiction may be surprised not to like my other stuff and then decide not to try my next book. Now, this must not be a problem because my publishers seem to be equally happy whatever I produce, so I just say nothing and keep my fingers crossed. I rather like the fact that no one knows what I'm going to do next, but it may not be fabulous for my sales.

BUT, for adult writers it's a lot harder. When adult writers cross genres, they tend to do it after being successful in one genre, and / or may use two different names. Think of Iain Banks / Iain M Banks [not much disguise there, Iain...], and John Banville /Benjamin Black.

In view of that, it would be very inadvisable for an unpublished author to offer three simultaneous different genres. If the writing is utterly stupendous in all three, the publisher / agent may be interested, but no more so than if it was stupendous in just one: they still must build a brand / name for you and this can't practically be done in three different markets, because that's what it is. Even though many / most readers read in different genres, as an intended market each group is discrete. That's discrete, not discreet, before you become confused.

The fact that you write exuberantly and passionately is great and will stand you in good stead but you should, in my view, decide which is your most sellable one, and go with that. Then, when that's contracted, hit 'em with something else. They are most likely to say, "Hang on, we need to build you as hot-shot crime writer, first  -  give us a chance." But you can still do that other writing later, perhaps under a different name, perhaps for a different publisher. But possibly same agent.

Ah, I hear you say, you said "possibly the same agent". So, can't I hit the agent with all three to start with? I'd suggest not, not until you've hooked her / him with the brilliant saleability of one of your books. You could say that you've got two other books written which you'd be happy for her to see. But major on one.

Any input from anyone? Anyone disagree? Of course, there will be exceptions but exceptions don't prove rules: they are just very irritating exceptions. I hate exceptions. They are untidy.


Dan Holloway said...

This is a subject we writers don't get enough advice on, so it's a very helpful post.

When I was still subbing, I was very anxious about the cross-genre thing after reading an interview with the agent Eve White, who said that if she sold a book for a new client, she would ensure they produced more of the same.

As an author, unless you happen to be that rare and lucky creature who is a genreholic, that is, quite honestly, a terrifying thing to hear (it reminds one of the music industry horror stories from the 80s about artists being locked into 10 album deals). The main problem is that "more of the same" is inimical to a new author finding their voice.

The rather unpalatable truth that comes out of this (unpalatable for those writers who, like the great man said, want it all and want it now) is that it doesn't necessarily help you to hit paydirt with novel one. Or two. Or three. Or possibly even six or seven. I'm working simultaneously on 5 and 6 and both are different from anything else I've done before (literary romance with a 50 year-old female protag and a novelisation of an urban gothic flash-fiction collection). And I'm only just beginning to find my voice. I completely understand why publishers would want to know what they're getting with an author. and for that reason, if a writer is going that route, I can't advise strongly enough that they don't expect - or even hope - to "make it" until they've written a lot, in a lot of different styles, and got it out of their system. Rather like life, in fact. It's also a healthy dose of realism - it's very unlikely the firts few books will be good enough anyway. adn if you're going to have a career as a writer you'll have to write a LOT anyway, so what real harm does waiting a novel or two do?

Nicola Morgan said...

Thanks, Dan. Very important points about practising writing by just writing, and not expecting or even desiring everything to be published. Of course we are desperate for the book we're writing NOW to be snapped up and propelled to success - because otherwise it would be hard to keep up the motivation to write it. But patience and reality and the real desire to make it perfect, more than published, are so important. Thanks for your excellent input.

Unknown said...

I'd have to agree, with most really famous people, they're known for a specific genre. Think Stephen King - Horror, though I admit I adore his other stuff much more, whatever genre they actually fit in...

But he would have established himself in horror before devling into the other stuff, which still has oddly freakish elements, but not out to scare you ones.

I agree with Dan too though, I've only written one book so far. It was/is horrid. Lol, I don't think I'll ever go back to it. It did propel me to go in a completely different genre direction for attempt two though. I started rather wild eyed, with high hopes of blowing away the publishers with attempt one, and ended up being depressed by the result myself. You need to play around a bit before settling down into a genre, otherwise, how will you figure out which one suits you best?

Tim said...

Re submitting different genres to the same agent - not a good idea, obviously, if the agent specialises in a particular genre. Even if not, most will have their own strengths and weaknesses (and contacts).

Just my 2p worth :-)

Beleaguered Squirrel said...

I think there's a difference between crossing genres, and writing simultaneously in several different genres.

The books I write are hard to categorise because each book contains elements of many different genres. This causes problems for agents and publishers, because they don't know how to describe my work (although thankfully the term "contemporary fiction" can work quite well as a catch-all). But I've written three books now, and although they all lean slightly more towards different genres, they're all quite obviously written by me. They have more in common than they have things which set them apart.

I think there are several successful authors whose work crosses genres and is relatively hard to categorise, but there are a lot fewer (I think) who write successfully in several distinct genres, or not without building a name in one of them first.

Still, having said all that, as you all know I've struggled so much I've given up the whole thing, so I'm hardly a shining example!

Dolly said...

I completely agree. Since I have started writing, I have tried several genres, mostly the ones I read frequently. It was important at the time because I was still figuring out what I enjoy writing.

Now it's down to three genres. But earlier this year when I decided to stop faffing about and devote serious effort to my writing, I came to a decision that having several drafts going in several different genres was not very practical because I could only approach an agent with one. So after thinking about it, I decided to make Fantasy my priority, because I LOVE IT THE MOST. My other two genres (science fiction and Indian Fiction) can wait, though not forgotten.

I don't ignore the ideas I get for them, but I don't actively work on them.

Also, with science fiction I am slightly more lenient because a lot of fantasy authors are also science fiction authors and it seems to be accepted practice., I do manage to get my Indian Fiction for publishing, I intend to publish it under different name anyway, so not confusing for readers.

Beleaguered Squirrel said...

Dan said this:

"I can't advise strongly enough that [writers] don't expect - or even hope - to "make it" until they've written a lot, in a lot of different styles, and got it out of their system. ... It's very unlikely the first few books will be good enough anyway. And if you're going to have a career as a writer you'll have to write a LOT anyway, so what real harm does waiting a novel or two do?"

This is a brilliant point!

I might even print it out and stick it on my wall. It's also made me think that with my current WIP, instead of being in some great rush to get it published, could be thought of purely as a training exercise, with no intention to publish. And even a couple more after that.

With any other profession, you have to practise and perfect before you get to earn money. And yet writers often hope/expect that their very first efforts will hit the big time. Why on earth should this be so? I guess part of the problem is that a novel is a large piece of work which takes an awful lot of effort, and it's hard to lay it aside and start again. In some ways I wonder whether I would have been a lot better off if my first novel hadn't been published, and I'd been forced to write several before getting anywhere.

Administrator said...

Hmm, i'm currently subbing an adult paranormal chick lit, and have just started a teen paranormal book. So i guess this might be a problem if an agent took me on on the basis of my adult work.

Mind you, having just hit 24 rejections, i don't suppose it's worth pontificating about what'll happen if i get that deal:)

Daniel Blythe said...

Well, I have hopped genres, but it's slightly different. I established myself in a well-known series first, went off to do three novels of my own (all broadly "literary fiction" although one slightly darker than the others and marketed in some places as crime), and now I've just done another novel in the series. Plus four non-fiction books.

What has helped me through all this is having a very approachable agent with lots of different contacts and a willingness to give things a go. She has rarely said, "No, I can't sell that." You can't buy that kind of faith; it comes from trust and being on the same wavelength.

Lynnette Labelle said...

I agree. The publisher needs to know how to market you and your readers need to understand what to expect. Years ago, a best selling author who normally writes thrillers tried a sci-fi slant. Unfortunately, it wasn't obvious on the back of the book, so I bought it. Man, was I ever disappointed when I discovered the characters were beings that flew. I tried to get into the story, but couldn't. Sci-fi just isn't my thing. Now, I'm hesitant about this author. At least if it were obvious on the back cover, I'd have known not to purchase that book. Of course, that's the publisher's fault, not the author's, but still... Knowing he doesn't always write what I like makes me nervous as a buyer.

I've never heard of this happening, so I don't think it's normal. Still, the experience has made me aware of how important it is to remember our readers' expectations.

Lynnette Labelle

Lilithas said...

Thank you for this post. Again, it answered so many questions.

Especially how you made a point that you CAN write in multiple genres - just as long as you make a name for yourself in ONE genre first.
With the use of a pseudonym, in some cases.

I also think Dan's comment was really helpful. It kind of struck home for me, too. We shouldn't always write to be published; sometimes we can do it simply because we love to write.

So thank you, Nicola, and thank you for your input, Dan!

Nicola Morgan said...

BS - you're right: there's a difference between the two, but both are a problem for the unpublished writer, or for the writer not established in one genre. The things that all writers have to realise is that someone has to sell the books and that is not easy. There are many links in the chain and every link, frankly, is imperfect, right down to the readers - who are only imperfect because they are human and only have so many hours in the day, so many seconds to make their reading decisions.

It cannot be said often enough: if we want to be published, we must not only write a good book well, we must also write a book which can be sold, aka marketed, aka put somewhere on a shelf where a reader will find it, aka a shelf with a category name on it...

David John Griffin said...

Quote: "It cannot be said often enough: if we want to be published, we must not only write a good book well, we must also write a book which can be sold, aka marketed, aka put somewhere on a shelf where a reader will find it, aka a shelf with a category name on it..."

So true Nicola; it took me a while for that obvious penny to drop. As you've mentioned before, publishing is a business; at the end of the day they have to recoup their money and make a profit from their investment. A book needs to be categorized as part of the marketing process.

I wrote a post on my blog about genre, if I may post the link please:

One last thing, I think that different genres for a writer of YA fiction is much more easily accepted than for writers of adult fiction. I believe this because younger people have yet to make up their minds about a particular genre that they'll stick with.

emmadarwin said...

Excellent advice - as is Dan's point about realising that part of finding your voice may well be about settling down into your own space, after trying all sorts of things. With enough understanding of craft and art and technique, it can be possible to find a way of writing which is true to you but also satisfies - perhaps even transcends - the usual demands of the genre.

It does seem to be true that the more literary you count as, the less genre-bound you seem to have to be. At the commercial end of things it's more crucial that a book can reliably do what it says on the tin (unlike your experience, Lynette, where the tin was obviously lying a bit!).