Be a jack-of-all-trades
Why it may benefit you to get out of your comfort zone and write in many genres
Published: June 22, 2010
|Ever wonder what it might be like to glide down the Amazon River and pen a destination piece? Or dream up a character—a corporate executive, mother of two, who chucks it all to sail around the world—and watch her come alive on your pages? Or go sleuthing on a beach, your toes warmed by the sand, and sniff out clues for a mystery plot?|
Fun. Fervor. Challenge. A mental workout. Any of these can ignite creative urges. For me, a passion for cooking put me on the writing path. The idea of producing a regional Indian cookbook, which didn’t exist in the marketplace, had been burning inside me a long time. I’d be satisfied to get just that one book out, I told myself. But how to begin? OK, I could put together a book proposal and show it to literary agents. With that in mind, I signed up for an evening nonfiction-writing class at a local university.
Little did I know that the muse is temperamental, showing up when least expected, and often appearing with her own agenda. In the first few classes, I began to master the nuts and bolts of magazine-article writing and couldn’t get enough of it. Temporarily, I set aside the book proposal and began whipping up magazine pieces in earnest for local and regional outlets. Over time, I sent queries to bigger, more prestigious national publications and began receiving positive responses.
Would I ever return to my book proposal?
Yes, I would. There came a time when, with the confidence I’d gained as a magazine writer and writing clips I’d acquired, I returned to the task of outlining my book. Once finished, I managed to attract the attention of a literary agent. Eventually, my dream cookbook was published, and I followed with several more.
Ever since, I have experimented with new genres. (The word genre, in this context, simply means a category of work that embodies a common form, style and set of conventions. At one time, genres broadly consisted of prose, poetry and drama. In modern times, the term encompasses finer divisions such as mystery, thriller, literary, science fiction, memoir, romance, business/career, parenting, pop culture and more.) Genres I’ve branched out into include novels, short stories and essays. Although each demands a special type of expertise, I’ve found that hopping from one to the other keeps my income sources varied and my mind fresh.
Greg Bear, author of Mariposa and City at the End of Time, has taken a similar approach with his career. “Over the years,” he says, “I’ve visited almost all the neighborhoods of imaginative literature—from surrealism to hard science fiction. Each has its own freedoms and responsibilities, and I see no reason to be stuck in one area.” To add to his already illustrious list of accomplishments, he’s worked in journalism and criticism, and written scientific papers, posters and presentations.
For Gigi Rosenberg, poet, memoirist and author of the upcoming Random House title The Artist’s Guide to Grant Writing, ideas come in a specific form. “For example, I start hearing words in my head that sound like a poem,” she says. “Or the story starts writing itself and it already sounds like an essay.”
Not everyone responds to the muse’s call the same way. Except for an occasional magazine article, Aaron Elkins writes only fiction—mysteries and thrillers at that. “And there’s really nothing else I want to try,” he says. “Travel writing? Yes, that’d be fun, but I already do it: Researching my settings has taken me to Tahiti, the Amazon, St. Petersburg, and many other places, all of which are pretty thoroughly described in the books. Food writing? I challenge readers to get through any novel of mine without finding three or four (or more) detailed descriptions of several local foods and restaurants. Add all of that to the fun of the forensic and art research that are required, and why in the world would I want to do anything else?”
Many writers, however, fantasize about working in different genres. “If you have the skill, passion, time and talent to do more than one thing well, then by all means,” says Stephany Evans, president of FinePrint Literary Management. “Regardless of what you might like to do, if you hope to sell, the quality has to be there.”
If you’re itching to leave your comfort zone and sail into unknown waters, consider the following tips.
Start small. Well into my career, I received a call for submissions of a mystery-short-fiction piece for an anthology Akashic Books was putting together for its Noir series. My first reaction was: “It’s not for me. I write literary-commercial novels. I don’t do mysteries, and I attempt few short stories.”
But the notion would not let go. I had a chance to try my hand at something new. Why not give it a shot? I be-gan penning a mystery story, and the process proved thrilling. Not long after that, my submission, “Promised Tulips,” was published in Seattle Noir. I am now expanding that story into novel form.
The strategy here is to start on the ground floor and climb higher. Suppose a nonfiction book idea haunts you but you find it daunting. To make your life easier and test the idea’s relevancy in the market, you might first put out a few articles on the topic. (You’ll query editors first, of course, and get a go-ahead before puzzling out the entire piece.)
Suppose you succeed in getting that work into print. You’ll then be able to attach the published pieces as clips to your book proposal. That’ll prove to an agent/editor that you have related experience under your belt and, just as important, that a demand for the topic exists in the marketplace.
In the area of novel writing, Elkins advises, “Start simple. Don’t give your killer two motives when one motive is enough. Don’t come up with a dozen possible villains when five or six are enough. (And they are.) Don’t start off with a complicated backstory or over-complex relations between the characters. Trust me, your novel will complicate itself as you write it.”
Do some catching up. Each genre is a universe of its own, with rules for style, diction, atmosphere and length, and its readers have certain expectations. A short story demands that you limit scenes and characters. Dialogue is crucial to a stage play. In a romance novel, relationships are at the center.
Before hopping to any new field, research it thoroughly. (See the sidebars for resources.) Read as much as you can. “The usual requirements for all good writing go into each type: enthusiasm, ability, insight and an awareness of what’s come before,” Bear says. “You don’t necessarily have to follow any rules, but it’s helpful to have read broad selections from what other authors have achieved, the territory they’ve explored, and the stories they’ve told.”
Analyze the works of authors who have been commercially successful in that genre, as well as those who are considered masters. Deconstruct what you read. Keep a pen and a notepad handy. Read a page or two (or a chapter) and scribble notes to yourself. What was the author trying to accomplish in these pages? Was it successful and, if so, why? With fiction, consider: How was a new character introduced? What is the ratio of dialogue to exposition? What emotional impact was made and how?
Network at conferences and solicit advice from veterans. Know where the publishing industry is heading with your particular specialty. A word of caution here. “If there was only one tip I could pass on to new fiction writers, it would be this,” Elkins says. “Don’t go around blabbing about your book! There is a magic, an energy, an intensity that needs to go into your creative work, not into telling people about it.”
How do you pick out a genre? Much depends on your taste, ambition and motivations. Some people write to earn supplemental income, or seek recognition, or build careers. There are many genres. If you find yourself adrift in an ocean of possibilities, ask yourself:
• Am I truly interested in the genre?
• Do I have access to information/ex-perts/training?
• Can I realistically try this at this time?
• What do I like to read?
• What do I really want to write about?
• What am I trying to achieve?
Are there economic advantages to this? Common wisdom says: Don’t put all your eggs in one basket. An investment broker tells you not to commit to one asset class. Similarly, you might want to write across many genres, avoiding the possibility of a single source of income drying up. Case in point: Western novels. This genre, set in the American frontier, was once a huge seller. But as the public’s reading preferences shifted, its popularity fell off.
The publishing industry has its ups and downs. A magazine can fold. Book topics go in and out of style. Lesser-known genres soar to prominence.
“The economic advantage of writing in many forms is that you diversify how you make a living,” Rosenberg says. “It seems nonfiction is easier to sell. But I wouldn’t want to write only how-to books. However, if I only wrote memoir, I’d have less writing out in the world. And selling writing, in any form, is exciting and motivates my writing in all genres.”
Bear adds, “Flexibility is certainly an advantage in an unpredictably changing marketplace. But the economics of any sort of storytelling are dicey at best. I’m most worried about writers who refuse to stretch their wings and fly over the fences.”
Elkins, however, doesn’t feel a similar need. “I’m lucky enough to have found something that I love to do, find constantly challenging, and can actually make a living at,” he says.
What type of support might you expect? How receptive are agents and editors to an author’s experiments? Be aware that agents have their specialties. If you currently have an agent, inquire whether she’ll represent a new line of work you wish to pursue.
“My agent has always supported trying to break into new markets and finding new readers,” Bear says. “There’s so much compartmentalization in New York publishing that editors develop very little experience outside their narrow niches. In my career, some editors have been punished by superiors for de-viating from their assigned subject area, or trying to promote books to other di-visions in-house. And that makes them feel vulnerable when they’re given a work that might not fit into one of those niches. Editors who do not have the wholehearted support of their company are in a very awkward position.”
How might your readers react? Some authors fear losing their dedicated readers if they were to switch genres. Others attempt to build a new readership. Some use a pseudonym.
“Readers have been remarkably flexible in allowing me to try new subjects,” Bear says. “I’ve received a lot of support from my science-fiction readers for so-called thrillers like Quantico and Mariposa. The readers, I think, will sniff out good books, whatever the subject.”
What are some pitfalls? “None,” Bear says, “except perhaps failing at many things. But better to fail at many things than to fail at only one!”
Says Rosenberg, “The pitfall of trying too many things is that you never get good at one form. Being a beginner has its advantages in that you don’t have preconceived notions of how a poem ‘should’ sound, for example.”
In the end, follow your heart and don’t jump into a new field simply be-cause it’s economically profitable or a source of new stimulation. “You shouldn’t write what you don’t enjoy,” Bear says. “The only rule of thumb is to write about what you love, and write about what scares you. Those stories will ring true, if you tell them truly.”
Here’s a sampling of how-to books on specific aspects of writing.
• The Elements of Story: Field Notes on Nonfiction Writing by Francis Flaherty
• The Fire in Fiction: Passion, Purpose, and Techniques to Make Your Novel
• Great by Donald Maass
• How to Write a Book Proposal by Michael Larsen
• How to Write Irresistible Query Letters by Lisa Collier Cool
• The Plot Thickens: 8 Ways to Bring Fiction to Life by Noah Lukeman
• Self-Editing for Fiction Writers by Renni Browne and Dave King
Bharti Kirchner, author of four novels and four cookbooks, also writes articles, essays and short stories. She lives in Seattle.
(This article appeared in the July 2010 issue of The Writer.)