Genre Interruptus

“I wrote this book, but I wanna write that book…”

This was the gist of a conversation I had with a friend of mine who wrote a nonfiction book. It sold pretty well, and she was getting ready to drop the bomb on her editor and agent that she was going to write fiction – her first love. I can’t say as I blame her because I love writing fiction. It’s a marvelous place where I can let my imagination run wild and make up people and plots ’til the cows come home – or the beagle runs out of tequila and limes.

Genre Interruptus

I wasn’t too sure how her agent and editor would greet this news because they all worked so hard to establish her readership, which is a specialized population with specific issues. I know how I’d react if I were her editor. I’d scream and carefully eye the bottle of Jim Beam because I would expect her to write another couple books in this same arena in order to solidify her readership and become a leading authority on her given topic. News that she now wants to write a horse story would make my brain explode.

Genre Interruptus isn’t about just her. It means that she’s abandoning all the hard work everyone put in to establish her readership and exposure to the marketplace, all because she wants to move on to “greener pastures.” The question is, is it really greener? From an agent’s or editor’s perspective, she hasn’t fully established her footprint in the reading public’s eye, so she will be starting over from scratch in gaining a readership. It’s unlikely her new readers of her nonfiction will follow her into FictionLand because they bought her first book for a specific reason.

And this will make her agent faint and her editor suck the tailpipe of a Ford Camero.

John Grisham was an internationally known author with a boatload of lawyer books under his belt before he crossed the road to write YA. He can pull off Genre Interruptus because he has millions of fans who will follow him into the Gates of Hell.

What kind of pull do you have with your one book?

For my friend, the answer was, “not much.” Her agent wasn’t supportive of her fiction idea and declined to represent her book. Her editor was of the same opinion.

Let’s face it, starting over is hard because audience may not follow you – especially if you’re going from nonfiction to fiction, or vice versa. Committing Genre Interruptus means that you need to have a strong promotion plan because there’s a risk you’ll lose the support of your agent and editor.

I sympathize with my friend’s desire to write in a different genre, but I also understand the headaches of the other side of the desk. I know what it’s like to push an author’s platform and aid them in gaining a readership only to tell me they want to write fiction. The bottom of my heart falls out to the floor when I think of all the hard work that went into their book, and how none of it will probably make a difference if they change genres.

Plan Your Career

It’s imperative to plan your writing career so you don’t disappoint yourself and those who have worked long and hard to make you a success. My friend thought that by writing her nonfiction she was establishing her audience. She found out that what she was establishing was her publishing credit.

Of course, we all love a publishing credit because it establishes a verifiable track record. However, if you wrote a fantasy and you’re querying me with a book that deals with Death and Coping, I know we have to establish a whole new readership.  This means that new book better be amazing.

So plan your career carefully and intentionally, and consider how others within the industry will view your Genre Interruptus.

20 Responses to Genre Interruptus

  1. NinjaFingers says:

    What about related genres? I have science fiction AND fantasy books on the table.

  2. Are you published in either of those genres? Do you have an established readership in one genre over another? If you write in both genres and are unpublished, then I don’t see a problem because the agent or editor knows there isn’t an established readership yet.

  3. Laura W. says:

    Would writing fiction under a pseudonym help her in this situation? She would have to build up a whole new reading platform for that “author,” but at least she wouldn’t confuse her existing readership.

  4. A pen name might work, but that idea didn’t mollify her agent or editor for the same reason – no established readership. Mainstream fiction is so hard to sell these days, and neither felt her writing was up to the challenge.

  5. Pelotard says:

    Ninja, SF and fantasy are closely related and the readership overlaps to a great extent. I don’t think it would present a major problem. How many SF aficionados have never heard of Tolkien? How many people who dress up as orcs over the weekends have never heard of Asimov? A handful, sure, but only a handful. And look at Star Wars – basically Tolkien with spaceships.

    Caveat – I’m no agent or publisher. And personally I love Vance’s SF but can’t stand his fantasy. But these two are frequently lumped together on the shelves of bookstores, so I think you’re fine 🙂

  6. Dan Holloway says:

    This is why I will remain a self-publisher. I would never want to do that to someone who’s put their faith in and their work behind me but I know myself well enough to know that whilst I will always have a core body or work I keep producing (yeah, the unmarketabke odd performance-based literary stuff), I could never keep to a genre. And I know that’s “bad for business”, so I’ll keep it my problem

  7. Hmmmm…back to the same confusing subject….

    I can see where going from non-fiction to fiction might be an issue, but is it different/easier to establish a platform in fiction first, and then pitch a memoir?

    What about your comment from your post, When Friendships Change – “I don’t have any easy answers except to suggest writing something completely different. Fantasy, SF, romance, mainstream fiction, YA, whatever helps you grow and learn about pacing, flow, organization, transitions, syntax, dialog, character development, voice.”

    Does that still stand? Sorry, I’m a confused Newbie. 🙂

  8. Dennis Rymarz says:

    This topic is very interesting. Like many aspiring authors, my agent and I have several projects going — some of them not even remotely related — and while my initial attitude was: “Hey, whatever book sells first…a deal’s a deal,” my agent kinda reigned me in a bit.

    She taught me to think long-term and to approach each project as if it will be a multi-book deal — not out of arrogance, but as a practical way to plan a career.

    In a way it’s like an actor getting typecast, and it can be a double-edge sword. On the one hand it would stink to be categorized as a specific type of actor qualified for only specific kinds of roles. At the same time, this particular situation means that the actor (or author) was extremely effective and reflects a certain degree of success.

    So, I do try to consider all of my options and I do organize/prioritize projects differently now and I DO attempt to think of things in the context of a bigger picture. But, at the end of the day when the cows come home, I still can’t figure out the best way to go: the story about my family’s brush with terrorists followed by the definitive guide to male waxing…or the other way around?

  9. Donna: Sorry to be confusing to you! My bad. My previous post referred to unpublished authors who had spent years trying to get their first book published. My suggestion was to try something different, which won’t make an impact because they’re unpublished.

    Today’s post refers to published authors who have worked to get an established readership in a particular genre and is basically starting over by trying to establish a whole new readership. Does that clear things up?

    Hi Dennis – since you’re unpublished, your options aren’t written in stone, which gives you a lot more flexibility. It’s good you have the advice of your agent to help guide you. However, once a book sells, you begin to be more “typecast,” so it’s great that you’re being thoughtful and careful about your career. Good luck to you!

  10. April Moore says:

    This post made me want to cry. My first love is fiction, too and my current nonfiction (that is under contract with a pub) sort of just fell in my lap. I set aside my humorous women’s fiction ms to write a serious nonfiction about a prison, but planned on going back to the other one. I guess I’ll be writing about prisons for a while . . . thanks for the reality check. Perhaps the beagle will share a margarita with me?

  11. if the writing for the novel was stellar would that make a difference? And do you think this applies to writing for children across the age groups – for example writing picture books, and middle grade and YA novels?

  12. Hi April. I’m sorry if I depressed you – that’s never my intent. My goal is to make writers aware of how people on the other side of the desk think, and why they think the way they do. It’s possible that your agent won’t have a problem with you crossing into another genre.

    Remember that nothing is written in stone, and you may be one who is unaffected by this. I’m just sayin’ that it’s out there and writers should be aware of it and conduct their literary career accordingly. Good luck to you!

  13. I had the same question as Melinda. It seems the real issue here may not be readership but quality of the work. There are a lot of authors writing for multiple houses in different genres. But you have to write fast and write well to accomplish that.

    I can, as well, see the editor declining a fiction title if it doesn’t fit with her nonfiction work list. And I know agents decline to rep a book if it’s outside the genres they’re familiar with — and that’s a good thing. Large agencies can hand an author around to someone who does have contacts in the genre she’s writing. Boutique agencies don’t have that luxury. If it isn’t quality of writing on the author’s part but rather lack of contacts on the agent’s part, then the author could find a second agent to rep her fiction work. Dual rep is certainly not unheard of.

    So yeah, I would think it makes a BIG difference whether the writing was up-to-snuff or not.

  14. Pelotard says:

    @Donna – there are two ways to answer that one. Firstly, what you write as a study, as a bit of practice, isn’t necessarily what you want to send to an agent, or even show your writing group. Lynn has heard this one before: I once wrote about the same single day from the viewpoint of thirteen different characters. Interesting, to me? Yes, as an experiment in style, as an experiment in trying to get thirteen different voices across, thirteen different perspectives on the same events. Interesting, to anyone else? Would I even want to bore my writing group to tears with 30+ pages about the same, rather mundane events? Nah.

    The second answer is, if you can write something completely out of your genre and get it good enough for publication, then you don’t need my advice anyway 🙂

  15. Melinda asked:
    if the writing for the novel was stellar would that make a difference?

    I think the writing quality is a given. If the writing is horrible, then the decision becomes very easy to make – toss it out. This is what happened to my friend. Her agent and editor didn’t feel her fiction writing was up to the same standards as her nonfiction.

    If her writing had been stellar, then it would have been an agonizing decision. Would the agent rep her fiction in hopes that she could re-create her author? Would the current editor feel she could establish a whole new readership for mainstream fiction – a very overcrowded genre? Tough to say.

    And do you think this applies to writing for children across the age groups – for example writing picture books, and middle grade and YA novels?

    Hard to say because that’s a whole other world in which I am unfamiliar.

    Phoenix, you make a good point about agents repping only certain genres. I have friends who have two agents – one to rep their fiction, another to rep their nonfiction. Mind you, they were established in one genre first and created the “Grisham” readership before moving into nonfiction.

    But again, unless the writing is good, the whole conversation is moot. This is based on what to do if you have a well written manuscript in another genre? It’s agonizing for everyone involved…hence my post, so authors have a better idea of how we think, in general.

  16. Lynn – yes – that clears up my confusion. Thanks!

    Pelotard – thanks – good points. I actually think the new novel in progress is a much stronger story than the memoir I wrote previously – but the memoir was a story I really felt/still feel should be told….so maybe the novel will be the key to getting both published… (that and some editing on the memoir)

    I do have some short fiction and non fiction in print – but nothing book length. So I guess I’m still trying to figure out where this writing path of mine might lead. (….if anywhere….)

  17. Laura W. says:

    @Dennis: Ugh, I hate getting typecast. But like several people have said, if you’re good enough you can do whatever you want–and sometimes you just have to walk into the audition and read for a completely different part/character type. Convincingly. Same thing goes for writing, I suppose.

  18. i write picture books, middle grade, YA and children’s short stories and never considered that this could be a bad thing. On the one hand the audiences are separate, each needing to have the readership built but on the other hand they do eventually grow into the next stage. Half the time it isn’t the child buying the book anyway so it means building a reputation with parents, grandparents, librarians and teachers as well.

  19. April Moore says:

    You didn’t depress me too much! 🙂 I’m grateful that you brought it up and for me, I’m glad to be thinking about it now and not later when I change genres. Thanks!

  20. Good conversation and something to consider. As an unpublished author of various genres, my question is more along the line; How do you decide which finished manuscript to query or do I query them all and let the agents decide for me?

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