“I wanna write a little bit of this and a little bit of that.”

April 5, 2012

This is what a friend of mine told me over margaritas and chips. She had a wonderful nonfiction hit the stands, which did quite well and made her editor all googly-like. Her editor was so pleased that she asked what was next. My friend gushed to her editor, “I’m working on this fabulous novel!”


The editor was about as excited as finding a pregnant lemur in her purse. My friend was confused. “It’s a new book, so what’s the problem?”

I fought the urge to whack her over the head with the salt shaker. “Have you learned nothing?? The problem is that you and your publisher have worked mongo hours to promote and market your book. They have spent countless hours winning over media, hounding newspapers and magazines in the single-minded effort to increase your platform and your brand. And now you’re dumping all that to start over from scratch?” I then offered that she might want to have someone else start her car for the next few months, as editors can be an unforgiving lot.

Here’s the deal with genre-hopping and the risks you’re taking with your career.

Path of Least Resistance

The first thing you look at is what you believe can sell first. So you take the path of least resistance in order achieve your goal more quickly. For example, I have a series that’s been in my head for years. I wrote the first one eons ago (Donovan’s Paradigm). I adore those two crazy kids and their constant duel over who’s crazier, the doc who uses alternative medicine in her practice, or the doc who doesn’t. I love them so much that I have two more books outlined for them.

However, as much as I love them, I know that the fun little romantic comedy I’m noodling with is far more commercial and marketable. So I’m taking the path of least resistance by going with what I believe has a better chance of selling. However, what are the consequences if I take the hypothetical success I’ve now established with the romantic comedy and move back to my Donovan series?

Establishing Yourself – Being the Expert

Readers who would enjoy the fun romantic comedy (titled The Publisher, aptly enough) have an expectation that I’ll continue writhing romantic comedies, which the Donovan series is not.

In a word, I’d be confusing my audience…and possibly losing readers because I’ve already established myself as a writer of romantic comedy. My hypothetical agent and editor would be very displeased with me because Im a resident “expert” in all things romantic comedy-ish. When we think of John Grisham, we know he’s the established Great Yoda of legal thrillers.

You know that saying “Jack of all trades, master of none”? It’s a reference to someone who is competent with many skills but is not necessarily outstanding in any one. There are places where I see the benefit – for example, the beagle can make a mean margarita, but she’s branching out into making a very respectable chocolate martini. And her nachos aren’t too bad, either. In publishing, “Jack of all trades, master of none” is enough to make me ask the beagle for an engine grease mojito with a chaser of Drano.

Establish an Audience – Predictability

Now that I’ve established myself as an author of romantic comedy, my hypothetical editor will work to establish my audience, and all that publicity is going toward keeping me established as a writer of romantic comedy so that readers will eagerly await my next book. However, if I decide to write about the metaphysical philosophies of Zeus, my hypothetical audience will abandon me faster that the beagle polishing off a box of Twinkies.

The offshoot of this genre hop is that I’ve destroyed all sense of predictability. Romantic comedy to Zeus? I’ve lost my credibility and predictability. My hypothetical publisher knows this and probably will drop me faster than I can say, “where’s my advance?” because they will have to establish me all over again to gain a readership.

Buh Bye, Audience

So let’s say I have my initial book and Zeus. Not only did I lose my first hypothetical agent because she wouldn’t rep the Zeus book, but I had to get a new agent to sell the book, which means I have a new editor as well. The worst part is that I’ve likely lost my hypothetical audience because  readers who loved my romantic comedy had zero interest in reading about the metaphysical philosophies of Zeus.  So I’ve said buh bye to my core audience and must start over from scratch (and pissing off my first hypothetical agent and original hypothetical editor). Oh, the hard work I’m facing.

Sleep is Overrated

Now that I have to go after a whole new audience, I have double the workload, which means I have to dilute my focus on multiple fronts – my romantic comedy audience and my Zeus audience. It’s like the strategy of war. If you have your troops too thinly spread, it’s easier for the enemy to punch through. Meanwhile, your own forces take bigger hits because they don’t have enough concentrated power to repel attacks.

Can I do justice to my audience of readers who lapped my romantic comedy, and then leap over to my Zeus audience? There is no crossover audience, so I’m saying goodbye to sleep and any semblance of a personal life in order to pay homage to two very demanding mistresses. And it also means that I’m irritating both editors because they know I can only give partial attention, and not my whole attention.

Taking Care

It’s easy to see how much thought and care you need to put into your literary career. The path of least resistance can come back to bite your tushy if you your debut book isn’t a genre you want to stick with. It’s not a matter of, “Oh well, I’ll make my mark with this book, then write what I really want to.” That thinking can see you starting all over…a daunting task, considering how hard you worked with your first book.

My recommendation is to make your mark first and write in your particular genre. Get established. Once you have a strong readership, then see whether you can make a leap over to another genre. If you do decide to genre hop, then go in with your eyes wide open. You may lose your agent and your editor, and it may take a long time to find your footing, and your audience. But if you’re well known for your fantasy and have many books under your belt, you just may be able to make the leap to YA. Or Zeus.

Are you suffering from Trend bandwagon-itis?

September 15, 2011

“Have you heard? DaVinci Code sold millions of books!”

“Have you heard? Vampire romance is totally in, baby!”

And so you set about writing these sub-genres, hoping to cash in on the feeding frenzy because publishers can’t get enough of it. Write, write, write, sell, sell, sell. It’s an exciting time until the bottom falls out and those hot topics grow as cold as the beagle’s margaritas. You jumped on the bandwagon and either rode it to great success, or you jumped on too late and are stuck with a series you can’t sell to the mailman.

Or you sold your book, and it went OP in a year or two. Ouch.

Welcome to the disease called Trend Bandwagon-itis. You loved the genre and hoped to make your mark – only no one is buying what you’re writing, so you’re left wondering what’s the next Big Thing. What’s going to be hot next year? Two years from now?

Ben LeRoy wrote a cool post about trends over at Dead Guy on this very issue. Ben eloquently states, “I have no idea.”

And he’s right. Not even Karnak the Great can divine what the next hot thing will be. Did anyone see DaVince Code coming? No? How ’bout Twilight? Harry Potter? Yet here they are, and many writers have jumped on the bandwagon with the hope they can make their own mark on the literary world.

The problem is timing. DaVinci Code came and went, making way for the next hot genre. To whit, I’ve been hearing agents and editors lament that they’ll stick their eyes with hot pokers if they see another vampire romance. They mirror my feelings when I see certain topics cross my desk.

My world of nonfiction is somewhat more stable, but we suffer from Trend Bandwagon-itis as well. A book hits the bookstores and authors jump on the bandwagon with their books about the economy, immigration, or the war(s). I’m not saying these aren’t valid topics, but those books won’t be as relevant in a few years because they’re dated with current information.

Our world of nonfiction plays host to a whole stable of topics – cancer, addiction, heart disease, midlife crisis, divorce, mental disease, sports, medicine, politics, celebrity exposés…I could go on forever. And I can tell time around what’s happening in the media how and how quickly I’ll see a bevy of manuscripts dealing with those very issues.

Many are cashing in on those Trend Bandwagon-itis books, which is perfectly fine, but I’d be remiss if I didn’t mention how I question the quality of the writing more than once.

More importantly, will those books withstand the test of a few years? How quickly will those books (and the authors) fade into the backlist? That’s not a game I want to play, and I’m very happy to let others do it.

I’m in it for the long haul, meaning I want books that are valid now and twenty years from now. This not only keeps us viable, but it keeps our authors viable as well. I want a book that screams passion – that the author not only lived this experience, but the story is bursting from the depths of their soul. That’s what makes words leap off the page and worm their way into a reader’s heart and mind.

Building a literary career isn’t an unimportant consideration, and writers are smart to appreciate that what they write today will influence how successful they’ll be tomorrow. Will you be deemed passé if you write about young wizards going to magic school or a cancer story? If you love an impacted genre, then write it because your heart is burning to do so. Who am I to tell you otherwise? That said, you can be count me out as one who will entertain a Trend Bandwagon-itis story.

I believe in my authors’ books and advocate their place among the bookshelves because they focus on issues in a way that few others have considered and will always be a current issue.

When thinking about your writing career, consider whether you want to be part of a McDonald’s Happy Meal, or a meal that makes the headlines in newspapers and magazines because of its unique and distinct flavor.

“Genre schemre, just let me write!”

January 4, 2010

Wherever I go, I get a lot of complaints from writers about having worry about genre. Le sigh. “I just want to write!” is the common battle cry. Totally hear ya.

However, I find this lament self-limiting because what I invariably find is that cross between historical romance and science fiction doesn’t scratch either itch. It sits in no-man’s land because it doesn’t have enough elements to attract a science fiction audience, and it really isn’t a historical romance because, well, the male protag ends up killing his girlfriend. Hmm. Really. I can’t make this stuff up.

Can I sell it?

Too many writers enter into into their stories without a goal or focus, other than banging out the story. Huzzah. But at some point, writers must expand their horizons because the idea is to be as successful as possible. It may not matter to you what genre you write in, but it most certainly matters to everyone in the publishing business. Book sellers have their stock broken down by genre, and last time I checked, there wasn’t a “Hey, whatever” shelf in the bookstores.

We have to pitch your book to the buyers. If the romance isn’t really romance-y enough, and the SF isn’t really science fiction-y enough, then who’s going to buy the book? It’s a lot of expended effort without an audience.

As I’ve said before, you don’t come to a war armed only with a pea shooter, so why would you come to a writing career without taking into account the very elements that will enhance your success?

Well, she did it, so why can’t I?

The thing about writing is that what works well for one doesn’t necessarily transfer over to another. One author can say, “hey, who cares about genre. Look at me; I wrote my book without a care in the world and made the NY Times bestseller list.” Others see this and adopt the same attitude with vastly different results.

Writing for publication is a business, and it behooves writers to treat it as such. There are two groups who don’t worry about this: hobbyists and the very lucky. Writers can very easily wear two hats – a creative hat and a business hat. The business hat keeps its eye on audience, readership, marketability, promotion. The creative hat does what it does best: it writes.

Don’t look like a noob

Just with our tiny house, I reject 97% of what comes to me. With those odds, does it make sense to have the attitude of “hey, whatever”? I roll my eyes at queries that state their books are genre-benders because this tells me one thing; they don’t know what they’re doing. Do I want to work a noob? Not in this lifetime. Genre-bending is a cop out. If I like the story, I’ll see the possibilities of changing the genre, but choose one and be confident about it. Be a professional.

When is it ok to just go with the creative flow?

I have no problem with the idea of letting someone’s writing take him where it will before worrying about the genre PROVIDED the author knows what he’s doing. This means he understands the business of publication – marketing, audience, readership. He understands that his book has romantic elements and science fiction elements, and he leans more to one side than the other in order to confidently pitch his book to a specific audience.

For example, my novel, Donovan’s Paradigm, is medical fiction. Many who read the book felt it was a romance. Yes, there were romantic overtones with my two protags, which fueled the story, but the thrust of the story leaned toward the medical story.  I felt confident that it may not appeal to a romance audience. To be sure, the mainstay of my readers were medical people and those who like medical fiction. I understood the cross genre possibilities, but I kept to a larger audience in order to sell the book.

The problem I see from my end is that most cross genre writers don’t understand this. What usually happens is that writers work on their stories for a long time only to discover there isn’t a market for their book because they gave equal footing to two or more genres, and they end up appealing to no one. I can’t think of a worse fate.

How does winging it by the seat of your pants create a recipe for success? The idea is to have all the ingredients to enhance your success. I see way too much head-banging from my side of the desk. As a novelist and an editor, the idea of “don’t worry about it, just write” is totally lost on me. Especially for those who have a literary career sitting at the end of their personal rainbow.

Genre limbo

March 31, 2009

All I’ve been hearing is that agents can’t figure out what genre my book fits in.

If your work isn’t easily identifiable for any particular genre, this tells me you’re not pitching it correctly. There are queries that left me scratching my head, wondering about the genre because the author didn’t tell me. I’m a five-year-old at times; I need to be told. YA vs. Adult? Inspirational vs. How To? Historical fiction vs. Fantasy? That’s a pretty big difference in audiences.

If the author tells me their work is intended for YA or inspirational, then I read the work with that audience in mind. Now, that’s not to say I won’t feel the work would be better suited in a different genre, but at least I had a launching point.

I remember rejecting a work because the pitch and first pages gave me the impression it was historical fiction. Not interested in historical fiction. Unfortunately for me, the author was one of those authors who behave badly and ripped me a new orifice.

How DARE you call my work historical fiction! It’s a memoir, you effing moron!

Coulda knocked me over with a feather. If Mr. Snooty Pants had told me it was a memoir, I would have read it from that perspective. It’s not my job to play 20 Questions. I take comfort knowing that I would have rejected it anyway. Note to self: tell the beagle to buy a better brand of tinfoil for my hats.

But the point of all this is that you aren’t just the architect of your stories; you’re also the sales team as well. No one knows your work better, and it’s your job to put on your metaphorical shiny shoes and bright smile and sell the hell out of your work. If  your manuscript saunters into our offices looking all sassy and cool and says, “this is the best damn medical fiction you’ll ever read” [even though your doctor character is a time traveler from the 1920s], I’ll believe you. I’m going to notice the SF references when I read it, and I’ll consider whether the time travel bit plays a big enough part to classify it as SF.

If SF is a very strong element throughout your book, then you need to decide which audience will be more forgiving. Are readers of medical fiction going to enjoy the strong SF overtones? Probably not. They want a traditional medical story that takes place on terra firma. On the other hand, will the SF readers be more forgiving of a SF story with a medical setting. Probably – because SF readers are used to seeing all sorts of different settings.

The author cannot afford to say “I just don’t know how to classify this, so I’ll pitch it as one of those books that live in genre limbo.” I feel my hand quaking for the rejection letter. And please, for the love of all that’s holy, don’t classify your work as a genre bender. It’s a cop-out.

Look at it this way. Let’s say you go to the mall and there’s a great looking salesman standing in front of a yellow box. He’s hot. So hot, your buttons are melting off your shirt. He winks at you. Your knees weaken. Oh hell yes, you think. I am so buying whatever he’s selling…just as soon as you figure out what it is he’s selling. Hey, cute buns, you say in a low voice. What’s up with the yellow box? His smile gets even wider. He adjusts his collar so you can see his little chest hairs popping up. Sigh. And then he answers you in a deep baritone:

“I have no freaking idea.”

[sounds of the needle skipping across the record album] You scratch your head and shove your carnal plans into your backpack. Um, if you don’t know what it is, then how can you sell it? And why would I want it?

“Hey, come on,” he says, his voice brimming with confidence, “you have to admit it’s a really pretty shade of yellow. Come on, take a chance and buy it.”

And this is basically what authors do to agents and editors when they don’t choose a genre. I understand there are times when it’s really hard to decide which genre your story fits in. My recommendation is to look at the overall story and see which genre is stronger. Analyze which readership will be more forgiving of the other genre’s elements. Choose one and pitch it. Trust that we’re not complete dolts, and we’ll see if your story would better fit in a different genre. But do give us an initial shove off the pier.

Don’t be a yellow box.

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