Decision time

Why You Should Write More Than One Genre

Think of a well-known author.

Who’d you pick? Maybe you chose Stephen King, Janet Evanovich, John Grisham, or Nora Roberts?Whoever you chose, I’m willing to bet that when the name popped to mind so did a very definite sense of genre. Each of the authors I mentioned is tied inextricably to the genres in which he has been so successful. Genre is a huge selling point. Marketers use genres as convenient niches to classify books, steer readers toward their preferences, and keep their attention. As a result, most successful authors are successful in large part because their names have become equivalent with the genres they write.

But you should also note that despite their huge success in their trademark genres, none of these authors have allowed themselves to be pigeonholed. They’ve all gone on to write successful novels in vastly different genres (albeit sometimes under pseudonyms), not only proving that art need not be fettered by the sometimes stifling confines of the market’s dictates, but also that the better the artist, the more varied his work and the more successful are his varied works.

I’m admittedly a bit of a Mexican jumping bean when it comes to genre. Life’s too short to explore the same ground over and over or to shackle myself to just one type of story. I’ve written two historical novels in vastly different time periods, my next book is a fantasy, I’m currently working on a literary piece, and I have stories romping around in my brain that span the gamut from suspense to steam punk. I love to experiment; I love to push my limits and force myself to grow. With every new genre or subgenre I attempt, my abilities as a writer are tested and polished. Even if I’m not successful in every genre, even if not every story finds its way into print, I’m not only enjoying the wide-open horizons of unbounded possibility, I’m also strengthening my competence in the craft.

In the November/December 2009 issue of Writer’s Digest, editor Jessica Strawser points out:

Our writing projects can be our favorite well-traveled destinations. We return again and again to that work-in-progress, cozy in to the groove we’ve worn from what we already know we’re good at, what we already know feels comfortable and, if we’re being honest, maybe a little safe—predictable, even. And writing should be that kind of refuge. Your manuscript, your niche or your genre becomes that place where you can get just lost enough to satisfy the longing…. [But] When’s the last time you explored a new direction, took a little detour?… Diversifying the writing you’re doing grows your platform.

Sometimes the thought of mastering even one genre can be daunting enough. But our journey as writers should be about growing, learning, and strengthening ourselves. Stagnation isn’t fun or profitable, and it isn’t likely to produce high-quality work. Every once in a while, dare to step outside the bounds of normalcy and see what unexpected adventures you can find off the beaten path. If you do, who knows—we may be seeing your name alongside the likes of King, Evanovich, Grisham, and Roberts!

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About K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland

K.M. Weiland lives in make-believe worlds, talks to imaginary friends, and survives primarily on chocolate truffles and espresso. She is the IPPY and NIEA Award-winning and internationally published author of the Amazon bestsellers Outlining Your Novel and Structuring Your Novel. She writes historical and speculative fiction from her home in western Nebraska and mentors authors on her award-winning website.

Comments

  1. I think different genres have different strengths. I write fantasy to hone my settings. SF to work on the exploration of an idea. Literary for character interaction. Then when I sit down to write a project that I really am looking forward to, I can combine all the talents I’ve acquired to make a well-rounded piece that transcends genre (or so my head tells me).

  2. Except for my historical series, I write whatever comes to me (and sometimes, I’m at a loss as far as assigning a genre appellation to it; case in point: “On Berryhill Road”). Those stories have been, thus far, contemporary.

    That doesn’t bother me. However, I fear that folks who prefer my contemporary stories might get a little testy if they pick up “High on a Mountain” expecting a modern day story like the others I’ve written.

    I’ve thought of using a pen name for the historicals, while clearly indicating that I am the author. That pen name would let potential readers know the stories are quite different, and they could leave them on the shelf (instead of throwing them on the floor in disgust because they don’t like historicals).

  3. @Adam: You make an excellent point. If every genre teaches us something different, then dabbling in more than one can only make our skills in general more rounded.

    @Tommie: The artist in me (as opposed to the marketer) isn’t too fond of the idea of “genres.” So anytime a work transcends genre, you’ve got my attention.

    The market has proven that what you say about using pen names to differentiate genres is often a good idea. However, purely from my own standpoint as a reader, I can’t imagine being annoyed by an author switching genres. I’m much more likely to be impressed and intrigued.

  4. Great post.

    I’ve been wondering myself about genre-hopping. I’m most comfortable in literary fiction, but a writer friend has encouraged me to branch out–not as a means to sell, but as a means to grow.

    Thanks for a thought-provoking post!

    ~ Corra

  5. I can’t imagine genre hopping ever being a bad thing. You can only learn! I say go for it. :)

  6. I write primarily contemporary young adult but have written poetry and creative non-fiction, too. I agree that stretching yourself as a writer will just make you a stronger writer across all genres.

  7. Right now I have no desire to write outside of my genre. I really love it and feel I can try a lot of things with it. Maybe one day I’ll want to try something diferent. For right now, I’m happy.

    I definitely agree–it’s a good thing to try something different every now and then. It makes us better storytellers and you never know what will come out of it!

  8. I’m glad you wrote this post. I struggle with this issue. I love writing historicals, but I also write non-fiction. It’s hard to know where to begin.

  9. I stick to historical fiction because that’s my passion, but I’ve also dabbled in poetry. I find that playing with words enhances my story writing when it comes to metaphors and hyperbole.

    Stretching oneself can only be a good thing!

  10. @Paul: As I was writing my post, I was thinking primarily about the genres that fall under the umbrella of fiction, but you raise me a point further in referencing entirely different facets of the craft such as poetry and nonfiction.

    @Kristen: You have to write what you’re passionate about. And you’re absolutely right, there’s much to be said even within the confines of one genre.

    @Carla: There’s always a balance. My rule of thumb for picking my projects is always to seek out whichever I’m most passionate about. Gut feelings aren’t often wrong.

    @Stephanie: I love poetry, but I’ve never been able to write it. One of these days, I need to take my own advice and sit down and try my hand at it again!

  11. Oh, great post! :) As far as books go, I’m editing my first one right now, so I don’t have a lot of experience. But I’ve written short stories in several different genres before. Although I think I am better at certain kinds of writing, I’m all for trying new things. How do we know we’re not as good in another genre if we don’t try? :)

    And you’ve actually helped me in one thing. I’m trying to figure out what my next book will be about, and the idea I like the most is in a completely different genre than my first. So I was wondering, should I try to write suspense when my first book was inspirational? I think I’l be brave and try, now :)

    Really love your blog! I’ll definitely come back again.

    ~Arianna

  12. Great post, great thoughts, although I’m probably in the crowd that is all for mastering a given genre (mystery and science fiction in my case.) I guess for me I have difficulty reading anything that doesn’t have a mystery in it, so it’s hard for me to WRITE something that doesn’t have a mystery, although in theory, most fiction is a mystery. Though genre romance, in my opinion, is so alike to each other that you pretty much know Boy meets Girl, they fight, and eventually get together. Ugh. (Nora Roberts has done a good job at grabbing me in a couple of her trilogies, however. But I also think she’s a masterful writer.)

  13. @Arianna: As writers, we’re all going to have our strengths and our weaknesses. And certainly we want to play to our strengths. But the only way to improve our weaknesses is to work on them. Have fun with your suspense story!

    @Liberty: Ah, but you write two completely different genres. Being a switch hitter in mystery and science fiction plops you right smack in the middle of the genre-hopping boat. ;)

  14. True enough, but my ‘switch-hitting’ as you call it usually takes on the role of a mystery with a sci-fi twist. The fact that my sci-fi stories take place in the future or an alternate dimension gives them sci-fi roots even though it’s dyed to a mystery sheen. ;)

  15. Genre melding is almost as good as genre hopping, in my book. I love stories that combine elements from two or more genres.

  16. I like to try different things in writing – sometimes to challenge myself, sometimes to take a break from what might be feeling too similar to what I’ve already done, sometimes just for the fun of it. I usually stay within the fantasy genre but I explore different sub-genres. Maybe one day I’ll step out of fantasy all together but I don’t see me trying that anytime soon. Thanks for an excellent post.

  17. That’s the great thing about milieu genres – such as fantasy and historicals – their fields are wide open to such a variety of stories.

  18. I’m a definite fan of working in different genres but I can’t claim it’s a conscious decision – the ideas arrive and I just write about them :-)

  19. I hear you on that! I’m not saying we need to choose to write different genres, necessarily, just that we shouldn’t be afraid of it.

  20. I hope to spread my wings and change genres at some point.
    Interesting post.

  21. I think you’ll be excited to discover how much fun switching genres can be!

  22. I love your sense of adventure about writing. I think any time we’re willing to risk new pathways, there is a reward. I also think it’s about learning to listen more deeply to what our hearts need to say.

  23. Writing is adventure! I don’t think it would be worth pursuing if it wasn’t. ;) Life is about discovery, in my opinion. If we’re not actively discovering, we might as well be dead and buried!

  24. I haven’t actually sat down to write in a different genre, but my ideas come from a variety of directions. I’ll have to give serious thought to the direction of my next novel. Thanks for the post.

  25. Choosing a new project is always an exciting adventure. Have fun!

  26. I recently met another author who dropped her agent because he was concerned about “branding.” He wanted her to stick to a genre, she wanted to branch out. My 2nd novel didn’t fly with my publisher because it was so vastly different from my first. This worries me. The great Madeleine L’Engle said, “you do it in pink, then they want you to do it in blue.” (That’s not an exact quote, but it’s pretty close to the original) I think it is definitely important as an artist to diversify, but at the beginning of a career it’s probably a better bet to build a brand. Did King, Evanovich etc. start with diversifying, or did they do that after they were well-established? I think it’s important to know.

  27. You hit a good point in mentioning that diverse authors almost always establish themselves in a particular genre first. L’Engle is a good example, however, of an author who wrote about a myriad of vastly different subjects throughout her career. Even at the beginning, she seemed to bounce from genre to genre with ease.

  28. I’ve considered it. I mean, I suppose I am slightly genre jumping from historical to historical fantasy…but there’s still that history thread to it.

    Maybe I’ll write a contemporary some day. But I can’t help but love my history!

  29. Oh, I hear ya! Historical/historical fantasy is my passion too. I deviate on occasion, but I always seem to come back to that.

  30. GREAT POST! It’s so nice to see someone agreeing that multi-genre is NOT A BAD THING. :D I have so many ideas, and they span all genres! So far, history usally is at the root of the story, but the novels have gone from straight historical to mystery, suspense, thriller, Western, and now YA and fantasy!

    Interestingly, my favorite authors are those who write cross-genre all the time.

  31. It would be shame to have to stifle our imaginations to fit just one subject matter. And, I agree, I love authors who cross genre!

  32. I would love to read a fantasy novel by a Christian writer. I’m really wanting to write one! I have serveral ideas stewing in my brain!

    When is your fantasy coming out?!

  33. Dreamers Come, my fantasy is scheduled for 2012. In the meantime, fantasy is actually becoming a very popular genre in Christian fiction. You might find something here or here that tickles your fancy.

  34. Hi! Thanks for following me back. I added your site to my blog roll – there’s so much great stuff here! So…do picture books and early chapter books count as different genres? ;-)

  35. You’re welcome and thank you – all rolled into one! ;) And, sure, as far as my limited knowledge of children’s lit goes, why not count them as different genres?

  36. Thanks for your inspiring post. I’ve always heard that authors should stick to one genre. That stiffles my muse. I’m glad to hear a new perspective.

  37. That’s the good thing about art – there’s always more than one point of view!

  38. I admire your spunk, K.M.! If I’m brave and lucky enough to master one genre in the future I know I will branch out into more. Curiosity often gets the better of me.

  39. In my case, curiosity often kills the Katie. ;) I doubt it’s humanly possible to “master” any genre, but it’s definitely possible to become very good at several.

  40. Writing is adventure! I don’t think it would be worth pursuing if it wasn’t

    Work from home India

  41. I agree. Writers have to be die-hard adventurers. Stagnation is death for an artist.

  42. I have to start trying other genres!! I usually stick to some sort of fantasy, but am thinking about doing a sci-fi fantasy story soon… :)

  43. Not limiting yourself to one genre really does open up all kinds of possibilities, doesn’t it?

  44. In 2009, a friend challenged me to write a cyberpunk piece that people really enjoyed. I never even knew what cyberpunk was! But I was told later that it fit me (my style) rather well.

    Just a living example of your advice. :)

  45. In 2009, a friend challenged me to write a cyberpunk piece that people really enjoyed. I never even knew what cyberpunk was! But I was told later that it fit me (my style) rather well.

    Just a living example of your advice. :)

  46. In 2009, a friend challenged me to write a cyberpunk piece that people really enjoyed. I never even knew what cyberpunk was! But I was told later that it fit me (my style) rather well.

    Just a living example of your advice. :)

  47. Cyberpunk always sounds like so much fun to write. Gonna do it myself one of these days!

  48. Great advice! So many are touting this genre or that genre and moving writers into areas of writing that they have no business being in.

    I’m currently writing a romance novel, and it is a real challenge to me. I will finish what I started, but I am starting to question if this is where I should focus my efforts.

    I loved your article so much I scooped it here: http://sco.lt/5xfDxx

    Thanks for all your teaching and training. You give so much. ;)

    • K.M. Weiland says:

      Thanks so much for passing the link along! It’s important to remember that genre is just a title. It’s important for marketing reasons (and, to a more subjective extent, for focusing our stories). But it shouldn’t be a box we try to cram ourselves into.

  49. Guess I am your kind of person then. I am currently working on a fantasy project, and I am at the most beginning stages of a scientific thriller, and an idea of historical mystery is lurking in my mind. I am every bit of genre hopper. I just can’t stand the thought of being stick in one realm. The sole purpose of my choosing this field was to explore as many realms as I can and suits my current interest.

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says:

      Fiction is all about exploring possibilities beyond the limitations of our own lives. Why limit those possibilities?

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