Monday, March 21, 2011

Will You Be My Date to the Genre Hop?

Those of you who know me or have followed this blog for some time know that my writing journey has been a bit haphazard. I have written my entire life, mostly short stories. But in college, I had a growing interest in film and theater which led me to an MFA in Screenwriting. I wrote a lot of terrible screenplays I never tried to sell, began working in television production (I hated it) and somehow fell into children's media, which allows me to write for children, a roundabout way of using my degree. Despite all of this interest and education in media, I had a nagging desire to write a novel, which led to writing Spared.

Spared was a natural story for me to tell, for a lot of reasons. At the time I read, almost exclusively, literary fiction (both adult and young adult) and I decided to write a novel about two sisters, which I later learned should be marketed as women's fiction. So I figured I was a women's fiction writer. (I use all of these terms loosely, of course, since I am not yet published.)

Once I finished Spared, however, I began writing a young adult novel. Again, the label of young adult was dictated only by the market. I had a sixteen year old protagonist. And that was that. In the same way that I thought I was a short story writer and got into screenwriting, and then decided to write a novel, while writing at my job for preschoolers, which made me a literary fiction writer who 'became' a women's fiction writer, I underwent another transformation (yeah, I'm getting dizzy too) I became a young adult writer. Bing, bang, boom.

Here's the thing. Both novels deal with young women and explore difficult topics (in fact, so did all of the screenplays). The style is the same. I would never write 'down' to a young adult audience, just like I would never write 'up' for an adult one. And since both novels are based in reality, the characters drive the story, so the things that happen to them are appropriate for their age and, therefore, my audience.

In this business, it seems that we are forced to label ourselves instantaneously. You write and publish a romance novel and, bam, you're a romance writer. But I think there is a danger in that. How do you grow as a writer once you've slapped the label? And, once you're published in a particular genre how do you push yourself outside of it? How do you tell the story you wish to tell if it doesn't suit what you know? Do you stay afraid of it and toss the idea aside...or pony up?

For a while, I was a little nervous about getting into young adult literature. It wasn't something I set out to do and I thought I wasn't qualified because I'd never done it before. But I'm glad I pushed out of my comfort zone. I'm glad I told the story that came to me and I didn't just tuck it aside because it didn't quite fit.

I have the sense that the publishing industry does not look positively at genre hopping. Maybe a teacher would encourage an aspiring writer like me to explore. But I'm not sure an agent would want to take you on if you admitted to hopping around a lot. They might question your maturity as a writer. Or if you were an established writer, there would probably be a lot of suits in a conference room, trying to figure out how to approach this lapse in sanity (I assume a pseudonym would be the answer?) Still, I can't help but think how exciting it would be if my favorite authors took on something entirely different. I'd love to see Jhumpa Lahiri take on science fiction or something crazy like that. I mean, why the heck not? If you love the way an author tells a story, what difference does it make if a literary author takes their characters to outer space?

How do you feel about genre hopping? Too risky? Or exciting? Would you encourage or discourage another writer to genre hop? Would it make a difference if they were published or not?


  1. I can see trying other genres once I get some degree of success in my original focus. there are sooo many things that interest me, and I have notebooks of proposed books and plot lines. But first, I have to get published...have to...

  2. Some of my favorite YA novelists (the late Perry Moore, Rob Thomas, Neal Shusterman) genre hop. More power to you! Also, I just started this new YA that feels like it's going to be adult instead, so maybe I'll join you with the genre hopping!

  3. OH OH OH. This is a subject that's near and dear to my heart.

    As a writer, I always considered myself to be a YA writer. No one was more surprised than me when my (as yet unpublished) novel came screaming out of me as women's fiction. 99% of my story ideas are for the YA market. Now that I've finished that, I'm working simultaneously on another women's fiction AND a YA.

    I think it can be done and that it SHOULD be done, but those who do genre hop generally find success in one genre first. Meg Cabot and Ann Brashares come to mind. I'd love to follow in their footsteps (but first I have to get SOMETHING published, sigh).

    An agent (and I cannot remember who, for the life of me) mentioned the other day about using pen names, and that a pen name might be appropriate when genre hopping. That, of course, got me daydreaming about what my pen name would be, but then I remembered, yet again, I have to get ONE THING published before I can have multiple things published. Onward and upward...

  4. To be honest, I could never be a writer who stayed within one genre, as I would find this quite confining. If I have a story to tell, I'm going to tell it, whether my work consistently fits into one genre or not.

    I don't really have any advice, as I'm going through the same issues as you are at the moment, but I think a pen name sounds a good idea.

    Happy Genre Hopping!

  5. Don't worry too much about what to call your writing. My novel Back Kicks and Broken Promises, I thought, was going to be YA but there are some more adult issues and passages in it that I wasn't sure. An editor told me, however, that YA has gotten more mature and even racy that my novel could be YA still. Some agents I've spoken to suggest that Back Kicks is really adult literary fiction. Having been told all of that, sometimes I don't know which agent so solicit. Fret not, however, for there are two bits of advice that have come across consistently in all of the workshops and conferences I've attended and all of the agents I've listened to and spoken with. ONE: The story is the story and it will find its genre. The agents, publishers and publicists will help with that. TWO: As the well sought after agent Janet Reid says - and every other agent also - "Good writing trumps all." That, in turn, goes back to point ONE. Regardless of what you think you're writing, good writing will find its agent and its audience.

  6. A late comment, but I really want to say 'exciting'.
    Why should anyone be labelled ... and often well known authors write for both adults and children and different kinds of books .... poetry even! But maybe that is when one is established.
    Anyone with any sense would encourage exploration .... but industries tend to look for the neat and tidy, tied up and labelled.
    Melissa, don't go down that road - roam free into whatever genre .... and should we not just be 'writers' and exist within that wide scope??