Sunday, January 23, 2011

Writing in One Genre? Why Limit Yourself?


If you've spent much time at all in the writing blogosphere, you've doubtless run into writers' struggling with balancing the desire to write in multiple genres with what seems like sensible advice to pick one and settle into it while establishing your career.  I've blogged on it multiple times, sometimes referring to the selected genre as a pigeonhole, of all things.  Recently, middle grade author Alex MacKenzie did a guest-spot on the Literary Lab, in which she referred to her writing as as, at a minimum, a two-trick pony; and Michelle Davidson Argyle, author of literary fantasy and literary thrillers, said she felt like she was defying her own good sense.

Very often the gut response by authors and those who support and encourage is, "Why limit yourself?"  Or, more expansively, something along the lines of, "You have so many great ideas, why limit your own creative energy or the experiences of your readers by confining yourself to only one genre?"

I don't intend to give guidance any to any individuals in this post, because I think genre choice is a very personal decision and different authors can and should go about approachingit very differently for themselves.  That said, I would like to respond to this one notion -- "Why limit yourself?"

As you know, I've done just that.

I am an author of psychological suspense and short, character-driven literary fiction -- but my interests are incredibly diverse.  I have not only a general desire to write in other genres, but some specific goals that will never be met without some dabbling in other genres, and a handful of very specific projects ideas in other genres.  But, for now, I have limited myself.

And I'm glad I have -- and not just for marketing reasons.  Forget those.  What I want to suggest to you is that, at least for me, I have gained a lot by limiting myself.  I'll strip away the lengthy examples and cumbersome analogies that I normally work with and just give you the hit list.  Some of this might be obvious, but others I think are a little less so.

  • It has given some focus to my reading, so that I am really familiar with the genre of the book I am writing.  This helps me know what techniques are common, what cliches to avoid, what's taken for granted, and what's a little risky.
  • It has given more focus to my networking.  While I  still meet and get to know authors in other genres, I have made some tremendous contacts specifically within my genre because I'm one of them.
  • It has allowed me to really strengthen my writing.  I was a good writer before I chose my genre.  Once I settled into the genre, and my writing brain became more focused, and all my writing projects became centered around that genre and style, my writing has become far stronger and far punchier.
  • It has given me a tool set for answering those questions that inevitably come up when you're writing.  "How should I handle this?"  "What's most important here?"  "How do I want to structure this?"  "What should the arc of the pacing be like?"  Oh, right, like psychological suspense.  Because that's what I write.  Simply defining the genre of my book was never as helpful as defining my genre as an author for answering these questions because I could always cop out to, "Well, this is a psychological suspense novel, but I'm just a writer and I have a literary world at my fingertips."
  • It has helped me understand specifically how my book does and does not fit into my genre.  I don't have just a general sense of, "It doesn't really fit perfectly into bookstore shelf-genres."  Because I know my genre, I can point to specific elements that fit or or don't, and I can engage in informed conversation about the decisions I made in those regards.
  • It has encouraged a general discipline in how I approach writing projects.  The fact that I'm not going to allow myself to jump onto a sci fi project or a fantasy project has removed a great deal of the temptation to hop around or waste my mental energy on projects other than the one I'm trying to finish. Delayed gratification is not bad.
  • It has dramatically enhanced my voice.  Part of an author's voice comes from an author's self-identity, and the stronger that self-identity, the stronger and more confident, the more well-developed the authorial voice.
  • It has increased the seriousness of my outlook at my writing.  Lots of people are writers.  Lots of people want to write a novel.  Lots of people write stuff.  I was like that for many years.  Even after I decided I wanted to taking my writing seriously, but the day I determined that I'm an author of psychological suspense and short, character-driven literary fiction, it was really serious.

I'll stop there before this gets unwieldy.  Again, my point isn't to convince everyone that they need to pick a single genre.  You don't have to.  But, if you're a career-track writer, and you're conscious of the marketing concerns, of the pressure to establish an identity for yourself at the outset of your career, but your fans and loved ones keep asking you, "Why limit yourself?" -- maybe this will help you see that it's not all bad limiting yourself.

Bones heal best in restrictive casts.  Children develop best with rules and boundaries.  You can't have a reservoir without a dam.  (Okay, so I couldn't stay entirely away from the terrible analogies.)

Limits aren't always bad.

And they aren't forever.

They're for now.


Soundtrack to writing this post provided by Ronnie Dio, Faith No More, Dokken, Skid Row, and Queensryche.


  1. Fascinating stuff as ever. (golly this is a good place!).
    An observation - or a question - to what extent do you think it is the writer's job to deliberately decide what parameters they 'ought' to write in, and how much is it the job of the market, much much further on down the track - to decide which particular pigeon-hole to put that writer's work into?

    Second observation - the longer I'm in this business, the more I realise I have no single voice as a writer. Each piece of work, whether it is a short story, a poem, or latterly, a whole novel - has its own distinct voice. I do worry sometimes that newer writers try to solidify what they do into a one-size-fits-all voice, believing that 'Finding Your Voice' is some sort of Holy Grail. It doesn't exist for this writer, thats for sure.

  2. Fascinating points you raise there Nevets. I decided a while back that I would devote all my attention to a single genre, for similar reasons to those you list above. I couldn't have put it as succinctly though. I guess it depends on the writer which approach they take, but for me the limits to my genre are working well. For now at least ;)


  3. @Vanessa - Thanks, I'm glad you enjoy it here! As far as your comments...

    1) I think genre exists in multiple levels and is a mixture of perspectives from the author, the marketers, and from readers. For a full explanation of this angle, see my post from September on The Big Genre Monster.

    2) You are very right, I think, that voice is more complicated than a lot of new authors realize. That may be worth its own blog post. I agree with you that each work has its own voice, as does each sort of thing an author writes. I do think that, there is small core voice that unites a developed author's works much of the time. Honestly, though, my assessment of "finding your voice" is that it's not about finding a particular voice as it is finding the confidence and freedom to consistently let your writing speak freely.

    @Rach - haha Exactly, right? Everything we do is little more than what we do for now. :)

  4. This is certainly a choice each author has to make on their own, and the reasons I write aren't the reasons you write or anyone else writes. I don't see myself sticking into one specific pigeonholed genre for the rest of my career, especially not right now. Like you said, it doesn't have to stay pigeonholed. I write for the love of writing stories, and all the stories I have to tell are not in one genre.

    My husband and I were talking the other day, and he made it quite clear that no matter what I choose to do, I must always remain true to what makes me happy. If that changes to "pigeonholing myself", great. If not, great. He also made it clear that my writing "feels" similar no matter which genre I'm working in. If astute readers take a chance on all of my genres, they will pick up on that. Those are the kinds of readers I want, anyway.

  5. That's awesome, Michelle. I definitely think this is part of a very complex web of decisions an author faces once they consider publication, and I think the answer is very personal -- and very

    What's important is that you, the author, believe in your decision, understand your decision, and are comfortable that it fits your goals and personality. Once you're there, you're golden!

    At least until your goals and personality change. haha

    Very glad to hear you've hit a point of comfort with this question, Michelle! :-D

  6. good point. I mean, Grisham had to write a ton of legal thrillers before he got to do A Painted House, right? It can happen, but it's best to be "out there" first~ :o)

  7. @Leigh - I think it's very helpful for career-track writers who have a mind toward mass market-type readership. I think writers who write for smaller scale audiences or who write for more purely artistic reasons don't necessarily have to think about it so much.

  8. Great post as always, Nevets. The point that resonated most with me was the one re voice.

    The instant I started writing my first crime novel - it was there! Before that moment I hadn't quite got what "voice" meant nor had I developed my own.

    I've since written a different style of book and was able to find a different voice.

  9. @Michael - It's a pretty wonderful feeling, isn't it? I remember for a long time being mystified about it. But voice is rather like a punchline. If you don't get it, you don't have it and won't understand it. Once you have it, you'll get it, and you'll understand why it's important but not where it came from.

  10. Another great post, C.N. and some great reasons to stick to one genre, though admittedly for me, while genre is a broad-church in terms of the writing it is quite narrow in terms of publishers, so I tend to play devil's advocate in these discussions.  My books straggle genres and even though I tip toe from one to the other, that hasn't stopped publishers wanting to narrow me even further, even to a sub-genre such as historical fantasy.  I agree that certain things we do with respect of and in respect for genre can hone the skills and win us more readers, as you've mentioned, but should an author ask to break out of the mould for a moment or a novel, the publisher tends to get palpitations. 

    My current books read like this: 2 historical fantasy novels, 1 alternate history thriller (current), and 1 time-travel apocalypse novel (to start next) - all have different tones, settings, and I'll have covered 6-8 genres over 4 books.  I'm a marketer's head-ache, true, but it means I'm trying out other niches that I might be good at - hell, I might even be better at the time-travel apocalypse novel than the historical-fantasy, but I guess what I'm trying to say is that I won't know unless I try.

    Though I'm pretty certain I won't be writing romance or chick-lit novels.  Zombie chick-lit, perhaps.  
    Zombie-cyborg metaphysical chick-lit… Mmmm.  I could try that next...

  11. @Matt - I know whereof you speak. My own back catalog includes epic fantasy, space opera, hard sci fi, traditional mysteries, comedy, historical fiction, literary fantasy, straight literary, and then the stuff that falls somewhere under the thriller umbrella. lol

    I don't see myself writing chick lit, but I do have a couple of stories in the back of my mind that border on romance -- and I've definitely written some roman flash fiction. It's a strange thing to contemplate.

    Zombie-cybord metaphysical chick-lit? That sounds amazing.


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