Emily Brontë never worried whether Wuthering Heights fell into New Adult or Adult, Jane Austen didn’t lose sleep about whether her tone was too literary for her target market. So, why are we so obsessed with identifying our ‘writing type’ before lifting a single key-tapping finger, and what does it mean for debuts just dipping the tip of their shiny wellies into the quagmire of genre-classification?
TLC quizzed genre-ponderers, debut writers, and graduates of the Curtis Brown Novel Writing Course 2015, Michelle Kenney (also a TLC client) and Lorna Riley.
In the beginning I just wrote, and only became aware of the whole genre world when I hit the challenging agent and publisher submission stages. It was a pretty steep learning curve for an idealistic scribbleaholic. And, while the book industry is no different from any other in its need for efficient systems and boxes – it raises a number of questions and challenges for the debut too.
Such as, how do YA authors like Holly Bourne and Lucy Christopher write such tone-perfect books? Did they pick their genre, or did it pick them? Was their brilliant writing always in tune with scorching-hot, best-selling YA? Or have they honed their skill through years of hard work and perseverance? What if, like me and Christopher Robin, you’re trying not to walk on the cracks in the genre pavement? Back then, a writing friend called me the girl with no genre – it made me laugh – and think hard about my style…
So, if Mich is the girl with no genre, then I’m the girl with every genre going because I’ve pretty much written in every single one known to man; picture book, middle grade, young adult, horror, women’s fiction, humour, fantasy, sci-fi…
And, to be honest, I’ve loved every minute of it. Every word I’ve written. Every character I’ve created. Every situation I’ve put them in. And every style I’ve written in.
So, what’s the problem? Should sticking to a genre even be a thing?
That depends on what you want from your writing. If your aim is a publishing deal, we can’t all hope to do a Holly Smale, who reputedly didn’t think about her genre before Geek Girl found a best-selling spotlight.
And I’ve got to be honest, I don’t think it’s coincidence that the book with which I gained an agent (the fabulous Chloe Seager, @ChloeSeager) is probably the most consistent with other YA books currently on the market. But it’s thanks to Chloe’s insight and support that I’ve become much better at knowing the difference between hitting a YA sweet-spot, and crossing the line entirely.
‘THIS should be the ultimate goal – IMPROVING. Not winning prizes, not getting an agent, not getting published, not being bigger than JK Rowling or James Patterson… Just getting better.’
Mich is right, it does depend. If you’re only writing for yourself, then it doesn’t matter at all! Go ahead and enjoy your writing. Play around with whatever genre you fancy. Also, if you’re writing short stories or flash fiction, you can pretty much get away with writing whatever you like – just make sure your story fits in with the USP of the journal you’re submitting to.
Very few people will care what style/genre your last short story was. Or which journal published it. And, even if you do want to be traditionally published, before you’re agented and have to worry about all these things, it’s okay to go ahead and have some fun. Write what you like. Writing, just like reading, in different genres teaches you different things, and it only helps to make you a better writer. And THIS should be the ultimate goal – IMPROVING. Not winning prizes, not getting an agent, not getting published, not being bigger than JK Rowling or James Patterson… Just getting better. Therein lies true success.
And yet if you’re serious about a career in writing, you’re eventually going to have to consider where your work is likely to fit. No one would think of decorating a Christmas Cake with Easter eggs. In the same way, genre publishing isn’t just about making things as hard as possible, it’s about making them as specific as possible. There’s a logic to it that’s even got a bit of a shine, if you’re looking from the right angle.
So even if you want to write ‘a murder in a moorland mist’ YA, you can’t forget that (as our Curtis Brown Tutor and Author Catherine Johnson, @catwrote, stressed) ‘absolutely everything counts’. Every craggy outcrop must be balanced with convincing facebook/twitter/snapchat/instagram teen chat and issues, or else suffer the consequences of tone-slippage, and banishment to planet redraft or worse.…
The reality is, if we want to be the best writer we can, we need to get the mix of all the ingredients just right.
I agree. For the same reason Taylor Swift will never be allowed to release a heavy metal album, no matter how much she may want to. And Metallica will never be asked to do the soundtrack for Finding Nemo 3.
Each time we publish a book, we get readers. Or at least, that’s the plan! And those readers, though they expect something a bit different (I mean you can’t just copy the first one word-for-word and expect them to thank you) they also don’t expect it to be too different. Otherwise they won’t like that, either. And any as-yet-undiscovered readers who might like this shiny new different thing that you’ve created won’t buy it because they will assume they won’t like it. Why should they, when they didn’t like your previous work?
That’s just the way it is.
So, where does that leave us?
‘Write the story in your heart, worry about its genre later,’ a well-respected Publisher once told me. It’s a freedom call, the sort of advice following which a handful of great books are written, and yet only the tiny percentage of those books make it out there. Somehow I’ve a feeling John Green and Rainbow Rowell didn’t set out to write with a genre emblazoned across their foreheads, like tribal paint, and yet there’s no getting away from the need to think of our own marketability too.
So maybe it’s less about fitting into boxes, and more about cake. A Christmas cake is a Christmas cake so long as all the fundamental ingredients are there and, with hard work and perseverance, there’s always scope to create that original signature dish. Maybe that’s a better starting place for raw recruits, for those worrying that if their style doesn’t quite fit the genre mould and they will be marched out at dawn, aka a Cassandra Clare novel.
Now that, could be a whole new world.
The answer, for me at least, is that I will NEVER know. Not for sure. And that’s okay. In fact, in some ways, it’s even BETTER. Because, instead, I get to CHOOSE.
It’s daunting, I know. But it really is all in your hands.
So, it’s time you stopped asking what kind of writer you are, and started asking…
“What kind of writer do you want to be?”
Want more from Michelle and Lorna? Join them on Twitter
Michelle L E Kenney @mkenneypr
Lorna Riley @lc_riley
When not being asked to guest blog for the fabulous TLC, Lorna and Mich, along with all their Scribbler buddies, can be found at: