Guest Post: You and Your Genre Shadow

As the Novice Wordsmith and I start gearing up for this year’s NaNoWriMo in November, I always start playing with genre ideas. And whenever someone asks what they should write about, I always answer with this:

“Well, what’s your genre?”

Without knowing the answer to that question, your novel is going to be an orphan plot idea and a character in search of a direction. You can have a great character concept, but without knowing what genre the story they star in falls into, you’re going to be going through the motions of living without much plot potential.

(Slice of Life is actually a genre type. It’s used for sitcoms most often.)

Some genres define the universe (Science Fiction, Fantasy, and Steampunk for example), and some define the type of plot (Mystery, Drama, Crime, Romance), and others classify the expectations of how the novel is written (Journal, Young Adult, Advice). It’s a box that when someone opens the cover, they know what kind of things lie inside the pages.

It’s easy to pick your favorite genre and write in it exclusively. Your writing voice is all about comfort, because if you aren’t comfortable with what you’re writing, you won’t want to write it, usually. But as Wordsmith alluded to in a previous post, you can push the envelope of your comfort zone. Why write what you usually write, especially when you’re just getting started? The first novel or story you write is to prove that you can finish what you start. But that doesn’t have to be your genre.

Some folks like writing along similar lines. They have a favorite genre that they live in, because their writing flows naturally to that place. They fall in love with their personally crafted universe and stay there. They become a genre author without even realizing it, because they think, ‘Oh, why stop at one novel, why not a trilogy, or a series?’

The best and worst thing to be is known as a specific genre author, because you wind up writing more and more of that genre. You wind up with fans of your work and they judge your new book in the same genre (if not the same universe) by the previous ones. If you write something new in a different genre, it will be compared to your other genre and you will be measured. “Eh, so and so writes better SF books than fantasy.” This is nothing wrong, necessarily, because sometimes _readers_ prefer one genre over others, and when you, ‘their’ author, write out of their genre, they’re going to be a harder sell.

My advice to you is to push yourself. Deliberately write in different genres just to see if other ones work for you. Don’t just write in the same space of your favorite authors – go to the library or bookstore and go to a different section. Pick out a book by an author that has a lot of titles on the shelf, and flip through a few pages. See if the style and feel is alien to you, or makes sense.

Then write in that genre the next time you put pen (electronic or otherwise) to paper (ditto). See what happens.

If you want to get fancy and go for even more challenging? Do a mashup of genres. Don’t just say, ‘I’m writing a horror novel.’ Try ‘steampunk/mystery’ or ‘horror/journal’, or go out on a limb and try ‘science-fiction/advice/journal’ — that last one, by the way, is how I would classify the Zombie Survival Guide.’

The point of getting out of ‘your’ genre is not just to push you to do something different, by the way – it’s a growth experiment. If you want to be a paid author, but the market that your genre fits into is saturated, you should be able to shift gears and write in spaces where the market needs stories.

Not only that? It avoids getting into novels that are superficially similar to each other; some series authors fall into that sort of trap. Expanding your repertoire of writable genres means that you can get away from ‘home’ and find an adventure waiting to happen by the side of the proverbial author’s road, no matter how alien it may seem at first.

When I participate in the NaNoWriMo, I look at what I did last year — genre first, and say, “I am not doing that genre this year.” It’s another way of writing without looking back.

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