A couple of years ago I stumbled on a column in a writer’s magazine that touted the belief that writers should find the genre that is their niche and stick to it. The theory was that you are best served establishing yourself as one kind of writer (children’s writer, history writer, self-help book writer…) and market your brand firmly in that genre.
I had a moment of panic while reading that because it felt so deflating. I had already published in the children’s literature world, but I was just beginning to research a non-fiction book about an American history topic that I was passionate about. I also had written (but not yet had published) a non-fiction book about stingrays, had ideas for a mystery novel, and had a small stack of screenplays that I had written years before and was thinking of dusting off.
If the author of that article truly had the correct insight, I was going to have to consider abandoning a long list of interesting projects and stick to the genre in which I had my initial success.
Since that time I realized that that theory is the outlier because there were already long lists of “exceptions to the rule.” James Patterson established himself as a writer of crime dramas but also introduced an extremely successful line of young adult novels. John Grisham is known for his legal thrillers but has also published short stories and a couple of fiction books in which not a single lawyer makes an appearance. Patricia Cornwell is mostly known for her medical examiner thrillers but she recently researched and wrote an investigative piece aimed at exposing the real identity of Jack the Ripper.
And think of all of the authors who have written articles for newspapers and magazines in addition to that best-selling novel. So phooey on the notion that one must stick to one genre in order to establish your credentials.
“I’m most worried about writers who refuse to stretch their wings and fly over the fences.”
Greg Bear, who wrote Mariposa and City at the End of Time said the above when asked about his interesting foray into multiple genres. He thinks of genres as “neighborhoods of imaginative literature” and has personally wandered into many neighborhoods, including scientific papers, science fiction novels, an FBI/Terrorism thriller and much more.
One tip for jumping genres is to start small. If you’ve been writing an automotive column for your local newspaper but long to try your hand at the “great-American novel,” think about starting with short stories and submitting them to literary magazines. But be careful not to mistake “starting small” as the equivalent to “easy.” On the contrary, writing short stories requires an extreme level of focus and a keen editor’s eye. Telling a really good story in a format that sets a cap on word count can be daunting, but starting with short stories gives you the opportunity to produce a beginning, middle and ending, thoroughly edited and rewritten, before you tackle a much longer project that can be overwhelming in its scope.
If you have written a couple of cookbooks but you dream of writing a comprehensive book about the role of women in colonial days, start by writing a few articles on certain aspects of the topic and submitting them to magazines that appeal to that market.
Got that urge to write a horror story? Don’t let the fact that you’ve been publishing eBooks on knitting stop you. Check out the Horror Writers Association and research the market, look at their tips, and get a feel for what is happening in that genre right now.
Just about every genre has an Association or Society with a corresponding website that will guide you into a territory that may be a little unfamiliar. In addition to the Horror Writer’s Association listed above, these may be of help:
Poetry Society of America
Science Fiction & Fantasy Writers of America
Mystery Writers of America
Society of Children’s Book Writers & Illustrators
Romance Writers of America
Outdoor Writers Association of America
Society of American Travel Writers
Use these and similar resources to find out what is new in the industry, which publishers are looking for material, where to go for research or photographs, information about other authors in the genre, etc.
Writers tend to be extremely creative beings so it is not surprising that they like to explore a wide variety of interests. The cold reality of the business is that you may have found an agent that will represent your children’s books but has no interest in marketing non-fiction. Or you may have worked with an editor at a publishing house that will look at one genre but not another on your playlist. But if you address these hurdles as they rise in front of you there is no reason you can’t spread those creative wings.