I’d been thinking over this topic for a while, planning to tackle it eventually, when a serendipitous moment occurred at the library yesterday.
Our local library is small, just one room smaller than my bedroom, and mostly filled with children’s and cookbooks. We are very lucky, that in spite the limitations on books available (including having one of my pet peeves, stocking the sequel in a series, but not the original book) they do a small summer reading program. The local military kids get together once a week, read a book, picnic outside, do a craft project, and of course, check out books at the end of the day.
While looking at books with my daughters, I was surprised to see a John Grisham novel nestled between the other young adult and midgrade books. I initially thought it must be a shelving error. I don’t know his novels well, but I was pretty sure they were not for children. After I looked a little closer, I realized it was no mistake. While he is best known for his adult mystery and crime novels, he also began writing for the midgrade reader.
This was one of those moments that gave me hope. I have thought hard about the relationship between author and genre. Establishing a name as a writer is as much about creating a brand as anything else. Stephen King is known for horror, Sophie Kinsella for light hearted romance, J.K. Rowling for Harry Potter. It’s not that readers won’t touch their other books, but they are likely to be disappointed if it is not what they were anticipating. I have to say, if I picked up a Stephen King novel and found it to be a fluffy love story, I would be a bit surprised; it wouldn’t be what I was expecting or wanting at the moment.
Knowing the importance of this genre branding, I get a little worried. I have ideas that are all over the place. I have a young adult fantasy romance, a midgrade inspired by my daughter’s personality and goals, a new adult paranormal, a young adult horror, a young adult fairy tale, a young adult romance, a young adult mythology, a midgrade military, a midgrade fantasy, and a chapter book series all in various stages of planning and writing. Not all of them will turn out to be winners. I know there are likely to be a few I get slightly into and realize they are big stinkers.
My writing ideas are a bit scattered. I like many of these ideas now, and want to be able to give them a shot to see if they can be as amazing as I think they might. However, if I write them all, and try to publish them all, what kind of writer am I? I couldn’t be exactly one category unless I walk away from everything that doesn’t fit that brand of writing.
I know there is a large difference between a new author writing a little of everything and an established writer branching out. When you have proven your writing ability and sales clout, it is easy to convince people to take a chance on your new idea. For the rest of us, it’s a little more difficult. I already need to convince others that I can be a writer; convincing them I have the ability to bounce around and excel in many places is an entirely different challenge.
It is hard to imagine limiting myself to one genre or one age group right now. There is the creative aspect to consider; I would never tell my children to not try something creative, and I try to practice what I preach. Putting a lid on my potential by refusing to explore all of my options does not seem like a practical way of achieving my goals. Not only do I not know what might be a great novel, but I don’t know what would sell. What if I choose to drop all YA and pursue only midgrade, only to fight for years without any success. Maybe my talent would run wild in fantasy, but I never get to show that because I decided to only write realism.
Finding a genre brand seems to be a balance of creativity and practicality. You have to write where your ideas flow, but you also need to consider what is actually publishable. There are many successful authors who can manage more than one genre or age group, but for the rest of us, there needs to be a beginning. There needs to be the first successful book before there can be another attempt. We can write them all, but in the end, only one will get published first, one which will begin your career and possibly establish you as a genre writer without your ever realizing it was happening.
What is the responsibility of the writer to their genre, once it is established? What if I break into chapter books first? Does that give me a responsibility to censor my other writing, just in case my readers stumble across a young adult novel I write? How much freedom does the writer have to explore other genres, without alienating the potential fan base?