Poll: genres, writing and consistency

WARNING: Contains ruminations about writing, talent and what a writer owes his audience.

This week's #FridayFlash ("The Killing Song") is quite different from last week's #FridayFlash ("Mother's Day").

I've gotten some interesting feedback on both, comments here and on Twitter that were thought provoking. What is talent? Do you owe something to your talent, as you might owe something to your readers? Was I wasting my abilities on these pieces? Was I slumming in being soft and sentimental? Or was it when I was being dark and horrible?

Why is McDonald's so damned popular? Not because the food is all that great. It's because every time you go there, you know exactly what will be on the menu. Reliability and consistency are what they sell. 90% of their menu is the same as it has been for the past 50 years. Don't want to risk getting a distasteful meal? Go to McDonald's (or any chain-clone like Olive Garden, TGIFriday's, P.F. Chang's, etc.).

At the other end of the scale is 4 star restaurants, which are expected to be reliably excellent (although the one time I ate at Chez Panisse, the meal was only OK, the wine was hideously expensive and there were cobwebs in the corner of the ceiling). They might have the same menu for 50 years, or they might change half the menu every year, but you can rely on everything being terrific.

Why do so many new restaurants fail? Because they misjudged the market for Asian-Swiss fusion vegan, or Cajun-Polish brauhaus? Anthony Bourdain says that many restaurants fail because of inconsistent quality and they keep switching the menu around. Customers never know if what they ordered is going to be any good. Since the cost of a bad meal is a wasted evening (and wasted money), repeat traffic falls off, and new traffic stays flat because the place gets a reputation as a risky place to eat, a crap shoot.

I don't charge anything for this fiction I put up here. There's a core of repeat visitors who generally like what I do. Maybe not all of it, but in general. You spend a bit of your time here, the only real commodity any of us has. What does it do for you as a reader when you come here and read something you really don't care for? Maybe it was well written, but you still didn't like it. What do you do? Trust me that next week will be different and perhaps more to your liking? That calls for a lot of trust, doesn't it? I'm not a 4-star restaurant (not yet, anyway). Or does this blog become one of those that a lot of people "used to go to all the time, until it changed"?

Some people really liked the soft and sweet "Mother's Day", others disliked it. Some people were really put off by the grim and dark "The Killing Song", others liked it so much they went back and picked up my RSS feed of recent posts.

If I were to stick with one style of writing, many of you would stop coming. Sad fact, but there it is. The flip side is that I expect that the audience for that style of writing would grow.

So what do I do with everything that is NOT that style? Stop writing it? Not likely. Start separate blogs under various pen names (and perhaps Twitter accounts) for each style of writing? I don't have time for that approach, and each one would only get updated in a timeslice manner. Limit myself to sweet and touching on Mondays, noir and brutal on Tuesdays, funny and irreverent on Wednesdays, thoughtful on Thursdays, mysterious and atmospheric on Fridays?

Again, not likely.

What do you think? Is this the sort of thing to have to map out in advance, or should I just keep stumbling along, doing what I've been doing, i.e. playing it by ear?
===== Feel free to comment on this or any other post.


  1. I think that you should write for yourself and take everything we say with a mountain of salt. That story was the first one I didn't like and it was just one opinion. I'm not going to stop reading Tony. I promise.

  2. You should play it by ear and keep writing what you feel like writing...what you need to write.

    After all, this is the place to experiment. As you mentioned before, writers can't be everyone's cuppa with every story.

  3. Carrie: No worries. Years ago, I'd make decisions based on only one person's input, but that's not the case much anymore.

    I'm just thinking out loud here, because I feel like I need to focus. I'm just not sure what to focus ON.

    I'm not going to stop reading Tony. I promise.

    Heh, no one can just walk away from me. I'm like an all-you-can-eat ice cream sundae bar. Or like a four vehicle, jaws-of-life car accident.

    Marisa: what you need to write

    And that is usually where I end up after all of my mental tail-chasing.

    A man's gotta do what a man's gotta do.

  4. I'm with Carrie and Marisa. You should write what it suits you in the moment, even if you decide, eventually, to publish under pen names. In this blog I don't think you should worry much about it.

    On a final note, I believe we have a unique voice. We develop it until we're absolutely comfortable with it (hard enough). Only then we might develop other voices, or writing styles, if you will.

    In my opinion, it's not because you're writing pieces with various tones, like a lovely one (Mother's Day Tour) and a heavy one (Killing Song), that you're using different voices. I recognize you in each one of your pieces. ;)

  5. My humble opinion - write what comes to you, experiment and learn. That's what life is about, right?

    When I wrote poetry for a month I picked up a bunch of new followers, but a few of my regulars stopped coming by because poetry is not what they like to read. Fair enough. They came back when it was done.

    The only person you can please most of the time is yourself.

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  7. Tony - I am with the other commenters here. Writing is such a presonal thing (and each story is unique) that if you were to try and pigeon hole your writing and your stories into one direction - I believe you'd soon find your inspiration dry up and possibly the worst case of writers block.

    I'm a fan of unpredictability. I like not knowing what is going to be played out on the page when I get here. I'm one to take chances on a restaurant (because for me the experience of going out is just as important as the actual quality of the food, the service, the wine and the impact on the back pocket). And on that theme - I'm here because I love reading what you write - it is the experience of sharing ten minutes with your fiction.

    My own personal take on it - is we tell the stories which are endowed to us. And in that we are very blessed as writers. Who are we to turn away stories because we might shock our audience (The Killing Song) or not be shocking enough (The Wonderful Mother's Day limmerick).

    Keep doing what you're doing... as Mariblaser pointed out - your voice is in everything we write - and the fact your voice is discernible to us readers - should really be all that matters at the end of the day.

    Just keep writing (we we can all just keep reading!)

  8. Just to add my 2-cents ... I think you know how i feel about this because we've talked about it b4. I definitely feel that you need to follow your muse wherever she leads you. If that means cute & dainty one week and slasher gory the next, then fine. We write because we *need* to and if you have a story in your head and can't write it / post it because you don't think it's what your readers want, then that will eat at you for sure. I am all over the place in terms of genre also and, in fact, i can't even identify genre for most of my pieces. I write where my muse leads me.

    For shorter pieces, I wouldn't even worry about pen names and the like for the moment. Maybe after your first novel is a smashing success, your agent/editor can advise you whether your second novel should be done under a pen name or not. In the meantime, don't sweat it and just *write* :-)

  9. Despite your modesty, for me at least you write well enough that I keep coming back because I know it will be good. I was warned away from this week's story but I'm not going to stay away forever, anymore than I would stop going to a restaurant that was being remodeled or hosting some themed week of a food style I didn't like. I see no reason for you or anyone else to have multiple blogs for different styles; good writing is good writing, and if I don't want the veal then I'll order the fish. At most I'd say you should categorize your writing so a reader can gravitate toward his or her preferred genre.

  10. Jodi I believe you'd soon find your inspiration dry up and possibly the worst case of writers block.

    ... and that is exactly what happens when I try to write the kind of story that I should write instead of the one I want to write.

    I'm one to take chances on a restaurant

    I had to laugh at this, having ordered meals in languages I didn't speak, being willing to take my chances on whatever came from the kitchen. My companion said, "Are you sure you're an American?"

    PJ: ...because you don't think it's what your readers want...

    This is the biggest nugget of wisdom to conk me on the head in a long time. I have a tendency to overthink just about everything; in this case, I could spin my mental wheels for years trying to guess what readers might like as opposed to just putting it up.

    Valerie: I keep coming back because I know it will be good

    Thanks for that vote of support - I appreciate it. Ultimately, I guess what people want to see here is quality; so long as I keep striving for that, I'll be OK.

  11. I can understand the points about writing in a consistent style so that people will know that to expect - that is after all why some writers use different pen names for different genres.

    On the other hand, as your writing is free, and varied, then I'd say to hell with it - just write that you want to write. We should consider ourselves lucky that you choose to share it with us.

  12. Sorry I'm late, I don't know I missed this post. Everyone has great things to say, and the two things I most agree with are: You have to write what comes to you, because that's your creative soul talking to you; and your voice is what matters, not genre.

    Look at Stephen King. Under his name, he wrote Stand By Me and Dolores Claiborne, which are slice-of-life literary works, when he's the master of horror. His readership didn't suffer at all-- it grew, I bet. That's because his voice told all these stories. His voice is what draws people, not genre.

    I've said it before and I'll say it again. If you write well in many genres (which you do, Tony), it just means you have a brilliant imagination.

    For me personally, I loved both the cuddly kitten story and the harsh, dark Killing Song. That you are capable of writing both makes me respect you more.

    Write what's in your soul. Period. If you're worried about genre, then the categories idea is a perfect solution.

    Sorry to blather on. Just trust yourself and your stories. Like you said yourself, "A man's gotta do what a man's gotta do."

    So do it, man. :-)

  13. You keep using this word, "Genres." I do not think it means what you think it means...

    There are going to be times in your novels when you are going to take the Reader down the "aaaaaaahhhhhh" path of Mother's Day. Then there are times when you're going to need grit, like in the Killing SOng.

    Neither defines you, any more than hammer or ruler defines a carpenter. They are tools. Your tools.

    And frankly, you've made them your bitch. Otherwise you would have a wealth of comments mentioning how nice your stories are, instead of a polarization of views. That would be because polarizing views mean (A) you struck a chord, (B) you struck it well, and the all important (C): people continue to come back EVEN IF THEY DIDN'T LIKE ONE.

    That, lad, is Talent.

  14. It made me sad to see you Tweeting last Friday that you wondered if you shouldn't have posted the story. I didn't like the story but I'm damn well glad you posted it. Stumbling is fantastic. I'm more likely to come back just knowing I'm likely to be challenged.

  15. Mariblaser: others have said that they would recognize one of my stories, that my voice comes through despite widely different styles. I wonder why that is? I can't think of two more different stories than these two I mentioned.

    Icy, Gracie, Jen: What I want to write covers a lot of ground - pretty much everything except westerns, porn and vampire romance. I'm gratified that people keep coming back, even after being challenged by something like "Killing Song".

    D. Paul: They are tools. Your tools. And frankly, you've made them your bitch.

    Ha! Could a statement of support be phrased more succinctly? Thanks!

  16. This angst goes far beyond blogs. Stephen King's Misery was born out of his fear of how readers would react to him changing material. Novelists are always encouraged to stick with a certain range of writing to help their sales.

    As a writer, I respect the heck out of other writers who ply versatility. That's why I mentioned you for it in my #fridayflash essay. Whether it's Roger Zelazny making SciFi do humor, pulp, existentialism, etc., or Eudora Welty writing a murder story, a post office comedy and surreal historical fiction, versatility is the great trait.

    It'll cost you readers. I post different sorts of stuff every day and see my visitor count bounce up and down. But one, the people who do like it will get a kick out of it. Two, so will the faithful. And three, your end goal isn't just to write a blog, so why not learn how to cook foreign cuisine in this kitchen before you move to Chef of Barnes & Noble?

  17. Oh, and I liked that cat story. It was cute. Haters gonna hate.

  18. Quoth Wiswell: And three, your end goal isn't just to write a blog, so why not learn how to cook foreign cuisine in this kitchen before you move to Chef of Barnes & Noble?

    And the blogger did say in a loud voice, "Amen."


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