Switching genres

In this post over at Write Anything, one of my fellow WA bloggers, Jacqui Murry, lists 15 writing blunders to avoid. Gentle reader, what prompts my blog post is blunder #7, in which Jacqui is pretty blunt about people who write in multiple genres:
Don’t switch genres. Pick one and excel at it. Don’t excuse your inability to focus by saying you love all genres and that’s why you jump around. That’s code for ‘I failed at one so I’m trying another’. How many published authors do you read that switch from literary to thrillers? Fiction-nonfiction is about as big a leap as readers will accept.

I feel a certain sting at this advice, given that I switch among multiple genres in my Friday Flash stories. I feel this all the more so since my anthology of flash fiction and short stories, "Blood Picnic", has fantasy, horror, literary fiction and magical realism stories. I took out all the science fiction stories because there were almost enough of them to make their own anthology; look for that collection later this year.

Are all of these stories in these multiple genres a series of failed attempts, and I wasn't aware of it? Am I just excusing my inability to focus? When I try to write in a new style, am I just telling myself that it's an exercise in experimentation and growth, when in fact it's actually nothing more than lazy dilettante inconsistency? Is all this filthy genre switching not simply a symptom of my writerly angst, insecurity, self-loathing, etc., etc., but in fact the cause of it?

Ah, well. There are so many reasons to believe I'm doing this all wrong. Might as well add another log to the fire and get back to work.

===== Feel free to comment on this or any other post.


  1. You're doing fine.

    Perhaps those against switching genres are jealous because they can't. ;)

  2. Yeah, I don't really buy that at all.

    I've heard that it's not necessarily a good idea because if you become known for one genre, readers might be disappointed if your next story is in another. But that has more to do with marketing and reader expectation than skill. And you can always write under different aliases for different genres, etc... kinda like Disney versus Touchstone. hehe

    I thought your book was perfect. No, your writing in different genres is fine imnsho. :)

  3. i agree with you Tony - I switch genre in my friday flash, although it's all fiction I jump from fantasy, to noir to humour - I don't see this as failure I see it as a challenge to stretch my writing abilities.


  4. Harlan Ellison, Ray Bradbury - to deal in names most known in the science fiction, horror genres - yet have many stories in other genres.

    Doris Lessing - drifting into space fiction, as she named it, even in a series that was grounded in the "reality" of Africa and Britain, and then fully in its own series - and several self-contained noves.

    If you must be in company, Tony, the above would seem to be the kind of company one should keep.

  5. Yep I agree with you Tony. I love the fun of writing in a new subgenre... I consider myself spec fic and that means I can write magical realism, fantasy, sci fi, horror and whatever else I take a fancy to really! I think there is a difference between short stories and novels - novel writers do unfortunately become pigeonholed but I don't think they need to be. I know of one Aussie author who uses a pen name for her "other genre" so her hardcore fans don't get annoyed when she switches genre.

  6. I'll add to KjM's list, perhaps the biggest (modern) exception... Iain (M) Banks, whose SF and mainstream books are all bestsellers.

    Although most famous for his SF, H.G.Wells wrote contemporary fiction too.

    There's a little known English author by the name of George Orwell who dabbled in different genres...

    And of course Kurt Vonnegut always felt the need to confine his work within a single genre...

    It's a good article, and I think all the other points are important, but I don't agree the genre one. Sure, I can see that a writer might look unsure if they're flailing tentatively at different genres, however, if you're confident and competent within those genres, then play to your strengths, all of them.

  7. I don't agree with this either. I'm quite happy to jump around the genres as the mood/Muse/inspiration takes me. I really enjoy it and so, with the greatest of respect, I fully intend ignoring Jacqui Murry's advice and keeping on doing what I enjoy.

  8. As Red Bakersen said, Perhaps those against switching genres are jealous because they can't. Well, that's my first guess, too. ;) Actually, I think there's some validity to concerns about switching genres, which I've previously discussed here at Landless. Ganymeder puts her finger right on it when she said But that has more to do with marketing and reader expectation than skill, and raised the issue of pen names. Aside from the examples offered by other commenters, plenty of successful writers writer mysteries, lit fic, and horror, just under different names.

    Helen: That's exactly why I do it, as a stretch. It takes different muscles to write horror vs. sci fi. I like to mix up my workouts. ;-)

    KjM: Excellent examples. Also Fred Saberhagen, who wrote sci fi, fantasy and vampire horror.

    foregoreality: The pigeonholing issue is one that I've heard writers complain about. Again, though, it's a marketing issue, not a talent issue.

    John Xero: More terrific examples. The other 14 points are valid, but, as you say, if you're confident and competent within those genres, then play to your strengths, all of them.

    Sam: Agreed. The advice assumes that you can only be good at one thing, with "good" defined as "professional quality writing". I don't accept that.

  9. The story tells itself. I think we all get pulled to different genres when we write because of our own personal likes, but if a good story begs to be told I'm not going to ignore it because it's not "my usual". If I go back and look at my blog, I have paranormal/magical realism, a couple of mysteries, slice of life, romance and some sci-fi. That's just how it goes.

    I've always kind of taken as read that that was your approach as well, and if it's wrong, well ... I guess I don't want to be "right" -- you shouldn't either. You do what you do well, regardless of genre.

  10. I don't consider genre-switching to be a "blunder", nor is it something you "shouldn't" do. I switch genres all the time - the principles of good writing apply to fiction regardless of generic conventions. Writers need to work on being able to use dialogue, character, setting etc. - these are all completely independent of what you'd expect from a specific genre. That's how I've been able to do a steampunk serial, paranormal flashes, and a Western novella, and that's why your collection might cover four different genres but it's held together by the coherence of authorial voice.

    Here's to being Genre Switchers!

  11. I am writing novels across several genres, not because I'm not good at any but because I enjoy several genres. I read fiction most of the time. It doesn't matter what kind. From Tolkien to Meyer to King to Brown. I want to explore writing any genre that the story I'm writing then wants to be in. It's a challenge to my skills and one that will only help me improve as a writer.
    I can see the marketing issues, but then it can work out to your advantage as well. By word of mouth, a fan of your fiction finds a horror you wrote and thinks it's ok, might still recommend it to a friend who enjoys horror. Therefore the possibility of gaining a new fan can occur.

  12. I think it's easier, and more acceptable to readers, to switch genres in short fiction. However when you're talking traditional publishing and novels, sticking to one genre is your best bet.

    A musician can play any kind of music and probably enjoys playing more than one style, but when you go buy a Metallica album, you don't want to here Country. It doesn't mean one or two songs on an album can't be different, but they've built a brand on their style of music just like a writer builds a brand with their novels.

    It doesn't mean an author popular in one genre can't contribute to anthologies in other genres or have a side series in another genre, but when you pick up a Stephen King novel, you have expectations for what that will bring and it better not be chick lit.

    As for exploring other genres being a symptom of failing in one grenre, Jacqui has no idea what she's talking about.

  13. That "blunder" is an oversimplification at best. Stephen King absolutely switches genres. He's famous for Horror, but his opus Dark Tower is meta-fiction and Fantasy. Neil Gaiman jumped from comics to Modern Fantasy to comedy to children's books. Patrick Rothfuss also leaped from High Fantasy to children's books. Cormac McCarthy went from Crime fiction to post-apocalyptica and won a Pulitzer for it. Michael Chabon went from child-friendly Fantasy to hard-boiled Alternative History and maintained his bestseller seat.

    Those five authors have giant audiences that permitted it. That's the common denominator. If you have an audience that cares about you as the content creator, they can and will follow you through experiments. Sticking to one for a while can build that audience. Pigeonholing yourself for too long can really screw you over, though, if you actually desire to do more than one thing. But some people are content to be James Patterson. I hazard most people would be happy for half his sales.

  14. @John - and with Stephen King, "Shawshank" (to refer to your post today) doesn't have any supernatural elements in it, really (unless you count the frame story of that creepy little club). One of his best short stories, in his first paperback collection, was "The End of the Rope". Ditto. I still maintain that a good story is a good story, and a good reader will appreciate that, regardless of genre.

    That doesn't mean you won't run up against someone who WON'T or CAN'T make the move. It happens to musicians all the time. U2 made Achtung Baby and called it "The sound of five men cutting down the Joshua Tree". A lot of people consider it their best album, but there are also a lot of people pissed off because they didn't make "Joshua Tree II".

  15. Janet: No, you aren't wrong. My approach has always been to tell the story that needs to be told, or rather, the story I want to tell. I'm mindful that genre switching can confuse readers, though, so it's not a zero-cost option. I just bristle at the charge that I write in multiple genres because I'm lurching from failure to failure.

    Icy: Amen! ...your collection might cover four different genres but it's held together by the coherence of authorial voice. Frankly, I was more concerned about some stories being off-putting for their adult language and themes than for their genre.

    TL Jeffcoat: Agreed. If one is able to write successfully in multiple genres, I don't see the necessity to restrict that.

    daniellelapaglia: This is a good point. When I laid out my multi-genre anthology, I was careful to preface the sections, so as to minimize potential for jarring of the reader.

    John: That "blunder" is an oversimplification at best. Like so many hard and fast rules, it has some validity, but not enough to make it an ironclad absolute. King, Gaiman, Rothfuss, McCarthy, Chabon - great examples all. And if you can be a comfortable mid-lister in several veins, why not? Better than being a mid-lister in only one.

    Janet (#2): Quite true - there are some, perhaps many writers that shouldn't do multiple genres, simply because they can't consistently do it well. Basing a generalized Thou Shalt Not on that slice of writerdom isn't a valid approach.

  16. Will I generally appreciate advice on writing, I didn't agree with this one.

    Different genres teach and practice different writing. Traditionally, certain genres have specific strengths and weaknesses. Fantasy is strong on setting and often thin on philosophy or thick on drama. Science fiction is concept-rich and good on logic, but frequently poor with characters and interpersonal relationships. Romance is full of intricate, involved people and relationships, but might be low on plot.

    And so on.

    Authors who read and write them all get to learn all of the strong points and carry them between projects. To bring up a personal example, I recently started writing an occult police procedural, The Dead Beat. It has been tough and well outside my genre comfort zone. Juggling all of the facets of writing an investigation is hard and I still don’t quite have the hang of it.

    But when I came back to work on my WIP sci-fi novel, guess what? I had to write an investigation. My work on The Dead Beat gave me a leg up on the new scenes. They’re still hard to write, but a heck of a lot easier (and better, I daresay!) than if I had stuck to my genre and stayed away from crime stories.

    (From my blog post on the issue.)

  17. While I generally agree with the notion that genre switching is actually a good thing in that it makes you as a writer more flexible, I do think there are some downsides as well that arn't just limited to 'audience'

    Genres have certain rules that...heh...make them genres. And as such, knowing those rules really well will allow you to write better genre fiction. And not only are there rules, but there are also those fun tropes that litter the landscape of genre fiction. Again, these are something that you really need to know if you want to excel.

    And how does one go about learning these tropes and rules? You read...a lot. And unless you're "Johnny 5" from Short Circuit, you can't read everything. At some point you have to say to yourself "I'm going to know the rules and tropes of this particular genre in and out to make my writing as good as it can be"

    One shortcut though I think to learning all these tropes and rules though, is not to only read novels, but also short stories and flash. This would help the wanna be genre switcher learn them faster and become quite adept at different genres, but it's going to take time.

    I'd use the analogy that a basketball player would benefit from playing football or doing track and field once in a while to develop other skills, I wouldn't recommend that this particular athlete split training time equally between all sports. At some point you have to specialize.

    That all being said, I believe the best way to go about it is like that basketball player. Specialize in one genre, but always always push the boundaries and experiment with others in both your writing and reading.

  18. @ Michael A Tate: Your analogy about sports is a good one. So, all things in moderation. I can see skipping around TOO often could certainly spoil your game.

  19. @looseleaf

    Yea, and I think you probably experienced it yourself with the sci-fi where you used the skills you gained in skipping around to help out your (I'm assuming) dominant genre.

    Now I'm off to read some erotica for...umm...research

  20. looseleafstories: Different genres teach and practice different writing. This is an under-appreciated fact, and I'm glad you brought it up. While it's true that you may never have to do a fist fight scene in your romance novel, you'll have to write some kind of intense confrontation. These are transferable skills.

    Michael A Tate: I wouldn't recommend that this particular athlete split training time equally between all sports. At some point you have to specialize. Another important point, which I think goes back to the original advice. The concept is that cross-training is good in training, but for The Big Show, you want to stick to one kind of writing per book. This conventional view has a lot of merit, and it works well for many writers. Where I would disagree, Michael, is in making it an absolute dictum. If you can do it, I don't see that you shouldn't. I don't think the sports analogy holds up 100%, since there are lots of writers who work in multiple genres, while there are fewer athletes who play multiple sports at a professional level.

  21. In response to the last couple of comments, no one is saying that you have to have a go at ALL genres - even Genre Switchers are going to have a handful that they switch between, but that they aren't going to go outside. Like, I can apply the same principles to both my pirate stories and my Westerns, and so forth, but I'm never going to write noir, or romance, or slashers. A lot of genres have a lot of overlap anyway, particularly if it's non-realist, so I really don't see the problem.


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