Wednesday, November 20, 2013

Pigeonholed... or Not. An Author’s Choice



Like most people, my life experiences are varied, their only common thread is, well, me.  As an author, that provides me with a significant amount of literary fodder accumulated over six and a half decades of life.  Like most authors, it is the telling of the tales, the crafting of the words, the sinews of the plots that interest me.  Like most authors, I found that publishers tend to want to pigeonhole your efforts.  Write only one genre.  Get known.  Exploit it.  Define a readership... a following and feed the beast that feeds you.  In short, be creative, but not too creative.  A statement that makes my blood boil came from an agent, “I liked the book, but you need to rework it to read more like...” and named a best selling author.  Essentially I was being told to use a writing formula, and not just “a” writing formula, but one that has been used by a successful author.  I’m convinced that is the reason so many genre books are so predictable in terms of plot, characters, and language.  Basically, most are the same book, structurally speaking.

Pigeonholing can certainly focus an author’s efforts, but it limits the author’s range.  Why limit oneself to a single genre unless you choose to do so?  Who’s to say a mystery writer cannot be equally adept at adventure, thrillers, or even children’s books?  If you think about it, had some of our greatest minds limited their efforts, the Renaissance would never have happened.  Imagine if the Medicis had told Da Vinci, “You are an inventor.  Sorry, but we can’t support your painting.  Architecture? Forget about it.  Science?  Stick to inventing.”  Imagine the Pope telling Michelangelo, “You’re a painter, leave the sculpture to the stone workers.”  Using the single genre approach, we would never have had anything but war stories from Hemingway.  We would have missed Under Kilimanjaro, A Moveable Feast, The Garden of Eden, The Old Man and the Sea, Hemingway on Fishing, and countless other works.

In a business sense, one can fully appreciate the one genre approach to success, but as a creative artist, I abhor it.  Were I dependent solely on writing for a living, I would probably embrace it, but since I’ve had a long and successful career doing something else, I am free to define my own path.  Not all authors have that latitude.  So, how does an emerging author choose which path to take?

First, you must be passionate about the subject or subjects on which you intend to write.  Passion drives great stories.  The greater the passion, the better the tale.  Along with passion, you must be knowledgeable about the subject of your story.  Even in thrillers and science fiction, suspension of disbelief only goes so far.  In historical fiction or adventure, factual inaccuracy or ignorance can be a story killer, so at least be sure you do your research.  Even passion and plausible scenarios and plot lines, however, won’t win readers if the writing is poor.  So, study your craft, polish your writing, and make sure it is the best it can be before putting it out to the public.  Good writing knows no genre boundaries.

Okay, we have established passion, good research, and good fundamental writing skills are necessary to creating a book that will stand a chance of success.  So now you have a decision to make.  Do you choose a single genre or a more varied approach?  Part of the answer lies in personal experience.  If your life experience is narrow, it might be better to stick to a single genre and perfect your approach.  Those with broader life experience may find this a bit confining.

A second factor is your personal interests.  Some have few, while others have many.  Be realistic about using your interests as a jumping off point, though.  Interest alone is not enough to launch a good short story, article, or book.  Interest must be backed by some level of personal experience and research.  Without it, what you write won’t ring true.  Believability is critical to good story telling.  If it isn’t believable, it won’t hold the reader’s attention.  Good writers get involved with what they write about.  Please note here that there is a major difference between a journalist/reporter and a creative writer.  While it is true that both need good writing skills, the journalist/reporter relies on factual sources for the meat of what they write, while creative writers use facts as a path to believability.  Creative writers weave facts into the fabric of the story, but the facts are not the purpose of the story.

A third factor is more fundamental.  Are you writing for the joy of creation, or to make a living?  That, more than anything else, will have an impact on your direction.  Nothing channels writing like success, and nothing drives the direction of that channel more than the demand for more of it.  Demand is generated by the readers and pursued by publishers.  A solid source of readers is essential to continued demand and building an audience for your writing is critical to making a living as a writer.  Just remember, readers can be fickle and if you disappoint them, you court disaster.

If you are just starting out, experiment a bit.  Try writing a few short stories and try them out on friends and other writers (yes, there are some who will read your work, but it is unlikely to be highly successful ones unless you happen to know them).  A writer’s blog is often a good way to put your work out there as well, and feedback is often better in that forum.  Find what you are comfortable with.  Focus on that and hone your skills.  Good writing is rewriting.  Most writers’ material goes through multiple rewrites, multiple edits, and more rewrites.  It’s a process, and it won’t take long for you to determine what direction you want to take.  If your best writing tends to focus in a single direction, a single genre approach might be the best choice for you.

If you have been around the block a few times, like me, you may find writing in a single genre will drive you right off the edge, and it tends to have that affect on most seasoned writers over time as well.  Single genre writing is a bit like an old dirt road.  It’s comfortable, but getting out of the ruts can be a real bear.  Me?  I’m not much for ruts.  I write under different names.  My fiction appears under S. Bradley Stoner, fact under Steve McCarter, and poetry under Bridgewood.  Yes, I know, it’s a bit schizophrenic, but it is my personal way of compartmentalizing my work and a way of distinguishing factual writing from all the rest.  It’s my quirk.  Other writers handle it other ways.  Besides, it helps keep me from getting pigeonholed.