Genre Glue

Mary Keeley

Blogger: Mary Keeley

This has been a puzzling week. Conversations with authors revealed that a few of them were brainstorming new book ideas in a different genre. Tremors in the industry or the feeling of being stuck may have precipitated an impulsive turn of direction, but what they need most is a dollop of genre glue.

Dollop. I like that word. It’s a friendly word for a reminder conversation about a writing career basic. I recall it wasn’t long ago that we blogged here about the importance of choosing the right genre for you and then sticking with it. But as I thought about why the urge might sprout in more than a few minds at this time, several rationales registered, which yielded understanding.

Glue2The genre in which the author writes is temporarily not in demand by publishers. For example, many publishers over acquired historical romance a couple of years ago, when it was the most popular genre in fiction. All of a sudden publishers stopped offering contracts on all but a few of the most outstanding books by authors they didn’t want to risk losing to another publisher.

The genre in which the author writes is out of cycle. A popular book in another genre tantalized readers as they became satiated with the current genre, and soon a migration begins to the next most popular genre. There are more layers involved, but you get the general idea. Consequently, mid-list and unpublished authors, on hold until the cycle comes full circle to their genre, are eager to publish and consider jumping to the current popular genre. Of course, by the time they have reinvented their voice and style, written and perfected their book in the new genre, the cycle has rotated yet again. When the cycle suddenly comes full circle to their original genre, the author doesn’t have a novel ready, and his or her followers and readers tire of waiting and move on to another author in that genre.

Happenings within the industry. Prompted by the recent announcement of Family Christian Stores filing Chapter 11, the authors I conversed with may have been thinking about changes that could make their work more marketable. Janet Grant’s blog post here and Dan Balow’s post here are both real and grounding responses to the FCS turn of events.

Readers first choose a genre they like to read, and then they choose books by authors whose stories and style they like or whose nonfiction approach to topics they resonate with in that genre. A client told me about author, Charles Finch. Because the client has enjoyed his Charles Lenox mystery series, purchase of his latest book, The Last Enchantments was automatic. The client hated the book and in reading its reviews discovered other Finch readers expressed similar reactions. Finch’s latest book is in a different genre and is written in a different style. No doubt he will lose a significant number of his faithful readers. This goes to show how difficult and widespread the consequences can be in switching genres, even for accomplished authors. Some authors have managed to do it, but the chance of success is slim. Remember when Michael Jordan switched from playing basketball to playing baseball? That didn’t work so well for him either, and he had some tarnish to wear off his glowing career when he returned to basketball.

Recommended remedy: Apply a dollop of genre glue while on hold and work hard to have a near-perfect manuscript ready when the demand and the cycle come around to your genre again.

Writers need to give due diligence in identifying the one genre your voice, style, interest, and passion fit best. This is difficult for some who have creative ideas for several genres. But practical business reasons, if no other, necessitate that authors choose to focus on one genre long-term and grow your audience by building relationships with readers. More and more, the size of a loyal following of book-buying readers makes the difference in whether or not a publication-ready manuscript gets a contract. The author’s agent or good critique partners, for those who aren’t yet agented, are his or her best friends when they remind the author switching genres means starting over.

How did you go about deciding which genre is right for you? Can you think of another author who wasn’t successful in switching genres? If you know about an author who did switch genres without serious repercussions, how did the author accomplish it and what was the publishing climate at the time?

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  1. Andrew Greeley stepped out of genre to write “The Magic Cup” (fantasy) and “The Last Planet” (SF); neither did well, and I suspect he did it more for the fun of it than with an eye toward a career shift.

    He was and is quite successful in writing mysteries, family sagas (the “Irish” series), and ecclesiastical romances (to use romance in the strict sense, not the priests-dating-nuns-sense…which was SO 60s).

    I think he does use a similar glue in all of them; he likes his characters, he likes to see people fall in love, and one has the feeling that even the villains receive a bit of sympathy and compassion.

    He’s one of my writing role models, along with Nevil Shute and Richard Bach (who writes the best dialogue I’ve ever seen).

    It’s a matter of personal opinion, but I think that neither James Michener nor Herman Wouk were very successful when switching genres.

    Their early-career straight dramatic narratives, drawn from personal experience or direct observation (Michener’s “Tales From The South Pacific” and “The Bridges At Toko-Ri” and Wouk’s “The Caine Mutiny”) are stunning; Michener considered “Toko-Ri” his best work (it’s novella-length), and “Caine Mutiny” is the fastest read for a really long book I’ve ever encountered.

    But when they went to epics, their work suffered. Characters became flat, and the swirl of names and places and events sure showcased their research pixie dust, but I found myself skipping ahead to try to beat the plodding plots…to the point of closing the books, unfinished. (I did finish “The Winds of War”, and sort of finished “War and Remembrance”.)

    I guess that most of the US didn’t agree with me, though. Too bad; they’re wrong and I am, as always, RIGHT. (Even I am rolling my eyes at that, but I’ll leave it.)

    It is interesting that both men served as naval officers during the Second World War, in the Pacific.

    I wonder if the distances, the dislocation from all that was familiar, and the responsibility assumed at an early age might have honed their writers’ hearts? (Perhaps a topic for a future post?)

    • “He did it more for the fun of it.” What an intriguing idea, Andrew. Think of the mindset behind that. “I’m tired of the same old stuff. I’ll write what I want, and I don’t care if anyone reads it.” That’s great if your wallet and ego can take the hit when folks really don’t read it.

      I’ve told God that I learn so much as I write that it is worthwhile even if no one else ever reads it (while visions of 5-star Amazon ratings dance in my head).

      • I think they came out shortly after “Lord of The Dance”, in the mid-80s…relatively early.

        He wasn’t too worried about losing readers, as he did have a day job as a sociological researcher, though still in the employ of the Catholic Church for occasional pastoral work. (His autobiography, “Confessions Of A Parish priest”, is fun…he split his academic year between Chicago and Tucson, and his superiors were not pleased when he used his earnings from writing to buy a house in Tucson…might confuse the Poor Simple Faithful, a favorite Greeley catchphrase…to which his response was, “What am I supposed to do? Live in a tent?”)

        Greeley’s fearless in a lot of ways. He irritated his superiors (“He writes about…(hushed voice)…s-e-x!” “He makes…(hushed voice, again, and twisting of ring)…m-o-n-e-y!”), but he made no bones about his faith, and his deep-rooted Catholicism. If you want to know what he’s like as a person, the character of Father Lar in “The Cardinal Virtues” is almost pure Greeley.

    • Just remembered a “Compare and contrast” for Michener and Wouk – Nicholas Monsarrat.

      he was an officer in the Royal Navy during WW2, and his novel “The Cruel Sea” draws on those experiences. It’s a fierce book, compelling and in places hard to read…but impossible to turn away.

      He stayed in the genre of narrative drama, either contemporary or nearly so, for most of his career. “The Kapillan Of Malta” is perhaps his best work, and…like Andrew Greeley…he seems to genuinely like his characters.

      Monsarrat’s last completed book, “The master mariner”, is something of a disappointment, and it is a genre switch to…I don’t know quite WHAT to call it.

      It’s about a sailor who runs from duty in the Elizabethan fleet, and is condemned to eternal life, always a sailor, never at home. It just doesn’t seem to work; Monsarrat may have been running out of time and energy (he didn’t complete its sequel…but the sequel was published, annotated by a colleague).

      And this may be a common ingredient in “writers’ glue”…he didn’t seem to like his protagonist very much.

    • Mary Keeley says:

      Andrew Greeley was an interesting character himself. An unconventional Catholic priest, his writing often sparked controversy. Sex scenes in his novels, less than stellar characters morally, one of whom resembled his Chicago cardinal at the time. It was all over the news. His nonfiction books about the church and political issues were equally controversial. Readers generally, and his specifically, loved to think they were getting the scoop, and I think the controversy, being the constant in his writing, fueled his ability to switch genres.

      • That makes sense, though I honestly never cared about the controversy…I was drawn to his books because of his message that there’s a God who loves us, however messed up we may be.

        But I was always “God-haunted”, and that may have fueled the search that led to his books.

      • Reading your thoughts, Andrew and Mary, makes me see again that controversy isn’t always bad. It can get people thinking and can motivate them, one way or another.

        And Mary, isn’t it so true that human nature has us longing to know the inside scoop?

  2. Kristen Joy Wilks says:

    I didn’t like the C.S. Lewis Sci-fi trilogy. I was much happier when he was writing fantasy books for children. I even liked “The Screwtape Letters” and “Mere Christianity” better than the Sci-fi. Oh, and of course when Sir Arthur Conan Doyle killed off Sherlock Holmes because he was so sick of his arrogant character. I hear that his readers were livid. I guess I only have classic examples…sorry.

  3. I cannot imagine feeling accomplished writing anything other than what obsesses me, which is the concept of justice for the broken.
    Yes, I have been asked by quite a few people to write a rom/com, and someday I will, even if I only share it with friends.
    Which is a nice way of saying it’d be SO snarktastic and full of bratty wit that I doubt anyone would actually pay money to see a spoiled snooty character taken down a peg or two by someone who appears to be meek and poor, but is really a bazillionaire.
    Then again, maybe they would, but my heart is not deep enough into that kind of work to sacrifice all kinds of things for a few laughs.
    Besides, I’m better on the spontaneous reaction than the planned delivery. All Hail The Dowager Countess!

    Carla Laureano, who’s with Steve Laube, writes contemporary romance, and quite well, said the nice people at the Rita Awards, and spec/fantasy, under the name CE Laureano. She’s brilliant, and manages to have a completely different voice in each genre. But she didn’t much switch, as dove in with two different genres.

    Then again, maybe I could write in 2 different genres? Historical fiction…and a self-help book?? I could call it “My Tips ON How Not To Spontaneously Combust Or Say Anything Stupid While Trying To Appear Mature and Businesslike At A Writer’s Conference”.

    Yeahhhhh…it would be blank. 😉

  4. I was so thrilled when I finally found my genre, Women’s Fiction. I feel like I clawed and scraped my way mentally to get there. This genre allows me to have my cake and eat it, too. I can be serious, funny, romantic. It just only made sense considering where I’ve come from, my writing over the years. But it just took me a while to piece the puzzle together. My first fiction work really helped me though … learning POV, dialogue, etc. But finally discovering where I belonged was celebratory cause for the happy dance! 🙂

  5. Sheila King says:

    Two authors come to mind.
    John Grisham, who experienced success when breaking from the lawyer novels – but I personally didn’t get into the new stuff.
    Alexander McCall Smith writes a variety – loved #1 Ladies, didn’t really like the others – just didn’t get the Bertie books.
    Then a third writer who stuck with his genre and applied it under difficult circumstances: P.G. Wodehouse (Jeeves and Wooster) was forced to write Nazi propaganda during his internment during World War II. He was accused of treason and his books removed from libraries. However, one only needs to read his hilarious satire of the Germans to see that he was using his writing skills to poke fun at the enemy. I go back and read those essays every few years. Oh, how I wish I could write like that comic genius!

    • Mary Keeley says:

      Sheila, I agree John Grisham’s natural genre fit is legal thrillers. P. G. Wodehouse had pen names for his numerous genres.

      I do think it may have been easier to write in multiple genres years ago, when publishers assumed the greater load of marketing and promotion. What do you think?

  6. for me it is Martha Grimes and Patrick O’Brian. I love Grimes’ Richard Jury series ( now over 20 books long ) and I LOOOOOOVe the Aubrey/Maturin series by O’Brian (also over 20 books long); but other books outside of those by these authors are never my favourite.

  7. I like “dollop,” too, though I’ve ignored my own when it comes to genre glue. Sometimes, it seems God has other plans. My debut novel, a historical, released a couple of years ago. The publisher then asked for a contemporary. They passed on it but another publisher picked it up as a series. The writing style may be a little different, and the historical definitely has more intensity (after all, it’s WWII!), but my hope is that the stories share thematic elements. (I’d like to write cozy mysteries, too. Maybe it’s a good thing there aren’t more hours in the day.)

  8. Michelle Ule says:

    I was in a bookstore this week looking for the books written by a specific author. Granted, it was Coas Bookstore in Las Cruces, a fantastic used bookstore overflowing into three different buildings, but a bookstore all the same.

    I was hunting two specific books and while they’re out of print, I figured they’d be here, if anywhere.

    Checked in several different places and was about to give up when I came across the woman shelving books. I asked her about it and she heaved a giant sigh.

    “This is the most irritating thing about shelving here. Authors don’t stay in one genre and since I have to choose where to shelve them, their books end up everywhere in the store. One author was so maddening, we finally just gave him his own shelf. There was no way we could keep directing people to seven places in the story and satisfy them!”

    I was surprised by her outburst, but it gave me insight I had lacked before.

    I tried to imagine where she might have put these two books, hunted in two more spots and found them both.

    So, something to consider. Perhaps in a different type of bookstore it might not matter but in this spectacular one with rows of books in alphabetical order by author, it made a very big difference.

  9. Mary, I am not a sports fan by any stretch of the imagination. But when Michael Jordan started talking about playing baseball, even I had to scratch my head. Great analogy!

    The author I thought of was the same as Sheila, John Grisham. When his first non-legal suspense novel came out, about, of all things, baseball, I wasn’t surprised that it didn’t sell well. (By his standards, not mine. 🙂 ) However, his Christmas novel, Skipping Christmas, was brilliant and didn’t include a single lawyer. It was even made into a movie, Christmas with the Kranks. (Which I don’t recommend.) I wonder if Skipping Christmas succeeded because it was a unique idea and well done with wit and humor.

    • Mary Keeley says:

      I’m with you, Meghan. The legal aspect is so much a part of how Grisham thinks. Skipping Christmas may have drawn readers in because it made them ponder what’s really important about the season-as well as the wit and humor.

  10. Jaime Wright says:

    I so love this post. It reminds me to stay grounded and it also reaffirms to write what you love. Although I love several different genres, it’s so important to identify where your writing shines. It’s also a blessing to have mentors and critique partners who aren’t afraid to tell you where your writing is sorely lacking. Sometimes you have to swallow the bitter pill to move in the direction that is wise.

    • Mary Keeley says:

      Amen, Jaime. An author’s writing always shines brightest when it best fits the author. And mentors and critique partners whom you can trust to be ruthlessly honest, while delivering it in love and support, are one of the greatest gifts an author can have.

  11. Mary, what a wonderful conversation starter today!

    I’m an inspirational contemporary romance gal all the way! (My family recently joked that I could make a turnip sound romantic. But ahhhh…. Love and romance from the very Author of it! Is there anything better?!) 🙂

    I love many genres, but romance holds that sweet spot in my heart. Women’s fiction intrigues because of the many different elements, too, but I think my gift is sticking with what I do best for now.

    And come 5:00 p.m. I will set my little lights to twinkling, have my husband’s tea at the ready, and something yummy cooking on the stove–after a great day of writing, of course. 🙂

  12. Mary, as Meghan said above, I am not a sports fan, but I totally get the Michael Jordan analogy. Makes a lot of sense…I LOVE writing YA, though I know it’s a hard sell right now. But I don’t think I would be happy trying to write for another genre just for the sake of following the market–and when my heart’s not in my writing, my writing is not as good.

    • Mary Keeley says:

      Jennifer, you have an important advantage in knowing what genre is right for you. Be patient. When the cycle comes full circle–and it almost always does–you’ll be ready. In the meantime you have time to keep perfecting and polishing and growing your audience.

  13. I write for young adults. There, it seems like many authors switch genre. Rainbow Rowell wrote her first book for adults, her next for teens, the third was New Adult, and her next book is fantasy. Melina Marchetta moves seamlessly between contemporary and fantasy, and both are wildly popular. Her next novel is said to be a mystery. Do you think that maybe teen readers are more willing to jump between genres for favorite authors?

    • Mary Keeley says:

      Jackie, I’m not familiar with these authors, but I suspect they both have their finger on the pulse of what resonates with teens through early twenty-year-olds. And you could be right that teens are willing to try several genres. They might not have identified a favorite yet.

  14. Mary, what a great post. I know a number of new authors (and some established authors) who genre hop. I’ve read that it’s not the best way to build an audience, and your post only adds reasons that confirm this…especially for those of us who are still trying to get a book on shelves.

    Susan May Warren has written in a number of different genres, though I don’t know how well her books have done in them. I like her voice, so it’s fun to read her stories.

    My first two books were women’s fiction, and I’ve been told that’s a good place for my voice. However, I’m trying my hand with contemporary romance now. I enjoy the genre and find it’s fun to write! There are facets of women’s fiction that can transition well into romance stories, and I think this will be a good fit for me. And, it’s my favorite genre to read in. So, I’m planting my feet there, so to speak. No genre hopping for this girl. 🙂

    • Jeanne, I almost used the same phrase, “planting my feet,” in my reply to Mary (above). One of my favorite phrases in Scripture, found in two Psalms, is “he planted my feet in a spacious place.” I love the concept though the context is a rescue or deliverance (Psalm 18:19 and 31:8). Wishing you the best!

    • Mary Keeley says:

      Jeanne, the time you spent writing the women’s fiction books was time invested, not time lost, because the comparison helped to confirm contemporary romance is the right place to plant your feet. Congratulations!

  15. I’m a romance writer through and through. Started out in historical, but didn’t fit the CBA box. Trying to force myself into it sucked all the joy out of my writing, even though I’m proud of the novel I wrote trying to satisfy my desires AND what the market wanted.

    My true genre home found me. Science fiction romance in the general market. I’ve also discovered I love paranormal. These two are not as incompatible as one might think. A fusion of SF and paranormal elements is a very natural fit for me and I’m having a lot of fun with it.

    I’ve also identified the themes I like to write about, and I’m all about the hero. No matter what subgenre of romance I’m dabbling in, you’ll find characters struggling with their identity and it’s all about the hero. I don’t change what I write about, I change the setting.

    I don’t like seeing authors get pegged into a single genre and having to stay there. It can be stifling creatively, which sucks all the joy out of writing. Had my plans worked out and I was signed by any of the agents I pitched to, where I am now would be impossible. And I’d be dying inside. But on the other hand, getting those requested fulls and hearing “I’ve never seen this before” was just what I needed at that moment to keep pressing forward and not give up.

    Above all, we have to follow where God takes us. Especially when it’s the last place you ever expected to go. He took me off the traditional path in CBA, and stuck me in the general market indie world. Not where I ever expected to be, but it’s also where I belong and where I’m not fighting to tone myself down and fit inside rules and requirements I was never meant to fit.

    • Mary Keeley says:

      Rachel, I loved learning about your writing journey. How great to have clear in your mind who you are as an author, the genre that fits you, the consistent themes you will thread through each story, where you fit in the publishing arena, and on top of all that, the courage to go outside boundaries that would confine you. Congratulations.

      • Thanks, Mary. I still read this blog nearly every day because I always learn something from the post or the comments. And Rachelle was one of the agents who asked for my full and gave me the confidence I needed to not give up.

  16. Lori Benton says:

    I tried Fantasy (adult and middle grade chapter book) and Contemporary Romance before I discovered my true love is Historical. Even then I had to find the right time period and setting before I understood what passion in writing meant. That took a long time. From 1991 to 2004. Better late than never.

    Funny thing, the same general themes have followed me from the get go.

  17. Keli Gwyn says:

    What a great post, Mary. You touched on some important issues to keep in mind if a writer is considering a change in genre.

    I write historical romance. When I began writing it, the genre was popular. It went out of vogue some time later, and other historical romance authors in my loops talked of switching to contemporary. I even started a contemporary romance myself because of the news. It is unfinished, and I doubt I’ll ever return to it. Why? Because it was Lousy with a capital L.

    My voice lends itself to historicals. Realizing and accepting that fact helped me make the decision to write what I write best and not to chase after industry trends. Some might say I’m limiting myself, but I disagree. I’m focusing on the area where I’m likely to have the most success. Plus I’m having oodles of fun. 🙂

  18. Buzz and excitement are easier to sell to a publisher than a manuscript. Sometimes if you can prove to a potential bigwig that you have folks already talking about your book, they might think twice before giving you a “no” — regardless of genre.

  19. Ann Gabhart says:

    I’m one of those writers who has hopped around in genres. Most of my published works are historical novels, but I also published eleven young adult novels in the general market years ago. I’ve had to re-invent myself several times in my writing career when what I was writing stalled. Well, not stalled for me, but for the lack of finding editors who wanted to publish my stories. So, after several years of no sales, I decided to write what I wanted to write without regard to genres or market. That’s how I ended up in the CBA market and I like it here.

    So perhaps inspirational fiction is my genre. But I still don’t want to be a Brand writer and perhaps I’ll regret that in terms of sales and/or readers. But at this point in my life, not being a young writer the way some of you are, I’m ready to follow wherever the stories lead me.

    That said, I do confess that when I was starting out, I was more than ready to write in whatever genre I could to be published. Within my ability, interests, and conscience. I’ve always had a wide range of interest in the type of books I read too.

    Maybe this is one of those cases where it’s do as Mary says and not as I do.