Author Omnibus: The Pros and Cons of Switching Genres

With varieties of speculative fiction cropping up almost as quickly as dancing Groot seedlings, an author well known for one species of tale may flex skills in another species (or genus) that is unfamiliar, strange, or even bizarre to already committed readers. What opportunities and challenges face an already published author when they make a jump to another genre? The Daily Dragon sought comments from authors who have braved the genre chasm and heard from Gail Z. Martin, A. J. Hartley, D. B. Jackson, Suzanne Church, Clay and Susan Griffith, J. F. Lewis, and Jody Lynn Nye. Their curiously optimistic consensus? Vive la différence!

Daily Dragon (DD)Please describe your current releases or writing projects and how they represent genre-switching from a genre or subgenre you had been published in previously.

Gail Z. MartinGail Z. Martin (GZM): This year, Reign of Ash came out from Orbit Books and is epic fantasy, and Deadly Curiosities came out with Solaris Books and is urban fantasy. I’m also in nine short story anthologies, and two of those stories are superhero stories, while three more are steampunk. Next year, I’ll have three books out, War of Shadows (epic), Deadly Curiosities 2, and Iron and Blood (steampunk).

Photo by Wade Bruton
Photo by Wade Bruton

A. J. Hartley (AJH): My last releases were Tears of the Jaguar (a contemporary thriller with archaeological roots), Hamlet, Prince of Denmark (a novel for audio performed by Richard Armitage), new editions of my YA swords and sorcery series beginning with Act of Will, and the third in my Middle Grades Darwen Arkwright fantasy adventure. In other words, everything I’ve produced in the last three years has been in a different genre!

DBJacksonD. B. Jackson (DBJ): I am currently working on two projects, both of them departures from the epic fantasy I wrote earlier in my career under my own name, David B. Coe. The first is the Thieftaker Chronicles, a series of historical urban fantasies (Tricorn Punk!) set in pre-Revolutionary Boston. The most recent volume, A Plunder of Souls, has just been released by Tor (following Thieftaker and Thieves’ Quarry). I am also working on a contemporary urban fantasy, the Case Files of Justis Fearsson, which will be coming out from Baen, under my own name (David B. Coe). The first book, Spell Blind, will be out in January.

In both cases, I’m writing urban fantasy, with a single point of view character. The books are stand alone mysteries with a magical element (and a historical element in the case of the Thieftaker books), and they tend to be leaner and tighter than the epic fantasies I have written previously.

Suzanne Church headshot small resSuzanne Church (SC): My short story collection—Elements: A Collection of Speculative Fiction—was published by EDGE Science Fiction and Fantasy Publishing in April this year. The book itself is an exercise in genre-mixing-and-switching. I’ve always explored all the dark alleys and caverns of the speculative fiction genre so any gathering of my fiction into one place was bound to contain a variety, like an all-you-can-eat buffet.

Clay & Susan GriffithClay and Susan Griffith (C&SG): Our upcoming release is a trilogy called Crown & Key (Del Rey, summer 2015). It is the story of a group of magicians and monster hunters trying to keep the world safe in the pre-Victorian era (~1830). Think of it as Charlotte Bronte’s Avengers. Unlike our previous trilogy Vampire Empire (Pyr Books), this is not alternate history but “secret” history. The setting is the real world of 1830, but there is a hidden element of magic and monsters. In other ways, it isn’t greatly different from Vampire Empire in that it has a Victorian sensibility, and an action-adventure spine. It is, however, very different from our early work in comics. We were primarily known as humor writers then because of The Tick. Now we deal in heart-wrenching angst and action. However, the bleed-over between humor and angst is actually pretty strong. Neither angst nor humor really works (except maybe for pie-in-the-face physical stuff) without the reader knowing the characters and feeling for them when terrible stuff happens, which can work for either laughs or tears. Humor and angst are the reverse of the same coin. Switching genres is easier when you’re just altering some of the same character bits for slightly different reactions.

Photo by Janet Lewis
Photo by Janet Lewis

J. F. Lewis (JFL): Wow! So much changes when jumping from urban fantasy to epic fantasy that it’s hard to quantify. In the Void City books, I was able to put new spins on modern horror monsters, but I wasn’t creating whole new races. With Grudgebearer, the first book in The Grudgebearer Trilogy, I had the opportunity to create new races and societies, along with a whole new world upon which to wreak havoc. It still has the humor of the Void City books, but has already been praised for having strong female characters and for its thoughtful approach to social issues.Grudgebearer will be released September 2, but early copies will be for sale at Dragon Con at the Pyr booth.

Jody Lynn Nye Jody Lynn Nye (JLN): I’ve bounced all over the place, subgenre-wise. I have written space opera, contemporary humorous fantasy, military SF, epic fantasy, medical science fiction, farcical fantasy, a little time travel, a bit of hard SF, mysticism, a few mystery stories, a little steampunk, a trifle of horror, one or two fantasy romance stories, and a bunch of cat fiction. My most recent two books are Fortunes of the Imperium, which could be described as “Jeeves and Wooster in space,” and Dragons Run, a contemporary fantasy. One is humorous space opera, and the other is urban fantasy.

DD: What factors made you decide to write in another genre or subgenre [different] from the one in which your writing had previously been published?

GZM: I had stories I wanted to tell and they belonged in different subgenres. Deadly Curiosities came out of a short story I wrote for Solaris’ award-winning Magic anthology. Solaris liked the story enough to ask for a book based in that world.

AJH: I write in multiple genres because I read in multiple genres. Producing the same kind of book for the rest of my life sounds far too much like work…

DBJ: I think the biggest factor was simply my desire to do something different after more than a dozen years and a dozen books of epic fantasy. I wanted to write standalone books, rather than the extended story arcs I’d been writing. I was also drawn to the idea of having a single point of view character. Most of all, I had always wanted to write mysteries, and I had also been looking for ways to bring my historical background (I have a PhD in history) to my fiction. At the same time, I still love writing stories with magic in them, so switching subgenres made a great deal of sense. I was able to keep writing fantasy, but also to incorporate these other narrative elements (mystery and history) I wanted to write.

SC: One of the tag lines in my biography reads, “I write Science Fiction, Fantasy, and Horror because I enjoy them all and hate to play favorites,” and that sums up my philosophy. When I have a story idea, I explore all the ways to tell the tale. If it starts off as a science fiction piece but then gets sucked down a hell portal, I can’t help but follow along.

C&SG: The chance to write in another genre offers a departure from the norm where authors tend to get mired and also the chance to flex new creative muscles in the brain. We were both heavily influenced by the old pulps which delivered strong narratives across a wide variety of genres. The common thread in all pulps was driving action-adventure and strong main characters who were defined by that action. So, in some ways, it is easy for us to jump around between different material because we still approach the core of the work the same way–characters in action. That, and a publisher offered us a contract for a new project. How can one say no to that?

JFL: Grudgebearer has been knocking around in my head since before Staked, the first novel in the Void City series, was published. I have a few sci-fi epics up there, too. Like most writers, I have more stories to tell than I’ll ever have time to get on paper. You could say that it was just Grudgebearer’s turn.

JLN: If the project sounds like fun, I’m eager to try it. I don’t like to be bound by one type of fiction or another. If I can work out a coherent plot and style, and have access to relevant research, there aren’t any other obstacles I can see.

DD: Did you face any obstacles in switching between genres? Feel free to discuss writing issues or any more practical and/or commercial concerns.

GZM: I really didn’t encounter any obstacles. I’m tremendously grateful for the flexibility from my publishers to let me try new things. And I didn’t ‘switch’ so much as added on, so I’m still writing an epic fantasy book series (plus a series of epic fantasy short stories on ebook) plus the urban fantasy and steampunk.

It’s actually really nice to be able to switch among worlds. I feel like it keeps me fresh and keeps the writing fun.

AJH: Most very successful authors stay in a single genre, sometimes a single series, at least until they become well known. It’s the best way to build a brand identity. If you write in multiple genres, each new book is like starting from scratch. Previous success becomes largely irrelevant in market terms. You’ll get some real fans who will follow you around the bookstore, but until you are very well known, they won’t be many. Many people who work in multiple genres do so under multiple pen names. I don’t, but I’m not convinced I get a lot of cross over from one genre to the next.

DBJ: I think there was a little bit of a learning curve, but it wasn’t steep, and I was able to work through the issues I encountered in rewrites before any of the Thieftaker books saw light of day. The hardest thing about writing the Thieftaker novels is blending my fictional elements with the historical timelines and details that I use as a framework for my stories. But that is also the best thing about writing them—it’s a challenge, but it’s tremendous fun. From a commercial perspective, I did face a branding issue. I had been writing epic fantasy for long enough that readers came to expect something specific from my books. And that was why Tor and I together decided that I should write the Thieftaker books under a different name: D.B. Jackson. Overall, though, I can’t say that I encountered any serious problems with the transition.

SC: A common piece of advice for writers is to find your voice and build an audience based on that voice. Unfortunately for me, a menagerie of voices live inside my head. Perhaps I’m limiting my marketability by jumping around, or maybe readers will gravitate to the work with full knowledge that reading a Suzanne Church story might take them to places they never expected. I have considered writing under pseudonyms for each genre, but have not yet acted on the idea.

C&SG: Research. It’s always a challenge to immerse yourself in a new world, but that is also one of the pleasures. We never had commercial concerns because we’ve never really been shoved into a publishing niche (guess we’re not big enough yet!) and often we made the jump into a new genre because a commercial opportunity presented itself to us.

JFL: Epic fantasy novels take me a lot longer to write than urban fantasy. The world-building, in particular, was more complicated and much more detailed.  Every time I revised the way something worked, I had to go back through all the bits I’d written and make sure everything still fit and made sense. I also had to make sure that the world-building fit into the background, carried along by a character-driven plot rather than info-dumped into expository sections.

JLN: Not really. I’ve been very lucky in what I’ve been able to do. Commercially, every time you change genres, you have to convince a new set of editors that you can supply what they need. That probably means you will almost certainly have to produce an entire book in your new chosen genre, instead of selling on a paragraph, an outline, or three chapters and a synopsis as you might have with your regular editor. Once you’re established with a new editor, you can propose future work more easily.

DD: Did you find there were any benefits from switching genres and if so, please describe?

GZM: It’s always a benefit to have a chance to reach new readers. Some people might discover me in one sub-genre and then like what they’ve read enough to go looking for my other books. Plus, I’m a full-time writer, so being busy is good!

AJH: Sanity, for me at least J Variety keeps me fresh and enthusiastic about what I’m doing. The idea of writing an endless series of James Bond stories or something leaves me cold. And I think you learn from writing in one genre in ways which enrich your writing when you return to a different one. We live, after all, in the age of mash up.

DBJ: I’ve found that switching has been incredibly beneficial for a number of reasons. First of all, I’m having a wonderful time writing the urban fantasies. I still love epic fantasy, and I can certainly see going back to write more in the near future, but in the meantime, writing the Thieftaker and Justis Fearsson books has been great fun. But more, it has forced me to grow as a writer. Urban fantasy tends to be tightly written and tightly plotted, and it tends to be focused very closely on a single point of view character. In all of these respects, the subgenre is significantly different from the longer extended story arcs and multiple point of view storytelling of epic fantasy. So I needed to adjust my writing style, and as a result, I feel that I am now writing better than I ever have before. My books are leaner, more focused. My character work is more complex and nuanced. And these are skills that I will be able to carry back to epic fantasy, or to any other genre or subgenre, as my career moves forward

I’m also reaching a wider audience. Bringing mystery and history to my fantasy has allowed me to attract readers who are interested in books that cross genre boundaries. Basically, the switch to new genres has been a really positive thing for me. I’m enjoying my writing more, I’ve honed my craft, I’ve reached new readers. An author really can’t ask for more than that.

SC: For the last four years, one of my genre-mixed stories has been chosen as a finalist for the Canadian Aurora Awards. In 2012, “The Needle’s Eye” won for Best Short Fiction (English), and that story has a science fiction premise, the opening sequence qualifies as a horror scene, and I included a moment that would certainly belong in a romance novel. This year’s nominee, “Living Bargains” (the awards will be announced in October) is the darkest, most horrific science fiction story I’ve ever written.

Ultimately, freedom is the tastiest benefit of genre-switching. When I sit down to write, I don’t have the pressure to write a particular type of story. Instead, I sit at my computer, activate a playlist of songs that matches my mood, and follow the characters in my head as they face the day’s challenges.

C&SG: Aside from the joy of tackling something new and perhaps outside of our normal comfort zone, there is also the prospect of reaching new readers. While most readers are happy jumping between varieties of genres, there are also those who stay tried and true.

JFL: A lot of satisfaction! Does a fantastic cover by Todd Lockwood count? Swapping genres also let me work with a good friend of mine, Lou Anders, who is a wonderful editor, a great friend, and one heck of a writer. After you get Grudgebearer, you should absolutely check out Lou’s first novel: Frostborn.

JLN: I like trying new things. It freshens up the writing experience. I get to flex new muscles and try out new styles. For example, I just wrote a steampunk horror story. Before that, I wrote an epic set in a world of cat people. Before that, I plotted out an SF military novel. In the meanwhile, I’m finishing a contemporary fantasy novella and working on a couple of YA projects. Also, if one genre is slumping in the marketplace, you have another outlet or more for your work.

DD: If you had the experience to do over, would you attempt genre-switching again?  Why or why not?

GZM: Oh, absolutely! I’m having too much fun to quit now!

AJH: If I had set out to make a fortune from my writing alone, I might have stuck to a single genre, but no. I like the freedom to move around if I find a new kind of book exciting.

DBJ: Absolutely, for all the reasons I mention above.

SC: Yes. Definitely. I have such a short attention span that I don’t think I could ever be happy limiting myself to one subgenre. And I’m willing to pay whatever price comes along with that liberty.

C&SG: Absolutely. We enjoy flexing our creative muscles and so long as we feel we can do the genre justice and bring a great story to the readers then we are happy to play in a new sandbox. If we couldn’t do that, it would show all too easily that we were inexperienced. That’s when you give it a pass.

JFL: Certainly. I have a lot of stories in my head, and they’re not all in the same genre. I want to take a few more trips with the Void City cast and in the Grudgebearer universe. I also have more stories to tell about Marlo Morne, the Zaomancer in “A Corpse of Mistaken Identity” (available now as an ebook on Amazon). In the future, I’d also like to write some middle grades fiction, comics, and at least one homicidal cyborg love story.

JLN: Absolutely. I think it’s fun. It certainly doesn’t hurt one’s marketability to be able to write more than one kind of story.

DD: What practical advice can you offer other writers who are considering a major genre switch?

GZM: Know the genres you’re writing in. Read a lot in that genre to understand what people are expecting and get ideas of what to do differently to make it your own.

AJH: Make sure you know the new genre as well as you do the one you just left, and think seriously about the time this new project will take you away from what you were doing before. If you have fans clamoring for more of what you were doing, you leave them hanging at your peril. I’d also say that people sometimes genre hop for the wrong reasons. They decide to write, say, YA because they think it’s a hot market. You should write what you love, not what you think will make you successful.

DBJ: The best piece of advice I can offer is to read extensively in the genre to which the author is planning to move. Each subgenre has its own style, its own tropes, its own taboos, and the best way to get a feel for those is to dive in and experience them for ourselves. I would also suggest talking to other authors about their work in the genre, and, if your relationship with that author allows it, asking them to be beta readers for your early efforts.

But after that, there isn’t much I can suggest that wouldn’t apply to writing in any genre. Genre and subgenre are important for marketing purposes, and it’s true that fans of each subgenre will expect certain things—which is why you want to learn the style and tropes. But good storytelling is good storytelling. Writers in all genres rely on strong character development, innovative plotting, evocative setting. Write the best novel you can write using those narrative elements, and figure out what subgenre you’re in later.

SC: The usual advice comes to mind. Read plenty of fiction in the new genre. Consider a pseudonym if you’re concerned you’ll alienate your readers. Be fearless.

C&SG: Always be sure that the story you want to tell is a good one and you can tell it well enough to stand proudly amongst those who make that genre their home. Know your new genre well enough to know that your incredible fresh direction wasn’t done by Asimov 70 years ago. That said, don’t be afraid to revisit tropes, but give them a fresh spin; do something unique. Genres survive by playing on the reader’s desire for something familiar, but with a twist. Also make sure you don’t alienate your old readers. Give them something to follow you over to your new genre for, a hint perhaps of what made you their favorite in the first place. Ultimately the genre isn’t the thing that sells you as a writer. Readers want great characters doing interesting things. If you’ve got that, you can succeed in westerns or romance or science fiction.

JFL: Continue to support your past works; don’t orphan them or abandon your existing fans. Be prepared to spend additional time on your first few novels in your new genre. If possible, keep the best traits of your writing when crossing genres, so that your existing fans will quickly find something they love in your new works. For example, fans seem to consistently remark on the sense of humor in the Void City series and I have tried (and beta readers say I’ve succeeded) keeping that sense of humor going in the Grudgebearer series.

JLN: Read your target genre to see if you like it. I was once asked to write a straight romance novel, no magic, no SF, no mystery elements. It didn’t work for me. On the other hand, some of the things I have been asked to write I’ve just loved.

DD: Are there any Dragon Con 2014 panels you would recommend for potential genre-jumpers?

GZM: I recommend both the Writing Track panels and panels within the subgenre you’re considering writing in, to learn the craft and also hear from authors already in the genre.

AJH: I’d sample multiple tracks, particularly those in literature. You never know when something might spark an idea. And, of course, the writing track is a great place to hear writers talking about the craft and business of writing.

DBJ: I’ll be in a panel called “Magnificent Men of Fantasy Literature” on Saturday at 1pm (Hyatt Centennial I), along with Jonathan Maberry, Jim Butcher, Kevin J. Anderson, and Larry Niven. All of us have written in multiple subgenres, and with Nancy Knight moderating we’re bound to touch on a host of subjects that will be helpful to aspiring writers in any and all of them.

I would also recommend a panel I’m doing on Sunday at 4pm (Hyatt Embassy D-F) called “Peopling Your Fiction,” with Faith Hunter, Gail Z. Martin, Chelsea Quinn Yarbro, Richard Lee Byers, and Chesya Burke. This is a panel on character development, and again it includes authors who have had great success in a number of subgenres talking about writing issues that transcend genre boundaries.

That said though, I would reiterate that the elements of good writing transcend book categories. I’m on a bunch of panels all weekend long—as are so many of the other terrific writers attending the con—and all of them will prove helpful to aspiring writers.

SC: During my reading on Saturday at 2:30PM (Hyatt University), I’ll be reading excerpts from Elements, including some science fiction, some fantasy, and some horror, so there’ll be plenty of yummy goodness for fans of any speculative fiction subgenre. I’m looking forward to attending “Why Actors Choose the Roles They Choose” on Saturday at 4PM (Hyatt International North). The description reads, “Trying to get your novel produced is difficult. One shortcut might be through an actor. Actors discuss what they are looking for in a property.”

C&SG: Don’t have a good answer here. Haven’t studied the panels this year.

JFL: That’s a tricky one. It depends on where a writer is in their career. I mean, technically, I genre-jumped to Void City from a couple of other novels that may live out their lives in an attic. But overall, I’d just say make sure you’re prepared and that you really know your genre. With that in mind, there are several Writers’ Track panels that might be beneficial to potential genre-jumpers including “Things I Wish Some Pro Had Told Me,” “World-building 101,” and the “Final Frontier of Fiction.” Then, depending on the destination genre, there are several genre-specific panels that might be beneficial, such as “Writing for the Young Adult Market,” “Comedy Writing,” “Writing for the GBLT Market,” “Writing Smart YA Sci Fi,” “What’s Next in Urban Fantasy,” “Fiction and the Silk Road,” “The Big Stuff” (sci fi), and “Gender Roles in Fantasy Literature.”

JLN: Again, visit the genre you’d like to try. Sit in on a panel discussion or so. If it’s a how-to on the Writers’ Track, ask the questions that would help you decide if you can write it, or if you’d rather just read it. And just try it. You won’t know for sure until you do.

Interested in our featured authors? Visit them online at Gail Z. Martin, A. J. Hartley, D. B. Jackson, Suzanne Church, Clay and Susan Griffith, J. F. Lewis, and Jody Lynn Nye.

Author of the article

Amy Herring

Amy L. Herring (Louise Herring-Jones) writes speculative fiction, with a preference for historical fantasy and alternate mystery. Her stories, appearing in fourteen anthologies, include “The Poulterer’s Tale” in God Bless Us, Every One—Christmas Carols beyond Dickens (Voodoo Rumors Media, expected release 2019). Amy is a NaNoWriMo co-municipal liaison. She also coordinates the Huntsville (Alabama) Literary Association’s writers’ group. Visit her online at http://www.louiseherring-jones.com.

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