The question of genre

Arthur Conan Doyle room, Toronto Reference Lib...

Arthur Conan Doyle room, Toronto Reference Library (Special Collections) (Photo credit: Toronto Public Library Special Collections)

“Do one thing every day that scares you.” Eleanor Roosevelt said.

Do you have to write in the same genre? Should you use a pen name?

(For those who don’t know it, genre is the category in which you write – mystery, science fiction, etc.)

It seems as if everyone is playing with genre today, Stephen King became Richard Bachman to write the stories he was compelled to as a writer that weren’t necessarily horror, Nora Robert writes great futuristic murder mysteries a J. D. Robb. John Grisham is getting away from strictly legal suspense, James Patterson is writing Young Adult stories about genetically altered kids. One also has to go back to Edgar Allen Poe – noted for his horror, he also introduced the world to detective fiction. And Arthur Conan Doyle wrote speculative fiction as well as Sherlock Holmes. So it’s not exactly new.

So when exactly did we start getting stuck with genres and categories? To some extent, when traditional publishers began to control more and more of the publishing industry. In the early days there were more options, Charles Dickens and Arthur Conan Doyle serialized their fiction in newspapers and magazines. There were also a great deal more magazines that featured fiction, and would take work from new, untried writers. As those died out and book publishers became the primary method of getting published, though, the process became tighter, more narrow. You can’t really blame them – although their meat and potatoes were writers, they were also a business. Untried writers were a gamble, but as profit lines became tighter, publishers had to choose which writers to take a risk on – and the tried and true was safer. Better to have a thousand versions of a vampire story because vampires were popular.

What about you, though, the writer – and of course, all you readers. Do you have to stay with a genre?

Well, that depends on you. Some people are comfortable with a particular genre. (Heck, I know one person who only reads one writer!) I’ve heard a few times from folks (a bit in the minority, but they have that right)  that they’re not always happy when a writer changes genres. They like the style and path the writer is following. On the other hand, I’ve stopped reading some writers because they don’t leave their formulas, their characters aren’t learning or growing from their mistakes. (Some also became a bit depressing.)

If you don’t stay with one genre, how do you handle it? Do you use a pen name?

Again, that’s up to you as a writer, and I’ve heard differing opinions on it. Some readers have missed other books by an author they liked because it was under a pen name, others use it to know which books to avoid. I’d can also offer three examples of differing ways to handle it. Stephen King’s Bachman books lingered a bit in obscurity until he finally said they were his. Or at least that’s how I remember it.  If it weren’t for that we wouldn’t have The Shawshank Redemption or The Body – which became Stand by Me, a great little coming of age story. Nora Roberts, on the other hand, did fairly well with J.D. Robb, but I didn’t know the two were the same until I read about it somewhere. For myself, I write under my own name in any genre that strikes my fancy, but put my erotica under a pen name for branding purposes. Anyone  who reads a V. J. Devereaux knows they’ll be extra spicy, something with which some of my mainstream fans might have difficulty. I have two separate web pages and e-mail addresses, but both contains links to each other. I’m not trying to hide anything.

The big question, though, is… should you? Which takes me back to the quote at the top of the page.

As writers I don’t think it’s ever a bad idea to go places that stretch your skills, to try things you haven’t tried, to do the thing that scares you. Even if it doesn’t work, you’ll have found that out.

Lately I’ve tried standard fiction…a sort of Nicholas Sparks type novel. Am I scared folks won’t like it? You betcha! But, I liked the story and I needed to tell it – the key sign, I think, that it was the right thing to do.

I tried a horror novel, too, something I never thought I’d try, and that one was positively painful to write some days. It seems to work, though. We’ll see.

To quote Dickens –

“It was the best of times, it was the worst of times; it was the age of wisdom, it was the age of foolishness; it was the epoch of belief, it was the epoch of incredulity; it was the season of Light, it was the season of Darkness; it was the spring of hope, it was the winter of despair; we had everything before us, we had nothing before us; we were all going directly to Heaven, we were all going the other way.”

One of the best things about being a writer right now is all the options available, the ability to try new things without restrictions. We also have to deal with the marketing and all bits and pieces that publishers used to do. We’re living in the best time of all to be a writer, and the best time of all to be a reader.

*grins* Some, of course, will disagree.


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Valerie Douglas is a prolific writer and genre-crosser, much to the delight of her fans. She reads and writes classic fantasy, romance, suspense, and as V.J. Devereaux, erotic romance. Who knows what will pop up down the road!

Happily married, she’s companion to two dogs, three cats and an African clawed frog named Hopper who delights in tormenting the cats from his tank.

Valerie Douglas is the co-founder and one of the administrators of the 12,000+ member Indie Author Group – supporting writers around the world.
Visit her blog at Valerie Douglas, Author at Large

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