20 May 2017

Genre-Hopping and Conclusion-Jumping



by John M. Floyd



In one of the forums (fora? fori?) that I regularly read online, members have been reporting their writing goals for 2017, and whether their year-to-date progress is meeting their expectations. After all, we're almost halfway done. As for me, I'm not much of a goal-setter (or goalkeeper), but those discussions have made me, for a change, take a look at my own writing output.

Non-vital statistics

So far this year, I've had 14 short stories published and I have 12 accepted and upcoming. They cover several genres, but it's skewed heavily toward crime stories. Twenty of those twenty-six are mystery stories, two are westerns, two are fantasy, one's horror, and one's romance. The interesting thing is that even those descriptions are misleading, since all six of my non-mystery sales still involve some degree of crime and/or deception. So I suppose they're "mixed-genre" stories: western/mystery, fantasy/mystery, etc.
I don't think that's unusual. Most of the writers I know genre-hop from time to time (it's the only kind of exercise I really enjoy), and I suppose there are pluses and minuses involved. Yes, it helps to be consistent and market your fiction to a specific audience and "establish a brand"--but it's also fun to dabble in more than one kind of writing. Some of my favorite novels, movies, and stories are hybrids. The Princess Bride was a romance/adventure/comedy/fantasy, To Kill a Mockingbird was a mystery/literary/Southern/coming-of-age/courtroom drama, and one reviewer called The Man From Snowy River a romantic Australian western.

What always surprises me is that most readers, and some writers, don't buy into the widely-accepted definition of "mystery" fiction. As has been said many times at this blog, a short story or a novel can be considered a mystery if a crime is central to the plot. That's enough to get you into a mystery magazine or onto the mystery shelves in the bookstore. And some definitions are even broader: it's a mystery if the story contains even the threat or the implication of a crime. Even so, many reviewers of the well-known "best-of" mystery anthologies always complain because an included story was not what they consider to be a mystery. The conclusion to which they have jumped is that it has to be a traditional mystery, and that the identity of the villain must be kept secret until the ending. It doesn't. Mysteries don't have to be whodunits. They can be howdunits, or whydunits, or howcatchems. Or howtheygotawaywithits.

A juggling act

Back to the subject at hand. I recently saw an online piece by author Nathan Bransford, who pointed out that genre-hopping is not always the best move. He says, and rightly so, that switching from one genre to another usually works best after a writer has already achieved a certain level of success and recognition. In another piece, author Kimberley Grabas seems to agree: "Ideally, the 'wise' course of action is to specialize. To conquer your niche first. Then branch out (if you wish) after you've gained some mastery in one area and have developed a sizable following around that genre." Sure, John Grisham wrote A Painted HouseBleachersPlaying for PizzaSkipping Christmas, etc., none of which had anything to do with crime or courtrooms--but he's John Grisham.

I should mention here that some authors are incredibly good at switch-hitting. Who would believe, unless he/she knew already, that Chitty Chitty Bang Bang was written by Ian Fleming, or Terms of Endearment by Larry McMurtry? Think about it: "3:10 to Yuma" was Elmore Leonard, Exit to Eden was Anne Rice, and Deliverance was poet James Dickey. And by the way, if you've not read the short story "The Last Rung on the Ladder" by Stephen King, I urge you to search it out (it was included in his collection Night Shift). It contains no horror or any kind of creepiness, and is one of the best "literary" stories I've read. It'll bring tears to your eyes.

Longs and shorts

Here's another point: I think genre-hopping is far easier for short-story writers than for novelists. Maybe the establishment of a brand isn't as important for shorties; we work on a much smaller stage and with a smaller potential audience. Also, we shorts writers obviously produce a lot more individual pieces than novelists do (unless maybe you're Stephen King), so wandering off the beaten path now and then isn't as serious a matter as it might be to a novelist or to a novelists's fan base. In any case, I've found that mixing and/or jumping from one genre to another makes the writing process a lot more fun. At least for me.
What do you think? Do you stick to one genre or pingpong between them? If you haven't tried writing/publishing in more than one genre, do you ever plan to? If you have, do you think it's hurt your sales or your ability to reach and keep readers? Do you think the don't-genre-hop "rule" applies more to novels than to shorts? Do you like to write and read "mixed-genre" fiction that combines one or more in the same story--or do you prefer your drinks undiluted and your colors primary? Again, I don't mind hybrids--which probably makes sense. I'm pretty mixed-up anyway.

To each his own.





25 comments:

Paul D. Marks said...

Twenty-six stories, John. Wow! And congratulations.

As for me, I write mostly crime stories, but I've had other things published as well. Some mainstream, some humor/satire. Even a couple of horror stories. I never thought I'd do the latter but anthology editors asked me to do stories for their anthologies. It was a stretch, but I managed.

Art Taylor said...

So impressed with your output, John! I'm not sure how you do all you do--and that includes writing insightful, provocative blog posts as well. I enjoyed this one, as always, and do appreciate your points here. I agree that it's likely easier for a short story writer to hop through different genres, styles, lengths, and more--though have had that question myself about what I might be doing to my brand (do I have one?) with such moves. Beginning writers especially, and especially in the current market, have to be more aware of that, I think, and especially if they're looking toward book deals down the road.

janice law said...

I am amazed at your productivity- and your obviously devastating market research skills.
Whatever you are doing, don't change a thing.

Bill Crider said...

I've written mysteries, westerns, horror, men's adventure, books for kids, and even a little SF. I never had a brand, and that's probably bad, but I sure had fun.

John Floyd said...

Thanks, Paul. I too have written stories in other genres to try to fit into a certain anthology, and I've always found that to be fun. Mostly, though, a different-genre story idea will just pop into my head and I can't get rid of it. If you consider humor a genre/subgenre, I guess that's the one I cross-pollinate with more than any other. Almost all my stories, whether crime or not, whether serious or lighthearted, seem to contain some humor.

Art, like you, I don't even know if I have a brand. (If so, I don't remember it hurting when it was applied.) And yes, I think sticking to one genre is a bigger deal if you're just starting out and are preparing for a career writing novels. That's way more long-range planning than I've ever done anyway--I tend to do more empty-headed frolicking among the daisies.

Thank you, Janice! I'm not overly confident about my marketing skills, if I have any (I was serious in my recent column about self-doubt), but the story ideas do somehow keep coming, and I guess that's the important thing.

Bill, you do all of them well, my friend. I propose we remain unbranded.

Steve Liskow said...

Wow, John, this is amazing. I don't think I've written twenty-six stories worth sending out, and you do it year after year.

I agree with your definition of a mystery, though, that involving a crime is all that matters. It's a more flexible idea, which gives us more possibilities. I'm belatedly realizing that more of my crime stories sell if they are NOT the traditional "whodunnit." Five of my stories will come out this year, and three are from the POV of the "bad guy" who gets away with it. Four others are floating around, and two of those don't have the crime solved, either.

Does that slant give us more chances to explore issues and character? I don't know, but I continue to admire both your productivity and your skill. Keep it up so I can keep learning.

John Floyd said...

Thank you, Steve. YES, I think that broad definition gives us far more possibilities.

I'm intrigued by the idea that your stories are more likely to sell if they're not traditional mysteries--I think that goes for me as well. And yes, it's fun to tell these crime stories from the bad guy's POV. And effective, too: I've sold a lot of those. Many times I've heard actors say it's more challenging and enjoyable to play the villain than the hero. And I agree that these different kinds of storylines give us more of an opportunity to explore the characters and the issues. Good point.

I do so appreciate your kind words. I think all of us, here at SleuthSayers and throughout the writing community, are always learning from each other. Keep up the great work!!

O'Neil De Noux said...

Bill Crider is correct about not having a brand is bad. I started writing police procedural novels and short stories but my mind wouldn't stay there. It drifted to other genres and I followed it. During the 1990s when money was even tighter for me than now, I found a niche in erotica and wrote a lot of it. I've had stories published in many genres from mysteries and crime fiction to historical fiction, children’s fiction, mainstream fiction, science-fiction, fantasy, horror, western, literary, religious, romance, humor and erotica. My novels include mysteries, crime fiction, historical, young adult, paranormal which means I'm all over the place. I followed the lead of one of my heroes Elmore Leonard and Kate Wilhelm and publish everything under my name. I wrote it - I claim it. So I'm a writer of too many colors and there is my weakness. I'm all over the place. Such is life. You write what you feel. I'm in the middle of another historical mystery set in 1900 New Orleans. Love writing it.

John Floyd said...

O'Neil, you're one of the first writers I think of when we talk about this topic of switching genres. You have indeed been successful in many, and not everyone has that kind of versatility. It's not a weakness, by the way--as you pointed out, you write what you like, and it shows. It occurs to me that maybe you've established a new genre: New Orleans fiction.

Leonard was of course one of my heroes as well, and I loved his westerns as well as his crime stories. (Loren Estleman is another who's good at both.) And I hadn't thought about the fact that Leonard never used (as far as I know) a pseudonym. Interesting.

Didn't Lawrence Block start out writing erotica? I think so.

Thanks for the comment. And I'm looking forward to that next N.O. novel. Keep 'em coming.

Eve Fisher said...

John, you are humblingly productive and published... I've got to up my game.
I jump genres all the time: mysteries, sci-fi, mixed, humor, literary. I agree with O'Neil, although (again), I'm nowhere near as prolific: you write what you feel.

John Floyd said...

Good for you, Eve! I think we hoppers are in the majority rather than the minority--I can't think of many of our writer friends who don't regularly try writing in other genres or (as we've said) mixing several within a single story.

And yes, "write what you feel" has to be better advice than "write what you know." I'm glad George Lucas felt like people who lived in a galaxy far, far away.

Jeff Baker said...

I've done my share of genre-hopping (mainly short-stories) and I generally write for the market. I have at least one story idea where I have no idea what genre it's going to fit!

David Dean said...

Every now and then, I think of myself as prolific--then I remember you, John! You sure must eat your Wheaties, or...you've got that large, beautiful family of yours locked up in a writing sweat shop grinding out stories for you! Admit it! Okay, maybe not that, but I bet I'm close.

Great discussion and piece here. I'm something of a genre-crosser; in fact I'm working on a story right now that reads like a crime story in the beginning, segues into horror toward the end, then back out again at the conclusion. My book, "The Thirteenth Child", is a horror novel built on a police procedural, and I've written one novel of Catholic fiction. Mostly though, I write crime stories, though they are seldom whodunits.

Branding, if it has anything to do with fame and riches, has eluded me.

I loved reading everyone's thoughts and experiences on this topic. Now I'm not so lonely anymore.

Melodie Campbell said...

Oh man, can I talk to this one. I have another career as a fantasy writer. In fact, the Land's End series was my break and butter, and is still the one with the biggest fan club.

But most of the world views me as a crime writer of two mystery series. Not too long ago, I had a novella published that crossed genres. Code Name: Gypsy Moth is one of my favourite works. It's a spy story set in a bar at the end of the universe. Here's what happened: I managed to alienate the mystery readers, because the setting was sci-fi, and I confused the sci-fi readers, because it was essentially a mystery.

So while I write SSF,and also crime, and both are broad comedy, I find the audiences don't cross over. Sadly.
This was a huge surprise to me.

B.K. Stevens said...

Wonderful post, John. Like others, I'm amazed and humbled by your productivity, especially since your stories are always so good. I haven't tried as many genres as many people who have responded, unless humor counts--like you, I've got at least some humor in most of my stories. I did write (and eventually find a publisher for) one story that blended mystery with horror and a trace of science fiction. And one of my novels is a young adult mystery--writing that was a lot of fun. In response to a post you wrote a while ago, I said I hoped you'd inspire me to be more adventurous. That hasn't quite happened yet, but maybe it still will.

John Floyd said...

Jeff, if you write "for a market" these days, I think mystery or SF is probably the way to go. We all know there are fewer markets for genre stories, period, than there used to be, but there are especially few for romance, horror, and western. At least it seems that way to me.

Hey David! I wish I DID have an story-assembly-line family producing these things for me--I'd have more time for watching movies. And I love your observation about branding, and its fame and riches. I too have somehow missed out on those. But I'm doing fine in the fun department.

By the way, from comments made by you and Steve Liskow, I'm thinking that there must be a good many of us "mystery" folks who rarely write whodunits. And I'm reminded that Elmore Leonard (who I think won an Edgar and was named Grand Master by MWA) once confessed that he'd never written a "real" mystery in his life. Maybe we're in good company.

John Floyd said...

Melodie, that's interesting, about the non-crossover of the audience between mystery and SF. I like both, a lot, and especially the mix of mystery and fantasy. (And I like your terminology: you've ALIENated the mystery readers with your SF, Sort of like Ridley Scott alienated Ellen Ripley.)

Hey, you're good at both genres, and that's the important thing.

Bonnie, thank you for those kind words. I've always liked the humor you put into your stories, and I've tried to do the same. Also like you, I've done some YA fiction over the past few years (shorts, not novels, in my case), and they seem to have done well--probably because they can be sold to the regular mystery/fantasy/SF markets too. Thanks for chiming in, here!!

R.T. Lawton said...

Gee, John, you got $500 for a Woman's World mini-mystery ("Special Delivery") May 29, 2017 issue where the solution was that the post office is closed on Memorial Day and here I sit thinking we can check out Homer's alibi with the Post Master to see if he did give Miss Maggie's mail to Homer that morning. By the time I got back to the front porch where Angela and the Sheriff were, Homer could've done a runner.

John Floyd said...

R.T., I doubt Homer was a Rhodes Scholar, but I think he could've come up with a lot better reason than that, for having stopped by her house that day. Truth is, he probably should've done a runner as soon as he stole the loot.

As you well know, old friend, those little stories are GREAT fun to write. This one was #86, and 87 and 88 have been accepted and are coming up in June and July. And they even kept my original title for this story, which is rare.

Thanks so much for checking in, on this!

Michael Bracken said...

John, you slacker. I've had 19 stories published so far this year and have received 22 acceptances.

At a quick glance, I see at least four different genres represented among those stories. I didn't intend to be a multi-genre writer when I started writing, but if I followed the advice to "conquer [my] niche first," I might never had made all the sales I have.

I intended to be a science fiction/fantasy writer. I sold a few stories and collected a lot of rejections. At the suggestion of a men's magazine editor who rejected one of my SF stories (saying something along the lines of "I liked this but we don't publish SF. What else do you have?"), I wrote my first mystery. He bought it. He also bought my second mystery. He rejected my third mystery but the next editor I sent it to bought it.

That's when I realized I might be trying too hard to conquer a niche for which I was unsuited. I also realized I wasn't limited to any one genre and should try them all to learn where hard work and innate talent would lead to the greatest success. (Though I've sold a story or two in nearly every genre, crime fiction and women's fiction [both sometimes combined with erotica] have led to the greatest number of sales.)

My goal this year, as it has been for the past several years, is to sell an average of one story a week. To do that requires me to produce no less than one story each week. For roughly the past year, my monthly goal has been to produce two pieces of women's fiction, one piece of crime fiction, and one "other." The other might be another piece of women's fiction or another piece of crime fiction, or it might be something else entirely.

Anyhow, I don't think writers--especially short story writers--should allow themselves to be limited by genre. If we write good stories and find editors who'll publish them, we will also find readers willing to share our literary adventures.

John Floyd said...

Hey Michael! Congrats as always on your story production, old bud--you are indeed a lean mean fiction machine. I can feel myself choking on your dust, but I'm pedaling as fast as I can!

I couldn't agree more with your final point: why should writers, and especially writers of shorts--limit themselves to one genre? If only one of them interests you, that's fine, but usually our ideas also drift into areas other than those in our "comfort zone." Good stories are good stories, and that's all that matters.

Keep turning 'em out--if you do, I'll keep reading 'em.

A Broad Abroad said...

The Last Rung on the Ladder - Stephen King
https://docs.google.com/document/d/13IwbGuAmKbfCvl719MtYZMpgQWDKurPlDmnkZ9lh-AY/edit

John Floyd said...

ABA -- Thanks so much for posting that story by Stephen King! Hope others will enjoy it as much as I did.

Kaye George said...

You don't need to bother with goals, with achievements like this! I may quote this: Mysteries don't have to be whodunits. They can be howdunits, or whydunits, or howcatchems. Or howtheygotawaywithits.

Very nice. Thanks for the post.

John Floyd said...

Thanks, Kaye--and thanks for stopping in, here. I do admire the practice of setting goals--I'm probably just too lazy to go through the process myself. As for the ideas and misconceptions of what mysteries are, I'm grateful for that broad definition ("a mystery is any story in which a crime is central to the plot"). That encompasses a lot of fiction. I've seen that definition used most often by Otto Penzler, in the criteria he sets for his Best American Mystery Stories series.