March 5th, 2021

Shifting Gears in Your Writing

by James Preston

I remember being 14 years-old and getting my first driving lesson, which consisted of sitting behind the wheel of my dad’s 1960 Ford Galaxy while it was parked in our driveway. The idea was for me to get familiar with the pedals and controls, but I used the time to entertain my mom.

“Truck! Look out, big truck!  Oh, no, we’re on the train tracks — train, it’s a train!”

I let go of the steering wheel and dove down into the footwell. Next to me, my mother was laughing so hard she couldn’t stop.

The Ford was a stick shift, with the lever mounted on the steering column — the infamous “three on the tree.”

She took the time to get me familiar with the care because changing gears adds a new level of complexity to driving, and so does shifting writing gears.

What does shifting gears with your writing mean?

What does it mean to shift writing gears? Why would you do it? Below, I’ve offered a few examples of writers who cross genres successfully. Hopefully, by the end of the post, you will be able to describe the process involved and state whether or not it’s for you.

And if there are big trucks ready to run you down, we’ll try to show you how to avoid them.

Shifting Gears Definition

If you are like me, you write genre fiction. In bookstores and on the web you are “siloed” into mystery, romance, science fiction, or into the smaller subgroups like paranormal shapeshifter. Shifting gears means that you want to try another silo — write a historical romance instead of a ray-gun-filled space opera.

It’s important to remember that these categories exist for a reason. Whether they are in a bookstore or browsing online, readers can search for “Romance” and find the books they are interested in all in one place.

(And if you’re thinking, “My novel is totally new and different. It crosses all genres and cannot be pigeonholed,” see the WITS essay by Chuck Sambuchino in the Reference section below.)

Examples of Successful Gear Shifts

Mary Higgins Clark

Clark wrote short stories with some success until her husband died and left her with five children to support. She tried a novel about George and Martha Washington that flopped, then turned to mysteries. The rest — fifty, yes, fifty — books later is history.

Michael Crichton

I have read that while in medical school at Harvard he supported himself writing mysteries, before switching to science fiction. That’s amazing. I’m in awe (and a bit jealous), just as I am of Mary Higgins Clark.

Geez, usually I enjoy writing these essays. This one’s making me feel inadequate.

Stephen King

The master of horror switched to mysteries and wrote The Colorado Kid and then Joyland. The latter went on to be nominated for the 2014 Edgar as Best Paperback Original. In this case I do not feel inadequate since he’s probably not human.

Jayne Ann Krentz

Amazingly prolific, she writes under the names Amanda Quick for historical, Jane Castle for science fiction, and Jayne Ann Krentz for present day romances. I may have missed a few. And here’s a twist: she follows the same families and organizations through all three genres and settings. 

J. K. Rowling

She only wrote stories that are probably the Wizard of Oz of our time, now she’s done the Robert Galbraith modern mysteries, which have been turned into a successful tv series.

And finally . . . 

Yours Truly

I broke into fiction writing science fiction short stories, selling my first one to Analog Science Fiction. But I had a clearly articulated goal: I wanted to write for a living.

I looked at my work and realized two things. First, I needed to write novels. I could not sell enough short stories to support myself. Second, my sci-fi stories were really thrillers with ray guns. (Ok that last is not strictly true. I’ve never included a ray gun in any of my stories.)

Also, I met the editor who bought my first story and asked him why he didn’t buy the sequel — boy, you talk about young, stupid, and brash. I blush to share that. If you take nothing else away from this essay, remember that. He said, “You’re really writing a novel. Why don’t you go away and write it?” I did and after a bumpy road it became Leave A Good-Looking Corpse.

And that leads to . . . 

First Gear

Ok, in a stick shift first is the lowest gear, designed to overcome the inertia of the car and get it moving.

If you switch, move to a genre you love. I have never met such an individual, but I’ve been told there are “writers” who say things like, “I’ve never read one, but I know sexy teen vampire novels are hot right now so I’m going to write a few before I do my serious literary work.”

Don’t switch for marketing. Do it for love.

Second Gear

Ok, so you are ready for a change. Deciding what you want to write next should be easy. What was the last book you read that you loved? That’s it. Enough said.

Third Gear

With this gear, you’re ready for the freeway. A new genre should be, above all, fun. You’re exploring new territory. Instead of the new governess wondering why the attic room is locked, you’re world-building in a geosynchronous space station. You’re on the freeway with the radio blastin,’ cruisin’ just as fast as you can.

I suggest taking a novel out of the new genre and taking it apart. I did this with Robert Crais’, excellent Lullaby Town, scene-by-scene, and what a learning experience. 

Choose carefully because (1) it’s a lot of work and (2) the novel will be ruined for you. You’ll know it so well you won’t be able to reread it.

Let’s Stretch that Analogy 

If you haven’t noticed, the world of publishing has changed dramatically in the last few years. What does that mean for genres, when readers can search on anything, anything at all?

Well, so far they haven’t gone away. I personally believe people have limited time to read, and many of them like to know what they’re getting. That Search function— like Perseverance — can drive for you.

Yes, our new Rover is in large part autonomous; it drives itself around. Truthfully I have no idea where this will go, but I know two things: story will not go away. And stories will always have labels, and folks like you and me will try to entertain and enlighten. 

And in the end . . . 

The bottom line? Story is story. Tell a good one and you can dress it up in any genre you like and it will work just fine.

It’s all about story. Stuff it into a romance, a thriller, a vampire western, it’s still a story. Your character wants something; something is preventing them from getting it. So go for it, gentle reader, and good luck. 

References and Further Reading

Changing genres is work. Yeah, I know, you thought writing that first novel was work, and it was, and here we go again. The good news is Writers in the Storm has addressed genres in several excellent essays that all provide more information that will help when you decide to get behind the wheel. (Can I torture that poor analogy any more? Sure.)

I’ve picked a few that I especially like. 

Genres Explained: Insights, Tips and Definitions From Literary Agents by Chuck Sambuchino is filled with apt quotations from agents.

Pros & Cons of Skipping Genres by Laura Drake (May 2015) - Gets into POV, Voice, and Research. IMHO, essential if you want to do this.

Creating an Author Brand When You Write Multiple Genres (Nov 2016) - this post from June Stevens Westerfield contains an excellent case study.

Now it’s your turn. Do you write in a genre? Have you thought about switching?

* * * * * *

About James

James R. Preston has always considered writing an adventure, but the last convention he appeared at was over the top. At Left Coast Crime San Diego last March he did a panel discussion. A few hours later the convention was canceled and he got a call from the people running the bookstore, saying, “James, the truck is here. We’re packing up your stuff.” He doesn’t really think it was his fault; people seemed to like the panel. 

And it was pouring rain. Note the wet pants in the selfie below.

30 responses to “Shifting Gears in Your Writing”

  1. Eldred Bird says:

    Up until now, my novels have been adventure/mystery, but my short stories are all over the place. I use them to test the waters of new genres and experiment with POV and character development. However, I am shifting gears with my current WIP. After reading a couple of paranormal fantasies by Stephen Black, an amazing author out of Belfast, I've been fascinated with the genre and have taken the plunge. So far my writer friends have been positive about the story I've described, so we'll see if I can pull it off!

    • Jenny Hansen says:

      Good for you, Bob! I definitely go everywhere in short stories too, whereas my books are mostly mainstream women's fiction.

    • jamesr403 says:

      Hi, Eldred. It sounds like you are taking the plunge into a story you love, so I predict that it will work. Stephen Black? I don't know his work; I'll have to check it out. Any particular suggestions?
      Thanks for the comment!

      • Eldred Bird says:

        Stephen has two books in his Kirkwood Scott series, Skelly's Square and A New Jerusalem, and is currently finishing up book three. There is also a short story call Bomb Girl that bridges between the two books. I've enjoyed all three stories so far and am looking forward to the next one.

        • jamesr403 says:

          Thanks for the tip, Eldred. I looked them up and they look good. Not that I really need more titles in the "To Be Read" stack.

  2. Jenny Hansen says:

    Thanks for this fun post, James! I always think a lot about branding and crossing genres, and how to do both successfully. Like Eldred above, I write a lot of different things - memoir, short stories, book length women's fiction, non-fiction. We authors are the brand, but it's interesting to see how others have managed to keep their balance while they swap or straddle genres.

    • jamesr403 says:

      Thanks, Jenny. Glad you liked it! Memoir is something I did not address in the essay, but it's definitely a change. Do you have a favorite? Or is that like asking which of your children you like the best?

      • Jenny Hansen says:

        I like memoir/creative non-fiction far more than I expected to, and I LOVE writing short stories - the commitment is small but you have to think more creatively to fit everything in. Book length fiction is my biggest challenge. I dream of it being easier, but so far, that hasn't happened.

        • jamesr403 says:

          Oh, Jenny, I think short stories are a real challenge. I think the nature of the story drives the length of the finished product, or at least it should. There's a story about Herman Wouk writing "Winds of War" and he goes to his wife and says, "This thing is getting long!" She says, "Just tell the story," and of course it turned into Winds of War and War and Remembrance.

  3. A. Gardner says:

    Fascinating insights, James. Especially loved the different gears section on how to write for a new genre. Very helpful and motivating.

  4. dholcomb1 says:

    I write romance, but I think I could write women's fiction. I'm not interested in writing other genres--though I will read other genres.

    denise

    • jamesr403 says:

      Denise, it sounds like you have a very clear idea of what you want to devote your writing energies to. Thanks for commenting!

  5. fae rowen says:

    Another fun and thought-provoking post, James. I was the sole science fiction military romance author here at WITS for years. Once I catch up on the SF military romances in my brain, I have a "soft" science fiction (non-technology driven) that was my "original story." It's the reason I started writing, but I knew I had to learn many things to pull off the "epic saga" that it will be. Hopefully, I'll live long enough...

    • Jenny Hansen says:

      You must absolutely live long enough to tell those stories, Fae! I'll be watching for them. 🙂

    • jamesr403 says:

      Jenny's right -- I'll be waiting for the "soft" stories too, On the other hand I love your military romances, too. That's the subject for another essay, isn't it? Allocating your time to the work that's most important to you. Of course, first you have to figure out what flavor of writing you like best. Thanks for bringing up an interesting point! Ok, get back to work.

  6. Alexis Lou says:

    Good job, James! Sound advice as always coming from someone in the trenches. Keep up the good work. 😉

    • jamesr403 says:

      Alexis, I'm glad you liked it. The rest of the driving story is that I was doing it in El Segundo (next to LAX), in Ripley's Believe It Or Not for not having a level street. Learning stick shift when the car is doing its best to roll away is uh, challenging.
      I'm glad the essay helped, if you are considering changing genres. What are you working on now?

  7. Lovely article, James. I write mainly PNR, but have 2 stories I've had on the back burner for some time now. One a science fiction, another a thriller type. Maybe one day I'll have the nerve to ford the river without drowning. And then, of course, there's the subgenre hopping as well, from PNR to contemporary or historical romance. So many options, so little time.

  8. jamesr403 says:

    Brenda, your last line says it best: so many options . . . I'm really glad you liked the article; It was suggested when I was encouraged by my wife Nancy to watch the C. B. Strike series, which is based on the novels by "Robert Galbraith" who is J. K. Rowling. How does she do it?
    Have you decided which of your stories to bring off the back burner first? I know, I know, so little time . . .

  9. raynayday says:

    A couple of comments. Firstly; I enjoyed reading the post. Second write what you want. I am known for Fantasy tales but my bestselling book to date is a contemporary romance. Go figure.

    • jamesr403 says:

      Ray, it looks like this posted as a new comment, not a reply to you.

      Hey, Ray. Welcome to the party! I equate "Write what you want" with "Write what you love." and I couldn't agree more. Good point. I'm glad you write fantasy because it's one of my favorites. I'm working my way through The Wheel of Time again (I'm on number 4, The Shadow Rising so I have a long way to go) and enjoying it enormously. But your contemporary romance sells best? You know, if you have to have a problem, making that kind of choice is a good problem to have.
      And I'm glad you liked the post!
      Thanks for commenting!

  10. jamesr403 says:

    Hey, Ray. Welcome to the party! I equate "Write what you want" with "Write what you love." and I couldn't agree more. Good point. I'm glad you write fantasy because it's one of my favorites. I'm working my way through The Wheel of Time again (I'm on number 4, The Shadow Rising so I have a long way to go) and enjoying it enormously. But your contemporary romance sells best? You know, if you have to have a problem, making that kind of choice is a good problem to have.
    And I'm glad you liked the post!
    Thanks for commenting!

  11. Glen says:

    I found out some interesting stuff reading your post. I generally needed to be in the realm of amusement. I simply love the possibility of a crowd of people being content with what I am doing. Writing is a stage for modest individuals. That is the means by which I see it.

    • jamesr403 says:

      Glen, my apologies. I just noticed that my response to your comment was posted as an original comment, not as a response. My mistake! Please see the real response.
      Thanks for commenting!
      James

  12. jamesr403 says:

    Thank you, Glen. I write to entertain. If I can give somebody a few hours of "away from the rat race" why, I'm happy. Sounds like you are, too.

  13. JL Nich Author SFF says:

    I'm just getting started. I write under two of everything it seems because I have a love for romance and SFF/Fantasy. I created two pen names, and two websites, and two brands, and two emails,etc. Social media is two FB, two Twitter, etc. I really think the separation needs to be there since my romance is strictly LGBT based. But my SFF/Fantasy is main stream.

    • jamesr403 says:

      Wow, JL, I admire your energy and ambition! I barely have the energy to keep up my own name let alone not one, but two pen names. I can see how you might have different audiences for your romance and your sf and that's a good reason for a pen name.
      Sometimes I tell writers to "type faster" but in your case I clearly don't need to.
      Thanks for commenting, keep following Writers in the Storm, and most of all -- good luck!

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