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.
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.
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 . . .
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 . . .
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.
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.
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?
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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.