Don’t Stay in Your Lane: Writing Outside Your Genre

You’re a writer. Yes, you reading this blog. I’m talking to you. You might not know it, but you are, in fact, a writer. Everyone has an inner artist, an inner storyteller. The only trick is that the writer can organize their inner art, their close-held stories, into a printed format for other people to enjoy. And one of the ways that we writers organize our stories is by genre.

Genre tells us what kind of story you’re writing. If I go to the Science Fiction and Fantasy section of a bookstore or Amazon, chances are I’ll see a few covers with dudes swinging greatswords at a dragon, or a female astronaut floating in space. If I go to the Romance section, I’m expecting at least two people with a Connection by the end of the novel. We judge movies the same way, too. Go to your local theater, or hop on Netflix, and see what the posters and cover photos all look like. You can spot your Romantic Comedy, your Action-Adventure, your Political Thriller, and your Superhero Franchise Installment all in one go.

All well and good, but what happens when you’ve gotten comfortable with a genre as a writer?

How We Got Here

This is something I’ve been wrestling with for a few months lately. For years, I wanted nothing more than to be a science fiction and fantasy genre writer. I wanted to fill the world with a glorious cyberpunk revival. I wanted to write about androids in space, and elves hatching ancient plots against trolls and goblins, and so on. And to be fair, I did get that far. In 2012, I wrote a short story anthology by the title Digital Eyes, Family Ties, and last year, I won NaNoWriMo 2017 with a sci-fi thriller manuscript called Real Presence.

Now, the sci-fi style was nothing new for me. But the “thriller” was. I love movies like The Bourne Identity, but I’d never tried to write something like that before. And I have to say, it was an educational experience. How to cut chapters shorter, and how to keep the energy moving without (hopefully) diluting the audience’s interest in my heroines Melody Ambrose and Lauren Nowak, on the run from evil corporations and elite assassins in the Bay Area. I had to go and study what worked with stories similar to the one I was trying to tell.

If you want to expand your writing, it’s good to challenge yourself. Being able to show you’ve mastered one genre is good, but showing how much range you have as a writer is better.

Mix and Match Styles

Consider this, then, for a new genre exercise. Take whatever story you’re working on, and look at what your characters do and where the story takes place. Then consider changing up the action and setting for this story.

For example, one of the stories I’m working on right now is a modern-day drama about two women working on a film crew in Hollywood. One woman is an Indian-American girl who’s dealing with a bad breakup by getting back in touch with her family’s Hinduism. The other is a Midwest gal who wants to be a celebrated director, but she has to deal with a tough studio head and her visiting evangelical brother. It’s literary fiction in genre, but with two competing subgenres: a Künstlerroman (“artist’s novel”) about a Midwestern director, and a Hindu-inspired story of spiritual transformation. By seeing how the two stories intertwine, we can see how they make for a stronger overall plot.

So, how about this for your story? Suppose your vampire story was also a mob family crime drama? Imagine if your newly made bloodsucker now has to navigate the world of vampire families, all feuding with one another for territory? Think Dracula meets Goodfellas or The Godfather. Or suppose that you’ve got an amazing story about a young princess who overcomes the odds to rescue her kingdom from an evil wizard? We’ve seen plenty of those stories, but what could we add to this? Maybe the story isn’t a medieval fantasy, but an urban fantasy. The “princess” is the last heir of an ancient family, fighting an immortal wizard hiding in plain sight on Madison Avenue, and their “kingdom” are the scattered elves, dwarves, and fairies trying to eke out a living in the slums and alleys. Suddeny, we go from a generic medieval setting to a lively modern one.

Genre matters. It matters to the author who needs new ideas. It matters to the publisher who wants a good title to put out for sale. It matters to the avid reader looking for something to buy and devote their time on.

You lose nothing, dear reader, by trying something new in your work. Even if it doesn’t sell or pick up interest, you’ve tested yourself and learned something new.

Happy writing to you all!

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