Avoiding the Genre Trap

I want to write more than one genre of fiction. For that matter, I want to write some non-fiction as well. But a lot of writers end up writing in only one genre, the literary equivalent of type-casting. How does that happen, and how can I avoid it?

For starters, it happens to fewer authors than it appears. Quite a few of them write in multiple genres already, but they do so under different names. When their name is invested with a genre identity, like Anne Rice and the supernatural, it makes some sense to go with a different name for a different subject, such as the kinky erotica of Anne Rampling. This isn’t always the author’s choice, as it has often been forced by publishers, but a number of them have crossed genres under the guise of a new name.

But regardless of the name, there is still a real temptation to keep writing the same kind of thing. After all, if you crank out a great SF trilogy, you get pretty good at writing SF. While the nuts and bolts of writing SF would serve you well in fantasy or mystery, it would not be quite as simple. I suppose it’s the difference between building a second lawnmower vs. cobbling together a leaf blower. It’s simply easier to crank out the same old thing over and over.

Easier yes, but not as much fun, I would think. Having already done some genre jumping, I find I enjoy the mental muscles it exercises.

Then there’s the bird-in-the-hand issue of selling books before they’re written.  I’ve heard more than one author talk about how different things are once they’re selling books via a proposal. Once they’re a proven commodity, they can sell a book based on an outline a few chapters and then live on the advance while they actually write it. But publishers seem to want exactly what sold well last year, just newer. So, if your last SF novel was a success, they’ll want another successful SF novel.

One author described how his advances became something of a trap, because he felt he could no longer afford to branch out and try a different genre or experiment with some of his stranger ideas. While it might make a fabulous novel, even a commercially successful one, he knew he could never sell something that different on a proposal. So he stuck with what he knew, living from one advance to the next.

Most of all that, of course, is second or third hand information, but I confess that this is one of the things that pushed me towards self-publishing. I did not want to find myself in the position of writing a particular book simply because it was a lot like the last one. That’s hardly the only reason I went that way, but it did enter into my thinking.

The other thing I’m doing to avoid the genre trap is to write as much as I can and to do it in multiple genres. Certainly, I’m going to write some series books, but they won’t all be in the same genre, and some of them will definitely end so that others can begin. Right now I have three book projects strongly underway, with several others taking shape in the shadows.

Two of those are the first two books in a new SF/space opera series, set in the same universe as Beneath the Sky. These will follow the tale of a boy learning the truth about his parents and will eventually lead him into conflict with Father Chessman, a minor character from Beneath the Sky. The first of these, Ships of My Fathers, should be out this fall.

The other book that’s well in hand is the start of an urban fantasy series set in a Pittsburgh but stretches into other realms, ranging from Hell to the city of Fae. It’s less about the mighty magical powers coursing through the world and more about living in the nitty-gritty reality of that society. The first of these, Hell Bent, should be out early next year.

As for the other stuff that’s forming in the wings, I have a military SF series taking shape (also in the Beneath the Sky universe), two solo SF novels addressing more existential questions, a vampire series set in Japan, an epic fantasy of aging heroes, a mystery or two, and even some sketchy plots around romance and erotica. And then there’s the epic seventeen-novel future history that I’ll likely never write, as well as the many free-floating ideas that haven’t settled into a home yet.

If I go as far afield as romance, I’ll probably use a pen name, but I’d like to keep all of my SF and fantasy under my original name. There are enough successes like Elizabeth Moon and C.J. Cherryh who have spanned that pair of genres to prove it can be done. Whether mystery would go out under this name is an open question.

All I know is that I don’t want to end up writing book 17 of a series I’ve grown to hate, but perhaps I’m overly claustrophobic on that front. Maybe someone else would snuggle right on into that situation and be happy as a clam.

What about you? If you write, is your chosen genre a cozy sweater or a bear trap?

One thought on “Avoiding the Genre Trap

  1. Hi Dan,

    Sounds as though you write many genres! You made some great points here… I am going to mention this post in my blog tomorrow! 🙂


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