At Balticon this past weekend I was part of one of the very last panels of the con. The audience was tiny, which was to be expected for a panel taking place the last day of the con, but I thought you might like to hear my thoughts on the subject.
The title of the panel was “How Hard Can It Be? Jumping Out of Genre,” and was actually one of my suggested ideas this year. Over the last few years, my writing has been all over the place, and I wondered if other authors had experienced some of the strangeness I feel when I talk about writing in multiple genres, or how scary that can be, especially if you don’t know if your audience will follow you.
I’d considered myself a fantasy devotee for most of my life, but that started changing for me when I began writing Master of Myth (my Steampunk book releasing in September). Writing something that wasn’t strictly fantasy was a new experience for me. When writing fantasy, it’s easy to just wave the proverbial wand and say “because magic,” but with Steampunk I was finding it not that simple any more. I needed to know things like how lighter-than-air flight is possible, and how guns work, and what the world was like 100+ years ago. Suddenly, I was falling into Wikipedia black holes, emerging with head-spinning amounts of information I was giddy to apply to my stories.
That’s not to say there isn’t some research involved in writing Fantasy, as I discovered when writing Shadows on Snow, but that research was a bit more primitive, such as learning the process for building a bow and arrows, or reading up on plants and flowers. It’s much easier to take an existing thing you don’t have to add to or extrapolate on, than to build some futuristic tech creatively stretched to some far-off conclusion that might someday be possible.
And I think that might be one of the hangups a writer faces when trying to decide whether or not to jump out of genre. There’s a huge self-confidence factor involved. Much of it is not “should I?” but “can I?”: a questioning of one’s own ability. For me, it wasn’t so much a conscious decision to jump into another genre, but was purely based on my passion for the story idea. If the characters were compelling enough, spoke loudly enough in my head, then I would find a way to make that story happen.
Another hesitation authors may have (and I am currently guilty of this with one of my books), is having doubts about whether the readers they’ve worked hard to pull into their worlds will follow them into uncharted territory. Well, the truth is that sometimes they won’t. There were some people that loved The Dreamer’s Thread that probably have no plans to touch the Endure series or the Evolution series because they’re Romance novels. I’ve been trying to persuade them otherwise, that perhaps they might give it a chance and be surprised (I found this to be true 99% of the time!), but many remain unconvinced. And that’s fine. I’ve been reaching into audiences outside of TDT‘s little following to find readers that might not need as much convincing. So, be aware that if you jump genres, you’ll need to look at other avenues for finding readers. Don’t be afraid of it. I promise you’ll find other communities just as inviting as your current comfort zones, and that expansion can only help you in the long run.
If you have a story that needs to be told, tell it. I heard someone say once that all the best ideas should scare you a little, and I fully believe that’s true. To tell a story that will touch a reader’s heart and mind, you must be willing to take a chance and trust that, even though it’s not quite what you’re used to, so long as you remain honest in your writing and don’t pull your punches, that story will thrive. With each story I write, I get a little braver, I explore a little deeper, I strain to find the thread of humanity that make the characters and worlds real. It’s a scary process. I constantly second-guess myself and consider deleting things that might make a reader uncomfortable, or the story less “nice.” But the further I go down the rabbit hole, the more I find it’s easier to push through. Like anything, it takes practice.
So here’s what I say about jumping genres: give it a try. You’ll never know what hidden gifts you’ll uncover or passions you’ll kindle by diving in. You might find certain things just aren’t for you, but how else will you ever know for sure? We learn and grow with our perceived failures as much as we do by our successes. Life, in general, is scary, but the rewards far outweigh the risks.
Great things can happen when you explore a possibility.