Tuesday, March 10, 2009

Choosing a Genre

Some time ago, I saw a news report about an artist who painted nothing but pictures of Alan Greenspan. I don’t know if she’s still doing it or not, but it highlights what artists are supposed to do. A painter may pick a subject and paint several variations on that theme. Even if the painter doesn’t paint the same person over and over, she will stick with the same style. She won’t follow the impressionist style one day and then do water color the next. Art lovers have the expectation that if they see a painting by an artist and fall in love with it, they may not be able to acquire that particular painting, but they may be able to purchase another similar painting that they like as well or better.

Writers are expected to settle into a style also. Now those of us who write rare books can pretty much write what we please, but when you have a fan base, they expect you to give them more of what they enjoyed the last time. We tend to think of it in terms of genre, but it is more than that. Consider two authors, Mary Higgins Clark and Brandilyn Collins. Aside from the fact that Brandilyn Collins writes Christian books and Mary Higgins Clark doesn’t, they write in the same genre, the genre of suspense, but their styles are very different. In her better novels, Mary Higgins Clark has this no holds barred way of dropping the reader into the suspense on page one. She doesn’t wait for the inciting incident. Brandilyn Collins has what she calls Seatbelt Suspense, in which she gives the reader a chance to get all buckled in and safe. But their readers expect his. If Mary Higgins Clark were to ease into the suspense, she would probably get bad reviews. On the other hand, if Brandilyn Collins were to cut the seatbelt, she would probably give some of her fans nightmares.

One of the interesting things is that both Mary Higgins Clark and Brandilyn Collins attempted to write in a different style before settling into suspense. Success has a way of helping to make decisions, but how is an author supposed to decide which style to use? Mary Higgins Clark and Bradilyn Collins chose suspense, but couldn’t they have just as easily chosen romance or military stories or fantasy? Every beginning writer asks the question, “What do I want to be known for?” Mary Higgins Clark seems content to be known for hard core suspense. Brandilyn Collins seems to want to be known for safe suspense and has a registered trade mark to that affect. But how do nobodies like us decide where we want our writing to go?

In some ways, it may be easier to decide where we don’t want our writing to go. I don’t see myself writing romance, or apocalypse books. I don’t see myself writing military thrillers or books about demons, vampires or werewolves. I would love to write satire, but people have this idea that satire must be funny and I’m not funny. Besides, publishers don’t like novels that actually say something these days. I like a good love story, but every good book has a love story. I don’t see myself writing westerns. See, I’ve already eliminated several genres.

Let’s assume for a moment that we can write in any genre, in any style and do it well. Let’s suppose that we could write a romance one week, suspense the next and a fantasy the next. All genre’s have their pros and cons, but which one is the best one? If you could imagine the absolutely best story you could ever tell, which genre would it be? What style would you use? What story would you write if you want to make people look at your work and say, “Wow?”

Here’s another question that might help. If you could rewrite the Cinderella story in any genre, which genre would you choose? Would you choose suspense and begin your story with the fear that Cinderella has of her family? Would you choose romance and focus on bringing the couple together? Would you turn the prince into a vampire? Would you have soldiers battle their way through the wilderness to get Cinderella to the ball? By the time you’ve made it your own; you will have a story that fits where you might want to focus your efforts.

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