The rules of publishing seem to dictate that you find a writing style, and stick to it. But not everyone wants to do this. And not everyone is capable of it.
J.K. Rowling made headlines last year when she published crime fiction under the pseudonym of Robert Galbraith, having previously confounded the market with adult literary fiction in The Casual Vacancy. Both are far from her apparent comfort zone of children’s fiction. And John Banville admits that his criminally inclined inner scribe Benjamin Black makes far more money than he does writing acclaimed literary fiction.
Fear of Other Things
Both Rowling and Banville have been very successful writing things which are generally considered not to be their Thing. Maybe it’s escape for them; maybe it’s what they always wanted to do anyway. But many writers have a fear about writing other Things too.
Also, when writers start out, they’re told that prospective publishers don’t like confusion of any sort which might disrupt sales. This includes the use of a psueudonym, or writing in 2 or more different genres. Or, perish the thought, writing a book which crosses genres, or doesn’t appear to even have a genre (because literary fiction doesn’t count until you’ve been published already, natch).
Because, we are told, this is what happens:
Publisher Of Power (POP): Hello, feeble underling. Thank you for your submission. Upon mature, powerful reflection, we have decided there is a chance that we maybe perhaps might publish your torrid romance.
Writer: Yay!!! [champagne cork pops]
POP: We’ll give you a 2-book deal and an advance of $816.90. Sign here.
Writer: Woo-hoo!! Happy days! I’ve like, totally made it!! [sips from bottle which constitutes 10.21% of advance]
POP: There’s just one thing. Your 2nd book has to be submitted within 30 days.
Writer: That’s no problem. I’ve already written my second and third novels. They’re dystopian fantasies about dustbin collection in a world where recycling is illegal.
POP: No, that won’t do. Your 2nd novel has to be the same as the 1st one. We’re building your brand, you see.
Writer: But the thing is, I don’t normally write romantic fiction.
POP: You do now.
Writer: But I don’t, you see. Wait – why am I cuffed to this chair?
POP: Shhhhhh. Hush, now. It’s aaaaall right. Your brain belongs to us now.
If It Ain’t Broken, Right?
But many of us just can’t write the same thing all the time, particularly if we’re trying to avoid churning out stuff that’s so homogenised it could be pumped into the particle accelerator in CERN. Funny writers have days when their writing is black with a bollicky B; romance writers have days when they hate everyone, and crime writers have days when they just might want to see the good in people.
The solution is to write something else entirely: hopefully something that won’t alienate every reader you ever had.
Of course, for those of us who have yet to find an audience, we shouldn’t be worrying at all. Because this is our time for experimentation. Now is when we should be going wild with no constraints, except for time and that incessant urge to sleep.
So for those of us writing in any form – and this includes full-time writers who write magazine articles or political pamphlets for a living, but morph into creative writers by night – what do you switch to writing, to find release?
Great article, Tara! I write the stories in my head which is why I decided to self-publish. At the moment I’m establishing myself in the romance/suspense/mystery genres (yes I said it). I do however plan to write other genres and keep just one pen name. Crazy? Ridiculous? You bet, but I’m going to do it anyway. Other authors have so why not me?
Good for you, Elke! Who’s to say and author can’t spread their wings as far as they like? Readers will always know what the genre is from the book blurb. In any case, your genres don’t sound incompatible. I like crossovers – it’s only publishers who see them as a headache because they don’t allow lazy stereotyping.
My fifth novel is releasing April 1, under a pen name. I’m going to use it as a catch-all for stories in the same genre as this new book. I’ve gotten my best results from writing historical fiction, but I also enjoy writing fantasy, and can combine them somewhat, however, the new book is sort of Western mystery/personal journey stuff, set in the present in a real town, so I figured I’d keep such a wide departure separate. Have any of you been also tempted to use a pen name? Your thoughts?
I think pen names are great ideas for people who want to clearly define the difference between 2 writing styles or genres.
It solves the problem of readers who, having read an author, want more of the same and don’t want to feel tricked by something completely unlike the stuff they’re looking for.
I know several people who don’t even bother reading the back of the book they’re buying once they know it’s So-and-So’s “new one”. Disappointing these most loyal of readers would be a big mistake.
I have at least 3 personas normally vaguely classified as sensible, swotty (aka too clever for her own good) and slattern, but when it comes to writing I have sweetie (not quite Mary Sue but good-hearted), swingeing (have sword will decapitate) and stubbornly studious. For publishing purposes I’m Jan Hawke for ‘real world’ based fiction even if it’s not so real and I’ll be pandering to sweetie and swingeing for full-blooded fantasy and will be using a pseudonym, Sian Glirdan which is itself an homage to my period as a fanfic elf-diva on a Tolkien forum :-p
It’s gooooooood for writers to have multiple personalities so embrace your disparate urges 😉
I love the idea of your Sssspecialisation in ‘S’ genres! They all sound sssimply scintillating!
I remember when I picked up science fiction by Iain Banks, having only read The Crow Road. I’d never encountered such a genre change with an author before and I found it very confusing. I didn’t really like it, truth be told. I’m open to it nowadays but back then, he kind of lost me. I think your use of the pen name for indulging your most dreadful and violent urges is spot on 🙂
Yes, a perennial problem for authors…my view is that it is more a marketing problem than a readers’ choice problem. As a reader I may have a preference for certain genres over others, but that doesn’t mean I ONLY read those genres and I don’t mind crossovers as long as it is flagged as such. If the blurb at the back tells me the book is about a vampire detective from the research base on Io investigating a series of grisly Orc murders in the murky streets of Tudor London, then at least I know what I’m buying!
I think using different pen names for different genres can work, especially if you are looking to span two very different types of readerships, but the downside is having to market each new persona afresh. In that sense, John Banville got it right: he writes his genre fiction under a pen name, but we all know it’s him, so he keeps his lit fiction readers and gains new crime fiction ones – win-win situation!
Absolutely it is a marketing problem – unless the reader picks up something without reading the blurb properly and is turned off as a result. Believe it or not I do actually know people who do this!
There is also the problem of getting something published that’s wildly different. Publishers are really squeamish, never more so than nowadays, and any whiff of potential failure will make them run a mile. I wonder how John Banville sold it – but then again he was switching from a non-commercial genre into the most commercially viable one, so perhaps therein lies the answer.
This is one of the reasons I’ve self published, well, that and the fact I want to see my stuff in print before I die – why spend the next 20 years writing books and query letters when I can publish the books, myself.
I actually had a bit of a bad time while I was writing the last instalment of my humorous trilogy and I got something rather black, which I had to substantially rewrite. Although on the up side, my editor reckons I could write some really good horror novels. 😉
You never know, though, perhaps there’s more room than you think for blackness within your comedy. You never know until you get reader feedback, and even then every reader is different, so sometimes that’s not really useful either, unless you have hundreds of reviews from which to amalgamate a majority opinion. All the same, maybe you have a future in comic horror!
Funny you should say that, that’s pretty much what my editor said. You’re right about putting things out there, although the problem with those two was that the two books that went before were very much not horror. So I had to tone it down a tad so it was more in line with the other ones but yes, I could see myself writing something a bit more gritty.
I find genre a real bugbear. I don’t want to be confined, though I know why publishers want to pigeonhole people — as you’ve already said, it’s all about marketing.
I’ve come to the conclusion I’ll need to remain a genre outcast. I know someone else who thinks along similar lines and has decided to promote herself as a brand, rather than her books as belonging to a specific genre. So in my writing I’m going to please myself and go with my political novel that has a body, lots of machinations and a bit of romantic stuff thrown in. To me, that reflects life, and that’s what I want to write about.
Tara, I see you mentioned Iain Banks. In his sci-fi books he called himself Iain M Banks to differentiate these from the non sci-fi Iain Banks. Though I suspect the two genres (though was never quite sure what his non sic-fi books were classed as) began to converge. Very sad about him. I saw him a couple of times at the Edinburgh book festival and he was a wonderful character.
The idea of promoting the author as a brand instead of the book is a fine one, I think, presuming that readers who like one thing which she wrote, won’t be alienated by another. It’s a tough one, but sometimes style and a unique voice shine through, no matter what the genre is. And literary fiction can be about anything, can’t it? That’s my favourite!
Now that you say it, I remember about the “M” which differentiated Iain the character master and Iain the sci-fi master. But when I was a teenager, such nuances escaped me, and I found it confusing. I think sometimes for those of us living and breathing books every day, we forget that many like familiarity and not having to work in order to get it.
I write in the fantasy genre and also write poetry. I use the same name for both and I find the sales translate through them all.
It’s good to know that poetry is selling. It’s a tough market for anyone, but particularly poets. When you think of how popular they were 100 years ago, it makes you wonder if we’ll ever see that sort of success again. Who knows, perhaps some breakthrough poet will become one of the most famous writers of the 21st century – the surprise hit which nobody saw coming.
I tend to get around 100 free downloads for my several poems.