Genre: Playground or prison?

Thursday

Two of my favourite authors when I was growing up were Harry Harrison and Douglas Adams. They wrote about spaceships, aliens, gadgets, transporter beams, time travel… I was a fan of Star Wars, Star Trek, Battlestar Galactica (The old one, then the new one), Buck Rogers, Flash Gordon…

When I began to write, I had no doubt that I would write the most exciting Science Fiction novel yet.

Except, I didn’t.

Needing to earn some money first, I wrote short stories, and since markets were scarce for those, I tried to write for the places that were buying – sedate, coffee-time magazines. Several of these would release writer’s guidelines: ” No racy stuff, no shocking endings, female protagonists only…”

I wrote a lot of short stories, mostly ones that amused me, or that I thought fit the profile. I only sold one, and for the life of me, I couldn’t tell why that one hit the spot and the other dozens I sent to the same magazine did not.

By then, I had a job which left me time to write, so I could begin on my big novel. I did, working up an idea that had been knocking for some time. But there were no spaceships, no blasters… The novel was set in the current day. In Islington.

A year or so later, I wrote my second novel. This one didn’t even feature a rogue psychic. It was a comedy about a man having to look after a baby. I was at home, looking after a baby.

When I became a playwright, I was fascinated by the limitless opportunities afforded by the stage. I wrote some strange and unlikely short plays, where the characters of a novel emerge from the book to harass the author, or where the inhabitants of Atlantis discussed ways to avoid the ever-rising waters. I wrote one science fiction play, on the tired old joke of the Redshirt who is doomed to die.

Waiting for Twist Stiffly, a play about a Sci-Fi film, but not actual sci-fi. Performed by Tualatin High School  2012

Waiting for Twist Stiffly, a play about a Sci-Fi film, but not actual sci-fi. Performed by Tualatin High School 2012

Advice to writers these days always includes building a following. Create your author platform, show your readers what kind of a person you are, and let them get to know you and your books. Bob Mayer is a cracking example of this. A former Green Beret, he writes exciting novels of fighting men in tense situations. Each one is different, each one is new, but you know what you’re going to get when you buy one of his books – it won’t include a wisecracking chauffeur who drives around an octogenarian. It won’t be anything to do with Wizards and Unicorns. No vampires, sparkly or otherwise. And I’m willing to bet Bob’s readers are fine with that. They could even spot someone else reading a book, and, just from the cover, know whether that person might appreciate Bob’s books.

But if I can’t bring myself (or force myself) to write in my favourite genre, then how do I build up a readership? People have written great reviews of Coffee Time Tales, Troubled Souls and The Great Canadian Adventure, but those are three very different books. There’s no guarantee that liking one will mean that you like the others.

Working in the library has broadened my reading habits a little, and it’s tempting me to try a different genre altogether – so many romance novels (of the Harlequin variety) cross my desk that I’m intrigued about the appeal of them. Are they that good, or just addictive? Are they as formulaeic as people say? My intention was to spend January reading a whole bunch of romance novels, then write and publish my own in time for Valentine’s Day. It’s a fun idea, and I’m likely to go through with it, but it’ll be yet another departure from any genre that I’ve worked in before. Why should I expect any readers to stick with me?

For me, the argument comes down to something phrased best by Jefferson Smith, someone I met on Google+.

“Part of becoming a professional artist in any art form, is learning how to move from “muse-driven” production to “intent-driven” production. And like any other skill, developing a story or novel idea is a learned skill, which you learn by doing.”

It’s perhaps another challenge I should take up – deciding what my genre is, or even if pursuing the publication of ebooks is a good use of my time. After all, the appraisal service has increased in volume by more than fifty percent this year, and I haven’t stopped having ideas for plays. At some point, the fact that ebooks have earned nothing at all has to become more important than the fact that I have an idea for another one, right?

If you write, or paint, or make films, what do you think should be your driving force? Focusing your art into something marketable, or following your muse wherever it leads, even if that’s penury and a soulless job to bring home the bacon? (This does not reflect my work at the library, which is fun, stimulating and very satisfying.) Let me know, either in the comments section below, or over on G+.

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