Fact & Fiction: The perils & pleasures of writing in multiple genres

I am a hybrid writer – in more ways than one. These days the term hybrid – when applied to writers – often refers to those who have published via the traditional publishing route as well as taken matters into their own hands and self-published. That’s a recent moniker. I’ve been a hybrid writer for years – I write across genres and have been doing this almost since the beginning. It has its ups and its downs.CCI04232015

I started my writing career as a medical writer. Skills honed in that genre took me into medical communication which morphed into communication in general – most of my distant past work has been writing about health and corporate communication.

But, I’m a writer. I am not a content creator. I am not a dabbler. To me this means that I can use my skills to write anything that takes my fancy. With a secret adolescent desire to be a novelist percolating in my adult brain, I decided to move into creative non-fiction and wrote a memoir. I then realized that my extensive experience in doing background research on a variety of subjects could be put to good use if I tried my hand at writing in a genre that I loved to read: historical fiction.

As it turns out, meticulous research skills, honed in the areas of non-fiction, have been enormously useful to me in moving into historical fiction. Story-telling is also a strength that many of us have – it’s a skill that is important both to non-fiction (creative or otherwise) as well as to fiction writers.

option-1Another way I think about the concept of “writing across genres” is the notion that there are discrete categories of writing and to create a mash-up, to use the current parlance, is to create a cross-genre genre. Make sense?

My interests in strong female characters, whether they are real people whose lives I’m writing about or historical figures woven into the fabric of a novel, also led me to an interest in contemporary women’s fiction. But traditional chick lit, with all of that entertaining silliness (not to mention their dumb covers) isn’t really my strong point, so I mashed up my interest in travel writing and chick lit to write a novel that is a bit chick lit that also presupposes a certain level of intelligence in the reader – and that includes a serious dose of a foreign setting that was researched thoroughly by both visiting the place and doing background digging. So what have I learned?

I have learned that there is a significant degree of pleasure for me to write in areas that use both my talents and my interests. I truly believe that this cross-writing has improved my writing overall. But it comes at something of a price – at least it is a price if you believe what it seems most everyone else is writing online about changing genres.2013 raven front cover copy

The loudest argument against this kind of movement seems to come from those for whom the main objective of writing is to sell books rather than to write them. I wonder what Ernest Hemingway, Leo Tolstoy, Daphne DuMaurier (my personal favourite) or even J.K. Rowling would have written if they had focused on what they thought readers wanted rather than on what they were compelled to write? Maybe nothing.

The new digital universe means that everyone of us can be a “published” writer. But the truth is that no matter what motivates us to write, most (almost all) will never make a living from that effort. Just accept that and keep writing.

As far as I’m concerned, focusing on continually improving your writing and pursuing the kind of writing that you want, regardless of how many different genres you choose, are the two elements of a happy writer. If the work is meant to become wildly successful, with a little effort in promoting to interested readers (no other desperate writers) it may indeed be successful. Even that “50 Shades of…” writer didn’t set out to please readers first. She set out to please herself.

Here’s to writers pleasing themselves!

The dumbing down of ‘chick-lit’

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I already know what ‘serious’ writers are going to say: chicklit is ‘dumb’ by definition. I beg to differ; however, I also think that the derision isn’t entirely without foundation. My own reading and writing habits have led me to this conclusion. But let’s start in broader terms to address the question of whether writing and the literature that is the result has, overall, suffered from the dreaded ‘dumbing down.’ Many believe so.

In a 2015 piece by Stephen Carter, a Blomberg View columnist (he also happens to be both a law professor at Yale and a novelist), he quotes prominent science fiction writer Ursula K. Leguin who refers to what she sees as the twenty-first century formulaic creation of best sellers in this way: “The readability of many best sellers is much like the edibility of junk food…I believe that reading only packaged microwavable fiction ruins the taste, destabilizes the moral blood pressure, and makes the mind obese.”[1]

Of course she refers to the influence of Amazon and its well-pondered algorithm for determining best-seller status. Carter, however, isn’t buying it. He believes that perhaps a more important part of the issue is that readers’ tastes have changed; attention spans are shorter. Perhaps we have done it to ourselves. But others take a different view.

There is much grumbling in the ‘serious’ writers’ communities about the perceived negative impact of self-publishing on current literature; there is a significant sentiment (not held by all self-described serious writers, I might add) that it has been the proliferation of unedited self-published books that has had the most serious effect.

One online writer has suggested that “with self-publishing it seems like the editors have all disappeared. Ten or more books on recent New York Times Best Sellers List are there because the millions of fanboys and fangirls have bought their hero’s book…maybe the bar is set a bit too low.”[2]

So there seem to be two issues that people consider to be characteristics of ‘dumbed-down literature.’ The first one (and a big one for people like me who have taught writing over the years) is the issue of actual command of the language including grammar, syntax, spelling, word choice and all those things that our English teachers tried to inculcate in us over the years. The second one is the substance – or lack thereof – of the books that are popular today.

In my view, the truth is that quality writing can be practiced in any genre from literary fiction to popular erotica and everything in between. The topic seems secondary; if you’re passionate about writing it, you’re good at it, and your readers love it (or at least the first two if your readers haven’t found you yet), then I say write on. Even if what you write is derided by some as merely ‘chick lit.’

In general, the term chick lit means any literature that appeals mostly to women. So, what’s wrong with that? Does that make it dumb? If chick lit is dumb, then women are dumb by extension. Don’t say that to my face. But has even literature aimed at women been dumbed down? I have a personal hate on for many pieces of chick lit and it isn’t for the reasons you might think.

In my view, women are infantilized by their chick lit not so much by the stories or the writing, but byu the covers. Have you looked at any lately? I’ve been examining them as we contemplate the design of my new book which is women’s fiction. Is this really how women see themselves?

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Need I say more?

 

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Okay, just a bit more!

 

 

Well, I’m a smart woman and I write #litforintelligentchicks. In fact, I love to read chick lit, but I can’t get to your really great story if I feel infantilized by the dumb cover – whether it’s an illustration or a stock photo depicting a sweaty clinch and a few bits of a six-pack.

Okay, my rant is over. Back to the drawing board for that new cover.

Sources:

[1] Stephen L. Carter. June 11, 2015. Don’t Blame Amazon For Dumbing Down Literature. Bloomberg View. https://www.bloomberg.com/view/articles/2015-06-11/why-ursula-k-le-guin-s-amazon-pan-is-only-half-right

[2] Self-publishing and the Dumbing Down of Literature. http://www.dailykos.com/story/2015/11/21/1452940/-Self-Publishing-And-The-Dumbing-Down-Of-Literature

Reviving old manuscripts: 5 things a writer might consider

life without endMany years ago – in a former lifetime even before my academic career – I worked in the field of organ transplantation. I was called an “organ procurement officer.” An odd title, you say? Yes, odd indeed. My responsibilities included overseeing the transplant coordinators who were tasked with ensuring donor organs made it to appropriate recipients (kidneys and livers mostly in those days), and the public education programming for increasing organ donations. This latter responsibility involved developing strategic promotion plans, writing about organ donation and making copious numbers of public presentations. All in a day’s work.

While I was working in the field I became fascinated with the myriad ethical dilemmas posed by the transplantation process itself, but more so by the way the health professionals involved in transplantation demonstrated a kind of fervour, often bordering on the religious, about their chosen medical field. It was this fascination that led me to research and write my very first non-fiction book many years ago.

Life Without End: The Transplant Story was my take on the ethics and politics of organ transplantation in Canada at the time, and I think it’s fair to say that not all of what I wrote made the folks I had worked with happy. Some of them were very unhappy indeed.

That was my last job in the real world before I started my academic career, but stories about organ transplantation never really left my monkey mind. So, not long after that first book was published I started writing a novel about what might happen if that kind of religious fervour about transplantation got out of hand. When I finished the manuscript I shopped it around to agents which resulted in finding one who actually loved the story and decided to take it on. She did her job (or at least I guess she did – we never did meet only talked on the phone), sending me detailed lists of where she had sent the manuscript and what the results were. She never did sell it, so I filed it away in the depths of my electronic writing files and almost, but not quite, forgot about it.

With the advent of electronic publishing the idea of reviving old manuscripts in my files began to take shape. I’m a firm believer, though, that not everything we write needs to be published, or even should it be published. Sometimes our writing is either for our eyes only (or ought to be) or it is our writing practice. I had never thought of this novel as being practice, though; rather I had believed it was ready to make its way out into the world. So I finally decided that The Body Traders would see the light of day.THE Body Traders cover FINAL for print front

First I reread it and found that I still loved the story. Then I spent a lot of time over the past year rewriting and updating it. You can well imagine that a book written more than a decade ago would need a tweak or two: for example, back when I worked in transplantation we carried pagers – no one even had a cell phone! Updating was indeed required!

I considered shopping it again, but in the end decided to self-publish. So, what did I learn from this process? I learned that there are several things you need to consider when deciding to revive an old manuscript.

  1. Ask yourself why you want to publish it now. Do you just want to see it in print (electronic or otherwise)? If the answer is yes, I suggest you need a better reason. There are a lot of books out there these days that no one will ever read. If you really don’t care if anyone else reads it, perhaps you need to put it away. “Publication” and “publish” both refer to “public” meaning that the work should be for the public.
  2. Reread it to see if you still feel as enthusiastic about it now as you did when you finished it. If you don’t, put it back in the electronic drawer and step away.
  3. Analyse it for it currency. Are the ideas still resonant? Will current readers appreciate the themes? If you aren’t sure, ask someone whose opinion you value to read it. Perhaps even consider beta readers.
  4. Edit the manuscript for specifics that will bring the details up to date. For example, if the protagonist still uses payphone, unless it’s part of a quirky character trait, you need to do a bit of updating.
  5. When you have finished the rewrite based on your own analysis, feedback from others’ and your update, read it again to see if you still feel enthusiastic. If the answer is yes, you’re ready to press the publish button!