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!

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!

Writer: Know Thyself!

I was perusing my bookshelf this morning (in truth I was looking for a couple of books with the right spine width to wedge under a door my husband was re-installing – but I digress), when I happened upon one of my favourite old books. Over the years I’ve culled my book collection mercilessly, but there are a few that still remain on my shelf. Written by literary agent John Boswell, this one has remained one book that I do re-read from time to time, just to keep me grounded as a writer.

the awful truthIt is titled The Awful Truth About Publishing: Why they always reject your manuscript – and what you can do about it. In spite of its age (it was published in 1986 by Warner Books), and the concomitant fact that it was published long before the advent of the eBook era and the avalanche of self-publishing, it remains one of the best reads to help a writer with her head in the clouds to keep her feet on the ground – which is the only place to be if any real success is to follow.

As I cracked the cover (hard cover at that) I opened the book at Chapter 4: “The Awful Truth About Yourself.” And it does seem to me in these days when the “cult of the amateur” shrouds just about every facet of artistic endeavour (movie-making, music production and, yes, you guessed it, writing) it might be worthwhile for aspiring and other writers to do a bit of navel-gazing. Are we always aware of the truth about ourselves? Based on some of the drivel I’ve read recently, coupled with the book-marketing noise on the Web, it seems that many “writers” are, indeed, blind to some truths about themselves. And I put myself in that category from time to time.

Boswell offers this: “Writing, for the gifted few, is an art, and the chances of reaching this level are about as good as they are of becoming a prima ballerina or a major league second baseman” (The awful truth about publishing, p. 41). I love to be reminded that writing is indeed one of the arts, a factoid that seems to be forgotten by those among us who harp on ‘authorpreueurship’. While I’m all for the notion of self-help even in writing, let’s be clear that if you’re writing a book with the clear objective of making money, then this isn’t art.  It’s content creation and it’s okay. But it isn’t art. Some of my own work – or at least work in progress – seems to bend in that direction, while other work is simply seeing if I can create a piece of art that will entertain and perhaps even provoke.

He then goes on to make a statement that, had he been able to gaze into a crystal ball and see the future of publishing as we know it today he would have realized is even more profound. “Fortunately,” he writes, “…writing is also a craft and one which can indeed be learned by almost anyone. But…it is still not something that can be learned overnight, or a skill that pops into your head, fully honed once you ’get around’ to putting your publishable thoughts on paper…” (p. 41). And here is where it gets really muddy these days.

Boswell poses a question that I’ve often asked my own students – and use to ask myself. Do you want to be an “author” or do you want to write? It’s much the same question as do you want to write, or simply to “have written”? And these days we might also ask: do you want to be a writer or a content creator? One is not fundamentally better than the other, but they are different. They have different objectives, processes and audiences. In my view it’s really only a matter of knowing yourself. I’m trying.

[I’ve written about ‘content creators ‘ here  https://backstorywriting.wordpress.com/2014/06/04/are-you-a-writer-or-a-content-creator/ ]