Posted in Writing, Writing books

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!

Posted in Ideas generation, Writing

Books I wish I had written

Man Reading Book and Sitting on Bookshelf in LibraryWriters are usually avid readers. I suppose that it is expected of us, and possibly even required – although I’m certain that many of the classics were written by authors who did not read widely since there was so little to read (this is a theme I’ll get back to in a later post). I’ve given some thought before to the books that shape us as writers, but I’m still left wondering if others might be a little like me. Sometimes, when I come to the end of a book, I have a deep feeling that I wish I had written this book. It occurs to me that an examination of those books might provide insight into what we ought to be writing about – rather than simply always writing about what we think we should be writing about (or worse, only what sells).

I wish I had written…

Over-Dressed: The Shockingly High Cost of Cheap Fashion by Elizabeth L. Cline. This book affected me even beyond my deep feeling that I wish I had written it. An important examination of an industry that affects all of us in one way or another, this book is one that needed to be written, and needs to be read. This feeling of a book that needs to be written, coupled with my interest in the subject matter were the factors that perhaps conspired to make me wish I had written it. The author, Elizabeth Cline is an American journalist whose commitment to the investigation of the North American penchant for disposable fashion resulted in a story that had my head spinning – although much of it did not come as a surprise – and I avoid disposable fashion like the plague, given my penchant for quality.

i wish i had written 1I wish I had written…

Deluxe: How Luxury Lost its Luster by Dana Thomas. As I closed the cover of this book I had a very distinct feeling that it was one I should have written! A social history of the luxury goods industry, the book is also well-researched, lucidly written, informative and entertaining. The fact that it focuses on a topic that has been of interest to me since I started researching the marketing tactics of luxury goods manufacturers in my day job (don’t ask!) might also make it the kind of book that I would have liked to have written.

I wish I had written…

The Thoughtful Dresser: The Art of Adornment, the Pleasures of Shopping and Why Clothes Matter by Linda Grant (who is also a novelist). This book had me at the following statement on page 10:

“I consider it to be absolutely normal to care deeply about what we wear, and detest the puritan moralists who affect to despise fashion or those who love it. Who shrilly proclaim that only vain, foolish Barbie dolls, their brains addled by consumerism, would wear anything but sensible clothes made to last. As if appearances don’t matter when, most of the time, they are all we have to go on. Or sometimes all that is left in the ruins of life.”

This paragraph encapsulated for me the conundrum of my life as a professor and writer – and someone who has always enjoyed the fun of dressing. On a university campus, dressing fashionably is viewed in much the way Linda Grant describes. She nailed it. Oh how I would have loved to have written this book for my colleagues to read!

So, these books all do seem to have things in common. But what strikes me most is the fact that they are all non-fiction. I hope my inner writer is listening. I’ve been focusing my future writing on fiction – which I love to produce – and yet the books I wish I had written are all research-based, narrative non-fiction.

A few years ago during one of my many searches for an agent (two searches were successful; neither of them sold my manuscripts), one of them snottily said the following to me: “If I had a dime for every bona fide non-fiction writer who wanted to write fiction, I’d be rich.” Then she refused to represent any fiction I might produce. I guess I should have been happy to have been referred to as a bona fide non-fiction writer, which I suppose I am.

So I think I’m going to consider this analysis of my own reading interests. Don’t get me wrong, though, I love to read fiction. I just wonder how much of it I should be writing.

Posted in Cross-writing, Genres, Writing books, Writing craft

Writing across genres

So many genres...so little time.

It may come as something of a surprise to students I’ve had over the years – those who have have sat in my classes to learn about communication ethics or strategy – but I began my unexpected academic career as a writing teacher.  I never intended to be a university professor.

I had always been interested in teaching and thought that it was probably one of my strengths.  I had done it for several years in a previous incarnation – I taught anatomy & physiology, ethics and human sexuality (!) to nursing students before my career evolved into health and medical communication, leading eventually to writing books and teaching in the area of communication (public relations to be specific).  But I went to the university initially as a writer who could teach writing.

The first course I taught (before I ever considered teaching full-time) was called “Print Media.”  There is no such course with that title any longer, but its descendent “Text-Based Media” comes close.  I also taught news and feature writing and persuasive writing after the then-chairman of the department talked me into applying for a full-time job.  But I never intended to stay.

That was 23 years ago!  So, what’s the lesson here?

For me, it means that our skill sets can cross many disciplines – and in writing can cross different genres.  But writing across genres has two different meanings.  First, let’s talk about individual writers writing across genres; then we’ll talk about those genres that cross genres themselves.

When I was trying to create copy for my web site, it occurred to me that this was, in fact the hallmark of my writing: I am a bit of a switch-hitter.  As I say on my home page

…Goethe is said to have opined that every author in some way portrays himself [sic] in his works, even if it be against his [sic] will. For someone who writes in a variety of genres, this is either a symptom of some kind of mental confusion – or perhaps the hallmark of an interesting personality. I’d like to think that, in this case, it’s the latter…

The bottom line is that I started my writing career as a medical writer.  Skills honed there took me into medical communication which morphed into communication in general – most of my past work has been writing about health and corporate  communication.  But, I’m a writer.  To me that means that I can use my skills to write anything that takes my fancy.  I decided to move into creative non-fiction and wrote my memoir, then took my research skills into an area that I love to read – historical fiction.

In my view, writers, like everyone else, have individual strengths – and my strengths are probably not the same as yours.  I think it’s important to know what those strengths are and see how you can use them across genres.  For example, my 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.

The second way that you can 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?

Here’s my example: I have a secret – I sometimes read chick lit and I’m not apologizing for it.  Since I like a bit of escapist reading from time to time, and only if it’s well-written like some chick lit is, I am also interested in creating some of my own.  But I don’t want to be formulaic.  So, I’ve taken my interest in travel and travel writing and put it together with my interest in chick lit and I’m writing a travel chick lit book.  Is this a cross-genre?  Maybe, but who’s to say?  Who is the arbiter of what is and is not a genre?  And who says that because my book is funny, with a young, modern woman as the protagonist, that it’s chick lit anyway?  Maybe it’s just women’s literature – ooh, that sounds a lot better for a university prof-type, doesn’t it?

In any case, cheers to coming up with your own genres and writing whatever moves you.