Until recently, I was known as literary
writer, and I still am. But this year my psychological or domestic thriller
, The Almost Wife,
hit the Canadian bestseller lists. A thriller
? I expect some readers who are familiar with my literary works will wonder what the heck I’m up to.
That was, in fact, the reaction I had from some readers when I started writing hi-lo or literacy learner books
for adults and young adults working to improve literacy skills. I remember seeing a few confused reviews from readers. Why was the writing so different from my literary novels? The answer of course, was that I was writing for a different market, in that case the educational market
, with very different expectations. Reader expectations for domestic thrillers are different too.
And that’s one hurdle to crossing genres
: reader expectations. When we do publish in a new genre, our readers in our pre-existing genre may, as they did with me, become confused about the switch. And switching genres can mean you have a much smaller new audience which can translate into a smaller publishing income, so it’s not a decision to make lightly. Building a readership takes time, and when we switch to a new readership, it can effectively mean we have to start all over again within the genre.
Writing in a new genre is difficult too. We really have to get a handle on the expectations of that particular genre before we sit down to write. That means a lot of reading, careful study, and experimentation.
We also have to fight our existing set of skills from the previous genre. For example, a screenwriter turning to the novel usually has a great sense of structure, but their novel may lack “meat” or substance or depth. A poet turning to fiction will write lovely prose and know how to use the environment and context to elicit emotion in the reader, but may struggle under the overwhelming amount of research and detail involved in writing a novel, and they will very likely struggle to find structure as well. Journalists, skilled at researching and interviewing, may find that the early drafts of their novels feature too much in the way of journalistic-style exposition and interviews between characters on the page. Even moving from writing mysteries to thrillers
requires a shift in mindset, approach and structure. It's tough to switch gears, and I see these issues crop up all the time with the writers I work with.
In short, we have to learn a whole new skill and that takes time. Experienced writers too often kick themselves for not catching on to a new genre quickly enough. I encourage the writers I work with to go easy on themselves and be patient with the learning process, to enjoy that ride. It can be both exhilarating and frustrating to learn the new craft.
Still, I believe there are many reasons to take the plunge into another genre. We have a whole lot to learn from our brethren writing in other genres
. We can rummage through their toolboxes for tools we can use in our own genre. For example, learning fiction craft will help the creative non-fiction writer with dialogue and structure, and the poet and screenwriter learn how to find that meat, that substance that gives the novel its heft and depth.
A novelist, in turn, can learn so much from the poet when it comes to language or eliciting emotion or talking about the abstract through description of the concrete. Novelists have been borrowing from the screenwriter’s toolbox for a very long time, using screen structure, that Save the Cat!
structure, to map out our stories, to understand our protagonist’s conflicts and story goals.
For years, I’ve been sending the literary writers I work with to what we usually think of as commercial
structures: the mystery
and, of course, the thriller
, which has always been one of my favorite genres. From our commercial brethren, the literary writer can come to fully understand structure and story goals, about narrative drive and what keeps a reader reading. The key, as always, though, is to never view these various structures as a template, a plan, or our stories will feel formulaic. Rather, we should use the study of these structures as a brainstorming tool that helps us find our own unique structure for our project.
Yet another bonus of writing in other genres is that it can open up whole other markets and surprising opportunities. For example, my YA hi-lo book Iggy’s World
was just picked up by a publisher in Korea, was a JLG Gold Standard Selection and short-listed for the Chocolate Lily Book Awards. My three hi-lo thrillers, the Claire Abbott series
, are about to be published in Sweden. And my hi-lo middle school novella The Ride Home
was short-listed for a BC and Yukon Book Prize. These were all delightful surprises that would never have had happened if I hadn’t risked stepping into this new educational market. The biggest reward for me was the new audience I met, many new readers who fell in love with reading through the books I and other hi-lo authors had penned.
And, of course, a writer can blend genres within one work, to create fresh takes on old structures. How about a sci-fi mystery? Or fantasy romance? Or environmental sci-fi thriller? Once it was difficult to find a home for a cross-genre project, but now cross-genre novels
are really taking off and increasingly gaining audiences.
Rekindling our passion for writing
But maybe most importantly, looking into other genres breathes new life into our writing practice, our writing life. Writing in just one genre -- whether poetry, screenwriting, romance, thriller, mystery or literary -- can get boring after a while. We may find ourselves feeling like we’re doing the same old thing over and over. At some point in almost anyone’s career, we reach a point where we want to try something new.
I hit that place a few years ago, when writing literary lost a bit of its gloss. Around that time, I was offered the opportunity to write thrillers for adults working to improve their literacy skills. I’ve taught and edited many other writers as they worked on their own thrillers over the last two decades, so I was already very familiar with the form. But I went deeper into the thriller form as I wrote these hi-lo books and found myself falling in love with the structure. I talked to my agent about jumping into writing a full-on commercial thriller thinking she would likely talk me out of it, but she didn’t. She encouraged me to wade right in, found me a terrific, supportive editor at HarperCollins and The Almost Wife
is the result.
Diving into a new genre got me excited about my writing life again. As they say, variety is the spice of life. And I’m already incorporating what I’ve learned about writing thrillers into my upcoming literary projects, to boost the story, narrative drive.
But what will readers who are familiar with my past literary work think of my domestic thrillers? So far the reception has been great and I've received many positive reviews. And maybe this new writing is not so different as all that. I’ve always written about the domestic, the darkness and drama (and thrills) found in our everyday lives. In The Almost Wife, you’ll still see the small town and rural settings, the family drama, and even the touch of magic realism that has characterized my past works. I’m exploring similar settings and subject matter because that’s what I’m interested in. Ultimately, in making a leap into a new genre we take our own interests and perspectives with us, and my guess is that we can also take at least some of our audience there as well, as we connect with a whole new readership.