The Curse (?) Of Writing Cross-genre Fiction

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Are there times when you’re drawn to projects that you know for sure will be difficult figuring out? Do you look forward to trying things that you love even if it means the road to your goals will likely be longer because of it?

I sometimes do. I’m a glutton for punishment when it comes to wishing for things. I was not always like this. I used to let go of difficult-to-achieve dreams and settle for less-difficult-to-achieve alternatives. Not just with goals in life but with less significant things like purchasing things also. I have changed a lot over the years. Now, I don’t settle easily. That’s because I figure, getting what I want truly satisfies my want and chasing an alternative just because it’s easier to get leaves me hankering for the original thing anyway. It’s the same way with my writing now.

I think most people who love to write feels the same and don’t easily give up on what they believe. Most authors write from their hearts, thinking more about the story and the characters than the rules they are supposed to follow. The most important part of this enterprise is to help the characters tell their stories. There are rules, of course, but the tricky part is not letting the rules stifle the natural beauty of the story. Most tales are just tales; they have, like life, a bit of action and adventure, some romance, some mystery. They are not just one thing, but a mix of many things.

Trouble with that is, it’s hard to classify a mix. Stories need classifications. Especially if they are non-literary. Traditionally, a non-literary fiction is expected to lean overwhelmingly toward one kind of content. Such books, called genre fiction, are stacked heavily with genre specific tropes and elements, and those elements make the book. If there is to be a book with say, equal focus on adventure and romance, it would be difficult to classify as either a romance or adventure. Hence, the advice has always been to amplify one element, instead of both.

If you think of the book marketing angle, it’s easy to see why such advice came to be. Imagine being a marketing exec at one of the publishing houses, and given a book that has dragons and wizards and the protagonist is a time traveling science professor who finds love in this alternate world.

Imagine the challenge–who would you market this book to? Women? Sci-fi buffs? Fantasy lovers?

What would you call this book? Fantasy? Chick-lit? Science fiction? Romance?

Publishing is a business and every book is only allotted so much of the CAPEX. For the marketing exec who needs to get optimum success out of the funds, it is a much better scenario if a book/project can be clearly marketed to one segment of the population. Why not market to everyone? Because every segment responds to different and diverging stimuli, so every segment needs a differently designed and executed campaign.

No one wants to fail, no one wants to take too many risks. So, books that cannot be easily classified, are challenges. They are not favorites of the marketing department, hence not favorites of a publisher that employs said marketing department, and it follows that they are not favorites of agents who intend to pitch to afore-mentioned publishing houses.

Look at the next level and you’ll see the authors. Unable to entice an agent with a book that dabbles with elements from different genres, they come up with valid advice for themselves and their peers, don’t write such books because they won’t sell. These books, the not-darlings, are called cross-genre.

Now, obviously, as in any other argument, there are exceptions. Think of Bradbury’s Fahrenheit 451–science fiction that is a political criticism of literary censorship. In the present day, go no further than Harry Potter, which is a mix of YA, fantasy, mystery, adventure and . . . I can go on forever. But exceptions are outliers. Is it a path every writer, especially ones just starting out, should dream of following?

I’m not sure how things are on the traditional side, but things have changed with the advent of self or indie publishing. Indie authors are now also marketing directors for their creations. Even if they hire a marketing firm, the author has to figure how the funds are to be allocated. Given that, there is much freedom to write what you want. No one will stop you from writing a book that has elements from five different genres.

In my case, I don’t seem to have a choice. Although my primary genre of choice is science fiction, I tend to drift into others as well. It’s like an addiction that I don’t know how to overcome. Well, I’m not sure if I want to overcome it at all. I find myself drifting towards the flame, moth-like, not oblivious of my fate, but thrilled because I know what’s coming. I just started a serial writing project and the story started off on a solid sci-fi premise and now its turned into a thriller. And I’m enjoying every bit of the crafting process.

However, no matter how much fun I might have doing cross-genre, I can’t forget that the biggest marketing challenges of the traditional machinery have not simply disappeared. They remain the same, and different segments of the market still tend to respond to different stimuli. And the marketing funds, even if they are self-regulated, will have some limits. The best way to prevent stretching those funds too thin and rendering them ineffective is to follow a few guidelines while embarking on a cross-genre project.

  • Pick a primary genre and then one secondary genre. Use the primary to stand out, and make sure that the plot is guided by this primary genre. The secondary comes second and the rest can appear in brief flashes but try not to overpower the primary and secondary you have already chosen.
  • Build characters that people can root and do not let go even when the character does something outside of their favorite genre. Forget sticking to every trope of the primary genre, learn to go beyond the formulas that define the genre. Pick the elements you want to make use of to set up the tone of your primary genre and in that time make people care for your characters.
  • Write the best story you can, using your strengths as a writer. Good story writing is key to everything. If there is a lesson you’ve learned that works like magic in one genre, hold on to it and use it to your advantage when you’re crossing over.
  • Do not give up. Figure out a way. You cannot quit because marketing a cross-genre book seems much harder than one that’s a single-genre one. If you have figured out a way to reach audiences with the simpler project, you’ll figure out how to reach them with the complex one as well. Just might take a bit longer.

For me personally, this is becoming more necessary a process as I write more. I love science fiction. That is my first love, no doubt about it. But, within that umbrella of science fiction, I often veer. My writing, has always wanted to be cross-genre and I feel the pull more every time I start a new project.

My Lightbound Saga novel series is a hard science fiction in a dystopian world, with some mystical elements and a few fantasy elements as well. It’s not that I tried to have those elements added to my story, but that’s how the story evolved. Funny thing is, in the beginning I thought of it as simple MG science fiction. But as more and more readers picked up the book and I started getting their feedback, I saw how the audience had picked up a lot of elements I had not put in consciously. Interesting how perceptions work.

I’m sure the same will happen to my collection of short stories. To me, they are apocalyptic science fiction, with a lot of stress on sociological elements. But I’m sure readers will find threads that I have added with complete naivety. It will be interesting to hear.

How about you? Do you write cross-genre stories? Do you face more challenges because of that? How do you overcome them?

S.G. Basu is an aspiring potentate of a galaxy or two. She plots and plans with wondrous machines, cybernetic robots, time travelers and telekinetic adventurers, some of whom escape into the pages of her books. Once upon a previous life on planet Earth, S.G. Basu trained to be an engineer, and her interest in science and her love of engineering shows up time and again in her books.

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Posted in on marketing, on my books, on writing

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