Friday, 13 June 2008

Coffee Morning: Direction Angst

Morning all!

Don't worry, I'm not really at my desk at 7am. I cheated, and wrote this post a week or so ago, in case I was having a baby or some such other inconvenient thing. Top tip, by the way: You can publish posts in advance. Just click on Post Options (at the bottom of the post-writing box) in Blogger, and fill in a future date and time.

Well, anyway. I won't be drinking coffee cos caffeine's a bit frowned upon in pregnancy. I'll have my usual morning tipple: A giant mug of Red Bush tea. But the rest of you, feel free to partake. I brought biscuits, too: Mostly Fox's Favourites (chocolatey and yummy - nobody can beat Fox's), but I got some of those pink wafer sandwich things too, in a fit of nostalgia.

So, today I thought we could talk about genre / direction / generally deciding what kind of book you want to write. This is something I've been struggling with mightily. The thing is, I want to try my hand at everything. I'd like to do some kids' fiction, some comedy, something thrillerish, something deep and dark and Gothic, maybe something gentle and meandery, something else sumptuous and brimming with metaphor, the odd adventure or two. I like character-based and plot-based. I like the idea of winning literary prizes. I like the idea of writing pure entertainment.

It doesn't help that the books I've written so far have been hard to classify genre-wise. Also, I'm not the best person to judge what kind of book I'm writing. Whether I'm in the midst of it, or it's already on a book shelf, people often disagree with my own descriptions of my books. And when I try and write character-based it comes out as plot-based, and so on.

On the one hand I'd like to decide in advance what kind of book I'll write next, and this is hard. How do I decide? Do I play to my strengths (if only I knew what they were)? Do I branch out and try something new? Do I keep the market in mind, try and write a bestseller? Do I aim for those elusive literary prizes?

And then, even if I manage to make a decision, does it matter if it comes out as something completely different? Do I in fact have a unique style of my own which always wins out, no matter how much I think I'm aiming for something in particular?

Is genre just one big red herring, and should we just write the book which inspires us most and not try to define its genre or style?

There are so many factors which influence the decision. In the end I went for flippant and frothy with my current WIP, because that's what I felt like and I didn't have time for deep and meaningful. And now I'm full of angst that each book I've written has become progressively less deep, and nobody will take me seriously any more.

What do you do? Are you one of those lucky people who writes within a particular genre and never has any doubts? Do you write within one, but have secret yearnings to try another? Do you find yourself, like me, thoroughly confused by the whole thing?

Tell all.


Fiona said...

Oh,a strong black coffee please. I'll pass on the super biscuits - another day, another diet *sigh*.

I made the mistake of trying to write like somebody else, Alison Pearson, not understanding that she has about twenty years more experience than me and she's a bit brilliant at what she does. I wanted to write Chick Lit but it's more S...Lit. Actually it's got darker and darker and now I don't know what the hell it is. My biggest problem is chapter endings - how to make the reader want to turn the page.

Great topic, Claire. I would love to know if publishers have some sort of tick box system?

liz fenwick said...

Ditto what Fion said - great topic.

I knew I wanted to write romance in that I wanted a happy ending and I believe throughly in love. So I tried the Mills and Boon route and failed miserably but through that I discovered that my heart and my skills such as they are lay in women's fiction which covers a mulitple of sins and allows my happy ending with freedom for a wide cast of characters and themes. So at this stage I think this is my true home - now I just need to break through.

Sorry for my abscence of late. I know I am late on congrats for two finishers - well done Flowerpot and Clare. Life has swamped things - not in a bad way just so damn busy that I am not sure where I am half the time. Hopefully I'll be back to normal soon.

Now a double expresso so I can pretend I am back in Roma and enjoying la dolce vita :-)

Zinnia Cyclamen said...

Pink wafer biscuits, yummy, yes please, bring on the retro snacks!

Genre schmenre, if you ask me. I'm with Liz in 'contemporary women's fiction' (defined as such because I am a woman and so is my protagonist, and that's about it). Other art forms are transcending genre and I think it's only a matter of time before publishers catch on to this. Having said that, I'm not anti-genre, and often enjoy reading within genres. But I'm not driven to write in one, I'd rather write what I want and need to write and then see what it looks like.

Flowerpot said...

I'm wiht Liz on contemporary women's fiction as it covers such a wide range of topics! I also agree about uplifting (not necessarily "happy") endings. Life is full of enough misery without adding to it. Having said that one of my favourite books is Frenchman's Creek and that's hardly a happy ending.

Lucy Diamond said...

I find it easy to cross genre within children's fiction - ie I've written humourous boys-y stuff, very fluffy pink girly stuff, exciting adventure stories and now am trying my hand at a spooky ghost styley. These are all short books though - 7,000 words tops - so I enjoy them as pieces of 'dabbling'.
But writing a novel - a whole novel! - in a different genre scares the pants off me. My natural writing style is a breezy conversational one - I'm never going to win the Orange prize with it - but that is my 'voice' (if that doesn't sound too pretentious) and I'm not sure I could change it, and sustain that change convincingly for 100,000 words.
Having said that, I abandoned the last novel-in-progress (at 70,000 words, ouch) because it was all getting very dark and there was a lot in it about mental health issues, and I thought (sadly), My editor won't want this, as it was so different to the first two novels. I am quite tempted to go back to it and finish it though, then submit it under a pseudonym. One day!

Cathy said...

I'm another writer of contemporary women's fiction, but I wouldn't want to pigeon-hole myself any further than that!

Zinnia's last sentence said it all really, that's exactly how I feel.

ps Sorry I have missed a few coffee mornings recently, like Liz life has simply got in the way...

CC Devine said...

I didn't consciously set out to write something in a particular genre but I think my wip and ideas for future novels would all fit under the heading of contemporary women's fiction.

I want to write the sort of novel that I like to read. In fact it was after reading a so-called bestseller's attempt at writing that convinced me that surely I could do better; anyone could - this stuff was dire!

Of course I've now realised that it's not as easy as it looks but I'm having fun trying :)

Leatherdykeuk said...

With the current book I really wanted to do something different - something chick-lit, in fact. Of course, despite my use of new characters, old ones started cropping up and before I knew it I have these to innocent, ordinary people caught up in a world of werewolves, assassins, demons and nuns. Poor buggers. So no, I think my answer is that I stick to my safe little genre, though I did write an agatha-christie type whodunnit a year or two ago, with a load of sex thrown in.

Congratulations to the finishers and I'll have a gunpowder tea, please. No biscuits.

Anonymous said...

This is another cracker of a subject. I'm going to need a large mocha and some Marmite on toast for this.

I suspect that many authors write in genres that they enjoy reading. This is certainly true in my case, though I like to think I'm not restricted to those. I also love genre-crossing books, though I don't really know why. Ideally I'd like to write a novel that thrills, has dashing heroes, dastardly criminals, has science fiction and fantasy elements, beautiful poetic prose, side-splitting humour, appeals to all sexes and ages, kids will enjoy it and a smidgen of adult content thrown in. Hmm, I don't think it's going to work, somehow.

Some people say that genres are a bad thing. That they stifle the creativity by forcing particular styles, and story patterns. I'm not sure what I think of this. In my experience, some genres seem have harder "rules" than others; so I suppose there is some truth in it. Perhaps genres are more to help the reader than the writer. After all, they would like to have some idea of what they are buying - and where to find it in the bookshop.

I'm starting to detest what I can only describe as genre snobbery. People who pigeon-hole stories, often without having read them, in a derisory way. I have to hold up my hand and say I've done this myself. Now I feel guilty because I've since read from that genre and thoroughly enjoyed it. I think if a book is well-written, then it doesn't matter what the category is. I've also been on the receiving end: "Oh, SF? That's just lasers and one-dimensional characters, isn't it?".

I guess the best thing to do would be to come up with a great story, write it well, and then decide what genre(s) it fits into.

Fiona, I think you've come up with a new category: Dark Chick Lit. Who says women's fiction has to be light? Sugar and spice - pah! You go for it!

Kate said...

Actually, Captain Black, Dark Chick Lit has been dubbed 'chick noir' in certain circles...

I am another contemporary women's fiction author - my books have been called chick lit, but usually by people who haven't read them, and I am less uppity about it than I used to be. Like Lucy, I have a certain voice and whatever I try to write, that emerges - it's wry, I think, but fundamentally fairly light even if I am writing about phobias or bereavement or redundancy or whatever...I can't help seeing the light side of tough situations, as well as the dark side of positive emotions e.g. doubts about 'true love', mixed feelings about motherhood or 'success'.

I have accepted that I will be categorised to some extent, for marketing purposes. I got a little mention in the Bookseller lately that said the books were sharp and funny and written for women 'who want their chick lit with a little more bite' and that's cool with me (so long as no-one interprets that as being vampire chick lit!). I also hope it doesn't sound like boasting, it's just always interesting to hear what other people say.

I do have dilemmas about where to go - I'm on my seventh novel and I do want to explore darker issues, but in a sense my voice defines what I can write and what I can't...I have an idea involving a very difficult, emotional situation and it would be a risk writing about something like that because can I get the tone right?

As for being taken seriously, well, I think that for women writers of 'commercial' fiction that's not going to happen anyway. There's still plenty of sexism around, and a whole critical viewpoint that regards men writing about home life/relationships as ground-breaking or courageous, and regards women writing about the same things as sinkbound and drab. C'est la vie. I was reading Mslexia yesterday and someone said that if a woman had written Look Back in Anger (by John Osbourne) it would have been taken far less seriously as the first drama in the new 'kitchen sink drama' movement. I think they may be right.

Congratulations to all those who have completed drafts especially Clare and Flowerpot - sorry I haven't been around much.

And finally, can I just celebrate having a new book out yesterday? Did my traditional meal out with best mates to toast the newborn...! It has the loveliest cover I've seen. I adore it more every time I look at it.

Kate x

Helen said...

I am another one with apologies for not being around much lately. Once I've done my (writing) work I am so tired I usually just veg out on the settee and watch The West Wing.

Anyway, Genre. I have no idea what genre I'm writing in and I don't think I will until the end. Is it children? young adult? science fictiony? I have no idea. I can't think about that at the moment as my head will surely explode.

To be honest though it is such a long time since I looked at my m/s...

Debs said...

Great topic. I'll have a cappuccino please, no biscuits as I've just polished off a packet of crisps.

The books I write are what I enjoy reading although I'm also trying to sort out my chapter endings at the moment.

I enjoy writing chick lit and have written a saga but would love to have a go at writing thrillers at some point too.

Graeme K Talboys said...

(Crosses another topic off list of possibles).

Genre. Hate it. It has become, for some agents and publishers, a lazy way of marketing and a horrible way of pinning an author to the board.

Me? I write the story I want to tell and use the techniques, setting, and styles that I feel are most appropriate and that will enhance that story. I've written kids stuff, spy thrillers, straight science fiction, magic realism, 'literary' fiction, fantasy, and lots of speculative fiction.

I (and a number of people I know) have had books rejected solely on the grounds they don't fit a genre and would be difficult to sell. To whom? The reading public have no trouble with books that don't fit preconceived notions. Being the contrary b*gg*r that I am, I go looking for things like that. Have hundreds of titles on my shelves.

And therein lies the real problem for me. Not so much what I should write (what I want and how I want it), but how the hell do I sell it to agents and publishers?

ChrisH said...

Great topic and very pertinent to me at the mo as, finally, I have got round to starting my entry to the novel race. Very interesting to read everyone's comments. My original typescript of 'FTT' was fairly frothy. The agent requested 'darker and deeper' changes - I'm currently waiting to see what she thinks of rewrite (YIKES!!!). So, my dilemma is with new t/s whether to start in same vein - ie frothy with deeper darker threads or to begin something different. It rather depends on whether or not FTT is acceptable. Sigh. Congrats to all finisher and to Kate on latest release.

B.E. Sanderson said...

Good morning all (even though it's not morning over there anymore).

First, congratulations to everyone on their recent accomplishments. I have a couple of my own to crow about - I finished a first draft and I just got a request for full on my 4th book. Yay.

Second, excellent topic, Clare. Personally, I've always sucked at defining what genre my books are. My first few two books I thought were lit thrillers, until someone told me they weren't thrilling enough or lit enough to be called that. Now I'm thinking I've been writing suspense all along. My second two books are speculative fiction with suspense elements, and the two I'm working on now are romantic suspense. I don't think about the genre before I start writing, it just works out where it works out and I pigeonhole it afterwards.

Anonymous said...

I would love to write a wonderful romance with a bit of mystery thrown in and perhaps a murder or two then a happy ending but everytime I think about it I always revert back to my favoured topic of the paranormal. My current WIP is based on a medium but it does have rather a lot of mystery surrounding it and I hope it will be strong enough to attract a reader or two. Maybe when I'm more experienced and have a lot more confidence will I just sit down and begin my romance.

CJ xx

Rowan Coleman said...

I don't like pigeon holes and I think I've mentioned before that I loathe the phrase 'chick lit' because it implys that the writer and reader - simply by being females - are not taking the 'literature' seriously. I think its a flippant and sexist term - however this is how most people would classify my writing! I'm with Liz, Lucy and the others in that I write for women like me, my tone is conversational and fun. I'm not affarid of including death, rape, divorce and other darker plot lines in my books but I am firm beliver in romance and a happy ending. I aim to take my reader on an emotional rollercoaster. I know I will never win The Orange Prize or the Booker - I do have a FANTASTIC speech that I've been practising since the age of nine when I hoped to one day win an oscar so to win something would give me a chance to finally say it out loud...HOWEVER I think people often make the mistake of thinking that commercial, entertaining and easy to read fiction is easy to right. RUBBISH its much harder I think, because often the writer is putting the reader first rather than their own egos. Anyway I am off to Paris now on the Eurostar for the weekend. Laters!

A. Writer said...

Genre? Well, I'm not sure what to class my stuff as...

Book 1, I would think is somewhere in between Women's fiction and Chick lit because I wouldn't say it was definitely one or the other.

With my other WsIP, I would think one is pure chick lit and the other is definitely Women's Fiction. They are completely different from one another where Book 1 is somewhere in between.

I knew I wanted to write for women because that's the stuff I liked reading myself. The reason I started writing was because I couldn't find a book (at the time) that I wanted to read.

I have recently thought about an idea for a children's book which is a complete surprise since I make the Child Catcher in Chitty Chitty Bang Bang look like Mary Poppins! Hee hee! So we'll see what happens with that idea as to whether I write the book or not!

L-Plate Author said...

Well done to Kate, I'll be looking out for your book. And a big well done to Fiona too. x

I've already said congrats to Flowerpot and Claire and also everyone who has had pieces accepted lately (aren't we all a clever bunch!)

So that leaves BE. Well done on finishing your draft, I'm 20k into mine and it's going like it always does, crap and then it all comes out in the wash. And congrats on getting a request for the full. I'll keep my fingers crossed.

So, onto genre, I'm going to echo Zinnia's comments but also say that I love to read gruesome crime books but I would never be comfortable writing them. I like to write emotional stories. I have to write contemporary fiction because that is where my 'voice' is. I can do a little bit of both, i.e my grit-lit, but I have since realised, as book three has come along, that all three books are so different so I am not grit-lit but commercial women's fiction. Quite a relief really because as Graham comments, grit-lit is not the norm.

But then again, until I'm published, who am I to say what I think I write. Genre-schmenre, that says it all. I don't have control over what I write to a certain degree anyway. x

Helen Shearer said...

Hi, all,

Late again. I can no longer use the internet at work so unless I'm up before dawn, I can't get here in a timely fashion. But I will try to get my can out of bed at dawn on Fridays from now on. And so ends the feeble excuses portion of the program. I'll have tea this morning. No treats. Caught a glimpse of my girth in a shop window the other day and I think I can safely say I'm off treats for the foreseeable future.

Alright, down to business. I was thinking about genre just this week. I'm considering taking a fiction workshop at the university. I took a workshop with the professor a few years ago but it wasn't affiliated with the university, so I read various portions of a comedy I was working on. But this week I thought that I should work on something more literary for a university class. Then I thought why does it have to be "literary"? Why can't I just write the best damned drivel I can and let everyone critique it? So that's what I'm going to do. I've always just written whatever story came to mind. No point changing now. If I happen to publish it, then the book marketing people can decide what section of the shop to put it in. I'll probably go into every shop I can and move all of their copies to the front anyway. Oh come on! As if you guys don't do that too!

Have a great week everyone.

wordtryst said...

Sorry I'm late.. Ran into a steel window AGAIN and things got a bit muddled for a while there.

Kate, congrats on the new book! And to b.e. sanderson on finishing and the request for the full! And congrats again to the others who have had work accepted recently.

I'm a genre straddler myself. First novel romance, next memoir, current romance with a touch of suspense, and also am attempting mainstream or women's or whatever - not sure yet which label will fit.

I agree with Graeme that novels are being squeezed into narrower and narrower genres to cater to niche markets. The latest I've seen are eco-thrillers. Hello? A thriller is a thriller, and if there's an ecological theme so much the better. Why create a special genre for that? Next it'll be the endangered-primate-eco-thriller subgenre or some such.

Rowan, my agent said the same thing you did when I spoke apologetically about my first novel, a romance. She's thinks it's a lot harder to write entertaining stories that people actually want to read rather than pretentious stuff that people feel they ought to read. I felt a lot less apologetic about my work after that.

Clare Sudbery said...

Lovely to read all your thoughts, as well as fascinating.

It occurred to me that something I didn't necessarily touch on... is that, as well as struggling to define the genre of something once I've written it, and wondering whether to pick one / which one to pick in advance of writing... there's also something slightly subtler, which is tone or voice. I have several different voices I like to write in, and often my problem is deciding which one to use / how to think of the book in my head before I start. And I'm hopeless at making decisions when there seem to be so many choices. Shall I be chatty? Lyrical? Irreverent? Obscure?

I now have in my head several new novels I want to write next, and they're all very different. Which is another thing... I find creativity breeds creativity. When I'm in the middle of writing something, the ideas for other books / stories come much thicker and faster than when I'm not.

I do like the idea of swapping about between different forms and styles, though. Now that I've written something chatty and frothy, I want to counter it with something slow and deep. I've always liked the idea of doing something like Iain Banks, and alternating between two distinct forms. Just about manageable on a career-sustaining level, too. Now all I have to do is choose which two forms...

Incidentally, I find Lucy Diamond an inspiration in this - she manages to do so many different things, and all of them well. Hurrah for multitasking!