Thursday, April 24, 2014

What's Your Genre?

As I write this, I'm sitting on the couch, preparing to record a huge stack of essays I just graded. I've been grading these essays for my poetry and literature courses for the past few days, and I think it's safe to say I passed the realm of normalcy quite a while ago. I even bought myself this to make the job a little more fun:

Can you say, "hashtag nerdy teacher?" I know. I know. But felt-tipped pens are so glorious!

So, here's the thing. Ten years ago, I thought I wanted to be an elementary school teacher. I had NO concept of what it would look like to teach college courses, and no idea that I even could. I mean, I knew I wanted to teach, and that was about it. I was planning to major in elementary education until, at a college orientation, a very quirky old man with a penchant for Canterbury Tales factoids handed out some pamphlets about all the things you could do with an English major. He would later become one of my favorite professors and my current boss.

See, you can say to someone, "I'm a teacher," and they may think they know what you do. But what they don't see is the difference between a poetry instructor and a kindergarden teacher, a remedial reading instructor and a chemistry adjunct. Those differences may seem subtle, but they're not. They make all the difference in the world.

The same is true with writing.

You may wonder why genre matters. Well, think about the previous example. If you say to someone, "I'm a writer," what comes to their mind? A romance novelist? A literary critic? A poet? A cozy mystery writer? Sure, all of these people share a passion for the written word. But writing means something SO different to each of them.

The reality is, editors, agents, and readers expect certain things from certain genres. In a love story, readers want the characters to end up together. Unless you're Nicholas Sparks, killing one of your main characters right before the grand finale is going to result in a very unhappy reaction from your readers. Same is true with women's fiction or literary fiction and the expectation of carefully-crafted prose and true-to-life characters.

Trying different genres can be very fun. But like changing majors in college, eventually, you really need to pick one (unless your name is Pepper Basham, and you can amazingly write exceedingly well in every single genre known to mankind). 

When you're first starting out and you're beginning to submit to agents and/or editors, it's important that you really know who you are as a writer. Again, don't just think of yourself as a "teacher," or "writer," but as having a particular kind of voice that's invaluable to a publishing house. No one wants to publish just another "writer." What they want is your unique voice as a writer.

So how can you find your genre? 

Try dabbling in different styles and see what feels most natural. When I first started writing, I tried to write literary fiction. While I enjoy the depth and complexity of it, let's just say, I doubt anyone is going to be reading any of my literary fiction anytime soon! I then found the southern romance genre, and writing has been immensely easier and more fun ever since. 

Also, consider what you like to read. Are you drawn to historical fiction? Contemporary romance? Romantic comedy? Take into account your interests as a reader, and you may find out something about yourself as a writer in the process.

What about you?! What genre do you write? Are you still trying to find your genre? What are you favorite genres to read?


Ashley Clark writes romance with southern grace. She's dreamed of being a writer ever since the thumbprint-cookie-days of library story hour. Ashley has an M.A. in English and enjoys teaching literature courses at her local university. She's an active member of ACFW and runs their newcomer's loop. When she's not writing, Ashley's usually busy rescuing stray animals and finding charming new towns. You can find Ashley on her personal blogFacebook, Pinterest, and Twitter. She is represented by Karen Solem.


Rebecca Gomez said...

Hmmm...I love to read novels in verse and speculative fiction. Sometimes when I write fiction, those two things get blended together. But verse is my true love, and what I'm best at I think.

Pepper said...

Oh HA! You're hilarious, friend! I only write in multiple genres because I live in the state of confusion! :-)

Fantastic post! This 'genre thing' seems to be floating more into a gray line too - with Indie Publishing becoming so popular, but I was chatting with my agent about genre and branding recently and with interests we still need a solid connection with readers.
What you said already.

So I think we've somewhat narrowed it down to Southern Appalachian Fiction (which then covers ALL of my genres :-) - except my Steampunk novel...but I might have to switch to a pseudonym for that one! ;-)

Do you think there are two different types of sides to this coin? People who already think and feel in a certain genre, and therefore write in that genre, and people who enjoy story at the 'story' level so any genre will do? Which makes for tough branding.

Er....which might be my problem ;-)

Pepper said...

sorry - last thing

I LOVE your example of English instructor vs elementary teacher. I wanted to be an elementary English teacher before I went into Speech-Language Pathology.

The right 'fit' DOES matter!

Jeanne Takenaka said...

Great post, Ashley. And, I did take the elementary teacher route. And there IS a ton of difference. :) (Love your Sharpie pens BTW).

It is good to know what genre we like to read in and write in. I have friend who loves reading romantic suspense, but finds straight romance much more enjoyable to write.

For me, I've written two women's fiction books, because my heart is to encourage women in relationships with God and those around them. But, I'm trying my hand at contemporary romance, because.....well, it's fun. :) We'll see how it turns out and how it's received. :)

Great post today!

Ashley Clark said...

Rebecca, isn't that interesting!? I think it's so neat how our interests as readers influence and appeal to our writing voice, even if they are technically different genres. I definitely see literary elements slip into my romantic comedy! Thanks for sharing.

Ashley Clark said...

Pepper, this is a GREAT question, and my position on it has come somewhat full circle since grad school. Here's what I think. We often call this categorization stuff "genre," but at the end of the day, the true thing is, we can't escape who we are and what, as Christian writers in particular, God has called us to essentially preach. Maybe it's the restoration of broken relationships, or joy, or healing,

Ashley Clark said...

Sorry! My phone cut me off! Anyways-- these themes will consistently come through in our writing. One such theme for me is living without fear. Now, these things may come through different kinds of stories, and I certainly think there are plenty of writers (ie Rene Gutteridge) who write multiple genres well. However, I think usually in most cases, we tend to do best in one or two particular kinds of stories-- they flatter our voice like a nice dress may best flatter our figure. SO, long answer to your question-- yes and no. There are tons of exceptions, especially with indie writers, but call me old school-- at the end of the day, I think it's best to build a platform in one (or two) specific genres. As a reader, a writer has to bowl me over with her amazingness (like Rene) for me to be okay with her writing multiple, differing genres. Otherwise, I'm going to read one book from her, love it and feel invested, then feel super annoyed

Ashley Clark said...

... whenever she switches things up on me. Thanks for the great discussion! <3

Ashley Clark said...

Jeanne, great comments! You know, I think women's fiction and contemporary romance can, in some ways, accomplish something very similar in your readers, you know? It'll be so interesting to see if women's fiction elements make their way into your contemp romance! I think that's the real beauty and mystery of genre-- the blending of various genres as we create our own writing voice. This is where genre is so simplistic yet so complex at the same time! Sometimes (I think, at least) we have to dabble in different genres before we find one that best suites our style.