When I first starting writing fiction, my #1 question was:
“How do I choose which genre to write in?”
Since my background was is in marketing/entrepreneurship I became obsessed with trying to mimic the the great financial successes of other authors. People like:
The very first thing I noticed when researching the careers, and reading the books of these authors was:
They have spent a majority of their careers mastering a single genre…
James Patterson – Mystery
Nora Roberts – Romance
R.L. Stine – Scary Stories For Kids
J.K. Rowling – Harry Potter
And even Stephen King (who may have carved the widest birth amongst genres of all the writers I have listed) is known for his domination of the horror genre.
From a business standpoint, this makes sense. From a craft standpoint this makes sense.
But here is the thing…
How can an inexperienced (or even experienced) author realistically expect to choose the right genre for them that they can devote a career towards?
Realize It Is A Choice
The first step to deciding on what genre to choose is to realize that it is a choice made from exercising your own free will.
Ultimately, it is a business choice.
You aren’t limited by some external force. This thing we call “talent” is nothing but hard work and dedication to a craft of your choosing (read: 10,000 hours). Don’t let it fool you into thinking it is something other than that.
Like all choices in life you can weigh the pros and cons, you can do research (like reading this article) and you can even call on spiritual/emotional “powers” to help you decide if you so choose – but the fact remains that the only progress you will ever make will be AFTER you decide.
Close The Other Doors
If you are like me then you love to read as many different books as you possibly can.
Just this last week I read:
For readers like me, trying to limit myself to a single genre can be a mind-numbing task of impossibility.
How am I supposed to choose just ONE genre to dedicate my writings to? I love to read so many different types!
It took me nearly 4 months of writing short stories (which is a long time for me because I write 5,000+ words per day 7 days per week – I wrote a LOT of short stories in that time simply experimenting) in different genres before I finally came up with a way to framework this problem in my mind.
Imagine that you are standing in the lobby of a U shaped hotel. All along the wall you are facing are doors, each one labeled a different genre.
At the beginning of your writing career all of these doors are open. You can peer through each to see what lies on the other side. What you find excites you. Fame, fortune, fans, freedom and fun.
But there is a catch…
In order to walk through any single door, you must first close the others.
This my friends, is what making a choice is. Until you are able to close the other doors, you will be stuck in the hotel lobby, simply peering into the future that could be yours.
You need to learn to close the other doors.
Here are some tips on how I have been able to do that in my own writing career:
What Do You Want To Explore?
The best way to look at genre is to think of it as a looking glass through which you can explore different aspects of humanity.
Horror – The exploration of fear
Sci-Fi – The exploration of technology and space
Romance – The exploration of love
Looked at in this way, genre choice is a tool instead of a limitation.
For example, if you love reading sci-fi and horror (like I do) but can’t decide between focusing on Sci-fi or focusing on horror (like I struggled with) then all you have to do is say:
“Would I rather spend a lifetime exploring technology and space or exploring the feeling of fear?”
As soon as I framed this question of choosing a genre in my mind like that, it became instantly clear. As someone with PTSD, I want to learn everything there is to know about fear.
So, I write horror fiction.
That doesn’t mean I won’t have sci-fi elements in my horror. Just look at Dean Koontz or Stephen King – the only elements that tie their books together is that they are scary, everything else is up to them.
So, what do you want to explore?
What Do You Want To Be Known For?
This method of choosing a genre might appear a bit self-centered, but for someone who relies on external feedback (like myself) this can be a powerful way to find a solution to your question.
What do you want to be known for 20 years down the road?
What conventions do you want to be invited to?
Who do you want reading your books?
These might seem like ridiculous questions to be asking yourself now (especially if you have never been financially compensated for your writing before) but these are the same type of questions that high ticket business coaching programs ask their students (I know because I used to run a high ticket business coaching program). And for good reason.
Let me give you a personal example:
When I was considering this question I had narrowed it down to Sci-fi or Horror. I was leaning towards Horror because I wanted to explore the emotion of Fear but I still wasn’t totally convinced.
One day, I was watching Jedi Junkies and my decision was made for me.
Half way through the film I realized that I didn’t belong to that tribe. Don’t get me wrong, I LOVED Star Wars as a kid. I LOVE reading Sci-Fi but I don’t LIVE it. I would feel like an outsider in that world.
As an author, you must feel comfortable leading your tribe of readers.
I was the weird kid, not the nerd. I read R.L. Stine like it was going out of fashion. I drank dirt infused rain gutter water just to get a rise out of the kids on the playground. I told weird jokes just to see the reaction from grown ups. I was and still am a dark person.
Horror got me through abuse. Horror got me through moving 28 times before I was 18. Horror got me through a hell of a lot.
When deciding upon my own genre to focus on, I couldn’t help but think about who I wanted reading my material – and above all I wanted kids like me to read my stuff. I feel comfortable in that tribe. So I chose horror.
An interesting exercise (and one I do a lot even still) is to go to your local bookstore and just people watch in the different genres. Can you place yourself in any particular area? If you can, then write that.
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Why Choosing A Genre Based Off Of What You Read Is A Bad Idea
I can’t think of worse advice for a poor struggling author trying to create a career than “Write what you love to read.”
Wow, how about we just say, “When deciding what to write, why don’t you write words?”
The problem is that writers love to read. And we typically read a lot of stuff. Most of the time we aren’t reading in the genre we are writing in – and that is good.
When we read in different genres than we write for, we pull story elements from those other genres and incorporate them into our own stories. This cross-mixing of genre elements is where the real art happens (think: Neil Gaiman or Terry Pratchet).
If you love reading Sci-Fi but want to write Romance – do it!
If you love reading Horror but want to write Fantasy – do it!
For almost 4 years I made a living writing sales copy for myself and others. Do you think I enjoyed reading sales copy? HELL NO! But I wrote some of the best sales copy of the Internet age (according to this guy).
How did I do it? I simply realized the constraints of the form I was writing in and wrote.
You can do the same.
Use your reading time as a time to stretch your own writing – but don’t flip flop into a new genre every time you pick up a new book. If I wrote like that I would be writing in 2-3 different genres a week!
The point is that your reading should be for you and your writing should be for your reader. They can (and probably should) be two different genres – at least.
Now Get Out There And Write Something
Before I close, I don’t want you to get the feeling that you have to ONLY write in the genre that you choose today (or tomorrow or whenever you get around to it). It isn’t like that at all.
Stephen King wrote one of the most iconic Sci-Fi pieces Running Man (considered by many to be a top 100 sci-fi novel of all time). J.K Rowling just released a murder mystery. Even James Patterson is writing kids books now.
The point of this article is this:
Genre Commitment = Craft Mastery
The more you are able to commit to a single genre and spend your life mastering it – the more likely you are to achieve said mastery. Flip flopping around only lessens your potency as a writer.
So, get out there and choose your toolset. What are you going to explore? What do you want to be known for?
What genre are YOU going to write in?