Wednesday, March 22, 2017

On Not Fitting In

by David E. Sharp

Who’s up for some commiseration?

Now, I’m not talking about having nobody better to talk to at a party than the host’s goldfish, though I could write a series of blog posts on that. Today, I’m talking about that special frustration when your masterpiece doesn’t seem to be what anybody’s looking for.

Your romance novel featuring vampire cats practically wrote itself back in the composition phase. But now that you’re trying to shop it out to literary agents, it doesn’t seem to be right for anybody’s list. Go figure, right? Sometimes your inspiration and the whims of the market don’t line up. What’s a writer to do?

It Turns Out Publishing Is a Business

The black hole between genres.
It's real, my friends.  It's real.
Who among us decided to write a political thriller because we noticed that the demand had overreached the supply? Don’t raise your hand; it’s rhetorical. But publishers (and by proxy literary agents) have to see things in those terms. If they don’t, they’re not likely to get very far. And gauging something like that requires a great deal of categorization.

If horror is in-demand right now, then we need to be able to define what horror is. But categories can be tricky if your vision doesn’t fit within them. It can feel like you’re being asked to be either a good witch or a bad witch when actually you’re a runaway from Kansas who’s just seen color for the first time.

What Is This “New” You Speak Of?

"Trouble on the Beet Farm" is our top seller?
Let's publish twenty more titles just like it.
On the other side of the coin, writing is more of an art than an industry. No one complains to a farmer that this year’s beet crop tastes just like last year’s. Beets are beets. As writers, though, we must strive to create something new. And there’s the struggle.

How do you create something new that still fits snugly within the existing categories? You can create a mystery that follows all the old tropes, but how will you make it stand out? If it stands out too much, maybe it doesn’t qualify as a mystery anymore. …sigh… It’s a clash between invention and convention.

Why Do I Even Need Stupid Genre!?

The monster rises, its evil nature
palpitating within its twisted heart!

Coincidentally, it also
happens to be a vampire.
Classification is a key part of getting your magnum opus into the hands of the right readers. Even if you self-publish, you’ve got to find a way to put your story of blood-sucking felines into the hands of the emo cat-lovers of the world. They’re out there. But is the story horror? Romance? Probably not upmarket fiction, but who’s to say? You must find the category that will put it in the path of potential readers. And that’s the end goal, right? Your book in the hands of readers who will enjoy it.

Put yourself in the shoes of your ideal reader. What section do they go to when they enter a bookstore? Hmmm... (Of course, by this logic books for dealing with weak bladders should be housed in the public restrooms, and books on social anxiety would only ever be sold online.)

It’s Tough to Be a Pioneer

Once upon a time, there was no mystery genre. The first modern detective story is often attributed to Edgar Allen Poe and his short story, The Murders in the Rue Morgue. If he hadn’t written it, would we have our Sherlock Holmes, Hercule Poirot or Philip Marlowe today? Maybe your hard-to-define slice of brilliance will launch an entire genre of undead pets! Well, probably not. Hopefully not. But stranger things have happened.

The point is, keep moving forward. Frankly, I’m still waiting for the agent who’s looking for a humorous meta-fiction literary mash-up adventure. What shelf do you put that on? It’s difficult to sell a book that’s difficult to define. But it’s too important to leave sitting on my bookshelf. And yours is too.

Go ahead. Categorize me.
I dare you!!!

Photo credit: daniel.baker via

The Good News

Genre bending and blending are becoming more and more acceptable on all levels of publishing. While it's still a minority, occasional agents state they are open to atypical and experimental story models. If you’re stuck in the wasteland between genres, you’re not alone, and you're not without hope. New stuff must get out there because readers get bored with the same-old, same-old.

Anything new is a risk, so you can’t blame people for being cautious, but your audience is out there. And they’re cursed with a craving. A craving that only vampire cat love stories can satisfy.


April Moore said...

Such a great post, David. It's great to know that things are shifting--even it's glacially--away from set genres and that agents and publishers are finally starting to recognize this.

shenke said...

So love every ounce of your wisdom, David! This is the kind of thinking that not only keeps me up st night, but keeps me writing!

David Sharp said...

Thanks April and shenke. Of course, there have been some notable successes that were very difficult to pin to any kind of genre. Diana Gabaldon's Outlander series is probably the most celebrated story that winds up on any and every shelf you could imagine. Thanks for commenting!

Laura Mahal said...

I was just talking to the goldfish, and it said that it thought vampire cats were overrated. In fact, it held the opinion that ALL cats were overrated. (Per the goldfish:) The real story lies in goldfish that secretly become JAWS sharks when their "owners" are sleeping.

The goldfish said, "If you don't adding in one more thing? This year's fish food tastes EXACTLY like last year's fish food."

As always, a great article, David. Thank you for your insight!

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