You write thrillers, don’t you?

“As a filmmaker you get typecast just as much as an actor does,

so I’m trapped in a genre that I love, but I’m trapped in it!”

George A. Romero

“Genre categories are irrelevant. I dislike them,

but I do not have the casting vote.”

Tanith Lee

“Focus in on the genre you want to write,

and read books in that genre.”

Nicholas Sparks

“Genre aside, I’d like to make a film about people.”

Sophie Marceau

     Unfortunately for the writer seeking definitive advice on the subject of genre, there are an inane amount of conflicting viewpoints, and pithy quotes from all sides to make their case.  Fortunately for the perceptive writer, this means you can understand the subject of genre with relative ease, if you pay attention.  Please note that I used the word “understand,” and not “master.”  You won’t have mastered the subject of genre until you’re Stanley Kubrick or Steven Spielberg.  By then I doubt it will be much of a concern to you.  But for now, let’s look at this genre thing.

     Genre is a conundrum.  Literary works are known to be less salable than genre novels (the difference being that genre books, obviously, follow the conventions of popular genre, whereas literary novels often are less plot-oriented and focus more on characters and authorial prose).  Understandably then, “genre writing,” or writing to the conventions of a specific genre, would be a better way to go if you want to attract the attention of agents, publishers… and even readers in most cases.  Just like the difference between a blockbuster action movie and an indie drama, most people prefer to see the one that focuses on plot, even if they don’t expect a life-changing experience.  Literature, like film, is entertainment.  And readers, like moviegoers, will often choose the most entertaining over what is perhaps the most profound.  It all comes down to taste.

     Simple, right?  Just write to genre and you’ll do great.  But here’s the conundrum: typecasting.  Let me capitalize that for you, and maybe throw in bolds and italics just to make it clear.  Typecasting.  For some people, it’s the perfect recipe.  For others, it’s stifling.  Think of some of the most well-known authors and what genre immediately comes to mind at the mention of their name.  Stephen King – horror.  James Patterson – thriller.  Agatha Christie – mystery.  Nora Roberts – romance.  Robert Ludlum – espionage.  John Grisham – legal thriller.

     It’s not that these writers can’t write outside of their attributed genres.  It’s not that they haven’t.  It’s that when you think of them, you think of a genre.  You don’t think of Nora Roberts and think “Oh, I loved her romance book, and her sci-fi book, and her crime drama, and her spy thriller…”  You think romance.  This is a very common thing, but more so, I believe, among authors of books than of screenwriters or filmmakers.  David Mamet can write a political comedy, a drama, a thriller – I’d see all three.  Tom Hanks has been in almost every kind of movie imaginable.  The only real distinction in film is when someone does 4 or 5 movies of the same style or in the same genre – such as George A. Romero, who’s known for B-movie horror flicks – or when someone does comedy for a long time and then takes on a dramatic role out of the blue.

     Can typecasting be good?  Of course it can.  All of the authors I listed above?  You’ve probably heard of 5 out of 6 at least.  As Nicholas Sparks (romance!) said, focus on a genre and learn the rules.  You don’t have to abide by them, but learn them so that you can break them intentionally instead of moronically.  If you write well and you know your genre, and if you’re persistent as the devil, you’ll establish yourself as a reliable [insert your preferred genre here] writer.  You’ll get the attractive offers and maybe some decent advances, you’ll go on book tours to promote your works, you’ll sign books and stay in hotel rooms and people will enjoy your work.

     And that’s a good thing.  For myself, I very much like thrillers.  If in all my years I become an established writer in the thriller genre, I won’t die crying.  Unless I’m in a horrible car accident or something.  But personally, I want to branch out.  I feel that “thriller” is a rather basic form of genre.  To me, every book should be “thrilling.”  Except, perhaps, the weird, quirky kind of books that you only read to make you cry a little and then get all warm and fuzzy inside.  But for the kind of stories I actually enjoy, I think they should thrill me.  Move me, yes, but also excite.  I want to write thrilling fantasy.  I want to write a thrilling crime drama.  I want to write a thrilling historical action drama.  I want to write a weird, quirky kind of book that you only read to make you cry a little and then get all warm and fuzzy inside.  But only one.

     I’m not entirely certain it can be done.  But how to do it?  My best guess?  Write well.  Write well in anything that you write, and write anything you can think of to write well.  If you truly do not want to be typecast, then branch out immediately.  Write a thriller, then a romance, then a political drama, then fantasy.  I’ll warn you, it will take a lot longer to “break out” if people can’t easily associate you with a certain kind of book.  This is because your readers will have to become fans of your writing itself, not fans of the genre who happen to prefer your writing to other writers in that genre.  You won’t have the established base to play to.  You’ll find it harder to establish yourself as a “go to” or a commodity for publishers.  Self publishing will potentially be a nightmare.

     Can you establish yourself within a genre first, and then break out of that genre?  I don’t recommend this.  I’m sure there are authors who have done this with some success, but for the most part you’ll only confuse your readers and fans.  They’ll read their little book magazines and see, “Hey, the new Michael Traven book is coming out!  I love his thrillers!” and then they’ll order the book and it’s a romance.  I’m sure you can imagine the reaction.  Not only will it irritate them that they’ve wasted time and possibly money on something they didn’t want, but they will subconsciously associate the failure of a book to please them, which was not intended for them, to you, the person they thought they could trust for a good read.

     For what it’s worth, I have virtually almost zero interest in writing a romance novel.

images from Adaptation, written by Charlie Kaufman

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One thought on “You write thrillers, don’t you?

  1. Intriguing and well-written post, as usual. More writers should follow this blog. :)

    This post was very interesting to me because I’m a very diverse writer in terms of genre – or, perhaps a better word would be “setting.” Most of my works can be classified as drama, but they occur everywhere from a fantasy universe to Mars to small town America. I’ve been told I have a “sci-fi vibe,” but I don’t want to be bound to any one genre. I’m currently having my blog custom redesigned, and one of the concerns I had for my designer was that I didn’t want the website to be genre-specific. I didn’t want people to open up the webpage and immediately associate me with “fantasy” or “sci-fi.”

    Actually, one of the reasons I am in favor of self-publishing is because I write in a variety of genres – and many of my works don’t conform to genre conventions. Instead of trying to convince a publisher that my work fits within their genre, I’ll publish it myself and market directly to my audience. Yes, my faithful fanbase will probably be composed of people that like my writing as opposed to a specific genre, but I am fine with that. I believe I’ve already begun to do that on a small scale amongst my friends and sphere of influence.

    A thought about breaking out of your genre. I’ve heard that pen names can be useful for this. If you’re already made a name as a romance author, and you want to try political thriller, you might write your political thriller under a different pen name. In theory you could do this for all the genres you write, having a separate identity for each one. I want to lump all my works under one pen name, so I’ll have to work around genre conventions to accomplish that.

    And to answer your title question, no, I actually haven’t written a thriller. I have one idea that’s telling me it wants to be a medical/political thriller, and a pretty extreme one at that. I’m not sure if I want to let it wander off into thriller territory…

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