Writing (across) genre

Jun 17, 2012 | Posted in books & writing

diving: my sister Sevil and I

Is writing in another genre good only for the bottom line?

As young adult (YA) fiction has become more and more popular, generating more and more $$$, authors who traditionally write for adults have been jumping on the YA bandwagon. Allegra Goodman, Michael Chabon, Jodi Picault, John Grisham, Philippa Gregory, Harlan Coben — the list goes on and on.

Maybe an agent or editor suggested these authors dash off a YA novel while taking more than a couple of years on their next novel for adults. Maybe this suggestion was made for an even more strategic purpose: young readers will hopefully become adult readers who are now primed to read the fiction by an already-familiar author.

Yes, this makes sense for the business of writing. But what about for the writer?

This year, while struggling with revisions to my novel Antigone Rising, I started a YA novel. Admittedly, this was because I had started another novel for adults that was becoming overly complicated (suffering from the same malady as Antigone). In frustration, I started writing an adventure story — just for fun. I was tired of struggling with what felt like the overwhelming constraints of reality-based fiction. I wanted to write something more along the lines of near future sci-fi. But I didn’t want to write a story that required a huge amount of world building, which is often the case with adult sci-fi, so I decided to try YA. And of course, the moment I decided that, the voice and story popped up in a dream.

I expected the YA novel to be quick and easy. My only desire was to have an outlet for putting words down on paper (I get cranky when I’m not writing) while I struggled with structure in Antigone.

And at first it was exactly that — the words poured out, the voice was in my head, the setting in my nose, images flooding my brain. I wrote and wrote. For the first time in years, I was much more involved in the story itself than the language I was using to spin it out.

That may sound like sacrilege — to privilege story over wordcraft — but for a “literary” writer like me, it was just the experience I needed. For some reason, I had been finding it impossible to extricate myself from language and voice and style in Antigone in order to focus on structure. I couldn’t let go of any of my characters or their issues because they were all so real to me. I simply could not distance myself as a reader.

Writing YA fixed that for me.

First, because I discovered at the Grub Street Conference that I was making all sorts of mistakes in my YA novel. Mistakes that involved plot and structure. Mistakes that were quite clear to me when I got home because I was so fresh to the genre of YA. Yes, I had done some reading in YA, but not enough. So when I read the YA novels suggested by an editor I met at Grub Street, the authors’ plot and structure choices jumped out at me. And the mistakes I had made were pretty obvious (though not the solutions, of course).

Then I went to the Santa Fe Science Writing Workshop.

My other idea this year has been to start doing some science writing. Since I’m not a short story writer, all of my time writing is spent slogging my way through novels. Wouldn’t it be nice, I thought, to be able publish something that was only 500 words long?

Again, what I learned about was story and structure.

In science writing, the story is the star, not the language you’re using to tell it. Yes, style and voice are important, but they serve the story, not the other way around. Structure? In science writing, it tends to be more programmatic than in fiction — there are far fewer decisions to be made because the action, timing and people involved exist, are fact. They’re puzzle pieces that already fit together in a particular way. Your job as a science writer is to show how they fit together. This is no easy task, of course, but it is a different one from fiction writing.

So what then of dipping your toe in another genre?

I say don’t just dip in but dive — dive in and swim around for a while. Because you probably started writing in the genre you do because it plays to your strengths. For me, it was literary fiction because I have an easier time with voice and tone and style than plot and structure. But they’re all equally important.

Will I end up a science writer? Will my first published novel be YA rather than literary fiction? As each type of writing bolsters the other, I hope I’ll get to do all three.

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