writing outside the comfort zone

Something I’ve been thinking about lately is how writers tend to pick something they’re good at, and write the same type of story over and over again, until their readers expect a lack of diversity. We tend to narrow our focus, get comfortable, and run with things that work.

I won’t (and can’t) say this is a bad thing– people picking up a Song of Ice and Fire book want grit, sex, politics, and violence. That’s the allure of the series, isn’t it? But at the same time, I’m wondering if writing the same types of stories over and over again good for us as writers? Does it challenge us? Does it make us grow?

Or, conversely, if we do break out of our usual shell (mine is fantasy with atypical settings, heavy on characters and intrigue and usually with a dash of nobility or royalty), is that a good thing for us business-wise? Should, or even can we expect readers to grow with us? Isn’t this why authors wanting to try a new genre invent new pen names for their alternate persona?

It’s hard to even find examples of authors doing this. Off the top of my head, I can only name this guy:

200px-Ngsmam

I could talk about my love for Neil Gaiman’s work all day long, but let’s look at his diversity portfolio for a second. Holy cow. A retold Beowolf with a werewolf on a futuristic Miami beach, complete with a sing-song chant? Twisted fairy tales. Aliens at parties. Vampire studies done in a literary style. Non-speculative literary. Poetry. New things. Sequels. Offshoots. Novel format, comic format, screenplays. And is there any correlation between his ability to write so many different types of stories and the rather popular opinion that he’s one of the best?

Do we even think about trying new plots as we work?

I don’t really have a point or any conclusions from this yet. My current work is intended to shift sub-genres often, and it’s a roller coaster of having to learn new techniques and storytelling methods, so it’s been on my mind lately.

Does anyone have experience or thoughts on deliberately branching out beyond your established comfort zones?

4 thoughts on “writing outside the comfort zone

  1. As a reader, I really like having a sense of what I’m going to get – there are days for light and fluffy reads, and days for more mental engagement, etc. The split-pseudonym thing can help with this, although I’ve also seen it accomplished by having groupings of books (series A contains this kind of books; series B contains this other kind of books).

    I can’t speak to additional currently-alive writers who have written a wide range so much, but obviously a lot of the older, more scholastically-based authors hit a pretty crazy variety of genres (Isaac Asimov; C.S. Lewis). There are also a lot of ye olde authors who have written for fiction for children, non-fiction for children [often history], fiction for adults, and non-fiction for adults, although generally, while they develop and change as an author, each of those categories seems to have some degree of recognizable internal consistency *unless* there’s a point at which the author becomes both famous and financially independent, in which case you often get a bifurcation – the style the editors decided that the public wanted, and then the style that the author wanted to write in. :-)

    Personally, as a reader, I do really like knowing approximately what I’m going to get – a book with a reasonably happy ending, or a torture-all-the-characters fest [in Shakespeare, Twelfth Night vs. Hamlet?] – so some classification system would be nice, especially if an author is going to break out of a groove they’ve nestled themselves into. But I do think it’s healthy for authors to not rely too heavily on a template/formula, even if they stay in the same genre and in the same “sort” of book – if a reader can predict that a character or situation of approximately X variety is going to appear to resolve something, despite no foreshadowing, simply based on the expedients used in prior books, that’s a problem, unless one is really just reading for fluff.

    • One of the things I’ve noticed lately on indie and self publishing discussions is that the traditional publishing industry has become unbearably narrow. You can’t introduce your villain first. You can’t have a futuristic book that’s not hopelessly corrupt in glaring ways. Your book must be between this and that length. No, you can’t mix genres. A romance must do X, Y, and Z… the list goes on. I know that there are exceptions to the rule, but by and large these conventions tend to be maintained.

      Is it the author’s name who should really tell you what sort of book it is, or could the book’s cover, blurb, and layout label it enough? I mean, Shakespeare wrote both Much Ado AND Hamlet– going from whimsical to ‘everyone dies’ one right after the other. The name Shakespeare carries a style, but certainly not a consistency.

      • I’d personally love an independent multi-dimensional book-classification scheme, wherein there are ratings on a variety of levels (like what age the book is aimed at in terms of length/reading-level, movie-style age ratings on content, all applicable genre and similar categories, and happy/sad levels). I think “author name” is, unfortunately, one easy way people find similar books, though. In practical terms, the book blurb should be able to do it, although usually the blurb is intended to “sell” the book, rather than make sure that 10 year old fans of your books for 10 year olds don’t accidentally read your erotic fiction (and vice versa). I think maybe a note somewhere else on the back of the cover with the general gist of “if you enjoyed X book, try Y and Z books!” (not necessarily by the same author) might give the general “range” of this particular book *and* cross-pollinate? I read a review of a Jasper Fforde book (now, what genres are *those* in? ha!) that gave really an excellent idea of the general gist of the book by simply listing things that, when put in a blender together, might result in this book.

        I suppose, a major problem is that telling people the classification of your book is not catchy. It is also likely to lose some readers in the short term (since some readers would say “hm, too gritty for me”), although it’d be an advantage in the long term (as your readers don’t quit on you as an author altogether due to misguidedly picking up a book that really *is* more gritty than they wanted). So, I’m not sure what to recommend.

  2. One reason maybe due marketing and that the big publishers rely on savvy marketing teams where as the indie publishers may only have a few people who cover all roles. It’s easier to market a product/brand if there is consistency in what it delivers.

    Also as you’ve mentioned above readers like to know what they are getting into when they purchase/borrow a book.

    However, from the ‘writer as artist’ point of view I think we should definitely expand into other genres and type of stories. Doing so will allow us to explore other areas of writing and learn new techniques and disciplines.

    If you’re already an established author and you’d like to branch out into other genres it might be worth writing a few short stories first and having them published in anthologies etc.

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