Why doesn’t my book look like the other popular books in my genre?
I get this question, in various forms, from my clients all the time.
Sometimes it’s an issue of genre-blending. For instance, up until a few years ago most of the sci-fi/western writers out there felt like freaks, because this was a very small genre with a select audience and there was not yet a level of cultural acceptance that came with it. If you were writing sci-fi/western stories in the year 2003 you might have just given up altogether when you got back rejection after rejection from agents who didn’t really understand what you were writing or how it might sell.
Sometimes everyone is confused on how to categorize and label a genre that pushes into new territory seemingly overnight, as has happened with YA fiction in the past few years. If it’s for young adults then why are so many older adults reading it? If it contains adult themes then is it really appropriate for teenagers? Should older adults feel a certain way about reading fiction intended for younger adults? These are questions with complex answers that tend to make people uncomfortable on a few different levels, because there is no easy label. The category has grown and taken on its own life and it’s not interested in staying within the perimeter the publishing world envisioned for it.
Sometimes that happens with art. In fact, if it is doing what art is supposed to do at all, that’s kind of the whole point.
But when you are the writer who is working with the piece of art—the story in this case—that wants to push beyond those boundaries, it can produce a lot of anxiety. This is when I get clients asking me if something is wrong with their book because it’s a romance but both main characters are asexual, or it takes place in an alternate universe but it’s NOT sci-fi or fantasy.
Issues also crop up when a writer looks at her story and sees that it most certainly does not follow the traditional story arc. Or she hands it out for critique and most of her first readers don’t like it. That’s when the doubts and the fears really rise to the surface. That’s when we feel that panicky flutter in the mind that pushes us to bury our book in a drawer and start over with something new, something people will like and understand.
If you’re writing with the goal of selling 50,000 copies of your book in the first month, with increased sales every single month after that, I get that you need to write to a certain audience. I really do. But that’s not what I’m talking about here. I’m not talking about getting more sales, or getting more 5-star reviews. Those things are nice, but they are not the reason most writers are writing, not the real reason.
What I’m talking about here is very serious. I’m asking you to look inside yourself and make your own decision about the story you’re writing. If you got the news that you only had six months to live and you had to make a list of things you wanted to finish up here before you died, would putting your book out into the world be on your list? It should be. And if the story you are working on right now wouldn’t be on that list then I suggest you really do some soul searching on why you’re spending your precious creative energy working on it.
This blog post is based on my own experiences in soul searching for the past few months. I’ve been working on a book for ten years. It’s the first book I ever wrote, back in 2006. It took me two years to write it and the next eight were spent in rewriting. I have doubted myself every step of the way. It’s a memoir that doesn’t look anything like a memoir. Or, it’s a piece of autobiographical fiction that reads like a wildly distorted memoir of addiction. The narrator is mentally ill, a severe alcoholic, and totally dysfunctional. She meets vampires, mermaids out of water, and Rasputin reincarnated. Oh, and Rumpelstiltskin makes an appearance toward the end. It is full of graphic sex, blood, and substance abuse.
To say I have been hesitant about putting this book out there is an extreme understatement.
But I have to do it. I’ll admit I don’t know what kind of book it is. It might not have a category. I have no idea how I’m going to give a plot summary to anyone who might be interested in reading it. I can’t have any expectations of sales or 5-star reviews, because expectations about those things simply aren’t applicable in this situation.
What I do know is that I have to send this book out into the world. Because, you see, I didn’t get any bad news about having six months to live, but I did make my own list based on the what if in that sobering question. And this book was at the top. The very top. I have to listen to the wisdom of that and know that it’s true for me.
I have to move beyond categories, beyond the safety of labels and the feeling that my work fits into something that has already been approved by other people. If you’re working on something at the moment that you have those same doubts about, I hope you make your own list and watch carefully to see what comes out at the very top.
Outside approval is only transitory. The things on your list will nourish your deepest roots in this life. They are the only things that really matter. So if your book comes out on the top of your list, no matter how anxious you feel about putting it out there, or how scared you are of what other people might say, the time has come to drop the safety net.
It’s time to put your work out into the world.