Welcome all dreamers, fantasists, bibliophiles, and romantics. Join me Mondays and Fridays for speculation about other worlds, exploration of the human heart and soul in fiction and fact, sojourns in history and science, advice and tidbits in the realms of story, and thoughts on everything in between...

Friday, May 2, 2014

The Author’s Soul Through Genre

As a writer who has recently shifted focus from romance writing back to speculative fiction (science fiction, fantasy, and horror), I’ve gained a new appreciation for how a writer’s inner self, his soul if you will, plays a part in the power of a story.

There are many authors who write in multiple genres, often using different pen names. There are other authors, like me, who use the same pen name but write in two genres that are similar enough to piggyback off each other. For me, that meant romance with speculative elements and speculative fiction. Both can be done successfully or simply as an experiment.

However, in my observation, most authors excel in only one genre. Oh, they might be generally successful in another, or they may find their books only limp along compared to another pen name or genre, but usually the above rule holds true.

There are many factors that might play a part in this.
  • A different pen name has to gain an audience and success without the influence of a pen name from another genre. The vast majority of readers will not know that two separate names are actually the same author, especially when those names appear in different genres. The exceptionally high selling pen name won’t bring droves of readers to a new or struggling pen name.
  • While one can argue that an author’s skill should remain the same no matter what they write, the author’s strengths may suit a specific genre better and be less effective in another. If an author excels at world building, romance or mystery may not work as well for them. Romance readers, for example, have less patience for world building than fantasy or science fiction readers. An author who writes excellent relationships may be viewed as tedious by hard science fiction readers who are more interested in the intellectual aspects of the story than the fluffy relationship stuff. A lyrical historical writer may struggle with a contemporary book where readers tend to prefer a starker or more succinct style. Every author has strengths, and, ideally, those strengths should be expressed in a genre that happily highlights them and in whose readers’ hands they will be appreciated.
  • Sometimes, it’s just plain luck. Indefinable, fickle luck.
  • Sometimes, the publisher plays a big part. If an author’s mystery publisher does a lot to help with promotion, placement, and giving the book a spectacular cover, the book has a better head start. If that same author has a contemporary novel with a publisher that doesn’t do anything special, the book may still sell well because readers love it, but it won’t have that initial big push, and perhaps won’t snag the attention of those wonderful readers who might make it into a success.
  • As authors, we have favorite types of stories. Sure, we may love a wide variety of fiction from mystery to horror to humor and contemporary. But there are always stories that draw extra close to our hearts. Those special stories have something similar that speaks to us, and those stories are usually similar to the best of our own fiction. However fair-minded we may try to be, we cannot escape this fact.
  • Not all stories an author writes are motivated by a pure heart’s desire to tell a tale that speaks to us, and hopefully then to our readers. Sometimes money is a factor. If we began a fantasy series that started off well, we tend to want to finish it for the sales, even if our interest has waned. Perhaps our contract demands another book, and we have to write it even if we don’t want to. Perhaps we know we need to get something out there, so we cobble together a story that technically has the necessary elements, but our hearts aren’t really in it. And, perhaps worst of all, sometimes we write in a specific genre because we feel outside pressure to do so. We want someone else’s approval or don’t want to bother with the strain of resisting those forces. So we pop out book after book, and each time, it lacks more of ourselves.
Which brings me to the main factor at play here. A story, to truly be successful, needs something of the author’s soul within it. How this happens is not truly definable. It’s something in the word choice, the characters, the sentence structure, the plot, the images, the tone, the theme. Yet to say all that is too simplistic and misses the point entirely. The author’s soul, his inner self, his subconscious, impacts everything in a story. When it is there in full, it gives life that no other quality of fiction can grant. When it’s not there or there only in passing, readers can feel it. It is, in my view, the single biggest factor in determining that extra something that makes a story sing and thus turns into sales.

When it comes to genres, our authorial souls tend to vibrate with some much better than others. For me, this is speculative fiction. For others, it’s romance. Others still, it’s mystery or humor. I enjoy romance, and you will frequently see it in my stories in some measure, but it is not a genre that harmonizes as well with my authorial soul as fantasy or even horror. This is true for many other authors.

Yet this doesn’t mean we shouldn’t experiment with other genres. We don’t find out what we’re best at or where we’re comfortable without some level of experimentation. Too, trying stories in other genres helps us grow and strengthen our weaknesses. There is nothing wrong with writing across genres, but be aware of which ones are where you’re strongest.

But how does one ensure the authorial soul seeps successfully into the writing? That’s almost as tricky as trying to define what that extra special something is in a story. Simply put, it comes down to opening yourself up, figurative slicing opening veins and letting your blood spill onto the page through the story you tell. Fiction is ultimately about experiencing deeply the life, minds, and hearts of others, so to make that happen, an author must infuse himself into his fiction. But this is a vulnerable and frightening prospect, one most of us try very hard to avoid through most of our interactions in life. It’s human nature to don masks as a protective gesture in society. But the author cannot write with masks. Masks hinder the natural talent and genius behind a story. And this working against the habits we’ve learned to survive in society is what makes writing this way so difficult. We must bleed for our stories, yet that is painful. We must open up, yet that is dangerous; what if readers reject us? We must pour our souls onto the page, but that goes against the logic of our survival mechanisms. And that is why this aspect of writing fiction is so challenging.

But there is hope. For writers, doing this often brings release and relief. That’s why writing is often likened to therapy. Writing is how we sort out and deal with our inner demons. It’s how we discover ourselves. Figuratively opening our veins and pouring out our souls may be daunting and appear traumatic, but be encouraged in that, it also brings relief. In letting ourselves loose, we better find ourselves and grow as individuals.

And if all that still seems too difficult, consider this: After we pour out our soul and paint our stories scarlet, we still don’t have to let anyone read them. To be an author requires letting others see our work, but we don’t have to show everything to the world. Perhaps that last can comfort you while writing. If it turns out awful, just file it away. But don’t completely disregard showing the work to readers once it’s written. Stories full of authorial soul might surprise you with how well they snag a reader’s interest.

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