on writing across genres and age groups

This is a transcript of the talk I gave at the Southern California Writers’ Conference in Irvine over the weekend. I was speaking to a group of writers from all kinds of backgrounds, at all different stages of their careers, all there to learn about writing and publishing. I decided to talk about something very near and dear to both my heart and my writing career: the challenges of switching across genres and age groups every damn time I feel like it.

Southern California Writers’ Conference

September 21, 2019

When I was trying to work out what to talk about tonight, I kept going over the sort of questions I normally get from audiences when I do book events or school visits or convention panels. As an author, I'm a bit all over the place in terms of what I write. I started out with sci fi and fantasy short stories, then published a couple of novels for teens, then wrote a children's fantasy novel, and now I'm working on my second adult sci fi thriller. 

I know, from the outside, it looks less like a career path than a drunken and slightly dangerous game of pin-the-tail-on-the-donkey, and I know it causes endless headaches for my extremely patient and understanding agent. But when people ask me whether it's hard to change genres and age groups so often, or what I do differently when writing for adults versus writing for children, I tend to say that from my perspective, the only significant difference is that I have to use a lot fewer cuss words when I write for children. 

Even that difference isn't all that significant because--let me tell you a secret--even when you write an adult novel about a terrorist doomsday cult taking over a spaceship full of mutilated corpses, somebody, somewhere will still complain that you have upset them by using the word "fuck" too often. 

That's the flippant answer. It's truthful but not remotely useful. The trouble is, most of the easy answers I come up with are a bit flippant. 

I can say it's easy to shift genres if you're something less than a breakout success in the first thing you try, because nobody cares what you write next. I can say that the way I work best is just to write any damn thing that comes into my mind and worry about how it's published later. I can say that I don't want to be shoehorned into one category.

All true. And none very useful to other writers looking to expand their audiences and genres. 

There are really two questions wrapped up in asking about writing across genres and age groups and styles. 

One question is about the career aspect of being that kind of writer. From a purely practical standpoint, it does provide some challenges, and it doesn't do me or anybody else any good to ignore those challenges. 

Writers these days are encouraged so often to establish brands, platforms, and audiences. Sometimes they're told to do that before they've even published anything. It's advice that is doled out like it's sacred wisdom that can't be questioned. 

I'm not convinced of the wisdom of turning yourself into a brand or worrying about your platform before you even having anything to put on it. And I don't generally think it's a good idea to put most of your effort into building your brand or platform or audience, when all of that effort could be going into writing the best books you can write. 

But it's never a bad idea to think strategically. If you want to write across genres and age groups, there are ways to approach the practical side of that with planning and sense. 

Know the categories you want to write in. Don't be one of those insufferable adult authors who writes a YA book despite never having read one, then declares every chance they get that they're going to revolutionize YA publishing forever. It happens every few years, gives us all a good laugh, and those people are immediately forgotten without having revolutionized anything. 

Don't do that with any genre, or any age group. If you want to get into a new corner of writing, learn about it. Read. Talk to people. Pay attention.

And I don't mean to only pay attention to the details of publishing, although that is important. Delve deep into the literature itself. Read for story voice and structure. Read to understand tropes and how they are embraced or inverted. Read to know what is assumed about the audience, because it might not be what you expect. 

Every children's author will tell you that most people outside of children's publishing underestimate kids and their hunger for complex characters, exciting worlds, and learning new words. So many kids love big fat books--they just need to know they'll be welcome when they crack that book open.

Read for the emotional weight and impact behind each story--because it's always there, no matter the genre. Science fiction needs emotional impact. Spy novels need emotional impact. But a coming of age story might have a very different emotional arc and theme than a serial killer thriller. Training yourself to be the kind of reader who can see beneath the story to its bloody, beating heart is going to serve you well, regardless of where you venture.

And pay attention to the characters. If you want to write for teens, learn about teens the same way you would learn about detectives to write a crime novel or scuba divers to write a treasure-hunting novel or 1820s debutantes to write a Regency romance: with interest, an open-mind, and a willingness to be surprised. 

Don't go in assuming you already know what they're like. Don't go in assuming you need to dumb your writing down for teens, or romance readers, or cozy mystery readers, or anybody at all. The readers in every genre are hungry for stories, but they can spot a fraud from a mile away. It takes work to avoid being that fraud. 

All of which means: never lose sight of the fact that without your characters being genuine, and that emotional core having weight, your story is not going to succeed--and that is as true when you're writing hard sci about a galactic empire, or a picture book about a hippo on a picnic, or literary fiction about multi-generational family dramas. It is true for all kinds of fiction. 

Read widely and generously, with an open mind. If you're going to be writing in it, you need to be in love with it. Don't waste your time chasing what you think is popular or lucrative if you don't really, really, really want to be there. Chasing trends is a fool's errand, it rarely works out for anybody beyond brief flashes in the pan, and you'll only make yourself miserable in the long run. 

And once you've made the decision to jump into a different genre or audience, be honest with the professionals you work with about what you want. If you have an agent, talk to them and find out if they are comfortable repping your new venture. If they aren't, talk to them about finding an agent who specializes in it. I know writers who have different agents for picture books and YA fantasies--it may not be terribly common, but it can happen.

If you don't have an agent and are looking for one, think about all the different things you might want to write when you research different agencies, when you talk to fellow authors, when you talk to agents. 

That doesn't mean you have to limit yourself only to people who represent all the things you want to write--my agent never represented an adult sci fi novel until I flung mine at her, but she didn't bat an eye, because by that point she already knew to expect weird swerves from me. 

During our very first conversation, when we were discussing whether she would offer representation on a YA supernatural horror novel, I asked what she would think if I someday wrote space opera, or contemporary mystery, or historical fiction. I asked because I had all of those ideas somewhere in the back of my mind, I wanted to know if she was the right person to work with in a career that might lead in unexpected directions. 

All of this is very straightforward advice, on some level. It all boils down to "do your homework," which is blanket advice for pretty much all of publishing.

So I want to talk about the other thing people are asking, when they ask how I handle writing across different publishing categories, genres, and for different audiences. 

I want to talk about the people who aren't asking for practical advice, exactly, but are instead, in their own way, asking for permission. 

I want to talk about how nerve-wracking and scary it can feel when it comes time to actually make the jump--even if you've made the jump before, even if you intend to keep making more jumps in the future. 

To realize that your heart, which has led you so well in your writing for so long, is urging you toward something way outside your comfort zone. 

To sit down and write something new, something you've never tried before, something that's for an audience or in a genre you haven't worked in yet. 

To even risk the work you've already done, the career you've starting building, the plans you've been making, the voice you've been honing, the skills you've been perfecting, when you realize you want your writing career to be more expansive than you first thought.

I want to talk about it a bit, but I want to do it in a slightly roundabout way. You see, just as all advice about the practical, business side of publishing comes down to "do your homework," all advice about the creative side of writing comes down to "use your imagination."

And guess what! That's a good thing! Writers are creative people. That's pretty much right there in the definition. We literally invent entire worlds in our heads, and we do it for fun long before we do it for money. We can use our imaginations. 

So I put it to you that a writers' ability to imagine different truths, different paths, and indeed entirely different worlds is not separate from a writer's ability to build a successful career. The creativity and imaginative impulse that drives us to tell stories doesn't vanish while we're doing all those boring, sensible, business-like things.

It's disheartening to see writers--who are ridiculously imaginative, creative, broad-minded people who carry entire beautiful universes in their heads--accept narrow or restrictive visions of how their careers must progress. Because their friends tell them not to. Because their editors don't want them to. Because the industry tells them it's too hard.

So when people ask me about the challenges of having a writing career that doesn't follow a neat and narrow path, this is what I really want to say: Look at how you got here. Look at all the parts of your life that brought you to the point where you're working so hard on your writing, and taking your creative work so seriously. You already have the answers. 

I've been a published author for about nine years. I just released my fourth novel and I'm waiting on an edit letter for my fifth, while also developing a pitch for what I hope will be my sixth--which is, yes, another genre jump. I think this one will be a contemporary horror. In some ways, I'm just getting started. In other ways, I'm a regular by now.

But I've been writing all my life. I still remember the first story I ever wrote. It was about alligators that live in caves in the hills. They had glowing pink eyes.

That's it. That's the whole story. It was a little bit lacking in plot or character development. In my defense, I was about seven years old, and typing two sentences into WordStar--anybody remember WordStar?--on my dad's old Sanyo computer felt very grown-up and accomplished to me. 

That first story may not have been much to brag about--yet here I am, bragging about it--but I didn't stop there. I kept writing. I wrote all through my childhood and adolescence. I wrote stories about witches and monsters and people who throw themselves off cliffs because they fell in love with sea gods--I was such a morbid kid, but it was the 80s. We were in the middle of the Satanic panic. We were all morbid kids.

I even wrote a novel when I was in high school. I still have it. It's amazing--and by amazing I mean it is so brilliantly terrible I can scarcely believe it. It takes my breath away with how bad it is.

It was a gruesome murder mystery, naturally. There was a pond full of blood and an entire plot built around hints from the poem "To His Coy Mistress," because I was a seriously pretentious nerd. I was the kid who grew up reading R.L. Stine and Christopher Pike, so I wholeheartedly believed that a core aspect of being a teenager meant the cool kids were constantly plotting to murder each other. As I was not a cool kid, I didn't have to worry.

Even when I was writing my amazing first novel, I never thought that writing was a thing I could do for a living. It wasn't for lack of encouragement--I had supportive teachers, and my father was a teacher who kept our house full of books. He was also--and remains to this day--the kind of book-lover who had very little concept of age-appropriate read-aloud material, so that's why me and my sisters heard Gene Wolfe's "The Shadow of the Torturer" as a bedtime story. 

No, you see, the reason I never really dreamed of being a professional writer when I grew up was because it was so impractical. 

Well, that's what I told myself anyway. I was going to be a scientist instead. I told myself I had to pick one, writing or science, and so I picked science. 

I did not admit to myself how much fear there was in that decision. How it was easy to pick something that required more school when I already knew I was good at school. It was easy to pick something that didn't make people ask, "Are you sure you can make a living doing that?" It was easy to pick something that didn't involve inviting strangers to pass judgment on something that meant very, very much to me. I was terrified of being told I wasn't good enough.

So I studied geology in college, and took a few creative writing classes for fun. I went on to get my PhD in geophysics. I kept writing all through grad school, but now I felt guilty about it. I was supposed to be doing my research. I was supposed to be devoting my life to pushing forward the frontiers of science. I was a terrible grad student, but I did my work, eventually, without much enthusiasm. I earned my PhD--right in the middle of the global financial recession, which meant that finding a job was not as easy as everybody was telling me it ought to be for somebody who was so massively overeducated. 

I was still writing fiction--but I was also still shying away from taking it seriously. I never tried to sell anything. I never even researched what it would take to sell anything. I told myself that it was only a hobby. I was only trying to have fun. 

But there came a point, when I was depressed and unemployed and living in my sister's basement, that my thinking starting to change. That was point at which I finally started to think: What the hell have I got to lose? Why not try to publish my writing? What am I afraid of?

Now, I know that every person in this room has come to that point. 

I know you know what it feels like, when you look around your life, whether it's good or bad, happy or not, stable or not, fulfilling or not, and you realize that you've run out of reasons not to get to work publishing your writing. You've run out of excuses for not taking your art seriously. You've run out ways to hide from yourself.

Maybe you came to that point years ago. Maybe you're coming to it this very weekend. 

Whenever you got there, however you got there, remember that feeling. Remember that nothing you have ever done is waste. Your other careers were not wasted. None of your trunk novels were wasted. You may feel like your life has sent you down a lot of dead ends--but none of them were truly dead ends. There is no wasted experience for writers. You were just taking the scenic route.

Remember what it feels like to take all of those anxieties and nerves and fears and doubts and whispers telling you you're not good enough, and remember the turning point where they shift into a tiny little bit of stubborn, defiant excitement. 

Because that's a feeling that you need to aim for over and over again. That's the trick to being the kind of writer who can stick it out through changes in genres, audiences, styles, types of publishing, and everything else both the world and your sneaky imagination will throw at you.

Every story needs a beginning. But the story of becoming a writer--the story that brought each of us here today--will never have only one beginning. It will have dozens of beginnings. It begins when a little girl sits down to type a few sentences about creatures that don't exist anywhere outside her imagination. It begins when a teenager reads something she loves and decides to try her own hand at it. It begins when a grad student realizes she would rather spend her time writing Harry Potter fanfiction than processing GPS data. (I mean, who wouldn't?)

It begins when a thirty-something woman finds herself depressed and unemployed in her sister's basement, and realizes that rejection letters can't possibly be any worse than a soul-crushing job hunt in the middle of a global recession. 

This is one of the great and terrible things about being a writer. Once you decide to do it, you have to keep on deciding to do it over and over again. You have to keep learning how to do it over and over again. You have to keep reminding yourself why you want it over and over again. 

But there's also freedom in that. Nobody is going to give you permission to write--that has to be something you give to yourself. Nobody is going to give you permission to step out of your zone and try something new--that is also something you have to give to yourself. And you can. You can give that permission to yourself any time you want to. Only you and your time management skills stand in your way. 

The fact that you are here today, learning about how to make it as a writer, means you already know how to make that jump. All you have to do is remember that you never stop making that jump. Publishing is a weird, messy, arcane, mysterious business, and it is full of pitfalls and loopholes and booby-traps we never expect, but it is also full of room. Room to try new things. Room to reinvent yourself. Room to let your career stretch out as far as your imagination can go.

Your creative mind can already conceive of worlds and fill them with a vast array of people. Your own life has already taken twists and turns that brought you to the point of deciding that your words and your stories have value. Don't for one second let the expectations of the industry tell you that your creative work can't also take unexpected detours or go off on wild diversions. 

It's okay if people tell you it's impractical or risky. It probably is. But isn't that why we're all here? To embrace doing some impractical and risky?

I'm not saying it's easy. Especially not in this world we live in, when we're told that nobody reads anymore, than books are dying, that culture is dying, that nothing matters anymore, that anybody who says anything is only shouting into a void. When the news is full of horror every day and everybody is screaming all the time. When the world is literally melting around us and the people in charge don't seem to care. 

It is not easy to remind ourselves not only that stories matter--that stories have always mattered, since the first proto-humans sat around the first campfire--but that our stories matter. That our voices matter. That amidst all the screaming and shouting and fear, to take the mess of the world and shape it into something beautiful still matters. Being a writer in this mad modern world means having to find ways to remember, every day, that the weird little things we make up in our heads can and do actually mean something to people out there. People who are looking for excitement, insight, hope, or even just a few hours of escape. It still matters. 

But whatever you do, be careful about using cuss words in children's books. People get really worked up about that.