Nobody puts Baby in the corner: breaking out of my writing niche … and finding it again

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By Julie Tyler

As I’ve written in several other posts, I spent over a decade devoted to the academic life. And for someone prowling around an English Department, that meant reading A LOT of literary fiction and scholarship about it.

The further I went, the more interest I cultivated in contemporary works, leaving other literary categories behind. It was like I’d said,

“Nineteenth-century classics, you’ve taught me a lot of important things, but … well, I’m readin’ Toni Morrison now. And Junot Diaz, and Zadie Smith, and Colson Whitehead. You’ll have to take a backseat.”

Lo and behold, I’d entered a reading niche.

Of course, when I left the academic life to pursue creative writing, my niche stuck to me like gum sticks to the bottom of a shoe. You can’t get it off no matter how vigorously you shake your foot. My first novel, then, started out as a work of literary fiction, focusing on a specific historical event (Cubans fleeing to Miami in the 1980s) and exploring such themes as identity, memory, and the role of art.

twu wuv
The Princess Bride, a favorite movie fowwewew!

And wuv, twu wuv.

Good stuff, right? Yes. Except the narrative voice I started with was overly formal and emotionally distant, a carry-over from my academic days. The style clashed cacophonously with the fact that love between the protagonists and identity were so central to the plot.

Who ARE these characters and are they EVER gonna get to BE together, or what? And who’s that ghastly narrator? Ugh!

A fiction writing noob, I didn’t know any better. I had no idea I was caught in a writing niche. I had no idea I needed to break the heck out of it fast, even to finish what I considered a literary rather than genre text.

Nobody puts Baby in the corner

baby in a corner
Get out of the corner, Baby!

Like Patrick Swayze suggests in Dirty Dancing, the world is full of corners. Neither girls named Baby nor writers ought to be trapped in one, unable to express their true selves.

So how did I break out of the corner … er, writing niche? It didn’t happen over night. And it didn’t happen by sitting down and telling myself to break out.

It started with revising the novel.

It started with getting feedback on early drafts of my literary novel. While I was still in the development phase, I shared passages with Whitney, other beta-readers, and agents. They gave me feedback. I listened. I found out I was making a lot of stupid mistakes.

How would I start? Well, the first thing I did was change the narrator from third-person to first-person, getting rid of the ghastly imperiousness I started with. The more I let the protagonists speak for themselves, and the more I worked on their voices, the more I realized that my novel with literary themes was taking on characteristics of genre fiction. The characters became more personable, the plot easier to follow, and the storytelling style more accessible to readers.

As our contributor Genna Gazelka suggests, this kind of hybridity doesn’t diminish the impact you want to make on readers. In fact, if you play your cards right, hybrid novels can make more of an impact on readers than do texts that adhere strictly to genre conventions.

Welp. At some point in writing this first novel, I realized I’d broken out of … something. But I could still feel myself trapped in a corner. I was still writing in the realm of literary fiction for adults. And doggone it,

Nobody puts Baby in a corner.

patrick swayze
You, tell ’em!

A few months ago, I started cooking up a second novel. I didn’t think twice about genre. I just started brainstorming plot …. a story about thyroid patients taking their health into their own hands. Then I created a few character profiles and typed out the rough draft of a scene. That’s it.

 

When I mentioned the second novel to an agent, she suggested I might have a thriller in the works.

Um … what?

Y’all, I don’t know anything about writing a thriller. I mean, I like The Silence of the Lambs. And I’ve always enjoyed a good scare from Stephen King, though he’s more horror than thriller. But … me? A thriller author?

Nah.

Well, okay, I’ll give it the old one-two. Reckon I’ll have to get busy researching this genre to get my bearings.

But wait, there’s more. Before I’d even gotten my thriller project off the ground, I started a third project on a whim. And that whim lasted a whole weekend.

A third project! And guess what? This one’s gonna be a chapter book for kids. For kids! I don’t know anything about writing for kids. I mean, I took a whole graduate course on children’s literature and I tell stories to my tiny nephew all the time. But … me? A children’s author?

I can hear you thinking, “Wait. Stop the bus! What kind of nut-bag works in three different categories at once?! What kind of nut-bag, who’s still finishing revisions on her first project, starts other projects on a whim?”

Me. I’m the nut-bag. But ya know something? Baby’s not in the corner anymore. And I feel excited! I still get to explore the history, identity, and memory in each of these texts. But now, I get to add new skills to my repertoire: keeping people on the edges of their seats and engaging young readers in the act of self-discovery.

It’s a lot, but I’ll pull it off. All of it.

It’s not all willy-nilly

Okay, so I indulged in a Wild Weekend Writing Whim. I broke out of a literary fiction for adults niche so I could explore other categories. Does that turn my writing life into a willy-nilly circus? Am I gonna just let the chips fall where they may from now on?

Hardly.

I like to take a professional approach to something that’s important to me. And y’all, telling stories is pretty high on my list of important things.

So … I’ve discovered that my mind has been at work in the background of whatever I’m working on at the time, ensuring that there’s a method to the madness. Even with broader interests in genre, the projects I’m currently working on reflect several commonalities … creating a different kind of niche, but a niche nonetheless:

  • These projects all draw on my own memories at the same time that I create original characters and events.
  • They explore themes that encourage readers to think about their place in the world
  • They inspire me to create a distinct style for each project. I despise bland writing OR writing that is so esoteric that it alienates large swaths of readers.
  • They get me excited about devising a research plan, including interviews, visiting a library, Googling, and reading a lot in unfamiliar genres. Reckon I’ll be stocking up on thrillers and books for kids.

So I guess you could say these recurring approaches to writing fiction mean Baby’s back in a corner. But it’s a big-A$$ corner and she knows how to step out of it.

What about you? Do you stay in a niche or do you break out … and with what results? Tell us in the comments!

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