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.
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 importance of storytelling.
And wuv, twu wuv.
Good stuff, right?
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 what the novel is about: two characters trying to let go of the burdens of the past.
Of course, as a fiction writing noob, still trapped in an academic corner I was certain I’d left, I didn’t know any better. It took me forever to realize how ghastly the narrative voice was. It took me TWO forevers to figure out what to do about them.
Without feedback from Whitney, other beta-readers, and literary agents, I might’ve stumbled through a THIRD forever, unaware of the many stupid mistakes I was making.
Nobody puts Baby in the corner
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 getting out a fresh notebook and a yellow No. 2 pencil and brainstorming ways to upgrade the narrative voice.
It continued with implementing those upgrades in the manuscript, scene by scene, page by page, sentence by sentence:
- I changed the narrator from third-person to first-person, getting rid of the ghastly imperiousness I started with.
- I let the protagonists speak for themselves.
- I gave them distinct voices.
- I allowed the manuscript to take on more characteristics of commercial fiction.
The result? 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 can make on readers. In fact, if you play your cards right, a hybrid novel could make more of an impact on readers than a text that adheres strictly to genre conventions.
So, I guess you can say I broke 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.
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.
When I mentioned this project to an agent, she suggested I might have a thriller in the works.
I stared at her for a long time, blinking. By some miracle I didn’t blurt out an unladylike “Huh?”
I know absolutely nothing 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. That’s totally out of my niche …
Or is it? If I give thrillers the old one-two, you know, research this genre to get my bearings, I just might master it.
Because nobody puts baby in a corner.
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 the entire thirty days of National Novel Writing Month 2017.
A third project! And guess what? This one is a chapter book series for kids.
I know diddly-squat 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, “Stop the bus! What kind of nut-bag works in three different categories at once?! What kind of nut-bag, who has barely finished 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:
- I still get to explore the history, identity, and memory in each of these texts.
- 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 Month-long Writing Whim. I broke out of a literary fiction 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?
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.
Even though I’m broadening my interests in genre, the projects I’m currently working on
reflect several commonalities … creating a different kind of niche, but a niche nonetheless:
- I like to draw upon my own memories at the same time that I create original characters and events.
- I like for fiction to explore the human condition in a conspicuous way.
- I like when fiction makes everyday language a brand new experience, avoiding verbiage that is so esoteric that it alienates large swaths of readers.
- I like conducting solid research for a novel project, including conducting interviews, visiting libraries, consulting Mister Google, and reading a lot of novels.
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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