Anyone who’s thinking of writing a book usually spends a lot of time considering the kind of book they’d like to write. Romance? Memoir? Science fiction? Thriller?
For some, the choice is so easy it hardly bears thinking about. What they read and what they love to write all fit neatly into one particular genre, and they’ll happily stay there. But for others, the choice is not so simple.
Whether you’re looking to break free of your usual genre or style, or if the book shifted and changed as you were writing it (this happens a lot), there comes a time when you might need to consider switching genres, either for this particular book or going forward. And if that happens, you’ll want to be as prepared as possible. Swapping genres can be a tricky business, but here are some of our favorite tips and tricks for doing it right.
Learn the rules before you break them
It’s almost always a good idea to make sure you’re very familiar with the new genre you’re working with. While there are some exceptions to the rule (Stephenie Meyers’s Twilight series comes to mind), it’s usually best to make sure you know and understand the established tropes, pacing, and expectations that readers of this genre will have. The trick is to be aware of the rules before you take a decidedly new twist on them. But just keep in mind that some genres will have hard rules that can rarely be broken—such as how the romance genre will always need its “Happily Ever After” or that your hero should never ever be happily married to someone else.
“Fantasy magic must have limits,” writes Holly Lyn Walrath in “Switching Genres: How to Move from Writing ‘Realism’ to ‘Speculative’ Genres.” “Science fiction must be based in solid science. And for the most part, a lot of these rules make sense and can be useful to a writer. But if you don’t learn what the rules are, i.e., what readers want, you will have a really hard time breaking those rules. And breaking rules is what writing is all about.”
Research your genre’s market before you start
If you find yourself suddenly itching to write a horror about, oh, a murderous demon clown, take some time on a search engine and popular book sites and make sure that your topic isn’t already well covered. It’s important to remember that publishing is a business, which means that most genres have their own trends and fashions, and you don’t want to be unconsciously revisiting Stephen King’s IT without knowing it’s out there and what trends have come and gone since. That’s not to say, of course, that shouldn’t write your book about an incredibly mean supernatural Bozo, but that if you have plans to sell it, you might need to adjust your expectations a touch.
Borrow structure from other books
If you find yourself switching genres, you might not be as comfortable making changes to the structure than if you were working in a genre you’re more familiar with. In some ways, this might be an interesting experiment for writing fiction, by applying the structural rules of one genre to another. But it might not necessarily be a successful experiment in terms of finding a publisher or even an audience. Instead, some authors have found that they can “borrow” the structure or stylistic approach from an existing book they like and apply their own plot.
“Okay, don’t really plagiarize your writing,” suggests Walrath. “But one way to try out a new genre is to copy an author you love. Look at their writing. How does it work on a sentence level? Try literally retyping one of their opening paragraphs for practice. Then, apply their techniques to your own unique story. You’ll be surprised how this changes your approach to the page.”
Be flexible with your plot
Sometimes—regardless of what genre you’re working with, even if it’s the same—writers and authors get hung up on plot, and the book suffers. When you change genres, you may find yourself extremely susceptible to this, especially if you’re not as comfortable with the new structural format. And so you might fixate more than you should on your plot. The trick? Try to leave room for movement. Forcing the book into rigid confines can steal that breath of creativity and joy from your novel.
“In mainstream novels the story is allowed—required, even—to meander a bit, giving the reader the chance to explore the minds of the characters and to dwell in an alternate reality,” points out Chuck Sambuchino in “6 Tips for Switching Genres.” “This gives room for flashbacks and descriptive passages; for reflecting on the beauty of Paris, and for relating these observations to a character’s past and future. The plot doesn’t have to be advanced on every page; what matters is drawing the reader into your imagined world.”
Be mindful of your audience
If you’ve already published several books in a particular genre, chances are pretty good you’ve got loyal readers who are expecting more of the same for you. It goes without saying that romance fans are going to be taken a bit aback if you suddenly dive into thrillers.
“While you might find it fun to switch things up from book to book, most readers are fairly loyal to what they read,” warns agent Jessica Faust in “Switching Genres.” “In other words, few fantasy readers will happily jump to chick lit with enthusiasm. Let’s face it, most readers read within a few specific genres. If your fantasy readers love your first book and look for your second, they might be very disappointed to discover how different it is. Most important, it might turn them off from picking up your third.”
Faust suggests that if you have an established audience, that you might want to write under a pen name. While this involves more work (such as ensuring you have a website, social media, and separate reader engagement), it might be the best way to bridge both genres, even if they’re incredibly different.
“Most publishers want you publishing at least 9 months apart, so if you can have two different names and publish each name 9 months apart (writing a book every 4 to 5 months), then you can easily write in two genres. If, however, it takes you 9 months to write a book, you might want to stick with one genre, at least until you’re established.”
Give yourself extra time
Writing a new genre means learning a new kind of writing skill. Certain structural elements of your books are going to be different, and chances are good that you may have to work at them harder than you realize.
“I had gotten pretty fast at writing my YA contemporary novels,” writes author Stephanie Morrill in “5 Things I Learned When I Decided to Switch Genres.” “I could throw down a first draft in 6–8 weeks and have edits done in 12. My first draft of The Lost Girl of Astor Street took me three months, which I didn’t think was too bad. But then my edits took me a year. Whenever I got one element of the story fixed, it seemed like it highlighted three more pieces that were wrong.
“If you’re writing a new kind of book under a deadline, make sure to build in more time than you think you need!”
Make sure you’re having fun
One of the unofficial rules of writing is to make sure you’re enjoying yourself. If you’re not, that lack of excitement or interest is going to translate itself into your book. While it might be tempting to switch genres because you’re hoping to make a little extra coin, the best reason to switch is simply because you really want to. Sometimes giving ourselves new challenges is one of the best ways for us to grow creatively and in our writing. Maybe it won’t make you an instant bestseller (or maybe it will!), but you might just discover some new things about yourself, your writing process, and about what kind of writing makes you happiest. Give yourself the chance to try something new, and who knows? Maybe this new genre will be where your best chance of success lies. Or maybe it will reignite the spark that’s been missing.
“Ultimately, finishing your novel is all about putting in the time,” notes Sambuchino. “But it’s also about heart. As you write, allow yourself to play with genre techniques—and to step outside them—to keep the reader intrigued as you unravel your tale. Ultimately, the extent to which you integrate plot and character is all about your characters, the story you want to tell, and discovering the unique voice that is yours and only yours.”
Hannah Guy lives in Toronto and is a professional writer and copywriter who specializes in books, books, and more books. Follow her on Twitter at @hannorg.