Wednesday, August 29, 2012

The Genre-Free Writer: Looking for the Common Thread

I've spent the last three days holed up in my writing studio, with strict instructions to all I know and love not to bother me unless the Horsemen of the Apocalypse are thundering down the street.

Much of my time I spent actually writing. However, some of my time I spent really looking at my career and my writing and deciding where I'm going to go from here. Some questions I considered were:

*  What elements connect all of my characters? 

*  What common threads run through all of my work?

*  What plots and themes most move me?

*  What one trait is vitally important to my characters?

The experience was an eye opener. One I highly recommend.

photo by mantasmagorical from
See, I've always known what I write didn't fit into an easily identified genre.

I write screenplays and poems, novels and short stories. I write science fiction, fantasy, women's fiction, children's stories, middle grade fiction, family fare, and darker, edgier stuff.  I happen to think some of the stuff I write is funny -- but realize that not everyone shares my rather warped sense of humor. It certainly wouldn't be classified as "comedy."

So I wracked my brain. Since all my writing comes from ME, I reasoned that there must be some common threads and recurring themes. And slowly -- painfully slowly -- they became clear.

I discovered several things about my writing. For instance:

*   I write quirky, unselfish characters with hidden strengths and highly individualized but uncompromising integrity.

*  I gravitate toward bittersweet stories, antiheroes, and tragic characters.

*  My characters are often trapped in situations from which they cannot safely escape, but which ultimately lead to glory.

*  Every major character of mine has almost pathological perseverance.

It literally took me hours to come up with these attributes. When I mentioned them to a writerly friend who is familiar with my work, she responded:
"It is so your writing down to a fine sharp point." 
And she's right. (Though maybe I could have saved a ton of time if I'd asked her to answer the questions for me in the first place.)

photo by andalusia via
I wish I had undertaken this exercise years ago. Though it took me awhile to find the answers, it gives me a sense of relief to have done so.

Since I don't specialize in a particular genre, it's easy to assume that my writing is fragmented; disconnected; that one work is completely dissociated from another, as if I just wander from project to project dumping word clumps on whatever happens to pique my fancy.

Ah, but it's not the genre that connects my works to each other. No. Instead, they are connected by characteristics, themes, and situations.

I now have a whole new feel for my material as a whole, rather than as a series of unconnected pieces. Better yet: I have a far greater understanding of who my ideal readers are.

*  My ideal readers like quirky characters with hidden strength and unwavering integrity.

*  My ideal readers appreciate antiheroes and the occasional bittersweet tragedy.

*  My ideal readers like to root for the underdog, knowing that sacrifice is often the key to success.

*  My ideal readers admire characters who refuse to give up, regardless of the odds.

I love being a genre-free writer. But I don't want to be a reader-free writer. Answering those four questions helped give me greater insight into my work. Now that I know what I have to offer my ideal readers, I am better equipped to find them.

Do you write genre-stuff or non-genre-stuff? What common threads connect your words? How do those threads then weave a pattern for your audience?


Unknown said...

How lovely that I found you via a link on Roni Loren's blog. I've been criticized because my two published books fit into two different genres and that I don't have a "brand". But, like you, I also have common links running through both - quirky characters and a strong element of suspense. Thank you for a thoughtful, inspiring post.

Ami Hendrickson said...

I'm glad you found me. :) Thank you so much for commenting!

Here's to writers who refuse to go quietly into cramped, genre-specific boxes!

Helen Ginger said...

I've never sat down and studied my books the way you have. Setting aside my three non-fiction books, if I looked at my two fiction, I would say they both contain mystery, although neither is an official mystery. One is women's fiction and the other is suspense.

Ami Hendrickson said...

I, too, had to set the non-fiction books aside. Actually, I set aside all hired writing work and focused only on the stuff I wrote "for me." At first, I thought they were quite disparate. Only after real delving into the core stories did I discover (to my surprise) how many common threads they had. It was a real revelation.