Putting a Label On It

Here’s the rub; for a long time I’ve struggled to label my own work in the confines of one particular genre. This is okay for 90% of the time, but it does prove more troublesome when you need to submit your work. It would be easy to strip my stories or novels down to a root genre, but that’s not always the case. Many are dark, but they also have heart. I mix Horror with Thriller. Magical Realism with Absurdism. I sprinkle Grindhouse with Literary. Science Fiction with Folklore. Underbelly with Noir. In truth, it’s always the story that drives the genre, not the genre driving the story. That should be the case for most writers, and I’ve always admired authors who are able to uproot, and yet retain, at the core, the same writing style their fans love. Neil Gaiman is a prime example, shifting between comic books, to children’s fiction, from Dark fantasy to Horror. There are others; Anne Rice, Stephen King, Emma Donoghue, Margaret Atwood, William Peter Blatty, and Joyce Carol Oates, each establishing themselves as trailblazers in one particular genre, but skilled and brave enough to move venture over the fence from time to time.

It’s the same in the movie industry. There are directors who stretch themselves and cross easily into other genres without losing their signature; Kubrick, Spielberg, Scorsese, Coppola, and Luc Besson to name a few. Whereas say, John Carpenter, Tobe Hopper, George A Romero, stick true to their particular field of excellence. You know if Wes Craven attaches his name to a movie you’re not going to watch it with your five year old, just as it’s safe to assume a Richard Curtis movie isn’t going to end in bloodshed. For many people, genres are safety blankets. They allow the mood to be set, and expectations established. If I settle down to watch a period drama, in all likelihood I know it’s going to be a slower burn than most. The genre dictates the pace. Conversely, if I watch a high octane Action Thriller with Vin Diesel, I don’t worry about the narrative but I do expect to have my eyes peeled back and my heart rate go up a few beats. There are some directors who become their own genre too. They become adjectives too. You know you’re watching a Tarantino movie, mostly due to the dialogue and violence, but mainly because he doesn’t know when to end the damn thing. David Lynch and Hitchcock have their own style too, as does Tim Burton and Wes Anderson. You wouldn’t need to see the titles to know you’re watching either of their movies. And even if you get it wrong, you may find yourself saying, “This is a little Lynchian.” So genres are good in that respect. They allow the viewer, or the reader, a “heads up” on what to expect. But where this falls apart for me is pitching my work to publishers.

The process of getting your story or novel into the hands of a publisher is a long and protracted one. There are many hurdles and loops you need to jump through. The first is to find the right publisher. Sometimes it’s easier if you find a book or writer you like, and then seek out who published them. Sometimes said publishers don’t accept unsolicited manuscripts so you need to find an agent, and if you think landing a book with a publisher is hard, it’s a whole new world of pain trying to get an agent. So sometimes you just end up trawling the internet to find anyone who accepts your particular genre, so long as you know what genre you’re writing in. Fortunately, most indie publishers accept a wide range of genres, from Western, to Speculative, to Thriller to Horror. So even if you blend genres, like I do, there’s a good chance you’ll get over the first hurdle. The difficulty comes with marketing. A lot of manuscripts are rejected based on the fact the agent, or the publisher, would struggle to market it. For many years I used to hear that Horror was a hard sell, which for a person who loves writing it was a real kick in the balls. I asked a bestselling author once why that was the case, especially when Stephen King writes Horror and he’s not done too bad out of it, and the reply I got was, “Stephen King writes Stephen King novels.” By that they meant people didn’t buy Stephen King books because they were Horror, they bought them because they were written by Stephen King. From this I could only conclude the following: It was great being Stephen King, and that if you write well, and in a style that appeals to many readers, it doesn’t matter what genre you chose, you will just do well.

There’s no great mystery to this. If you write literary fiction that is hard to read with a page count of over a thousand, you’re narrowing your market and reducing your chances of landing an agent, but in years to come it may be studied by students the world over and end up being a classic. If you write “mom porn” about smartly dressed men with smouldering good looks who like a little slap and tickle, you’re going to reach a higher demographic and sell lots of books, but equally be pulled apart by critics and writers. Agents need to make money. They know the industry. They know what the current trends are and what the Big Five are looking for. You may have a great book, but if it doesn’t fit with their portfolio, or they don’t see it selling in the millions, you may find it gets rejected. There are a lot of agents that specialise in certain genres and nurture writers. I know a few writer friends that have landed agents like these and have done well. But these agents have small portfolios and are very selective about taking on new clients.  And again, you need to know your genre and whether it fits with them.

So here’s the rub; for a long time I’ve struggled with genre. For a long time I’ve struggled landing my work anywhere for this reason. But what I am seeing is a change in the marketplace. Horror is becoming a more sought after genre and a healthy commodity to agents and publishers. This is good news because I would say at the heart of all my work there is darkness. I’m also finding a style that is more reader-friendly than my earlier works, yet still retaining some that Wallworkian signature. So though I may cross genre at times, I’m confident that I won’t be defined by it, because great writing will always win out.

If you want to see this genre crossing, then check out BAD PEOPLE, which is still only $1.24c/99p on Amazon.

Bad People

Published by craigwallwork

Craig Wallwork is the author of the novels, Bad People, Labyrinth of the Dolls, The Sound of Loneliness, To Die Upon a Kiss, and the short story collections, Quintessence of Dust, and Gory Hole. His short stories have been nominated three times for the Pushcart Prize and feature in many anthologies and magazines both in the U.K. and U.S. He currently lives in West Yorkshire.

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