Friday, November 5, 2010

Writing Other Genres

As I'm stumped again for a topic, I'm going back to another question posed to me on Twitter.* I'm expanding it slightly to give it more scope: "Can writing in one genre or medium help you or allow you to write in others?"

Yes and no. And bear in mind these are the words on an unpublished (and some would say inexperienced as a result) writer, and may therefore be entirely wrong and ignorant. If they are, please don't yell too loudly.

Writing in one genre will help you improve your writing, which in theory will allow you to do better when trying out different genres. You'll be better at dialogue, plot structure, pacing, description… and that will aid you. It can't not.

However, there's a limit to how much developing skills in, for a random example, urban fantasy, will help you if you decide to write a different genre. High fantasy, science fiction, and mystery are probably all fairly simple segues because the world building, the pacing, and the imagination are similar. Possibly also romance. But literary fiction? Memoirs? Political commentary? Those require vastly different techniques and approaches to what constitutes "book" and "research" and there's only so much writing knowledge that will carry over.** And someone who's really good at writing pop history will probably struggle with romance, at least initially.

And that's just if we stay with prose. Would writing prose help you write a stage play, a screenplay, or poetry? Again, with the plays I think there'll be a bit of crossover with characterization, but they're much more dialogue focussed and they have to keep the audience's attention, so writers really have to think about every line. It's a very different technique. And poetry's also difficult to do well. I can't even begin to talk about how different poetry is.

Can a poet write prose? Yes. Of course. It's been done. Can a playwright write prose? Again, of course they can, and do. And prose writers write plays and poems all the time. But it's going to take them a bit of work to do it well, unless they're a verified literary genius, and they'll likely get as much help from reading their second genre as they'll get from having written in their first. I also suspect that approaching prose from a play background will yield sparser, tighter stories, and a poetry background will yield more lyrical prose.

This is not to say that prose writers don't cross over, or that they don't do it well. Nora Roberts is a shining example. Janet Evanovich has an urban fantasy out. Everyone seems to be trying their hand at young adult and picture books. And I know of midlist authors who are old hands at both fiction and non-fiction. I think once you reach a certain level of skill, you can write just about any genre/medium you want and do well at it. Certainly, if you reach a certain level of fame, you can write anything you want to and no one will stop you because the books will still sell.

This is also not to say that writers shouldn't muck about in other genres. Each genre has different techniques which will carry over to all the others, and you'll improve as a writer by learning them. But should you try to excel at everything? In my view (and it's just my view), you'll probably be mediocre in everything. Better to specialize in one or two forms or genres, and you can dabble later once you've proven yourself.

So could I sit down and write a screenplay or a book of poems or a memoir? Yes. Would it be anywhere near publishable? No. I'm too new, too raw, and in the case of the memoir, too boring. Can you do all that? Of course, and power to you!

* By @worldofhiglet, again.
** I can see exceptions in people who've done intensive writing courses (BFA, MFA) in literary fiction or creative non-fiction, chose to write urban fantasy instead, and then decide to go back to their roots.


Cordria said...

Interesting. Very interesting thoughts. :)

I totally agree with you - writing in one genre can help at some aspects, and can't help you with others. There are just too many differences between the genres. That's something most 'non-literate' people don't see: that a book isn't necessary like every other book. Good distinction you pointed out!

And there's always that distinction been doing something good and doing something well

...and doing something that can be published. 'Cept this last one has literally nothing to do with quality and everything to do with how much money it will make. Which is, in my opinion, the only reason Twilight-what's-her-name got to publish that stand-alone novel about the aliens.

Janet Evanovich has an urban fantasy out? *curious* I liked her numbered mystery line for awhile - then it got seriously repetitive, a hang up in most mysteries I've found - and I fell out of interest with it. I'll have to look that one up.

I think writers should try as many genres as they can. They'll fail at a lot of them... just look at my craptastic attempt at writing screen plays... but it's seriously good practice. Those skills (characterization, plot, dialogue, etc) are transferable, but often it takes really sitting down and THINKING about them to make you realize what it is you know. :)

That's what fanfic is for. ;) Crappy attempts at trying new genres without having to go through the headache of world building.

And I'd think your memoir would be very interesting. xD


Anassa said...

I think even literate people can make the mistake of thinking that all books and all authors are equal in their ability to write and cross over. I think authors make that mistake too, and think they can write brilliantly in a genre they're unfamiliar with.

Oh, there's a fair bit of quality that goes into published books, even when if the writing's crappy. I've seen writing so terrible a publisher wouldn't even consider it, even if the plot was sound. But yes, you've got a point about The Host.

Hey, your screenplay wasn't so bad! I think some of the canon screenplays were worse, honestly. If there's ever a revamp… lol. But yeah, trying out different genres can't hurt, ever. Point about having to sit and think, because that's helpful too.

I still don't think my memoir would be.