Genre Bending

Phoenix is a sweet transvestite ...

A few years ago, when I wrote Phoenix, I wrote the story without a thought to the genre it would fit in. I know, how silly of me. I was young, naive, and totally enamored with the story I was telling.

When I started my journey towards finding a home for Phoenix, I was dumbstruck by how many literary agents say on their Web sites that they want no “genre-mixing.” Why? Hollywood does it all the time (the best example of the summer is Cowboys vs. Aliens, then again, it could be pure crap, I haven’t seen it yet).

To give you some background, Phoenix has a strong female main character (women’s fiction) who finds herself in a few life or death situations (thriller), tries to solve a cold case murder (mystery) and finds herself falling in love (romance, but without the happy ending).

Before I started querying a year ago, I studied agent Web sites until I was cross-eyed. This one was interested in thrillers, but no mysteries. That one likes mysteries, but only the pure, definitive kind. And, there are those that want women’s fiction, but I don’t think that genre looks for crosses with thrillers and mysteries. Then, I stumbled upon romantic suspense, but your hero and heroine have to get together early in the story and then live happily ever after – doesn’t happen in Phoenix.

The closest I have come to getting an agent is from my “thriller” phase – meaning the few months when I pitched Phoenix as a thriller. She read the entire MS and gave me some great feedback, but ultimately did not offer representation because she didn’t think she could sell it as a pure thriller. Fair enough, because it’s not on the same level as a Bourne novel.

It makes me wonder if the lack of editors looking for stories that blur genre boundaries is a symptom of the troubled publishing industry or one of the causes (if that’s the case, a small one I’m sure). It is often said there is no such thing as an original story idea. I’m sure in many cases that’s true – boy meets girl, good fights evil, man overcomes adversity, woman hunts bad guy. Are those who blend genres – either intentionally or just in their storytelling – part of the evolution of an art form that’s been around since Biblical times?

Visual art might be an easier to understand example of my thought process. Early man created fairly simple cave drawings, but as our society grew and evolved, the complexity of the art changed to the breathtaking visuals of Michelangelo, Van Gogh and El Greco to name a few. As we entered the industrial age, our art changed once again with Picasso and Dali bending our perceptions. And now, in the digital age, we find mixed medium works that blend paint with sculpture and video. If the art world can blend genres, why can’t the literary world?

I’m sure there are examples of genre-bending novels that have seen success – I just can’t think of one right now. I don’t mean the books that break out of their usual audience for wider appeal, I mean novels that blend several elements together. Anyone? Buller? Buller?

I find myself envious of my friends who know exactly what genre they fit into. I feel like the geeky pre-teen who doesn’t fit into any social group and sits on the sidelines during the pep rally sucking on her braces.

So, what’s a girl with a genre-bending novel to do? I can slap some lipstick on it, shave off the 5 o’clock shadow and stick it in fishnets, but that does mean someone out there is looking for a lip-stick smacking, female-driven mystery/thriller with a dash of romance?

About Kimberly Packard

Kimberly Packard is an award-winning author of women’s fiction. She began visiting her spot on the shelves at libraries and bookstores at a young age, gazing between the Os and the Qs. Kimberly received a degree in journalism from the University of North Texas, and has worked in public relations and communications for nearly 20 years. When she isn’t writing, she can be found rollerblading, doing a poor imitation of yoga or curled up with a book. She resides in North Texas with her husband Colby, Oliver the cat and a 75-pound lap dog named Charlie. Her debut novel, Phoenix, was awarded as Best General Fiction of 2013 by the Texas Association of Authors.
This entry was posted in Fiction, Publishing, Writing and tagged , , , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

9 Responses to Genre Bending

  1. Frank Bishop says:

    Genre blending is referred to as slipstream in the word business, and yes you can find copious amounts of slipstream regardless of where you go. Hell some of my favorite books can be classified as slipstream, but they aren’t sold that way. There is a reason behind why agents and publishers don’t market and go after book pitches labeled as genre-blending, they don’t sell. Readers vote with their wallets, regardless and contrary to critics opinions, the long standing evidence is that a slipstream marketed as a slipstream doesn’t sell compared to a one-dimensionally marketed thriller or romance or fantasy. Hollywood and art is a completely different animal all together, actually Hollywood isn’t on Earth but that is an entirely separate argument.

    As for art, I don’t know about Dali or Picasso, but I do (arguably) know that a lot of the Renaissance, Post-Impression, Baroque and Romantic-era artists like Michelangelo, Van Gogh, Rembrandt, and Goya weren’t blenders. They were pioneers that sparked changes, but only after their works inspired others. During the hazy clouds of different movements, they were well pointed pillars of expression and representation of that style/thought. In that right there is what agents and publishers are looking for when they look at prospective books.

    When you pitch a book to an agent, they think to themselves one question, can I sell it? If somebody pitches a book AS a slipstream, it becomes hard to define and most of the professionals in the publishing industry get an impression the writer isn’t really sure of of their book. If that is the case, the book most likely won’t sell – there are always exceptions. Knowing the genre means knowing the audiences, which means knowing how to market and sell the book, which means money.

    Oh sure, you have elements of other genres in your work, anybody with any lick of worth and artistic sensibility will. Some more than others, but that is neither here nor there. IF I were you, I would pitch the book in the genre with the strongest elements. If it is women’s fiction, roll with that. That narrows your audience and doesn’t necessarily stifle it. An agent wants a marketable book they can call their contacts for and say, “This is a thriller that you will love, it has a dash of this and a dash of that. It is blah blah with some blah blah but stays true to the genre.” The chances of that book being picked up are greater because the agent is a thriller agent selling to a thriller publisher.

    Take this for what you will. I haven’t been published………. yet………….. and every bit of this is based on agent feedback and interviews that I have seen/read.

    An example: The Road. You find it in literature, but it is science fiction….. in most bookstores.

    • Hey Frank! You’re totally right. It’s easier to sell something when the message is simple, and I get that. I’m just wondering if we’re holding ourselves back by not embracing that next generation of storytelling that comes with cross-genres works. The art analogy – and maybe a poor one at that – wasn’t so much that they blended genres, it was just the evolution of an art form.

      So, are readers voting with their wallets because they feel like they’ve read it all before (meaning the industry slowdown), or is it because publishers are afraid to tell people, “yes, we realize you have spent your lifetime reading X, but you should also read XY”? I know there’s something comfortable about knowing how a story is going to end because you’ve read it before. Is the evolution of literature about more than just how you read – e-reader vs. book? Should it spill over to what you read?

      Great point about The Road. That is a perfect example. Thank you!

  2. Frank Bishop says:

    I just realized my post came off a little snarky, that wasn’t my intention, sorry.

    The art analogy was fine, I was approaching it from a business model, which I could have clarified better.

    Well it is a chicken vs egg question. Historically people love reading stories where the guy gets the girl and the bad guy looses, but we are seeing a slight shift, or at least a more mainstream emergence.

    When it comes to pushing art in terms of how we perceive and treat it, the pioneers and front line soldiers always take the biggest blows and shots. We often don’t credit them until society catches up. Look at classic literature, how many people became popular after they died and society shifted.
    If you want to maintain your artistic integrity, it is going to be a longer and harder road. Is it better to fly out of the gate that way or after you have been established? I don’t have an answer to that.
    I’m all for pushing boundaries, I loooooovvvveeee art, but it is and always has been an uphill fight. I guess the question is what is more important, becoming a successful writer or being a pioneer?

    • No snark attack here so no need to apologize. Actually, us literary artisans have to think about business models more than our visual art compadres since this art form is more accessible for the general public. And really, very few visual artists have the luxury of living on their art alone without having to take another job, so it wouldn’t surprise me if more and more writers find themselves working two jobs – writing and the day job.

      You’re right, no one is fully understood or appreciated until they are gone. As for what I want, I want to tell a story that resonates with someone, something that entertains them, characters that they feel a kinship with. If that means 20 people, or 20,000 – I’m cool with that.

      I’m a total art nerd as well. Some of my favorite pieces are the ones that probably had an artist’s contemporaries looking at it going, “WTF?”.

  3. Kimberly, your post brings up a very good point. As Frank noted above, the publishing industry sticks to cleanly definable categories because they then have a specific target audience in mind when it comes to selling. Nonetheless, I think you’ve hit on a very interesting problem of how to adequately pitch your manuscripts. I particularly laughed when I read your comment about an agent who wants thrillers, but not mysteries, or vice versa. How does one parse the mystery out of a thriller? I think a lot of good stories go unpublished precisely because they aren’t easily categorized. I think that is such a pity because if you had ghost written a book by any given celebrity, it wouldn’t matter what genre(s) it was in because the publishers would bank on the sell-ability of the celeb’s face, which would undoubtedly squeeze out even the title on the front of the dust jacket. Ostensibly, the trick should be for you and the agent to decide which category best applies to your manuscript. But I digress.

    Don’t sell yourself short – the last Bourne book “The Bourne Legacy” was written by someone other than Robert Ludlum, who had since passed, and it was so very rife with obvious errors (not mechanical in nature so much as physical impossibilities for the characters) that it causes me to wonder whether the agent or editor even thoroughly read the story. And why would they have to? With a title like Bourne, sales are a given. But at what cost? In the meantime, keep at it.

    • Thanks, Waronliteracy. I really appreciate it and you’re right, in this marketplace they are going after the low-hanging fruit – the stuff that they know will sell without the effort. As someone who works in marketing, I know how hard it is to cut through the clutter with something new and different (once upon a time, new sold simply on being new), but it seems now we’re going after what’s familiar. Comfort food for the soul, I guess.

      But I’ve never been one to enjoy being comfortable. As I like to say, life is too short to wear sensible shoes. 🙂

      Appreciate you dropping by!

  4. You make an interesting point, as does Frank. Agents and Editors go for what they know they can sell. Very few will try to ‘break the mold’ with an author who has something more genuine.
    But as I remember, the books and characters that truly stand out and that most people remember are the ones that didn’t fit a pre-existing mold. They broke boundaries, created new rules and made people think.
    I.E: Great Gatsby, Great Expectations, Pride & Prejudice, to name a few. 😉

  5. Pingback: The Garage Author | I Make Stuff Up

Leave a Reply