Changing genres to stay alive

by Tess Gerritsen

On the heels of Joe Konrath's excellent blogpost about authors who are no longer being published, I've been thinking about the issue of survival.  Like Joe, I can think of quite a few novelists who first appeared in print about the same time I made my debut, but who have since vanished from the publishing landscape.  Not that we need to hear any more doom and gloom in these worrisome times, but Joe is right in pointing out that novel-writing is a precarious way to make a living.  Even if you are one of the lucky writers who manages to land a publishing contract with a fat advance, there's no guarantee that your editor will offer you a second contract.  Maybe your first book is a dud in the marketplace.  Maybe your editor gets fired or your publisher goes belly-up.  Maybe no one, anywhere, wants to see any more mysteries featuring crime-solving gerbils.

A few unpublished years later, you'll be yet another unfortunate author about whom people ask, "Whatever happened to…?"

There's not a lot we writers can do about ailing publishers or the changing tastes of the public.  Even wonderful books can and do flop.  Poor timing, an ugly cover, or plain old bad luck can doom a book's release.  When all the stars line up against you, you might simply admit defeat and give up the dream of a writing career.

Or you might roll up your sleeves and look for ways to survive.  If your last book sold poorly, you could change your pen name to escape that bad sales history.  You might look for a new literary agent.  You might adopt a different storytelling voice.

Or you might change genres entirely.

I have some experience in this last strategy.  My first books were romantic suspense novels, most of them published by Harlequin Intrigue.  The editorial guidelines suggested a balance of fifty percent romance and fifty percent suspense, with at least one love scene somewhere around the middle of the book.  Foul language was to be avoided, as was overly graphic violence and disturbing topics.  My audience was probably 99% female, and as romance readers, they expected happy endings.  It's a fun genre to read, but writing those love scenes was an ordeal for me, generating piles of crumpled pages.  Writers who denigrate the romance genre should try writing a four-page sex scene, without any purple prose, that manages to be both erotic and deeply emotional.   It's the most challenging writing you'll ever do.  It makes writing murder scenes seem like a piece of cake.

After writing nine romances, I decided it was time to switch genres.  I wanted to be published in hardcover, and I wanted a chance at the bestseller list.  I also wanted to pay for my kids' college tuitions.  By then it was clear to me that I was a thriller writer at heart, and the thriller market was booming.  But changing genres involved more than just tinkering with a familiar recipe, more than just ladling on a bit more gore and cutting out the sex scenes.  I wanted to completely remake my career.

To do that, I had to toss out every rule I'd come to accept as a romance author.  I had to approach plotting in an entirely different way.  In a romance, the primary relationship is between the hero and heroine.  In a thriller, it's between the hero and the villain.

As I wrote HARVEST, I was tempted again and again to revert back to my comfortable romance writer mode.  It felt strange and even scary not to include a love story.  Would my readers feel cheated?  Would they be bored with the medical and forensic details?  Would they be disturbed by the violence?  And what about my bittersweet ending — was that going to get me into trouble?  I questioned my choices every step of the way and felt like a newbie struggling to write her very first book.  But I had to make HARVEST demonstrate a new phase in my career — which is how the story ended up bloodier and more disturbingly graphic than even I had planned.

Abruptly switching genres worked for my career, but that doesn't mean this is the way every writer should do it.  I've attracted a new audience of thriller readers, but I probably lost some of my romance audience along the way, readers who like thrillers but feel a book without a love story is missing something.  That romance audience is a huge one, and no writer wants to lose them.

Which is why so many romance authors breaking into the thriller market do it with romantic thrillers.  They never quite abandon their romance roots — or their romance audience.  Some of them, like Nora Roberts and Sandra Brown, are wildly successful.  But straddling both romance and suspense can annoy thriller purists, and if they discover you once wrote romance, they'll let you know it.  If you change genres, you might also want to change your pen name, just to avoid confusing readers.  I often wish I'd done that; it might have spared me a lot of angry reader emails.

The most important thing you must do, if you hope to survive in this business, is to never stop writing.  Change your pen name, change your genre.  Keep searching for that special character, that special voice, that will make your next story stand out above the otheres.  You might have to write ten or twenty books before you finally discover your niche in the market.

But you'll never find it if you stop writing.

19 thoughts on “Changing genres to stay alive

  1. J.D. Rhoades

    A thought-provoking post, Tess. The conventional wisdom is that the publisher wants another one just like the other one…but these days, “conventional wisdom” and a dollar will buy you a Coke.

    Reply
  2. mand

    Popped across from Joe Konrath’s comments – this idea of switching genre is interesting, esp as i would call myself cross-genre / slipstream as both reader and writer.

    The thought of writing up to a dozen books in the quest for one’s natural genre is daunting… even if you just mean written, not published.

    Btw i liked the one of yours (thriller, i forget which) i read – while on a maternity ward! plenty of my fellow patients and nurses also said how good Tess Gerritsen was. 80)

    Reply
  3. JA Konrath

    I like the idea of changing names and genres. Very few professions offer the opportunity to reinvent yourself. It’s not like a failed trumpet player can switch to guitar or piano, or a practicing ob-gyn can suddenly pop into surgery and remove an appendix.

    As for a four page sex scene, I just wrote one for my next novel, and it was hard.

    It was also difficult. 😉

    Reply
  4. JA Konrath

    I like the idea of changing names and genres. Very few professions offer the opportunity to reinvent yourself. It’s not like a failed trumpet player can switch to guitar or piano, or a practicing ob-gyn can suddenly pop into surgery and remove an appendix.

    As for a four page sex scene, I just wrote one for my next novel, and it was hard.

    It was also difficult. 😉

    Reply
  5. Zoë Sharp

    Hi Tess

    Great post – and excellent food for thought. I wonder, though, how many of those people who have stopped writing have done so, not because they couldn’t make their chosen genre work, but because they’d become disillusioned with the publishing industry as a whole?

    And Joe – is it true you and Barry Eisler act out all your sex scenes together?

    Reply
  6. Jake Nantz

    Oh Joe, saw that one coming….

    *Ahem* Anyway…

    Ms. Gerritsen, I really needed this today, when I’ve been letting my baby sit for maybe a bit TOO long. Time to edit. Thanks for the kick in the pants!

    Reply
  7. pari

    Tess,You and Joe are right that there’s no easy fix.

    I refuse to become a WATNS stat. So, I’d better get back to editing and writing right now.

    Reply
  8. joylene

    I just finished “The Surgeon”. Wow, lucky for me you decided to change genres. It blew me away. I now recognize your old standby. Catherine & Moore’s relationship does depict telltale signs of a romance novel. I’m no expert on Romance, but I found their love story totally appealing and believable. Very tenderly done, Tess.

    Michael Palmer guest blogged on Pat Bertram’s blog: http://ptbertram.wordpress.com Monday, and he had an interesting comment about marketing that I think touches base with your blog.

    “THE ONLY THING YOU CAN REALLY DO THAT WILL HELP SELL YOUR BOOK IS TO WRITE ANOTHER BOOK.”

    If that means changing genre, makes sense that a passionate writer must be willing to do whatever it takes.

    Reply
  9. Allison Brennan

    Jayne Ann Krentz has a great speech about how she reinvented herself TWICE and hence has three writing names (JAK, Amanda Quick, Jayne Castle–all NYT bestsellers) even though at one point she was on the verge of quitting because of lackluster sales.

    Lisa Gardner seems to be running parallel to your path, Tess–starting with a half-dozen or so books with HI and then moving to fairly straight thrillers/suspense with a small romantic subplot.

    I didn’t start with straight romance, I jumped right into romantic thrillers because I like happy endings and I like scary stories. And someday, I’ll share reader mail. Even without a “history” I still get letters from romance purists that I don’t spend enough time on the romance, and letters from thriller purists that my book would be good if it didn’t have all the sex and romance. And I haven’t written anything BUT romantic thrillers from day one.

    As I am about to begin the first book of a new genre, I’ve been thinking about this more and more and worrying that because I’m not going to have a traditional romance (it’s a multi-book arc) that I’ll further tick off readers who want that emotional relationship and satisfaction. It’s something I’m acutely aware of.

    And sex scenes are the most difficult for me to write, but when done well they convey character through action, show emotion, heighten conflict (a good sex scene should always both solve one or more problems and increase conflict either internally or between the characters) and raise the overall stakes. And if readers skip the sex scene in SUDDEN DEATH, they are going to miss an important clue to the overall mystery.

    Reply
  10. Alexandra Sokoloff

    I find this potential for reinvention comforting. Tess, you can add me to the list of fans who are VERY happy you switched genres!

    I’d just like to add that you can reinvent yourself in different media as well.

    When I hit the breaking point in film writing I wrote a novel in the same genre and started a new career that is a little scary, sometimes, but far more satisfying to me on every level. And many feature screenwriters I know are defecting for TV writing or directing. We all have a lot more inside us than we tend to think.

    Reply
  11. JA Konrath

    >>>And Joe – is it true you and Barry Eisler act out all your sex scenes together?<<< It is true, Zoë. And Barry never lets me play the man. 🙁

    Reply
  12. Lorra Laven

    Very interesting post. I’m about to launch a new blog that is likely to make some people very angry, probably even get me some nice “I will hunt you down like a dog . . ” letters – a necessary evil to accomplish the blog’s goal which, in the long run, is a noble one.

    I plan to continue working on my thriller/mystery in progress at the same time. So I’m debating the advisability of going to a penname for the blog to avoid tarnishing my “writer’s name” and possibly losing readers or fans before I’m even published.

    What to do; what to do.

    Reply
  13. Father Daniel Beegan

    Tess, Tess, Tess

    We need an honest face to face talk!!! I must say I did not care for you as a romance writer, but I love you as the Isles-Rizzoli writer.

    For bugger’s sake, don’t change genre’s again. Not only will I be annoyed, it will start a family feud in Ireland.

    Fatner Daniel

    Reply
  14. Father Daniel Beegan

    Tess,

    If you change your genre, I’ll head down to NawLeans and follow the adventures of Anna Pigeon, the featured charactor of the great Nevada Barr, gun totin’ park ranger and she who knows about what she writes. Her husband, fictionally, is an Episcopal priest and I can relate to him.

    Father Daniel Beegan S.T.D.

    Reply

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