Outside the Box

Zoë Sharp

I spent last weekend at the excellent Reading Festival of Crime Writing (that’s pronounced ‘Redding’, the town in Berkshire, not as in ‘reading a book’) and a comment there by a particular author sparked off a couple of different trains of thought. The first thing was that this author not only used a pseudonym, but several of them for writing in different genres.

The reasons for this seem quite sensible. For a start, the author was often called upon to publish scientific papers under his own name, so when he first embarked on a career as a novelist obviously he did not want to run the risk that the scientific community might take his academic work less seriously because of his fictional activities, as it were.

But, does an author really have to assume new identities if they want to write outside their given field? It would seem the answer is yes.

When people ask what I write, I usually categorise myself as an author of a series of contemporary crime/thriller novels. Not a straightforward thriller, but not quite a mystery either. But perhaps I should just say that I’m a writer and leave it at that. And, if pushed, narrow it down to fiction, or say I’m a novelist.

But that’s not strictly true. If you ignore the unpublished (and probably unpublishable) children’s novel I wrote when I was fifteen, I started off as a non-fiction writer, and was producing a constant stream of technical and feature articles for magazines and newspapers for thirteen years before my first crime novel was published. (Indeed, it was my only means of income, so it had to be a steady stream, or I didn’t eat.) But I’ve also written comedy, after-dinner murder mystery games, the script for an audience-participation murder mystery play, song lyrics and short stories. The only things I haven’t attempted are screenplays and a graphic novel, but I have ideas for both …

So, what’s stopping me? Perhaps it’s something to do with the other half of that statement. That I define myself as a crime/thriller writer and am reluctant to step outside that niche. After all, when I was a non-fiction author, I found that by far the easiest way to get a steady source of work was to specialise. In my case, it was all about cars. Fortunately, I was (and still am) deeply into my cars, having a series of Triumph Spitfires in various shades of repair and a mid-engined Lancia Montecarlo that shall be firmly consigned to the Mistakes I Have Tried category.

And although I’ve now retired from the non-fiction writing in order to pursue fiction, my continuing photographic work still dovetails in nicely. And yes, it’s still nearly all cars, although I’ve done a few oddities such as ferries, people’s accident scars, and even taken the occasional author pic. But when I photograph things outside my main speciality, I don’t even consider using a pseudonym.

Perhaps this is because people are buying the magazine because of it’s overall subject, rather than because it contains the work of one particular contributor. People usually remember the photoshoots I’ve done, but not the fact that I was the one who did them.

Writing has more clearly delineated barriers. The author’s name on the cover is a large part of the selling point of the book. You’re buying a brand that you know and trust to deliver what you expect. You wouldn’t be happy if you picked up a box of washing powder and found it had breakfast cereal inside instead, although it would make trips to the supermarket much more exciting.

But, if an author is not to break their contract with the reader, they must deliver what the reader expects. If a cosy author suddenly produces a book which turns into a swearfest bloodbath, their readers are going to feel understandably cheated without some prior warning. I read Charlie Huston’s ALREADY DEAD, knowing his hero, Joe Pitt, was a Vampyre and fully accepting of where that would lead the character and the story. And thoroughly enjoyable the book was, too!

It’s only when you get into a book that seems to promise one thing and then deliver another that you could begin to feel frustrated. Or – if it’s handled well – intrigued, but that’s a risk few publishers seem willing to take in these straitened times.

But does a different writing style, even the departure from a series character, mean an author has to strike out under a new name? I can think of a number of writers who do two very different series alongside each other, under the same name. With a few of them, I love one series, and am not so keen on the other, so would it make a difference if they were written under different names? Or is the gamble that, if you like one series, you’ll at least be predisposed to give the other a try when you might otherwise not, and then it’s up to personal preference if you continue reading it or not.

Dorothy L Sayers had both her Lord Peter Wimsey and travelling wine salesman Montague Egg characters. Both were amateur sleuths, the main difference being that one used the tradesman’s entrance. And although I was a fan of Wimsey, I was never quite so fond of Egg.

But that’s just within the same genre. What if you want to step outside your current genre completely? Well, that’s actually quite difficult to do, when you consider how much element of mystery is contained in other genres, the boundaries are becoming much more blurred. With paranormal and romantic suspense so popular, your detective could just as easily be a werewolf as a tall, dark and handsome stranger. Whenever you have relationships between your characters, there is the possibility of not just sex, but romance.

And when you look at suspense, it’s a short step into horror, and my writer’s general ‘what if’ mentality makes me lean naturally towards sci-fi. After all, if you’re constantly reinventing the present, why not take it one step further?

I was fortunate enough recently to read an advance copy of Stuart MacBride’s sci-fi standalone, HALFHEAD, a rattling good serial killer/police procedural set in a grim Glasgow of the not-too-distant future where convicted serious criminals are mutilated and lobotomised by the state and given menial jobs. It’s a darkly humorous and highly violent tale that I struggled to put down. And such is Stuart’s position that he’s been able to write this as Stuart B MacBride rather than going under a completely different name. I’m not sure what the ‘B’ stands for – Bearded, probably.

Certain types of sci-fi like this really appeal to me. They’re often crime novels but with a strong investigative element, which is complicated by the advances in technology brought about by the slightly futuristic setting. I’m not so enamoured of the interstellar travel angle, but books like Peter F Hamilton’s MINDSTAR RISING trilogy are largely crime thrillers, set in the UK after global warming, and featuring his gland-enhanced psychic private eye, Greg Mandel. In fact, A QUANTUM MURDER is a classic English country house murder mystery, in which a brilliant professor is brutally murdered during a violent thunderstorm which cuts off the house and its occupants from the outside world, and the only suspects are the professor’s apparently devoted students, none of whom seem to be lying. Add to that the semi-recognisable setting of Rutland Water, a nice mix of past and future technology, and a wonderful writing style, and you have a fairly addictive mix.

That same ‘what if’ question translates just as easily into sci-fantasy – a quest, a chase. It’s a thriller by another name. But, I’m pretty sure if I mentioned any of the ideas I have for sci-fi projects, or the supernatural/horror novel that’s been bugging me for years, I’d meet with stiff resistance. A new name would definitely be called for.

So, as a writer, are you tempted to step outside your chosen genre, and if you’ve tried it, what were the effects? How much do you feel you already mix genres in your current writing?

And as a reader, would you read outside your chosen genre if it was an author you already knew and enjoyed, even if the book they’d written was not the kind of thing you’d normally read?

This week’s Word of the Week is more of a phrase of the week, it’s force and fear, which is a Scottish term for the amount of constraint or compulsion which is enough to annul an engagement or obligation entered into under its influence.

And finally, here’s a link to a You Tube clip by Kseniya Simonova called Sand Animation. For those of you who haven’t seen it, it’s stunning, and a beautiful example of how the mind and the eye can be fooled. Apologies that I am too technically inept to insert a proper video clip ;-[ 


30 thoughts on “Outside the Box

  1. JD Rhoades

    Very timely post for me, Zoe. I’m contemplating this issue right now. The latest work is a bit of a departure for me. It’s not cozy by any means, but it’s not as outright bloody as my earlier stuff (I mean, where do you go after you’ve written the Blood Eagle?) So I’m wondering if a new name (or hell, maybe even that name everyone calls me) might be in order.

  2. Alafair Burke

    So funny you mention this because I just added Carl Hiaasen’s The Downhill Lie, which I understand to be a memoir about his relationship to golf, to my must-get list. Although I golf, I would never buy a book devoted to golf…unless it was by Carl Hiaasen.

    I suspect a writer’s decision about whether to use different names for different books reflects one’s confidence in what the "brand" means. Carl Hiaasen is confident that his name stands for a certain kind of writing. He may typically be in one genre, but sometimes he’s writing YA books or a golf memoir. Similarly, Dennis LeHane was able to break beyond his series without starting over with a new name. John Grisham’s phenomenal success with legal thrillers still helps him when he writes nonfiction, short story collections, or a book about football.

    On the other hand, I know writers who have started over under a new name to get a new start when they think the old "brand" was somehow tarnished or had been pigeonholed.

  3. Dana King

    I think whether I would read something different from an author’s usual work depends on the author. I heard in advance that Dennis Lehane’s THE GIVEN DAY wasn’t a mystrey, and wasn’t truly crime fiction, though crime played a major role in the story. There was still no question I’d read it: it was by Dennis Lehane. At the same time, I know of several writers whose books I passed on because they were clear "departures." I guess my anticipation of the quality of writing has to be sufficient to overcome my natural conservatism about expanding my horizons. (Gee, I just depressed myself, I sound so boring.)

    @Alafair, I read THE DOWNHILL LIE. It’s a lot of fun. Not as wacky as a Hiaasen novel–nothing true is as wacky as a Hiaasen novel–but it’s full of those little offbeat touches that make him so much fun to read.

  4. Alli

    This is a really interesting, thought-provoking post. The whole time I was reading, I kept thinking "Nora Roberts and JD Robb". Most people know they are one and the same author, but the "branding" is so well dones that they are separate identities. Nora is romance and JD is crime.

    I have willingly followed favourite authors from one genre to the next and I do it out of loyalty if I love their work. So far, I haven’t been disappointed.

    As for my own writing, I’ve written 3 very different manuscripts – travel fic, women’s fic and now a thriller. I believe I have now founnd my genre – thriller – and I am really happy about this. Even though I’m unpublished (at the moment!), I still think about "boxing" myself into an area, and want to make sure it is a genre I love writing, which I do.

  5. Louise Ure

    I haven’t had to address the name issue yet as all of my work is roughly in the same sub-genre, but my father-in-law continues to ask what name my next book will be under, wondering perhaps how far he’ll have to distance himself from the work among his friends.

  6. Zoë Sharp

    Hi Dusty

    Interesting you’ve chosen to go this route – I always found the level of violence in your previous books completely in keeping with the style and storyline, so I can’t wait to read the new one.

    The problem is, if you pick a new name, what happens to JD Rhoades, and all your loyal fans out there? Do you have two separate websites, or links between them? It’s a knotty one, isn’t it?

  7. Zoë Sharp

    Hi Alafair

    I know exactly what you mean about the Hiaasen book, because I bought Robert B Parker’s APPALOOSA and GUNMAN’S RHAPSODY as soon as they came out, even though I haven’t picked up a western since reading reams of JT Edson novels when I was a kid. I just love his writing style and I wasn’t disappointed.

    As for John Grisham, I think if you’re as successful as he is, you can state your own terms for what you want to write, and the publisher must have a pretty good idea that it will sell.

  8. Zoë Sharp

    Hi Dana

    "I guess my anticipation of the quality of writing has to be sufficient to overcome my natural conservatism about expanding my horizons. (Gee, I just depressed myself, I sound so boring.)"

    Far from being boring, I think you just summed up in a sentence what it took me a page of waffling to get across ;-]

  9. Zoë Sharp

    Hi Alli

    Trying out which genre suits you is as important as finding your own personal voice, and I’m delighted that you feel you’ve found yours with the thriller – although that must have influenced the style of your other books, too!

    I’m a big fan of JD Robb, but the only Nora Roberts I’ve read was the joint title, REMEMBER WHEN, which I thoroughly enjoyed.

  10. Zoë Sharp

    Hi Louise

    I totally fail to understand the attitude of your father-in-law, although every time we see one of our neighbours he always asks if I’ve killed off Charlie yet and gone on to something different, so I guess it’s approximately the same thing.

    And you also have the freedom of writing standalones rather than a series, which does tend to pigeonhole a writer even further, I think.

  11. R.J. Mangahas

    Elmore Leonard is another writer I can think of who made a genre jump while using his own name.. Unlike Parker though, Leonard STARTED with westerns than moved over to crime fiction. I’m actually curious to know how many people followed him when he made the transition.

  12. pari noskin taichert

    I’m tackling these issues right now. I know that the next book I sell will, at least, only have my first two names rather than all three. But that decision is less about pseudonym than about having a name that is so incredibly difficult for most people to pronounce and remember. But I’ve wondered about this vis a vis either women’s fiction or straight fantasy. I haven’t made any decisions yet.

    I’ll be interested in reading other people’s responses.

    Thank you for bringing it up.

  13. Alli

    Funnily enough, Zoe, my thriller isn’t a straight thriller as such – it’s set in Peru (travel elements) and the female protag is dealing with some serious family history (women’s fic). Ha! So I guess this MS has combined the three genres I love. Guess we’ll see if it works when I look for representation.

  14. Zoë Sharp

    Hi RJ

    Some writers – like Elmore Leonard – have such a distinctive style that you read their work simply for the pleasure of the way they put words together. Ken Bruen is one who springs instantly to mind. I’d probably read Ken’s shopping list …

  15. Zoë Sharp

    Hi Pari

    Hm, I wonder if anyone told Carl Hiaasen he might like to consider changing his name when he first started? Or Duane Swierczynski? Your name may not be easy for someone to pronounce, but it is certainly memorable!

    My first name has caused endless confusion and problems. I had someone I’ve known for quite some time apologise to me at a convention not so long ago because they always thought my name was pronounced ‘Zo’. I never know whether people are just shortening it for the heck of it, or because they genuinely don’t know any different.

    If I’d been a boy, my parents were going to call me Max. Wouldn’t that have been a lot simplier!

  16. Jemi Fraser

    Great post! Like Alli, as I read, I immediately thought of Nora/JD. I read a wide variety of genres, and don’t have any difficulty switching genres with an author. I think many of us read widely, and will probably eventually write widely as well. At the moment, I write mysteries with a romantic edge, but hope to eventually write fantasy and sci fi as well.

    The sand art link is truly remarkable. I posted the same link on my blog a while back because it is such an amazing experience! 🙂

  17. PK the Bookeemonster

    I think the whole branding thing or changing names for different genres is mostly a publisher thing, isn’t it? Like the publshers think that readers are too stupid to think or accept that authors can write more than one note?
    As a reader, I will read what I like no matter who wrote it. Having the same name follow on whatever genre will only really serve to catch my attention but the book has to be something I’d want to read. Going with a different name would make it a little more difficult to find such a book but usually ithe information gets out in the book world anyway. An example: say I love an author’s works but he/she decided to follow the paranormal trend and started to write a vampire series — I would most definitely not be interested; that’s just my taste. I’ve loved the writing of many authors over the years but sometimes they grow stale to me after many chances so I’ve dropped them as an automatic buy/read. So maybe the new name would help but the book’s situation would have to catch my eye then with a name I’m not familiar with. I’m babbling, sorry. I’ve enjoyed many genres so I read widely; it’s the book that counts not necessarily the name on the cover.

  18. JT Ellison

    Something we all struggle with, I think. We spend so much time branding ourselves that switching names seems – insane. But sometimes it’s totally justifiable. I think it lies with the author and publisher, and the plan that’s being undertaken. A bizarre example, in France, I’m published under the name Andrea Ellison, because they weren’t fond of the initials. Same books, different name. Utterly transparent, as we have an Andrea Ellison component of my website (to come soon) I was really resistant to the idea initially, but now it feels kind of cool. So who knows. Do what feels right, I guess.

  19. Zoë Sharp

    Hi Jemi

    Sorry to reply to late to your comment – out at a very ungodly hour this morning and only just back in again!

    I agree that the sand animation video is amazing, so fluid and telling a story so simply that quite a few members of the audience clearly found very moving.

    Having the desire or the ability to write across a number of genres is not the problem, I think, but whether the industry encourages you to do so – without using various pseudonyms – is a knotty one ;-]

  20. Zoë Sharp

    Hi PK

    You raise an excellent point about writers going through the motions – I think that’s a topic for a whole separate post all by itself! I’ve heard it referred to as ‘the contractual obligation book’, when a writer’s heart is clearly not in the work. Better, surely to allow the writer to break away into something completely different than lose a valued reader such as yourself?

    And no, you’re not babbling in the least ;-]

  21. Zoë Sharp

    Hi JT

    How interesting that the French insist on a non-initial pseudonym! I must admit that whenever I see initials, I instantly assume the writer is a woman – JK Rowling, for example.

    I think you’ve hit the nail on the head with your comment that switching names depends on ‘the plan that’s being undertaken’.

    You’re assuming, of course, that there IS a plan … ;-]

  22. Keith Willison

    Zoe, now you have me thinking. Not as an author, but as somebody who has just submitted his first m/s, I am undecided as to whether to stick with the thriller genre of my first submission or whether to go off and do something completely different. My feelings are that the imagination is there to write another, or several more, novels but I would find it slightly straining to keep to the same type subject. Perhaps because my first one turned into a thriller as it went along with the twists and turns in my head, to sit down and start with that subject in mind could be too much of a stumbling block. Do you therefore feel that readers of a second novel would expect a similar contant to that of the first?

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