Tag Archives: Pigeon-Holed

It’s Only a Book!

After editing my fifth Cornish Detective novel, followed by making a monkey of myself by returning to querying and self-promotion, I’ve been staying sane by writing a novella about 21st-century rural witches. To assist future writing efforts, I’ve been working my way through published crime authors’ series, trying to read them in order, to see how they tackle the story arcs of their characters.

After noticing that some of these series have run to a dozen or more titles, I had the rather chastening thought that I’m constructing a trap for myself. I’ve written science fiction, historical and ghost stories, as well as poetry, song lyrics and flash fiction, but should I ever achieve success with my crime novels, I’ll end up pigeon-holed. Hence, why writers invent pen names.

Image result for pen name writer cartoon

Some authors achieve success with one particular character, with the rest of their work unheard of. A good example of this is Georges Simenonfamous for 104 Maigret crime novels and short stories, but he wrote a total of almost 500 novels in his lifetime. All in all, he was a very busy boy, as in 1977 he claimed that he’d made love to 10,000 women in the 61 years since his 13th birthday!

Nathaniel Hawthorne summed up this predicament well:

It is a good lesson—though it may often be a hard one—for a man who has dreamed of literary fame … to step aside out of the narrow circle in which his claims are recognized, and to find how utterly devoid of all significance, beyond that circle, is all that he achieves, and all he aims at.

It helps to get real…it’s easy to become precious about writing. A book is a consumer item. As with any form of art, some titles are revered, becoming that overused cliché Classics. Others are disposable consumer items, as memorable as a microwavable ready meal.

As Mexican novelist Carlos Fuentes observed:

Some writers achieve great popularity and then disappear forever. The bestseller lists of the past fifty years are, with a few lively exceptions, a sombre graveyard of dead books.

I’m an avid reader, visiting my local library once a week, as well as buying paperbacks at the nearby charity shop. I get through three novels every week. Sometimes, I go online to peruse my borrowing history to find who wrote a book I enjoyed, to see if they’ve written any more since. What shocks me, is how many of them I’ve forgotten reading, unable to recall much, if anything, of the plot. It makes me realise how books are ephemeral.

So, why am I writing? The clever (and honest) answer is because I can’t not write: the stories are in me and they’ve got to come out—like lava from a volcano.

To my great surprise, I’ve written in what I hope is a commercial way, creating stories that lend themselves to being adapted into a television series. I’m reassured that there’s a precedent for my Cornish Detective series, as W. J. Burley wrote twenty-two Inspector Wycliffe stories set in the county and adapted for television in the 1990s…still shown ad nauseam on Freeview. I’ve rarely been motivated by making money in my careering work life, but I’ve been rich and I’ve been poor, and rich is better.

I’m not looking for immortality from my novels, though if they do get turned into a television drama, my Inspector Kettle might be annoying viewers for decades!

Why do you write?

Are you doing it to entertain youngsters?

Do you yearn for fame and fortune?

Or longevity?

Trapped by Genre?

I’ve long wondered what would happen to my writing career if any success I had trapped me in a genre. By that, I mean, what if the short ghost stories I’ve written took off in the public conscious and my literary agent and publisher pressured me for more—even though I wanted to concentrate on my Cornish Detective novels?

It would make sense to do so, as a recent report by data analysts Nielsen Bookscan found that crime and thriller novel sales rose by 19% between 2015 and 2017.

Despite this, it feels like authors are treated like circus animals, expected to do a limited repertoire of tricks. As an example, one of my favourite authors, John Connolly recently published an imagined biography of comedian Stan Laurel, called ‘he’.

Image result for connolly Stan Laurel 'he'.

I loved it, but sales were average, for Connolly is famed for his private investigator novels which feature supernatural elements. He’s also published a couple of collections of short stories that step outside the crime genre, as well as a lovely novel The Book of Lost Things that reinterprets fairy tales.

Image result for connolly The Book of Lost Things

I wondered how much arm-twisting he had to do to be allowed to write something different. I loved them, but again, sales were average.

Indian author Kiran Manral unwittingly pigeonholed herself, for her first novel was called The Reluctant Detective, so there was opposition to her subsequent work not fitting the crime genre.

We’re all librarians at heart, with the world organised by categories so that we can find stuff. At the very least, books need to be shelved, so where do they go? Are they Chick Lit, Science-Fiction, Historical or Erotica—and heaven help you if you’ve written a genre-busting novel that straddles all of these!

Mexican writer Carlos Fuentes said:Don’t classify me, read me. I’m a writer, not a genre. But that doesn’t take into account the tactics of book publisher publicity departments trying to market a book.

Writing under a pen name is one way around this problem, with the pseudonym disguising that a beloved author of fantasy novels about a wizard is now penning crime novels

Agatha Christie wrote six romance novels using the pen name Mary Westmacott. Benjamin Franklin, American polymath and one of the Founding Fathers of the United States, conned a newspaper publisher into printing a series of charming letters seemingly penned by a middle-aged widow named Silence Dogood .

Michael Crichton was already published under his own name when he started churning out stories by John Lange, Jeffery Hudson and Michael Douglas. Stephen King was initially held back by his publisher’s policy of only releasing one title a year, so he persuaded them to print some of his stories under the pseudonym of Richard Bachman. Dean Koontz had a similar problem with his publisher and has used at least ten pseudonyms.

As a comment on this situation, one of the recurring characters in my Cornish Detective series, a crusty male newspaper journalist called Brian ‘Hot’ Toddy writes flowery romances under the pen name of Violet Flowerdew.

It’s fun to imagine well-known authors attempting to write in another genre. Think what a historical romance written by Lee Child would read like—would it ring with echoes of his Jack Reacher thrillers? How about a political thriller written by E.L. James?

Do you ever pause to wonder if you’ve placed your eggs in the wrong basket?