Sunday, July 11, 2010

Versatility and Range

The other night, on a softball field off the East River in the sweltering city of New York, I did something I hadn't done since I was a little kid. Not only did I hit two home runs — I wouldn't call myself a power hitter, by any stretch of the imagination — I also pitched. I've played baseball-like games since I can remember. When I was two years old, clad in an elephant shirt, one of my brothers would pitch Wiffleballs to me that I'd chop at with a little orange bat. So I've been around a ball field pretty much all my life and have played every position.

But in high school and college I was a catcher. When I could no longer allow a few at bats to justify a plummeting grade point average, I decided that my baseball career was, sadly, at an end. So my softball career started in earnest. Long story short, I've played everywhere, filling a utility role on strong teams and leading mediocre teams from whatever deep hole needed filling. But as I've aged, I've found that sometimes I can't do the things that used to be so easy. I can't move as quickly or as well as I did when I was in my twenties (or, GASP!, my thirties). The other night, it made sense for me to pitch. I was more useful there.

What does any of this have to do with writing?

Versatility and range often go unheralded in writers. "Those are traits of journalists," some might scoff. And while that's not untrue, I wonder why fiction writers don't always allow them into their world. Or maybe it's not the writers.

How many of you either say or think you'd like to write in more than one genre? I bet there are many of you; I'm one. And I'm not talking about writing fiction and nonfiction. I mean writing, say, literary fiction and science fiction, or thrillers and young adult.

If you're fortunate enough to have an agent, you might hear her say, "Stick with what you do best and make yourself even better." Indeed, that's good advice in my opinion.

But what about those of us who feel not only comfortable but capable of writing in a variety of manners? What about the versatile writer? Perhaps this is where you develop a pen name (or second pen name, if you write under one already) to keep the distinction clear. Let's face it, I doubt most Stephen King readers would feel warm and fuzzy about finding a romance novel by their favorite author — unless, of course, the readers' eclectic tastes include such flavors.

But I'm not sure even that is necessary. Graham Greene would step back and write his "diversions" — humorous stories like Our Man in Havana — that aren't steeped in Catholic symbolism and issues of great import. A more contemporary writer, John Connolly, came to my attention through The Book of Lost Things (a wonderful read if you've not tried it!), which is essentially a coming of age fantasy story. Connolly is perhaps best known as the writer of the highly engaging (and sometimes wince-inducing) Charlie Parker thriller series. Again, brilliant stuff.

As a reader, I trust Connolly implicitly to tell any type of story. Perhaps it matters that he also plied his trade as a journalist.

So I wonder, do you write all that you can write?. Are you telling the stories you want to tell? Do you write to the market you think you can sell or do you write the story and let things fall as they might? Inquiring minds want to know.


Jemi Fraser said...

Good questions! I love reading all different kinds of genres, and I've always written in a wide variety of genres as well.

But - that was before I started writing with the thought of trying to publish anything. Now I don't have a clue what will happen :)

Matt Sinclair said...

Thanks, Jemi. I honestly think I'll be able to get published in other genres, but I may be getting ahead of myself. I need to get published first.

Caroline Hagood said...

I know exactly what you're talking about. I think I've decided to cast my net wide because I have so many interests and because I'm hoping something will happen somewhere. I do articles, poetry, fiction, and am currently toying with a memoir and a nonfiction idea. Maybe I'm just looking to be mediocre at everything rather than really good in one area:)

Matt Sinclair said...

Ah, yes, the Master of None method. I know it well. ;-)

I think there's a lot to be said for trying to do everything you can, but there's also a point in specialization.

I like Buckminster Fuller's approach; he considered himself a generalist. He worked in a variety of fields even though he was best known for architecture and design.

Terry Stonecrop said...

When I'm tempted to write in other genres,I write, or more accurately, begin, short stories to sort of get it out of my system.

I write mystery, noir, but Alfred Hitchcock-style thrillers temp me.

I'm not pubbed yet, either, in fiction. I've done the journalism thing, though. Fiction is more fun!

Great post!

Matt Sinclair said...

Thanks for your comment. I think that's a good point, too. For the past several years, I've been working on novel-length fiction, but I've always enjoyed short stories -- both the writing of them and the reading of them. And it's good to keep in shape with them too. They're like specialized strength training for marathoners.

Anonymous said...

I wouldn't have time to write all the stories I've thought of writing, but right now I have three WIPs, each in a different genre. My plan is to write the best stories I can, snag an agent with one of them, and then worry about the genre issue. :)

Matt Sinclair said...

Sounds like a plan. I'm a strong believer in the idea that if I write novels that sell well, my agent would be willing to have me develop a broad audience in multiple genres. Of course, there is that first step of the process still to be accomplished.

Thanks for the comment!