Genre-Bending: What are the Rules?

I recently enjoyed a concert by the Spampinato Brothers, an ensemble that featured Joey Spampinato, bass guitarist and a founding member of the fabulous eclectic band NRBQ. If you’ve never heard the music of NRBQ you’re missing something special. If you didn’t get a chance to see the line-up of the band that featured Spampinato on bass, Al Anderson on lead guitar, Terry Adams on keyboards and Tom Ardolino on drums, you really missed something special.

NRBQ, which is the acronym for the New Rhythm and Blues Quartet, has drawn the attention of prominent fans, including Bonnie Raitt, Paul McCartney, Elvis Costello and Keith Richards, who invited Spampinato to play bass guitar on one of his solo projects. Bonnie Raitt has reportedly called NRBQ the best live band she’s ever seen.

What does all this have to do with fiction writing? Music critics have described NRBQ is a genre-bending band, a gifted ensemble that could move effortlessly from rockabilly to jazz to Beach Boys-style pop, to R&B and even country music. Fiction writing gurus warn aspiring authors to stick to one genre. There are solid reasons for this advice. Your genre is your brand. When you think about JK Rowling, Young Adult/fantasy comes to mind. Robert B. Parker? Crime stories. John Grisham? Legal thrillers. You get the picture.

This subject is on my mind lately because my latest project is a radical departure from the genre in which I normally write. My genre is family sagas. That’s what I like to read (though I read widely from a number of genres) and that’s where my comfort zone is as a writer. My self-published novel, Small Change, is the story of two families in the Midwest who become intertwined after meeting each summer at a lake resort in Wisconsin. My three unfinished drafts are likewise family sagas, though one includes a murder-mystery.

Earlier this year, the urge hit me to do something totally outside my genre. I wanted to leave what was familiar and try something totally different. At the time I had been working on a political novella that I eventually abandoned. However, the main character stayed with me. I just had to develop him. The original story was the wrong vehicle, but there was a minor scene in it that had the potential to take this character in a new direction. So I pursued it.

That wasn’t the only leap outside the comfort zone. My good friend, Jamie Beckett, another self-published author, told me he had embarked on a serialized science fiction story consisting of multiple parts that he was going to release, one at a time, on Amazon.com. Another writing colleague was doing the same thing. I was intrigued, especially since I wasn’t sure my new project had the potential as a full-blown novel. So I approached it as a trilogy: three short stories, the succeeding one picking up where the last one left off.

That mature voice in the back of my mind keeps telling me, “This is a bad idea. Stick to what you know.” I usually listen to that voice, but my heart is telling me to plunge forward. I can’t think of a good reason why not. What’s the risk? If I don’t like it, I don’t have to publish it. If I publish it and it takes off, it makes me a much more versatile writer.

Though the conventional wisdom is to stick to a single genre, there are exceptions. Stephen King is one shining example of an author who has branched out. King’s stock-in-trade was horror, but he has expanded his horizons into science fiction and even historical speculative work with his 2011 novel, 11/22/63 about a time traveler who tries to prevent the assassination of John F. Kennedy.

Of course, King is a huge name. He can afford to do genre-hopping. It’s a much riskier strategy for an unknown author looking to break into publishing. I’ve never advised genre-jumping, but I do believe a writer must follow what’s in his heart. A writer must write about that which stirs him. A writer must follow his passion and if that means writing in a different genre, so what? But a writer must also have the judgment to evaluate his work in other genres. Is it as strong as the work in the writer’s best genre? If so, go with it. If not, every writing experience is a growth opportunity.

What about you? Have you stuck to a single genre? Did you ever have the urge to write outside your genre?

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4 Comments

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4 responses to “Genre-Bending: What are the Rules?

  1. Every genre needs freshening, I say. I’m probably the wrong person to comment, as I made a point of studying different forms and genres, in school and out. Musically; I would never be constrained by genre limits, and in several performing choirs I took on different parts regularly– there’s a lot to be learned by singing first soprano one year and tenor another. The same, I think, goes for writing. If you never write mystery, write one. If you only do fiction, try a few sonnets.

    • Mary,
      Thanks for your comment. Writing in different genres challenges a writer to think beyond the confines of a single genre. I get why it is discouraged, but still, if you have a story inside you that you need to get out, why not write it?

  2. And BTW, Good for You for following your heart. If stronger, more attuned writing doesn’t make someone more publishable, who wants to be a writer anymore anyway?

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