Tag Archives: Beach Boys

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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Abandoned Projects: What We Can Learn From Brian Wilson’s ‘Smile’

It took more than 35 years for Brian Wilson to record his classic album, Smile, released in 2004. From its inception in the mid-1960s, Smile was
the most acclaimed unreleased album in the annals of rock and roll. Brian Wilson abandoned the project in the late 1960s amid personal problems, negative feedback from The Beach Boys, and pressure from his record label. Brian’s fans were thrilled when he finally decided to record Smile. It’s an amazing album—a three-part suite of songs that showcase his abundant songwriting talents.

What can fiction writers learn from Brian Wilson’s experiences with Smile? Many writers have started a first novel (or even a second, third or fourth novel) only to abandon it. It might sit on a hard drive or a floppy disk somewhere. Maybe it wasn’t good enough or the idea was sound, but
the execution was bad. Perhaps we just were not mature writers. Whether we return to those early works or never look at them again, abandoned projects have value. If nothing else, the experience of completing a novel teaches writers how to structure a story, how to develop characters, how to place obstacles in front of the characters, how to build a story to a climax, and how to craft a satisfying resolution. Your first effort may be poorly structured or populated with flat characters. What’s important is that you learn from those early experiences. You may have a bad story, but it may include a compelling character you can use in a future novel. You may even decide to build a new story around that character.

As a general rule, I believe it takes two or three unsuccessful novels before an inexperienced writer finds his or her voice, learns to master the art of story arc, character development, dialogue, scene development and all of the elements that go into a successful novel. There are exceptions. Harper Lee comes to mind. To Kill a Mockingbird was her first and only novel. A number of authors have published a blockbuster first
novel, but the majority of inexperienced writers have to be patient and get the bad writing out of their system so they can learn and grow as writers.

I completed a bad novel in 1997 and I was 150 pages into a second novel before I abandoned it after two years. In my first novel, I made every rookie mistake: an overly complex plot, too many characters, florid descriptions, and a muddled theme. My second effort was better, but I ditched it. It was a political novel. While I was writing it I read Joe Klein’s novel, The Running Mate, and it hit me. This was the kind of novel I wanted to write, but I lacked Klein’s talent at that stage in my writing career.

I learned from both experiences. I stayed away from novels for the next six years. I wrote mainly short stories during that time, but I read a lot of
novels as well as books and articles on fiction writing. By the time I started my first real novel, Small Change, in 2007, I was more confident. I felt I knew how to write a novel. I wasn’t sure I knew how to write a novel others would want to read, but I knew how to structure the story, how to develop believable characters and how to write realistic dialogue.

What have you learned from your abandoned projects?

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