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How Not to Advise in Absolutes: An Example

Last week James L. Rubart, on Novel Rocket, wrote an article that set me--and several other readers--off.

Headline? "You Can Only Write In One Genre. Period. End of Story."

Regardless of whatever you agree with this basic statement or not, I hope you see what I think is wrong with how the statement is worded. The rest of the post provides the perfect excuse on how not to be persuasive.

The approach.

For full disclosure, I will be only referring to what he said in the actual article, not his responses in the comments.

Here how he begins his article:

You can stop reading now. The message in the headline is my whole post and what I’ll conclude at the end.

This kind of absoluteness can be dangerous. Although in some situations, it's better to pull out the "always" and "nevers", this isn't the situation. An "always/never" rule would be "never submit your query letter with My Little Pony stationary and Comic Sans font". Is the risk worth it? Only if the person being queried have really loose standards, but that itself is worrisome.

If you're going to be this sure of what you're arguing for, be prepared to convince the readers that the exceptions aren't worth it. Mr. Rubert doesn't do this.

The hypothetical examples.

Maybe the article length worked against Mr. Rubert, but even with the space he had, he could've used better evidence.

Let me repeat an expression that my history teacher keeps hammering into my class: "It's all about the evidence." In this case, my teacher is right. The right examples can make an argument more convincing.

Let's dissect the similes he provides:

Let’s say your favorite radio station is KMPS, the number one country station in your city. You’ve tuned in a least a few minutes every day for the past five years. Then one day you tune in and the format has changed. It’s now Classic Rock. You’re not pleased. Even if you are a Classic Rock fan, this isn’t working for you. When you tune in to 94.1 you expect country. But the station says, sorry, Charlie, no tuna for you—it’s flounder now. You say sorry as well and never listen to the new station.
Or imagine walking into your favorite sushi restaurant with a friend on Saturday night. They bring you the menu and surprise, the only thing on it is steaks. Problem. You might like steak, but you weren't expecting it at this restaurant. If you wanted steak you would have gone to your favorite steak house.

Now let me repeat what another one of my teachers, back in elementary, once said: No metaphor or simile is perfect. Something can be like something, but something is only itself. This doesn't mean that we can never use metaphors or similes to clarify what we're saying, but if they don't work, you're better off trying something more concrete.

First of all, an author is not like a radio station, and an author is not like a restaurant.  Rather, the radio station and the restaurant is the author's work. A radio or restaurant owner is allowed to own more than one type of business.

And for the most part, books don't suddenly change genres one day. Not unless the author decided to do a major revision to their ebook, and that's a whole different issue.

Authors with some marketing savvy don't release a book out of the blue one day without indication of what it is. They often advertise what it is in advance, even if it's only a few days before release. Since both similes used involve an establishment one day doing something else out of the blue, they don't work as examples.

The concrete examples.

As for actual examples? Only one literary example: A Painted House by John Grisham. The other I will discuss a little later.

Why should I believe Mr. Rubert when he fails to convince the readers that changing genres will result in a writer crashing and burning? Besides, I can list counter-examples. Lots of them.

There are the big names: JK Rowlings, Stephanie Myers, Suzanne Collins, James Patterson, Stephen King  Neil Gaiman, Philip Pullman, etc.

There are the more historical examples: Ernest Hemingway, Ronald Dahl (he also wrote erotica!) , J.R.R. Tolkien, Mark Twain, Shakespeare, etc.

(Shakespeare might not apply to today's market, but note that he wrote both sonnets and plays, among other works, and even his plays were varied, from tragedies to comedies to histories and so on.)

Don't forget the other mediums! Many singers, like Katy Perry, recorded music in one genre and broke out in another. Did Katy's previous endeavour in Christian music hurt her pop career? Her multiple #1 hits say no. Also, Taylor Swift is no longer country, and her career is still stable.

This is just the tip of the iceberg.; Mr. Rubert provided only two ice cubes.

Now, for the example that closed the blog post. Sure, maybe Paul McCarthy never got beyond the Beatles, but does that matter?

Really, even if you stay in the same genre, once you got to the very top and fell, there's no going back. Look at Stephen King. Has any of his latest works (Under the Dome, 11/22/63)  matched the iconic reputation of Carrie or The Shining?

JK Rowlings won't top Harry Potter, but that doesn't mean she won't be on the bestseller list again.

The concession.

This is something my own dad pointed out to me when I went out to write this article. (Hi Dad!) Be sure to acknowledge that the other side has a point, no matter to what degree. Mr. Rubert didn't do this. Instead, he made his stance as absolute as possible.

In this day and age, being absolute in opinion can be harmful. The future of writing is currently uncertain , and we need to consider every path possible in order to flourish in this industry. That includes writing in multiple genres.

Mr. Rubert does make a good point by saying that it's harder to re-brand yourself once you associate with another genre, but it's not as hard as he makes it to be. Many authors got around it by either writing under another pen name, or simply being more successful with their next work.

Successes don't pop up overnight. Some might hit it big on the first try, but others, like Suzanne Collins, don't  breakout until they try something different, like going from MG fantasy to YA dystopian.

In closing.

The whole "you can only write in one genre" line of thinking is harmful commercial-wise. It doesn't have to be said why this line of thinking is harmful in terms of artistic integrity. It might not overrule being able to feed your family, but putting yourself in a box forever will rarely help a writer.

Write what you want. Screw obsessing over branding--at least until you get that book out.

Maybe your fans of your initial series won't like your next series, but some might, and you might find another fanbase who will also like your first series. Or maybe changing genres will fling you onto the bestseller list--or beyond.

So yes, you can write in more than one genre.

It's not the end of the story though, since it's your job to write the rest.

YOUR TURN: Do you agree with James L. Rubart? Why or why not? Do you have any suggestions on being persuasive?

PS: I would like to thank JHM of I Have Found Something That There Is No Use For for beta reading this article and pointing out that there are grammar errors. Any remaining ones are my fault.

PSS: I was going to list some mid-list and indie authors who have been successful in writing in multiple genres (like Sean Platt and David Wright), but I couldn't compose a long enough list to justify including it in the main post. Can you think of some examples?