Wednesday, June 6, 2012

The Biggest Risk a Writer Can Take

by Sandra Parshall

I picked up the book automatically because it was written by one of my favorite authors. I didn’t look at the jacket copy. I hadn’t read any reviews. All that mattered was the author’s name.

I didn’t realize until I got home that this book wasn’t another of the insightful, character-driven “domestic thrillers” I’ve come to expect from the writer. This one was about terrorism and a government conspiracy, and part of it was set in Iraq. Not the sort of book I usually enjoy.

I was more than disappointed. I felt cheated. I felt, melodramatic though it sounds, betrayed. My reader self whined, How dare one of my favorite authors write a book I won’t enjoy? At the same time, my writer self argued that an author is entitled to write whatever he chooses and shouldn’t let disappointed readers interfere.
However, my rational self (I do have one, although it’s not always on display) knows that any author is taking a big chance when he or she shifts gears and produces a book that doesn’t meet established reader expectations. A popular cozy author who publishes a bloody, action-filled thriller will discover that her cozy readers aren’t as gentle and polite as their book preferences might indicate.

It’s likely, in fact, that an editor will stomp on the thriller notion before it gets past the discussion stage. Your fans won’t follow you, the editor will say, and they’ll be mad at you too. In most cases, the editor will be right. The author who achieves success in one subgenre and switches to something radically different will essentially be starting over, aiming at a new audience. If the publisher goes along with the change, in the hope that the author will break out of a narrow category and find general success, the writer may be asked to use a pseudonym to avoid confusion with the earlier books.

Even a change in tone in an established series will leave readers angry. We’ve seen this happen recently to Nevada Barr, with Burn and The Rope. I’ve read all of Barr’s Anna Pigeon books, and I noticed the tone had gradually darkened in the later ones. The series was never cozy, and Anna’s drinking problem is troubling, but cozy lovers can enjoy the earlier books because they aren’t particularly graphic and they overflow with lovely descriptions of the natural settings I which Anna, a federal park ranger, works. The violence in the later books, especially the violence aimed at Anna herself, is more vivid and prolonged, and her emotional turmoil is acute. With Burn, which got away from the park settings entirely and focused unflinchingly on sexual exploitation of children, a lot of readers said they couldn’t read Barr anymore. I’ve heard complaints about the depressing tone of the latest book, a prequel titled The Rope, although it seems no darker to me than the books that came before Burn. Barr still has enough fans to put her books on bestseller lists, and as both a reader and a writer I’m curious to see what she’ll do next.

Ending a popular series can be as difficult as switching subgenres. Success, and the expectations of fans, can create a golden cage that a writer might never break out of. While the author yearns to move on to fresh material, fans still love the familiar characters and are still willing to pay for the books, and the publisher is happy with a sure thing. Starting a second series is an option, and a lot of writers now produce two (or more) books a year in different series. But kill off a series that’s selling well? It doesn’t happen often.

As for the new book that seemed uninviting to me although it was written by a favorite author, I grudgingly gave it a chance. I discovered that everything I loved about the author’s work is there: the complex characters, the thoughtful dissection of motives and emotions, the tangled relationships. No, I don’t enjoy the descriptions of people being blown up and gunned down in Iraq, but fortunately those scenes don’t dominate the story. I’ll finish it. And I’ll look forward to his next book, which (judging from the description) will get back to what I enjoy most: portrayals of ordinary people forced to work their way out of horrific situations.

Have you ever been disappointed when a writer went in a new direction? Do you think writers should stick with what they do best and what their fans love to read?


Julia Buckley said...

About ten years ago, one of my favorite writers of humorous mysteries came out with a vampire book. I didn't read it, and I still have no desire to read it.

Sheila Connolly said...

I think for a publisher to pigeonhole a writer and tell them they can write only thrillers or vampire stories or cozies, reduces the process to a business transaction, divorced from the author's creativity. The publisher is betting on what sells, which doesn't take into account that an author can grow and change (I'm sure we've all seen late series books that read as though they've been phoned in--no spark left.)

I find myself coming at the question from a different perspective. Before I sold any book, I turned out a lot of manuscripts, in different styles and voices. Sure, they're clunky early efforts, but there is much that can be harvested there. And, believe me, they aren't all cozies.

But these days, we do have options for putting them out as ebooks. I know, not that same as print (yet). But it allows you can warn your readers that you're doing something different, so they won't be startled.

LD Masterson said...

Thank you for the comment on Nevada Barr. I'm one of those readers who loved the Anna Pidgeon series until they turned so dark. I didn't enjoy Burn and, after reading an excerpt of The Rope, decided not to buy it.

One thought on writing different genres under different names - I don't read Nora Roberts (yeah, I know, the only reader in the free world who doesn't). I'm just not a romance fan. I didn't know JD Robb was Nora when I read the first In Death book. Got hooked on that series and own all 30+.

Steve Liskow said...

Anyone remember when Bob Dylan went electric and risked his career as the most popular folk/protest singer of his generation? He was smothering in everyone else's limited expectations. Sometimes, people grow with you. If they dn't, maybe it's their problem, not yours.

I have two non-series books that I will publish eventually, but only alternating with the characters I'm still trying to build into a series. I like using central Connecticut, but those one-off books let me go other places and experiment with different characters and styles. They give me the chance to stretch and experiment.

If both my regular readers don't follow me, maybe I'll find new readers who will. I'm not getting rich, so I have to satisfy myself, and that's hard to do if I don't keep growing.

About Bobbi C. said...

This is an issue I'm thinking long and hard about right now. My first historical mystery novel (written sixteen years ago), was just released for the Kindle. Right now, I'm not really anxious to start a second in that particular series, although I know it would be the "smart" thing to do. It's a hard decision to make! Happy trails! bobbi c./B.A. Neal

Sandra Parshall said...

Most readers seem to want series, so they can follow the same characters for years, but I love standalone suspense novels. I like Laura Lippman's standalones much better than her series. I love Ruth Rendell's suspense novels.I love the Nicci French novels, all standalones, and was dismayed when I heard the husband/wife team had decided to write a series. The first book is good, but doesn't have the intensity that the standalones have. In any case -- I love writing suspense, and I'd like to write at least a couple of standalones and see how they're received. Meanwhile, I put as much suspense as I can into my series.

Susan Oleksiw said...

I love the work of Anita Desai and when I came across a new book I grabbed it off the shelf and immediately bought it and went home to read it. I was shocked to find, on page one, that this book was not about India but Mexico. It took me months to get over it and read the book and realize Anita Desai is a great writer no matter the topic or setting. But I will always love her India books best.

Shalanna said...

Typically, author branding means that a writer will choose a pseudonym for work that's in a different genre. Look at Nora Roberts/J.D.Robb. Big Steve King is among the few who can write cross-genre or anything he likes and still sell. Most people need to "brand" their work. For example, my Shalanna Collins books are YA fantasy and urban fantasy. My mystery series (NICE WORK, which won the 2011 Oak Tree Press contest and is coming out this fall) will be published under my middle/married name, Denise Weeks. I have a romantic suspense that is being marketed with a tentative plan to use yet a third name. This can feel like playing many roles, but it seems to work best with readers, who like to rely on what they can expect from particular authors. You can always refer your readers to your "alter ego's" books on your blogs and in interviews. I even have different blogs--deniseweeks.blogspot com for the new mystery series and for the fantasy/YA. (*Librarians used to diligently look up pen names and put the pen name next to the "real" name on the card catalog cards. I guess that world is gone!*)

Jeri Westerson said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Jeri Westerson said...

Branding is definitely important, which is why I am also working on a second medieval series to drag those fans of Crispin along with me. Once that is established, then I feel I can branch out into something completely different, that Crispin fans may or may not go along with. The thing is, this is my small business and being a professional I can't see why I would shoot myself in the foot. My agent suggested I stay in genre to take advantage of all the marketing I've already done bringing in the readers of Crispin's books. Makes sense. Ride the wave while you've got it. It's a business decision. And it's a period I enjoy writing about, but it's not all I can write about.