Who Am I?

by Carla Buckley

Thank you to The Kill Zone authors for letting me sidle in here today, and thanks especially to John Ramsey Miller for hauling out the soapbox and giving up his day to me, and for the many ways he’s championed me these past months. One of the things I’ve been delighted to learn on my path to publication is that although thriller writers create the stuff of nightmares, they themselves are the kindest, most generous people around. Maybe it’s because they get all the ugly stuff down on paper and all that’s left is the good stuff.

My debut novel is about to be published. After writing full-time for fifteen years, working hard at my craft and producing seven novels (four of which were agented), I would have thought I knew a thing or two about the publishing business. But the only thing I’ve learned as my publication date approaches is how very little I know. Take for example, the concept of genre.

When I submitted The Things That Keep Us Here to my agent, she cautioned me. “I’m not quite sure where it fits. It’s part family drama, part thriller, part dystopian novel.” “Oh,” I said, brightly. “That’s not a problem, is it?”

I laugh at my naïve self. I truly do.

In order for an agent to pitch a project, she has to know what she’s selling so she can find the right editor. In order for an editor to drum up in-house enthusiasm, she has to know how to describe to sales, marketing, and publicity, what it is they’re going to be supporting. In order for those various departments to reach out to their various markets, they have to know what they’re pushing. In order for bookstores to buy in, they have to know where they’d shelve the book, so that in turn, the right readership can find it. Then we can all live happily ever after.

The thing is, I didn’t really know what I’d written.

I’m a huge mystery reader and so I started off by writing traditional mysteries featuring, in turn, an art investigator, a female firefighter (the research for that was fun), and a female implosion expert. It wasn’t until I became consumed by media reports that mankind was due for another pandemic on the scale of the 1918 Great Influenza Pandemic, that I threw mysteries aside. I wrote instead about a family caught up in a pandemic and it unraveled directly from my heart. Try explaining that to your agent.

“Well,” I said. “You sure it isn’t a thriller?”

“Not quite,” she said.

It wasn’t until it landed at Bantam Dell that my novel, whatever it was, found a home. My editor, who specializes in thrillers and mysteries, agreed: “This isn’t a thriller. It’s cross-genre, both family drama and thriller. It’s new.”

The last thing I wanted to do was sound stupid to my editor so I said, “Oh.” As if I understood exactly what she was saying. Was it because most of my action takes place within one family’s home, instead of sprawling across the world, taking the reader from the White House to the Kremlin to German scientists feverishly working on a cure? By telling the story from one family’s perspective, and therefore playing out the drama of a pandemic threat in every reader’s own living room, I thought it would make the ride that more thrilling. Don’t other thriller writers do the same thing–focus their story so intimately on the characters involved that you’re helplessly caught up in the story? Maybe it’s because I give equal weight to the thriller part and to the family part. Maybe that’s what makes me a hybrid.

I’m not the only author straddling two genres. As a member of the ITW Debut Author Program, I’ve gotten to know some other debut authors who are facing the same quandary: releasing a book that doesn’t quite fit onto one genre shelf. How their publishers handle finding a place for them in the book world varies, with some books being pushed closer to one category than another. It’s a bit nerve-wracking to watch cover art and titles adjust to reflect a dual personality, and it’s a learning process for everyone involved. My own novel was submitted under the title, Flu Season, and went through numerous incarnations before settling into The Things That Keep Us Here.

I’ve come to think that cross-genre is yet one more demand on the current publishing model, a world that is learning to adjust to ebooks, nontraditional publishing modes, social networking, and so on. As the world moves to a faster rhythm, how do publishers cut through the noise to position their products, and doesn’t having an unusual product make that process more difficult? Aren’t cross-genre books a bigger risk for authors and publishers and booksellers, alike?

An unpublished writer contacted me recently. She’s in the process of submitting a mystery to agents, and while waiting to hear back, has ideas for various other projects that intrigued her, some of which are hard to categorize: middle school vampire story verging on YA, women’s fiction with an element of horror.

“Do you have to stick to one genre?” she asked me. “Can’t I just mix it all up?”

What do you think I should tell her?

17 thoughts on “Who Am I?

  1. Carla,

    Very interesting post. Thank you for sharing your journey to date.

    As you indicated, there are a number of debut thriller authors on the ITW loop whose books cross various genre boundaries, myself included. I’m writing a legal thriller series – with an emotional pull, as my editor puts it. I like to examine how crime impacts the players personally.

    Like you, my books aren’t set in international cities across the world, despite the biomedical and legal elements to my stories. I like to explore the underbelly of where the characters live. To me, it is chilling to discover that the place you thought was home, was “safe”, has sides you’ve never seen before. Thus, I set my book in Halifax, NS.

    Given that we’ve both been successful in getting our cross-genre books published, I would like to say that your unpublished friend should write the story that inspires her, because it’s more likely to make the writing leap off the page. But as you and I both know, it’s very difficult to sell a book. Cross-genre is still new. With the publishing market shrinking and the economy just recovering, it’s hard to say whether she would succeed. But even without those factors, it’s still a crapshoot. Your friend will need to decide to take the risk or not. It’s part of the job.

  2. Carla,

    I really enjoyed this post because I feel as if I am one of those who writes novels that cross genres. I don’t see a problem with it.

    To me, it’s like a novel with romantic elements. It adds another layer to the story. Maybe even another “What if?” Plus, don’t we need to think/create/write ‘outside the box?’

    The industry is evolving, which tells me what people read will evolve as well.

    I hope that makes sense.

    Looking forward to reading your book.


  3. Thanks for stopping by TKZ, Carla. Very thoughtful post. I don’t think there is any one book that is an example of pure genre. Thrillers have romance. Mysteries have horror. Science Fiction and Fantasy share many of the same elements. And on and on. As we’ve all heard so many times, just write the best book we can. But at the same time, it’s important to know and understand the elements that are expected in our particular genre. The further outside the lines we color, the harder it is for an agent and publisher to market us. Best of luck with your new one.

  4. Pam: now I really want to read your book! It’s interesting that we both write cross-genre and both managed to find editors who understood and championed our work. It makes me wonder if we’re all changing.

    Abbi: I’m so glad my post resonated with you. I hope you’re right that the expansion into cross-genre is being driven by readership. Although my book’s been out for just a few days, it seems to be resonating with different readers for different reasons. That’s been another unexpected (and joyful) part of the publishing journey for me. Best of luck with your own writing.

    Joe: I didn’t even know I was coloring outside the lines when I wrote The Things That Keep Us Here! I thought I knew the rules. After all, I’d been studying them for years. As I work on book #2 and try to deliver a book in the same realm as my debut, could I turn to you for some clarification on those rules?!

  5. Carla,

    Regarding what to tell your friend, I don’t think there are any hard and fast rules for how to proceed and succeed in this business, but I do think there are things that can make it harder to get published or find a consistent readership.

    As you said, publishers like to know what their getting, and to a certain extent, readers do too. When an agent is pitching a book, it’s much easier to say that the author is planning to build a career in that genre. It may take two or three books to build a steady readership for an author (although many times you need the first to come rocketing out of the gate to get another opportunity to publish), so the marketing money spent on the first book helps get readers to buy the second book if the first does well.

    Publishers like to have an idea for how the author’s career is going to progress. When you write in the same genre–and even better, with the same series–publishers have a clear visual of how that can happen. If you write in multiple genres, they have no idea whether success in one genre will translate in other genres, and so they will be reluctant to take you on in the first place. That doesn’t mean it can’t happen, but your writing must be that much be better to overcome that inertia.

    The same thing happens with readers. Sure, Stephen King and James Patterson can jump across genres, but that’s because they have a huge and loyal readership willing to give them a chance based on their track records. New writers don’t have that loyalty. If you write a great mystery that finds an audience and then write a YA romance, most of those readers will not follow you, and you’ll have to build a whole new audience.

    So again, I’m not saying it can’t be done, but it sure makes it a whole lot harder to get published if you jump between genres.

  6. Okay, I’ve actually got nothing to say about this genre thing. I’d sound like an idiot if I even tried.

    Really, I’m just commenting to say: Carla, your book is great! I’m about a quarter of the way through and I’m having a hard time writing my own stuff right now because all I want to do is read yours. Thanks for the pleasure of reading you!

  7. Thanks for visiting, Carla!

    It’s good to know what the genre “rules” are before you break them, then decide–before the publisher does–where your book fits into the mix. I’ve heard authors complain when their books get assigned to a shelf they think they don’t belong in, like romance or horror.

  8. Boyd–I totally agree (and I know my agent would, too; when The Things That Keep Us Here sold, she pulled another mss I had out on submission because it was a traditional mystery and she recommended I establish myself first before switching to something different.)

    Brad–could I just move next door to you? I could use constant validation, and I promise to change a diaper or two in exchange.

    Kathryn–I have a good friend whose debut novel was sold as a mystery and shelved as a romance, something she discovered when she went to the bookstore to see it for the first time. I still remember her utter amazement.

    Michelle–thanks for the feedback on the cover. I do love it, though you know I had nothing to do with it but smile and nod. And I wonder what my pigeonhole will end up being called…

  9. Welcome to TKZ Carla, and good luck with your debut release. I’m all for cross-genre stuff myself – makes life interesting!

  10. Carla,

    Thanks for dissecting the publishing, mixed-genre quandary so well. IMHO I think any author should just write what they would most want to read and then if it’s well received after, I’d call that a win-win outcome. Assuredly, most writers have the wish for commercial success tucked away in the deeper recesses of their minds. Choosing a popular genre to write about may be beneficial in attaining this goal, but at what price to their own true voice? A good story with powerful character development that evokes emotional interest for those characters in your readers are universal elements in any good novel; no matter if it falls under the category of mixed-genres. A good book is a good book, regardless.

  11. Clare–thanks for the welcome! I’m all for making life more interesting.

    R. Jeffreys–I agree that we should all write what we’d most like to read, but I have to admit, at a certain point during the revision process, I entirely forgot what it was I most liked reading and just kept my fingers crossed that I was headed in the right direction!

  12. Carla,

    Great post! You know I’m a big fan of writing what you need to write. I think if we try to fit too hard into what we think we’re “supposed” to be writing for our career, our lack of enthusiasm will be reflected in the writing. I do think those in the business do readers a disservice when they ignore cross-genre (but this is changing, as you say; more are willing to take a chance on it). In my limited experience, readers appreciate the stories that straddle different genres. Of course it’s harder to shelve and market, but I think it’s a challenge worth taking on.
    And I second Brad — I LOVED your book. Scared my pants off and made me want to stockpile food and water in the house. Congrats with it and good luck!

  13. It was my pleasure to loan Carla my slot. I’ve been a Carla Buckley fan since Kate Miciak sent me the original manuscript to read because she was sure I’d like it and if so, could I write a blurb? I read it in one long sitting and so did my wife. We were both thumped hard by the book, and I never considered the genre issue, because it hummed and because I was always feeling the suspense thing and worrying out loud about the family. I think it is not merely one of the best first novels I’ve ever put my eyes to, but one of the best I’ve read in years.

  14. Julie–your books are fabulous, what genres they cross.

    John–just seeing the words “Carla Buckley fan” is thrilling. Good thing I’m sitting down. Kate Miciak did me a huge favor, not only by being my editor, but by introducing me to you. Thanks for your Saturday spot. It was lovely being here.

  15. Carla, you’re in the only pigeonhole that truly matters–you wrote a great book!!

    All the rest is positioning, and trying to keep up with an ever changing market. I think cross-genre books give publishers more of a chance to be responsive to trends–or maybe even set them. 🙂

    Congratulations on a fabulous launch!!! 🙂


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