My afternoon with genre outlaws: Fiction without borders

Is it a good idea for writers to straddle genres? That question was the focus of lively debate at a program I attended over the weekend. Moderated by Edgar Nominee Christa Faust (whose books have the hottest covers in town, by the way), the panel included comics author Steve Niles, Linda O. Johnston, and Matt Wallace, a Nebula and Bram Stoker Award Nominee.

Christa kicked things off by having the panelists pull genre labels from a paper bag. The panelists then had to pitch a story that combined multiple genres. Pulp noir and techno-thriller, anyone? Matt came up with a story set in the 30’s, involving a stolen iron lung and a death ray chase.  It got a big round of applause.

Cross-genre writing is here to stay, seemed to be the message. Linda, a self-described “Romantic Suspense, Paranormal Romance and Mystery Novelist,” has no problem combining genres. One of her series involves a pet rescuer; another features a sexy military man who just happens to be a werewolf, and the veterinarian who saves him. Holy Genre Smack-down, Batman

Writers who cross genres must build their “author’s brand” to draw readers across the borders, was one message we heard.  Sue Ann Jaffarian, who writes paranormal cozies and “regular” cozies, was cited as an example of successful brand building. She and Christa recently did a tour to help spread the word that readers shouldn’t be afraid of jumping genre fences, such as from cozy to hard boiled. We heard that writers should determine where a story belongs, rather than trusting the publisher to assign it to the right genre. (Although publishers can, and sometimes do, overrule our choices). If you’re not sure which genre your story belongs in, pick the most prominent one. (And as Jim reminded me in the comments, it’s important to write a story that you’re passionate about: Don’t combine trendy genres as a sales gimmick.)

Science fiction and horror have often been described as the cheap-seats of genres, but when horror and sci-fi writers become successful–think Stephen King–they usually get promoted to the general fiction aisle. So maybe it’s up to writers to break down the arbitrary borders.

The program venue, by the way, was Meltdown Comics, a place I loved discovering (Before Sunday, I hadn’t opened a comic book since the Love Comics of my ‘tweens.) Matt said later on Twitter, “Frontage in @meltdowncomics is great. Telling patrons they can find your work under the head of Thor is priceless.” The staff made our MWA SoCal group feel right at home.

So what about you? Does your writing (or reading) straddle genres? Which ones? Have you ever had something you wrote exiled to the wrong genre section, where it was hard for readers to find you?

Frontage in @meltdowncomics is great. Telling patrons they ca... on Twitpic

Strategies for surviving the epublishing revolution

One of the perks of being Program Chair of MWA, SoCal  is that I get to do outreach to interesting, dynamic people. On Saturday we had a very cool panel at our chapter meeting, including Marci Baun, publisher of Wild Child Publishing, and our own Jim Bell. Author Gary Phillips moderated the program, which was called, “Epublishing: Will it help your career, or kill it?”

Gary opened the discussion by citing some statistics: Today, epublishing is still a relatively small slice of the publishing world, but it’s growing exponentially. Baun, whose company is an innovator in the epublishing market, started off by setting aside the “myth” that publishers see huge savings by publishing e-books instead of paper.  (Gary has since alerted us to a NYT article on the same topic, Math of Publishing Meets the E-book.) Jim also fielded some questions about TKZ’s new e-book anthology, Fresh Kills.

The panelists stressed that to be successful in any kind of publishing, especially epublishing, it’s important to do social networking. Blogging, Facebook, Twitter: You have to get your name out there and work your networks. At one point they asked for a show of hands from the people who are active social networkers; many hands went up, but not a majority. I was surprised by that–I would have assumed that almost everyone in that group would be active online.  Around the lunch table, I heard some people say that they find social networking to be confusing and intimidating.

A small but consistent networking effort can be very effective  according to Baun, who said she requires an author to make a successful online marketing effort before she’ll launch a print run for their book.

The panel discussed the do’s and don’ts of social networking, including the importance of adding value to the discussion, and avoiding endless BSP. Among the strategies discussed were What to Tweet, and using ebooks as a loss leader. After the meeting I followed Jim’s suggestion to use Tweetdeck, and to get more actively involved in forum discussions.

Other than doing my weekly blog posts, I’ve been hit or miss in my social networking efforts up until now. As a result of Saturday’s meeting  I’ve resolved to spend at least 15 minutes a day making the networking rounds.

What about you? How much time do you spend social networking every day, and are you consistent?

The benefits of traveling with a herd

Writing can be a lonely business. Social networking can help us break a sense of isolation, but only in a virtual way. One of the best ways for writers to connect is to become active in professional writer’s organizations. These groups, such as ITW (International Thriller Writers), MWA (Mystery Writers of America), and SiC (Sisters in Crime), have national and local chapter meetings and events that serve many useful purposes, including networking, advice, and support. 

To get full benefit from the organizations, it’s important to become active, not just attend meetings. Several writers on this blog are active in national and local writer’s organizations. I’ve been a member of the board of the Southern California Chapter of MWA for the past year, and I recently became the Program Chair. Our first program of 2010 was “Tales from the Publishing Trenches.” It featured Kristen Weber, a former Senior Editor at Penguin Group (and my former editor), who regaled a packed house with stories and advice about the real world of NY editing. Kristen was interviewed by bestselling author Patricia Smiley (Kristen is pictured on the left, below. Patricia is on the right).

When you become actively involved with your writing organization, you contribute, make contacts and get your name out in the public.  As a writer, I am capable of going long periods of time with little human contact except for my family and cats (who think they’re human). If nothing else, attending the meetings makes me drag my butt out of the house.

I’d be interested to hear about your experiences with professional writers’ organizations. How active have you been, and have you found the groups to be helpful or enjoyable?