Sounds like a compliment, doesn’t it? Uh-huh. Brave—we all want to be brave, right?
It might be, but “You’re so brave!” for me is usually followed by an Amy Lane sized crap-bomb that could spatter a city block. When my nearest and dearest are saying, “You’re so brave!” they are not infrequently edging away from me, reaching into boxes for rain ponchos and checking to make sure their kaiju shelters are stocked for the shitstorm to come.
For example, when my bestie and beta reader got to the end of Immortal, she said, “Oh, Amy—you’re so brave to kill off both main characters and have their happy ever after happen as they wandered the forest around their homes after death.” This translated into, “People will hate this ending. They will loathe it. They will .gif bomb the crap out of you on Goodreads, and you won’t understand and cry on me until my cornflakes get soggy from 3000 miles away.”
And because I was me, I put my little tin hat on, grabbed my broomstick, mounted my dying pony and galloped right into that windmill and got knocked right on my ass.
Because “You’re so brave!” actually means “You wrote out of the box again, dumbass!” and there are consequences for writing out of the box.
The fact is, people often read genre fiction for comfort. It’s one of the (unfair!) reasons romance readers get smacked around in the press: for a romance reader, the happy ever after is a requirement of the game. This doesn’t mean we don’t have solid or uplifting prose, or beautiful themes or social relevance—but it does mean that by the end of the book, people had better, by God, be comforted about their world, about the importance of love and the importance of the individual heart versus the heartless society, or people are going to be solidly pissed off.
Which is unfortunate, because many of us weren’t that fond of boxes to begin with—that’s why we became writers.
Now, a writer doesn’t have to go all homicidal with his or her main characters to be considered “out of the box”—sometimes, it’s as simple as changing subgenre or using a different style for a different series.
The change may feel organic and natural to the author—but again, people read genre fiction for comfort. For someone who adores the rhythm of paranormal romance—the same world but a different couple with each book—having the series expand into urban fantasy might put some people off. If an author dances the prose arabesque in Regency historical novels, switching to a clipped, dialogue-esque style for a WWII drama might be a challenge for established readers as well. Moving from contemporary romance to romantic suspense might be the one thing that turns off an otherwise staunch fan for life.
It’s a risk.
And it’s a tough one for an author to make.
Reading the first reviews after a change like this is enough to make an author—any author—go fetal with writer’s remorse.
My Mate and I have had this conversation more than once.
“I thought you’d gotten up?”
“I’m going back to bed.”
“For how long?”
“I’m crying so hard I can’t breathe!”
“Because they hate it! They hate it! Hate it! Hate it!” (Imagine the machine-gun rhythm of deep chest sobs here.)
“Oh, come on, they can’t hate it that badly.”
“They said it was a shitty knock-off of a Nicholas Sparks novel.”
“But you don’t even read Nicholas Sparks!”
So, no—not so easy to deal with. So why do it?
Well, there are a lot of reasons an author might make a genre or subgenre switch.
Sometimes it’s evolution—I know there is more than one author who has started out with a paranormal romance and had it sprawl into urban fantasy. Some authors start out writing strictly heterosexual romance only to find other couplings or triplings occur with side characters they originally hadn’t planned to speak much more than a walk-on line. It is very possible for an author who started in fantasy to find that the mystery or the quest in a contemporary setting is just as exciting, and then we have an action/adventure romance.
For some authors it’s philosophy. The author who gloried in horror and the ironic ending in her youth may want the sweetness of romance as time progresses. The author who once swore loudly that vampires were never going to be her thing might see a movie or a TV show and realize the poignant possibilities of dating a societally shunned member of the undead. A contemporary author can become interested in genealogy, and boom! You have a fledgling historical romance writer in your midst.
Sometimes it’s just wandering attention. (Guess—I dare you. Guess where Amy belongs?) I’ve read and loved paranormal romance, historical romance, urban fantasy, fantasy, science fiction, contemporary and suspense. For the last couple of years, suspense has been my candy—starting with Karen Kijewsky and Sue Grafton, then moving to J.D. Robb, Lee Childs, Kathy Reichs, and Karen Rose.
Fish Out of Water is a murder mystery—and I know that’s going to put folks off. (Okay, yes—that conversation with Mate? I had that this morning. But it wasn’t the first time. He knows the drill by now.) For me, a murder mystery is still a romance—but it’s got the added excitement of shit-go-boom before you see pecs! (And peen. Yes, I do like writing my peen.) But it all comes down to that original idea about writing outside the box.
What’s the worst that could happen if you step outside the box?
Well, some folks might scream “Get back in there! The box is now deformed and it scares me!” As a species in a constantly evolving world, we are remarkably intolerant of change.
But some folks might squeal, “Oh my God! I love the shape of that box! It’s my favorite shape! I’ve been waiting for you to assume that shape the entire time!”
And some folks might laugh. “I knew it was your box. Because it’s your box. An Amy-box might be square or oval or dodecahedronal—but it is still an Amy box, and I love those boxes!”
You just never know.
In fact, the one thing I do know is myself. I have a wandering brain, and it gets bored in the box. If I am going to keep fresh, if I am going to continue writing because it is the thing I love most, I need to get out of the box once in a while and maybe change its shape.
So I guess my advice for a writer wondering about stepping outside the established genre box is to imagine that whole “crawling back in bed” scenario I presented at the beginning.
What if it’s you, and you’ve read your first reviews and you’re doing the fetal curl in your bed with your boo-boo bear and your dogs and your Mate and a giant box of Oreos as you sob.
Do you call your agent or your editor and say, “No. No more. I refuse. I will never step outside the box again because my nose just got cut off and it frickin’ hurts!”
Or do you finish your Oreos, wipe your nose on your Mate, pat the dogs on the head and crawl back out to try again?
When I was a kid, I had to take the driver’s test four times. Four. The first two times, I blame the car. It was a push button shift with bad power brakes and it yawed like the Titanic. The third time, it was just killed confidence. That was time my dad got into the car and I was sprawled on the bench seat of the giant Chevy truck, sobbing.
My father is not as compassionate as my Mate.
“What’s wrong with you? Get up!”
“So the hell what—no, I’m not driving. You’re driving home!”
“I’m never driving AGGGGGAAAAAAAAIIIIIIIIIINNNNN…”
“Bullshit. Now stop making that noise and get behind the wheel.”
I still cried all the way home—but dammit, I drove! Because we live in Northern California, and there was no public transportation near my parents’ house, and the only way I was going to grow up, get a job, and get the hell out of Loomis was to get my damned driver’s license.
Even then, I was desperate to get out of the box, right?
And I passed the next test. Because we do what we gotta.
So it’s scary—very scary—sticking your neck out. And sometimes, you’re gonna whack your head on a pole or the sidewalk or a car or something.
But eventually, if you keep trying, being outside of the box is going to feel natural. It’s going to feel comforting. It’s going to be a new, improved box, and you can live there as long as you want.
Until you look outside again—and remember you’re tough enough to do it this time. And it’s worth it, because you like the view outside the box.