I read a book recently on how to really make sure your book was a success and it said to choose a genre and stick to it.
Now, I have been reading this book for a while and there are parts that I agree with and others that I treat with the what the fuck face. And genre, to me, is one of those parts.
The first of my books is about a guy trying to deal with his childhood and is set in and around the Easter Road area in Edinburgh but does nothing more than tell the intimate story of one man and his friendships. The second tells the story of one girl and her autistic brother as they meet a stranger and deal with the aftermath of a devastating death in the family, all told by her, after the fact, to a doctor, and they live in Oxgangs in Edinburgh. From those descriptions you could describe me as a Scottish Fiction Writer.
So then, what happens when I tell you that my third book is is set in Oklahoma, in the United States in the early 1980s?
I think that genre may be less what kind of writer you are and more an indication of where your interests lie.
By that I don’t mean to imply that an author writes for themselves, even though one piece of advice I’ve heard is ‘write the book you want to read’, it’s not quite like that. I could sit here and talk in broad strokes about what an author does but I won’t because every writer is different.
In the same way as at school where everyone learned differently – there was the two guys at the back who never listened and wrote their essays on the bus in the morning on scrunched up paper; or that girl who covered one side of her room with notes as she went through them bit by bit then as a whole (*cough* me *cough*); then those girls who never seemed to do anything but always got top marks even though they spent their whole time talking and generally being bitches (not that I’m thinking of anyone in particular or anything); as well as those ones who wrote everything out in amazing notes with perfect handwriting, without effort, that made even your most concentrated on handwriting look like a five year old had written it for you; or the ones who set out everything in mind maps with every category having different colours and little pictures and lots of arrows (*cough* me *cough*); and of course, the group who left it until the night before to cram like hell.
These differences carry on after school and cover everything so I’m just going to talk about me and the way I do it.
When I write a story it generally starts out with me daydreaming about something, it might be a person who has interested me or an event or even just an object – for example, for my first book it was the British actor Kenneth Williams. My mind wandered and eventually I had this idea, it was just a musing and I let my mind play with it, let it roll with what I could do with it. And then I hit that point, it’s literally a eye-widening moment where a drop of coloured dye falls into water and spreads out, where that little musing suddenly flourishes with a clear line of plot and I realise – this could work.
So, I scramble to write down the ideas I have and then if it halts I leave it and go back to letting my mind wander, if it draws a blank after that I forget about it and wait until the next time my mind remembers it and wanders again. If it doesn’t halt I write down every idea I have until I run out. Usually that happens around the time my brain offers up a scene in the plot. Then I write that down and sometimes that’s all I’m going to think of that day or sometimes I can build on that scene and before I know it I’m working on a book.
That’s what happened with all three of my books, the first one I thought of a scene and I wrote it down, then I thought of another one that wasn’t right after or before that one but I wrote it down anyway and so on until I started to think about the sequence, what order these scenes came in and what happened in between. However, my second book started with a lot of research, I had an idea and then I had themes I wanted to stick to and then I realised I was going round and round in circles so I needed a scene, I needed to get one on paper and then I’d know where to go. It just so happened that scene was the very first one, and it grew from there. My third went along the same line – idea, pondering and then the dye-drop moment and I went to work. But, again, the first scene I wrote was the first one in the book. Even in my own personal methods, I vary.
But, my original point was this – I don’t have a certain genre I stick to, I don’t think “okay, that’s great but how can I turn this into a crime novel or a funny book or a love story?” I think about plot, about what I can do with it, what I ideally want to do with it, and how I can get there, if I can.
Not that I’m saying that those who stick to a certain genre don’t do all of that, they do, of course they do. And I don’t mean to say that they’re limiting themselves either. If you write a certain genre and you like it, write away. But for me, it just doesn’t happen like that. I could have found ways to put Kenneth Williams into a crime novel, sure, but I wanted to tell a more intimate story about a man who, somewhere along the way, lost the belief that he was worthy of love and how his friendships change him. That’s all. Yes, there’s sex, childhood cliches, weed, alcohol, death and love but I don’t think I could take one and classify it as yep, that’s the genre of this book.
So, have I started a new genre? No, of course not. But I do wish there was one, a there’s not really a definitive place on the rest of these shelves but if you’re looking for a mix, you’ve come to the right place shelf. Maybe one day there will be, a cocktail genre. And if there is you’ll see my books up there, hopefully. Chances are you actually find me rummaging through the crime section but there’s nothing wrong with having a cocktail every now and again, right?