Is Creativity Bad for Your Writing?

Disclaimer: This is a rhetorical question. I offer no answer.


From a marketing standpoint, I understand the need for defined genres. If customers want to read romance novels, your book store has to put romance novels on its shelves. Your police procedural needs to have cops and corpses, not alien spaceships. A literary novel about a woman moving on after her husband leaves her is wise to avoid a subplot about demonic possession.

From an artistic standpoint, I reject everything I just said.

Writers are perfectly normal.

My biggest “failing” as a fiction writer is my lack of regard for categories. I state on my About page here that I write horror, dark sci-fi, and supernatural fiction, but that’s mostly for self-marketing purposes. I just seem to have better luck getting read when I work in those genres. Most of the time, though, I just think up an idea and start typing, and what comes out is often impossible to categorize.

Lately I’ve come to resent being restricted by the word “genre.” I read an interview the other day with a literary agent who advised writers to stick with one area, be it fantasy, mystery, or something else. She said people who try to pitch hybrid works can’t decide what kind of writers they want to be and, therefore, are not ready to be published.

Perhaps she was trying to offer sound, practical advice, but I think it’s a pretty awful thing to say. How many great books would never have been published if the writers had followed her recommendation?

For example, have you read Cat’s Cradle by Kurt Vonnegut? It’s one of my all-time favorite novels and exists outside any genre I can imagine. To wit, it’s an end-of-the-world adventure, a political satire, and a literary love story in one 50,000-word book. Certainly not what you’d call commercial fiction, yet, what do you know, Cat’s Cradle has been in print since 1963!

I’ve been toying around with a novelette for a few months that I intended as a crime drama but became a contemporary urban-noir supernatural romantic comedy as I was writing it. Best of luck pitching that puppy, eh?

If you have ever tried to place your short fiction in print or online, you’ve come across the statement, “Please familiarize yourself with our [magazine, online fiction journal, anthology] before submitting so you know that your story is of interest to our readership.” I’m not sure what that means. As a reader, I’m simply interested in something well written, whether it’s a police procedural with aliens or a literary drama about divorced women and demons. Or all of the above.

Obviously, if the journal is for and about model railroad builders and the editors only want model-railroad fiction, I’m not sending a story about vampire newscasters. But, for rags that do general fiction, wouldn’t stepping out of their comfort zone, for once, be exciting?

I’m keeping my eyes open for editors who say, “Send us your best stuff. We don’t care what it is,” and, so far, I’ve found a few. That doesn’t mean what I wrote is good enough for publication – or that anyone who straddles genres is going to be the next Kurt Vonnegut. But how will we know if we can’t try?

What are your thoughts, Hobson?


13 responses to “Is Creativity Bad for Your Writing?

  • Azevedo

    I’m actually reading Cat’s Craddle now. I wonder in what category that would fit 😀

  • barbara @ de rebus (@de_rebus)

    Excellent points. I think you hit the nail on the head when you mentioned you identified with the genre “that you had a better chance getting read.” You need to find your readers, the ones who are welcoming, as I believe I am, when a book crosses genre… so long as it does so in a spectacular fashion!

    • ericjbaker

      I guess the best thing to do is absorb all the advice without becoming obsessed with it, write write write, and not think too hard about any of it. perhaps something good will emerge on the other side!

      Thanks so much for visiting and commenting.

    • nrhatch

      Good point, Eric. When we’re enjoying the journey, we become less concerned with reaching a pre-determined destination.

  • Bryan Edmondson

    I have never submitted anything to a publisher because I am not ready. However some of my twitter buddies are going Kindle and advertising on blogs and twitter for free. It is not as good as being published but it is a good way, I think, to prove to a snooty publisher that your new species of a genre is a valid one that readers like.
    It costs you nothing.

    • ericjbaker

      I’m still torn by the self-publishing thing. I like the freedom, but I still feel that print publication ads legitimacy to what I’m doing. Some pretty good writers are going the SP route these days, so I’m slowly coming around.

      Thanks for commenting, Bryan.

  • nrhatch

    Hobson here.

    Publishers want to know which cubbyhole to stick an author in and they want to track specific genres to evaluate marketability. But what’s good for the goose is not necessarily good for the gander who wants to “let creativity fly.”

    Kurt Vonneget was not as constrained when Cat’s Cradle was published because publishing was still an artistic endeavor rather than a paint by numbers, nuts and bolts, black and white, question of profit and loss.

    I expect that when fewer books were submitted for publication, the slush piles remained fairly generic. Now, agents and publishers have niches ~ some review YA submissions, others read the Sci-FI, still others the Romance submissions. So they want authors to make their work easier by writing into an existing cubbyhole.

    As writers, we have to decide whether we want traditional publication enough to conform to the norm . . . or whether we want to allow our creativity to soar even if our creative endeavors languish in undefined piles of generic slush.

    • ericjbaker

      Yeah, I suppose I’m pretty naive about the whole thing. It’s like these “indie” films that are bankrolled by studios and written on spec.

      Ah well, I’ll continue to write whatever my fingers type and see what happens.

      Thanks for the insightful comments!

  • nrhatch

    Hope you’re in good Spirits today.

    If you want a different kind of challenge to focus on, you might enjoy this Halloween contest. If you win . . . 5 shiny new autographed children’s books!

    You can find the details, and my entry, here:

    Your story must be 100 words or less and Susannah gave us the first 3 ~ witch, bat, and “trick or treat.”

    Be judicious.
    Slash and dash.

    It is Halloween after all!

    B~O~O!!! 😯

    • ericjbaker

      Drats. I need to find a house with electricity. I’ve been sitting in the cold and the dark for two days. Luckily, my office opened for business today so I was able to dodge fallen trees and get in here.

      If the contest is still going when they switch me back on, I’m in.

      • nrhatch

        Susanna is planning to keep submissions open until Friday . . . since Sandy blew so many lights out.

        Hope your power is restored soon. So many people are without lights, heat, water, gas. It’s a real mess.

        Our thoughts are with you!

  • Where Good Ideas Come From « Spirit Lights The Way

    […] post:  Is Creativity Bad For Your Writing? ~ Eric John Baker (Clawing at the […]

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