There are a list of questions that writers get fairly routinely, most of them springing from the GP (general population)’s odd ideas about the writing life, which seem to arise from years of TV and movies, prejudices for and against the “artistic life,” and vague recollections of their own dislike of writing essays in school. There are business questions (“so how much did you get paid for writing that book?” and its opposite-twin, “how much did you have to pay to get that book published?”), glorious fantasy questions (“so which bestseller lists has your book been on?”), and a slew of advice-or-collaboration questions, from “will you read my book,” to “I have this great idea; how about if you write it and we’ll split the profits?” But the single question I have the hardest time answering is: “what do you write?”
I start out simple, with “fiction.” Some questioners will nod sagely, some will shake their heads as if to say “too bad you couldn’t find an honest job,” and some will continue onward. “What kind of fiction?”
If I’m feeling glib, “anything I can get someone to pay me for.” Which is not true; there are lots of things I don’t, or can’t write–westerns, techno-thrillers, Real Housewives type chick-lit. There’s nothing wrong with those genres–I just don’t feel them. It would be a disservice to the audience to write something for which I have no feeling, and it would be pretty awful for me, too.
So if I don’t write just anything, then what do I write? (By now I’m looking over the person’s shoulder, hoping for a reprieve that never comes.) Um. This is when I start going down the list in my head, a little bit like Polonius running down the Actors’ repertoire: “tragedy, comedy, history, pastoral, pastoral-comical, historical-pastoral, tragical-historical, tragical-comical-historical-pastoral.” I’ve written science fiction, fantasy, historical romance, straight historical, historical mystery–well, that last one is wobbly, because my historical mysteries take place in an alternate English Regency, and…
My interlocutor’s eyes are glazing over and she’s grasping for something recognizable in the list. “Fantasy? Oh, I loved The Lord of the Rings!” she says brightly. And I have to tell her that big sprawling pastoral quest fantasies are not what I write. “Then what kind of fantasy?” Umm. “A lot of it takes place in cities–”
“Oooh, you write urban fantasy? I really love the Patty Briggs books, and Seanan McGuire’s, and–” And I have to slow down the list of very enjoyable books that are, again, something I haven’t written. And I’ve written fantasy set in cities, which appears to be a different thing.
My interlocutor, if she has any sense, has now seen an imaginary someone waving at her, says “Oh, my ride is here. Sorry!” and runs like a running thing.
When I turned in Point of Honour I told my editor “I’m handing you a marketing nightmare.” Because booksellers (and therefore the publisher’s salesforce) like to be able to shelve a book in the place where it has the best shot at selling, and things that fall between the lines make that harder. To help with this publishers use a variety of tools: the label on the spine (“fiction,” “fantasy,” “mystery,” “paranormal romance,” etc.), the cover art, the copy on the jacket flap or cover copy. Even cover blurbs help–if I get a rave blurb from Nora Roberts its going to mean something to one kind of audience; if I get a rave blurb from Neil Gaiman, that’s a whole different audience. But any of these tools, these hints, can get skewed and signal something other than what the book is, and…oh, heck, it’s just a crapshoot.
I suppose the best answer I have to “What do you write” is “whatever I can.” After that, it’s out of my hands and into the hands of publishers and booksellers and readers.