Wednesday, January 19, 2011

Guest Post: Two-Trick Pony

Hi Ladies and Gents and any variation of the two,
Today we have a guest post by the superb Alex MacKenzie!

Alexandra ("Alex") MacKenzie is an author and illustrator from Seattle, WA. She illustrated In My Nature: A Birder's Year at the Montlake Fill (, published in November 2009, and she wrote the fantasy novel Immortal Quest: The Trouble with Mages (, published by Edge SF (Canada) in September 2010. She supports herself as an academic counselor at the University of Washington, where she works down a lengthy hallway from a certain Mr. Scott Bailey.

"Two-Trick Pony"

Many years ago, I wrote a fantasy novel. Many years later, it was published (yay!). That was the culmination of a lifelong dream. But (there is always a “but”), many years ago I also wrote a mystery novel. It has not been published. And herein lies the gist of this post: am I a box of Rice Chex attempting to become a box of Quaker Oats?

My publisher only publishes SF/Fantasy, and has the rights to my next work IF it is SF/F. It’s not. Who do I sell it to? (I don’t have an agent.) Will editors/publishers be put off because I’m switching horses midstream? Will they have no clue how to reach my “market”, such as it is, since the only readers I have so far are all expecting a fantasy novel sequel much the same as the first book?

Now, as a reader, I kind of understand this whole marketing/ branding notion. I have favorite authors who I won’t even jump within genres for – an example is Lindsey Davis, who writes a mystery series set in ancient Rome and who also writes standalone novels. I love the series. I won’t go anywhere near the standalones. Now, I do read quite widely in both fiction and nonfiction, yet when I find an author doing something I enjoy, all I want is for them to keep doing that one thing that I enjoy and not go off experimenting with something different. (Scott, do I hear you groaning down the hallway?)

So, is this more prevalent in mysteries, SF/F et cetera rather than in mainstream/literary fiction? Can the literary fiction folks get away with writing more than one type of novel, or do they, too, lose readers if they vary too much from what the audience has come to expect from them?

One solution often used in mystery and SF/F fiction is for an author to use a pseudonym when trying something new (cite: Megan Lindholm/Robin Hobb), though generally they need to be well-established already for this to fly with a publisher, and often the “secret identity” is not so terribly secret.

Your turn: comment on the above, or for an exercise, imagine you sold a horror novel and it did quite well, and your publisher wants another one, but your next book is a cozy mystery. The publisher will give you a nice advance for a horror novel, but won’t even consider the mystery. What do you do? You can be true to your art, though realistically, you also have bills to pay.

And thank you kindly, Literary Lab, for allowing me to play here today!

-Alexandra (“Alex”) MacKenzie, aka mizmak


  1. @Alex - This is huge for me, actually. I'm like three or four trick pony. I've written a complete fantasy novel and a complete sci novel, neither of which will ever be published, but largely because they (as specific works) fall short. I have also written dozens, maybe even hundreds of short stories that cover the genre world like a blanket, and I would love to have those published at some point.

    But, conscious of the need to settle into a groove and establish a brand, I've settled on calling myself an author of psychological suspense and short, character-driven literary fiction.

    But what of the SF/F stuff that still percolates in the back of my mind? And the westerns I love, as well. Not to mention the occasional mystery.

    My hope is that, if I integrate a sense of psychological suspense (which really does run, to some measure, through most things I write), I might be able to co-author from SF/F work. My wife and I have a couple of projects we're kicking around, and another friend and I have one that might be fun, as well. I'm hoping I might be able to get away with that, but I'm not sure.

    Westerns, because of the stigma, seem almost like a no-go, and I've been inclined to use a pseudonym for those. But the first western short story I'm going to try to publish is mystery. Not only that, but it's about a forensic anthropologist (-ish) in the old west, so it has gross stuff and grim characters, too.

    So maybe, just maybe, I can get away with that one as C.N. Nevets.

    Just rambling, I know, but I suppose all this is to say, "I know what you mean, and I'm not quite sure either."

  2. Oh, also, I write screenplays and have three sitcoms and a couple of art films that I'd like to sell sometime.

    Ah well. If only I were Michael Crichton.

  3. Yes, I could easily have made it at least a 3-trick pony myself -- I've had ideas for a children's book (middle-grade, which I read a ton of) as well.

    Thanks to "True Grit", your western might do fine, though you never know how a market will fluctuate from one year (or month) to the next and timing is often everything.

    I remember telling a pro editor at one point about my varying interests and he replied, "You need to pick one and stick with it or else no one in the industry will know what to do with your work." But I like to write the kinds of things that I like to read, and I like to read mysteries, fantasy, and children's fiction. And I'm not terribly prolific, either. Sigh.

    Good luck with the forensic western -- sounds intriguing to me!

    -Alex (mizmak) MacKenzie

  4. I have a couple of different (conflicting?) thoughts on this. First, to be fair, I've been worried about this same thing a lot. I consider myself to be a relatively traditional literary fiction writer. My first book, Rooster (unpublished) fits that category well. But, my second completed novel(la) is very dark and fits into the horror category. I've been afraid to publish that one FIRST because I'm afraid it will brand me as more of a horror writer. On the other hand, I wouldn't have any problem publishing it second, if, say, Rooster had already come out. For me, though the second story is like a horror, it has enough literary elements that I think readers won't be thrown off too far. I may be wrong on that though.

    It's hard to say how relevant this is for other writers, because I think it depends on exactly how different your books are, but for me, if I love an author, I'm very willing to try to read different genres by the same author. I try to pick out the common threads that I like in both. If the author is good, they will win me over again and again.

  5. One other thought, along the same lines is that I'm currently reading a book called the Wind-Up Bird Chronicle. The story has many different threads, and I really enjoyed the first few threads. Then, a new thread entered that was completely boring to me. I counted the pages to see when it would be over. But, as I was reading, I started to love this new thread too. It just reminded me that when I like an author, I should put some trust in them that they will entertain me, at least a little, no matter what they write.

  6. This is an interesting post for me. I worry about this whole thing a lot. Especially with the novel I'm currently revising. It's adult and stand-alone. Well, stand-alone in that the MC's story is done with that book. But there are other stories I can tell from the same world. But, the two that intrigue me most both take place in the Ancient world. So I'm worried that if I try to sell them, they won't fly like the first one would because of the completely different setting. (Plus the first is pretty much just straight urban/contemporary fantasy and the others could be toeing the line of historical fiction.)

    At the same time, I read almost no adult literature because I never can find books that aren't laced with profanity and borderline explicit material. (Yes, I'm a bit of a prude. And proud of it.) It just seems to be my luck that I'll take that. The bulk of what I read is YA. But most of my ideas that I've been getting lately are YA. I know it's easier to use the whole pseudonym thing in a YA vs. adult situation, but there's still the problem of one story being one thing and the others being completely different.

    I'd love to save the fantasy trilogy I started. It's YA, high fantasy (maybe borderline epic). I have another fantasy trilogy idea in my head that is also high fantasy, but in the grey area between YA and adult.

    Then there's an adventure novel idea that's in that same grey area.

    Yeah, I have the multi-trick pony problem. I'll be interested to keep following the comments here and see what gets determined, if anything.

  7. I haven't run across this problem myself. Even when I conciously decide that I'm going to write something completely different the usual cloak-and-dagger-political-intrigue-magical-creatues stuff trickles its way back in whether I will or no. But as a reader I read in severel genres (really any if there is something beyond genre in them to love). If I love an author enough I'll read anything they write. I like to see writers try new things and pick out the themes and tones that carry over from the other genres anyway. So if the publishing world catered to me particularly as a reader (which everyone with an ounce of sense knows they should) writing in several genres would be encouraged, but as it stands . . . I don't know.

  8. Hi Guys! Alex is guest posting over at my blog too!

    Back to this topic. It's tough, to be boxed into being one kind of author or another. I don't know what I'd do in the scenario you posted. I may write another horror and in the mean time, ask my agent ( I know you don't have one but I am pretty sure I'm going to need an agent) to place it with another publisher. I'd even use a pseudonym if it comes to that.

    I do know an author, Tanita Davis, who managed to be quite successful switching genres. Her first novel is a contemporary, her second a historical. Now granted, both are YA. Because I'm in her writing group, I know she can write fantasy and science fiction very well.

    The only thing I wouldn't do, is to stop writing stories because they're not in the genre of your first.

  9. So here's the thing. As much as it seems frustrating as an author, I'll be the first to admit that if I were publishing and marketing an author, I would want them to be be pretty darn focused, at least under the same name, because it's difficult to establish a brand otherwise - and branding is very important in marketing.

    And as a reader, I'm not as generous as the rest of you. I've tried a few departure books (comedy by Ludlum, contemporary thriller by L'Amour, sci fi by Conan Doyle) and almost without exception I have hated every one. So when I see an author do it, I turn up my nose until I hear other people really heaping praise on it.

    Yes, I'm a jerk and a bit of a hypocrite.

  10. Oh, wait, and the other thing: as frustrating as it has been at times for me to write within this self-imposed box, I also think I've grown tremendously as a writer because of the discipline and focus it forced on me. And it has helped me start establishing a brand, so... sometimes I'm not sure it's all that bad.

    My hope is that I can just span the sub-genres of the thriller universe like Crichton did, but not many of us can be Crichton.

  11. Thanks, Yat-Yee! I love being in two places at once!

    My issues might indeed be easier if I had an agent -- hard to tell. I know one author whose agent specializes in one genre, so doesn't really know the others that well.

    Also, publishers are going to invest a lot of effort and money into your work, and ideally you'd like to keep that relationship on an even keel. How much do you want to risk ticking off someone who went to a lot of trouble helping your career? If you jump ship, will they be willing to take you back on board at a later time?

    On the other hand, I certainly understand not wanting to be pigeonholed and stuck writing the same thing over and over -- look what happened to poor Conan Doyle. He came to loathe Sherlock Holmes enough to try killing him off so that he could work on what he considered to be his more important stuff -- historical novels. Didn't work out too well for him, though.

  12. C.N.Nevets: I'm with you in not being as generous in following favorite authors across genres. Tried it, didn't work for me. I think the only author I've stuck with no matter what he writes is a nonfiction one (Bill Bryson).

  13. I think I'm in trouble, apparently. MONARCH is a thriller, and then I'm coming out with a fantasy omnibus (BONDED) the year after MONARCH's release. Clearly not thriller. I don't know what will happen, but I'm really excited about both of them. The next book I plan to publish is also a thriller, though, and it's a regular novel. So maybe I'll just stick with thriller books. I hate the idea of being stuck, though.

    This is an excellent post, Alex. Some great things to think about.

  14. So, Nevets, I guess you won't be reading BONDED? Because you made it pretty clear you don't like authors who span the genres. That's right. Turn your nose up. :P

  15. I would respond, but it's hard to talk with my foot this deep in my mouth.

  16. Mmm, does it taste yummy? I just bit into a hazelnut that still had a shell on it. I think I cracked a tooth...

  17. It tastes like OOPS.

    As someone that wrote his thesis in dental anthropology, it's my expert opinion that biting hazelnuts while still in their shell is ill-advised.

    Hope it didn't crack, though. That's terrible. :-/

  18. It didn't hurt too badly. Cracked a tiny bit. It was kind of softer than normal because it was cooked and roasted, apparently, with the rest of the nuts in the jar. Guess the machine missed cracking one.

  19. Very nice to find a blog post contemplating this issue! I've thought of it myself, and of course it all depends on which book I eventually get published first. I've done contemp to sci-fi to fantasy. Not sure how the contemp would fit in there. Maybe they wouldn' IS a dilemma. I would hate to shelve these books permanently.


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