A children’s book writer, novelist, short story author, and screenwriter walk into a bar. It’s not a joke, it’s one writer’s day. This essay from our September 2019 issue shows how Simon Van Booy manages his workflow for multigenre writing.
Reading this article may confirm something you have always suspected—that the different parts of your personality, the many voices that make you up but which cannot be reconciled into one single voice all the time, can most definitely each be channeled into different ways of telling stories. Not everything you read over the next few pages will be useful to you, but some of it will be vital if you wish to be prolific in different genres.
It’s not uncommon for writers to branch out to other genres, though often an author is most remembered for one genre in particular. Roald Dahl was an adult short story writer and screenwriter before writing his first children’s book sometime in his 40s. Dahl’s early prose was both revered and criticized for being shocking, with characters who were purposefully cruel and others who were wild, eccentric geniuses. Many of the character types that inhabit Dahl’s short fiction can be found fully developed in his children’s novels.
When authors write in different genres, it’s often normal for there to be themes, styles, or even characters that connect the different forms. Before we talk about how to do it, let’s cement into place some supporting beams that I have found to be integral to my practice.
Advice to Get Started
1. Find Support.
My first piece of advice concerns community. Writing is a lonely profession, where you’ll spend most of your working life laughing and crying in a small room in your pajamas with imaginary folks who feel real in the moment. Seek out other writers. Share work and learn to accept feedback from people who appreciate your voice.
I first discovered a writing community in my early 20s. Meeting other writers (all of whom were unpublished like myself) created a bond of friendship that gave me confidence to keep going. Publication was too far off a goal then—it was simply to make work that was interesting and unique.
Don’t worry about whether your writing is good, because undeveloped writing is the vital foundation for great works in your future. I think the early work of any writer is the most important. It may never get published, but later work is impossible without it. Learning to write and finding your voice is like training for an Olympic event that doesn’t yet exist. Every authentic voice is unique and can’t be compared to anything that has come before. This often makes it difficult to review. It also sets you apart from writers who imitate the styles of others. We all mimic at the beginning, but most break away fairly soon—if not tainted by early commercial success or a loss of faith. Belonging to a writing community will also expose you to people who write in different genres.
2. Turn Failure into Energy.
The first time I applied to MFA programs in creative writing, all six schools turned me down with form letters. This was the first of many disappointments. And I could literally wallpaper my office with rejection letters for my first book. From wrenching disappointment, I developed the resilience to pursue my voice as a writer. Writing in multiple genres has a steep learning curve, and you may face enormous amounts of rejection, which can bring on crippling self-doubt. Most of us have some, of course, but it must be conquered with sheer grit or unrelenting obsessiveness. If you see a scorpion crawling up your arm, flick it off! You must learn to do that with destructive thoughts. You don’t have to work every day to be a serious writer—but many authors (including myself) have to write regularly in order to stop collapsing emotionally from within. I don’t always enjoy writing, but crave the deep satisfaction from finishing something and thinking it’s good, which lasts about two weeks, thankfully—otherwise I’d never start another book. Remember, lack of confidence does not mean a lack of talent.
3. Read. Get inspired. Repeat.
It is imperative that you read in the genres you intend to write in—not only read, but absolutely fall in love with books, characters, paragraphs, dialogue, styles, or the sound of the language within that genre. This vital form of inspiration usually brings with it a special energy, an excitement that makes a writer eager to get started. This tip might at first seem obvious, but people frequently tell me they want to write a picture book for children, without having read a picture book for 20 years. Follow this simple rule: Whatever you love reading is what you should be writing. As most people are passionate about different kinds of writing, it’s a shame to limit oneself to one genre. If you currently write poetry but wish to write a horror novel, then you can certainly sit down and start writing one. But if you have 10, 15, or 20 horror novels on your shelf that you would literally lose a finger for, then just think how much more qualified you’ll be. Not only will you know what works, but there’s a chance you’ve picked up all the subtle techniques known to writers in the horror genre. In addition to having several favorite books in a genre, keep a few volumes around that you didn’t like and couldn’t connect to as examples of what doesn’t work.
4. Learn How to Play Again.
Have you ever seen young children on the playground? Perhaps you live near a school and can hear their shouts and screams at recess. On my daughter’s last day of kindergarten, after a drawn-out farewell to the older ladies who watch over playtime, my daughter said tearfully, “ ... who will they play deadly-spitting cobras with now?” When you observe children during unsupervised play, it’s clear the imagination is in full flight. “I’m a tiger, rrrrrrrrr!” Shouts one child. For others, a puddle becomes a patch of deadly quicksand. Play roles. Have fun. Dress up. Daydream and imagine your life.
5. Embrace the Many Versions of Yourself.
A professor once told me that life is just like the experience of eating fruit. Every time you bite into an apple, the taste, texture, or juiciness is slightly different. That’s because it’s natural. Every time we bite into a machine-made cookie, it’s the same experience over and over again, which is not like life at all. And so to write successfully in multiple genres, give up your attachment to one particular version of yourself. Explore all your sides: the serious, the funny, the laid-back, the confident, the shy, and the bold. That way you can work on a book about war in the morning and a book about mice in the afternoon.
How To Manage Time and Workload for 3 Books in a Year
Writing in different genres often means having a slightly different process for each style. This, in my opinion, is what makes it possible. Let’s say you want to write the first drafts of three books in one year, for example: an adult novel, a middle-grade novel, and a nonfiction book on beekeeping. Your monthly goals might be:
- Adult novel: 20 pages. Middle-grade novel: 12 pages. Nonfiction: 30 pages.
After 12 months:
- Adult novel: 240 pages. Middle-grade novel: 144 pages. Nonfiction: 360 pages.
I know 62 pages a month seems like a lot, but it isn’t. Say you work five days per week, and there are 20 working days in a month. That’s about three pages per day (double spaced/size 12/Times New Roman). Once you have a first draft, there’s something serious to work with—something tangible. I’m not saying we won’t be editing the work we make in the first year, but the serious editing will come later. This will be a solid first draft.
I find adult fiction the most challenging to write and nonfiction the least challenging, at least for the subject matter I write about. Children’s books are somewhere in between. I start each writing day with the most difficult genre, when I have what I call “A” energy. Often I spend the first 20 minutes reading a book I love in the genre that I’m about to write in, just to get myself into the rhythm. After lunch I work on nonfiction, because I’m often surfing the internet for sources or figuring out where to put an image. It’s creative, but I can use “B” energy, because it doesn’t require such an intense amount of focus as fiction. I also have the safety of knowing what kind of book it’s going to be, as I usually make outlines for nonfiction work. Here’s a typical schedule, where the page numbers are approximate. This is the sort of plan I make when taking on private students who want to complete first drafts in a year or less.
8 a.m. to 11 a.m.: Adult fiction. The goal is five good, edited pages per week.
- Monday: Free-write as many pages as possible. Turn off the internet/phone and make sure the cat has food and water. Wednesday/Friday: Cut, rewrite, and add material.
1 p.m. to 4 p.m.: Nonfiction. The goal is seven or eight pages per week.
- Monday: Get organized. Figure out what information you need, how to include it in the text, and what you want to say. Write 3+ pages on this day. Wednesday/Friday: Write two to three pages per day, editing as you go along, and always thinking about how to consolidate them into the main book.
8 a.m. to 11 a.m.: Children’s fiction. The goal is three good, edited pages per week.
Tuesday 1 p.m. to 4 p.m.: Read inspiring adult fiction.
Thursday: 1 p.m. to 4 p.m.: Read inspiring children’s fiction.
Weekend: Read nonfiction that inspires.
It all comes down to a plan and the delicate intellectual ecosystem that involves reading, writing, and sleep. Of course, you’ll need a place to work and a comfortable chair. I often change clothes when I switch genres. The different forms should take slightly different types of focus. After a while, you might even find they balance each other out. But be strict—make sure you are at your desk at the designated hour. If you’re not, you may not take the process seriously enough. If you get sick or need a personal day, take the time off but don’t risk having to fire yourself. One final piece of advice: Always serve the work, never yourself. I know your name and photograph will be on the book jacket, but try to remember that the book exists as something independent of you. After all, when people read, they conjure the images and feelings from their own experience of life, not yours.
Not Ready to Commit? Try Short-Form Pieces
To build up the experience and energy to write multiple books, try practicing with short form pieces. Writing articles and stories is an excellent way to develop your voice. Start off writing about things you’re interested in, whether that’s the sex life of rodents, Turkish naval history, or artificial intelligence in a future world. The same goes for fiction; write the story you most want to read. When it comes to publishing, read at least three current issues (or content) of the magazine, newspaper, or website you have your eye on. Then, pitch the editor through a short paragraph over email about the idea, along with a sentence or two about your experience and an article (content) you liked in a former issue. Follow up two weeks later if you haven’t heard anything. Trust me, editors are not ignoring you—they’re dealing with sometimes hundreds of emails a day, along with the demands of life. In my experience, editors often won’t reply if they’re not interested, even to seasoned professionals. It’s understandable. Imagine writing and explaining to hundreds of people every week why the piece won’t work in the magazine, then dealing with replies. So avoid obsessing and move on to the next magazine. Often it’s about understanding an editor’s vision for a publication, so really study past issues. Once you’ve published something in a local magazine, newspaper, or online, editors know you can deliver. There are many good writers, but not all of them can meet a deadline.
On a final note, be sure to give up expectations, for the goals of the truly great writer are not publishing and fame, but authenticity and truth.