Pleasing all of the people all of the time? Nope

by Bill Kirton
One of my slush piles
My earliest ‘publications’ were parodies, written as school exercises and put into the school magazine by a teacher, so I suppose from the start I was something of a prostitute when it came to style or genre. In other words, I was anybody’s and wrote whatever the style demanded. I still love parody and I think we learn lots from trying to write like others – not all the time, of course, but as occasional writing exercises.

As a teenager, I wrote poetry – truly awful stuff about love, broken hearts, lust and all that time-wasting but so painfully-felt angst. But my first real genre, when I began to realise that writing was what I wanted to do, was drama. I wrote stage plays for adults and children. My first real taste of ‘being a writer’, though, was when the BBC accepted one of my radio plays. They broadcast several more, mostly serious, dramatic stuff, but some comedy too and finally, skits and songs for revues.

Those days, I was praised for my dialogue so it was a surprise when I started to write novels to find that the characters in them sometimes sounded less natural and realistic than those in my plays. I think writing long prose works sets up different rhythms in your mind as you write and they get carried into the dialogue, so you have to read it aloud and rewrite it to get the proper rhythmic balance.

I’m talking about different forms rather than different genres, but I think it’s relevant. I suspect (although it's just a guess), that most of us start out just writing, rather than writing ‘crime’ or ‘romance’ or whatever. When we do fall into a particular genre – in my case, crime – that becomes what we’re expected to produce. But if readers are allowed to have short attention spans, why can't we? By that I mean that the prospect of churning out book after book, each featuring the same characters in more or less the same places, is challenging in one way but claustrophobic in another. Exploring fresh ground, shifting into different centuries, past and yet to come, bending realities and multiplying dimensions, they’re all ways of releasing and refreshing your writing.

With the need to engage in energetic marketing nowadays, I realise that writing novels which may be very different from one another in terms of genre could be frustrating for readers. My novel The Darkness is a police procedural as dark as its title which questions ideas of bad and good. Any reader who thinks ‘I enjoyed that, so I’ll try The Sparrow Conundrum’, will probably be a bit confused to find it’s a satirical spoof of the crime/spy genres whose sole aim is to make them laugh. So they say ‘OK, I’ll give this guy one last try’ and they read The Figurehead and find they’re in the company of shipbuilding people in Aberdeen in 1840 and that a novel that starts with a corpse on a beach ends up with the mystery being solved but with a strong romance developing at the same time.

Oh, and if they then decide to read their kids a bedtime story, choose one about a miserable fairy called Stanley who lives under a dripping tap in a bedroom, then find out it’s by the same bloke who wrote the others, they may wonder which asylum I finished up in. More importantly, they probably won’t trust me to satisfy their writing needs because I ‘lack consistency’. (Mind you, that’s still preferable to being so bad at the business that a recent Amazon reviewer of my Rough Justice wrote that she 'was so punch drunk by the poor writing, [she] lost track of whether or not the story was any good. By then [she] had lost the will to live.’)

The point is that, for me, there’s no difference writing any of these books or, for that matter, the
My deathless prose
dialogue between Joseph and Mary when she tells him she’s been visited by an angel and she’s pregnant. If the subject’s interesting, amusing, compelling or whatever, it absorbs me. The characters dictate the sort of things that happen; they have their own voices, their own ambitions and flaws. So whether they’re in Victorian Scotland, a contemporary police station, a space colony or sitting under a dripping tap; whether they’re murderers, lovers, saints, fairies or Klingons, they force their way into your head and you have to deal with them on their terms.

Writing is like acting – if you want the audience to suspend their disbelief, you have to do the same, you have to commit to the reality of the play you’re performing, the story you’re writing. I feel as intensely in the scene when I’m describing the antics of Stanley as when I’m watching John Grant carve his figurehead or my detective work his way through external clues and internal devils, or, for that matter when I was Joseph, Tarzan, Winnie-the-Pooh and others and my wife was Mary, a statue on the west facade of Notre Dame, Lady Macbeth and others every night for a week on the Edinburgh Fringe back in the 70s. It makes life very exciting.


julia jones said…
Stunningly perceptive comment about the rhythms of long prose potentially affecting the variety of the dialogue. Wow! That's going to take some thinking about. Thank you Bill
Dennis Hamley said…
Oddly, I always think that long prose makes better dialogue. At least, it does for me, which is why I found out early that I wasn't a dramatist. But yes, how I agree with the rest. What is the point of writing the same book in the same genre every time? Apart from the Joslin de Lay sequence, I've always tried to make the next book as different as posssible from the one before. I want to feel confident with as many genres as I can. Otherwise, writing becomes a curse, not a blessing, a treadmill and not a journey through fresh fields and stunning views.
Ann Evans said…
Enjoyed your post, Bill, and like you I write anything and everything from romance to non fiction, kids books, even pantomime scripts. Adult crime and TV drama are my latest ventures. I tend to use pseudonyms if I've written something that might confuse readers - especially if I've written something I wouldn't want kids to read, like the crime story. I find it 'frees me up' if I'm writing under a different pen name, or I'd be thinking 'what if little Jimmy from Year 4 reads this' when I'm trying to write a particularly harrowing or saucy scene.
Mari Biella said…
I think it’s natural enough to want to try out different genres. Writers are always developing, and what interested you ten years ago might not interest you so much today; and I agree that if you want readers to believe in your work, you have to believe in it too. As you say, Bill, it might not be the wisest thing to do from a marketing angle; but then again, perhaps readers would admire your versatility? I tend to stick with certain authors because I like their writing style, not necessarily because of what they choose to write... Really, though, I tend to think that genres are there mainly to minimise the chances of misleading potential readers – that, and so that booksellers can apply a handy label to books.
Lydia Bennet said…
you're preaching to the choir in my case Bill! Good to know how many of us wear so many plates and keep so many hats spinning! yes I've no doubt it's commercially less desirable but that can't be helped. keep on keeping on! I've a soft spot for JL Carr who wrote The Harpole Report and some other very idiosyncratic and wildly different books. I think he did some kind of self publishing/printing, but was much loved and ended up with at least one feature film (A month in the country) made from his books and at least one radio 4 serial.
Bill Kirton said…
Thanks all, reassuring to know I'm relatively normal.
John said…
Nice one Bill. Sensible intelligent article
Definitely preaching to the choir, Valerie's right. This was always my problem. One book never quite resembled the next so they didn't know where to place me. I invariably find, these days, that even when I love a particular writer's work, I get very fed up of the way they so often produce more of the same, not just within a genre, which is fine, but a replica of the precious book - and I'm SURE it's because publishers and agents are telling them to do it. The writers whose work I love seem to be able to get away with ringing the changes. I also don't think people should have to write under pseudonyms - it gets a bit silly when you get 'a writing as b' on the actual cover of a novel!
Precious. That was a Freudian slip! Previous! Should have read previous.
glitter noir said…
Another terrific and provocative performance by Bill Kirton.

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