The Cult of Originality vs. The Coffers of Formula

I have a chronic creativity problem: I like to be different. I love originality.

This may sound like a great problem to have… except it becomes a challenge when marketing my writing.

Take my debut novel DEAD SIZE. Is it a Contemporary Fantasy? Yes. Mystery Suspense? Sure. Dark Comedy? You betcha. Etcetera. Etcetera.

Because it contains elements of so many genres, DEAD SIZE is difficult to categorize. But people love to put things into categories in order to find what they like. Especially book and film fans: fantasy, mystery, horror, thriller, western, science fiction, romance. They all have their avid followers. You can even break some of these down into popular subgenres: cozy mystery, paranormal romance, urban fantasy, and so on.

I don’t think the subgenre Comical Psychological Fantasy Mystery Thriller exists. But that’s what DEAD SIZE falls into. I think. And hell if I know who my target audience is.

Peter Carey's BLISS
BLISS (1985) movie poster, based on the novel by Peter Carey

I’m not the only author who writes hard-to-classify material. In fact, some have been quite successful at it: Chuck Palahniuk, Kurt Vonnegut, Bret Easton Ellis.

But these are the exceptions.

Most indie authors who are making a decent living at their craft are strictly genre writers: John Locke, Amanda Hocking, Hugh Howey. Some may switch genres once in a while, but they’re still writing in a clearly labeled box. And getting paid well for it. Because formula and familiarity sell.

So the question an author may have to ask him/herself: do I want to write something that shows striking originality, or something that’s going to likely move copies? Often, alas, it can’t be both.

While I do enjoy well-written genre fare, personally nothing delights me more than discovering a fresh voice with an original story (e.g., Torsten Krol’s CALLISTO), or a small-niche author who puts a new twist on an old tale (e.g., M. Elias Keller’s STRANGE CASE OF MR. BODKIN AND FATHER WHITECHAPEL), or one who just plays by his own hugely entertaining rules (e.g., Eirik Gumeny’s EXPONENTIAL APOCALYPSE). These are the books I remember, the stories that stick with me, the ones I frequently recommend to others.

I just may not be able to describe them to someone else and do it justice.

So, fellow authors, what’s most important to you when writing a book: originality or commerciality? Do you try to stay within the parameters of a proven genre, or are you a risk-taker who bets on the possible long shot that legions of adventurous readers will discover and love your unclassifiable creation?

Feel free to leave a comment below.

  1. C.

    My partner and I will start writing genre specific when life does.

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