A mixed Bag

A mixed bag.

Our food principally comes from what I can grow or raise or catch or shoot. The things we can’t do that with (cereal crops – just not practical) and life’s essentials – coffee and chocolate (the climate just isn’t right – not that I wouldn’t like to try someday) we tend to buy in bulk so our lives are little atypical at least for most urban folk. If the economy goes the way I suspect it will, may become a lot more common. We shall see. It’s a good realistic background for fantasy or frontier or colonist stories I suppose.

But what I was going to write about was a feature of this way of life (which has its strength and weaknesses) which is the mixed bag. Few large farms have this situation – it’s a beef farm or grain farm or apple orchard… and while some of those will still do small-scale other things for their own use, the strength of these large farms lies having economies of scale, and a single product they do well and very efficiently. To be honest, I have a lot I do badly or with moderate success (and a few really too well).  On the other hand I don’t have the acres to do large scale farming, or the capital – and frankly I would be afraid of the fragility.

Yes, fragility. Such farming is deeply bound into the whole formal economic system. If that gets shot to hell, for reasons entirely beyond the farmer’s control, the farmer goes down with it. He might have wheat, or cows to eat, and probably a slew of debts too.  He’ll have to trade for most of what he needs. Equally if Beef or wheat suddenly crash in value or demand or both… he’s in a world of pain. Likewise, if (and it has happened to me) some pest or problem specific to that crop/animal… and you’re toast.

If it all goes south tomorrow… well, we should still be able to eat, and while there is no formal barter –there are a fair number of us and we already have a situation where if I have too many fish I give them to others, most of whom give some form of produce or service back (ok so there are few older folk I just like to support – but generally, you give back at least what you thought that was worth to you, and I decide, next time around if that was worth it). If you never give back into the system you rapidly find yourself not getting. But even without that… the mixed bag always means something does reasonably well this year, even if there is no excess to exchange.

It also means there is a variety to put on our table, a variety that changes with the seasons and weather. We could have spent the day fishing for yellowtail kingfish (the prize target among that bag) – but we left off trolling and fished for bottom fish after catching 4 different species, trolling, got another four species of differing desirability out of that. We put in a dive and came home with spiny lobster, and abalone.  Which added up to a lot of food and one hell of a lot of cleaning, processing and sharing out.  

It means we’re less good at trolling than those who only troll, and less good at the bottom fishing than those who only do those. We’re moderately good divers. But there are things we’ve learned from each way of fishing that help with the other techniques and success rates. And you never really have a chance to get sick to death of any one food type. It’s not boring.

This I hope spills into my writing. You see I like to write a mixed bag too. I’ve written everything from High Fantasy (DRAGON’S RING, DOG AND DRAGON,) to Alternate History (HEIRS OF ALEXANDRIA), from relatively hard sf (SLOWTRAIN) to rollicking Urban Fantasy (BOLG PI) to a ‘Cosy’ mystery about a rural priest to Military SF (RATS BATS AND VATS), from Humor (PYRAMID SCHEME) to pathos (THE ROAD TO DUNDEE) and a few more betwixt.  Some have worked much better than others for me. And some have worked better for readers in general (not always the same as for me) – and in specific (I have some readers who will try it if I write it, and others that only follow a series/type) Look, bits of my writing and the different genre and styles spill over.  There is usually an element of humor there, even if only in the dialogue. As likely as not a bit of murder-mystery in your Alternate History – or Urban Fantasy, and so on. I’ve read all of them, studied the techniques in all of them and learned something from all of them. I don’t have to like a genre or a book to learn useful tradecraft from it.

I think it makes for more depth in my writing, and kinda like the lotto numbers means I might be right place right time right book one day. Okay, probably not – but it’s a comforting rationalization of my genre hopping.  But, vitally, it stops me getting stale and getting bored, even if (maybe) it stops me getting good.

So: at the moment I am working on a light sf/humor book (think Laumer), a YA fantasy set in Norse Mythology, a MG story about wombats (that I think adults will enjoy for the subtext and humor) and a Historical Romance. This is partly because real life keeps messing me around, not helping my focus, but, on the other hand, it does mean some work is happening and I always DO finish any book I start.

So I am looking at an even bigger mixed bag.  How do feel about this? Should you focus on one type of book only?

25 comments

  1. I find that quite a few of my favorite authors (including of course a certain D Freer) do stuff in multiple genres. I generally enjoy them all and enjoy the variety. If all you read was the same genre it seems to me it would be boring. Much as always having the same food for breakfast. Variety is the spice of life

  2. …You know, I think the farming metaphor has a lot of overlap even further on genre types. That is, the people who do just one thing, releasing rapidly in that series, can do very well… but we’re hearing survivorship bias. There are others out there, who’ve put a ton of time, effort, hope, sweat, and tears into a series, only to have it tank,or worse, sink without a single splash from the start. When we drive around the country, it’s hard to notice the struggling single-crop farmers, and the ones who went bankrupt (until the mesquite takes over the formerly prosperous and fertile fields, and shows they’re not just letting them go fallow for a season or two.) So, putting all your eggs in one basket is always a risk.

    Yes, switching genres loses readers. But boredom and burnout loses writers. As well, I’ve known three writers just in the North Texas Pilots, Writers, and Shooters Association who wrote something different from their normal, and then were astounded when, unlike their struggling primary series, the oddball unconnected outlier took off. Of course, that comes with its own problems, like trying to figure out what the readers liked and trying to catch lightning in a bottle twice, and fast enough they’re still looking for more of the same. And in one case, “I deliberately built off-ramps into the plot I laid out for the series, so if it wasn’t selling well, I could wrap it up. But the readers really like it, so… on we go!”

    It brings to mind the article on the vegetable farmers in South Africa who were struggling hard… and then low-carb became a thing, and the price for cauliflower skyrocketed hand in hand with the demand. The journalist was trying to make it sound like a terrible catastrophe that the farmers they interviewed weren’t growing near as much other veg “diversity”, and were making so much per cauli head. The farmers, though, were quite cheerful about the whole thing. They informed her that the scarcity was all from the market; as they were growing as much as they possibly could, aside from a few plots that were hedging their bets just in case the whole thing turned out to be a fad and the market crashed tomorrow. So to them, the price was a fair return for the investment and expense of dropping everything else to meet market demands. Make hay while the sun shines, or grow cauli while Banting is all the rage, or write that particular series while the market is hot…. but write something on the side to hedge your bets, just in case.

  3. We moved from the Upper Midwest to the Deep South back in 1984.
    Wanting to fit in I set out to learn a bit of the local history.
    Back in the day this was cotton country, still is for that matter, and as is typical for single product crops the markets fluctuated depending on demand. At one point the bottom fell out of the cotton market. Not certain, but I suspect either during reconstruction or in the midst of the Depression.
    Now this crop in particular was labor intensive and grown on large plantations, post war so hired hands and sharecroppers for the labor.
    What I found fascinating was the reaction of the plantation owners to the market crash. Price of cotton went belly up what did they do in response? Why they plowed up their front yards and planted more cotton.
    You see as landowners one simply did not grow one’s own food. You grew a cash crop and bought your groceries. So one found a situation where the owners were struggling while their help; because they kept a few chickens, hogs, and a garden plot; at least kept well fed if short on other necessities.
    Now this was not universal by any means, but still common enough to still be remarked on many years later.
    To tie in the analogy, how many fairly prominent authors have a successful series that they tried to stretch too far and wound up riding it into the ground?
    As a side note, still in ’84 you could find an undercurrent of “it ain’t over yet” and a vocabulary where damnyankee was uttered as a single word.

    1. They’d sold a bunch of surplus to the British before the war.

      That gave the British time to get crops up and running in Egypt and India.

    2. Damnyankee as a single word; true! And after 1984 too. When I moved to Charlotte, NC in 1990, Belk’s department store didn’t celebrate President’s day (because of Lincoln), Memorial Day (Union war dead), but they and the public schools did Jefferson Davis’s birthday!

      1. Damnyankee is still a single word in my mental vocabulary, at least. Though it’s mostly a personal synonym for Californicators and other pushy lecturing busybodies who want to change the culture they found to be Just Like the one they left. FWIW

  4. The multi-genre writer is also partially immunized against endless-series syndrome. Some originally inventive and entertaining writers have fallen victim to that particular plague. Don’t let it happen to you. (No, wearing a mask won’t help.)

  5. I think it helps your writing in all genres but might hurt your sales. I’m branching out to Space Opera, which I’ve been writing in my head for a LONG time, it might hurt my sales in Urban Fantasy, it might not…(it’s hard to hurt something so small and insignificant) but fortunately for my freezer, writing isn’t how I pay the bills, it’s what I’m doing because I want to, and if it becomes a second career when I retire then great.

  6. Much depends on inspiration. I write superheroes as well as high fantasy and fairytale fantasy.

  7. One thing about trying different genres is you can see what sells. I enjoyed alternate history, but it didn’t sell well. At least, not compared to “lighter” genres. Granted, I was writing about a depressing period of time, which also makes a difference. MilSciFi, urban fantasy, blue-collar fantasy, colonization fiction/mil-sci-fi, steampunk, Asian-inspired fantasy . . . Each one has different readers. There’s some overlap, and the long tails sell, so I’m sticking with variety. At least . . . if my Muse will let me. *casts wary eye museward*

  8. So far my SF/F series is my big seller, but dear Ghod I get tired of writing in it and really need to change sometimes. Which is why shape changers, and most recently a retired super villain, keep popping up.

    1. Fancy Free is brilliant, but it doesn’t really seem to need a sequel – but feel free to surprise me.

  9. I love the idea of the “polymath” author, but it may necessitate creating 3-4 pen names in order not to confuse readers.
    And then there are those who have a major series in a “home genre” but make “excursions” into other genres (Bujold’s Vorkosigan Saga, say).
    And yes, I love your work.

  10. Do you fish for cephalopods? I’ve never seen you comment on catching squid, octopus, etc., and yet most people like calamari, etc.

    1. Indeed. We catch a lot of calamari, as opposed to our other common species of squid (arrow squid -a bit ammoniacal and deeper water). But the calamari squid are predators on the shallow inshore seagrass beds (a long way from where we were fishing, and special gear), and as they are basically annuals (spawn and die in October/November) they’re only just getting big enough to catch or spear. We get a few as a side catch when fishing for mullet or whiting or flounder. Good target ecologically speaking, fast growing. Octopus – are not inshore common here, but very common in slightly deeper (20 meter ish) water. Occasionally we catch one by accident, bottom fishing. Tasmanian regulation won’t allow the only really effective technique (allowed for commercials) by ‘recreational’ fishermen. Cuttlefish – very tasty, and the cuttlebones wash up by the millions – so they must be quite common — I have found no reliable way to catch in resonable numbers, I’ve caught one squid jigging (as compared to thousands of squid) and speared two in caves diving, and seen perhaps four others in caves, when I didn’t have a spear.It’s the ‘giant’ species so well known for their breeding aggregations in the Spencer gulf, so they are up to a kg in size.

  11. Well, it seems to have worked for Goodkind, but I threw his third book against a wall, so milage varies.

    (Also, Mr. Brooks, Mr. Eddings, Mr. Feist, I still love you guys, but you’ve been off my “must buy” list for a long time.)

    1. You gave me flashbacks! I’ve got many of those in dead-tree, some in hard-cover, and I don’t even know if any of them are still writing. I see no point in looking; I’m not going to pay that much for an ebook so it doesn’t matter (Mercedes Lackey falls into that category, too – relevant here re: Heirs of Alexandria, which I loved).

  12. Growing a little of this, a little of that, and some cash crops on the side is sometimes called “safety first” agriculture. It used to be fairly common until the 1920s-30s. Then along came the gasoline and diesel tractor . . .

  13. “How do feel about this? Should you focus on one type of book only?”

    Like I have any say in the matter. ~:D Books happen to me, I don’t really write them.

    But, in the next breath, I have been enjoying writing one “short” story written in feudal Japan, with only a little bit of alien nanotechnology. The story got stuck almost at the end, I’ve been trying to resolve the plotting daimyō and his maneuvering to improve his place under the Shogun. But once that works itself out, it’ll be a fun little story. Lots of fancy sword fighting.

    Maybe this writing thing is a little like furniture. If you always make the same thing, it’s boring. I’ve been branching out a little lately, making some beefy timber-style tables. Today I skidded a big honking oak log up to the workshop, I’ll have a go at chainsawing it in half and make a Roman workbench and a place for my anvil to sit. I’ve been watching Mr. Chickadee on Youtube, I figure I can forge myself a froe and a couple of decent hold-downs for chunky timber work.

  14. Well, there’s a least the possibility of growing coffee in Australia, because blogger Pete Dennison is doing it in Brisbane (and others are growing coffee commercially 🙂 )
    https://petedenison.net/

  15. A different genre most probably will cost readers. It did with me. I’m now going ‘back’ so to speak to westerns, to see if I can recover those readers. But I have seen a slight rise in some of the other urban stuff I’m doing for anthologies/short stories.

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