Who Am I, What Am I and How Many Feet Do I Have? – by Sarah A. Hoyt

It is said, and understand I’m telling it as I heard it third or fourth hand, that once, having been persuaded to attend a writers’ workshop, Robert A. Heinlein became unable to write at all.

He described the feeling to that of a centipede suddenly aware of all its feet and therefore unable to figure out which one to move first.

That was hilarious because I too am an intuitive writer. Or rather, I’m a kinetic learner which might sound funny to apply to mental processes that have no physical counterpart. Sure if I’m learning to draw, embroider, wash dishes, etc. I’ll listen to your explanations, and it’s somewhere at the back of my head, but mostly I use them to correct performance as I’m doing it. This is why I’m dependent on a GPS. You can give me instructions till you turn blue in the face. I learn the way somewhere by driving there a number of times. Or, you know, I don’t learn.

This goes way beyond getting better with practice. I don’t learn unless I’ve handled everything and run through the process at least twice. Then at that point learning, or listening to how to do it might help.

So yeah, he had written, but not the way the workshop wanted him to write, and it would totally tie me up, until I tried it that way once or twice.

But here’s the thing: this happens every time you switch genres.

“But Sarah, why would we want to switch genres?”

Well, I’d like to say it’s because my publishing house (first) forced me to, but I wish that were true, because before I was ever published I’d written science fiction, fantasy and mystery. Now I’ve written many, many kinds of mystery, including but not limited to craft and historical and … Well, you’re not going to get me to promise I won’t write something completely different soon. Heck, if I hadn’t become completely fried during lockdown I’d have finished that regency romance. And it will happen, sooner than later.

Anyway you personally might want to switch genres because you’re ADD (AF), because you want to stretch your abilities, because you’re utterly blocked and nothing else is working, or simply because why not?

The one thing you need to be aware of when you switch genres, which seems to happen to everyone who does this is that for the first book or two you feel you’re doing everything wrong wrong wrong, miles and miles of wrongitude, and you’ll never get right.

No matter how much you have read in the particular genre or sub-genre you’re after, you’ll feel like a complete idiot the first time you write it. You’ll feel like everything is wrong, you’re not hitting the right beats, and it’s horrible.

Chill. Keep writing. There’s a very good chance that it is all right, or if it’s not, that it will be easily fixed with a slight touch up.

What you’re feeling is because at the back of your mind you’ve gotten used to a certain pattern. You’ve trained a certain rhythm. Now you’re moving at a different pace, and the back of the mind knows that that’s wrong, wrong, miles and miles of wrongitude.

And it will nag you and nag you. But it’s a false nag.

Chances are that you’ll be all right in the end.

Keep writing, and forget the confusion. The legs will take care of themselves.

18 thoughts on “Who Am I, What Am I and How Many Feet Do I Have? – by Sarah A. Hoyt

  1. I probably needed to hear that. Because action sci-fi mystery is so far out of my previous habits (horror and noir detectives) that it ain’t funny. And it all looks/feels wrong, bad, and mostly awful.

    The story beats are different. The tropes are different. How much info the readers want is different. Sure, there are some similarities. And I might just throw in the occasional chaos when things get slow, same as the other two. But there isn’t the constant tension of horror, or to a lesser degree, noir.

    Now the one that keeps knocking at my head to write sometime after this one, the political drama/bildungsroman hybrid, that one is even *more* different. And the political drama of an attempted coup in the empire, and the factions attempting to suborn the Legion, the skulduggery of the Legion Wives, and the threats from the frontier… Yeah, I don’t do political drama.

    Maybe I should farm that one out. Anyone out there with free space in their heads? Plot bunnies, plot bunnies for sale… Dirt cheap!

  2. I admit it. The first thought I had when I saw the title and illustration was “Oh Lord, it’s about Kafka, isn’t it?” I read “The Metamorphosis*” and a few other of his works in College 1.0.

    *I liked Ovid’s version better.

  3. I suspect the ability to write in multiple genres comes from being able to have fully realized and human characters, as much as anything else. And as long as you can do that, you can usually do good stuff in pretty much any genre.

    I think I’ve said before, I suspect it is possible to even write a good, funny, and even poignant rom-com around Rambo as the male lead, provided one actually understands and respects the core character, his wounds and motivations, and build equally real characters for the rest of the story.

  4. Honestly, I’m afraid to go very deeply into any of those “how to write” books. I seemed to have turned out some pretty darned good books and stories just operating on sheer instinct.
    I don’t wanna put a hex on it all.

    1. I’ve found a number have some useful tricks, a number are useless. . . .

      In particular, I’ve never heard of a writer finding any “N master plots” book useful.

      “N character types” — well, one writer said she used them to orchestrate her characters, so they didn’t turn out all alike, and another who said she made sure she couldn’t identify her character in the list and if she could, she needed more elaboration.

  5. I write in multiple genres…and as soon as someone tells me that I have to write in just one…pick it…any one…just one….It’s like telling me that I can only ever use colored pencil and nothing else, or that I can only use one graphics software, or only one AI….or… Yeah…eternal sadness, rebellion, and all ability/desire to do ANYTHING in that medium is gone. (If I can’t have it all, I don’t want any of it! I guess is the core to that).

    So, I try to tell myself not to listen to the naysayers, as they obviously don’t know ME….but, it’s taking it’s sweet time, to fight back against my own rebellions, and tell my creative brain, it’s okay to come out and play.

    1. It can be a little harder to get a career started that way, since it doesn’t form a brand. But that’s life.

      1. Yeah, that’s what I keep hearing…No brand, no money (or at least steady money)

        1. You could always aspire to be the Proctor & Gamble of writing, just use different names…

          Always menstrual hygiene products
          Ariel laundry detergent
          Bounty paper towels, sold in the United States and Canada
          Charmin bathroom tissue and moist towelettes
          Crest toothpaste
          Dawn dishwashing
          Downy fabric softener and dryer sheets
          Fairy washing up liquid
          Febreze odor eliminator
          Gain laundry detergents, liquid fabric softener, dryer sheets and dish washing liquid
          Gillette razors, shaving soap, shaving cream, body wash, shampoo, deodorant and anti-perspirant
          Head & Shoulders shampoo
          Olay personal and beauty products
          Oral-B oral hygiene products
          Pampers & Pampers Kandoo and Luvs disposable diapers and moist towelettes. Pantene haircare products
          SK-II beauty products
          Tide laundry detergents and products
          Vicks cough and cold products

  6. I like many things that bend genre as far as it can be bent, and I love things that totally break genre and the rules around it. Like Cowboy Bebop. Is it scifi? Western? Kung-fu action? Noir? It’s everything I suppose, and it’s glorious. I loved it. Maybe I have low (or no) standards, but I like things that break convention like that.

    My own work spans several genres (I’m having a hard time trying to figure out just what genre I’ll put The Sensational Six into when I release it on Vella later this month), but I’m not afraid of it not selling. Not selling just means I can’t quit my day job, and my day job’s not terrible.

    1. I love the Sharing Knife books by Lois McMaster Bujold, but they didn’t do as well as most of her work because they’re fantasy, romance, and a few other things thrown in there, and her usual audience didn’t know what to make of it. (Same thing with Gentleman Jole and the Red Queen—she said that particular book was supposed to be something else and it refused to be written other than the way she finally did.)

      I also like mashups and style-changing covers (such as Postmodern Jukebox.) So it’s entirely a matter of taste.

      1. The Sharing Knife also suffered from the fact that the first one at least was not advertised as romance. The blurb was all about magicians fighting unstoppable evil monsters. And admittedly, that did happen–in the first twenty pages or so. Then we spent another fifty pages roughly dealing with the fallout, before forgetting about it entirely to focus on the romantic relationship. I probably wouldn’t have been nearly so turned off by it if it had stated up front, “This is all about love.”

        As for Gentlemen Jole…well, if I went into my issues there, we’d be here all day. Suffice it to say that “genre mashup” was not among them.

  7. Ah, well. I’ve been published in SF, and published one superhero story, but high fantasy to fairy tale is my native range. The plot bunnies love it.

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