L.R. Lam on Writing Across GenresApr 30, 2023
Many writers have questions about changing genres – we rarely read just one genre, so why wouldn’t we consider writing books that span as far as our readerly joys do? Of course, the prospect might also feel daunting. It’s hard enough to feel like you’ve nailed one genre, let alone several! And it can become even trickier after you’ve been published, because agents and publishers might be hesitant to confuse your audience.
But does that mean once you’ve written one fantasy novel, you can only ever write fantasy books? Or that straying from the world of science fiction will condemn your writing career? Of course not! If you have a brilliant story to tell, and you tell it well, there’s no reason why you shouldn’t try out different genres of writing.
A shining example of cross-genre writing
One writer who can attest to that is L.R. Lam, the Sunday Times bestselling author who’s joined us at The Novelry as a creative writing coach.
El, or L.R. Lam, is the award-winning author of nine novels, with three more under contract. Their books span multiple genres and sub-genres of science fiction and fantasy (SFF), delighting audiences across the board. You have likely already loved cyberpunk near-future thriller False Hearts and its companion novel Shattered Minds, published under the name Laura Lam, as well as the award-winning Micah Grey trilogy (Pantomime, Shadowplay, Masquerade). If you adore a near-future thriller, Goldilocks is a brilliant bet. In the market for a feminist space opera? You will love Seven Devils and Seven Mercies, co-written with Elizabeth May. El also writes queer romance under the name Laura Ambrose.
And their newest novel is about to be released! Dragonfall is an epic fantasy romance you’ll fall in love with, and the start of the Dragon Scales trilogy – which means there are two more books to look forward to exploring this world and these characters!
L.R. Lam also comes from an academic background, having studied English and creative writing at the California State University East Bay. They swapped sunny California for what might be considered the slightly more cloudy Scotland for a postgraduate degree at the University of Aberdeen, before lecturing for seven years on the Creative Writing MA at Edinburgh Napier University.
Over the years, El has worked with most of the big SFF publishers across both sides of the pond: DAW, Hodderscape, Wildfire, Orbit, Tor, and Angry Robot, and they are represented by Juliet Mushens of Mushens Entertainment. Their work has been praised by authors such as Robin Hobb, Leigh Bardugo, Andrea Stewart and Samantha Shannon.
El knows all about switching between genres – their work runs the gamut of speculative fiction and takes them from researching cutting-edge science to write books set a blink from now, to crafting fantasy secondary worlds and dreaming up elaborate history, languages, and societies. Their work aims to make the Other familiar, straddles boundaries, and breaks binaries. Many of their protagonists are queer and trans, and Pantomime was the first young adult novel in any genre to have an intersex protagonist. Their work often focuses on themes of identity, bodily autonomy, and the corruption of power.
Get one-to-one coaching from L.R. Lam
If you’re seeking a writing coach to help you bring to life your exciting SFF ideas, El would be perfect for you. Sign up for one of our creative writing courses today to write your novel, whatever genre(s!) you might be interested in exploring.
Now, over to El to share their experience of changing genres and keeping the reader engaged, excited and turning the page. We hope it inspires you to honour the magic of your story over blind loyalty to a genre!
I’ve always written across genres
I’m L.R. Lam, or El, the newest writing coach here at the Novelry, and I’m a serial subgenre flirt. Many writers build a career on ‘the same, but different’. They write within the same subgenre and are known solely as a cosy crime writer, a thriller writer, a romance author, a fantasy author, or a science fiction author. This way, readers know what they’re getting when they pick up their next book, and if a reader likes a new release, they might go rummaging through the backlist too, and know roughly what to expect. This is good, solid advice, helping you as a writer offer a consistent author brand.
I’m a serial subgenre flirt.
If you take one glance at my backlist, you’ll see I’m historically bad at this. To date, I have written gaslamp neo-Victorian fantasy that was released as both young adult and later adult (the Micah Grey series, which starts with Pantomime), near-future cyberpunk thrillers (False Hearts and Shattered Minds), co-written far-future space opera (Seven Devils and Seven Mercies), near-future space thrillers (Goldilocks and another TBA). My next book, which is releasing in three days (!!!) is Dragonfall, an epic fantasy romance with dragons. Under the name Laura Ambrose, I’ve also self-published contemporary F/F romance novellas set in the publishing world. So that’s… five SFF subgenres, plus romance, across ten years. Another one of my WIPs isn’t speculative at all and is based on three generations of my family history. Brand consistency? Who is she?
I’m far from the only author who writes cross-genre, so it’s not that unusual. There was Iain ‘M.’ Banks, the middle initial appearing and disappearing depending on whether it was contemporary literature or his SF Culture novels. V.E. Schwab does it to great success, as does Margaret Atwood. Octavia Butler wrote dystopia, historical time travel, futuristic SF, and added generous dollops of horror. Kazuo Ishiguro writes literary fiction blended with other genres like detective or fantasy. There’s our very own Kate Riordan here at The Novelry, who has published both historical fiction and psychological suspense, and Tasha Suri, who has written epic fantasy but also a young adult historical remix of Wuthering Heights. Cross-genre writers are legion!
Should you cross genres?
Over the years, people have recognised that you can do this, but their next question is: should you? As with so many things in writing and art, I tend to reply with: ‘it depends’. What are your aims and goals?
So here are some things to keep in mind if, like me, you’re considering being a serial flirt versus monogamous to one subgenre.
Understand your new genre
First, a general tip: if you’re planning to write in another genre from the one you’re used to, it’s obviously a good idea to make sure you understand the conventions, tropes, and expectations of whatever you’re switching to.
If you don’t already know this new genre, read a lot of it, then decide if it’s actually the one for you. If you’re blending two in the same story (like epic fantasy romance with hot dragons but also some literary craft approaches, as I have with Dragonfall) then you’ll also be deciding which elements you’re blending together. Genre blending can be the best of both worlds but can also be a swing and a miss if you wander too far away from what readers are expecting.
If you don’t already know this new genre, read a lot of it, then decide if it’s actually the one for you.
For example, Dragonfall is a romance, but it’s also an epic fantasy trilogy. I didn’t necessarily have to have a clear ‘happily ever after’ at the end of book one, but it’s setting an expectation there will be by the end of book three.
The downsides of genre-hopping
Let’s look at the downsides of merrily hopping around.
1. A less consistent backlist
It might have been easier if I had stuck to one subgenre over the last decade and was only a fantasy writer. Perhaps I would have gained momentum rather than feeling like I kept re-starting my career at times, bouncing around and searching for something that would stick.
My work keeps being described as my debut even when it isn’t: my adult debut, my science fiction debut, my epic fantasy debut. It would have been easier to stick me and my work neatly in a box if I’d stayed on the same course.
2. A less consistent audience
Not every reader will like this switching of genres. I’ve had some people who really like my science fiction bounce off my fantasy, and vice versa.
Different genres require different expectations, so my writing style is different in False Hearts versus Dragonfall. Genre switching risks alienating a portion of your readership, so you have to decide if that’s worth it, and only you can.
3. A less consistent brand
If you do well in a certain genre, agents or publishers might be more hesitant to branch out your brand due to that same fear that the readership won’t follow you.
To solve that, knowing early on that you think you might want to write various genres means it’d be something good to flag and discuss with your team. I knew my agent, Juliet Mushens, was right for me because I mentioned I might want to move into adult fiction (I started in young adult) and she represented both and I noticed she represented writers in various genres.
On the publishing side, you either find an editor/list who has that same flexibility, or you potentially move house and go to another publisher for a future book if it’s too different.
The advantages of genre-hopping
However, there are also advantages.
1. Making multiple first impressions
If a past book ends up with a quiet release (code: doesn’t light the world on fire with sales), by writing a good book in a different genre, you can get a fresh start.
You’ve proven that you can write to deadline and publish and promote a book, so you might have the advantage of being a quasi-debut again, as mentioned, but also demonstrated you’re a known quantity.
2. An audience who appreciates your versatility
If you bounce around early, like I did, you might well cultivate a readership who revels in the differences and actively enjoys following you from book to book, genre to genre. That flexibility means they are your ideal readership.
3. Writing stories that excite you
You should write what excites you the most. For me, I’m interested in so many things. I read across genres, so it isn’t entirely surprising that I write across them, too. I’m a craft geek, so I love stretching my writing muscles in different ways. I get to research drastically varied things: from trying to understand science and astrophysics to write a book set on a moon base, to working with a linguist to create a conlang for a secondary world I’ve built from the ground up.
I have to keep myself interested, first and foremost, or else the reader will inevitably be bored, too. Or, worse: I’ll never get to the end.
There’s plenty of consistency even for cross-genre writers
So even though my body of work spans genre, as well as writing style, narrative position, and tense, I’m sure there are still throughlines that make my work uniquely mine, and I’d argue that’s the same for most writers who bounce around.
If you’ve read books in different genres written by the same author, take a moment to think about them. What’s different? What’s consistent?
For me, I’m fascinated by themes of identity, bodily autonomy, gender and sexuality, and transgressing or transversing boundaries. So, it’s not that surprising, really, that I’m crossing boundaries of genre, too. Some throughlines in my work are easier to find than others – those who like my cyberpunk will probably vibe with my space thrillers. Those who loved my first fantasy trilogy will likely enjoy Dragonfall, which is in many ways Pantomime’s spiritual successor. The epic scope of my fantasy is there in the wide universe my co-writer Elizabeth May and I created in Seven Devils. Those who like the spice of Dragonfall might enjoy my spicier romance novellas, even though they’re set in SFF publishing, not SFF worlds (because I couldn’t resist getting a little meta).
Maybe if you decide to write across genres, it’s not going to exactly be ‘the same, but different’. You can think about the strategy of switching, if you have one, or you can simply follow your passion and see what happens. I did the latter, which has been a little terrifying at points where I didn’t know what my career would next hold. But it’s more than a little exciting, too.
Be bold and write what you desperately want to write – that’s advice that’s always golden.
Writing Coach at The Novelry
L.R. Lam, is the award-winning author of nine novels, with three more under contract. Their books span genres and subgenres of science fiction and fantasy and include False Hearts, Shattered Minds, the Micah Grey trilogy and Goldilocks and Dragonfall, the first in an upcoming trilogy. Before joining us at The Novelry, El spent seven years lecturing on the Creative Writing MA at Edinburgh Napier University.