As I write this, I'm struggling frantically to get things done before catching a plane Thursday morning for the West Coast for this year's Bouchercon—and I know I need to write this now because I'll hardly get a chance once everything gets underway in Long Beach. (More on that in a moment.)
This week's question—"How would you characterize the kind of mystery you like to write and why did you chose this sub genre?"—is one that I wish I could answer more definitively. As another of our Criminal Minds panelists, R.J. Harlick, mentioned earlier this week, a lot of us would rather resist the kinds of labeling and pigeonholing that's expected by publishers, publicists, booksellers, and reviewers, and I'll admit that as a short story writer, I particularly love the options I have to try out a lot of different subgenres, styles, and structures. My fellow short story writer Brendan DuBois explained this far better than I ever could in his post for Ellery Queen's blog Something Is Going to Happen when he explained his revelation: "With short stories, practically anything is possible."
Ellery Queen's Mystery Magazine (November 2014) or I could experiment with the thriller formula (and with second person narration) in "Premonition," which was just published in Chesapeake Crimes: Homicidal Holidays, the latest anthology from the Chesapeake Chapter of Sisters in Crime. And my novel-in-stories On The Road With Del and Louise, due out next September from Henery Press, finds itself somewhere in the mix of cozy mystery and screwball comedy and buddy movie—with an edge or two (or three) along the way.
But while it's fun to range through a number of subgenres like that from one story to the next, that diversity also poses a challenge in an era when branding and marketing seem to be a key part of any author's success. "What do you write?" and "Would I like it?" become much more difficult questions to answer in casual conversation—or when trying to pitch your own work either to a fan or to an editor or agent.
My friend E.A. Aymar, author of I'll Sleep When You're Dead, asked me about this very dilemma in an interview he posted on his blog—and the question hit me pretty hard at the time, something I'll admit I'd (foolishly) never thought about in the midst of just following each new story in whichever direction it seemed to go. Here's our exchange there:
Aymar: Your fiction tends to change its identity according to the story, but many crime fiction writers do the opposite, and work in a recognizable or distinctive prose. Do you think your approach could potentially delay building an audience, considering it plays outside of standard genre conventions?
Taylor: A good question. Yes, I've thought about that myself. I like playing with different voices, different tones, different subgenres, so my stories range from pretty dark noir to much lighter fare. I've been very lucky to have had attention for my stories in terms of honors and awards, and I've had a couple of publishers approach me about a story collection, but I have serious concerns that my stories so far wouldn't entirely be cohesive enough to gather into a collection—troubling to say the least. And in terms of writing a novel someday… well, I know in today's publishing climate, brand means almost everything.
Here's a telling anecdote: I spoke with an editor at a major publishing house last year about several ideas for novels, and she said that I really needed to think about not just one book but a series, projecting ahead into the future—no big surprise there. But here's what's telling: When I mentioned the idea of working in various directions as I've done with my stories—and hearkened back to a writer like Donald Westlake, who wrote some of the funniest mystery novels ever as well as some of the coldest and bleakest—the editor said that she felt certain those choices had compromised his career (read: "sales") tremendously. I'm not likening myself to Westlake, of course—that was never my point—but the conversation was sobering, and a little intimidating. And I'm not sure what any of that means for the way that I've been approaching my career here. Perhaps not good news.
I'm still not sure what it all means. Comments here certainly welcome....
And in the meantime, I'll hope to see lots of folks in Long Beach. By the time this appears, my panel presentation ("Short But Mighty: The Power and Freedom of the Short Story" with Craig Faustus Buck, Barb Goffman, Robert Lopresti, and Paul D. Marks, and moderated by Travis Richardson) will already have taken place, and we'll know whether or not my story "The Care and Feeding of Houseplants" earned the Macavity this year—fingers crossed! (Update: WON! Can hardly believe it.....) Beyond that, I'm looking forward to Saturday night's presentation of the Anthony Awards (fingers crossed again), and to seeing lots of folks at other events and panels—and in and around the bar too, of course.