“We see you as this kind of artist…”
It happens on all the talent search reality shows: American Idol. America’s Next Top Model. The one about… well, okay, so those are the only two talent search reality shows I’ve seen, but that’s a statistically relevant sample, right?
Anyway, on both shows, I’ve consistently heard comments like:
- “We see you as a really wholesome commercial pop singer.”
- “You’re definitely a high-fashion, runway type.”
- “Country music is your zone, not hip-hop.”
- “You’ve got that commercial appeal. Not high fashion, but definitely Seventeen magazine stuff.”
- “I see you recording a bluesy rock record, not pop.”
- “Not sure about fashion, but you could definitely sell makeup with that face.”
- “You’re more like a Kelly Clarkson rocker-girl type.”
And the judges or mentors or hosts (in other words, people who are experienced and presumably know best) are always so certain about it. It’s never “Hey, you’ve got a really fresh face. Have you thought about makeup modeling?” or “The fans seem to love when you chose the rock songs over the country. How do you feel about that?” It’s always “You’re going to do this…” and “We see you doing that…”
Identifying and encouraging someone’s particular talents and strengths is great, but what if that person doesn’t want to be a rocker girl? What if she wants to be a soulful blues diva? What if that model turning heads on the runway wants to be in Seventeen magazine selling lip gloss? Should she give up, and focus her efforts on the strengths identified by the industry pros? Follow the “safe” path that everyone has already assumed for her?
The film term is typecasting — to cast repeatedly in the same kind of roles. And just as with singers, actors, and models, it happens with writers, too. Sometimes it’s the author’s choice. I mean, if the books are selling, why mess with a good thing? Or, if you love writing a particular genre, and that’s your passion, why switch if you’re not interested in exploring other options? Other times, I wonder about the publisher’s influence. Has Stephenie Meyer ever had this conversation with her editor?
- Editor: Steph, baby! Your numbers are through the roof! Tell me what’s next in the vampire lineup?
- Steph: *Clears throat* Well, it’s not so much vampire… I wanted to go in a different direction. Try something new.
- Editor: Great! We love new! So what is it now, murderous ghosts in high school? A pirate-zombie love story?
- Steph: *Shuffles papers* No, nothing like that. This one is more… well, there are these baby mice, and—
- Editor: Perfect! Bringing back the Black Plague. Quarantined at school. A young girl risks her life to care for her plague-infected crush. Yes, yes, yes!
- Steph: No, not so much. The mice aren’t sick. They’re just trying to find their way home, and they enlist the help of the new girl at school who’s kind of nerdy—
- Editor: And suddenly the mice turn on her and attack her in the school cafeteria, leaving nothing but her glasses and bones and a warning to all who think it safe to befriend rodents?
- Steph: Gross. No. More like, they hide out in the girl’s pink glitter unicorn backpack until after school when she can take them to the field across town to reunite with the rest of the mice-clan. No one dies in this book. It’s all very warm and wholesome.
- Editor: Warm and wholesome? That’s it? Stephenie, are you $#%@ing with me?
- Steph: No, of course that’s not it! I didn’t tell you the best part. *Raises eyebrows in hopeful expectation* The mice dress like humans, with little mouse-dresses and tiny mouse-spectacles!
- Editor: *Head explodes*
An unlikely conversation, I know. But as a writer, it’s definitely something I think about (whether my publishers would encourage a departure from my usual thing, not about the Black Plague or mice who wear spectacles). My first two books are similar in genre, tone, and style. I’ve gotten really great, positive, and in some cases totally over-the-moon amazing feedback on them. But that’s not all I want to write. I want to try new things, to push myself creatively. Dark urban fantasy? Middle grade murder mystery? Historical? Why not? Stories are like music. There are only so many words, just as there are only so many notes. But writers have the opportunity to arrange them in limitless ways, to create limitless characters and worlds and plots. Just thinking about all of the possibilities makes me dizzy!
Trying new and crazy things — it’s one reason Radiohead is my fave band. They went through this whole techno kind of phase that I wasn’t into before they returned to their indie rock style roots, but I appreciate that they tried something totally different. And now I’ve learned to enjoy their experimental stuff. I love that they weren’t afraid to break out of their “safe” zone. Simon and Randy might insist they made the wrong song choices, but I’m glad they did it.
That’s exactly the kind of thing I aspire to in my writing, even if Simon or Tyra shake their heads at me all up and down the book shelf! Maybe I’ll find that I suck at historical. That my urban fantasies are tame and weak. But at least I will have tried.
Thoughts from Writers and Readers
What about other writers? What do you guys think? Do you have a safe zone? What is it? Are you comfortable stepping out of it? Do you even want to step out of it, or do you see yourselves developing and perfecting your single style? Is your answer influenced more by the passion in your heart or the straight-up logic of your contracts and finances? Both are very real motivators!
What about you, readers? Do you prefer that your fave authors stick with the genre and style you’ve grown to love, or do you like when authors explore new territory?
Share your thoughts in the comments!