Two Trick Pony

One of the worst things that happens to writers (or actors, painters, composers) is getting stuck in a rut…to feel like, or be seen as, a one-trick pony.  One trick is never enough–not for the audience, and not for the writer.  More tricks are more fun.

Writing books is a great way to learn new tricks and new ways to mix them up: different kinds of characters, different locations, situations, incidents.  Science fiction, in particular, allows a writer to bounce from near-future/near-space medical emergency (my first published SF) to cloning and reproductive politics, to genetic engineering and life-extension treatments, to frivolous consideration of aliens and weather balloons, to galactic exploration, to tangles of time-travel…anything, basically, with some linkage to our time and place–our external reality.  Surely that’s enough tricks to occupy any writer for a lifetime…isn’t it?

Yes, but….but some of us are like the broomtail mustang with burs in the mane and a bad attitude about fences.  Out there are other pastures to graze and tricks to learn.   In my case, this tendency to roam from genre to genre undoubtedly comes from a childhood and adolescence spent reading everything in the house, the school libraries, and the town library.    Mysteries, historical novels, political novels, contemporary fiction,  travelogues and personal experiences, straight-up history and science (including three different encyclopedias, two of them cover to cover), and books intended for kids my age (horse books, dog books, adventure stories.)   If it had print on a page, I read it, or at least started it (at nine and ten, the adult situations in some of the contemporary stuff bored me. )

As a result, my first stories were an ungainly mix of genres: horse stories with spy-thriller subplots, very inaccurate and romantic historicals set in distant places, where a heroic collie or wolfhound burst from the undergrowth to save someone from a giant cobra.  (My knowledge of cobras was confined to Kipling’s “Rikki-Tikki-Tavi.”)    I learned not to show these stories to teachers, whose idea of what girls should write did not include adventure, violence, mystery,  and certainly not girl characters doing any of this stuff.

I came to fantasy (other than mythology) late–I was already writing science fiction by then (not very good, alas.)   For awhile I tried combining them–some of the science fiction-labeled stories I read also combined them–but my version was far, far worse.

Gradually, I sorted out the kinds of writing I liked to do, and could do well enough to endure re-reading.   The two that rose to the top were science fiction and fantasy.   I also love mysteries, but so far haven’t concocted one that mystifies friends for more than five pages.   “Oh, I know,” they’ll say brightly.  “It’s the guy in the helicopter this time.”  “What tipped you off?” I ask.    “It’s just obvious,”  one will answer while the others nod.  So…no mysteries unless I’m hit by a Mystery-Talent Bolt.

And thus I began the random-walk approach to a writing career with fantasy in one hand and hard SF in the other (yes, my first two sales were exactly like that.)  A few people suggested that sticking with one genre made more sense, career-wise, because the audiences are not identical, but…no.

And that’s why, after starting with three fantasy novels, I jumped to SF for two (the chance to work with Anne McCaffrey was a definite reason to do it right then!), and then wrote two more fantasy novels, and then fourteen SF…and now have gone all the way around to the same fantasy world where I started.   Meanwhile, I often wrote SF short fiction while writing fantasy books, and fantasy short fiction while writing SF books.  It’s refreshing–fun–to change gears between these two.

Some things are the same:  the need for good research to make the completely imaginary and unreal feel real to readers.  The need for engaging characters to do interesting things.  But in SF, there’s the fun of playing with the shiny! new! tech toys, and in fantasy there’s the fun of playing with the deep, dark caverns of human society and psyche that lie behind our mythologies and religions and cultures.

This writer-mustang grazes all over the map, from the near-future neuroscience of The Speed of Dark, to the far-flung space adventures and cultures of Vatta’s War, to the complicated politics and religions of Paksenarrion’s world, where Oath of Fealty is set.