by Tracy Barrett (W&M contributor)
My writing career has been somewhat anomalous, not because I came to it lateish (in my thirties—younger than a lot of authors), and not because I continued to work full-time and raise a family for the first twenty years of it—most women and many men who write have combined writing with a paying job and/or a family. No, it’s because I write all over the map.
In this day of “branding,” authors are cautioned to stick to one genre, and authors of books for young readers are advised to write for only one age group. The thinking is that if, say, a twelve-year-old loved your dystopian zombie romance, she’ll be disappointed if your next book is a high-concept action thriller, and might resolve never to read anything by you again.
But that monolithic kind of writing career has never appealed to me. My first seven books for young readers were nonfiction. While all had something to do with the United States—history, biography, travel—they were aimed at different age groups (from second to sixth grade) and were published by three different companies.
Then I wrote a biographical novel set in medieval Byzantium, followed by a hi-lo book on the Trail of Tears, then a ghost story, two nonfiction histories (both of ancient European civilizations), a time-travel novel, a four-book detective series, a historical fantasy set in Iron-Age Greece, and a historical novel set in Bronze-Age Greece. (You can see a complete list here, if you’re interested.)
Next will be a Cinderella retelling. A murder mystery set in the ancient world is now circulating among editors, I’ve sent my agent a nonfiction manuscript, and I’m wrapping up a retelling of an ancient myth, set in the modern day. Suggested reading age varies between age nine to twelve and age “12 and up,” although I’ve heard from readers who are seven years old, as well as from plenty of adults.
I’ve been told that a career like mine probably wouldn’t be possible today. And a friend who wrote a multiple-award-winning historical novel said that her agent and her editor both strongly recommended that her next book be historical fiction as well. Maybe she would have wanted to write another historical novel anyway, but what if she hadn’t? Would it have damaged her career to head off in another direction?
Maybe so. And maybe my own sales figures would be higher if I could be easily pegged as a writer of this or that genre for this or that age group. Of course I want people to buy (and read!) my books, but if income were the prime consideration, I would have chosen a career as a corporate lawyer, or I would have sought a tenured teaching position. But I never went to law school and I never went for tenure, and I’m glad I didn’t do either. I’m also glad I’ve always written what interests me without feeling constrained by the market, and I’ve told the stories that I want to tell. If my sales suffer for it—well, so be it. I’d do it again.
Tracy Barrett is the author of numerous books for young readers, most recently Dark of the Moon (Harcourt) and the Sherlock Files series (Henry Holt). Forthcoming from Harlequin Teen in July, 2014 is The Stepsister’s Tale. She lives in Nashville, TN, where until last spring she taught Italian, Humanities, and Women’s Studies at Vanderbilt University. Visit her website and her blog.