All the trendy rockers will tell you the same thing: don’t pigeonhole me or my music. (Actually, writers do this too – you just don’t hear about it as much on MTV…) They’ll rant and they’ll rave and they’ll throw TVs out their hotel windows (without a trace of irony, mind you) if you say they’re music sounds like something The Rolling Stones or The Who.
What all these rock stars mean though – and writers too – is that they don’t want to be put in holes already occupied by someone else. You might think it’s cool to be “just like Keith Richards”, but the reality is that if that’s the case, you should quit what you’re doing and form a Rolling Stones tribute band. Right?
Creatively, I don’t know how fulfilling that would be. As a writer, I could see the allure to being compared to Fitzgerald, but the bouncy, high-hatted sheen would wear quickly away. Someone’s already been there, done that. I want to be me! (Besides, I’d have to considerably increase my intake of alcohol. Not saying that’s a good thing or a bad thing. Just saying.)
However – and here’s the crucial part I think – the general public (aka all of us) need pigeonholes to make sense of things. We need something to hang our hat on, allow us to get a grip on the situation, see the big picture, get the 10,000-foot view…
To wit, we need something to give us context. Really, that’s what pigeonholing (and a cliché for that matter) is – a shortcut to context.
How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Embrace the Pigeonhole
I’m here to tell you that I think we as writers should embrace it. In fact, I created my own pigeonholes before I even started writing.
How’s that, you ask?
On online bookseller websites like Amazon and Chapters, they used to have a feature along the bottom of the page that listed “You May Also Likes”. It was actually pretty neat (or creepy, depending on how you look at it) the way it paired other books that you may also like faster than Gary Vaynerchuk can pair wine with doughnuts.
How did it do this? I don’t know – I’m not a computer science major. The important thing here though is that I’ve found it useful to decide what my “you may also like” or “YMAL” pigeonholes as I’m writing the book.
This has helped me in several ways. First, it gives me a pretty firm idea of the style of the book ahead of time, and also helps me envision my readers better. For example, if you’re writing horror and you admire Stephen King’s work, then it is pretty easy to envision his readers and write for them.
Second, considering YMAL gives me something to measure my book against. For example, in Hunter S. Thompson’s Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas, I like the vicious imagery, the extreme hyperbole, and the strong narration. Does my book have anything similar? Do I like the language and narration and imagery in my own book? If not, it’s a pretty good indication that I have some more work to do!
(Careful here though – you don’t need to measure yourself in quality necessarily. If you’re tackling a story similar to The Great Gatsby, don’t get hung up that Fitzgerald is a better writer than you, if that’s the case. There have been billions of people alive on this Earth, and few if any have been better writers…)
Third, and perhaps most importantly, choosing your YMAL books will help you sell your book, either to a publisher/agent or if you decide to self-publish. People are going to ask you what the book is about. Here’s a secret though: what they really want to know is, what is the book like? If you’re writing a murder mystery, for example, is it like a Lee Goldberg, Agatha Christie, Dostoyevsky, or Douglas Adams book? This will tell the reader a lot more about the book itself than “There’s this guy, right. And he gets killed. So this other guy collects clues and tries to find out whodunit…” (That’s important too, to a certain extent. Just not as important when it comes to selling your book.)
What’s Your YMAL?
One last note: identifying your YMALs is different than listing your influences. I have been influenced by a number of writers like Fitzgerald, Shakespeare, and the guy who wrote Arrested Development. However my book’s YMALs would be closer to books (or writings) by Rex Pickett, Paul Quarrington, and Tom Wolfe. Don’t get me wrong – these writers are influences too. It’s simply saying that my book is closer to Sideways in style, story, and/or scope than The Great Gatsby.
“If you like Sideways, you may also like my book…”
So that’s why I pigeonhole myself, why I create my own YMALs. You writers out there, have you done something similar? Am I way off base on this? Leave a comment, and let me know!