Our readers are often curious about the process of writing and publishing books, and we’re happy to provide access to the experts. In this latest addition to our Publishing U series, former adult crime-fiction novelist Derek Nikitas tells us how he switched genres and audiences to write sf for YA.
Derek Nikitas: Tomorrow, my novel Extra Life comes out. It’s science fiction for young adults, a time-travel mind-bender, definitely not the gritty mystery or thriller that readers of my previous books might have expected. So why this sudden left-hand turn from mystery to YA?
Actually, I didn’t know I was a mystery writer until that ecstatic day I learned my novel, Pyres, was a finalist for the Edgar Award in the “Best First Novel” category. Even though I’d been publishing mystery and thriller short stories for years, the realization that I was a mystery/thriller author took me by surprise. Duh. You’d think I’d have figured it out.
But being pinned to a specific genre felt like getting a reputation for wearing only blue pinstripe suits. Sometimes you want to wear a heavy-metal concert tee. Don’t get me wrong, mystery is a great genre for building a fan base that expects the unpredictable. Its nature requires you to surprise your readers every time, even as you hold to certain plot progressions or build a series around the same protagonist.
My genre-switching is probably a bad idea
from a marketing perspective, but it’s
something I don’t have much control over.
I’m not sure my brain works that way. At least not today. I happened to catch a publisher’s eye while I was in a mystery phase, but that moment was a fluke. Since I was a kid, I’ve tried every genre except, possibly, romance. Fantasy, horror, science fiction, domestic realism—you name it. I’m fascinated by tropes, the building blocks of plot, the way they replicate and morph across genres, the way they merge and bend and break.
I love how science fiction can be grafted with a western to produce Star Wars, or how political thriller and noir can seamlessly superimpose themselves over fantasy in A Game of Thrones. Pyres was a mash-up of urban fantasy and crime, certainly not an example of pure mystery.
My second novel, The Long Division, wasn’t a mystery at all—because the reader knows whodunit. It’s an existential noir with a complex system of character perspectives. I’m not sure it was what readers expected. My genre-switching is probably a bad idea from a marketing perspective, but it’s something I don’t have much control over. My imagination would grow stale if it was put in too small a box.
It’s an apparently self-evident truth that a writer must find his or her “voice,” but I’m far more interested in taking on whole new personas and tones, new worlds and styles, with each book. This itch led me to write a sf thriller for teen readers.
The plot seed for Extra Life was planted long before I started publishing books. I just didn’t find the right protagonist until I started reading YA. A few years back, when many students in my novel courses were tackling YA manuscripts, I hurried to get up to speed. Some of the most popular examples left me cold, but writers Libba Bray, Gwenda Bond, and John Green were fresh inspirations. Specifically, I was reading Joe Schreiber’s Au Revoir, Crazy European Chick (2011) when that old time-travel seed finally took root.
Generalizations about genres and readers are risky, but I needed one guiding principle, so I strived to be more conscientious about the reader’s impatience. YA fiction—and perhaps other kinds of fiction—often rewards the writer’s restraint, especially in regard to pacing. Lengthy inner monologues or indulgently decorative language can be problems in any kind of prose, but that’s especially true here.
For me, the learning curve was more of a cliff. I transitioned from the baroque style of my crime fiction, with its symphonic points of view, lyricism, and linguistic acrobatics, and pages of brooding. Much like a screenwriter adapting a novel, I sought more elegant and less intrusive ways to evoke mood.
At the same time, I indulged myself. Extra Life is a weird experiment in overlapping time frames, but YA welcomes structural innovations, as with the verse novels of Ellen Hopkins, or Jay Asher’s Thirteen Reasons Why (2007), a novel presented as a series of recorded dramatic monologues. Using a first-person narrator, a novelistic first for me, offered me new freedom to play with a character’s perception, voice, and reliability. Together, narration and style evoked an unexpected whimsy that my gloomy adult novels never allowed. A dark whimsy, yes, but still.
Still, some goals remain, no matter which genre(s) my imagination inhabits. The narrative drive of a thriller excites me, as does testing a character’s sense of identity under pressure. As I look forward, I want every novel to challenge my chops in some major way. I want to add fresh voices to the genres I choose. I want to upend some long-held conventions. These are virtues of the writers who inspire me most—Michael Chabon, Joyce Carol Oates, Julianna Baggott—how “predictably” they reinvent themselves.
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Derek Nikitas’ first novel, Pyres (2007), was a finalist for the Edgar Award. His second novel, The Long Division (2009), was a Washington Post Best Book selection. He is the director of the low-residency MFA in creative writing at Eastern Kentucky University, the Bluegrass Writers Studio, and is currently a visiting assistant professor in creative writing at the University of Rhode Island. Visit him online at www.dereknikitas.com or on Twitter at @DerekNikitas.