February 4, 2024

The challenges of a dual writing career

If you’ve heard of me at all, it’s probably because of my short SF work. But I describe myself as a dual career’ writer who also writes spy thrillers. What does that mean and how do I deal with the challenges of working in two different genres at once?

Empty desert road with speed limit sign Image by Etienne Marais from Pexels

One of my writing heroes is the late, lamented and very much missed Iain (M) Banks, author of a string of best-selling mainstream novels as well as some of the best science fiction of the last thirty years. I had the privilege of meeting him once and I still keenly feel the loss of his creative voice and personality in the Scottish book world.

Quite apart from his work, I always found the way that he worked inspiring - three months a year writing and nine months a year thinking hard about writing while having a laugh. The absolute dream, honestly.

More germane to this blog post was the way he managed to run two parallel writing careers simultaneously, alternating between his Iain Banks mainstream-shading-into-literary identity and his Iain M’ Banks science fiction identity. He pulled it off effortlessly, amassing two quite distinct fanbases that mostly didn’t read his other work. When asked about it by interviewers from either side of the genre aisle, he’d cheerfully acknowledge that he essentially lived in two worlds, while batting away any attempts to paint either sphere of work as somehow lesser or unworthy of his skills and imagination.

Of course, writers working in multiple genres is hardly a new thing, and there many different approaches to it. There’s the middle initial’ method of Banks, or using just your initials (that’s common in the crime and thriller genres) as well as whole new pen names with zero links to each other. A few people write with the same name everywhere, trusting in cover art, shelving and targeted advertising to effectively get the right books to the readers who want them.

Starting my own dual career

I’ve always planned to write in more than one genre, especially once I got a regular writing routine off the ground and realised that I can consistently and sustainably write between 150,000 and 250,000 words a year of new draft prose. Writing that much has the side effect of also generating more new ideas, so pretty quickly I’ve found myself looking at the overall arc of my life and thinking there’s a LOT I want to write and try writing’.

However, SF has always been my first love when it comes to writing. My first novel’ aged fourteen was a classic space opera and I’d say fully three quarters of everything I’ve written since then has been too. I got my agent with a near-future SF thriller. At almost exactly the same time (literally within a week) I sold my first SF short fiction to Clarkesworld. And I’ve spent about five years now building community, making connections and hanging out with fellow SF and fantasy writers at conventions, book launches and writing retreats.

But then the near-future SF thriller didn’t find a home (it’s incredibly common, I’ve seen estimates that more than half of agented novels die on submission’ as we call it). So I wrote a spy thriller, and then another one. And now I’m looking at debuting as a spy novelist, at exactly the same time as I’m starting to get nominated and long-listed for my short SF fiction.

This interest in spy fiction hasn’t exactly come out of nowhere. More than twenty years ago, I wrote my English Literature dissertation on paranoia in modern spy fiction. It was my supervisor who was the first person to say to me you should try writing one of these yourself’ for the first time (something many, many people since have said to me when I told them how much I enjoyed the genre). I’ve continued to read and enjoy all kinds of spy fiction, as well as loving a good spy movie, so when my agent and I were discussing what to write next, the genre was top of the heap options-wise.

But it still feels a little strange to be debuting in a completely different genre than the one I’ve spent perhaps 80% of time time and effort writing in for the last twenty years.

Building two brands at once

Author brand’ is a weird, loaded term for what has been, in my experience, quite an organic process of building a profile as a writer. But it is also true that I’ve essentially given myself double the work in that regard by having a single identity and working in two genres.

I feel that keenly right now, with an unannounced debut novel, Worldcon coming to Glasgow this year and calendar that is packed with events in both the SFF world and thriller/crime/spy fiction world. Both communities have a strong convention culture and are notably friendly and welcoming to new writers, so I have no real worries about getting involved and meeting new people in the spy fiction world. But I will admit to a bit of trepidation about how I’ll navigate being effectively two writers at once.

There are two major challenge categories. The first challenge is primarily about logistics, finances and energy. I’m a relatively healthy guy in my early forties with a decent day job and a little bit of writing income to help defray expenses, but even so the number of things I’m thinking about going to this year gives me a bit of the cold sweats when I think about transport costs, accommodation, time off work and spending large amounts of time among big crowds of people. I’m pencilled in to two SF conventions (Cymera in June and Worldcon in August), a writing retreat in April, plus at least two crime and thriller conventions (Harrogate in July and Bloody Scotland in September). And this is before considering any sort of launch event, or the launch events of friends. It’s going to be busy. I had a tiny flavour of it last year, when I went to Bloody Scotland for the first time and felt slightly overwhelmed at finding this whole thriving community of Scottish crime and thriller authors I knew absolutely nothing about but might soon be part of. It was a weird-but-good feeling.

These are 100% luxury problems, to be clear. I’m glad to have them, and to have the energy, time and money to even consider doing this much. But I’m still a bit nervous about how much it will take out of me. I plan to complete an extensive beta reader edit on PROJECT SHARD in the next couple of months, as well as handling copyedits and proofs on PROJECT ALTHROP. And before the end of the year, I’m hoping to draft, edit and submit a followup book to ALTHROP (either a direct sequel or another standalone, we’ll see) from scratch. This is on top of a dayjob with regular travel. It’s going to be a lot.

The second challenge is one that I can control less directly, but it’s how to manage having two overlapping audiences, hopefully two different publishers and an ongoing relationship with two completely different writing communities.

At the moment, my intention is to publish under a middle initial for one genre and just plain David Goodman’ for the other. Not sure which way round I will do it yet, but that’s the principle. But otherwise I’m planning to manage a single set of writing interfaces’ - one website, one set of social media accounts. When I get to the point of having a book out, I’ll update bios to reflect that, but otherwise keep everything in one place.

Will that mean sometimes I’ll be talking about spy stuff to non-plussed SF people? And vice versa? Yes, I think so. And I suspect the crossover in audiences will probably be pretty minimal. If you’re reading my novelette about a robot battle suit, I suspect you might not be into my sweaty-palmed novels about espionage skullduggery in far-off places.

Planning for the future

Many of these challenges are not quite real yet, but I can feel them coming. And who knows, I might change my approach, especially if I start writing in more genres. I’ve always fancied writing a fantasy novel, or even trying my hand at a straight thriller. But one of the ways that I cope with the inherent uncertainties of the publishing industry is through mental pre-gaming - thinking quite carefully about how I’m going to approach specific problems and opportunities. Most of the time the real world manages to come up with something I hadn’t even considered, but the mental exercise still helps me to manage the waiting, the rejections and the nerves that come with putting your work out into the world.

I’m hopeful that I’ll be truly kicking things off with an announcement in the next few weeks, after which I’ll be able to start this dual career in earnest. I’m really looking forward to meeting a whole bunch of new people and beginning a writing life with two communities, two readerships and twice as many books. RIP my to-be-read pile, however. I have absolutely no idea how I’m going to keep up with the reading conversation in two genres. I barely manage it in one. But that’s a problem for Future Dave.


writing career SFF thrillers publishing


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Lots of very cool things happened yesterday I was already pretty excited for the first of the month, since my newest story was due to come out in the February issue of Clarkesworld Magazine.

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