I distinctly remember the bright day in front of the Fig, ten years ago, when an editor lamented my fate as a “generalist.” That is to say, I was a writer without a particular niche. I had breadth in many subjects but depth in none, just when the granularity of the web was just beginning to evince itself in the ever-shifting sands of search-engine-optimization and such things suddenly mattered.
Naturally, I set to finding a niche ASAP, found one (some sort of “fish out of Hollywood, drowning in wine country” crap), won some awards, published a book and weathered fame, fortune and other fantasies (like the ones with the fame and fortune).
I even wrote an ebook about finding one’s niche, the theme of which can be tidily summed as “find a small pond and be the big fish.” Hence, my clever title, The Tea Cup Whale, that I thought would cause even Malcolm Gladwell to tip. My first choice, Big Fish, was already taken by author Daniel Wallace, who, incidentally, commissioned a soundtrack from my rock star kid brother for a subsequent, illustrated effort because, you know, pictures are worth a thousand words but a pop song is worth a thousand pictures and I suppose there are worse ways to bulk up a word count.
In spite/because of getting nichey (or is that Nietzsche?), I finally tired of the schtick and my mastery of the miscellany of hangovers and gags that might as well read “You know you’re in wine country when?? So did my readers. But without specialization to differentiate me and my work from the talented hordes (whom I consider colleagues but marketing blogs tell me are competitors), I was at a loss. That is until I realized that, having professed a pseudo-expertise in one kind of experience, I could just as easily be an expert in a pseudo-experience. Basically, I could either become a professional liar or write fiction.
I chose the latter and set upon building a fictional universe, or to quote Wikipedia, “a self-consistent fictional setting with elements that differ from the real world.” Think J.R.R. Tolkien, via the creative construct of Middle Earth, who created not just a niche for himself but a market segment that thousands of fantasy writers have since benefitted. Middle Earth is essentially a platform for which others created “apps” rife with dragons and thrones. Not my cuppa. I’m keener to align myself with Chandler and Vonnegut, in that liminal space between detective fiction, urban fantasy, and the comic vicissitudes of the newspaper business, niche or not.
Interestingly, Amazon’s Kindle Worlds project attempts to open other author’s universes for legit pursuits in fan fiction, Vonnegut’s included. But as much as I’d love to write a Vonnegut novel (frankly, the notion seems like a heresy) I’m more content building my own niche in, ahem, Lumaville — the redux of a certain Sonoma County town (cheap name, I know — I experimented with “Nomaville” over the years until I discovered “noma” is a flesh-eating disease of the face, so no noma).
Lumaville is a sort of psychic space laid over the topography of the places that inspire me. It operates as a kind of imagined parallel universe inhabited by a protagonist who is a parallel version of its author but with worse luck.
Depending on your brand of physics, creating a fictional alternate universe isn’t an act of fiction so much as jotting the history of a heretofore unrealized reality. As listographer Mike Floorwalker reminds in his piece “10 Mind-Bending Implications of the Many Worlds Theory,” “It could very well be that since physical laws may be very different in other world-lines these are not stories at all, but actual people and events transcribed from other realities.”
Whilst transcribing this from the voices in my head, I found it amusing that autocorrect is adamant that I use the term “alternate” (right) instead of “alternative” (wrong) in front of “universe” lest I conjure up a parallel plain that exists entirely in a 90s CD sales bin, rife with “alternative rock,” whatever that was.
So, for now, Lumaville is my universe, my niche, the teacup in which I’m beached. Worst-case scenario, I can always retire there, in my mind, and be the biggest generalist in an ever-shrinking pond.