Writing Wednesday

This is one of the most frequent how-do-I-write questions I get. You’re working on The Great American Novel you’ve harbored in your heart. Should you change it to fit into some genre?

I’m probably not the best person to ask.

With my first two novels, I just had these very specific stories to tell. When I was done, I was told they fit into Women’s Fiction. Mostly.

I’m also told my books cross genre into “Literary.” I’m not entirely sure what “Literary” (yeah, always with a capital L) means, except that it gets more respect than “genre” writing. I think literary novels focus more on character than on plot. And it might include certain stylizations of language, in my case, sentence fragments (sorry, English teachers!). Also, my novels tend to be a bit “grittier” than standard (that means my women are kind of “difficult”, a whole ‘nother story). In fact, it was voted Best Women’s Fiction by the Literary Tastes Committee (ALA) because it was more literary(a librarian confided!).

Sometimes “genre fiction” is used pejoratively, but I don’t think you should think of it like that. Genres are umbrellas under which your books fit. It’s so your books can be properly shelved at the library and bookstore. So a customer coming into a store, looking for a thriller with lots of blood and guts, does not have to wander for 10000 hours to find that.

A librarian at the ALA convention last year, where I spoke about crossing genres, said that you simply can’t have lots of subgenres. There would be too many. Can you imagine someone coming in and saying, “I’d like a women’s fiction book with an irascible lead that doesn’t focus too much on romance and has rose growing in it” and the librarian busting out, “Oh, you want the Womens’ Fiction/Difficult Leads/Gardening section.” It just gets to be too much.

I think many books lean more toward one kind of fiction than another. And those genres do have conventions that are normally followed. For example, Women’s Fiction usually has some kind of romantic element, and most of the POVs are from women (though you can have male). It’s more about the woman’s journey to overcome some crisis (that she saves herself from), rather than her racing against the clock to save the President. If your “women’s fiction” focuses on saving the Prez, then you probably have more of a thriller on your hands. Could you have a women’s fiction thriller? I think so– the focus would simply be on the heroine’s inner journey rather than the external plot.

So, if you’re not sure about where your book will fit, you should write the book you want to write, then see where it might lean. It might cross genre a bit, like mine do, but still be shelved under its primary genre.

Of course, if you KNOW what genre you want your book to be, you should observe its conventions. To do this, read a lot of books in the genre.

And then make it your own.