Friday, February 12, 2016

What is This Book, Anyway? (The Genre Question)

If you've ever read one of my books, you can probably tell that I have trouble with genres.

I think it may contribute to me not yet landing an agent. I have gotten a fair amount of personalized feedback (I'm not talking your generic form letter) from actual publishing professionals such as best selling authors/teacher, agents and editors that all say the same thing--you write really well. I've had these people praise the mechanics of my writing, my use of prose, the uniqueness of my ideas. So what, for the love of all that is holy is the problem? In the end, maybe it boils down to something more illusive than genre, or make it truly is related to personal interest. What an agent or editor decides to rep or acquire is understandably quite subjective. But I have a hunch it may be something more simple than that. I think it's genre. (Caveat- maybe I'm just a terrible writer and I don't know what I'm talking about ;) 

I think the issue is this-- that agents and editors, though they want the next "new" thing, are to some degree stuck in genre expectations. To some degree I get it. If you say that a paranormal romance, for example, must have x, y, and z plot elements, what you are really saying is that this is what books that have sold well to date are doing, and therefore, this is what readers expect, etc. So when they say "new" they mean "just like this but with a little twist." From a money and marketing standpoint it makes sense. From a "how do I find another book just like this one I loved" standpoint it makes sense. 

But as a writer, gah it's frustrating! I'll back up a minute, and show you what I mean, for those who don't get what I'm saying. Let's say you write paranormal romance, since I used that example earlier. So what makes it paranormal romance? Technically, just the fact that there is romance and some sort of paranormal element, right? But if you were to want to submit to a well-known publisher in that genre, you might find something like this guideline at harlequin-- please note, I've seen worse in terms of leading you by the nose, but here it is:

"Harlequin Nocturne - 80,000 words
  • Fast-paced, action-oriented romances in which characters struggle with life-and-death issues in a paranormal world
  • Word count of 80,000 to 85,000
  • The word count allows for a wider breadth of story, subplots and heightened sensual and sexual tension
  • Themes include vampires, werewolves, shape-shifters, Native American and Greek mythology and fairy kingdoms
  • Strong sexual/sensual overlay
  • The hero is a key figure—powerful, mysterious and totally attracted to the heroine.
  • Vivid conflicts, and stories that can be set throughout the real world and fictional worlds of the author's own creation
  • Characters do not live by predictable rules; instead they respond to the needs of the paranormal world that the author has created
  • There is a "mythology" created to explain the characters' existence, and their actions must not run contrary to this setup. The mythology must remain consistent and support the action of the book.
  • While these are contemporary paranormal romances, the author may go back into history, depending on the needs of the story
  • Harlequin Nocturne had two titles on the NYT bestseller list in 2011
  • There are 2 new Harlequin Nocturne books available every month."

Dark, sexy, atmospheric paranormal romances that feature larger-than-life characters struggling with life-and-death issues.
Harlequin Nocturne Key Elements
For explanations and tips about conflict, dialogue and emotion please click on How to Write the Perfect Romance
Featured in Harlequin Nocturne
Powerful, mysterious Alpha male heroes facing life-and-death situations as they battle for the heroine's love. Harlequin Nocturne romances are highly sensual and driven by the romance and not the paranormal element. The hero should be a force to contend with, and the heroines are vulnerable but equally complex, strong and smart.
Harlequin Nocturne is…
The Twilight Saga: Breaking Dawn or True Blood or Dark Shadows for their solid levels of story, complex characters and varying levels of paranormal world-building with strong romantic themes, high levels of sensuality and lives and hearts on the line."

Do you get my issue? They are looking for cookie-cutter stories that fit into a neat little box. What if my hero isn't an "alpha" type? What if he's actually endearingly sensitive? What if the conflict in my plot isn't "life or death" per say? What if it's an intellectual type of conflict, or an emotional one? Maybe my heroine is the "key figure" and not the hero. 

And this last little bit basically tells you exactly what they want you to write, followed by examples of work they would like you to emulate: "Powerful, mysterious Alpha male heroes facing life-and-death situations as they battle for the heroine's love. Harlequin Nocturne romances are highly sensual and driven by the romance and not the paranormal element. The hero should be a force to contend with, and the heroines are vulnerable but equally complex, strong and smart." I've seen romance guidelines (of the non-paranormal kind) that are even more leading than that! They tell you exactly what kind of heroine, hero, plot line, and resolution they want, right down to the tropes they want included. 

And don't get me started on tropes. If every novel I read had the exact same equation played out over and over again, right down to the minutia, I would stop reading forever. 

Now, like I said, I get this from a marketing standpoint. But I don't find it in the least bit appealing, either as an author OR a reader. Why? Because I have a very hard time finding the type of book that I would like to read. I roll my eyes every time I read "alpha hero." And, sue me, though I like a great deal of romance and "heat" in my novels, I also think it should be about more than just that. 

So I follow the age-old advice of writing the book I want to read. And my target audience has received that well. But my books will never "fit" into a neatly laid out expectation of what a genre should be. I've even gotten reviews stating all the things they like about the book, followed by "not like similar books in this genre." Which to an agent or editor would probably mean death, but makes me do a happy dance. I don't want to write the book someone else already wrote. What would be the point?

It never fails- every time I try to submit my work to an agent, I spend sometime staring at the submission guidelines. My paranormal romance novel where the shape shifter isn't an overbearing ass... can I call that paranormal? My steampunk flavored book with magic, vampires, shifters, and dirigibles that is mostly about love, has some sex scenes, and is also about bigger issues like equality, and acceptance... what do I call that? (I usually go with "steampunk fantasy romance" but even that feels not quite a complete picture, and really that is me not picking a genre). 

My conclusion in all this--and I really hope I'm not the only one to come to this conclusion--is that I would rather write the type of story I want to write (or read) than the one someone told me to write. That is the whole point of writing in the first place, and without that approach there is zero creativity involved. So, if you are like me and what you write doesn't fit in a neat little package--THANK YOU. I love your work. Please don't stop. You are why I love books!

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