“So, what do you write?”
As writers, this is one universal question we will all get asked from time to time. For some of us it’s the simplest of questions to answer. If you write love stories with vampires or shape shifters or a girl who talks to the dead, you write paranormal romance. If you’ve written a series about a detective who tracks down serial killers, you write crime fiction. If your protagonist is a seventeen-year-old girl learning to stand on her own feet as a young woman, you’ve probably written a coming of age young adult.
But what if you write a story about a nineteen year old woman who has nightmares about ghosts, falling in love with an older man while trying to figure out the mysterious murder of her mother ten years before?
Yeah. This is where I was when I finished my first manuscript. And if you’d asked me back then what I wrote, the answer I gave probably would’ve depended on what part of the book I was editing on that particular day. Back in the early days of my writing life, I didn’t realize where my book belonged wasn’t as much about the tiny elements that made it up as it was what it looked like when it was all put together. I’d like to blame it on the engineer in me — being trained to break things down into their smallest of parts — but unfortunately I’ve been this way since birth.
A few years and a lot of rejections later I figured out that manuscript is women’s fiction, as is my second manuscript. I’d even go so far as to say they are romantic women’s fiction, being that the romances play such big parts in the stories. But the goal wasn’t for my characters to fall in love or solve a murder, it was for my seemingly weak and broken female protagonists to find the strength to overcome the shitty decks they’ve been dealt in life. Yes there was romance, yes there was crime, but those were only threads that forced them to face themselves.
So there it was – my big AHA Moment. I write romantic women’s fiction. Yay! I know where I fit! And as hard as it was for me to come to that conclusion, it wasn’t a surprise at all. I don’t like the rules that writing certain fiction requires – I like the challenge of breaking them. I don’t like to be told to stay between the lines – I want to explore what’s outside of them. This is just how my mind works. If you tell me I can’t do something because it doesn’t fit the standard of a certain genre that just makes me want to do it even more. Women’s fiction offers me that – a wide-open field of possibilities.
Or does it?
Enter manuscript number 3. Same general concept and purpose, but with two tiny problems. My protagonist is a man, and the relationship that forces him to face himself isn’t romantic – it’s with his daughter.
In light of this new manuscript and RWA’s recent decision to eliminate the Romantic Elements category, I’ve been forced to once again sit down and figure out where I fit. And I’ll be honest – 75,000 words in and I still don’t have a foolproof answer. All I can really say for sure is the common thread in all my stories is the family bond and how it makes or breaks you as an adult. Maybe when it comes time to pitch this book I’ll call it a family saga, or take the safe route and simply call it a commercial fiction. Or maybe I’ll just stick with women’s fiction. After all, despite the male protagonist it would still appeal more to a female audience. Only time will tell. But I’m not going to lose any sleep over it or throw my characters lives in upheaval trying to make it fit somewhere it doesn’t, because over the years I’ve come to realize three truths:
#1: I can ask ten different people where I fit and get ten different answers, and the real pisser is that all ten opinions could change tomorrow (ie: the whole chic lit lable fiasco).
#2: My job as a writer is to write the best story I can write, no matter where it ends up sitting on the shelf one day.
#3: If I get too bogged down on #1, it’s a lot harder to perform #2.
So if you’re like me struggling to find your place, here’s the best advice I can give: write your story the way it’s meant to be written; don’t let all the rules and nuances dictate where it takes you. Because in a dynamic business such as publishing, that could be any number of places by the time you get through.