Wednesday, November 2, 2011

Writer's Journey: What category/genre taught me about craft

Donna's great post on Stephen King, along with a number of recent conversations about SF v. SFR, has got me thinking a lot about category. Because how many of us, really, set out to write our first book with a specific subgenre in mind? 

When I started writing Ghost Planet in 2008, I had never read SFR that was actually labeled as such. But I knew what I best liked to read were classics (romantic stories set in the past) or romantic stories with a strong speculative element - sci-fi, fantasy, paranormal, etc. Escapism, yes, but escapism with a preference for discovering new worlds, whether historical or fictional. I was and am drawn to the freshness of the conflict between heroine and hero in these unfamiliar settings. 

I did not believe I was a romance reader, because I did not shop in the romance section of the store. Some of the most romantic speculative books I've read are shelved in SF/F or general fiction - Outlander and The Time Traveler's Wife, for example (though both of these books break traditional romance rules). 

The first version of Ghost Planet (my first novel) was just the kind of book I like to read - the right mix of romantic and speculative. But it was suggested to me that the book did not come down firmly enough on one side or the other, and because of that I needed to revise. I flailed around and tried to understand and apply the advice I'd received. The first major revisions I undertook didn't *feel* right, but I was too inexperienced to recognize and understand that feeling. (This is a good place to point out that this post is not about regrets, because I have none. It's about a learning process.)

After months of rewrites that took the book in ever stranger and stranger directions, I sent it to an agent who was waiting. What I got back was the most in-depth, and frankly, upsetting, critique I'd ever received. It was not upsetting because she was a mean person - she is in fact quite a kind and likable person. It was upsetting because she was right - I felt it deep down - and I knew it meant I had to start over. From scratch. Ghost Planet, by Sharon Lynn Fisher, page 1. 

But *nothing* she said in her critique had anything to do with genre. It had to do with what I've come to consider the two most critical elements of mainstream fiction - character development and story tension. Also, in my experience, the two hardest elements to master. (Wow, I remember once upon a time I thought, "As soon as I get to the point I can write well, I'll have it made!" How cute.)

I believed in my story, and I believed in my characters, so I started over. Because I was still haunted by the genre question, I also read a craft book that had been recommended to me (thanks, Donna!), On Writing Romance, by Leigh Michaels.

I'll skip the gory rewrite details and cut right to lessons learned. 

I think the feedback I got that the book wasn't enough this or that was the result of people trying to identify ways to improve it, or to explain why they were rejecting. I think this may be an idea that occurred to them while reading it, when really it was something deeper and harder to pinpoint. I sometimes struggle with this myself when I read published books - "why didn't I love it?" And I don't always figure it out. It can be a simple matter of taste. It can also be a sign of a problem. We don't often have enough objectivity about our own work to know which. Until later.  

What that craft book and my rewrite process taught me was not that my book wasn't enough one genre or another. My journey was only superficially about learning "how to write romance." What I learned was that if you are going to put a relationship between two people at the core of your story, those two people must be compelling and three-dimensional, and there must be tension and believable conflict between them. This applies to any kind of relationship at the center of any category of story (for a radically different example, consider Of Mice and Men). 

It wasn't that the first version of my story didn't have enough romance. It didn't have *effective* romance. I had also fallen short in fleshing out some of the sci-fi elements, but I consider this a secondary issue, because it pretty much resolved itself in the process of tuning up my characters. 

I think the takeaway in all this, if there is one, is something Donald Maass addresses in The Fire in Fiction. (Liberal paraphrasing follows…) Authors get too hung up on the selling and marketing of things. What we need to be hung up on is writing. Because the content of a book is what makes it a bestseller, not the label we stick on it.     

Agree? Disagree? Do you think about genre when you're writing, or do you just write? As a reader, do you consider category/genre when buying a book?


  1. Do I think how my book is going to fit in? Not with my first books, no. Now I do. My suspense stories in particular are tricky to categorize - they are basically women in peril tales but such bad things happen to the women, it puts them outside the normal category. My romances - I have no problem categorizing them - I know what I'm writing and what's expected for the genre. But I don't have the problem of balancing other worlds alongside everything else. Well, not usually!
    When I read - do I consider genre - or category? Only in that I know what I like to read and look for that. Funnily enough, I was trying to find Outlander in a US store and couldn't. I gave in and bought it off Amazon but now I'm reading the first book I can't see why it wasn't with the romances?? It might break rules but it's still a romance isnt' it? Have I not read far enough!!

  2. Interesting comments about Outlander, Barbara, which is clearly a romance, though it's slow to develop. Do I look for genre as a reader? Yes, always have since I discovered SF as a kid. I read mostly romance now, though I'll read other stuff--SF, nonfiction. As a writer I started out in SF, then discovered I was writing romance, so now I write SFR, very deliberately. On Writing Romance helped me with that process--happy to pass that on, Sharon!

  3. No, you are correct, Barbara, it is very romance-y! It does break some major "rules," though. Only thing I can think of is it came out before speculative romance was so insanely popular, and she sold it as fantasy/sci-fi, so maybe it was what made sense at the time. Obviously has worked out great for her. :)

    Thanks for sharing your experiences! I'm curious do you ever get any nudges or feedback about genre from your publishers?

  4. Thanks for sharing your thoughts, Donna. I always find it interesting whether people consider genre or not. I do in the sense that I actively seek out classics, but for other categories of fiction I am most likely to read based on a recommendation. (As with On Writing Romance, ha!)

  5. I asked one of my editors which genre sold best in the erotic romance field - MM and menage. I think BDSM does very well too. From what I understand it's the fantasy- paranormal- and sc fi ones that do the best. Ordinary MF contemps not so well. My solitary sci fi erotic romance actually sells more steadily than my contemporary MFs! It was slow to start but it's a steady sell now. I've never been directed by an editor toward any particular genre though one recently said she'd like another MM from me. I've written one - my first - due out in Feb. I think I'm happier writing between contemp, paranormal and yes - I have another sci fi romance stewing a few chapters in - I like the variety but I suspect if I was with the big guys, I'd have to choose one and stick with it.

    Now half way through Outlander - past the scene that had everyone up in arms - where Jamie beats her. I still don't get why she isn't more freaked out by finding herself in another century! I'd be missing flushing toilets, toothbrushes, decent coffee etc etc Not one word - I know it just after the war but still

  6. I really enjoyed your thoughts here, Sharon. I know the books in your discussion. I agree we need to focus on the writing first of all. But we sure do have to promote too.

    @Barbara, wow-- that is interesting. I guess I knew that already about which books sell best. I understand about the E-SFR and other similar erotic genres selling better though. My little FL book is still selling fairly well. A surprise to me since I've done little promo in a while. But who knew?

    Also, about Outlander-- romance-y for sure! But I'm with you-- how come she doesn't feel more about where she is and the loss of her 20th century lifestyle?

    In my own time travels, I am constantly thinking about how the characters 'feel' in another century, etc. So I suppose I did learn from Outlander.

    Yet in my next offering from the Forbidden series even though there is a temporal leap back, it is a shot to fix what the hero feels he did wrong. So it is different than other TT's in which the character may be stranded in another century.

    Great post and comments!


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