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Wednesday, May 09, 2012

Genres and Other Writing Stuff!

For many years, I wrote only non-fiction, primarily essays and columns, political and social commentary. My specialty was saying more with less.  I loved the challenge of "spending words as if they were dollars". I found some success with that type of writing. I wrote a weekly column for my local paper and a syndicated column for King Features Syndicate. My work appeared in publications such as Newsweek, McCalls, Sports Illustrated and USA Today. Some of my columns won awards; some of them appeared in college textbooks. I was interviewed on radio shows and appeared on television.

I was happy doing what I was doing until, inexplicably, my Muse insisted that I become a novelist. I had a burning idea for a book but I wasn't sure I had it in me to write it. If a column comes up a little short in length, it is relatively easy to add a paragraph. But a 300+ page novel when my strength was in paring, not padding?

 As it turned out, length wasn't a problem. I didn't write Magic Creek; it wrote itself. No notes, no outline, no timeline or characterizations. I just sat down at the computer and it flowed. I was amazed as seemingly irrelevant threads tied themselves in neat little bows as I went along. My conscious mind played no part in that, it all happened beneath the level of my awareness.

When I was done, I had a 103,000-word novel. I have since written seven more. Writing them was the easy part.

Then I embarked on the seemingly impossible task of trying to market my books. Like most new novelists, I mailed out hundreds (maybe thousands by now) of query letters, synopses, proposals and full-length manuscripts to both agents and publishers. The responses I received ranged from bad (a one-paragraph form letter stating that my manuscript didn't meet their needs but they wished me luck elsewhere) to worse  (no response at all).

I had foolishly thought that my non-fiction credentials would count for something, if only to prove that I could successfully string words together. I was wrong. Publishers informed me that they only accepted agented material. Agents informed me that they only accepted manuscripts from published authors. Catch 22.

Then through a writer's discussion group, I met J. T. Kalnay, one of the new breed of of writers who have successfully e-published their books through Smashwords and Amazon. I still had old-school attitudes about ego-driven novelists who self-publish through vanity presses, paying dearly for the privilege of seeing their words in print (though they may be virtually the only ones). Kalnay, who has generously served as my mentor and reviewer, has now become a friend, not to mention one of my favorite authors. He introduced me to the world of e-publishing, a means of by-passing the traditional routes of agent and publisher, by going directly to readers via distributors. Smashwords, for instance, distributes to Apple, Sony, Kobe and Barnes and Noble, among others. (Check out Kalnay's Amazon page here to see how a professional page should look - JT Kalnay). I will write a blog about the process of self-publishing soon but suffice it to say that I have now self-published two of my novels at no cost. Smashwords publishes step-by-step guidelines that make it doable even for a non-techie like me.

Of course, whether you self-publish or try to market your work to a traditional publisher, some things remain the same and one of those is wrestling with the dreaded genre dilemma. Genre is the category of book your novel will be slotted into.Years ago, there were five main genres: romance, mystery, western, science fiction and mainstream. Of course, within those headings, there were divisions such as historical romances and police procedurals and space operas, etc. The point was, though, that everything that didn't fit precisely into any of these specific types was lumped into the catch-all category - Mainstream. Back then, that's what you aspired to in hopes of capturing the broadest cross-section of readers. Now, the genre titles have gotten narrower and narrower and whether you are attempting to market to a publisher or upload your book to Amazon or Smashwords, you'd better know exactly where it fits into the scheme of things. The all-encompassing Mainstream just doesn't cut it anymore.

Is your novel Dystopian or a Milesean tale? (Do you even know what those are?)  Is it Steampunk or Cyberpunk or Clockpunk? (Huh?) Does it fit into a YA or an LGBT category? (Young Adult or Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual or Transgendered) Is it Epic or Apocalyptic? Your romance can't just be a plain old garden variety Romance - it must be a Contemporary Romance or a Paranormal Romance or a Historical Romance or Erotica. There are divisions within divisions within divisions of genres.

I don't want to deal with all this. My book is just a story. It has some elements of a lot of different genres. I hate trying to shove it into a tight little slot like forcing a crossword puzzle piece into a hole where it doesn't fit. My hero is not quite a hero. He has some heroic qualities but he has a lot of flaws too...and he isn't redeemed in the end. There are erotic scenes but the novel doesn't exist for the primary purpose of stringing them together. The name of my first book is Sociopath? The question mark is there so readers can decide for themselves.

What audience will your book appeal to? That is one of the main questions publishers ask and if you self-publish, you're advised to ask it of yourself. Readers who bought what other books will also buy your book? Well, hell, I don't know. My book deals with sex and taboo subject matter. Does that mean the readers of the The Fifty Shades of Grey trilogy would like it. That would certainly be nice! Sociopath? features some prominent gay and lesbian characters. So, would LGBT readers enjoy it? My main character is a NASCAR driver. There are lots of NASCAR fans. Would they buy it because of that?

You could be writing another book with all the time you have to spend debating whether this one is a bild ungsroma (coming of age), urban fantasy or wuxia (ha!ha!-look it up!) or trying to delve into the minds of readers to predict their reactions.



Liz Flaherty said...

Welcome to the ever-changing world of fiction, huh? I'll be interested in knowing how your self-publishing foray works out. I haven't gone there yet, but there's that old stuff still sitting there...

Vic said...

It has definitely been a fascinating journey. I began thinking that I'd e-publish a couple of books in hopes of then being able to tempt an agent or publisher into being interested. But the new writers don't think that way. They see e-publishing as the end, not the means to an end.