Monday, December 7, 2009

To Genre or Not to Genre

I’ve fallen in love. With a literary agent. I haven’t even queried her, but according to her blog, we’re a match made in heaven. Of course, that declaration will also fall to her opinion, but I’m dreaming anyway. So, how does my newest publishing crush have to do with genres? Believe it or not, I’m going to bring this around.

I’ve said in the past that one of my life’s ambitions is to write something more meaningful than light romance. In a way, that’s true. Who wouldn’t like to write the next Great American Novel? Well, okay, me. But, I would love to write some fabulous crime novel or a really great piece of literary fiction that lands on Oprah’s Book List. What I’ve learned through experience, however, is that you can only write what you can write.

Thank you, Captain Obvious.

But, I’m serious. In the vast, rattling space that is the inside of my oversized head, I have two glimmers of thrillers in my head. One of them, I’ve attempted to write, the other I know better than to touch. Here’s what happened: the one I attempted to write turned into romance. Sure, it was a little angstier than my usual stuff, but other than that--romance. The ideas that come to me are romance. The characters that come to me are not detectives, killers, or 40-something professors with a penchant for stumbling into globe-trotting historical mysteries. The long and short of it is, I can only write what I’m “inspired” to write.

Which leads me to my next point: you have to target your work to the right agent and the right readers. The internet is a beautiful place filled with equal parts fiction and fact, but one thing you can rely on is anything that comes straight from the horse’s mouth (Good God, could I fit more cliches into this blog? Mea culpa, mea culpa...). What I mean, is that if an agent is kind enough to tell you exactly what he or she is looking for, believe it.

I would be foolish to send my queries to anyone who categorically does not represent Romance, Chick-lit, or Young Adult. There are plenty of agents in the literary sea, and all of them have opinions about what’s worth representing. Know your genre, love your genre and only go after those people who feel the same way about it.

It has taken me some time to get comfortable with being a genre writer. It was all in my head, of course. There is no stigma against writing whatever it is that you write--provided you write it well. There are readers out there who are exclusive genre devotees and they will wait just as eagerly for the next best thing in Mystery/Romance/Thriller/Horror/Inspirational/etc. as English majors wait for the next great piece of literature (which they probably think can’t come out of the modern era, but that’s a rant for another day). My point is: there is a skill set to writing each genre, and if you ain’t got it, you ain’t got it.

My writing group/ad hoc group therapy session has been invaluable to me in this regard. We are a pan-genre group and everyone brings their unique perspectives to the weekly conference calls. While I am amazed at the fantasy writers’ world-building capacities, the thriller-writer’s sprawling political knowledge and air-tight plots, the poets’ command of rhythm and rhyme, the comedy writer’s endless wit, and the horror writer’s creativity, they are in awe of the romance writer’s ability to base a plot entirely on the minutiae of human interaction. That is the romance writer’s forte--to capture the everyday successes and failures of ordinary people. To walk the line between reality and fantasy. How else can we make readers want to be our heroines and fall in love with our heroes? They must be rooted in reality, but just that degree or two more desirable, lucky, or gifted. Just enough to make us green with envy and turning the page.

To make a long story even longer, write what comes to you and don’t worry what anyone else will think. If you love it, and it inspires you, you will tell the story so well that anyone could read it.

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