Publishing this post scares me, because the subject is so personal. I'm going ahead with it anyway with the hope that I can get across my meaning. Deep breath.
From my first attempt at writing in second grade, I began my journey making up fantasy stories. Many long-time readers will know that those early plots were largely inspired by Beverly Cleary and her mouse Ralph, resulting in several stories involving rodents.
Even in high school, when I co-wrote an entire novel with a friend, it was a re-telling of a fairy tale (this was waaaay before doing that was cool or commonplace).
The first novel I tried my hand at by myself as an adult: also a fantasy.
So it came as a surprise to me when I began getting ideas for books with a specifically Mormon angle to them. Of course, those ideas turned into the books that got published.
I did two contemporary novels that you could call romance, and I generally do, but I've never been entirely happy with that label. Not because I don't like romance; I absolutely do, as evidenced by THIS and THIS and the fact that we're doing more of Timeless Romance Anthologies and having a ball with it. Not to mention that I went on to do historical LDS novels, and every single one of them has a romantic element.
But those first two books especially had something else in them too, something I couldn't put my finger on, but which made me hesitant to classify them strictly as romances.
So there was Lost Without You, and then At the Water's Edge (although they were written in the opposite order). Then came the four historicals: House on the Hill, At the Journey's End, Spires of Stone, and Tower of Strength. Each of my historicals, with the exception of Spires, which is a romantic comedy in spite of the serious-looking cover, had that same "other" quality.
Then I was told not to write any more historicals. And I wondered what in the world I'd do next. I'd already started researching my next one, and I had to set it aside and find something else to write about.
Enter my childhood friend Chris and her husband's deployment, which in a roundabout way led to me deciding that I had to write about what it's like to be home with a soldier gone and in the line of fire. In categorizing that book, romance never entered my mind, because, well, it's totally not. Band of Sisters is clearly women's fiction.
Some people think romance and women's fiction are the same thing, but they're not. Not even remotely. Women's fiction doesn't have a love story as the primary arc, and it deals with issues and conflicts that wouldn't normally appear in a romance. I loved writing that book, and it even took the Whitney Award in its category that year.
Yet I still thought that one day, I'd return to my fantasy roots and write books for kids. That feeling was strengthened by the fact that here in Utah, we have more successful writers of youth fiction than probably any other state in the nation. Tons of New York Times bestsellers, a Newbery honoree, and more. Youth writers here are rock stars. It's the market and genre that are most respected in these parts, likely because Utah has a lot of kids, families are serious about literacy, and we tend to like clean books, which often means youth fiction. Take this piece in the news, for example. (In case you don't click over: a launch party for Brandon Mull with Tyler Whitesides, Richard Paul Evans, Chad Morris, and Christopher Paolini. NOT KIDDING.)
Then I had a good chunk of my critique group also writing youth fiction, and this one and this one have had significant success with it (young adult and middle grade, respectively) on the national stage.
Yet I also loved mysteries, and I had a bunch of cool ideas for some. I loved romance, and could see myself writing that. I loved historicals, and would be happy doing more. And so on. What on earth should I focus on?!
My publisher couldn't/wouldn't give me direction on what they wanted next besides no more historicals even after I handed over a list of ideas and asked which they'd be most interested in.
I floundered like a boat without a rudder. I had a total and utter writer identity crisis that lasted two and a half miserable years.
The go-to advice for this kind of situation is to write the kind of book you like to read. Problem: I read all kinds of books, and I enjoy just about every genre. So that suggestion was no help.
Then one year for NaNoWriMo, I decided to write something totally wacky and weird and fun to shake myself out of the awful funk I was in. I drafted 50,000 words of a futuristic, science fiction-type young adult story. And it was a lot of fun. But contrary to my hopes going in, the experience didn't make my future writing path any clearer. (And no, that book will never see the light of day.)
Yet I knew I needed a clear path, something to sink my teeth into and identify as my own. I needed a map to plan my writing future.
I ended up deciding to write the sequel to Band of Sisters even though I had no assurance that my publisher would take it. They did (yay!), and Coming Home was released in January.
During the last year or so, a few things happened to cement my writer identity. One was researching and writing Coming Home. Another was being part of The Newport Ladies Book Club series with my novel Paige and the forthcoming Ilana.
And then during the 2012 LTUE conference, Luisa and I went out to dinner to brainstorm. She knew of my identity crisis and suggested we hash it out over food. I brought along a notebook with ideas that included young adult fantasy, historical, romance, and everything in between. We picked a story with a really cool premise, and by the time we paid our tabs, we had a rough plot sketched out.
In writing that book, which I'll begin major revisions on soon, I finally came to realize that this was the genre I belonged in. It was women's fiction. And women's fiction is my home.
I realized that my first two books were women's fiction in disguise. That was the element I could never quite wrap up tidily in the romance bow. Women's issues popped up in my historicals too.
While I was thrilled to finally latch on to my writer identity, it came with a price. Remember, I live in the land where writers of youth fiction are rock stars and are most respected by colleagues. Even my own daughter recently asked if I could please write a cool book like the fantasy we were reading together, and it broke my heart to say that I'm writing for grown-ups.
Then there are those packed, celebrity-style launch parties like the one I linked to above. It seems that most writer events for fans tends to lean more toward youth fiction as well. There was one a few years ago that included my friend Janette Rallison (who writes YA), and at the same event was Scott Westerfeld and Stephenie Meyer, among others. Really.
I've had to come to terms with the side of my ego that would like acclaim. The reality is that if I become very successful with women's fiction, it will be with limitations. In some ways, I'd like my youngest to look at me like her hero, but that can't happen if I'm not writing kids' fantasy books. Which I'm not.
Plus, youth fiction has a crossover readership from kids to grandparents, while women's fiction is read almost entirely by, well, adult women. So the numbers are different: simply put, the sales potential for youth fiction is much greater. Unless someone waves a magic wand and I become the next Jodi Piccoult, I won't be getting rich writing women's fiction. (I wouldn't mind becoming the next Kristen Hannah, though... Seriously. Her interview in Writer's Digest pretty much blew my socks off and confirmed my writer identity.)
While I'm not greedy, I am a professional, and I do rely on the money I make through my writing. Making a conscious choice to essentially limit my potential income was hard.
I also had to choose to basically walk away from earning the respect of certain peers who almost look at youth fiction as the one and only true market. Would I like my ego to be stroked a bit? Sure. Could I write youth fiction? Sure. I love the genre, and I've developed the chops over the gazillion years I've been writing to do it.
But when push comes to shove, I believe that I'm supposed to be writing women's fiction now. When I look at my list of story and research ideas, it's all women's fiction now.
I've wondered why, and why now. Why didn't I figure this out 18 years ago when I first started submitting? There may be several reasons, but I think a major one is the fact that while youth fiction isn't any easier to write than grown-up fiction (they're both hard to do well, and anyone who tells you differently is lying), in order to write good women's fiction, I simply had to be older. I had to experience more, see more of the world, encounter more situations, gain more maturity. On the other side, I've already been an adolescent. As long as I can write well and tap into that part of my brain, I could write youth fiction.
But I couldn't have written good women's fiction at 21, because back then I was barely a woman.
A bit of irony: Turns out that the old piece of advice was right after all. While I do read all kinds of books and love almost all genres, if I had to list my top books of all time, most of them are, yep, women's fiction.