Tuesday, March 19, 2013

I Found My Writing Home

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.


Susan Anderson said...

I'm glad you are going the way of women's fiction, because that is my favorite read!

And Kristin Hannah happens to be one of my favorite authors.

You can bet I will be reading whatever you put out in this genre, and I wish you continued good luck with it!


An Ordinary Mom said...

So thrilled that you found your writing home/niche/identity :) !! I definitely enjoy women's fiction. I look forward to reading more of your books. And good for you for sticking with what you feel is best for you - that is an admirable quality.

P.S. I still love your historical fiction books, though. I am sad they said no more of those. What was the reason behind that?

Heather Moore said...

Curious to know if some of your women's fiction ideas have historical settings... you do those well! Or if they are all contemporary.

Karlene said...

Good women's fiction may not get the initial flash/bang that YA gets, but it has the potential to change lives. Go for it!

Kimberly Vanderhorst said...

I am beyond glad for you right now. I've got that grinning-face, singing-heart feeling and I'm loving it.

I'm just starting out on my own path, but it's already veering off in directions I never expected. It's confusing and exhilarating all at once (but mostly confusing). I loved reading about your own journey, and the power of your realization that you were, in essence, being prepared for this, amazes and delights me.

I'm a sci-fi fantasy girl to the CORE. Have been since my earliest days. But Karlene is so right to point out that women's fiction changes lives. I think of books by authors like Maeve Binchy, and the power they've had to reshape my perspective of the world. The genre doesn't get the credit it deserves, but I hope that YOU do. =)

Luisa Perkins said...

Oh, yay, oh, yay! I'm SO delighted to read this, even though I knew the journey. Seeing your realizations in writing feels like a signal that you truly ARE home. xoxoxoxo

Lee Ann Setzer said...

So glad for you, Annette!

Sooner or later, that girl of yours will be a woman, and you'll already have written a pile of books she's ready for.

Julie Daines said...

Hooray for finding a home! I hope you also find great satisfaction and contentment there, even if you don't make it to billionaire.

I appreciate this post and really relate to it because I recently went through the same type of struggle. When my publisher first offered to publish my novel, I had to make some hard decisions. I knew signing with them would limit my readership, brand me, and reduce my chances of critical acclaim in the national writing community.

But, I also felt very strongly that it was the right thing to do. Sometimes it's hard to see my peers' successes in areas that I used to dream about. But I know I made the choice that was right for me.

Thanks for your post, it's been very comforting to me.

Nancy Campbell Allen said...

Women's Fiction does have a huge impact on readers who are so desperately wanting to feel understood, to realize they aren't alone in a sea of problems. And good women's fiction always encompasses that feeling of hope, that there is always hope and growth and renewed strength. You are such a boon to the genre and will totally rock it.

And someday, your little girl will be a big girl, and she will read your novels and call you and say, "Mom, you are totally my hero." :-)

The Damsel In Dis Dress said...

I have so much respect for this. You are amazing.


Melanie Jacobson said...

I totally relate in that I'm still having my writer identity crisis, but I'm so happy that you found the genre that feels like home to you.

Pat W Coffey said...

Annette, thanks for sharing. It is encouraging for those of us that are still finding our way to know that the best of us also can have an identity crisis.

Anonymous said...

I feel like I've been in writer identity crisis forever. =P

But you know what, it makes sense that this is your home. And I really LOVED At the Water's Edge and Band of Sisters. In both of those books I cried. And while I suspect you could pull any genre off, I admit that those two books prove to me how much heart is in them.

I'm glad you've found your home. <3

Annette Lyon said...

You are all amazing! Thank you so much for your comments and support!

To answer a couple of questions:

My first 2 historicals sold quite well, but then Spires had a big dip in sales. They worried that meant the historical temple thing was dying. They let me do one more, as it was nearly done, but that was it. The sales of #4 went back up again. Yet in spite of its low sales, people who have read Spires often say it's their favorite. No one has ever said so, but I'm convinced it's because the cover looked too somber, like some historical tragedy, when it was really a romantic comedy.

And yes, I do have a couple of historical ideas for future women's fiction--I just need to dig into the research before beginning any stories there. And maybe take a field trip or two.

Roger Billings said...

Thanks for the wonderfully honest post. Don’t you think that learning to write from that inner voice is a kind of journey, finding and getting around all of the buffers and obstacles and seeing things and one’s self as we really are? There's a poem by Wallace Stevens where he struggled with writing otherworldly musical verse during the midst of the hard facts of the Great Depression. The poem is called Mozart, 1935, and a couple of lines are particularly applicable: “Be thou the voice, / Not you. Be thou, be thou / The voice . . .” Congratulations on finding your “voice.”


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