Monday, August 04, 2014

On Romance, Women's Fiction, & Making a Dude Care

I’ve written before about how writers are sadists.

We enjoy hearing that a reader got only an hour or two of sleep because they couldn’t stop reading our book.

We love hearing that we made people cry (especially, truth be told, people who don’t typically cry; that’s a total coup) (and calls for a fist pump/high five/celebratory dance).

I personally also love to hear that I made people laugh. Humor isn’t typically my wheelhouse, although I do try to have lighter moments in my stories, and I love it when humor works. I need help with it, though. An early draft of a humorous scene from Band of Sisters garnered the following comment from critique friend Robison Wells: “This isn’t just not funny; it’s egregiously unfunny.”

In that case, fortunately, the fix was easy. It was a pacing issue, and when Rob pointed out where things were off and how the focus had shifted from where it needed to be, I was able to do a pretty painless revision and make a truly funny scene. (As evidenced by the fact that I’ve had readers tell me they laughed until they cried reading it. Score! Fist pump!)

As I’ve moved along my writing journey, I’ve found myself often touching on romantic themes in my work, something that seems natural, as the majority of books sold in the world are Romances.

Contrary to some people’s belief, Romances aren’t about the kissing and/or bedroom; they’re about the relationship. Proof from my career, although I could cite a bunch of other evidence: I’m part of a very successful anthology series made up entirely of Romance novellas that are all PG-rated. 

I think love stories connect with a huge portion of readers because all of us can relate to loving someone else. Consider other genres: few of us will ever be a spy like 007, or live in a dystopian world, or learn magic, or solve a murder mystery, but all of us will experience love of some kind during our lives, whether it’s romantic, platonic, familial, or even for a pet. We all know what it means to love, and love is an emotion that’s hardwired into us; it’s something we naturally seek.

Yet in addition to writing PG-rated love stories, I’ve found myself moving more and more in the direction of a genre that many people have a hard time defining: Women’s Fiction, often abbreviated as WF.

I wrote about this some time ago, about when I finally recognized where my literary home is. It sounds odd now to say that settling happily in WF was hard, but someone who isn’t a writer in Utah probably won’t get that here, among some of the bestselling young adult and middle grade novelists in the country, that NOT choosing to write for kids is tantamount to abandoning your religion. (I call it the YA cult mentality, and I’m only half kidding; children and youth are the one true and living market to a lot of writers here.) But back to Women’s Fiction.

Some people think WF is another name for Romance novels, which couldn’t be farther from the truth. A WF novel may have a romantic element (think Olivia and Athena from The Newport Ladies Book Club series), but at their core, Women’s Fiction stories are about the lives women lead (and trust me, we have more going on than the man in our lives—he’s important, but not the whole picture).

So what is Women’s Fiction?

Often you’ll find WF books about a group of women (think Band of Sisters or The Help—not that I’m putting myself in Kathryn Stockett’s league!).

For that matter, a lot of WF has one or two male characters who are central to plot and who have a point of view shown in the story (such as most Jodi Picoult books, even though she argues the label, and The Time Traveler’s Wife).

The important thing about WF is that the storyline deals with issues and problems that affect women specifically, and which are told through a feminine lens.

My favorite WF novelist of all time is Barbara Kingsolver. When I put down The Poisonwood Bible, my first thought: I’m not worthy. I’ll never be that good. (Not that I won’t keep trying to get better all the time. But wow. She’s in another ballpark altogether.)

Other WF writers I enjoy are Kristin Hannah and Erin Lindsay McCabe (a new discovery!). I could list many more.

Some men have countered that hey, why isn’t there a Men’s Fiction genre?

My answer: because men prefer to read thrillers, spy novels, epic fantasies, horror, and a ton of other stuff, and many of those genres are already marketed specifically toward men.

Plus, men typically aren’t nearly as touchy feely or interested in someone else’s introspection as women tend to be. Women love to think and analyze and feel. And they like to read about other women doing the same thing.

I think many men would get bored with that kind of thing. Sort of a “Nothing’s happening! Blow something up already!”

Yes, I’m making a broad generalization; plenty of men read WF, and plenty of women read supposedly “male” genres. But Women’s Fiction is at least something to hang a label on; it’s a handy way to categorize books by women, about women, and largely for women.

(Note: WF is often what you’ll find read and discussed at female book clubs. Not always, but often. Another term for many novels found in book clubs is upmarket fiction. WF and Upmarket have some overlap, but they aren’t the same thing.)

In some respects, I think of my first Women’s Fiction title as being Band of Sisters, and pretty much every novel I’ve published since then, except for Toni, has been solidly WF. BofS most certainly was my first novel without any romantic thread of any kind. All of my main characters were already married, albeit separated from their spouses due to deployment.

But when I look back, I can see that even my first published novel, Lost Without You, is largely WF masquerading as a Romance. When LWY first came out in 2002, I hesitated telling people that it was a Romance. Part of that was because, back then, I felt there was more of a stigma to the term than there is now. I didn’t want people thinking I was writing fluffy bodice rippers.

Yet the story really is about two people who wind their way to finally being together, even though the road is bumpy and there doesn’t seem to be a way to make it work. So yeah. That’s sort of a classic definition of Romance. It just so happens to also deal with mental illness, becoming widowed, second marriages, and other issues that feel more like WF.

Move to my second published novel, At the Water’s Edge, and you get more issue-driven elements. That one has domestic abuse, a near-rape, stalking, drunk driving, a car crash, and death. And, oh, yes, a romantic story, too.

Even my most recent Romance, A Portrait for Toni, which I like to think of as a light Romance, is also largely issue-driven (think eating disorders, family dysfunction, and death) even though the story at its heart is probably the most clean-cut Romance I’ve ever written and has a lot of lighter parts. (I still get a happy sigh every time I read the final scene. I love that book . . .)

When you add the fact that I love to explore hard topics (most recently, prescription drug abuse in Ilana’s Wish), and I love writing about relationships, I suppose it’s no surprise that I ended up feeling most at home in the Women’s Fiction world.

Sure, I’ll still write Romances, especially novellas for the Timeless Romance Anthology series. I love doing those; they are so much fun.

But if pressed to pick a favorite genre to write, I have to go with Women’s Fiction. That’s where I get to explore romantic relationships as well as harder, deeper stuff that makes people think and feel (and maybe cry) and maybe even look at the world in a different way.

So I found it delightful recently when I sent some of my WIP to Robison to read for feedback, and his response was, “Please tell me this is a Romance. Because I like these characters, and I want everything to work out for them.”

This is a dude. A masculine, manly man who wanted my story to be a Romance so he’d know in advance that it would end happily ever after.

When I said that sorry, no, it’s Women’s Fiction, he came back with, “Ah, crap. Someone’s going to die or something bad is going to happen. I just want them to be happy.”

He cared about my characters enough to want them to have a happy ending.

I consider that a huge accomplishment: I’ve made a dude care about my WF WIP.

*Fist pump*

*High five*

*Happy dance*

(Oh, and considering that this book is about an ugly war, it’s safe to say that some bad stuff happens . . . Sorry, Rob. I hope the ending will be satisfying to you!)


RobisonWells said...

It reminds me of a description that movie critic Eric D. Snider once gave: A romance has two people who fall in love. A chick flick has two people who fall in love and then one of them dies.

Regardless, I'll be rewriting your ending to end happily.

Susan Anderson said...

Love the quote from Robison Wells. An honest critic is the best kind of friend ever.

And by the way, I love Kristin Hannah, too.


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