Wednesday, October 12, 2016

This Genre/That Genre—Classifying Stories

So Many Choices
by Normandie Fischer

Genre branding, not unlike author branding, is a hot topic in writerly circles. Querying authors scan agent and publisher websites, praying their work will be among the coveted.

I just returned from my second WFWA (Women’s Fiction Writers Association) Retreat in Albuquerque, New Mexico, where a slew of us gathered to laugh and learn and prod each other in our writing journey. We also discussed branding and what constitutes women’s fiction.

I thought I knew. But my definition was too narrow, so narrow, in fact, that I’d pushed my two latest works forward into the romantic suspense genre. A friend at the retreat actually approached me to say how brave she thought I was to have stepped out of women’s fiction—my comfort zone—to publish in a separate genre.

And yet. And yet.

Were Two from Isaac's House and From Fire into Fire to be marketed differently?

I just came across something in a blog hosted by Amy Sue Nathan, the author who first introduced me to the concept of women's fiction and who pointed me to WFWA when it was merely an email loop. Her post on September 29 was titled "Women's Fiction Merges With Suspense by Kate Moretti." Kate writes: "These novels [she discusses several] might be classified as suspense novels, but they have all the earmarks of Women’s Fiction. What they hold dearest is familiar to us: children, husbands, family, livelihood. Their journey is both external and internal – after all, you can’t risk everything and everyone you love and remain unchanged at the end. Life, and fiction, doesn’t work like that."

And this year, two finalists in the Star Award given by WFWA for the best in published women’s fiction wrote stories full of magical realism; one of these, by Scott Wilbanks, actually won. Okay, thought I, if those fit as women’s fiction, what about mine?

In the middle of asking this question, I did what I do far too often: I checked my reviews. (You never do that, do you?) And in checking them, I came across an interesting answer. Have you ever had that happen? Ask a question, find the answer in an unexpected place? Here’s what Carrie wrote on her blog, Reading Is My Superpower.

“If you asked me how to classify this book in a library, I’m not sure where I would place it. Two From Isaac’s House reads like Southern fiction but is very much a novel of international intrigue. You will want to … absorb the delicious way the writing lilts across the page, but … Fischer’s command of international suspense will keep you on the edge of your seat. And then there’s the new romance and the new friendships…. In a book that could go political in a heartbeat, the plot stays just outside that line and instead whispers a few subtle hints toward the spiritual that both surprised and touched me with their presence. Normandie Fischer’s latest book is definitely a dichotomy of genres, but I loved the result!”

More lovely words followed, but there the reviewer was, talking about crossing genre lines. Two from Isaac’s House seemed more suspense-y than my second Carolina Coast novel, Heavy Weather, slightly more edgy than any of my other books. And yet, was it edgy in the right way, edgy enough for diehard romantic suspense readers? And did the fact that it “reads like Southern fiction” affect its categorization?

Back when I first wrote the story (way back, a couple of decades ago), I wanted to create two characters who didn’t fit genre norms. (That should have told me something, shouldn’t it?) I’d already decided to set a story in Italy and grab some of the Middle Eastern angst from people I knew, but I wasn’t interested in heroines with black belts in karate or their sharpshooter male counterparts. I wanted regular folk who just happened to find themselves in a world peopled with spies and dead bodies. I wanted to know how they'd change and grow when confronted with the unusual and uncomfortable. The story won critical acclaim in manuscript form but languished on a floppy disc while I wrote other stories and other books. When I decided to bring it to life in the now of Israeli/Palestinian politics and to tie it to my Southern fiction by having the main female protagonist be from Morehead City, NC, I faced the classification quandary in real time.

My critique partner Robin Patchen said she dealt with the same issue in two of her suspense novels, which she has since rebooted as women’s fiction. I asked writer Jennifer Fromke what she thought. According to Jennifer, location differentiates my books, all of which have elements of suspense and romance but work as women’s fiction. (Obviously, I should have asked her way back when.)

Here I was with category/branding angst. At the WFWA Retreat, I met Kathleen Irene Paterka, a highly successful (and delightful) indie author whose early work hit a snag when acquisitions editors wanted her to revamp it—and her 35-year-old protagonist—into YA. Her mentors suggested she ignore them and go indie. She has never looked back because she can write what she wants, when she wants, and in whatever genre she wants—and she doesn’t worry about classifications.

I think that’s where I am—finally. I write what I write, and I’m letting it settle where it will. (Hoping Amazon categories agree with me.)

What about you? Has the branding dilemma smacked you in the face? Do you write in one easily defined category, no shifting around or smudging? Or do you like to color outside the lines?

If you’re traditionally published, what has your experience been with genre boundaries? Do you think there’s been a shifting in acceptance of the odd and unique? I know literary fiction has always had room for the James Joyces and the Virginia Wolfes, but if you write genre fiction, do you find your work constrained and forced to remain inside the boundaries? Obviously, Scott Wilbank’s publisher (Sourcebooks) had no trouble with a little magic thrown in to liven things.

Some of my contemporaries in RWA PAN use pen names for their different genres, but that feels awkward to me. I mean, how do they remember who they are when they sign books or write to fans? Have you considered writing under different names?
What to do?

Talk to me. I want to know your thoughts on branding and genre shifting—and on enlarging definitions within a particular genre.

See, separated books. Time to move the pics?

Normandie studied sculpture in Italy before receiving her BA, summa cum laude with special honors in English. Her women’s fiction titles include Becalmed (2013), Sailing out of Darkness (2013)Heavy Weather (2015), and more recently two filled with international intrigue, Two from Isaac’s House (2015) and the novella, From Fire into Fire (2016). Normandie and her husband spent a number of years on board their 50-foot ketch, Sea Venture, sailing in the Sea of Cortez, Mexico. They now live in coastal North Carolina, where she takes care of her aging mother.
Normandie's Website