Posted On December 20, 2010 by Print This Post

Women’s Fiction: Hot or Not?

Today we close our year-long series exploring romance sub-genres. Although I’m sad to see this series end (we’ve had some fun, ay?), I’m excited to end it with one of my favorite sub-genres.  Let’s give a big RU welcome to literary agent Kevan Lyon and author Anjali Banerjee who will share their thoughts on the women’s fiction market.

Take it away, Kevan and Anjali!

Adrienne: How would you define this genre?  What are the plot elements that make a book a women’s fiction versus romance?

Kevan: This is probably one of the most difficult genres to define, because it is so broad and covers multiple “sub-genres” as well.  In the loosest definition though, it is a novel that appeals to women readers and touches on issues that are important to women.  Of course, women read all types of fiction, so I believe you could get a different definition for the category from almost anyone you ask!  Not terribly helpful I realize, but if you are writing “women’s fiction” then it means you can write a story that you believe women will love and write the story that inspires you.

When I read queries for women’s fiction I am always looking for a story that intrigues me personally – whether it is historical fiction or contemporary, I am looking for a story that I would pull from the bookstore shelf to read more about.  I am also looking for that elusive “hook”, the primary plot element that is going to set this story apart from other books on the shelf or that will cause a reader to pause a minute longer to read more about the book.  Often authors will use comparable titles to position their story in an agent or editors mind, i.e. here is an example where we used a film to immediately position a book we sold recently, Dog Days a Freaky Friday story with a canine twist in which a small, town café owner is struck by lightning and switches bodies with the lost dog following her, then must struggle with her new canine instincts to overcome her fear of dogs and learn how to live and love with the carefree perspective of a dog. In one rather run-on sentence you immediately have a sense of the “hook” and the story itself.

The plot elements that make a book women’s fiction versus romance is, in my view, based on whether or not the romance is the primary plot element driving the story.  If it is primarily about boy meets girl, falls in love with a happy ever after, then you are falling squarely in the world of romance.  While much of women’s fiction has a romance element in the novel, it is not usually the primary story theme driving the plot and characters’ motivations.

Anjali: Wikipedia defines women’s fiction as “an umbrella term for a wide-ranging collection of literary sub-genres that are marketed to female readers, including many mainstream novels, romantic fiction, ‘chick lit,’ and other sub genres.” So the term is pretty all-encompassing. But I think of women’s fiction as a category separate from romance. In women’s fiction, a woman’s life is the central focus of the storyline. Romance may or may not be an element of the story, and a happy ending is not guaranteed. Women’s fiction could be literary or commercial, dark or light.

According to the author Lisa Craig, “Trying to wrap a definition around women’s fiction is a little like trying to put a fence around a band of wild mustangs.” She quotes Nora Roberts as saying that women’s fiction centers on the woman’s story – not necessarily the romantic relationship.

Adrienne: What is your opinion of the state of women’s fiction?

Kevan: I think the market is strong.  Editors are actively acquiring women’s fiction and even asking us for strong, “book-group” type women’s fiction (novels that are the type of book that are often discussed at book groups or clubs—i.e. generally have strong emotional, relationship or family elements in the story).  At retail it can be challenging to break a new author out and to get readers’ attention, but it can be done.

Anjali: I don’t have statistics at my fingertips, but I believe it’s alive and growing.  There will always be a market for wonderful stories that women love to read.

Adrienne: What do you like best about women’s fiction? The least?

Kevan: I love the diversity of stories and topics that women’s fiction can cover.  I am a huge historical fiction fan of all types – straight women’s fiction and romantic historical fiction.  I also love a good contemporary story that captivates me and that I can lose myself in.  I really don’t have a “least favorite” thing, other than it can be very difficult to tell an author exactly why something doesn’t work for me.  All the elements can be in a manuscript, i.e. strong writing, good hook, etc.  but if I don’t fall in love with it, then it just isn’t right for me.

Anjali: A recent Salon.com article suggested that women have to write to a higher standard than men. If a man produces a mediocre novel, it’s just mediocre. If a woman writes a mediocre novel, it’s “what’s wrong with women’s fiction.” Women’s fiction has been accused of being all about misery (bereavement, child abuse, rape) or too fluffy. I like the ‘heavier’ books if the narrative voice is strong and the darkness is punctuated by moments of levity and quirky insights about life. I like a hopeful, if not necessarily happy, ending. As I get older, I find I’m less attracted to relentlessly grim women’s fiction. We get enough of the grimness in real life.

Adrienne: How do you think this genre has changed in the last five years?

Kevan: Other than the demise of the “chick-lit” type stories, I don’t think things have changed all that drastically because this genre is so broad and covers so many types of stories there is always something new to talk about, which I think has always been the case.  For example, with a book like THE HELP we have seen a resurgence of southern novels, and interest in them from editors and readers.  Every year there are exceptionally memorable books that seemed to dominate the lists and readers’ attention.  These are the surprises we are all hoping will happen to one of our authors!

Anjali: I believe that trends come and go. Right now, interest in anything labeled “chick-lit” is waning, but even this trend is difficult to pin down. Women still love to read stories of new love, heartbreak, new careers, and so on – stories that chick-lit encompassed. In my view, people will always love a good story that addresses deep, universal themes – love, loss, the meaning of life and family. At its core, women’s fiction is always about fresh new stories that appeal to primarily women readers.

Adrienne: What advice do you have for writers trying to break into this genre?

Kevan: You have to write the story that you are passionate about, but do your homework and submit to agents that based on your research are a good match for the type of story you are writing.   Then, be realistic about your work and if you aren’t getting interest in this book, then set it aside and keep writing.   Write because you must and don’t be discouraged, it is a very difficult process ahead of you, but not impossible.

Anjali: I say write the book of your heart. If you try to force yourself to write in a certain “genre” for marketing reasons, readers will know. They know whether or not your writing is authentic. Be true to yourself. Develop your voice. Your distinctive voice is what separates you from other writers. As is true for writing in any genre, take the time to hone your craft, work with mentors, and revise, revise, revise. Writing is a profession like any other – it requires constant learning and lifelong apprenticeship.

Adrienne: What genres/sub-genres do you feel are hot right now?  What’s not?

Kevan: This is a tough question! 

  • I think paranormal romance remains hot, hot, hot
  • Southern women’s fiction is popular
  • Contemporary women’s fiction or romance that is set in unique small towns, with emotional elements driving the plot are selling well
  • A well done, historical novel that features real historical figures is one that I generally find editors are eager to read.

Then, something completely new and original may come out and we will all be pointing to that particular type of story as “the” hottest thing in fiction!

Adrienne: Do you see any trends writers should avoid? Move toward?

Kevan: It is always smart to avoid “the latest trend”, because by the time you write a story based on this hot trend, submit it to an agent and possibly sell it, the trend is long in the rear view mirror and readers are moving on!  Write the story that is speaking to you, get lots of feedback from critical readers that you trust to give you honest advice and revise, revise, revise!

Adrienne: Do you have any additional thoughts you would like to share?

Kevan: Just to re-emphasize something that I mentioned above, which is to approach this process with realistic expectations, recognizing that it is very challenging.  You write because you must write, it is what you do for pleasure and it is your passion.   Realize that you probably won’t be able to make a living at your writing, unless you are lucky, for quite a while.  I don’t want to sound pessimistic, but I try to make sure my clients are realistic about the process and why they are doing it.

Anjali: Don’t be afraid to write a crappy first draft. Be open-minded, flexible, willing to revise based on feedback from trusted readers. Don’t give up. Be persistent. Keep writing.

Seek help in many places. As I’ve said, find mentors – brilliant people who know more than you do about various aspects of writing craft. Learn from them. Be humble. I’ve found great help from my editors, agents, and writing group partners. I’ve also found help with story structure in an unlikely but wonderful place, from a screenwriting coach named Michael Hauge. He works with many Hollywood directors and screenwriters, but his insight has helped me hone my work in an entirely different field – writing women’s fiction!

***

RU Crew, Kevan and Anjali will be popping in throughout the day so get those burning sub-genre questions ready! Anjali’s upcoming release Haunting Jasmine won’t be out until February, but Kevan and Anjali have offered to give one lucky commenter an advance copy that will be available in January.  Let’s see those comments, gang!

Thank you to Kevan and Anjali for being with us today.

Kevan’s Bio: With over 20 years in the publishing business, including 5 years as a Literary Agent with the Dijkstra Agency and 17+ years on the wholesale, retail and distribution side of the business, Kevan Lyon brings an informed and unique perspective to her work with clients. Her background on the buying and retail side of publishing affords her helpful insight into what types of books will sell and how to market them.  Kevan holds an MBA from the Anderson School of Management at UCLA.

Kevan handles women’s fiction, with an emphasis on commercial women’s fiction, young adult fiction and all genres of romance.  Her particular interest is historical fiction of all types.  She is particularly drawn to stories that draw the reader in and loves a sweeping, complex story with strong female characters.  Her authors in women’s fiction span a broad range of genres from more literary, commercial projects to all genres of romance including historical, contemporary, suspense and paranormal.  She loves to be surprised by a unique plot or characters and is always looking for a new, fresh voice or approach.  A few of Kevan’s recent and soon to be published books include UNFORGETTABLE, by Laura Griffin (Pocket Books); SCOUNDREL by Zoe Archer (Kensington); LEGACY by Cayla Kluver (Harlequin Teen); CATFISH ALLEY by Lynne Bryant (NAL), THE GENTLEMAN POET by Kathryn Johnson (Morrow); THE LAST TIME I SAW PARIS by Lynn Sheene (Berkley Publishing); HAUNTING JASMINE by Anjali Banerjee (Berkley Publishing);THE GUARDIAN by Margaret Mallory (Grand Central Publishing) and EARL OF DARKNESS by Alix Rickloff (Pocket Books).

She is also interested in non-fiction, representing authors in the areas of current events, narrative, memoir, environment, parenting and pets/animals.  With non-fiction projects she looks for topics that she is passionate about or that speak to issues of particular concern to women and families.

For more information visit the agency web site at http://www.marsallyonliteraryagency.com/,  visit their Facebook page, or follow Kevan on Twitter!

Anjali’s Bio: Anjali Banerjee was born in India, raised in Canada and California and received degrees from the University of California, Berkeley. She has written five novels for youngsters and three for grownups, and she’s at work on her next novel for adults to be published by Berkley/Penguin. Her books have received accolades in many review journals and newspapers. The Philadelphia Inquirer called her young adult novel, Maya Running (Wendy Lamb Books/Random House) “beautiful and complex” and “pleasingly accessible.” Publishers Weekly praised her upcoming novel for adults, Haunting Jasmine (Berkley/Penguin) as a “romance that spins refreshingly into a quirky, surprising denouement.” To see the full review of Haunting Jasmine click here.

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35 Responses to “Women’s Fiction: Hot or Not?”

  1. Kevan and Anjali,

    Thank you for joining us today! What a wonderful interview. Anjali, I love your book cover!

    Tracey

    Posted by TraceyDevlyn | December 20, 2010, 5:39 am
  2. It was great to hear from an author and literary agent specializing in women’s fiction. I appreciate Anjali’s advice to: “Be true to yourself. Develop your voice.” and Kevan’s reminder to write the story we’re passionate about and submit it to an agent that is a good match.

    My question is regarding multicultural women’s fiction. What do you see as some of the challenges or limitations for this sub-genre? What advice would you give to a writer that wants to break into multicultural women’s fiction? Thanks!

    Posted by Roxanne | December 20, 2010, 6:07 am
    • Multi-cultural fiction is always of interest in my view — if you can bring unique elements of diverse backgrounds to the page for the reader to enjoy as part of the story it brings unique and fresh elements to a story. The trick is making it an element in the story, but not the driving story element. The risk you run if the ethnicity of the characters, or other cultural elements are the main story point is that your book will be identified as “niche” fiction and it may have a harder time reaching a broader market.

      Thanks for stopping by!
      Kevan

      Posted by Kevan | December 20, 2010, 9:35 am
      • I agree with Kevan. It’s unfortunate that stories in which ethnicity is a driving element are classified as “niche” stories, but it does seem to be the reality.

        An example of a story in which ethnicity is the driving element might be, “Bengali-Canadian girl isn’t sure who she is – she wants to be Canadian for her friends and Indian for her family” (my YA novel, Maya Running) and she strives to develop her cultural identity. In a story in which ethnicity is texture but not the driving element, the girl is Indian-American but her central problem is the challenge in her goal to become a veterinarian and work with animals (my novel “Seaglass Summer”).

        I do think that decisions about cover art and promotion can also help to broaden or narrow the readership, regardless of the type of story, but that’s a whole different discussion!

        Posted by Anjali Banerjee | December 20, 2010, 9:44 am
        • Thanks for using examples of your stories to clarify, Anjali! I’ve given a lot of thought to the cover issue and its impact on whether my books would be classified as group-specific. It is unfortunate, but reflects the current reality. Thank you for sharing this.

          Posted by Roxanne | December 20, 2010, 11:01 am
          • Yes, covers do make a difference. For my novel, Maya Running, the cover in India features a black silhouette of a teenage girl, with other black, white and pink elements. The North American cover features a younger girl who is clearly brown-skinned, with a prominent image of the Hindu elephant-headed god, Ganesh, above her head. The American cover shouts “ethnic book” while the Indian cover is far more mainstream.

            I like the Haunting Jasmine cover as it has a mild suggestion of India but it’s otherwise very mainstream.

            Posted by Anjali Banerjee | December 20, 2010, 2:26 pm
      • Great! This advice let’s me know I’m on the right track. Thanks, Kevan.

        Posted by Roxanne | December 20, 2010, 10:54 am
  3. Good morning Kevan and Anjali. Thank you for being with us today. My question is for both of you. Do you find that it’s harder to sell women’s fiction (versus other genres) to publishers?

    Thanks so much!

    Posted by Adrienne Giordano | December 20, 2010, 7:57 am
    • Hi Adrienne,
      Thanks for having us today! Women’s fiction can be challenging to sell because the category is so broad and the rules are less defined than genre fiction. Although there are many more imprints and editors looking for that unique women’s fiction story for their list — which is always a plus during the submission process — it often feels even more competitive. It is also ever harder for a publishing house to successfully sell debut fiction than say romance because the market is less defined and the readers harder to reach. The romance market is defined by readers who buy many, many books each year and can be somewhat easier to reach through various romance media options (online and print),

      This is a tough question though! As we all know every genre is challenging to sell! Hope this helps…
      Kevan

      Posted by Kevan | December 20, 2010, 9:47 am
  4. Thank you for having us! Romance University is wonderful.

    Roxanne, what an important question. I’ve written novels that could be classified as “multicultural” fiction – for children and adults. The concept of “multicultural” is slippery and becoming increasingly complex. I found a definition of multicultural fiction as relating to “the American experience from minority points of view…” But what is a minority in America? I was born in India but raised in North America in a family of mixed heritage. My writing does not represent the viewpoint of a recent Indian immigrant, and yet (and here comes the “limitation” part) multicultural books are often lumped together as “Indian” fiction or “African American” fiction. These categories are perhaps necessary for marketing/shelving purposes but they don’t reflect the true diversity of experience. My Indian heritage is part of who I am, and I like writing about cultural identity, but I also love to write about other issues. I don’t want to be pigeonholed as solely an “Indian” writer. My children’s book, Looking for Bapu, is about a boy grieving the death of his grandfather. The fact the boy is Bengali-American adds texture to the story, but it’s not the *core* of the story. It’s about grief, a universal human experience.

    The beauty of being a multicultural writer is that you will stand out. I believe publishers are always looking for a strong voice and an unusual perspective. But in the end, it’s all about writing a good story with universal appeal. We *all* experience the basic human emotions – love, joy, loss, family, death, the search for meaning and belonging. The challenge is to touch people on a deep emotional level while also bringing your distinctive voice to the story.

    I’m eager to continue this conversation!

    Posted by Anjali Banerjee | December 20, 2010, 9:22 am
  5. I should clarify – “death” isn’t an emotion, but it’s part of the human experience that we all share!

    Posted by Anjali Banerjee | December 20, 2010, 9:24 am
  6. Morning Kevan and Anjali!

    Great post and great answers! A wealth of information in there…=)

    My question is about the emotional elements in women’s fiction…is there still a comedic bent to some of it? or is that a thing of the past….?

    Thanks for posting with us today!

    carrie

    Posted by Carrie Spencer | December 20, 2010, 9:35 am
    • Hi Carrie,
      I think anytime you can make a reader laugh and cry in women’s fiction it is a good thing! Straight comedy can be challenging in fiction, but anytime you are pulling at a readers’ heartstrings and emotions it means the book is resonating with them and you have them captivated. A good laugh isn’t essential in a story but often nice to have!
      thanks,
      Kevan

      Posted by Kevan | December 20, 2010, 9:51 am
    • Carrie,

      Based on my conversations with my editors, a comedic bent is all right, but the humor should be tied to a deeper theme with emotional heft. Otherwise you run the risk of having your manuscript classified as “chick lit” or “romantic comedy,” which isn’t hot *at the moment.* Do you agree with this, Kevan?

      For example, if the story is about a working woman looking for love, and she goes on a series of hilarious dates, the story may be too lightweight in today’s women’s fiction market. However, if the working woman is a widow, or a caregiver for an ailing parent, or divorced and searching for deeper meaning in her life by traveling the world (does this remind you of a recent bestseller?), with touches of humor, the story has more “emotional heft.” I hope that makes sense.

      Posted by Anjali Banerjee | December 20, 2010, 9:57 am
  7. Kevan and Anjali –

    Welcome to Romance University. What a bright spot on a cold and rainy day in Southern California!

    Can either of you give us some insight on southern women’s fiction? Would this merely be a WF book set somewhere in the south or a story that explores something about the southern culture?

    Again – thanks for joining us today!
    Kelsey

    Posted by Kelsey Browning | December 20, 2010, 10:02 am
    • One of the elements that draws readers to southern fiction is experiencing a story that is uniquely “southern” in my view. The story needs to evoke a uniquely southern sense, both in setting and traditions — both the positive elements of the south and darker points in the past. One of my authors, Lynne Bryant has a book coming out this spring, CATFISH ALLEY from NAL. The story is in alternating viewpoints between and older black woman and white woman. In it you step back in time through the memories of the older character. This story touches all of the areas we think of when you think of the American south — the lovely setting, the food, and of course the dark side of racism and how it has evolved over the years.

      Kevan

      Posted by Kevan | December 20, 2010, 10:27 am
  8. Thanks for the information!

    As Kevan mentioned, the broad scope of women’s fiction encompasses several sub-genres, so as I’m getting ready to query my novel, I’ve been struggling with how to categorize my story. It has the emotional journey of a wife/mother like women’s fiction, yet it also has a paranormal/urban fantasy premise. Do you think a paranormal women’s fiction sub-genre exists? Or would I be better off describing it as urban fantasy, possibly adding “with women’s fiction elements”? Thanks!

    Posted by Jami Gold | December 20, 2010, 10:41 am
    • This is a great question and I can’t wait to hear what Kevan says! LOL. Heather Webber has a series (Lucy Valentine series) that has a paranormal element to it. I love these books, but couldn’t figure out what the genre would be because there’s the main character’s journey, there’s a little romance and a mystery element where Lucy uses her psychic ability to help solve crimes. Heather was on RU a few months back and she told us that the series falls under the women’s fiction umbrella.

      Posted by AdrienneGiordano | December 20, 2010, 10:48 am
    • Hi Jami,
      Yes, that is a great question — many more stories seem to include paranormal elements of some sort in them, i.e. magical elements in Haunting Jasmine to urban fantasy, where the paranormal elements are absolutely critical to both the story and characters. If your story is “paranormal first” then identifying it as urban fantasy or some other paranormal description might be best. If the paranormal elements are more secondary to the overall story I would suggest defining it as women’s fiction. If you are seeking representation look for an agent that seems to work in both urban fantasy/paranormal as well as women’s fiction. Your agent can get a better sense of how to position it to editors and should have an idea as to who might be interested in your type of story.

      Good luck to you!
      Kevan

      Posted by Kevan | December 20, 2010, 10:58 am
      • Thanks for the feedback, Kevan. That makes perfect sense–is the paranormal aspect central to the story itself or just an element?

        And thanks Adrienne & Kerry for letting me know I’m not alone!

        Posted by Jami Gold | December 20, 2010, 1:15 pm
        • Hi Jami,
          Without reading more about your story it is hard to know if it is central to the story, but based on your brief description it sounds like it may be — which means that is a key part of your pitch! Look to work with someone who loves and appreciates this type of fiction, and I believe in today’s market there are many who do!
          best,
          Kevan

          Posted by Kevan | December 20, 2010, 1:59 pm
    • Thanks for asking this question Jami! I’ve the same thing (almost) going with my women’s fiction novel. It’s romantic women’s fiction (1st person POV) but has a paranormal element. I’ve struggled with how to “position” my MS when I am set to query. It’s also made it difficult researching which agents to query. Best of luck to you with your query process.

      Posted by Kerry Lonsdale | December 20, 2010, 11:00 am
  9. Thanks Kevan and Anjali for answering questions. First question is for Anjali. How long did it take you to find your agent and how long did it take for a publisher to make an offer. Second question is for Kevan. What grabs you as a reader/agent when reading the opening pages? Conflict? Emotions?

    Thanks for answering,
    Dawn

    Posted by Dawn Chartier | December 20, 2010, 3:31 pm
    • Dawn,

      I’d been writing for a long time before I began looking for an agent. I wrote stories as a child, then put aside writing for several years as I studied for my university degrees and did other things. I returned to writing fiction in my late 20s, took the Writers Digest correspondence course in short story writing, and began having short stories published in literary journals in 1994 (I began receiving many rejection letters as well). I also wrote for newspapers and coffee table history books.

      I wrote my first novel in about 2001, and it was roundly rejected by dozens of agents. One agent wrote, “We like the writing but the story isn’t different enough.” This was probably my 50th rejection letter. So, I decided to write a story that was really *different*: Maya Running, a story loosely based on my childhood as an Indian immigrant growing up in Canada. Two days after I sent query letters to agents (in 2003, I think it was), I started receiving phone calls and e-mails from agents. I had my first agent within a month, and we had two offers – from Penguin and Random House – within another month or so.

      Kevan is my third – and final – agent. Sometimes it takes a little time to find the agent who’s right for you, especially if you’re newly published. I signed on with Kevan last year and plan to stay with her forever!

      Probably way more than you wanted to know.

      Posted by Anjali Banerjee | December 20, 2010, 3:40 pm
    • Hi Dawn,
      You could probably pick up any of my author’s books and each of them will have a different type of opening! So, hard to say what grabs me, but something must be happening — whether it is action, drama, violence, a love scene, a revelation in a conversation — something is going on that immediately draws you into the story and the characters. Where I find authors sometimes go wrong is when they try to set the scene for the reader in the early pages — introducing characters, providing backstory on them or the setting, etc. They are doing a bit of a “brain dump” on the reader without moving the story into gear. Avoid this at all costs! Jump right into the drama and give the reader the background later through interactions with your characters and the story.

      Hope that helps!
      Kevan

      Posted by Kevan | December 20, 2010, 5:25 pm
  10. Great aspect of current woman’s fiction. Why don’t both of you come to the 4th annual Alaska Writers Conference next year and carry this out in your presentations and individual story/craft sessions? It will be in early September. It would be great to have a good current author and an acquisitions editor.
    May I hear an amen to that?

    Posted by Jim Misko | December 20, 2010, 3:54 pm
  11. Great discussion on women’s fiction. I enjoyed Anjali’s novels, Invisible Lives.

    A women’s fiction author with a comedic bent is Allison Bottke. One of her novels harkened back to the whole disco era, which made for a number of laughs, but it was a serious contemporary story of one woman’s journey.

    Posted by PatriciaW | December 21, 2010, 2:52 pm

Trackbacks/Pingbacks

  1. [...] Women’s Fiction: Hot or Not? | Romance University. Mostly encouraging commentary, slightly on the long-side, but with a couple of Whoa! moments. If nothing else, check out author Anjali Banerjee’s second paragraph response to the first question asked by the interviewer. Has TOL (The Other Lisa) got something she wants to tell us?? [...]

  2. [...] out a recent interview with me and my agent, Kevan Lyon, on Romance University. The topic is Women’s Fiction: Hot or [...]

  3. [...] University explores the subject of women’s fiction with literary agent Kevan Lyon and author Anjali Banerjee in a discussion that continues into the [...]

    Industry News | RWA-WF - December 22, 2010

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