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?
- 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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