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More on Submitted Manuscripts - Genres

October 28, 2009 | Deborah Cooke | Comments (1)

Another detail that many of the manuscripts submitted through the TPL have in common is that they are not romance novels. This is okay - I read in lots of genres and can provide feedback on these works - but it’s important that you understand what you’re writing in order to structure it in the most marketable way, and also pitch it to the right people.

First of all, any story that includes romantic elements, or a love story, is not necessarily a romance novel. A romance novel chronicles the development of a romantic relationship, between a man and a woman. It begins as close as possible to the moment that they meet and ends soon after they decide to make a permanent bond. There is usually a confession of love in between. Whether they marry or simply agree to be together for the duration will depend upon the particular subgenre - traditionally all romance novels ended in marriage, but in many genres now, there are other forms of commitments made instead. Whether or not they are physically intimate or not during the course of the book will also depend upon the subgenre of the novel.

What you need to recognize, though, is that the point of a romance novel is the story of the romance. That romance provides the spine of the book and is the reason for the book’s existence. All other elements will be subordinate to this main plot.

The other issue is that a romance novel must have all of these elements to be considered a romance novel. So, a romantic story that ends tragically is not a romance novel. A love story in which one protagonist dies at the end is not a romance novel. The H.E.A. is not negotiable. It is a critical element in reader expectation of the romance genre.

Other genres of fiction have their own reader expectations. A mystery, for example, will begin as close as possible to the discovery of the crime that has been committed - that might be the discovery of the murder victim - and will conclude with the criminal being revealed and punished. The spine of a mystery novel is solving of the crime. All other elements will be subordinate to this main plot.

Just to illustrate this more clearly, let’s take the example of a story which includes both a murder and a romance. How this story is structured will determine how the author will market it - i.e. what agents and editors that author will query, how the author promotes the work once it’s sold etc etc. If the book were to be marketed as a romance with a mystery subplot, the romance would bracket the work. The book would begin with the couple’s first meet, the murder would be shortly thereafter - or they might meet at the discovery of the crime. The book would focus on the development of their romance, with the puzzle of the mystery drawing them together and into conflict. (They might suspect each other, for example, but still be attracted to each other.) It would be common for the book to feature scenes from the point of view of both the hero and the heroine, perhaps alternating, and also characteristic for the book to be written in third person. The book would end with the resolution of the romance - i.e. their making of a permanent commitment - which means that the mystery would be solved before that H.E.A.

If the book, in contrast, was to be a mystery with a romance subplot, it would begin with the discovery of the crime. Again, the meet and the discovery of the crime could happen in the same scene, but the balance would be different in this version - there wouldn’t be as much awareness between the two protagonists. Typically, this version of the story would have only one protagonist and the other might not have any POV scenes. It might be written in first person, because that increases the emotional connection between the sleuth/protagonist and the reader. The book would end with the solution to the crime, which would mean that either the H.E.A. between the couple would happen before that, or that it would not happen in the first book. It is common for a series of mysteries with a continuing character to feature an ongoing romance that takes many books to resolve, because that diminishes the focus upon the romance in each mystery.

The two stories might have a great deal in common. They might even have scenes in common. But the tone and the emphasis in the description and the structure will vary, depending upon which kind of book the author decides to write.

Make sense?

Now, what if your love story ends badly? Well, you will need to structure it differently than a romance novel to place it, because of those reader expectations. Here are a couple of choices:

• Women’s Fiction
A genre that is closely affiliated with the romance genre is women’s fiction. You may find it confusing that many authors write in both genres, but if you look carefully, you’ll see that their different books are marketed in different ways. The women’s fiction books, for example, are less likely to be shelved in the romance section and more likely to be shelved in fiction.

A women’s fiction novel focusses on the emotional journey of a female protagonist. It begins when she is jolted out of the rhythm of her life by some triggering event and ends when she has resolved that issue or made her peace with the new form of her life. A women’s fiction book has one main protagonist in the spotlight - although there are ensemble pieces which tell the interlocking stories of four women, for example, one character is always more prominent. Often this character’s journey is more significant than that of the other characters - you can usually tell structurally which character this is because the book will open and close with chapters from this character’s point of view. The classic example of this kind of ensemble women’s fiction novel is THE SAVING GRACES by Patricia Gaffney.

Further, a women’s fiction novel may be written in first person, it may feature scenes all from the perspective of one character (with the exception of the ensemble pieces mentioned above). It may feature a love story that ends badly, so long as the protagonist takes a lesson from that amorous adventure. Typically, these lessons are positive ones.

Authors I would consider to be writing in this genre would include Luanne Rice, Anita Shreve, and Jodi Picoult. These works may be closer to literary fiction, and in fact the line between women’s fiction and literary fiction can be blurry.

• Historical Fiction
Historical fiction has changed in recent years. I think this is because of the success of authors like Philippa Gregory and also the shying away from history, religion and politics within historical romance. There are readers who love the inclusion of history, religion and politics in their fiction, and they, I believe, are the ones buying this growing genre.

Historical fiction now frequently features a female protagonist and is, in a way, much like a women’s fiction novel except that it has an historical setting. We follow this protagonist through her life - she might be a real historical person - from one starting point to an end point. There may be love, romance, politics, sex, murder, death, betrayal, etc., but it is all subordinate to the evolving emotional journey of the protagonist. Again, this work may be closer to literary fiction or it may be more commercial - that will depend upon the author’s voice. I’d suggest that Philippa Gregory is probably the most outstanding current example.

• Literary fiction
Unlike commercial fiction, literary fiction is less concerned with the specifics of story and more concerned with how that story is told. A strong voice and a dexterity with language is important for literary fiction. A compelling protagonist, a vividly portrayed setting, an intriguing conflict - all of these are good additions to the mix but you don’t need to have them all to have a successful literary fiction book. Virtually all of the CanLit authors we know and love write literary fiction.

The other thing about literary fiction is that it is more embracing of different settings or different segments of society than commercial fiction tends to be. If you are writing a story set in a locale that is considered exotic in commercial fiction, literary fiction might be a better direction to pursue. Michael Ondaatje, Anne Micheals, Salman Rushdie, Robertson Davies, Zadie Smith, are just a few examples of literary fiction authors.

There are authors whose work straddles these lines which I’ve marked in the sand - Shawna Singh Baldwin, for example, is marketed as literary fiction even though her stories feature strong female protagonists. You can contrast that, though, with the work of Amy Tan which is marketed as commercial fiction. Read them both and you’ll see the different in pacing, voice, language, even though they write about similar issues - namely the challenges to women in balancing traditional culture and modern culture.

There are also some hybrids that don’t have official names. Midway between women’s fiction and romance is a slice of the market which is sold as romance yet shares many traits in common with women’s fiction. ChickLit is often written in first person from the heroine’s point of view and may or may not feature an H.E.A. - that puts it closer to women’s fiction. Romances sometimes called  Mainstream With Romantic Elements feature a strong romance recounted from the point of view of a female protagonist, but are more likely to end with an H.E.A. than ChickLit was. The four “Coxwell” books that I published as Claire Cross were of this last type.

Remember that books that hybridize two genres never do so in equal measure. One genre is always stronger, and that one genre will always dictate the structure of the book. The genre will define the spine of the book, the opening or inciting incident, and the closing episode of the book. Deciding what kind of book you’re writing will help you to determine how it should be structured.

Those of you with ill-fated love stories in your books need to structure differently than those who are writing H.E.A.s!


Toronto Public Library's Romance Writer-In-Residence Deborah Cooke discusses writing and getting published in the romance genre.

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