My Longest Love Affair

Hello, readers —

Happy Valentine’s Day, writers! I was going to devote today to going through the various subgenres of romance, but then it struck me: for most of us, our love affair with the printed word outlasts most of our person-to-person relationships. Bears consideration, I think. I may live with the person I love, but in my house, it’s the books that have their own room.

When I made my will a few years ago (the natural outcome of having bought a house in which to store my mountains of books), I walked into the lawyer’s office with a list of who would get what books in the event of my untimely demise. The lawyer stared at the list blankly for a few beats, then looked up and asked, “Um, do you care who ends up with your bank account?”

Compared to whose grubby mitts will be fondling my first editions of MUSIC FOR CHAMELEONS, BEING THERE, and POSSESSING THE SECRET OF JOY while I’m wrapped in eternal slumber? Was he mad?

This is not, I am told, the way normal people’s priorities work. (I was told this, as a matter of fact, by the lawyer. At some length.)

I was thinking about this over the weekend, because I finally went and saw CAPOTE, part of my lifetime habit of rushing out and seeing the first movie that grabs me when I just don’t want to think about a real-life situation anymore. This is how, in high school, immediately after going to the hospital to visit a good friend who had tried to slash his wrists, I found myself inadvertently sitting through ORDINARY PEOPLE, a story about a boy who tried to slash his wrists; I once cajoled a friend depressed from a break-up with her womanizing boyfriend into just walking into the movie with the nearest starting time — and subjected her to MRS. PARKER AND THE VICIOUS CIRCLE, which features about four womanizers per square inch of celluloid.

So, naturally, when I was frustrated with a glitch in the publication of my memoir, I rushed right out and saw a film about a writer who gets himself embroiled in hugely emotionally-trying dynamics while writing a book. My guardian angel must be writing her doctoral dissertation on irony.

Truman Capote is one of my all-time favorite writers – as if his sentence structure hadn’t been dreamy enough to catch the eye of a book-loving teenager, he and I share a birthday — so I had rather avoided the movie. I don’t like biopics much in the first place, and biopics about writers tend to gloss lightly over the fact that any good writer spends inordinate amounts of time hunched over a typewriter or keyboard. Hunt, peck; sit motionless, thinking; wiggle fingers furiously while spouse tries to instill some recognition of the passage of time. Not exactly the stuff of high drama.

Before you dismiss this, think about it: did anyone on the planet who saw HENRY AND JUNE walk out of it remembering any scenes of either Henry Miller or Anaïs Nin WRITING? I rest my case.

CAPOTE does in fact show the writer writing from time to time, so it gets brownie points in my book (although I don’t believe for a second that our Truman really had a phone sitting on the corner of his writing desk — and stopped writing the second it rang, every time. I once kept writing through a minor earthquake, because I was too embroiled in a scene to notice.) As the film went on, I found myself feeling very defensive on Capote’s behalf, not so much toward the moviemakers as toward the other characters in the movie. Here was arguably the greatest constructor of sentences in the English language living at the time, and all anyone around him seemed to be able to manage to do was whine at him alternately about not writing fast enough or wanting to see how a story turned out before he finished writing about it.

So, actually, it was a really good movie to see while steaming over editorial suggestions. I highly recommend it.

Now, it may not throw a very flattering light upon my character, but honestly, I don’t think I would have gotten as steamed up by a judgmental biopic about my high school boyfriend as I did by this film about my other great teenage love, a brilliant writer I knew only from the printed page. And that’s the miracle of talent, my friends: its products are adhesive to our souls, and its effects are lasting.

So as part of my long-overdue valentine to Mr. Capote, I am going to talk about literary fiction now — because his is invariably one of the first names mentioned in any definition of it. And deservedly so.

I have yet to meet an agent or editor who can give a definition of literary fiction less than a paragraph long. Like art, they know literary when they see it. Yet ask any three agents whether THE WORLD ACCORDING TO GARP, THE SHIPPING NEWS, and THE COLOR PURPLE are mainstream or literary, and you will probably get at least two different answers.

Frankly, many of us fiction writers find something very compelling in the label. Let’s face it, most of us like to think our writing has some literary value, and critical opinion about what is High Literature changes with alarming frequency. Time and time again, I meet writers at conferences who tell me, “Well, my book walks that thin line between mainstream and literary.” Without reading all of their work — which is really the only way to categorize it — it’s impossible to tell whether these writers honestly are experimenting with new directions in style and construction (which is not a bad definition of literary fiction), or if they merely want to convey that they believe their work is well-written.

Lest you think, as many aspiring writers do, that all good fiction is literary, let me remind you that these are marketing categories, not value judgments, and mislabeling your work will most likely result in its ending up on the wrong desk. In purely practical terms, literary fiction is quite a small percentage of the fiction market (and one whose buyers are overwhelmingly women, in North America), so do be aware that if you pick that category, you may be limiting your book’s perceived market appeal when you pitch it to professionals.

When in doubt, mainstream fiction is usually safe, because it is the broadest — and most marketable — category. And it’s a fairly all-inclusive category in the PNWA contest, too, one that has historically covered literary fiction, too.

If you are in serious doubt whether your book is sufficiently literary to count as literary fiction, apply one of two tests. First, take a good, hard look at your book: under what circumstances can you envision it being assigned in a college English class? If the subject matter or plot is the primary factor, chances are the book is not literary. If you can honestly envision an upper-division undergraduate seminar discussing your symbolism and word choices, it probably is.

The other test — and I swear I am not suggesting this merely to be flippant; industry professionals do this — is to open your manuscript randomly at five different points and count the number of semicolons, colons, and dashes per page. If there are more than a couple per page, chances are your work is geared for the literary market.

If you don’t believe me, I implore you to spend an hour in any reasonably well-stocked bookstore, going from section to section, pulling books off the shelf randomly, and applying the punctuation test. Mainstream fiction tends to assume a tenth-grade reading level: literary fiction assumes an audience educated enough to use a semicolon correctly, without having to look up the ground rules. If you are writing for most genre audiences (science fiction and fantasy being the major exception), most agents and editors prefer to see simpler sentence structure.

Do be careful, however, when applying this second test, because writers tend to LOVE fancy punctuation. Oh, I know this is going to break some tender hearts out there, but if you want to write fiction professionally, you need to come to terms with an ugly fact: no one but writers particularly LIKE semicolons. If you are writing for a mainstream audience, you should consider minimizing their use; if you are writing most genre fiction, you should consider getting rid of them entirely.

Again, I don’t make the rules: I merely pass them along to you.

Okay, now I’ve depressed myself with the image of hundreds of you out there doing a search-and-replace on your collective thousands of semicolons. I’m going to launch into the Romance genre subcategories, to cheer myself up again.

You can, of course, simply label your romance novel as ROMANCE — but if it falls into any of the subgenres, it would behoove you to label it accordingly, as there are both agents and editors who specialize that tightly. In whichever category you pick, however, you might want to go light on the semicolons. In alphabetical order:

CATEGORY ROMANCE: This is actually what many people think of automatically as a romance novel — the Harlequin type, super-short novels written according to a very rigid structure.

CONTEMPORARY: Having a current-affairs issue at its core OR a protagonist who is a woman deeply devoted to her career.

EROTICA is not just a euphemism for pornography aimed at women; it’s sexually-explicit writing where arousal is the point, yet is not specifically pornographic. Basically, erotica has to have some plot and character development, as opposed to the um, more clinical characterization of intercourse one finds in pornography. But, realistically, your grandmother would have considered almost all erotica pornographic. (Well, maybe not, depending upon what your grandmother was into.)

FANTASY and CHICK LIT are hyphenates within the genre: basically, the conventions of these categories are grafted onto the ROMANCE genre. Natural choices, I think.

HISTORICAL ROMANCE has a zillion subcategories, primarily because its subcategories are specific to period and locale. A few of the biggies: REGENCY, SCOTTISH, MEDIEVAL, TEXAS, WESTERN, MIDDLE EASTERN, and ELIZABETHAN ENGLAND.

INSPIRATIONAL: If your romance novel is informed by spirituality, it belongs here. If you have romance-writing gifts, you might want to consider the Christian romance market: it’s been growing by leaps and bounds in recent years. And if you feel inclined to write Christian romances for teens… well, let’s just say that if you’re good at it, you may not need to worry about whether Social Security will still exist by the time you retire.

MULTICULTURAL: Not all of the people falling in love are white. Seriously, that’s what this means. I don’t quite understand this euphemism, since generally books labeled MULTICULTURAL are about a single culture, but again, I don’t make the rules.

PARANORMAL and GHOST ROMANCE are divided by a distinction I do not understand, because silly me, I always assumed that ghosts were paranormal. Sorry. Check with Romance Writers of America.

ROMANTIC SUSPENSE: this used to be called Women in Jeopardy or, more colloquially, Bodice Rippers. No comment, except to remark that both Lewis “Scooter” Libby and Newt Gingrich have published works in this subgenre.

TIME TRAVEL: Your protagonist has given up on the opposite sex in her own timeframe and goes wandering. I’ve always thought that a steamed-up reworking of THE TIME MACHINE would make a great time travel romance — so please, if you have talents in that direction, take this idea and run with it. Just remember to thank me in your acknowledgments, as a cryptic reference for my biographers to find in years to come.

So have a lovely Valentine’s day, everyone, whether you are curled up in chaste enchantment with your favorite author’s work or road-testing something truly unusual for your erotic novel, to see if it is even physically possible. I’m going to steal an hour from writing this afternoon to re-read BREAKFAST AT TIFFANY’S, because what’s better on a day like this than a bittersweet visit from one’s long-ago love?

Keep up the good work!

– Anne Mini

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