Hello, readers –
Yesterday, I broke the unhappy news that each and every one of you who ever plans to pitch to an agent or editor, either at the upcoming PNWA conference or elsewhere, needs to pick a conceptual box into which to load your book. In other words, you need to pick a book category — and only ONE book category — for your book.
Since I know that this suggestion is making some of you cringe, let’s do a little meditation to help you acclimate yourself to this new reality, shall we? Everybody ready? Okay, picture me in your mind as your fairy godmother, wings and all. (I’m a brunette, if that helps with your visualization. In fact, I look like a travel poster for Corfu.)
Got it? Good. Now picture me lifting my spangled wand high and whacking you over the head with it. Poof! You are now no longer capable of being wishy-washy about your book category. Wasn’t that easy? Now you will speak — and even think — of your book as a marketable product, as agents and editors do. You have been magically forever deprived of the unprofessional desire to describe your book as, “sort of a cross between a high-end thriller and a romantic comedy, with Western elements” or “Have you ever seen the TV show HOUSE? Well, it’s sort of like that, except set in a prison in Southeast Asia in the Middle Ages!” This is simply not an industry where vagueness pays off.
While I was at it, I also knocked out of your vocabulary the cringe-inducing phrases “fiction novel,” “a true memoir,” and “…but it is written like literary fiction.” You’re welcome.
Did the last phrase in that list surprise you? If you write anything BUT literary fiction, the kindest thing your fairy godmother could possibly have done for you is prevent you from EVER saying it to an agent, editor, publicist, interviewer, or even the guy next to you on the bus at any point in the next fifty years. Why? Because IF YOU WRITE IN A GENRE, YOU SHOULD BE PROUD OF THE FACT, not apologetic.
And believe me, hedging about the writing in your book WILL come across as apologetic to professional ears. Think about it: is someone who has devoted her life to the promotion of science fiction and fantasy going to THANK you for indirectly casting aspersions on the writing typical of that genre?
It is also a turn-off, professionally speaking, a signal that the writer might not be very well versed in the genre. Why, the average agent will think during such a pitch, doesn’t this author write in the language of his chosen genre? Every genre has its handful of conventions; is this writer saying that he’s simply decided to ignore them? Why write in a genre, if you’re not going to write in the genre’s style? And why am I asking myself this string of rhetorical questions, instead of listening to the pitch this writer is giving?
See the problem?
There is an unfortunately pervasive rumor on the writers’ conference circuit that a genre label automatically translates in professional minds into writing less polished than other fiction. No, no, no: genre distinctions, like book categories, are indicators of where a book will sit in a bookstore; they’re not value judgments. Believe me, an agent who is looking for psychological thrillers is far more likely to ask to see your manuscript if you label it PSYCHOLOGICAL THRILLER than just as FICTION. And an agent interested in psychological thrillers will not even sniff at a book labeled LITERARY FICTION.
Trust me on this one, for your fairy godmother speaks from hard personal experience. I write mainstream fiction and memoir, but I once had the misfortune to be critiqued by an editor who did not handle either. One of those conference assignment snafus I was mentioning the other day. We could not have had less to say to each other if he had been speaking Urdu and I Swedish, but as those of you who have been reading the blog for the last couple of weeks know, I am a great believer in trying to turn these conference matching accidents into learning opportunities. So, gritting my teeth like a nice girl, I listened patiently to what he had to say about the first chapter of my novel.
If only I had been clutching my magic wand at the time. What he had to say, unsurprisingly, was that while he found the writing excellent, he would advise that I change the protagonist from a woman to a man, strip away most of the supporting characters, and begin the novel with a conflict that occurred two-thirds of the way through the book, the fall of the Soviet Union. “Then,” he said, beaming at me with what I’m sure he thought was avuncular encouragement, “you’ll have a thriller we can market, dear. I’d been happy to take another look at it then.”
Perhaps I had overdone the politeness bit; I hate it when total strangers call me dear. I’m not THAT cute, I tell you. But I kept my mien pleasant. “But it’s not a thriller.”
He could not have looked more appalled if I had suddenly pulled a switchblade on him. “Then why are you talking to me?” he huffed, and hied himself to the bar for what I believe was another Scotch.
In retrospect, I can certainly understand his annoyance: if I had been even vaguely interested in writing thrillers, his advice would have been manna from heaven, and I should have been grateful for it. I would have fallen all over myself to thank him for his 20-minute discourse about how people who read thrillers (mostly men) dislike female protagonists, particularly ones who (like my protagonist) are well educated. The lady with the Ph.D. usually does not live beyond the first act of a thriller, he told me, so yours truly is going to keep her pretty little head sporting its doctoral tam in another genre. Dear.
I learned something very important from this exchange, though: specialists in the publishing biz are extremely book-category myopic. To them, books outside their areas of expertise might as well be poorly written; in their minds, no other kinds of books are marketable.
Just in case you think that I’ve just been being governessy in urging you again and again to be as polite as possible to EVERYONE you meet at ANY writers’ conference: that near-sighted editor is now a high mucky-muck at the publishing house that’s currently handling my memoir — which, I can’t resist telling you, covers in part my years teaching in a university. Chalk one up for the educated girls. But isn’t it lucky that I didn’t smack him in his condescending mouth all those years ago?
The baseless rumor that genre carries a stigma has led a lot of good writers to pitch manuscripts that would have stood out magnificently within their proper genres as mainstream or even literary fiction, resulting in queries and pitches aimed at the wrong eyes and ears. By labeling your work correctly, you increase the chances of your pitch’s attracting someone who genuinely likes your kind of book astronomically.
So label your work with absolute clarity, and revel in your category affiliation. Think about it: would Luke Skywalker have been able to use the Force effectively in a mainstream romantic comedy? No: the light sabers shine brightest in the science fiction realm.
Being true to your genre will help you resist the temptation to label the book as an unholy hyphenate (“It’s a chick lit thriller!”) in a misguided attempt to represent it as having a broader potential audience. Trust me on this one: if a subgenre already has a name, there is already a well-documented market out there for it. Don’t be afraid to label your work with a very narrow subgenre label, if it’s appropriate. Yes, it may whittle down the array of agents to whom you can pitch the book, but it will definitely make your querying and pitching more efficient.
That’s just common sense, really. The more accurately a book is labeled, the more likely it is to catch the eye of an agent or editor who honestly wants to snap up that kind of book. Think of it as a professional courtesy: hyper-specific category labels are a shortcut that enables them to weed out pitches outside their areas almost instantly; that. in case you were wondering, is why agents like to be told the category in the first paragraph of the query letter. It saves them scads of time if you tell them instantly whether your book is a hardboiled mystery or a caper mystery: if it isn’t the variety they are looking for today, they can weed it out almost immediately.
Consistently, the writers who have the hardest time categorizing their work are writers who write literate books about female protagonists, aimed at female readers. (If this sounds like a subgenre in and of itself, take a look at the statistics: women buy roughly 80% of the fiction sold in this country, and virtually all of the literary fiction.) Does this automatically mean it’s women’s fiction? Well, no, not necessarily: it really depends how important the relationships are in the book.
This is one of the few instances where I consider it acceptable to equivocate a little about the book category. When in doubt, “mainstream fiction that will appeal especially to women” is about as much as it is safe to waffle in a pitch; if you really want to be Machiavellian, you could always pitch such a book as mainstream to agents who represent mainstream and as women’s fiction to those who represent that. (Hey, I’m on your side, not theirs.)
The other group of writers who have an especially tough time with categorization are those who write on the literary/mainstream fiction cusp. 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 properly – 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.
Just so you know, no one in the publishing industry uses the term “literary fiction” as a secret code for “very nicely written prose.” However, it is the least-defined major category; I have yet to meet an agent or editor who can give me a definition of literary fiction less than a paragraph long. Like the Supreme Court’s famous definition of pornography, they can’t tell us precisely what it is, but they know it when they see it.
Or so they claim. 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. But the fact is, none of these crossover books would be well enough known for all of us to have a discussion about them if they hadn’t been mainstream successes. So my instinct would be to label them all as mainstream.
There’s something very sexy in the label literary fiction being applied to one’s own work, though, isn’t there? Let’s be honest about 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. And it definitely sounds cool when you say at parties, “oh, I write literary fiction.” It says loud and clear that you haven’t sold out your talent; you are more than content to have a small but devoted readership, without sullying your keyboard with all of that sordid commercial appeal. Quite the counter-culture roué, you are, with your goatee and bongos and poetry readings in basements.
Having been raised by parents who actually WERE beatnik artists, I feel eminently qualified to give you a salient little piece of advice: be careful what you wish for your books. The literary fiction market is consistently very, very small, so small that many excellent published writers do not make a living at it. So labeling your work as literary will NOT make it more marketable in the industry’s eyes, but less. Think very carefully about your desired target market before you label your work. If you really think it has broad appeal, label it as mainstream.
I am hammering on this point, because so many aspiring writers believe all really good fiction is literary. That’s just not true: there is excellent writing out there in every category. These are marketing categories, not value judgments, and mislabeling your work will most likely result in its ending up on the wrong desk, and you in the wrong meeting. When in doubt, mainstream fiction is usually safe, because it is the broadest — and most marketable — category.
If you find yourself in a serious quandary over whether your book is sufficiently literary to need to be marketed 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 spending a few hours 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. Especially the semicolons. If there are more than a couple per page, chances are your work is geared for the literary market. (Or you should disable the colon/semicolon button on your keyboard.)
Don’t believe me? Spend an hour in any reasonably well-stocked bookstore, wandering from section to section, pulling books off the shelf randomly, and applying the punctuation test. Seeing a lot of semicolons outside the literature section? 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 exceptions), most agents and editors prefer to see simpler sentence structure.
Do be careful, however, when applying this second test, because we writers LOVE fancy punctuation, don’t we? 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.
Hey — I heard that grumbling out there; fairy godmothers come equipped with bionic ears (and an apparently unlimited recall of late 1970s pop culture). Yes, grumble pusses, I DO use a lot of fancy-pants punctuation here in this blog. I am writing for an audience composed entirely of writers, so I can use all of the punctuation I please. Heck, I can even use an emdash if I want to—take that, standard format!
Next time, I shall discuss the another building block to your pitch: identifying your target market. For those of you out there who thought that I was just going to cut to the chase and head right for the pitch proper: keep your shirts on. Or don’t, if you’re trying to get a suntan. But either way, be patient, because following me through all of these interim steps will help you construct a stronger pitch.
May the Force be with you, my friends. And also with your books. Keep up the good work!
– Anne Mini
P.S.: For those of you who have not yet registered for the upcoming PNWA conference, there are still slots available for agent and editor appointments. If you would like to see a rundown of what they have bought and sold over the last few years, in order to make a better-informed choice, check out my archived blogs for April 26 – May 17 for the agents and May 18 – 26 for the editors.