It is easy and natural to put labels on things. I didn’t say it was right, okay? Just natural. Our society categorizes everything: food, devices, books. People.
Someone asks, “What do you like to do?”
You answer, “I do yoga. I like to hike and kayak and I am training for a marathon in six months.” Bam. You are now labeled: athletic. Maybe even “outdoorsy”. While everyone is unique, I can easily place you in the sphere of personalities. Forget that it takes you all six hours to run that marathon and you hated every minute of it or you may only hike once every two to three years; you have given me enough information to categorize you. You probably did that on purpose.
When someone asks you what kinds of books you read, what do you say? Cozy mysteries? Historical Romance? Hardboiled? Or are you the kind of person who doesn’t read books? Publishers categorize books so they can be placed on the right shelf and found by someone who will want to read it.
As a novelist, I am often asked what genre I write.
This is difficult for me to answer and it should not be. If I’m honest––and let’s be honest here––it is probably the reason I’ve gone unpublished for ten years. (That and what some in the industry refer to as a fear of completion) It is as difficult a question for me to answer as when someone asks where I am from. To this, I tend to go into “flight” mode and my response becomes overly complex and includes unnecessary backstory. I feel like I must explain because no one will get me. As if the inquirer cares. They just asked where I am from.
I begin something like this: “Well, you see, I was born in Mississippi––that’s where all my relatives live––but graduated high school in Minnesota. And, now, my immediate family lives in Georgia, so when I say I’m going back home … Oh, and Oklahoma, where my dad is from, is in there somewhere … he was kind of a drifter.”
Yikes. It is painful for me to listen to myself. I wince and wish I could pick one stupid state and leave it at that. Who. Freaking. Cares? So I moved around all of the time. Lot’s of people do. Why do I feel this explanation is necessary? In the words of music artist, Pink, “It’s bad when you annoy yourself.”
I blame it on never fitting in, I guess. I never had a clique or close friends––a lot of times the drifting apart was due to moving around, especially after adulthood. It took me a long time to understand that, subconsciously, I really desired my own place in the history of the world; a place I come from. A “people” as my mother would call her family in Mississippi. Most of my life, I’ve been sort of alone, drifting like a spore on the wind, never landing in a good spot. I meet people easily, but never quite connect.
I won’t bore you with the details of my awkward, often erratic coming of age. In summary, I was poor, often the “new girl”, painfully shy and, once we settled in rural Minnesota, preferred to stay silent rather than draw attention to my deep southern drawl. I stuck my nose in books to avoid people and to escape reality. I read everything I could get my hands on. At the age of nine, I started writing short stories and bad poetry and knew in my heart of hearts that I wanted to write books.
I did not know I would struggle with what book to write. What story did I want to tell? Where do I belong? Am I a romance writer? A mystery writer? Young adult? Middle school? Dare I venture into the world of literary fiction? Should I write commercial? Write what is trending? What kind of writer do I want to be? Do I write for myself or do I write for others? This may be my existential crisis. It has hindered my progress for so long now, it is hard not to feel like I am the hero in some adventure who actually refused to answer the call. I mean, I know that is a part of the Hero’s Journey, as it were, but will I turn away from what my soul has called me to do?
Sounds contrived, I’m sure. Sounds a little like I’m a total head case. But, I’m not alone in that burning desire to write a book. The desire is too strong. I trudge forward, writing another Chapter One, or another short story without ending, and struggle to write a book I want to write. What book? What book?
The popular adage write what you read or write the book you want to read doesn’t hold much water for me. I read everything: romance, memoir, historical, high-fantasy, urban fantasy, young adult, thriller, literary; you name it. If it grabs my attention, I will read it. Struggling to find a genre I want to write is a pitfall of having eclectic reading tastes.
From a character exercise in a creative writing class, a novel emerged unlike anything I’d ever written before and, honestly, unlike books I normally read. I gave two years to this manuscript until, one day, I ask myself, “Do I have another one of those in me? Do I want to be placed on the shelf with action/thrillers?”
If it sounds like I’m beating my own head against a brick wall, I am. I should have finished the book. Maybe I’m good at action/thrillers. I don’t know. I don’t know because I quit. I moved on to a young adult story with witches and ancient evil things. I didn’t finish that one either.
The list of genres out there are vast and sometimes confounding, with subgenres off shooting subgenres, like those in the fantasy and science fiction realms: like Steampunk, Wierd West, Urban Fantasy. Ever heard of Dinosaur Erotica? No? Please don’t type that in to your Google search. You will regret it. My point is that writing for these very specific subgenres has a certain appeal to me. If I have instructions to follow, I proceed with more confidence. I’ve been that way about most things in my life. I’m not a rule breaker or an adventuress charting her own course. Yes, the audience is probably smaller when you write in a subgenre, but they know where to find you in the bookstore. Young Adult Dystopian Society? Hey, maybe you’ll get a movie deal. Alternative History? Sounds like fun. I love history and I get to rewrite it?
If you know what genre you write in, you can join writing organizations like Romance Writers of America or Mystery Writers of America. You meet other writers like you. These communities are vital for networking. I’ve struggled to find writing groups that I belong in.
I have a plethora of unfinished manuscripts in a variety of genres I tried my hand at. My indecision has a decade old history. I envy novelists who are confident of their place in the world of fiction, who know what label to put on their books. Who know what shelf they belong on. Or even what shelf they want to be on. People would ask me what I write and my answer usually varied with whatever genre I happen to be working on in that moment; the same pained uneasiness of explaining my origins churning unpleasantly inside me, because I want to have a place on the shelf. Any place.
When I set out on this adventure ten years ago, I thought I’d try my hand at romance writing, because, well, that should be easy, right? No. No. No. The book I wrote, called Tequila Sunsets, did not fit into romance’s rigid rules (I’ve been told they’ve relaxed a bit in that regard). Also, it was bad. Really bad. I stuck my head in the sand. The love story is not my story. I’m not even good at telling a story! After realizing I wasn’t some genius at writing novels, I put Tequila Sunsets under my bed, in a box, never to be touched again, and set out to learn the craft of writing full of purpose and intent. Now, I see that is the correct path. No one writes a first draft and gets it published.
At some point, I realized all my start/stopping of novels was not going to get me anywhere and I sat down to take stock of what I had done. A surprising thing slowly became clear to me. I noticed similar themes in some of my works and realized that the first story I tried to tell in Tequila Sunsets was still trying to get told. The settings changed. The character’s ages and names changed, occupations changed, families, etc., even the inciting event changed. However, if I stripped down the story to its basic elements, it went something like this: A young woman struggles to find fulfillment in work and love, while two men rival for her affection. One breaks her heart. One shows her that pursuing her dreams will give her the greatest joy. Her emotional journey drives the plot.
Sounds so exciting, right? On a positive side note, I discovered the emotional journey driving the story places my novel nicely into the women’s fiction category. Is it possible I have found a shelf to sit on? Where do booksellers even put women’s fiction? Or, is it just––(gasp)––fiction. My characters don’t always have happy endings. They aren’t always good people. The conclusion doesn’t always tie up nicely or in a manner expected.
I wish I could remember who said this––Stephen King?–– but there are two types of writers: those who write for other people and those who write for themselves. I find myself doing better in the latter category. This is the book I must write, apparently, or remain locked in a cycle of incompletion. Hopefully, it isn’t the only book I have in me. I don’t want to tell the same story over and over and over again.
Only recently have I understood that I need to stop fretting over choosing a genre to write in and simply write the book. Already, I’ve gone farther on this current WIP, In Her Clutch (Working Title), than on any other novel, being in the third draft as I write this blog post. I’ve had moments where I worried if anyone would ever read it, want to read, have anything good to say about it at all. I have to turn that nagging self-doubt off. Keep my nose on my page and see this novel to the end. Once I’ve finished the revision process, then I’ll figure out how to pitch it to an appropriate agent.
At that point, I can start the process all over again with a new novel idea. Or, maybe an old idea I abandoned. I’ve got plenty of those.
There are aspects intrinsic to my character that make things unnecessarily difficult. So, if I were a book, on what shelf would I sit?
Personally, I feel somewhere between Hillbilly Elegy, by J.D. Vance, and The Devil Wears Prada, by Lauren Weisberger. But, since this is real life and authors are categorize alphabetically, I’d naturally be placed in the Fiction section––in the A’s––somewhere between Hiro Arikawa, (The Traveling Cat Chronicles) and Kate Atkinson (Life after Life). And, you know, that’s pretty accurate, too.