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It was outrageous — Erienne Fleming’s father had no regard for his daughter and married her off to the highest bidder. She had flirted with the Yank who’d come to her father’s village, but it was the mysterious and disfigured Lord Saxton who won the prize. He wasn’t the monster Erienne feared he’d be, and soon, her heart was torn between the husband she married and the dashing young man who pursued her. The climax to this tale is fraught with danger, unmaskings, and end — of course — with true love conquering all. Why? Because this is the story of a romance novel.
Kathleen Woodiwiss wrote A Rose in Winter the year I entered high school. By then, her career as a novelist neared a decade. Agents and publishers rejected her first novel, The Flame and the Flower, because it was too long. But it was detailed, building a historical world with accuracy and creating strong-willed characters. When her book published in 1972, it paved the way for what we recognize as the modern romance novel, and her book was the first to follow the protagonist and love interest into the bedroom.
My sister-in-law loaned me a copy of A Rose in Winter, promising me it would be the best love story I had ever read. It was. And it remains the number one romance novel in my heart. “Serious” writing cured me of my crush on romance novels. By the time I graduated with an undergrad degree, I was burned out on reading heavy literature — medieval books, Chaucer, literature with social justice themes, and thick historical novels. I slipped back into reading a romance novel, but the genre had changed. The bodice-rippers had grown up, and contemporary romances had taken their place. Two of my favorite authors had quit romance and were penning modern crime thrillers. I found old copies of Janet Dailey and re-read the Calder series about the Montana family of cowboys over five generations.
Then I quit romance for good.
It’s not so much that the genre changed, but that I had. My heart wanted a good read, and so did my brain. I wanted to feel connected to characters, their relationships, and their world. Oddly enough, fantasy filled the void. After I plowed through my kids’ Harry Potter books, I discovered the works of Robert Jordan and read the entire Wheel of Time series. This led me to read the hefty tomes of Brandon Sanderson, and I eagerly await his next 1,000-page Stormlight series installment. But you see, Kathleen Woodiwiss started my interest in long novels.
Tony Hillerman is my brain candy. His Navajo police stories go as fast as a bag of red licorice. I love his books for the authentic Navajo world-building and for a series that returns familiar characters. But they go fast. To slow down, I’ll read a contemporary work of fiction. Anne Goodwin over at Annectdotal has been my book pusher for recent scores of literary fiction. If you don’t follow her reviews, I suggest you do so as a writer. I’m shifting my own reading practices to read more books as a writer. That means reading books I might not connect with or find entertaining.
Why do we read?
What a massive and complex question. If we had an inkling, book marketers would hustle us off to better understand the reading habits of modern readers. Some like to stimulate their intellect, others their emotions. I like a good book that draws me into a sense of place — it’s why I read Brandon Sanderson, Tony Hillerman, and Janet Daley. Book marketers struggle to make sense of that because I read across such divergent genres. And to mess up the matter more, I write women’s and historical fiction with a commercial style. What is going on?
Librarians better understand that most of their patrons are like me — a hot mess when it comes to “what I like to read.” Book marketers are so hung up on genre that they think I’d only read one genre. Tony Hillerman is the only crime books I read. Outside the Navajo reservation, I’m not interested in mysteries. I don’t like thrillers. Oh, but wait, I read all of Ian Fleming, and I like some of Ken Follette and Clive Cussler. I read everything Kathleen Woodiwiss ever wrote, but I can’t stand anything Nora Roberts writes. I dislike fantasy, but I love Brandon Sanderson and Robert Jordan. YA is not my thing except for Harry Potter. I read lots of western writers like Louis L’Amour, Edward Abbey, Jim Harrison, Ivan Doig, Wallace Stegner, and non-fiction by Terry Tempest Williams and important cultural literature by Sherman Alexie and Tony Morrison.
The Reader’s Advisory group that helps librarians understand readers like me look at genre to recognize the factors that influence readers and have published a powerfully informative book, The Reader’s Advisory Guide to Genre Fiction. If you are serious about publishing (independently, small press, or traditionally), this is the book that will help you understand readers better. And why do you want to do that as a writer? Because readers buy books. Libraries and book stores buy books for readers. The better you can understand who is your target reader, the better you will be at marketability. Publishers want a well-crafted book, yes, but they also want one they think they can sell.
According to the Reader’s Advisory, genres can be arranged according to four factors:
- Adrenaline Genres (Adventure, Romance Suspense, Suspense, Thrillers)
- Emotion Genres (Gentle Reads, Horror, Romance, Women’s Lives & Relationships)
- Intellect Genres (Literary Fiction, Mysteries, Psychological Suspense, Science Fiction)
- Landscape Genres (Fantasy, Historical Fiction, Westerns)
This blew my mind for a couple of reasons. First, who would have thought that horror and romance had anything in common? Second, what I like to read (fantasy) is compatible with what I want to write (historical fiction). I’ve been saying, I love a book that draws me into a sense of place. Well, that would be landscape! This rearranging of genre by factors helped me better understand my target audience, too. Miracle of Ducks has perplexed me as to where it fits. It’s contemporary, but what is it from there? I had dismissed women’s literature and thought it fit more into literary fiction. But I was wrong! My story is about relationships and women’s voices that go unheard from within the veteran community. It’s emotional, not intellectual. My target audience reads books to feel.
The book breaks down each of these genre groups and delves into deeper factors. It’s intended audience is librarians, but one of my professors introduced me to the guide (buy used because this is a pricey reference book). My other professor has me writing romance this week. They are both teaching me that as a writer, I have something to learn from all the genres.
So, what can we learn from the romance genre? Romance places priority on the relationship between two people — romance, bromance, girl meets girl; the story is all about them. I learned that the genre has niche’s I never knew about (yes, werewolves and women are a thing!). It’s a rich genre, often focusing on details of place like the historical romances Woodiwiss wrote. Just because it has a recognizable framework of they meet they, they come into conflict, more conflict, and near disaster, they reunite and live HEA. HEA meaning, happily ever after. Although modern romance allows for more ambiguity — happy for now. It must end on an upswing.
Romances vary as much as our weekly stories. We are all writing to the same prompt within the same constraint, and yet our stories each week remain creative, original, and unexpected. Romance novels can be just as varied. For me, the take-away is to study relationships and the emotional tension that builds conflict. Whereas romance solves the tension with sex, I’m aiming for an elixir of growth. I’m more interested in personal development and social justice.
Yes, we are going to get our love groove going this week. First, a little mood music. Robert Mirabal is one of my favorite Native American musicians. He introduces why he wrote the song, Medicine Man. It doesn’t have an HEA ending, but it is a story of a man who overcame his unrequited love by marrying his people. What a deep concept — he could not have the romantic love he yearned for, so instead, he loved everyone, serving them as a holy man. That is a relationship story with, personal growth.
November 21, 2019, prompt: In 99 words (no more, no less), write a romance. Focus on the relationship between two people. Build tension and end on a happy(ish) note. Go where the prompt leads!
Respond by November 26, 2019. Use the comment section below to share, read, and be social. You may leave a link, pingback, or story in the comments. If you want to be published in the weekly collection, please use the form. Rules & Guidelines.
NOTE: Contest winners from all the flash fiction contests during the 2019 Rodeo will be announced on November 28, 2019.
Challenge submissions closed. Find our latest Flash Fiction Challenge.
Cupid’s Call on the Range by Charli Mills
A cow caused it all. Maria Sanchez lived on the backside of Hope Valley, watching her father’s herd of Angus, selling steaks to silver miners. Garett Meadows owned the mine. He spotted Maria one day, lifting her skirts to chase a cow, exposing curvy brown calves. A range cow charged the encroaching horse, and Garret struck his head in the fall. Worried that her father would be blamed, Maria hid the injured man in a trapper’s cabin to tend to him alone. Garett was only playing injured. A month later, at their wedding, he blamed love on the cow.
Some writers know exactly what genre they’re writing–mystery, YA, lit. It’s like knowing that Levis 501s will always fit. You don’t even have to go to that cold dressing room in the back of the feed store to see if Wranglers might be it.
When you write, just write. Don’t let these niggling thoughts of fit and function distract you. Write. But when you revise, you need to pause and consider the big picture.
Let me explain how I got to this point of looking at different genres on the shelf and why it matters at this point in revision.
When I began drafting “Miracle of Ducks,” the story seemed like one of faith. When I mentioned the word faith to a publisher at Rain-Taxi in Minneapolis, MN he smiled and kindly directed me to the Christian publishing house two booths down the row. With the reference to the Christian publishers–who were very welcoming and interested–I wasn’t sold that my story was Christian, but it easily could be with intentional revising.
In 2012 I completed the first draft. Revision has been slow for me. Much slower than writing, and I understand that I have tons to learn about mastering a project as long as a novel. It ain’t no 2,000 word profile on a cranberry bog or regional beer. And I’m in it for the long-haul, not the publish-quick-as-horse-spit fix.
Since this is not a quick process, I decided to crank out a NaNoWriMo project each year so that I’ll always have material to work. With my 2013 project, LuLu offered a free manuscript review to Wrimo winners. The DNA of my second project came back as a “sci-fi thriller.” That’s not what I expected!
However, when I read the reasoning behind the review results, it made sense. It described my writing style: expressive in dialog, rich descriptive passages, breezy language and kinetic motion. Accordingly, my manuscript placed a premium on plot and character, engaging the reader early and keeping the characters active. It is a common profile for mystery, thrillers and romance. The “sci-fi” tag recognized that my protagonist is a climatologist in the arctic.
More genres to try on: mystery or thrillers? No, I don’t enjoy reading them often so I wouldn’t want to write any. Romance? Yes, this cowgirl likes Julie Garwood and Jude Devereaux. And, according to the Romance Writers of America, it’s a mighty popular genre, generating over $1.438 billion in sales in 2012. I might have to kill off a character, though…tempting.
In order to progress, I’d have to make major structural revisions to craft “Miracle of Ducks” into a sci-fi thriller, romance or Christian novel. And what debuts as the genre, becomes the genre. Even Ann Rice writes about how difficult it is for even well-established writers to cross genres in their career. Not to mention, as I research agents and publishing houses, they are genre-specific. No use wasting my time or theirs with a genre-less orphan or a family of mismatched genre manuscripts.
But before I give up on the jeans, I have one more pair to try on: commercial fiction. According to AgentQuery.com, this genre “…uses high-concept hooks and compelling plots to give it a wide, mainstream appeal.” It also places a premium on plot and the characters are active. Sound familiar? But the best part is, “…commercial fiction maintains a strong narrative storyline as its central goal…” That’s what a storyteller likes to hear.
The zipper is closed on this shopping spree. I’ve found my genre.