Wednesday, March 14, 2012

HELP! WHO MOVED MY GENRE?

Several years ago I attended my first Romance Writers of America meeting. The lovely and generous Colleen Thompson introduced herself and asked what I wrote. The question threw me. It should be obvious since I was there that I wrote romance. “But what kind of romance?” she asked. I was baffled. There were different kinds? Yep. Within a few months I determined I wrote contemporary single title, or at least that’s what that first 200,000 word mess was…sort of.

Over the last few years I thought I’d gotten the whole genre thing down. My second manuscript was a romantic suspense, my third and fourth are paranormal romance. Or at least they were until yesterday when I read a Barnes and Noble Review interview Eloisa James did with Lisa Klepas about her new release, RAINSHADOW ROAD. Eloisa is one of the most prominent romance writers in the industry (not to mention a Shakespeare professor!) and Lisa Kleypas is right up there with the best of them. Here’s the paragraph that startled me:
 Rainshadow Road is a deeply moving romantic novel, but it's definitely not a "paranormal" romance.  Your heroine, Lucy Marinn, has the ability to change glass into living creatures, so the shards of a broken ornament turn to "living sparks," a dancing procession of fireflies, for example.  In a paranormal romance, the heroine herself might change shape, though generally into a member of cat family rather than a firefly, but a shape-changer has presumably lived with her feline self for most of her life.  Within the context of the world of the romance, her abilities are normal. 

Whaaaa? By this definition neither SHADES OF PARIS nor SHADES OF THE DEEP  are paranormal! My characters have psychic abilities and their world is strongly influenced by made-up science. Sure, some of the antagonists use Voodoo-like magic, but nobody shape-shifts, drinks blood, or enjoys/endures any version of immortality.

The interview goes on to label RAINSHADOW ROAD magical realism, a new concept to me, but that’s not the point. In the publishing industry we constantly hear agents and editors talk about where to place a book in the marketplace and on the shelves, and now I’m wondering if I even know my own genre. Are my stories contemporary romance with psychic elements? Romantic adventures with psychic characters? I’ve heard Jayne Ann Krentz describe her Arcane Society series as romantic suspense with characters with psychic abilities.  No mention of paranormal.

I’m not alone in puzzling over genre. My critique partner and good friend, Sarah Andre, finaled in RWA’s Golden Heart contest in the Romantic Suspense category but has been rethinking whether her story is technically a suspense because the main characters are solving a murder mystery through most of the story and are not in immediate dire peril. 

Genre labels wouldn’t be important of they didn’t create agent, editor and reader expectations that impact contracts and sales. How can my agent pitch my work to editors if we don't know what genre it is? As writers we write what we love, but, as professionals who want to make a living writing books, understanding where our stories fit in the marketplace is becoming more and more important as genre lines blur. 

What do you write? Has genre expectations impacted how you market your work? If you’re a reader, what do you think of when you hear paranormal romance? 

16 comments:

Amanda Stevens said...

>>In a paranormal romance, the heroine herself might change shape, though generally into a member of cat family rather than a firefly, but a shape-changer has presumably lived with her feline self for most of her life. Within the context of the world of the romance, her abilities are normal.>>

See, this sounds more like urban fantasy to me. o_O

The description of paranormal romance as a heroine (or hero) having paranormal attributes that are normal in her world, i.e. shape-changing, is far too literal imo. For example, my ghost stories are labeled paranormal romance, yet neither hero or heroine is a ghost.

I've always thought of magical realism as literary fiction rather than escapism. Serious stories where magical elements appear in the everyday world and offer a unique worldview--like Daughters of the Dust.

I'm rambling and don't really know what I'm talking about...

Pat O'Dea Rosen said...

I've always loved the term "magical realism" because the promise of reality tinged by magic attracts me. The paranormal umbrella is so wide, I often read reviews, back blurbs, and even first chapters to get a feel for a story.

My genre, women's fiction, has an even wider umbrella, but I'm willing to take a flyer on almost everything under it. (I guess that's why it's "my" genre.) As with paranormal, there's much talk of what constitutes WF. In my humble opinion, any stories of interest to women make the cut. Uh oh, the umbrella's now the size of Europe.

Lark Howard said...

You do know what you're talking about, Amanda! Thanks for your feedback.

I guess normal and paranormal are relative to one's perspective. If you believe ghosts, angels, animal telepathy, etc., exist, then stories with those elements would all be "normal" not paranormal.

I've always thought of magical realism as literary fiction, too--ONE HUNDRED YEARS OF SOLITUDE being an all time favorite.

Vicky Dreiling said...

That made my head hurt. Good grief. It does seem to me that if the editor loves the book she would be able to help place the book in the best genre.

Lark Howard said...

Women's fiction does cover a lot of territory, Pat. If not all of Europe, at least the size of Texas.

Lark Howard said...

Aren't you glad you write historical and not one of the fuzzy genres, Vicky?

Ali Dent said...

The myriad of genres is mind boggling. I have been a non fiction writer for a long time. I still am. My current WIP is a NF but I'm also working on a fiction project, YA fantasy. I had to research and learn what this means. It was a little different than I imagined. To answer your question when I hear paranormal romance I'm sure I don't picture the right thing. I think of spooky settings with magical elements surrounding a romantic story.

Lark Howard said...

Good luck with your YA, Ali! Glad to hear your impression of paranormal romance doesn't require vampires, shifters or other supernatural entities either.

Kay Hudson said...

That definition of paranormal romance is a new one on me. If magical realism has really escaped from the Latin American Literary shelf into romance, surely it would fall into paranormal.

BTW, I'm having a REALLY hard time getting past your spam bot!

Lark Howard said...

You'd think so, wouldn't you, Kay?

Sorry about the spambot. I'll try dismantling it for now and see if we get inundated with spam posts.

Suzan Harden said...

Lark, I wouldn't sweat the label too much. The paranormal umbrella is huge, with a ton of little sub-umbrellas.

An agent or an editor will respond depending on the popular buzz label of the moment. My books have been at various times "paranormal chick lit," "light urban fantasy" and "zombie romantic comedy."

To me, they're closer to the romantic science fantasies of the late 1890's and early 1900's, but telling a twenty-something editor that will not sell the book.

On the other hand, readers don't care about the specific sub-label as long as the major label fits.

staceyapurcell said...

My head just swims when I read all the terms bandied about. It seems "Paranormal" is the mothership and all the other titles are small explorers sent off to find niche markets. When the bookstores-virtual or not- start adding all the nuanced genres then I'd pay way more attention. Until then I think your main job is just to write a damn good story!!

staceyapurcell said...

My head just swims when I read all the terms bandied about. It seems "Paranormal" is the mothership and all the other titles are small explorers sent off to find niche markets. When the bookstores-virtual or not- start adding all the nuanced genres then I'd pay way more attention. Until then I think your main job is just to write a damn good story!!

Lark Howard said...

I'm sure you're right, Susan. I think readers decide based on the story premise regardless of labels.

Lark Howard said...

I agree, Stacey, that writing a great book is the key. We writers are probably more aware of sub-genres because of comments like: "Paranormal? Oh, I don't like vampire books." :-) Then again, those people probably aren't my readers.

Lynn Lorenz said...

As someone who does mash-ups of genres, there is a true freedom in being able to NOT pigeon-hole your work.

Space Regency - yep, done that. Psychic cowboys - uh, yeah.
Straight up werewolves and vamps - got it!

Paranormal is the umbrella (love that mothership!)- but your stories are what you want to label them.

I'm working on a new story - Alternate Universe Urban Fantasy - with zombies.

The writing genre is wide open. Go play!
Your agent will call it whatever it takes to sell it and you can call it whatever best describes your story to an editor or agent. I'm sure they've heard it all.