Thursday, August 26, 2010

If you can't stand the heat...

by Bente Gallagher/Jennie Bentley

Howdy, folks! Bet you didn't expect to see me today. I didn't either. But when Joyce put out the SOS, I had this nice rant all worked up and ready to go for my September blog date, and now I get it out of my system sooner.

Picture this: It’s last Friday, and I’m sitting behind a table in the front of a meeting room in a hotel in Franklin, Tennessee. The room is full of Killer Nashville attendees. To my left and right are other writers. Their names aren’t important, although I will point out that one of them, the panel moderator, was best-selling romantic suspense writer and RITA-award winner Annie Solomon.  

(FYI, the RITA is RWA’s top honor. It’s like the MWA’s Edgar, Malice Domestic’s Agatha, or the science fiction people’s Hugo award. A pretty damn big deal in the romance genre. She also has a Reviewer’s Choice award.)

I should mention that it was my idea to push the romantic suspense angle this year. There are a lot of romance writers in Nashville—everywhere, really—and they weren’t coming to the conference because they didn’t think it contained anything for them. I talked the executive director of Killer Nashville into inviting a few of the bigger local romantic suspense names to attend, and they went with Annie and with the enormously successful Sherrilyn Kenyon.

Anyway, there we were, sitting in front of a bunch of published and pre-published mystery writers discoursing on Love and Murder: how to juggle romance and mystery in crime fiction.

We were talking genre, because that’s what we write, and the various expectations people—agents, editors, readers—have when they pick up one of our books. In romantic suspense, a couple of sex scenes, more or less explicit, are de rigeur. Same for romantic thrillers and a lot of traditional mysteries. Hardboiled, noir... descriptive, even graphic sex is fine. In cozies, a sex scene looks more like this:

* * *

At the end of the panel, we opened it up to questions from the audience, and this woman—who shall remain nameless, although I’d really like to share her name publicly—pipes up. Not with a question, but to tell the audience that genre is bogus, and that they shouldn’t worry about it; they should write the book that is in their hearts and let the chips fall where they may. Her publishing company—yes, she was an editor, soliciting manuscripts during our panel—doesn’t care about genre conventions. She ended up with a question—to the panel—that sounded a lot like: “Do you just write genre for the money?”

Hell, yeah. And I told her so. After which she went on to suggest that I was selling out and didn’t have an artistic bone in my body.

And you know what? I’m good with that. As far as I'm concerned, she can believe anything she wants about me. I don't know her, and after that, I don't care if I ever do. Here’s the thing, though: I’m all for writing the book of your heart. Absolutely, you have to do that. I’ve been there and done it. A Cutthroat Business was the book of my heart. But if you can write that book within the conventions of the genre you’re trying to enter, it’s going to be so much easier for you to sell it. As Marilyn Monroe said, "It's just as easy to fall in love with a rich man as a poor man."

See, if it’s a cozy with a sex scene, it either ceases to be a cozy—and cozy editors will turn it down—or you’ll be asked to prune all those beautiful words you agonized over. Same thing with subject matter: if the book that’s in your heart is about a serial killer, you’re probably not writing a cozy. You may not be looking at a mystery at all, but a suspense novel or a thriller. If you can’t put the hero and heroine together in the last chapter, and they don’t get their HEA—Happy Ever After—you haven’t written a romance. If there are vampires or demons, I don’t care how cozy the rest of the book is, or whether the hero and heroine get together at the end: it’s a paranormal. Just like you can’t write a paranormal without the supernatural element, you can’t write a romance without the HEA or a cozy with the sex.

And that’s fine. There’s nothing wrong with toeing the line. If you’re looking for commercial success as a professional writer—big publisher, big advance, big distribution; maybe even making a living—the closer you can stay to the genre blueprint, the better off you are. That isn’t what everyone wants, or what everyone gets, but if that’s your choice, then more power to you. Do it, and write the best damn cozy or romance novel or thriller or noir mystery the world has seen.

Or write the book of your heart, eschew convention, spit on genre, and sell it to someone who doesn’t care about large-scale commercial success, but who loves it like you do and feels that it’s a book that deserves to be published and read, even if just by the few people who realize it exists.

Success is subjective, and far be it from me to tell anyone what their definition should be. And I'd appreciate it if everyone would just afford me that same courtesy.

Whoa, I feel better now. :-)

(The picture up above was taken by Rae Ann Parker. That's Annie on the left, me in the middle in full yap, next to me is Laura Elvebak (she's wearing peach, and you have to squint to see her), and in the black and white is Karen Gallahue (I believe). We had two Karens, the other was McCullough, but I think she arrived later.)

As it happens, I'm also over on the Southern Authors blog today, if anyone wants to stop by. The theme there this month is setting, so I'm babbling about some of my fave places.


Joyce Tremel said...

Thanks for filling in, and thanks for the rant.

Well said! I agree 100%. I'd be willing to bet that most of the self-published books out there are the so-called books of the heart containing precious words that their writers refused to change.

The book I'm querying right now is a book of my heart, but if an agent or editor says to change this, fix that, get rid of that character, etc., you can be damn well sure I'm gonna do just that! Otherwise, what's the point in writing the book if no one is going to see it?

Jenna said...

Amen, sister!

(And you're querying? Good for you! Fingers crossed!)

Linda Leszczuk said...

As a reader, I look for new books based on genre. There are a gazillion books out there and shopping by genre helps me find ones that will appeal to me.

So, assuming writers want to be read, doesn't it make sense to point your writing in the direction of the readers who will enjoy it, i.e. write to genre?

Ramona said...

I really don't understand the need or desire to put down or question an author's motivations for writing whatever they choose to write. What gives another person that right?

Jenna said...

Works for me. And I made that point, believe me. Readers like knowing what to expect. If I read a 'romance' and there was no happy ending, I'd throw that book against the wall and never buy another, from the author or the publisher. And whereas I personally wouldn't care whether I stumbled over a sex scene in a cozy, a lot of people do. Writing within the conventions of the genre is part of the unspoken agreement between writer and reader. You don't break it.

Jenna said...

Absolutely, Ramona. Live and let live. To each their own. To thine own self be true. Etc.

Wilfred Bereswill said...

I love the arguments people use against genre fiction. One of the best panels I ever listened to was one with 3 literary writers and 1 genre writer (John Lutz). This was the first time I met John and liked him from the first moment he spoke.

The quest went to the panel, "What did they consider literature?" All three literary writers went on and on about the lyrical quality, hidden meaning, etc. It came to John and he quietly said, "If people read it, it's literature."

The stare he got were comical. Yet he was the only one of the group who made a living soley on his writing. And a nice living, I think.

Then there was the advanced fiction class I took. The teacher was straight out of an MFA Program and, even though everybody in the class was writing genre fiction, he didn't like genre and pushed us into reading all these literary short stories. Nothing wrong with stretching our horizons, but it wasn't what I signed up for. There was one story I just didn't get and I made it clear in our last class how I felt. I got my money back from the University for that class.

I'm a simple guy. When I read for pleasure, I don't necessarily want my brain to hurt after I'm done trying to understand what I just read.

Wilfred Bereswill said...

Excuse my typos. I typed that too quickly.

Jenna said...

That's a great story about John Lutz, Will. I don't know him, but I bet I'd like him, just from that. Yeah, there are a lot of people who should just let other people do, and read, and write what they want.

Patg said...

Hero of the day! That's Jenny up on the shoulders of genre writers being bounced up and down.
You tell'm, Jennie!!!!
Remember, people, when you are at a conference and attending a panel where things like this happen, do try to stick up for the panel member that is defending us. If I'd have been in that room, I'd have shot my mouth off too.
PS-I'm over at Twenty-Five Years Ago Today, blogging about just that.

Jenna said...

Thanks, Pat! Appreciate it! (My word verification is redifyi. That has to mean something.)