Can I Invent My Own Genre?

It’s been twenty years or so since self-publishing first became a viable thing. Two decades of growth in the indie fiction field have made it increasingly clear which writing styles and marketing tactics tend to be most lucrative. The “secret” to writing bestsellers is to define your genre and audience and satisfy them for all you’re worth. If you can manage to grind out several books in a series, you have the best chance of creating a steady revenue stream. That means developing a theme or formula that can sustain more than one book, exercising as much creativity as you can within those boundaries, and repeating the basics as long as your readers keep snapping it up. Writers who can do this also seem able to turn out books at supersonic speed.

Employing this “secret” isn’t as easy as it sounds. Personally, I don’t seem to have the skill that it requires, but that doesn’t make me bitter. On the contrary, I rejoice for those who can do this, since it makes all of self-publishing more legitimate. I remember all too well the days when gatekeepers stood in the way of aspiring authors, letting in a privileged few and making a point of mocking the rest of us and worse, wasting our time. I used to read or listen to advice given by “professionals” in the field who pretended to “encourage” those of us on the outside. Their real purpose was to keep us prostrating ourselves before the gates, so that they could pretend to stand in some beatified light from above that had blessed their own efforts. Now we can tell them what to do with their “advice.” It’s been exposed, if not as fraudulent, then at least as archaic.

Some of us have problems with genre. I’m not particularly a fan of romance, science fiction, mystery, or dystopian themes (although I’m most tempted to try my hand at the last one, in light of the disastrous presidential election of 2016 and its increasingly scary aftermath). I define my stuff as chicklit, generally speaking. Does it follow that just because I don’t write to suit a more exact genre, that few readers will get my stuff? I can’t be the only person in the world who likes to read long, complex, character-driven, woman-dominated stories, and tends to write in the same vein. Stories like this take a while to read and absorb, and accordingly take forever to write. One of the reasons this process is so arduous is that I go where my characters take me, not necessarily where the market dictates they should go. My stories usually feature a relatively weak heroine who is trying to get stronger. All I can say for her is that she’s not quite as big an idiot at the end of the story as she was at the beginning. Her life isn’t totally straightened out, although it’s getting there. Can a story like that represent a category in itself? Maybe we could call it the Incompetent Chick Genre.

If I depended on confused and indecisive heroines to move plots along, they’d spin their wheels for 300 pages. So I surround them with stronger characters, often female, who aren’t afraid to yell at them to get off their asses, and then show them how it’s done. In Secretarial Wars (2003), an ambitious but easily frustrated secretary, Miriam, needs such a push. She works for a Federally funded grants program that she suspects is subject to corruption, but doesn’t know how to prove it. She encounters Pamela Whittle, a college professor who has been rejected for one of these grants, and has determined not only to figure out why, but to reverse the decision. Whittle carries on with this plan until she becomes part of the corruption, at least in Miriam’s opinion.

When my critique group read Secretarial Wars, they took to Whittle much more than they did to Miriam. Like most writers, my colleagues enjoy playing the game of choosing which famous actors should ideally play the lead roles in any prospective movies based on their stories. The role of Whittle, according to the group, would be perfect for Kathy Bates, who is well known for her portrayal of dynamic, sometimes crazy women. In fact, it seems that every strong female role I come up with is a perfect fit for Kathy Bates. How about a new trend based on this phenomenon? We could call it the Strong Female Rescuer Genre.

In Let’s Play Ball (2010), I imagined a close but uneasy relationship between fraternal twin sisters who have taken radically different paths in life. Miranda is a government bureaucrat with a lawyer husband and a house in the suburbs, while Jessica is a sportswriter who sacrifices normal career prospects, relationships, and financial security for many years in order to establish a magazine. Jessica’s publication finally catches on, and her personal life seems equally settled when she becomes engaged to a Major League ballplayer. Her less conventional path seems to end up making her both happier and more successful than her twin. Then the balance of power is knocked off kilter again when Jessica’s fiancé is kidnapped, and circumstances plunge both sisters into the investigation … with Jessica harboring suspicions against Miranda even as she requires her twin’s help.

My two music-inspired novels, The Rock Star’s Homecoming (2007) and Handmaidens of Rock (2014), both unfold partially on college campuses. I made use of my own experiences as an academically conscientious but socially awkward coed in the early 1970s. In those days, the friends I made tended to be stronger personalities than I was. More often than not, I let them set the tone of the relationship. The heroine of “Homecoming,” Imogene, feels herself getting crushed between two powerhouse roommates. One is a hopeless snob, and the other is the sister of a rock star whom Imogene worships from afar, and eventually gets to meet. In “Handmaidens,” aspiring journalist Candy struggles with a bad freshman roommate, who hypocritically criticizes her timidity with the girls in the hall while systematically badmouthing her behind her back. Although that situation mirrors my own unhappy freshman experience, I did not leave my small-town school, as Candy did, for the more congenial and diverse surroundings of a big university. I stuck it out, and eventually found my niches.

All in all, the “incompetent chick” in my stories resembles me, while the “strong female rescuer” is the more dynamic friend who swoops in and takes over. If I were casting a movie based on this dynamic, any number of ingénues could play the innocent girl.  But I couldn’t do without Kathy Bates, or a Kathy Bates type, to move in and threaten to blow her off the screen.













24 thoughts on “Can I Invent My Own Genre?

  1. Heroines with room to grow. A lot of the chick lit ones (Bridget Jones) are. As long as you show them struggling appealingly at the beginning, and succeeding at the end, there should be a big market.

    The problem with having the older Kathy Bates-like character for a protagonist is the identification factor. Not insurmountable – nothing is (consider Lolita) – but there is work there for writer and reader. And she has less space to grow, given that those characteristics take many years of living to get to the point you’re talking about. And it wouldn’t make sense for her to soften into a marshmallow.

    I just wish we didn’t have to write some of the things we don’t like, to get to the ones we do, but that’s the job.

  2. I’ve always considered chick lit to be mainly humorous and sort of fluffy. Think about all those book covers — lots of pink, with purses, shoes, shopping, and other frivolous stuff. Your books sound more substantial, with less focus on females trying to snare a guy. “Women’s fiction” is too generic, perhaps.

  3. Ugh, this is my problem as well. I follow my books where they go. I never sit down and say ‘well this time I’ll write a happily ever after romance’, or ‘hey, horror is popular, I’ll do that.’ I’m just finishing up another edit on my first novel, and although it started out as erotica, by the time I was done with it, it was at least 50% horror. It’s giving me a headache trying to figure out how to market it. ; p


  4. oooh – this is such a great topic! – alas, was wishing you had some pat & e-a-s-y solution. I categorize my books as literary fiction, tho some might call them chicklit — but I find that chicklit usually is shallowly written. wishing us all luck here…

  5. Oof – If there’s anything I would have told my younger self as I was starting out this whole crazy writing gig, it would be: “Don’t listen to the naysayers. Your stuff will be a bit strange and uncommercial, but that’s it’s biggest strength.” It took me a long time to accept that I was a square peg that had no intention of fitting into a commercial round hole.

    The funny thing is that even though my books aren’t popular (yet!), the responses I do get are often ‘damn, this would make a *great* movie!’ And y’know, I can live with a critique like that rather than high numbers any day. 😀

  6. I also have a problem with genres. If I use ‘family’ it is something I would avoid. I have to stick to ‘general fiction’ although if there was a way of telling that it has elements of love, relationships, crime and mystery that would be nearer the truth.The only thing that links most of them is the setting, which has turned out to be their greatest selling point. Readers like books about their own area.

  7. I just think it is a hard call. You make some good points. I don’t have much wisdom but I do know that writing what you want is best in the long run. You’re not a formulaic writer. The are some non formulaic readers. Sometimes it just takes longer for the two to meet.

  8. Yet another fascinating and easily relatable post, Linda. Thank you. I particularly like your description of the gatekeepers and couldn’t agree more. By the way, I think the new blog format’s really great. Very nice indeed. Best wishes from the UK for the holidays and New Year!

    1. Thank you, Marcus! I’m so glad I finally got the technical help I needed to actually make my stuff readable. Always great to hear from the UK, which I have visited twice and really love. Best wishes for the holidays.

  9. Chick-lit is a genre in-and-of itself. It has fallen out of fashion in the last ten years, but it definitely needs a resurgence. Helen Fielding and Jane Green are the god-mothers of genre, and even though Jane Green feels like she’s moved on and pulled away from it, Jemima J is still one of my all-time favorite books. Not to put you in a box (which you seem to want to avoid) – but a chick-lit story with a mentor character (the strong females you mentioned) is not that out of the ordinary and should definitely be relatable to an audience. Since the reading public is the new gatekeeper, they are the only ones you should be worried about. As long as they have a general idea of what to expect from your sales copy, I don’t see any reason the dynamics you mentioned shouldn’t lead them to a satisfying–even if not completely wrapped up in a bow, which I hate anyway, because Happily Ever After’s not a real thing–ending.

  10. I am also writing the stories which want out of my head. Mine are YA and historical adventures. People say that historical isn’t sought lately, at least in my country, but this is what I am thinking about, what 4 of my novels are.

    1. You really can’t bend your passion to suit someone else’s. If you write without loving what you write, that lack of enthusiasm will be apparent in the final product. Best of luck with your stories!

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