I hate genres. No, put down the torches and pitchforks; I don’t mean genre fiction. Genre fiction is fabulous. But fitting into one of those slots? I’m having a harder time there. It’s been a problem ever since I finished my first novel and someone asked, “What’s it about?” Oh, I could have told her all day long (and I may have) about the hero’s quest to find his biological father, the inconvenient romantic entanglements, things he learns about himself along the way. Then, as the silence drew out, she finally asked, “No, I mean…is it a romance? A mystery? A comedy? A thriller?”
“Yes,” I answered.
Exit one potential reader.
I have often wished to be one of those lucky writers whose work slots neatly into a category. “Cozy mystery” or “historical romance” rolls off the tongue (and is probably easier to sell) than “contemporary realistic character-driven fiction with sparky dialogue and usually romantic subthemes.”
Yeah. Try to find an Amazon category for that.
So I end up pissing some people off. When I even breathe the word “romance,” I repel readers who immediately equate it with formulaic, boy-meets-girl-and-even-though-complications-arise-they-get-together-in-the-end stories. [FYI, here’s an excellent and enlightening post by author Donna Fasano on modern romance novels.] Or I manage to disappoint readers in the other direction: they love romance, and I don’t give them enough of the formula, the happily-ever-after payoff (known as the HEA, in the biz), so I end up on the “delete” shelf.
Not that I’m complaining. Okay, I’m complaining a little. Some stories I write are just hard to categorize, and modern life sometimes defies and craves categorization at the same time. It reminds me a bit of adolescence. We want to be individuals, dammit, so we’re doing it by all wearing the same horrid clothes and hairstyles.
Anyway, enough about the ’70s. I’m just glad we didn’t have Instagram then.
See, I write what falls into my head. A character comes along and wants his or her story told. Yes, I’m a pen-monkey mercenary to my characters, so I listen. Charlie came into my life when I wrote Don’t Tell Anyone. He wasn’t a point-of-view character, because this wasn’t his story. It was Estelle and Liza’s story, a mother-in-law and daughter-in-law who had a few issues to work out. Charlie is Estelle’s younger son, the son who didn’t marry Liza. Mainly because Charlie is gay.
When the book came out, Charlie developed a bit of a fan club. He has a story, too, one that only played out in the background of DTA. He was patient, or as patient as Charlie knew how to be. He waited until I finished the next novel. Then he wanted his own book. People start checking my medication dosage when I tell them this, but yes, he hung around and badgered me, usually starting at ten thirty or eleven (I am not a night person), to start making with the typing on the keyboard. And put on some Sinatra, while I’m at it.
These characters can be so bossy.
But the more we talked, the more he told me, the more I realized that I might be at a disadvantage. Okay, I told him, I’ve lived with and been friends with more than a few gay men in my years on this planet, but have you noticed that I’m a straight female old enough to be your mother? Do you trust me to write this story?
Fuck, yeah, was his reply. [I keep transcripts of our interviews. That was exactly what he said.]
Okay. He trusted me, and that was all I needed.
But there comes a point where the storytelling hat is replaced with the marketing one. Mr. Charlie Cool is nowhere to be found when I ask, “What the heck category do I put this in? Romance? Gay fiction? Contemporary fiction? Does it matter? I can’t really call it M/M fiction, because that’s usually sexually explicit and this isn’t. But if I don’t mention that my leads are gay, will readers feel like I’m hiding the fact? If I blast it all over the place, will I get hate mail?”
I guess there’s only one way to find out. Choose some categories and jump into the pool.
What do you think? If you write, how do you decide on categories? Readers, what do you like to read? What do you think about stories that fall in-between?