Wednesday, April 4, 2012

Genre Talk: Women's Fiction Format

My agent sent me the most distressing letter after reading my manuscript. Somewhere around page 150, he said, it finally started reading like the Women's Fiction novel I'd declared it to be. Up to that point, though, the genre was totally muddled, and he didn't have a clue how he'd pitch it to the publishers considering the state it was in.

Oy vey.

The good news is, he loved it, and so did all his editorial assistants, so he didn't reject the manuscript.

My women's fiction novel leaned too far into the "romance" realm and had a touch of "cozy mystery" thrown in to really confuse the reader. I had to make corrections to the format to whip it back to WF. When I say "format," I don't mean "structure." The structure for a book is about, among other things, the progression of the plot. What I mean is the placing of other POV characters in the novel, and the role these characters play in the main character's story.

For example, pick up any political intrigue or international thriller, and you're likely to find several short chapters or scenes right up front, and each chapter or scene features a different person. Tom Clancy, Brad Thor, David Baldacci, and others have their books formatted this way. Sometimes the main character appears in the first chapter, but usually not. Whether or not the MC interacts with these others early depends on their purpose in the book--sometimes, the MC's goal is to capture one of the opening characters and their meeting doesn't come until considerably later in the story.

Ordinarily, in romance novels, the opening scene is in the heroine's POV, and having her meet the hero within the first few pages is almost mandatory. Her thoughts frequently center around him, and his around her. Romance novels have at most two POVs, hers and his, with his being subordinate, but still getting equal time and depth.

Women's fiction is primarily about a woman's growth while dealing with the issue affecting her. The genre centers around relationships, though not necessarily romantic relationships. When it has a strong romantic thread through it, as mine does, that thread is treated differently. The opening chapters in romantic WF tend to be only in the heroine's POV, and her thoughts don't turn to the hero as often. He doesn't get equal POV time, but his thoughts often do center around her. According to an article by Lisa Craig in Writing World.com,
A man (or a hero) might be waiting for the heroine of these novels at the end of her journey, but he does not usually get equal time or equal depth to his internal journey during the course of a book. In "straight" romance fiction, the author renders the hero in every detail-an expectation of readers. This is not necessarily the case in women's fiction.

When I revised The Cat Lady's Secret, I moved the hero's POV scenes later in the book, even though I introduced him early. The novel is about the extremes the Cat Lady took to hide from the villian in her past and how she couldn't go forward without settling her problem with him. The issue is forgiveness--she had to forgive him in order to move on with the hero--and the primary relationship involved is the romantic one. With the correct format, the book reads like the women's fiction novel it was intended to be.

What does your format say about your book? Is it muddled? Are you sending mixed signals?






















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31 comments:

  1. Thanks so much for sharing this, Linda. I knew I had a problem with my current WIP, but I couldn't pinpoint the reason. I had allowed others' opinions to draw me away from my original idea. It's become a sort of muddled romance instead of a strong WF. I can't wait to read your finished product!

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  2. Paid special attention to this post as a women's fiction author.
    ~ Wendy

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  3. @Betty--glad I could help!

    @Wendy--thanks for coming by!

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  4. This helped me so much! I'm brainstorming something right now, trying to decide what it is because it's romance but not quite, and this helped me pin it down. Great definition of women's fiction :)

    Sarah Allen
    (my creative writing blog)

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    1. So glad I could help, Sarah. Be sure to hit the link and learn more about women's fiction so you don't have to do it the hard way, like I did!

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  5. Great post, Linda! It's never fun to learn stuff like this the hard way, but at least you can share your newly gleaned wisdom with the rest of us!

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    1. We'd be in a mess if writers didn't share their "wisdom," wouldn't we?!

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  6. I agree, Linda. Genre is important as a vehicle to bridge the gap between a book and its readers. I paid money to learn the information you provide in this post from two literary ninjas. For my current WIP, I had to choose between romance and women's fiction. Since I enjoy switching POV's, I went with romance. That meant that I start my story later in my heroine's life than I'd have done for women's fiction. The plot is the same but I emphasize the romance over other issues. I introduce my hero in the second chapter, but my first chapters are short. My hero and heroine don't actually meet until several chapters later, but I've identified them, and the reader gets to watch their courses collide. My agent approved my proposal with the genre as historical romance, and she was an editor for 30 years, so that seems to have worked out.

    Best wishes on Cat Lady's Secret.

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    1. Sounds like you went through the same thought processes I did, and acted accordingly. So glad your agent approved! Best wishes on your work, too!

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    2. BTW, Janalyn, In *The Lucky One*, Nicholas Sparks's hero doesn't meet the heroine until later in the novel, but we follow his trek to find her. In true Romance genre fashion, she is foremost in his mind. So, he's one of the authors who set the precedence for your format. :)

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    3. Most real romance readers HATE Nicholas Sparks, and Nicholas Sparks hinmself hates being called a romance writer. In REAL romance, there is always an "HEA" (Happily Ever After, or at least a "happy for now" ending). No, he doesn't set precedence for any real romance writer.

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    4. It's sad to hear he's greeted with such venom among "real romance" readers. Even if he doesn't consider himself a romance author, I personally enjoy his books. Regardless of how they end, I find them to be amazingly romantic and truer depictions of devoted and lasting love than some of the other romance novels I read.

      Thanks for your comment, Kat. It's always good to hear other opinions.

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  7. That must have been hard - going back and rewriting the story, but I'm sure it will be a better book in the end.

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    1. Fortunately, I didn't have to rewrite that much. I just lifted some scenes out and did some rearranging. It wasn't as bad as it sounded when the agent first pointed out the problems.

      I think it is a better book--and more importantly, so does he!

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  8. Came to this via the Passive Guy's blog and had an "Ah Ha!" moment, where I finally understood the structure (and reader expectations) necessary for my WF novel.

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    1. That's great, Evangeline. I'm glad I could help.

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  9. Congrats, Linda, for a very clear explanation of what the WF genre requires...For a while, I thought I had written a WF novel (titled Rich, Fat and Bored)only to be told it didn't have the correct story arc: in the end, the heroine remained rich, fat and bored and had learned nothing from her trials and tribulations (including several Tunisian lovers).

    I was told in no uncertain terms (this was a writers'group plus an experienced agent)that WF follows a woman's experience to the "ah ha moment" when she learns from it all and outgrows it - bursting from the woods into the sunlight as it were. My WF novel was nothing but a dystopian parody of WF!

    So where does one classify a dystopian parody of WF? Throw it in the wastepaper basket?

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    1. Finding the "ah ha moment" is a great explanation of the story arc, and a huge component of WF is that she learns and comes out victorious. Her circumstances may be the same, but the victory is reward in itself.

      But I tell ya what--parody in itself is marketable. Instead of throwing it away, exaggerate it, pitch it as a tongue-in-cheek look at--what? today's women?--and cast it out into the publication sea. Who knows. Something may bite.

      Good luck!

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  10. Good article, Linda. You may have rearranged it, but you have one great story in The Cat Lady's Secret! It had me hooked from page 1 and never let go.

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    1. Thank you, Ane. I'm honored that you think so!

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  11. Oh, yes! This was very helpful! The novel I am writing now is falling into the romantic WF category for sure! Thank you.

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    1. I hope you don't fall into the same trap I did! Get your format right from the beginning! :)

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  12. A very informative post. Thank you. It clears up some of the muddy aspects of where my novels "fit."

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    1. Thanks, Kae. Glad I could help!

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    2. Excellent post, Linda! I'm a writer of women's fiction, and your discussion about the difference betwee WF and Romance is right on. Am eager now to read your story! :)

      Blessings,

      MaryAnn
      _____________________________
      MaryAnn Diorio, PhD, MFA
      www.maryanndiorio.com
      www.thewritepower.blogspot.com

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    3. Thanks, MaryAnn. When it comes out, I imagine everyone will be able to hear me hollerin'!

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  13. I'm working on two stories, and this post is helping me decide that one of them is probably WF. The other? Probably mystery/romance, NOT WF.

    Thanks.

    Ann Gaylia O'Barr

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  14. How timely, I'm having a similar problem. I'm writing women's fiction with strong romantic elements. However, the beginning sounds more like a romance. Plus, I give a lot of time to the male POV. I need to work on this. Thanks for the article.

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    1. I'm late in replying, Laurie, but I hope you got your novel back on track. Best of luck to you!

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