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,
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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