Archive | September 2015

Romantic Mysteries and the Melbourne Writers Festival

I have to admit that I’m confused. Again. Uploading books to Amazon’s Kindle Direct Publishing (KDP) is not for the faint-hearted. I might have been fearless when I uploaded my first novel four years ago, but I’ve learned to be wary of my biggest stumbling block: Categories.

As an author, you are allowed to choose two categories (genres) to describe your book to would-be purchasers. In each category, there are sub-categories which narrow down the choices so that readers who might enjoy your book can actually find it in a niche which appeals to them. For example, for a novel you would select Fiction, then narrow it down within that by choosing Action & Adventure, further narrow it down to Mystery, Thriller & Suspense and then narrow it down again to Mystery.

Fantastic, you think – you’re now listed amongst your peers! Many peers. Too many peers.

Unfortunately, with around 4,000 titles for readers to choose from in that Mystery category, your book is probably going to be listed on page 390 out of 400 pages. This means that no one is going to find it because no one is going to have the patience to wade through 390 pages to find yours. Likewise with the second category you choose.

Beware, the author who misjudges her initial broad category! I received a less than favourable review from someone who thought that my mystery should have had more action and adventure, and less soppy romance. My romantic mysteries are more about the romance than the mystery, unlike Dan Brown who writes fast-paced, action-filled mysteries.

The trick is to select the category that is most predominant in your book. So I considered re-categorising mine as Romance, followed by Action/Adventure. Fortunately I browsed first and what did I see?  Erotica, sexy adventure, action sex, and so on. Neither the action nor the adventure that I had written about! Clearly a major re-think was needed.

Back in the 1960s, the great Mary Stewart pioneered the genre of Romantic Suspense, or Romantic Mystery. On Amazon, if you choose Romance first and then look for Mystery within that it doesn’t exist, but Suspense does. However, if you browse Amazon using keywords, Romantic Suspense brings up what others call Paranormal Romance – relationships involving werewolves, vampires or other supernatural phenomena. Mary Stewart’s Romantic Suspense novels are not about those things, and neither are mine.

As a confused writer, I attended the Melbourne Writers Festival, thinking that a little insight into current writing trends might help me. I chose my sessions carefully, hopped on a train and opened my mind. Opened it a little too wide, maybe. Shades of Pandora and her troublesome box, perhaps, but I really enjoyed my time at the festival.

The first session I attended was about romance writing, comparing the treatments between the Young Adult and traditional Romance genres, and was entitled Losing It. With a title like that, I should have guessed – but didn’t – that this session was all about losing one’s virginity. YA literature is almost exclusively about this topic, according to one of the panel members, Fiona Wood.

Well, I wouldn’t know, would I? I don’t write YA, and it didn’t exist as a category when I was in that target age group. For the modern YA reader, loss of virginity is more often non-consensual than consensual.

Romance novelist Melanie Milburne agreed that the Romance genre usually follows the same pattern, albeit aimed at a slightly older age group. Even in Historical Romance, the traditional “bodice-rippers” seem to imply that sex is non-consensual. In other words: rape. Well, imagine my shock and horror! I always thought that Romance was supposed to be about… you know, Romantic Stuff.

For example, my novels – my romantic mysteries – centre on the exploration of a mutual quest, in which two people start off on opposing sides and gradually change as the story evolves. The female protagonist gets to know another side of the male hero slowly over the first 100 pages, and their budding relationship is advanced by the mystery they both need to solve.

Along the way, diversions include the occasional picnic or shared bottle of wine, followed by an unexpected awakening of emotions, culminating in a midpoint consummation behind closed doors, heralded by that most diplomatic of writer devices: the chapter break.

In the second half of the novel, the tension notches up as the Bad Guy closes in. The romantic couple cling together through increasing danger, during which they respectively realise that they have each found their life partner through the most extraordinary circumstances, only to possibly lose that person due to the misdeeds of the Bad Guy. When all hope seems lost, the indomitable lovers gain the upper hand, solve the mystery, save each other and restore a new balance before the final Happy Ending.

Just your average falling in love, bells ringing, music and flowers Romance.

That’s certainly how I would like to fall in love and find my life partner. Reality check: maybe that’s why I haven’t found him yet! Second reality check: maybe that’s why the stuff I write is primarily categorised as fiction…

Does this mean I don’t write Romance after all? Should I try a new approach and re-classify my novels as something else?

The words in my novels are not just thrown together in some random order to tell a mediocre story quickly and earn me a fast buck. A lot of thought, planning and research goes into my plots, so they are more than just romances and have a strong historical or artistic theme. They delve back into the history of a particular era or movement, with the emphasis on archaeology, art, lost loves of a previous generation, and so on. Thought provoking stuff, so perhaps what I write could be considered Literary Fiction?

This led me to attend a discussion on Literary versus Genre Fiction. Once again my eyes were shocked into the surprised open position as I learned from writer Krissy Kneen that generally, Literary Fiction seems to be another term for Erotica. Harrison Young, an American-born writer, set out to write what he thought was Literary Fiction, but his novel was re-classified by his publisher as a Thriller. He felt this was unfair because some readers of traditional thrillers thought that his book was too different from the norm, and not to their usual thriller tastes.

Writer Honey Brown confessed that she didn’t think about genre at all when writing, because that was for her publisher to sort out. I couldn’t help feeling a twinge of jealousy for both these two writers – lucky them for having publishers to take on the task of deciding on categories!

As a last resort, I attended a session on Women’s Fiction. It came as no surprise that Women’s Fiction is all about politics: the politics of domestic abuse, the politics of the glass ceiling for women in a so-called “man’s world” and the politics of women fighting against any ingrained, immovable system. This is very noble stuff, and I have the deepest respect for the people who write it. It is obviously extremely popular, judging from the queues of people (mainly women) waiting to get in the door at this session.

Unfortunately my writing is far too frivolous to be this noble, this edgy. I don’t write about politics – the single biggest reason why I was unable to find a publisher in South Africa. Some do, some don’t write Women’s Fiction. I happen to fall into the latter group.

Towards the end of the session, a woman in her 70s stood up at the back and asked: “Why is no one mentioning Chick-Lit? Surely that falls under Women’s Fiction too?” Despite the fact that the floor was carpeted, you could’ve heard a pin crashing onto it if someone had dared to drop one in the ensuing silence. The bemused expressions on the faces of the panel members made me want to laugh out loud.

The term Chick-Lit doesn’t seem to be used anymore – it’s now called Romantic Comedy – but regardless of the label, its writers have a knack for comic timing that I can only dream about. While what I write is light and frothy, fairly clean and thought by at least one reviewer to be “more Hallmark channel than cable,” I cannot claim to be a writer of Chick-Lit, but I do enjoy reading it.

One theory remained constant through all the eye-opening which I experienced at this festival. Cross-genre writers definitely need to first choose the category which reflects the main genre of the book. As explained by Harrison Young (whose Literary Fiction novel became a Thriller), writers cannot afford to disappoint habitual readers of any genre. We must give readers what they expect, plus something extra that they didn’t realise they wanted. Maybe it will expand their reading horizons, and they will come back for more. I took his words to heart and made my decision on my Amazon categories based on them.

So, after all that, what did I choose? Romance and Mystery, of course. In Romance I have chosen the sub-category of Suspense, and in Mystery I have chosen the sub-category of Cozy. Let’s see how that works out. Watch this space…

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