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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23 thoughts on “Romantic Mysteries and the Melbourne Writers Festival

    • Sorry if I created the wrong impression, but I did enjoy listening to what the various writers had to say. In addition to those mentioned above, I attended several other events and took so many notes that will keep me thinking about many things for a while yet. Perhaps I should write another post detailing some of the other sessions as well.

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    • Unfortunately it is necessary, especially when you consider the booksellers in actual bookshops – how else do they know which shelf to put your book on? With Amazon it is much better because when you upload your book you can also choose up to seven keywords that are relevant to your book’s subject matter. When readers search online for books, they use keywords to narrow down their search, and hopefully they will find your book if they type in some of the keywords that you have used. It’s all a bit of a gamble, but I’m ever hopeful that there are some readers out there who are looking for books like mine…

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    • Yes, hundreds of thousands in each genre. If you go to Amazon’s Kindle store and type in “Romance” it will bring up, on the first page, the first 1-16 of over 600,000 books in that category. This is why many readers use keywords when searching, to narrow it down, because nobody is going to want to sift through all that lot!

      And then remember that every day another 80,000 or so books are uploaded, so each day that goes by means your book is pushed further into obscurity. In fact, it’s almost a miracle that some of us make any sales whatsoever.

      (Please remind me again why I do this? Oh yes, because I love writing…)

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  1. Dear Sue,

    Thank you for yet another entertaining blog (and for not mentioning your Move Cube). Reading through this, I am struck by the glaring differences between this festival and the Writer’s Festival hosted at the EST each year – are they truly that vast?

    Does Amazon not allow you to create your own genre? Or, better yet, can you not write to them and ask them to introduce the lost genre pioneered by Mary Stewart? If there is a need …

    G …

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    • Gareth, there were a lot of differences, but I think that’s largely because of better exchange rates, bigger sponsorships, and a much wider, more diverse audience here. This festival has been running for 30 years and is spread over a much bigger area geographically, and the public transport system is perfectly suited to support such a venture. The Melbourne festival is also subtitled “for everyone who reads” so there is a subtle difference in that the emphasis is on the readers, and there really is something for everyone – children, artists, photographers.

      I attended one of three sessions on Words and War at the Shrine of Remembrance, an entertaining session about adapting books for television and an evening session that showcased two astrophysicists. Most of what they spoke about was literally way above my head – out there in the galaxy somewhere – but my sister enjoyed it. I really should make this the subject of another blog-post.

      As far as Amazon goes, they won’t create a new genre for anyone, but they will adapt an existing one if a writer specifically asks them to. That will be my next step, but I’ll see how the current changes affect my sales first.

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  2. Alas, with my jaded view of love and rhe unlikelihood of ever meeting my conflicted knight in shining armour whilst on a mutual quest, perhaps Science Fiction is the right category? Joke! Smiley Face etc

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  3. This post fascinated me. I had no idea that choosing the genre of a book is so complex and fraught with so much peril. I thoroughly enjoyed going with you to the conference and eavesdropping on your reactions and experiences — the chick-lit moment was especially delicious. All in all, going along with you me happy that I my book was a memoir: there weren’t nearly as many confusing subdivisions!

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    • Thanks, Aunt Beulah. The festival really was interesting and I’ve realised that I need to write another post about all the things I didn’t mention here. The chick-lit moment was funny, but the lady who headed the panel was both gracious and diplomatic in her answer. I’ll do another post about it soon, I promise.

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  4. Sounds like you had a great time Susan, I hope you met some interesting people to write about too. And, as for the eye-opening parts, well they’re much better than yawns. Here’s to many more writers festivals, many more wide-eyed moments and lots of good writing!

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    • Thank you. It was good to experience a writers festival in another part of the world and I’m looking forward to next year’s one already. I took pages and pages of notes at each session and I’ve been enjoying re-reading and thinking about what I learned there.

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  5. Well, never give up! Janet Nicholson had the same genre problem with her Headmaster- book. I must confess I prefer the old romance mysteries, but then I have been around for some time now. Writers are supposed to write what readers want, as Ian Tennent says in “Who’s the Boss?” in the latest Write Now! front page article, but why not write what is in your bones? Anyhow, there are many writers in this world and all want a slice of the reading fraternity (and their money), so the life of a writer is not an easy one. Good luck!

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    • Thanks, Brigitta. Glad to hear that you prefer the old romance mysteries, and there seem to be quite a lot of us who feel the same way, so that gives me hope. I enjoyed the article on Ian Tennent, and he also mentions tips from both Stephen King and Sol Stein. Sol Stein talks in his books about being courteous to the reader, and giving the reader a gift. His books made a huge impression on me in my early days of writing.

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  6. Susa, that was refreshing to read. I mean, I can see the frustration as I have experienced it myself when pitching my novel. But it almost sounds as th9ugh genres are interpreted a bit differently than here in the US….or maybe I am behind since I havent; been to a writers conference in a couh0plke years and havce laid my novel to rest as I work on short stories! Changing times! But i really appreciate your poblem as I tend to write more G-rated fiction. Not that i am against people being more graphic–to eahc their own. It’s just not my message. I will try to find your work. Best wishes!

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    • I have a feeling that I’m a bit more behind than most when it comes to knowing my genres. As for graphic erotic writing, I suspect that 50 Shades of Grey had a lot to do with shifting the goalposts. Not my thing, but the best of luck to those who enjoy it. My hope is that there are enough readers in the world to satisfy both E L James and the more conservative writers like myself. She seems to have found her readers; now if only I could make it easier for my potential readers to find me!

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