Stay with the FLOW

By D A Gordon

Ann GordonDuring the last twelve months I have edited, critiqued and judged a bunch of stories. This is partly due to the fact that I belong to five writing groups and I’m a contest judge. Because I’m a semi-retired English teacher and technical writer, I tend to scan for grammatical errors when I first look at a page.

But this year I’ve started looking for something else as I critique fiction: Flow.

What Flow Does for Us

When our sentences and paragraphs flow, readers find it enjoyable to keep reading; they’ll turn page after page because the mental and emotional flow makes comprehension effortless – the words easily flow through mind, the characters come alive, and we don’t want to put the book down. When the story flows, we continue to read with little concept of passing time.

Gordon_Christmas-Meadows-Utah_smallIt doesn’t take non-stop action to keep the audience reading. What helps satisfy the reader is when the action, dialog, and narration flow uninterrupted, like a valley stream with no dams or boulders.

Misplaced Backstory

The other day I reviewed five chapters of an unpublished novel for a friend. She had a good plot and an interesting protagonist. But she had a bad habit of adding a sentence or two of backstory the minute any character came on the scene instead of waiting for a better time. This completely stopped the flow and left me thinking, Now, what?

For instance, some good guys were running toward the fort to get away from the monsters. During this pursuit the stakes were high and everyone was breathing hard, scared witless and running fast to reach safety before being torn limb from limb. When a soldier in the fort saw them coming, he opened the gate to let them in and should have just as quickly closed the gate afterwards while everyone caught their breath and said, Thanks George, you saved our lives.

But sadly, no. As soon as the attentive soldier opened the gate, the author stopped us in mid action to explain who the solder was, including his place at the fort and his relationship with the people running for their lives.

Because I was caught up in the action sequence, this interruption stopped me cold. At that moment I didn’t care about the soldier’s relationship to the frightened people or to the fort; I just wanted the action to keep going until it reached a logical conclusion. Then later, maybe over dinner, I could learn who the guy was and why he mattered.

Reading Can Be Hard Work

Good fiction has a rhythm that readers can feel, and they’ll want to keep reading in order to keep that feeling. But when the reader starts having trouble following the sequence of events and has to back track several lines or paragraphs to pick up the trail again, this is a sign the flow has stopped.

This can be bad news for the author because the reader may decide it’s time to get a soda and not return.

Breaking the flow isn’t the same as surprising your reader with a piano falling from the sky. Surprise is good. But incongruent activities or discordant dialog frustrate the reader because it breaks up the flow.

Flow stoppers make the story more difficult to stay with, and instead of being easy and enjoyable, reading becomes hard work.

Checking the Flow

A great way to check the flow of your writing is to have someone else read it, someone who is also a writer or at least a prolific reader. That’s where writing groups with critique sessions are mighty handy.

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Ann Gordon a writer and editor who lives in Moab, Utah. She’s a chapter president with the League of Utah Writers. She can be found on LinkedIn and Twitter.

Writing and Juggling

By Kristi Helvig

Kristi HelvigIn light of the upcoming launch for my sci-fi debut, BURN OUT, someone asked me in an interview about how I managed to balance my work as a psychologist, my writing obligations, and parenting two young children. I laughed because ‘balanced’ is the last word I’d use to describe myself right now. Coinciding with my book launch is the due date for edits on Book 2. In the midst of said edits and book launch is my youngest child’s birthday. To give you an idea of how crazed I’ve been, when I asked what she wanted for her birthday, she said, “For you to stay off your computer the whole day.” (Cue massive maternal guilt).

Under these two deadlines, I’ve turned from the super-involved parent who takes their kids to parks and musuems to the one who mutters “yeah, sure” when they call out from the other room asking if they can take a knife, scissors, and crazy-glue upstairs for ‘a project.’ After several days spent editing on the couch in sweatpants last week, my husband almost burst into song when I announced I was going to shower. Okay, he actually did burst into song, and that song was “Hallelujah.” I wish I was kidding.

As writers, we’re always juggling. Whether it’s time spent promoting vs. writing, day job vs. writing, laundry vs. writing, etc., it’s hard to hit that sweet spot where we feel balanced. Though I have no magic answers for this, the following things have helped me along the way.

Helvig_BURN OUT Cover1)  Prioritize the tasks at hand. My motto: deadlines and family first, everything else where it fits. I still make time to walk the dog, volunteer in the kids’ classrooms, and do yoga because those things matter to me—plus yoga helps to offset the vast quantities of chocolate I eat while editing. Sadly, laundry hasn’t seemed to fit anywhere lately. I was going to include a picture of the current state of our laundry basket, or rather the mountain of clothes that ate our basket, but it’s just too embarrassing. Even with writing related tasks, I’m a firm believer in old-school ‘to-do’ lists and arrange things by dates of importance. There is something satisfying about crossing things off of lists.

2)  Enlist help. My family has fair warning when I’m entering the Deadline Zone—just like the Twilight Zone but without the cool background music. My awesomely supportive hubby will take the kids out for outings so I can have quiet writing time, and make dinners, etc. Then we’ll switch when he’s under a time crunch. My oldest is slowly taking on some household chores, though even he doesn’t see the appeal of laundry. Even when it’s not a matter of deadlines, there is always some sort of chaos in the schedule, so it’s important to have a plan in place to manage it. Juggling is easiest when there are more hands to handle the balls.

3) Schedule non-juggling time. Even if it’s just an afternoon at the movies with a friend or a weekend away in the mountains with family, it’s so important to take time away from the insanity. It makes all the times when you are juggling more bearable.

In the end, I think it’s impossible to be perfectly balanced all of the time. If you know otherwise, please tell me your secret! I’ve come to accept that there will be times, like now, where I’m barely hanging on, and that’s okay. Things seem to go in cycles and there’s comfort in the knowledge that in a few weeks time, I’m going to be a showering and laundry machine. Unless someone wants to come do my laundry—I’m totally open to that.

What are your tips for maintaining balance in your life? Anyone else’s laundry basket qualify as a Colorado Fourteener?

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Kristi Helvig is a Ph.D. clinical psychologist turned sci-fi/fantasy author. She muses about Star Trek, space monkeys, and other assorted topics at her website. Kristi resides in sunny Colorado with her hubby, two kiddos, and behaviorally-challenged dogs. Follow her on Twitter or find her on Facebook. Her publisher, Egmont USA, is giving away 5 finished copies of BURN OUT on Goodreads through April 17th.

Amazon Ranking: From Loser to Bestseller and Back Again

By J.A. (Julie) Kazimer

*The words/numbers I am about to bore you with are all true.

- You can trust me. I would never lie.

Amazon…*sigh*

Did anyone else get a little flutter just saying the word? Are your hands starting to sweat?

If not, then you probably haven’t launched a book recently. You see, Amazon is now the big dog in book distribution and indie publishing (as to if this is a good thing, that’s another discussion for another time, but let me just say, you shouldn’t trust that a corporation has your best interest at heart and/or put all your pretty Easter eggs in one basket).

In their ultimate wisdom, Amazon has kindly ranked you and your sales (try and hold your applause).

In some ways it’s nice of them since before ranking our sales an author would have only their publisher (which could take months) or Bookscan’s word (which is only a piece of the sales pie) on how well your book is doing or not doing.

So you were basically in the dark unless you hit some bestseller list.

Ah, it was such a saner time.

You lived your days writing instead of obsessing this or that particular number meant.

What does a ranking of 15,038 mean in terms of sales? How many books did I sell today? What does it mean when I drop 100 ranking points? Will someone show me how to work this damn DVR?

But I digress. This is not a tale of personal sales self-discovery. Okay, it is, but there is a bigger point.

On February 28, 2012 my first book, CURSES! A F***ed Up Fairy Tale hit the shelves.curses

This was the day my descent into true madness began (which is good to know when explaining your incoherent mumblings about sales to the guys with the white, hug-me jackets). The first few days my sales ranking hovered around 40k (for the sake of brevity, I’m going to only talk Kindle sales and not print copies). When I googled this number, it supposedly meant I was selling about 1-3 books a day (using the kindle sales rank calculator).

Cha-ching!

Yeah, I was as disappointed as you are.

Okay, much, much more. But stay with me.

I was checking my sales ranking every day, and feeling more and more desperate for sales, after all, I’d heard so many times about the horrors of a debut author’s first book tanking. I was convinced I would have to change my name, and move to Florida (Yes, I said it. Florida, a fate worse than Ohio).

Then something magical happened.

Amazon and Kensington (the publisher) worked out some deal where CURSES would be on Amazon’s month long $3.99 and under deal for the month of May 2012. Suddenly my sales ranking dropped to around 700. I hit number 2 on the bestseller list for Science Fiction& Fantasy.

For the entire month I stayed within the top 10. Suffice it to say, I checked those numbers every hour. I grew so obsessed about my ranking that I couldn’t stand to be away from the computer for long, fearing I would miss a big sales jump.

Yeah, I was a wee bit crazed.

But by June 5th my run was over, and my sales started to slump to an average of 20k once again. I still checked every day, sometimes up to seven or eight times for a nice little dip. But slowly my sales ranking obsession eased, and I could focus on writing again.

FROGGY STYLE COVEROver the next months, a couple of other books of mine were released, none setting the Amazon rankings on fire. I did see dips in my sales after certain promotions, the biggest one being when I was on John Scalzi’s The Big Idea with Froggy Style. My sales dropped to somewhere in the 5-7k range.

Which is one of the advantages of sanely watching your sales ranking, you can sometimes figure out what sort of promotional event or marketing worked. Then again, sometimes you have no idea why or what is prompting or hurting your sales.

The disadvantages are many, the main one being, everyone else can see how much you suck too!

Go ahead, look at my rankings. I know you want to. *sigh* I’ll wait.

Oh, you’re back?

Quit laughing. That’s just mean…

Anyway, since Froggy Style was released in March of 2013, I stopped watching my sales ranking so much, checking in maybe once every couple of months. I stopped because, while it’s nice to know how my books are doing on Amazon, sales rankings aren’t the whole picture.

And even more important, I have little to no control over the ups and downs. I cannot control if and when someone buys my books (Yes, I have to repeat this daily, hourly even).

I was feeling much better about my writing career and more importantly myself at this point.

A ranking was no longer controlling me or my life.

And then my latest book, a romantic suspense, The Assassin’s Heart, came out to little fanfare. assassins_heartExcept a few days after its release, RT Book Reviews gave it a 4 ½ stars as well as a gold designation, calling it ‘in a class by itself’. Odd since I’m fairly sure I’m a total hack.

After that, my ranking plummeted from 70k to 1,500 in a day. And the Amazon monkey hopped on my back once again. For three days I obsessed, didn’t write a single word, and watched as a website took control over my life once again.

As of writing this, my sales’ rank for The Assassin’s Heart hovers around 10k (I only checked for the sake of this post. I swear.)

And I’ve joined a 12-step program.

I hear admitting you have a problem is half the battle.

The other half, of course, is your internet connection.

Next time I want to talk about your author ranking on amazon, and how it can turn you into a mass murderer. In the meantime, anyone else experienced sales ranking obsession (SRO)? How do you handle it?

 

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J.A. (Julie) Kazimer lives in Denver, CO. Novels include CURSES! A F***ed-Up Fairy Tale, Holy Socks & Dirtier Demons, Dope Sick: A Love Story, FROGGY STYLE and The Assassin’s Heart, as well as the forthcoming mystery series, Deadly Ever After from Kensington Books. J.A. spent years spilling drinks as a bartender and then stalked people while working as a private investigator.

Learn more at www.jakazimer.com or on her writerly talk blog More Than a Little F***ed Up. She can also be found (way too much of the time) on Twitter as @jakazimer and on Facebook as Julie Kazimer.

The Importance of a Good Beta Reader

by Katriena Knights

If you’ve seriously pursued writing for any amount of time, you know you can’t be trusted to judge your own work. Scenes that seem wonderfully constructed in our heads are completely incomprehensible to other people. Glorious flights of poetic prose are actually pools of verbal quicksand from which no reader will ever safely return. It’s a sad truth, but a truth nonetheless.

This is why we need Beta readers.

A good Beta reader will help you find those holes in your manuscript where your brain fills in the details but a reader gets confused or completely lost. She’ll find continuity errors, wobbles in character development, and help you figure out where you’ve indulged yourself too much and could really stand to cut things down a bit.

A really good Beta reader will call you on the phone and say, “Hey, mostly I liked the story, but there’s this one thing I HATE with the BURNING PASSION of a THOUSAND MILLION SUNS. Change it.”

True story.

Yes, we’re still speaking.

My Beta reader iBloodontheIce-ART-Smallers also my best friend. She doesn’t just read my manuscripts, she also feeds me story ideas. For example, my upcoming novel from Samhain, Blood on the Ice, is entirely and completely her fault. And yes, she betaed it for me. A couple of times.

Early in the writing process, she read through some chapters and said, “Wait. Your game schedule is a complete mess.” And then she sent me a link and said, “Use this.”

The link was the entire Chicago Blackhawks schedule from the 1955-1956 season, when the NHL only had six teams. “Just plug your six vampire teams into this schedule. That way it’ll make more sense.”

I think I banged my head against a wall for fifteen minutes. It worked, though. Using the actual schedule—even though I did tweak it a little—added a background continuity that made the Vampire Hockey League more realistic. And if there’s anything that needs added realism, it’s a hockey league populated entirely by vampires.

When my final draft was ready, she told me we could get together over Instant Message on Memorial Day and go through the manuscript. I figured we’d chat for a little while, I’d make a few notes, and then I’d be off to finish my submission-ready draft.

Eight hours later (you read that right—EIGHT. HOURS. LATER.), I had about 25 pages of notes copied and pasted out of IM into a document. I was also really freaking hungry. Over the next few days, I reordered several scenes, added some exposition, and took out an entire character. (You know how they say to kill your babies? This was an ACTUAL BABY. Her whole subplot got removed. Poor thing. Maybe she’ll fit into the next book.)

That right there is what every writer needs in a good Beta reader.

I’m always grateful that my BFF happens to have a ridiculously good story sense and isn’t afraid to tell me when stuff just plain sucks. It’s the kind of objective eye every writer needs. I can’t tell you how to find your own—all I know is you can’t have mine.

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Katriena Knights wrote her first poem with she was three years old and had to dictate it to her mother under the bathroom door (her timing has never been very good). Now she’s the author of several paranormal and contemporary romances. She grew up in a miniscule town in Illinois, and now lives in a miniscule town in Colorado with her two children and a variety of pets. For more about Katriena, visit her website and blog

A Few Upcoming April Events

Juggling Contracts, Part 3: Beware the Sub-Clauses!

By Susan Spann

Last month’s RMFW #PubLaw post talked about contract language authors want to see when juggling multiple contracts for different types of rights.

This month, we’ll take a look at the other clauses authors need to watch for.

Even contracts which seem to address only limited rights sometimes contain additional terms that impact sub-rights licensing and limit the other contracts the author can sign without a publisher’s permission. Here’s an overview of the most common:

1. Sub-rights paragraphs. Check the contract’s sub-rights paragraphs against your list of rights you intend to sell. Make sure you’re giving away only the rights you intend. Be careful, because the “grant of rights” paragraph doesn’t always contain all of the rights language. Many contracts contain sub-rights language in other places, farther down the agreement.

2. Licensing and assignment rights. Many contracts have separate paragraphs authorizing the publisher to sub-license additional rights. Be careful to ensure this doesn’t reach beyond the scope of the rights you intend to grant, and make sure these paragraphs specifically state that the publisher can’t license or sell rights beyond those “expressly granted to Publisher in this Agreement.”

3. Intellectual Property Ownership Provisions. Some publishers try to “grab” rights in the copyright and ownership sections. Read carefully, and ensure that you retain full ownership to all rights in the work (except for the ones licensed to the publisher, of course), and that your contract specifically states that you can benefit from those rights without owing the publisher any share or licensing fee.

4. Competitive Works Provisions. Many contracts prohibit the author from publishing or licensing “competitive works,” defined as works which might damage the market for the work referenced in the contract. Be sure these provisions have carve outs for derivative rights and sub-licensing of the other rights you intend to exploit. In fact, the contract should expressly state that the author’s exploitation of reserved rights is not a violation of this provision.

5. Option Clauses. Beware the lurking option clause that casts too broad a net. If a publisher takes an option, restrict that option as much as possible. For example, if you’re licensing publication rights to a novel, the option should be for “Author’s next book-length work of fiction in the same series only” and should not include derivatives, spinoffs, and short stories or novellas.

As you can see, the job of juggling rights becomes more intricate as more publishers and rights become involved. I recommend that authors who want to juggle multiple contracts have an agent or an experienced publishing attorney at their side, and that the author hires professional help before the first contract is signed.

Juggling rights requires careful planning and attention to detail, as well as a solid understanding of legalese and contract law. Don’t go it alone. The rights–and the profits–you save will be worth the trouble.

*As always, be aware that this column is general business advice, and not intended as specific legal advice to any person. All authors should consult an experienced publishing attorney before signing contracts or compromising their legal rights.

Have questions about this or other publishing legal topics? I’d love to hear from you in the comments!

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Susan Spann is a publishing attorney and author from Sacramento, California. Her debut mystery novel, CLAWS OF THE CAT (Minotaur Books, July 2013), is the first in a series featuring ninja detective Hiro Hattori. The sequel, BLADE OF THE SAMURAI, will release on July 15, 2014. Susan blogs about writing, publishing law and seahorses at http://www.SusanSpann.com. Find her on Twitter @SusanSpann or on Facebook.

On Mastery

By Kerry Schafer

Finish the damn book.

I know you’ve heard this before. You’ve heard it from writers far more well known than I am, people like Neil Gaiman and Stephen King. There’s even a Finish the Damn Book Contest out there you can enter, if you need that kind of encouragement.

Why?

Because every book you finish teaches you something new about writing. Every story you complete improves your craft, brings you to a higher level of skill, makes you a better writer. The places that make you want to walk away to a new and still shiny idea are the places where you need to up your game and learn something new.

If you give up in the middle, if you abandon your characters and story when the going gets messy in the soggy middle, you never learn how to fix that middle. You’ll never learn how to go back and tweak the beginning to make the middle work. Or rewrite the end so you can fix the beginning.

When you quit, you never really give yourself a chance to become the best writer you can be.

This morning I chanced upon an article about the concept of Mastery that a friend posted on Facebook. It’s written by Maria Popova and is called Creativity, the Gift of Failure, and the Difference Between Success and Mastery (It’s about a book called The Rise, by Sarah Lewis, which is likely also well worth reading.) Popova talks at length about the gift of failure and the difference between mastery and success. One of the things that really stuck with me was a photo of the Women’s Archery team at Columbia University in about 1920.

These women spent “…countless hours practicing a sport that requires equal parts impeccable precision of one’s aim and a level of comfort with the uncontrollable — all the environmental interferences, everything that could happen between the time the arrow leaves the bow and the time it lands on the target, having followed its inevitably curved line.”

Think about that in the context of the writer’s life. We spend countless hours writing the books - shaping, polishing, perfecting. But after the books leave our hands there are so many interferences beyond our control. Agents, editors, the vagaries of the publishing business, current trends in readers and the market.

I’d like to be Robin Hood, with a level of mastery so magical and mythical that every book I ever writes hits the bulls eye.

But I’m not. And chances are good that neither are you.

So what do we do? We keep writing books. We keep practicing. We keep pursuing mastery of our craft because that is something over which we do have control.

And we never quit.

Which brings me to this, from the unquenchable Chuck Wendig:

“I am a writer, and I will finish the shit that I started.

I will not whine. I will not blubber. I will not make mewling whimpering cryface pissypants boo-hoo noises. I will not sing lamentations to my weakness.

My confidence is hard and unyielding. Like a kidney stone lodged in the ureter of a stegosaurus.

These are my adult pants. The diapers have burned away in the fires of my phoenix-esque rising…”

Read the rest, here. Then put it on your desktop. Print it off and paste it to your wall. Chant it in front of the mirror.

And then go finish your book. And write another one.

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Kerry Schafer’s first novel, Between, was published in February 2012 and the sequel, Wakeworld, is slated to hit shelves and e-readers on February 14, 2013. Kerry is both a licensed mental health counselor and an RN, and loves to incorporate psychological and medical disorders into her fantasy books. You can find out more on her website, www.kerryschafer.com, or find her on Twitter as @kerryschafer or on her Facebook page Kerry Schafer Books.

Don’t Listen to Mr. Scrooge

By Lucinda Stein

Lucinda SteinHistory. Research. “Bah, humbug!” some might say. But as an author, I’ve found writing historical fiction brings surprising benefits.

A writer needs a good understanding of the time period, including clothing and hairstyles, transportation, customs, lifestyles, political and social trends, architecture, etc. Whew! Research takes time and effort. But like writing a book, take it one day at a time, bit by bit. The good news? Ideas for characters and scenes will constantly spring to life.

I’m currently working on a rough draft for a novel set in Depression-era Oklahoma. There’s a wealth of information available on this time period. But I need information specific to a particular state. Writers can access state historical society websites rich in old photos, documents, and researched articles. Many states also maintain online digital historical newspapers.

My protagonist is a Comanche woman, so I need to explore the unique aspect of a Native American living during this time. While searching online for the tribal website, I serendipitously came across haunting photographs of abandoned three-story buildings. Turned out it was a boarding school dating back to 1883 with students in attendance for over a century. Bingo! I “enrolled” my protagonist in the school. Added bonus—the website referred readers to a nonfiction book published by the University of Nebraska.

This leads me to the subject of resources. As a retired librarian, I like to use primary sources of information for authenticity and a definite sense of the time period. I purchased the aforementioned book and discovered it included interviews with former students. What a wealth of ideas for the chapters in which my protagonist attends the school. I also located a biography about a Native American man from Oklahoma. I wanted the book for two reasons—it was the same time period that takes place in my novel, and it included the man’s experiences growing up on an Oklahoma farm, something I had decided would be my book’s initial setting.

Stein_Tattered CoversI also found a historical novel set in Oklahoma during the Depression. Why use fiction to write fiction? This resource was valuable since the novel was written by a reputable author who knows the state well. The author is a university professor from Oklahoma whose family dates back to this time period. I took special note of the natural landscape described in the book and paid close attention to references on life during the Depression. Of course, this book is only one of many resources used to gather information.

In the beginning, I create several lists for information I’ll need in my story. As I continue to research, I add new details to my digital file. For example, I have a list for Prohibition. One list includes native plants of Oklahoma. Another list contains specifics about the Depression such as shanty towns, hopping trains, and the plight of the homeless.

I also create a timeline for my story. It’s important to know what was going on in the country and even the world during that time. Noteworthy items are included in my timeline. In the process of writing my rough draft, I frequently refer to my timeline for additional ideas for new scenes and plot points.

In writing fiction, the writer enjoys exploration of his/her protagonist and the challenge of navigating through a plot. On top of that, the creator of historical fiction weaves history into the dramatic life of a believable character. As in reading any well-written novel, the reader learns new things along the way, so it is as a writer of historical fiction. I come away with a new perspective on history—just as I hope my readers will.

Sometimes I feel my research practically writes the novel for me. In reality, it’s more like continual brainstorming. For example, I discovered popular bands of the era and—voilà—a scene with a speakeasy hidden at the rear of a building came to life. Another illustration of research inspiring story ideas: During the Depression, movies proved a popular diversion from difficult times. One movie of this era was Frankenstein starring Boris Karloff. I created a scene in which I compare crude surgical practices for tuberculosis patients to Dr. Frankenstein’s bizarre experiments. Amazing where research will lead you. Even Bonnie Parker (as in Bonnie and Clyde) makes a brief debut in my novel. Who said historical fiction can’t be fun?

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Lucinda Stein lives on the Western Slope of Colorado with her husband and her shelter-rescue dog, Opie. Her novel, Three Threads Woven, was a 2010 WILLA Finalist and her short story, Sulfur Springs, won the 2011 LAURA Short Fiction Award judged by Pam Houston. Her short stories have appeared in Fine Lines, The South Dakota Review, and Women Writing the West online. Her recent novel, Tattered Covers, is a mix of contemporary and historical fiction.

Enter to win a free copy of Tattered Covers. Place “free copy” in the subject field of your email and send to: lucinda (at) lucindastein (dot) com.

The Sub-Genre Rabbit Hole

By Pamela Nowak

I feel as if I fell down a rabbit hole. But instead of Tweedle Dumb and Tweedle Dee, I encountered a score of similarly-dressed fiction sub-genres. They were nearly identical. Here and there, one had a sash or hat or tie or button that was a different color. Looking closely, I could see each was subtly different from its cohorts but my head ached from trying to sort out the minute variations. They advanced on me, grinning like evil Cheshire Cats, insisting I recognize their individuality. I lay there, confused, as they morphed into a gang of lurching zombie look-alikes from another genre altogether.

During the past month, RMFW Colorado Gold contest committee volunteers have been busy clarifying and redefining sub-genre categories. We were challenged by the need to keep up with the industry while avoiding excessive complication—a task that was nearly impossible. Editors want submitting writers to know where their manuscript belongs and writers who are self-publishing must know how to market. A good contest provides a tool to practice that categorization. Because it had been awhile since the contest sub-genres were last reviewed, we started looking at current sub-genres (our sources included marketing sights, professional genre organizations, blogs by industry professionals, and author input, among others). As we near the end of the process, I am picking my jaw up from the floor and shaking my head.

I never knew there were so many!

When I lived in rural areas and shopped in a small bookstore, there were two adult fiction sections: romance and everything else.  In bigger cities, I discovered mystery and sci fi/fantasy had their own sections. Then, thrillers were given shelf space as well. Horror, women’s fiction, literary, historical, action were all shelved with mainstream, alphabetically by author. Within the genre sections, there was no breakdown by sub-genre.  That’s as complicated as shopping got.

Years ago, querying my first manuscript, I could easily classify my novel as a romance. Most editors and agents also wanted to know a sub-genre. That was easy, too: contemporary category, contemporary single title, or historical. That was it.  Over the years, things changed. Paranormal, inspirational, and erotic sub-genres appeared. Contemporary suddenly had multiple variations. Historical was separated by time period or locale and category historical was created. Other genres such as fantasy and suspense were blended with romance.  Authors needed to be able to define their work in order to submit to the appropriate lines.

Still, nothing prepared me for the explosion of new variations that seems to have occurred since we began the shift from print books to digital. Sub-genres have changed immensely.

What used to be sci-fi/fantasy or horror is now blended and called speculative fiction. When this shift occurred a few years ago, it seemed understandable, given the increasing number of paranormal novels. At first, the sub-genres were simply sci-fi, fantasy, horror, and paranormal—pretty cut and dried. Today, we discovered the following sub-genres listed by varying sources: alternate history, dystopian, post-apocalypse, epic fantasy, low fantasy, fairy tale, horror, new age/spiritual, science fiction, steampunk, urban fantasy, near future technical/science fiction, urban-supernatural fantasy, new age-steampunk, tie-in, futuristic, anthropological sci-fi, contemporary fantasy, magical realism, epic historical fantasy, ghost story, historical fantasy, mainstream time travel, weird west, cyberpunk, paranormal, supernatural, superhero, and high fantasy.

Action/Thriller—the old action/adventure—was a bit less extensive. Here we found action adventure, bio-tech/biological, legal, political, psychological, spy/international, archeological, art, military, serial killer, techno, historical suspense, private eye, crime, disaster/survival, martial arts, and noir.

Romance sub-genres are complicated by the combinations that occur and the use of multiple terms for the same thing. Among them were traditional, category, long, short, single title, suspense, paranormal, regency, time travel, futuristic, fantasy, historical, futuristic/time travel, kink/bdsm (usually but not always classified under mainstream erotica), lesbian, male/male, paranormal/supernatural, sensual/erotic, small town, sweet/traditional, western, contemporary, inspirational, highland, medieval, and YA.

Mainstream, too, has expanded.  Included are chick lit, comedic, coming of age, contemporary, historical action based, historical character based, magical realism, multicultural, western, women’s fiction, fairy tale, literary, and erotica.

Mystery, once just a handful of subgenres, now has suspense, cozy, private eye, police procedural, amateur detective, historical, suspense, new adult, character, crime, paranormal, medical/forensics, and whodunit/traditional.

Young Adult can be extremely complicated. A relatively new genre itself, it can have all the sub-genres found within fiction.  Most common seemed to be action adventure, contemporary, epic fantasy, urban-supernatural fantasy, mystery, sci-fi/futuristic, coming of age, sci-fi, historical, comedy thriller, dystopian, fantasy romance, romance, low fantasy, magical realism, middle grade, steampunk, new adult (sometimes listed under mainstream), new age/spiritual, paranormal/supernatural, and urban fantasy.

As authors, we are presented with the challenge of trying to define our works in this current world. At times, it might be great to select a very specific definition for our stories. Yet, there are those novels that fit into multiple sub-genres and others that still must cleave to broader definitions for lack (lack???) of an appropriate specific sub-genre. There are cross-genre books that require an author to make difficult choices.

For the reader, finding favorite authors is still fairly easy, especially in brick and mortar stores where there are limited genre sections. We need only remember that one store classifies our favorite author as thriller and another shelves him with mysteries. In online stores, we simply plug in the author’s name and search.

The nightmare of the rabbit hole, though, occurs when readers are browsing for new authors. Among all these complicatedly different-yet-not sub-genres, how do they plug in the right words to find us? How do we (or our publishers) select the appropriate sub-genre that will unite us with those searching readers? And what will keep us from becoming Mad Hatters, one and all?

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downloadPamela Nowak writes historical romance set in the American West. In addition to widespread critical acclaim, her books have won multiple national awards. In love with history and rich characters for most of her life, Pam has a B.A. in history, has taught prison inmates, managed the Fort Yuma National Historic Site and run a homeless shelter. She was named the Rocky Mountain Fiction Writers’ Writer of the Year in 2010, chaired three conferences, and now serves as president. Pam and her life partner Ken live in Denver. Their combined families include six daughters and several grand-children. Together, they parent two dogs and a cat.

Pam loves hearing from readers and invites them to visit her on her website, Facebook, or Twitter.