Tuesday, May 19, 2009

Women's Fiction

I seem to get a ton of questions about women’s fiction; there are a lot of people concerned with everything from word count to a definition of what women’s fiction is. So let me see if I can clear some of this up, and of course muddy the waters a little.

The first thing to understand about genre definitions is that there’s a reason they are so difficult to understand. Genre definitions, like genres themselves, are fluid. They change with the market and with the times. In other words, years ago, there was a very clear line between what was considered romance and what was considered fantasy. Now, not so much. Books that were previously considered strictly fantasy are now finding their way into the romance section at bookstores and vice versa. Which is why I try to encourage authors not to get too hung up on the specifics of a genre. If you’re not sure by definition what genre your book fits into, take a look at fairly recently published books you would consider similar in theme and style. How are those being published? That might help you define genre better than a list of rules ever will.

Women’s fiction is a strong and growing market and I don’t see that changing, ever. What I do see changing are the types of books considered women’s fiction or published in general. Let’s use chick lit as an example. While chick lit was given its own genre it was, and still is, essentially women’s fiction. A few years ago chick lit was the hottest thing going and every bookstore displayed a sea of pink martini glasses. Now, just a few short years later, the term chick lit is taboo and not to be spoken of ever again. However, that doesn’t mean you still can’t write a light, humorous book about a young woman in an urban setting. You’re just going to need to give it a little more oomph, a little more angst than a lot of the previously published chick lit titles had, and you’re not going to be able to call it chick lit. The irony of this entire post is that strangely I’ve been seeing a lot more queries of late for books formerly known as chick lit and I’ve even requested a few. The overall concept isn’t dead, just the simplified version (if that makes any sense).

I’m very frequently asked by authors what editors mean when they talk about women’s fiction and what exactly are they looking for. Are they looking for Friday Night Knitting Club, Secrets of the Ya-Ya Sisterhood, or Bridget Jones’s Diary? Yes, yes, and yes. All of those titles are women’s fiction and all are being sought out by editors. Like everything in publishing and everything when it comes to reading in general, what we’re all seeking in women’s fiction is subjective. The type of women’s fiction that might really grab me and warm my heart might not be the same type of book that excites Kim or Jacky. Women’s fiction is a huge, huge genre and not as simple to define as, say, cozy mysteries. So try not to get hung up on what the editors are looking for specifically and write the book that will warm women’s hearts everywhere, because that’s what we all really want.



The Writers Canvas, Author Elaine Calloway said...

Thanks Jessica! Your post helped clarify some of my women's fiction questions. I appreciate it.


Anonymous said...

Kinda makes one wonder what genres -aren't- women's fiction.

Other than 'men's adventure', I mean.

Marcie Steele said...

I have a problem with genres, Jessica, in that I feel my work is women's fiction but my agent, excitingly, has teased it into crime thriller.

The book is based on life on a notorious social housing estate and gives an insight into what it's like to live there, the women, their problems, their down and out lives etc.

Whereas Queen Martina Cole writes sagas about women being on top of their criminal gains, or about the violence the men commit on each other in the name of business, I write about women suffering 'their lot' until they've had enough and begin to change their lives. So the books are full of tears, friendships and laughter that you'd find in women's fiction, but in amidst such harrowing subjects as domestic violence, muggings, self harm, infidelity, petty crimes and the odd murder to solve. I call it behind doors crime -these things could be happening to any of us really.

The book is primarily about a housing officer, how she copes with the highs and lows of her job, how she sometimes gives too much, how she cares about people enough to make them want more out of their lives, whilst also battling and overcoming her own demons.

Crime thrillers to me are detectives solving murder cases. Crime novels AKA Martina Cole are people causing the violence, if that makes sense. My books are about the women on the estate and how they survive, the community spirit. They also have a happy feel good factor ending, which most crime novels don't.

See why I'm stuck? They are both such huge genres. ButI'm happy to listen to my agent and sell the book in whatever genre it fits best. I just don't see myself as a crime thriller writer.


Dawn Maria said...

Your post only confirmed to me what I see in the book store. Women's titles are everywhere!

My question is, will it hurt you to reference a chick lit classic when describing your book's audience in a query?

Christine Fletcher said...

The best definition of women's fiction I ever heard was during an agent panel at a writers' conference: "Women's fiction is fiction men won't read." I don't know if that helps writers figure out if they've got women's fiction or not, but it was the only definition that all the agents AND the conference attendees agreed on!

Angie Ledbetter said...

Ooo, what happy news for me. My WIP's a Friday Night Ya-Ya Diary. Really.

Liz said...

Thanks for a very informative post.

I attended a conference last year and while I couldn't have a pitch session with an agent because my WIP wasn't finished, I found time to speak with a couple agents over a meal and gave them several premises for novels I've written (in various stages of revision) and my current WIP's premise and then asked, "What genre do I write?" Both agents answered "Women's Fiction."

This proved to be so helpful. I thought this might be a helpful suggestion for others.

Word Verification -- muddl -- we do tend to muddle through the publication process.

Stephanie said...

Thank you for this blog. I had a hard time for a while...I called what I wrote women's fiction. It wasn't until later on that someone said, "this is romance". I started pondering the actual definition of both genres...while women's fiction does not always end with the happily ever after, romance must. In my agent research, almost always, an agent who accepts women's fiction also accepts romance.

Aimlesswriter said...

What about a romance involving angels. (Think City of Angels)
Is that a paranormal romance? I always associate paranormal with vampires and werewolves but does it cover angels too?

Chicklit Addict said...

As my name suggests, I digest anything remotely Chick Lit - but my labelling of the genre may be different to others'.
The most recent chick lit offerings (by Adele Parks, Holly McQueen, Bernadette Strachan etc) are more than the traditional stereotype of comfort food for the brain

Steena Holmes said...

So why is chick lit taboo today? Was it merely played out?

Anonymous said...

I have a question for anyone who can help me. Is the last Twilight book when she has the baby still considered YA. At what point does it cross the line? My MC just about gets married but doesn't. I think it should be YA, but it really almost crosses over IMO because of the near marriage, but if Breaking Dawn doesn't then mine definitely does not. I am having a rough time deciding the genre.

Chiron said...

Yet another great post, Jessica. Thank you always for being a lighthouse in this foggy sea.

--Chiron O'Keefe
The Write Soul: www.chironokeefe.blogspot.com

Debra Lynn Shelton said...

"Women’s fiction is a strong and growing market and I don’t see that changing, ever." Thank the heavens above!;-)

Kathryn Magendie said...

I figure I'll write what I write and then let someone stick whatever label they want onto it: women's, southern, general, (never the label 'literary' oh dear me!) etc etc etc etc....and lucky me, although it is marketed to appeal to women, some men are enjoying it as well...*shrug*

Informative post; thank you!

Sheila Deeth said...

Thanks. An interesting post. Nice not to be stuck in the pigeon hole.

Gilbert J. Avila said...

Does anybody know what percentage of women's fiction and romance novels are written by men using pseudonyms? I vaguely recall [about 25] years ago that about 1/3 to 1/2 the romances on the stands were written by males. Is that still true?

Sandra Cormier said...

This is so valuable to me, since I'm looking for my personal niche. Women's fiction seems to fit the bill quite nicely.

BookEnds, A Literary Agency said...

Chick lit was played out, but I also think too many books were published for the size of the market and there was too much similarity between the books. In other words, many of the stories remained the same. It won't hurt to reference a classic, but keep in mind that book was sold to a publisher quite a few years ago. You might be better off just selling your own book on its merits.

A romance involving angels is paranormal romance.

As for L-Plate's problem, I think it's less important what the book is called and more important which editors are being targeted. And if you trust your agent that's all you can do.


~Sia McKye~ said...

Womens fiction is very elastic and I've seen it cross lines, but I like your thought of writing something that warms the heart.

I've heard the term, of late, for hen lit. Good lord, but I've heard the term more than once. Is there such a thing? One author tried to explain the difference to me, chick was young urban women and hen was for forty something women. to me it's still womens fiction. Just curious about your take on it

Jaded Jennifer said...

This is sad to me. I absolutely love chic lit. I admit I like to see substance in books, but I really love a good story told with humor. It's also what I like to write.

But maybe that's just me. I mean, after spending my day trying to work on the next chapter of my book while six children scream in the other room, the last thing I want to do is lay down and read a serious book. I need lightheartedness and laughter at the end of my day to counteract the stress and chaos.

Anonymous said...

I think this is a GREAT discussion! Thanks!

To Anon re: The Twilight Series:

My understanding of YA fiction is that it originally was for late teens through twenties.

But things seem to be changing.

What I think is right on that I have noticed, is that adult women are reading YA like crazy.

In YA, there is the romance where if it contains sex scenes, they are more delicate and/or tasteful aspect.

This also brings in a lot of romance readers who just cannot go to the "bodice ripper" romances.

In the YA, they can finally get all the thrill of romance without the guilt or embarrassment. (The professional woman just may not be able to handle being associated with those romances, while they may feel hip or in touch with their daughters, etc. with a copy of Twilight.)

Part of the appeal, too, I think, is that the romance part, the very juicy aspect, that is painted as the "seventeen year old female" protagonist is also being written by a juicy full grown 35 year old grown up woman.

-Another Anon

Lela said...

You have officially made my day. Thank you!

Mary Witzl said...

Perfect. This answered every single question I had.

Tee Iseminger said...

Hi Jessica, thanks for this post (and all of your informative insight on this blog). I've been trying to wrap the basic marketing language around the book I'm close to finishing, and am having a tough time classifying it. My main character is a tough, no-nonsense, middle-aged woman who kidnaps her granddaughter, and the story takes place in large part on the road in rural Alaska. It's edgy and stark, a little frightening in places, though it isn't horror/crime/mystery, and while the heart-warming moments are few and far between, it DOES revolve around this woman's relationship with her son and daughter-in-law and the tough choices we make as parents.

As I get ready to query this summer, would calling this women's fiction, since the primary market would most likely be women, throw an agent off since it seems to depart from the loose definitions of women's fiction I'm seeing? Is there a better way to wrap it?

Many thanks!