A Woman in Search of a Genre

 I recently attended the San Francisco Writers Conference and one of the things I learned was that, in order to effectively pitch a novel to an agent or an editor, a writer must be able to specifically identify the genre of the book as well as the demographics of the audience who will want to purchase it. It is not enough to say: “I'm writing fiction and the book will appeal to everyone.”  It's not even enough to say: “I'm writing womens' fiction and my target audience is all women.”  You've got to be able to say something like: “I'm writing a romantic suspense novel that is similar in nature to those written by Nora Roberts and I am going after the women who buy her books.” 

While identifying the genre and the market for my romantic suspense novel was relatively easy, I struggled with identifying the genre and the market for my second book.  I thought it was enough to say that I was writing womens' fiction and then to describe the storyline. I was wrong.  At the conference, I attended a “Talk to the Pros” roundtable session.  That's where ten writers sit at a table with an editor (most likely from a major publishing house) and pitch their novels.  The editor then provides feedback to each author in front of the others so that they can all benefit from it. 

When I pitched my second novel to one of the editors, she said that it sounded like a good story.  She asked me to identify the genre that the novel fit into. I said that it was womens' fiction.  She asked me to identify which category of womens' fiction.  I didn't know.  I didn't even know that womens' fiction was broken out into categories.  She asked me what other writers had written similar books. I didn't know that either.  You see, although I am an avid reader, I don't typically read what I had written (I read spy novels and romance novels).  I also hadn't done my research prior to attending the conference. 

My second book is about a young African  American woman who gets involved with the wrong guy (the head of a burglary crew) and ends up going to jail as a result.  In fear for her life, she never gives him up to the authorities.  She also keeps the fact that she is pregnant with their child a secret.  She has the child while in prison, but doesn't tell him.  When she gets out, she is determined to make a better life for herself and her son.  However, that gets threatened when her ex-boyfriend sues for full custody of their son.  In a desperate effort to keep her son, she decides to turn state's evidence against her ex-boyfriend.  The question is: will he let her live long enough to do that? 

Upon hearing the storyline, the editor opined that I was writing gritty urban street fiction and suggested that I read books written by authors who write in that genre. One of the authors she named as an example was an author named Honey Bee.  After the session, I went back to my hotel room, fired up my laptop and did some research.  I looked up Honey Bee and other authors who were known for writing gritty urban street fiction.  After reading snippets of their books on Amazon.com, I decided that the editor was wrong.  While the storylines of those books were compelling, and some of them had done quite well in sales, they were written in street vernacular with lots of slang and “cuss” words and were set in the projects.  My book was not. 

I figured that the editor had stereotyped the genre due to the storyline and the fact that the main characters were African American. When I got back from the conference, however, I did more research and discovered that she was right. I found two books in the urban fiction category whose main characters had recently been released from prison and were trying to turn over a new leaf when their pasts caught up with them.  The books were written in plain English too (as opposed to street vernacular).  While my book wouldn't be characterized as gritty urban street fiction, it could be characterized as urban fiction and be compared to those two books, among others.

I am attending another writers conference soon and, armed with this new knowledge, I should be able to more effectively pitch my books to agents and editors. I can also search for and target agents wo have successfully represented authors who write urban fiction.   Who knows, I may not have to search for an agent much longer.


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