We’ve all heard that saying before, right? Know your lane and stay within it basically breaks down to when you find something you are good at, stick with it and don’t deviate.
For authors, this is really smart advice. If I were to write a series of science fiction novels and develop a following, it doesn’t make sense for me to turn around and write a romance novel because I will have to develop a whole new set of fans/followers. And trust me, developing a following is A LOT of work that goes beyond writing a good story (next week’s post will cover this- spoiler alert!).
I know this. I have read all about this. I was told this by MULTIPLE people. Naturally, I did not stay in my lane—because, well, that’s me.
I began my writing career by writing a women’s fiction novel about a woman who put a want ad in a magazine to find the man of her dreams (White Lies). I submitted this to literary agents who are the gateway to the industry and the major publishing houses. I did not get a great response—well, in my opinion it wasn’t great. I think I got five requests for additional material (you usually submit the first thirty pages) out of close to a hundred submissions. So many people used to say to me, “Didn’t the lady who wrote Harry Potter get rejected a bunch of times?”. She got rejected twelve times. Cry me a freakin’ river.
(Side note this became one of my favourite lines in My Sort-of, Kind-of Hero—but more on that later)
Then I woke up one morning with the most amazing email. It was from a lady from a large publishing house who had heard about my novel and wanted to work with me on it. I felt like I was on Cloud Nine at that moment and nothing that would happen to me from that point forward would ever make me feel that happy again. Which, to some extent, is true. It didn’t work out in the end, but it was the very first time someone outside of my mother had said to me: “You know, I think you have something here”. And when the ebb of doubt creeps into my mind ever so often, because I am my own worst enemy, I think back to that email and exhale.
She had read the entire manuscript, which was too long. Usually women’s fiction is anywhere from 50-120k words. I think my manuscript was close to 200k. They were also focused more on traditional romances where a certain formula has to take place within the novel and the hero/heroine need to be present together in the majority of the scenes throughout the novel. This was not the case with my book.
After a few conference calls, the editor and I had a bit of a game plan where I was going to rework the novel and come back with a condensed, more romance focused version. To cut a long story short, after multiple back and forth sessions, it basically came down to what I created was still not a traditional romance. It was a romantic comedy (very heavy on the comedy), and in order to continue I needed to amp up the romance and tone down the comedy.
I should make it very clear before I continue that there is absolutely NOTHING wrong with that kind of novel. I read traditional formulaic romances all of the time. It’s just not what I wanted to write, and therefore I walked away. But definitely not empty handed. While working with the editor and publishing house I did a lot of research on the romance industry, marketing, etc. I think it is fair to say that what I originally submitted was in the category of women’s fiction. What I was working towards was a romance. What I ended up with was something in between. After compiling the research on what readers want and what they were looking for, I decided to tweak what I was left with. I knew women’s fiction wasn’t tremendously easy to market, and the romance genre has the largest market of readers (which makes sense—romance novels are awesome).
Throughout my research I also looked into the idea of indie publishing. Now, five years later the whole process and accessibility is different. In fact, probably the biggest change is the way people view and acknowledge indie authors now. Once thought of as a last resort, is now a very viable and for some SMART option. Especially if you are someone like me who doesn’t want to stay in their lane.
So I published White Lies, did an amazing blog tour and got wonderful reviews from book bloggers. I randomly entered it into a Romance Writers of America book competition and it was a finalist for the Excellence in Romance Fiction Award. It was a crazy, thrilling year. I put it on Bookbub, a marketing site for eBooks, and got a TON of downloads, which then resulted in a ton of positive reviews, which then bumped the book up in the Amazon charts (do I need to go into the importance of book reviews again?!).
In the meantime I had a story brewing in my mind about a romantic-comedy/murder mystery. I had half of a book left from White Lies from the material that got axed, and I loved some of the characters too much to let them go. So I started a writing/cut and paste project and ended up with Checking Inn. Fun fact: the mother from Checking Inn was actually Natalie’s mother in White Lies. So I had this fun murder mystery book that was saturated with romance and wasn’t sure what to do with it. I knew I was going to independently publish it again because I had seen great results with White Lies, but I wasn’t sure if my readership would translate over or if it was too far away from my original book to draw in the fan base that I had built. It was a risk, but I think in the end I had just enough romance in there that people gave me some leeway. I’m talking by the skin of my teeth here, haha!
Then for my third book, I decided to not ruffle anyone’s feathers (i.e. my patient readers) and go back to a traditional rom-com. My Sort-of, Kind-of Hero is probably the closest thing to an autobiography I will ever write. Except for the love story bit, every word in that novel is me on the page. From my struggles as a writer, to my plastered smile at book signings where people spend the time asking me for directions, to deciding what I want to write and how exactly that choice will impact my career. I love that book. I love everything about it, but I (yet again) didn’t follow a traditional formula approach. Some people get it, some people don’t. But it’s a book that I am so personally attached to that I am ok when people don’t get what I attempted to do with it.
I submitted this book for a few competitions as well, and one of the highlights of my life is going to Boston when the novel won the RWA’s Readers Choice Award. It also won the Book Buyers Best Award later that year.
After that, I needed a change. I grew up loving movies like Indiana Jones and National Treasure—movies that not only incorporated but revolved around history. When I began writing the June Jenson series I knew I would basically have to start from the beginning re: readership. It was just way too far out of the lane from the romantic comedy genre that I had built my writing career on.
Was it hard? Yes. Did it all work out in the end? I think so…
Would I do it all over again the exact same way? You betcha.
One of the key advantages of being an indie author (and why I chose to be one to begin with) is you can write whatever you want. The only genre expectations or limitations to being published are what you set on yourself.
I’ve started writing a new series which returns to the more traditional romantic comedy I started with, and after being submersed (and limited) by history for the past few years it is a breath of fresh air to return to the genre. So far I believe it will be a three book series, but each novel will be standalone with a different hero/heroine. After that, well, I’ve always wanted to write a young adult series and a children’s book.
What about you? Are there any authors out there who like to go back and forth between genres? How has it worked out for you? Any readers out there who have followed an author over multiple genres?