Tuesday, January 07, 2020

Embracing the Women’s Fiction Genre Label

writing women's fiction, genre, chick lit, character-driven novels
By Orly Konig, @OrlyKonig

Part of the How They Do It Series

JH: Women's fiction covers a wide variety of stories, but there are common elements to every one. Orly Konig shares thoughts on the genre and tips on how to know if your book fits this popular category.

Orly Konig is an escapee from the corporate world. Now she spends her days chatting up imaginary friends, drinking too much coffee, and negotiating writing space around her cats. She is the founding president of the Women’s Fiction Writers Association and a member of the Tall Poppy Writers. She’s a book coach and author of The Distance Home and Carousel Beach.

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Take it away Orly…

When I started writing, I didn’t have a clear idea of what I wanted to write. I read—and loved—almost every genre, so there wasn’t the pull in one direction or another. However, once I put pen to paper (okay, fingers to keyboard but that doesn’t sound as romantic), I quickly realized I was naturally gravitating toward stories about everyday people dealing with everyday life issues. My characters were struggling through secrets and betrayal, identity crises and heartbreak. They were pushed to their breaking point and then pulled themselves toward a more fulfilled future. I was writing women’s fiction.

What is Women’s Fiction Exactly?

writing women's fiction, genre, chick lit, character-driven novels
Novels by WFWA authors
That is the most debated question we address in the Women’s Fiction Writers Association (WFWA). Ask five people for their definition of “Women’s Fiction,” and you’ll get varying definitions from each one. As one of the founding members of WFWA, I’ve been through countless attempts at nailing down a definition that’s broad enough to encompass all of the subtleties of the genre without being so broad that it loses its impact. Each attempt leads us a step closer until someone raises a “but what about …” question and then we’re right back where we started.

To me, that very head-scratching aspect of the genre is what makes this genre so special.

Per WFWA, women’s fiction is “layered stories in which the plot is driven by the main character’s emotional journey.” Women’s fiction can be literary or commercial; it can be historical or contemporary; it can be mainstream or inspirational; it can have elements of magical realism, mystery, romance, thriller; they can be light reads or heart-wrenching dramas; but at its core, all women’s fiction is about relationships – whether between a couple, family, friends, or co-workers – and the emotional journey of the main character.

Women’s fiction is character and issue driven. The books address real-life topics – family dysfunction, divorce, infidelity, parenting, mid-life crisis, identity crisis, career changes, illness, mental illness, suicide, death, abandonment, to name just a few. The stories touch readers, make them feel and think, hope and dream. Readers see parts of themselves in the characters and, hopefully, walk away feeling transformed in some way.

(Here's more on The 5 Turning Points of a Character Arc)

But why the genre label?

writing women's fiction, genre, chick lit, character-driven novels
Orly Konig
There’s been an ongoing debate within the writing and publishing community about using the term “women’s fiction.” Why label “women’s” fiction when there isn’t such a thing as “men’s” fiction? If you shop at a brick-and-mortar bookstore, you won’t find a section for women’s fiction. Those books are shelved within the general fiction stacks. If you shop online, however, you will find a women’s fiction category (although, truth be told, I’m always slightly amused by the books categorized under that label as well as those that don’t show up).

So why do we even need the label? As writers, we need it to know who we’re writing for and how to market our books.

I know, I know … you want to write what the muse tells you to write. Absolutely. Except that you probably also want to sell what you write. Luckily these days, there are more options for publishing and finding readers. That means books that mix-and-match-and-morph multiple genres have a platform. But for those writers who are still looking to go down the traditional path, agents and publishers will generally look for a book that fits within genre boundaries.

When you query an agent, they’re looking at where you see your story fitting in the crowded marketplace. Genre labels help agents identify the right editors to submit your work to. And those genre labels help the publishing team more effectively market your book.

Even if you’re self-publishing, you need to know how to market your book. The genre will largely dictate your cover options, the language you choose for your back-cover copy, and the places you target to reach your desired audience.

That’s not to say that genre-straddling books don’t sell. I know many authors who’ve written brilliant novels that don’t cleanly fit under one label. But there’s almost always one label that they fit under a bit more than the others.

Identifying What You Write

writing women's fiction, genre, chick lit, character-driven novels
Because the women’s fiction umbrella is broad (and, as we’ve addressed, a definition that is still somewhat unclear), it’s sometimes hard to pinpoint what books truly belong under this label.

Ask yourself:
  • What drives your story—the plot or character development? If it’s plot driven, your story is most likely not women’s fiction.
  • Does your character learn something about themselves and grow as a result by the end of the book? If all the character has learned is that they prefer coffee to tea, or who their spouse is cheating on them with, or that they actually hate their job, then either you need to dig deeper into character motivation or you may not be writing women’s fiction.
  • If you walked into a bookstore, what category would your book most likely be under? If it could be shelved under thriller, romance, sci-fi, etc., then it’s most likely not women’s fiction. Ahh, but what about the “general fiction” category? That’s when we cycle back to the above questions and take a closer look.

What I love most about writing women’s fiction is mining the emotional depth of my characters and pulling on the heartstrings of my readers. I often joke that for me, writing is cheaper than therapy. Through my stories, I can explore feelings, issues, and situations that I don’t know how to address in real life.

(Here's more on Writing Emotional Truth—What Gets Us There?)

The genre label is the foundation for everything I do in my writing. It structures my stories and guides my marketing efforts.

What are some of your favorite women's fiction titles?

About Carousel Beach

A cryptic letter on her grandmother’s grave and a mysterious inscription on a carousel horse leads artist Maya Brice to Hank Hauser, the ninety-year-old carver of the beloved carousel she has been hired to restore in time for its Fourth of July reopening in her Delaware beach town. Hank suffers from Alzheimer’s, but on his “better” days, Maya is enthralled by the stories of his career. On his “off” days, he mistakes her for her grandmother—his secret first love.

While stripping chipped layers of paint from the old horse and peeling layers of fragmented memories from the old man, Maya untangles the intertwined secrets of love, heartbreak, and misunderstandings between three generations of strong willed women.

You can read the first chapter on the Forge/Tor blog.

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1 comment:

  1. I've always had a preference for commercial women's fiction when reading for leisure, yet my own work is a blend of WF and romance. Blends are as hard to market in the indie author world as in traditional publishing. Women's fiction is a broad genre for sure, and often mistakenly labeled romance, usually by people who read neither. But there's a definite line there. Beach chair on the cover, or couple in a clinch?