UPDATED IN 2019:
Years ago when I first started writing seriously — that is, trying to get novels published instead of just penning stories to be shoved in a file under the bed — I began with romance. My first published adult novel was in the romance field, a sub genre called chick lit. My agent at the time told me that if I sold that book, I’d have to write chick lit for a while, stay in that lane, in other words. I didn’t.
But first, a few words about why I chose romance. I’ve written/talked about this before, but here’s the tale again: Although I’d been a singer, gotten two degrees in music from a conservatory, no less, I’d always felt called to write. I always wrote, in fact, for my own pleasure (see above). My sister knew this, and she encouraged me to try writing romance as short story after short story of mine was rejected by magazines. I read some romances and thought, yeah, I can do this. And so it began.
Writing romance is hard. Anyone who turns their nose up at the genre doesn’t really know it. Yes, there’s a formula (discussed here), but that makes it a challenge to get right — to tell a story that’s unpredictable while satisfying the expectations of the reader.
While I tried my hand at romance, I also penned a young adult mystery, which I sold to a small press. It went on to become an Edgar nominee. And then, of course, I landed a contract at Harlequin for that first romance/chick lit: Loves Me, Loves Me Not. It received lovely reviews from the Washington Post and Publishers Weekly and was translated into French, as well.
By the time it was published, though, I felt pulled to write a more serious book, a retelling of one of my favorite novels, Jane Eyre. That book, Sloane Hall, took many years to find a publishing home, eventually landing with Five Star/Cengage, a hardcover publisher catering to the library trade. It was one of only 14 books featured on the “Off the Shelf” blog celebrating Charlotte Bronte’s 200th birthday anniversary, and it, too, received some great reviews, from Bronte experts.
During the years that I tried to get Sloane Hall published, I went through several agents and continued to write. I wrote another three YA mysteries, one a historical. And I wrote more romance/humorous women’s fiction (the term “chick lit” had gone out of fashion). One of those books, Fire Me, snagged a film option.
Over the years, I’ve jumped from serious to light, from genre to literary, from historical to contemporary.
I used to wonder if I was crazy. Or if I had an attention deficit problem. Or if I just didn’t know what the heck I was doing.
Maybe all of those are true. But even if they are, I’ve learned that you can only write the books that call out to you, the stories that won’t let you go, the tales that you really want to tell. Writing long form stories takes a lot of effort, energy and time. You don’t use those resources on creative projects for which you have little creativity to spare.
At this moment, young adult mystery no longer calls to me. Maybe it will in the future. I don’t know. I have two novels that I’ve been tweaking and polishing and shopping around.
One’s a serious book about an evangelical man who sins and tries to redeem all he’s lost by that sin–his wife, his family, his faith. (Update: I sold this book, Fall from Grace, to Bancroft Press, and Midwest Review called it “a novel for our times.”)
One’s a romance about a man and woman learning to love again after betrayals (Update: That’s now out, too. Reese’s Summer of Promise, the first of three sweet romances set in a favorite spot–the Delaware beaches). It’s lighter than the evangelical story. But both have common themes: love conquers all.
Come to think of it, maybe that’s the theme that threads through all my books, romance or upmarket, young adult or mystery. Maybe that’s my “lane,” regardless what genre I’m writing in.
If I had taken my first agent’s advice many years ago, I might be a more successful writer, with readers following me through book after book in one genre. I chose a different path, and I accept the consequences with no rancor. I’m grateful just to be a published author, telling the stories I feel compelled to tell.