Sunday, January 16, 2011

Artistic Integrity: Own Your Genre, A Blogshop with Author Paula Reed

I've met and worked with several writers with academic backgrounds, from high school literature teachers to Fulbright Scholars, who've felt the questioning glances to down right exclusion from the cool kids' table, when they followed their heart to write stories they were passionate about. They've lost friends and the credibility of their esteemed colleagues over steamy love scenes, cliff hanging climaxes or blood curdling screams. In their circles, writing anything beyond their speciality or literary pale is taboo, or at least, questionable.

Likewise, with more established genre writers (romance, mystery, suspense), writing beyond "the formula" harbors the risk of losing your audience.

Publishers are looking for a solid brand when they offer writers a contract - they usually want the writer to keep pumping out the same great stuff that got them the publishing contract in the first place. Yet, there is always the exception. The exception to write and have published a story that is beyond your genre pale.

Write what you love. Write a story that appeals to you. Above all, write it well. Paula Reed did. Hester: The Missing Years of The Scarlet Letter, her fourth novel, is a slight departure from the romance novels readers associate with her name. A highly compelling and imaginative sequel to Hawthorne's American classic, The Scarlet Letter, Reed has fielded loads of comments from readers and colleagues from the glowing to the less than constructive. I asked her what Artistic Integrity meant to her. Here's what she had to say:

"Funny thing, when a romance writer breaks out of the genre, some of her friends and family finally let her know what they really think of romance. Two people I know referred to Hester as my “first novel.” “My fourth,” I corrected. “Well, you know…” they replied. One woman said of Hester (my historical novel based on Hawthorne’s The Scarlet Letter), “Now this is your own book, right? Not one of those books you wrote for that one publisher?” Can I fully claim a book as my own if another author (with impeccable literary cred) created the protagonist and her backstory? Ironically, my first three books—my romance novels—are the ones that are fully and indisputably my own.

I still love my romance novels. I love love stories and happily-ever-afters—the two requirements for a book to fall into the romance genre. (Contrary to popular belief, romance is not a paint-by-numbers proposition.) If early bloggers writing about Hester assumed I couldn’t write anything but romance, well, so be it. In fact, one reviewer actually called Hester a bodice-ripper, clearly with the intention of insulting me, but I’m not embarrassed by my roots. I didn’t stop writing romance novels because I got “too good” for romance. I just found myself wanting to write about things that didn’t fit the current market.

It isn’t that there are forbidden topics in romance, but I am ultimately fascinated by religion and politics and how those things have influenced people’s lives and relationships throughout history. Alas, these topics generally aren’t considered appropriate for polite dinner conversation, much less romance novels. When I was writing historical romance, the hottest trends were Regency (think “hot” Jane Austen) and hunky Highlanders. There’s nothing wrong with those, but it made a concept like “a man and a woman rising above ideology to find love” a tough sell. Several years ago, an editor turned down a book proposal with a union-organizing hero because “social reform isn’t sexy.” Maybe it’s just me, but I have to admit, I find social reform dead sexy.

In the romance genre the main story must be a love story, and happily-ever-after is a non-negotiable element. Sometimes, though, it seems to me that happily-ever-after can be walking away when a romantic relationship ends and keeping a true friend, so when I wrote Hester I chose a different path—straight historical fiction based upon a previous literary work. There’s a bit of sex, but the focus of the novel is not a romantic relationship, and while I think the end of the novel is emotionally satisfying, it is not a traditional happily-ever-after.

This was a pretty big shift in terms of marketing myself as a writer. These days, writing is all about “branding.” A few years ago, a Paula Reed novel would have been a romance with strong spiritual or social issue elements. Now, it seems to be historical fiction based upon previous literary works. To that end, I’m working on a novel based upon Thomas Hardy’s poem “The Ruined Maid.” This Victorian London-set novel revolves around religion, sex, and social issues. I keep thinking that’s my real brand. Whether I’m writing historical romance or mainstream historical fiction, in a Paula Reed novel you can count on the three things you’re not supposed to talk about in polite company."

Yes, my dears, there is a formula to getting your work sold and keeping your publisher happy with great work. While most agents and consultants would discourage new writers from pitching EVERY story they've got in the pot to the publishing industry at large (and I agree with this), don't forget about them. Don't ditch a good plot just because it doesn't "fit" into your genre. Build your name, your brand, earn a following, then have a chat with your agent about this amazing story you've got up your sleeve.

Your Action: Pick a handful of your favorite authors and think about their careers. Did they ever do a little literary off-roading? What did you love or at least appreciate about their departure from their "norm?" What didn't you like? Can you appreciate their effort? Did they succeed?

Have a fruitful week, writers! And thanks for reading!


About The Contributor:

Paula Reed is an English teacher at Columbine High School of Littleton, Colorado. After surviving the tragic shooting there, she, not unlike many students and teachers who were there that day, decided the time to pursue all of one’s true passions is now. Paula’s passions are teaching and writing.


  1. I never have a problem with an author going outside of their niche genre and writing a different kind of story. This is me, as a reader, in how I think. Author brand to me is just me thinking, unconsciously, "that author is a great story-teller! Whatever he/she writes should be worth it!"

    If I think this way, why not a bunch of other readers, as well? I don't understand why authors need to corner themselves into a tiny little genre space and live there for the rest of their literary lives. Seems unnecessary, for the most part.

  2. Not all authors want to corner themselves. Publishers want to brand their's a marketing thing. And some readers come down pretty hard on their favorite authors for ditching the style/genre that drew them to the author in the first place.

    I'm glad to hear you're not swayed by an author's imagination and inclination to write beyond their genre!

  3. You're an author's dream reader, Cathy!


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