Category Fiction: Can It Work? Let’s See!

All my life (well, most of it, anyway), I was taught that if you want to make a splash in the publishing industry – if you want to be published, in fact – you need to Be Different.

What exactly does that mean? A different voice? Style? Totally different way of looking at something? Departing radically from the norm? When we think about authors who have Been Different, we tend to think about Stephanie Meyers, who made vampires the YA thing, or Terry Brooks, who brought fantasy back in the 1970s.

But is there ever a time when you shouldn’t do that? When you should follow the tried and true? When you should – gasp! – go the route of category fiction?

Well, according to some of the presenters at the OWFI conference this year – YES.

Mel Odom has written more than 140 books. Yes, 140. Published. Books. Not counting the ones available only in e-book. He writes category fiction. These books average between 30,000 – 50,000 words, and because they’re category fiction, they have to follow certain rules.

I hear you! But where’s the creativity in this? But this is . . . trope! Trite, even!

Yes. It is. That’s also why it sells.

I also talked to a lovely lady at lunch, Callie, who makes a living writing category romance. She told me that one day she just quit her job, walked home, and told her husband, “I’m going to write novels for a living.” Within a few years, she was making double his income. She has a personal assistant. A personal assistant! From writing category fiction for a relatively small romance press. She’s happy. She has contracts and a series, and stand-alone books. So does Mel.

Both make very good arguments for this (besides the money). If you know the genre, they’re easy to write. Romance, for example:  boy meets girl, there’s trouble between them over something, and in the end, they should live happily ever after. Westerns:  bad guys vs. good guy, and in the end, the good guy should win. Other than that – the sky’s the limit with what you can do with it. Your characters are yours. Your plots – as long as they follow the publisher and genre requirements – are yours.

Take romance, for example. How many different sub-genres are there? Regency, contemporary, medieval, Scottish, Scottish medieval, colonial America, pirate, cowboys/Old West, and LGBT (which also has the added benefit of all these other genres! I just recently saw an agent who was looking for LGBT historical romance, preferably before 1920). These run the gamut from ‘sweet’ (meaning no, or almost no, sex) to erotica. That’s a HUGE spectrum. Within that, there are so many tropes to choose from – young debutante vs. rake, Scottish chieftain forced to wed to save his clan, aristocrat vs. aristocrat, aristocrat vs. commoner, woman stows away on a pirate ship . . . you get the drift. In other words, it’s like my historical sandbox I talked about a few months ago:  yes, there are boundaries, but within those boundaries, the possibilities are almost limitless. And best of all, this is what readers want!

Plus, Mel even gave us a blueprint! For a novel of 30,000 – 50,000 words, you should have 25 – 40 scenes, each averaging 5 pages. This forces you to keep them short, tight, and compact; this in turn keeps the story moving forward and doesn’t allow you to lollygag or drift into some wild goose chase that doesn’t further the plot. So if you’re writing a romance, you already know several scenes. Same with a mystery. You have to introduce the characters. You have to have a murder. You need to introduce all the suspects (he suggested 6). Once you know the characters, their problems, and what the story’s about, you should be able to put together the rest of the scenes and get to work.

It’s not set in stone – he made this abundantly clear, because sometimes you find the characters doing their own thing, and sometimes you find that your scenes aren’t making sense and you need to change up a few things. Callie even goes one step further:  she spends as much time as she needs to do all of her research and character sketches and plots ahead of time, so when she sits down to write, she’s ready. She has everything she needs on her desk and on her walls, and there’s no excuses.

Your scenes are easy to do. You get index cards (or Post-It Notes). You jot down a one- or two-sentence synopsis of 1 scene on each card. You arrange them however you need to – I like to stick mine to a wall. This is your road map – the guide through your novel. As you finish a scene, cross it off. I mean it. Put a big red X right through it. Not only does this encourage you to write, but it feeds our need to complete things. Instant gratification. You see the progress. (This is why some people LOVE to mow lawns, by the way – they love the instant gratification of seeing their progress.)

One scene written. One card X’d out. One day done. Still feeling froggy? Go for another one! It’s only five pages.

Is this going to work for everyone? No. Of course not. There’s part of me that recoils from this like I recoil from snakes.

There’s also part of me that says . . . personal assistant???

I’m not saying I’m giving up my novels. Not for anything. You’ll have to pry those out of my brain with a melon scoop. But it’s an interesting idea. And I’ve got a couple of old ideas that I’m thinking of dusting off and revisiting, just to try this out and see where it goes.



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