Monday, December 19, 2011

Confessions of a Genre Writer

In 2006, in my first online fiction workshop, I submitted two chapters from the historical thriller I’d begun writing. My fellow students critiqued my work; I critiqued theirs. The instructor, “T,” weighed in as well.

At the very end of the workshop, “T” sent me this email: “I'd love to see you produce some more material that seems a little ‘closer’ to you personally, closer to the bone. I mean, you're writing crime thrillers and historical novels, but how about trying to write a story that was closer in spirit to your own time, your own place, your own experience? I'm just saying, Please don't be afraid to write your fiction out of your own sense of character and personal concerns: these genres feel a little uncomfortable to me, and perhaps you haven't really discovered what your subject matter as a fiction writer is. All Best, T.”

This is not the sort of email a budding novelist wants to get.

I kept working on my historical thriller. This was what I wanted to do. I took more classes, determined to improve my craft. “T” had made genre sound like a dirty word but if I belonged in the genre sandbox, so be it. I enrolled in the mystery-writing workshop run by Gotham Writer’s Workshop and taught by a terrific guy named Gregory Fallis. Greg had been a medic in the military, a counselor in a women’s prison, and a private detective. Yes, the man had lived. To my tremendous relief, he didn’t look down on my Tudor England mystery thriller, set mostly in a Dominican priory outside London. In fact, he liked it. A lot. I worked on my chapters and read Greg’s assignments, novelists ranging from Dorothy Sayers to Walter Mosley.

I was working fulltime as a magazine editor and raising two young children, and when things got particularly crazy for a stretch my novel went into the proverbial drawer. Home sick with a fever in the autumn of 2009, I was seized by a sudden desire to go back to my thriller, only half written. Perhaps it was the 102-degree temperature talking, but I staggered to the computer and enrolled in the very next Gotham Writer’s Workshop course. It was “Advanced Fiction,” taught by a man named Russell Rowland. After I’d put through payment, I looked him up—Russell had a MA in creative writing and had written two highly respected modern novels, In Open Spaces and The Watershed Years.

“Oh, no,” I moaned, my head sinking into clammy hands. “He’s going to hate me.”

He didn’t. Russell was a supportive teacher from the start: astute and no-nonsense but never, ever patronizing. What’s more, in this class I found a group of fellow writers who gave me valuable feedback. This was when my book truly came together. I pushed through the middle and then, exhilarated, raced to the end. I finished the novel on my birthday, June 16th, 2010, and signed with a literary agent the July 4th weekend. My debut novel was sold in an auction at the end of the month to Touchstone/Simon&Schuster. The Crown will be officially published on January 10, 2012 in North America, and seven foreign countries through the rest of the year.

And yet yesterday I thought of “T” once more.

The memory was triggered by a Wall Street Journal article written by screenwriter and novelist Derek Haas, who has crafted the scripts for “2 Fast 2 Furious,” “Wanted,” and “3:10 to Yuma.”

The article began this way: “I'm sometimes asked to speak to a class of film or literature students at a university. Inevitably, a 22-year-old hipster with designer-chic black glasses and a permanent pout will raise his hand and ask, ‘What does it feel like to sell out?’ I smile. I tell the students, ‘Sell out? Are you kidding me? I sold in!’ "

Haas’s story resonated with me—of always wanting to write thrillers but facing “an upturned nose and haughty eye,” as he put it. “Write what you know,” he was told over and over. Come up with stories of “deep, dark emotional conflict.”
What my teacher—and the “write what you know” proponents Derek Haas faced—could never accept is that crafting a thriller is not a default mechanism for those of stunted gifts. Some of us want to write those sorts of books and scripts. I have always been enthralled by works of psychological suspense: Henry James’ The Innocents, Daphne du Maurier’s Rebecca, Patricia Highsmith’s The Talented Mr. Ripley.  One of the oddest aspects of “T’s” criticism was that only in modern stories could I infuse my work with “personal concerns.” I think Robert Graves, Mary Renault, Margaret Atwood, Caleb Carr, Ken Follett, and Patrick O’Brian have found ways to create complex and relatable characters—people churning with concerns--in historical settings!

Last week I opened a large padded envelope and pulled out my hardcover novel. My editor sent me the one fresh from the printer. I caressed the beautiful deep-gold and burgundy cover, and ruffled my 400 pages.  It was a moment of unadulterated pride.
You know what, “T”? This writer has found her subject matter.


  1. Inspiring post for aspiring authors, Nancy! As a lover of well written historical fiction and a good mystery, I'm so glad you followed your own way and persisted. The results speak for themselves!

  2. It astonishes me that any writing instructor would be so foolish as to think a mere note would get Nancy to abandon her novel. I'm not sure an act of Congress could have shifted her away from it. Her passion for the manuscript was obvious, and she had the talent to bring that passion to the page. I can't think of any material that would be 'closer' to her personally. I'm so glad she had the good sense to ignore her writing instructor.

  3. Isn't that a wonderful feeling though? When you can hold up the proverbial finger to all those people who patronized you? And what has "T" done lately? Hmmmm? I bet not much.

    I love genre books, I love all kinds of well written books. All that matters is that the thing is well written and takes the reader away from his/her own life. Guess why literary novels don't sell much, even if they're well written? They tend to be depressing because, yes, especially lately, they focus on 'what you know' in the 'modern world'. In other words, they're about getting old, getting betrayed, getting sick, losing a child... Kill me now... Not that I don't appreciate a good literary novel of course (Jennifer Egan is always a good bet), but novels often exist to provide escape and genre novels are the best kind of escape.

  4. Thank you. I went to a Mystery Writers of America dinner a few months ago at which Walter Mosley was the guest of honor. "He said 'The literary writers hate us because our books people actually want to read."

  5. A great story- your own story, I mean. Strange that T couldn't see that you were all about your genre. I see that as a stunted viewpoint, that he did not know you, that he could not see very far beyond what he himself would write. Should you write what he knows, or write what you love? How well would you have done if you were restricted to writing contemporary? If I could not write histfic-mystery, I would not write. Nothing else interests me.

  6. Seems to be a subject on many people's minds lately:

  7. Your post made me tear up at the end, Nancy. Even aside from the perennial Genre Versus issue you address so astutely--I am just so happy for your success. Your cover is beautiful.

    I have addressed this question in workshops and posts myself, and find it funny. First of all, I know that my personal trajectory was to begin writing my own story in multiple versions and call it fiction. It was only when I really began making up characters "from scratch" instead of pale, adulterated versions of myself or people I knew, that I truly came into my own writer's voice--and coincidentally began writing saleable fiction.

    But also, I don't understand how the genre critics fail to recognize that many of today's so-called classics began life as genre novels. Edgar Allen Poe is a thriller writer, or a horror one. CRIME AND PUNISHMENT is a suspense novel. TO KILL A MOCKINGBIRD a legal thriller. And the list goes on. The societal and human elements these books also address exist in today's examples of the best crime fiction as well.

    A current, real life instance of this transformation from genre to literary as it is taking place: Stephen King used to be dismissed as a hack; today the NYT reviews his work.

    Anyway...This is a great topic--thank you for sharing your personal connection to it. And the best of luck with your debut--congrats!

  8. I love this post. It's inspirational and enchanting. I sometimes feel like my horror novel is something to blush about, but then I remember - Stephen King, my writing idol, started out as only a horror writer. He deals a lot with this topic in his memoir, On Writing - if you haven't read it, I can't recommend it highly enough.

    I wish you all the best with your debut!