books with Athena

books with Athena

Saturday, November 28, 2009


Yeah, I know. We all hate labels. But if our ultimate goal is space on a bookstore shelf, we have to be able to suggest to an agent or editor what shelf that might be.

The best place to start is an actual bookstore. Find books like yours and see where they’re shelved (speaking as a former bookstore shelver, I can tell you how subjective this is, so don’t consider these hard and fast rules.) Some categories are traditionally paired, like Mystery/Crime and SF/Fantasy.

Or try Amazon. Look for books similar to yours and scroll down to "Look for Similar Items by Category."

Here are some basic fiction genres. You’ll notice how many overlap or can be combined. It's OK to combine up to three (but not more) in your query. Also, if you don't get nibbles with one category, it's OK to call your work something else. Agents say they do that all the time, depending on what an editor is looking for.

Chick Lit: People in the industry still use this term, but you’re not allowed to put it in your query or they'll make fun of you in a meeting, according to agent Barbara Poelle. It means light, funny women’s dating stories with a distinctive, can-we-talk voice. If it has a happy ending, try to shoehorn it into Romance as a “romantic comedy.” Otherwise, try Women’s Fiction.

Christian/Inspirational: any work that supports a Fundamentalist Christian world view. No explicit language, sex or content. Violence is OK.

Commercial: Traditionally, any plot-driven fiction, but now, according to AgentQuery, this means "high concept" projects with a unique subject and potential audience of zillions: stories that can be summarized in one wow-inducing sentence.

Crime Fiction: Stories centering on the physical aspects of a crime or the workings of the criminal mind.

Detective Fiction: Just-the-facts-ma’am details of bringing a criminal to justice. If the detective has a badge, it’s a Police Procedural.

Erotica: A major market in e-book publishing—especially erotica for women that has romantic and/or paranormal elements.

GLBT: This category sort of annoys me, since it segregates 10% of the population, but if your MC has a minority sexual orientation and this label helps you get published, go for it.

Fantasy: Not just about elves, dragons, and talking badgers any more. Dark Fantasy (vampires, were-persons) Urban Fantasy (spawn of Buffy) and Erotic Fantasy (vamps and were-persons hooking up) are big. Epic Fantasy (Tolkein-inspired) not so much. Try rewriting epics for Middle Grade.

Historical Fiction: A story set fifty or more years in the past that uses the time period as an element of the story.

Horror: Scare the pants off your reader — รก la King. Not selling so well right now, according to agent Laurie McLean, except for Vampire Horror. And Zombies. Anything zombified is big. Splatterpunk (ick) has a small but steady readership. I guess it keeps them from torturing small animals.

Literary: Language and character trump story. Get a story published in The New Yorker first.

Mainstream: This once-basic category is on the wane. As Patrick Anderson detailed in his book, The Triumph of the Thriller, former mainstream staples like family chronicles, historical epics, and sweeping Micheneresque sagas are no longer big sellers.

Middle Grade—Novels in all genres for Tweens. Increasingly sophisticated these days.

Multi-Cultural: Anything NOT about middle-class characters of northern European heritage. Generally family sagas. Big plus if it’s set in a current war zone.

Mystery: Crime-solving puzzles. Classic Whodunits, Cozies, Private Eye, and Noir are still going strong, and Historical, Supernatural, and Literary mysteries are hot. Cozy series with craft and hobby themes are steady sellers. And a recent article by author Fleur Bradley for Sisters in Crime mentioned the emergence of “Geezerlit”—mysteries set in nursing homes and retirement communities with octogenarian sleuths.

Romance: Must follow specific publisher guidelines and provide happy endings. (One agent blogs bitterly about love stories submitted as romance.) Hot subgenres are Paranormal, Urban Fantasy, and Time-Travel. Also, Regency, Elizabethan and Scottish Medieval are perennial favorites. Western romance still sells. Plus there’s a growing market for explicitly erotic romance.

Romantic Suspense: Combines elements of romance and mystery with a fast-paced, protagonist-in-constant-jeopardy plot.

Satire: If you’re in the US and write for a sophisticated audience that gets irony, emigrate. Or sneak it in as another genre.

Science Fiction: The plot should be based on science rather than myth or make-believe. Subgenres include Social, Cyberpunk, New Wave, Alternate History, Military, and Apocalyptic. “Hard” science fiction—the kind where you have to know a whole bunch of physics—still sells, but not in the quantities it once did.

Speculative Fiction: Very hot right now. Any fiction that plays with reality. Popular subgenres: Steampunk (set in a faux-Victorian/Edwardian alternate universe) Time-Travel, and Slipstream (surreal literary-fantasy.)

Suspense: Fast-paced adventure with a protagonist in constant peril.

Thriller: Save-the-world, fast-paced adventure. The stakes must be high—not just one person in jeopardy, but civilization itself. Flavors include: Spy, Political, Military, Conspiracy, Techno-, Eco-, Legal, Medical, and Futuristic.

Westerns: Horses, guns, and stoic agricultural workers in the late 19th/early 20th century American West. Kind of a dead horse.

Women’s Fiction
: Women struggling against adversity. Can be literary, gritty, weepy, or funny. If you’ve seen similar storylines on Lifetime or Oxygen, chances are it will fit in here. It usually, but not always, includes a realistic love story. Endings can be sad.

Young Adult: Any of the above categories written for teens. Literary novels with teen protagonists sometimes sneak into print as YA to avoid the hasn’t-published-in-The New Yorker police.

Mix and match as you hone your query, and with luck, you’ll find a genre label to reach your potential readers.

Tuesday, November 24, 2009

Zombies, Steampunk AND the Apocalypse--how can they go wrong?

OK, this zombie thing is getting out of hand. Publisher’s Lunch just announced that Ballantine is coming out with, “a post-apocalyptic, neo-Victorian steampunk zombie novel in which a girl…falls in love with a rather sweet zombie boy.”

OK—A steampunk Twilight with zombies—and megadeath.

Can you wait for Harry Potter and the Clockwork Half-Zombie Prisoner of the Apocalypse?

Maybe we can bring back chick lit with A Shopaholic Zombie’s Guide to Bustle-Shopping and Scavenging? Or Bridget Jones’ Zombie-Zeppelin: the Edge of Extinction? Arrgghh.

Sunday, November 22, 2009


Hundreds of folks weighed in on the great literary vs. genre debate on Nathan Bransford's blog last month (He says good writers need to read both. I agree.) A few days later, in a Writers Chronicle thread more writers debated the subject. But nothing much got resolved—I think because the definitions of both words are so slithery.

I was surprised that so many commenters—mostly writers, presumably—said they dislike literary fiction. (This may explain why agents say there’s no money in it.) The general attitude seems to be: “If I had to read it for high school English, it’s literary and it sux.”

But the funny thing is, a lot of stuff you read for high school English started out as “genre.” Shakespeare was the original mass-marketer; Jane Austen wrote Regency chick lit; and Dickens’ novels were the soap operas of the Victorian era. Those authors only got promoted to “literary” status when they proved to have some serious staying power. In fact, even living “genre” writers with a long shelf life can ascend to "literary" realms. Stephen King gets published in the New Yorker these days, and Elmore Leonard is spoken of in reverent tones in a lot of literary circles.

Who knows, perhaps future generations of high school students will dread reading Helen Fielding (Bridget Jones) as much as Henry Fielding (Tom Jones) and someday Spock’s marvelous line from Star Trek 4 will be spoken in earnest: "20th Century American Literature: Jackie Collins, Danielle Steel—ah yes—the greats!"

So when agents say they won’t look at literary fiction, does that mean “anything that speaks to the human condition for more than fifteen Warhol minutes”?

Not really. What people usually mean by “literary” in that context is a particular style of self-conscious writing that’s in vogue in academia. Translation: “written by somebody with an MFA.”

When you’re deciding how to frame your query, keep that in mind. If you've got the academic moves, go for it. Otherwise, you’ll have a better chance calling yourself a genre writer.

But what, exactly, does that mean?

The dictionary definition of genre is simply “category or type”—from the Latin “genus.” But in publishing jargon it’s shorthand for popular, mass-market fiction that’s shelved in bookstores under headings like romance, mystery, thriller, suspense, sci-fi, horror, western, and fantasy.

And then there are totally separate shelving categories like Young Adult—genres unto themselves that include all the above subcategories: even literary. Other categories that are not “genre” in the sense of mass market, and include many subgenres are GLBT, Inspirational/Christian, and the newly minted New Adult. Then there’s the vast umbrella of Women’s Fiction.

Does that mean a literary novel with a YA or Women’s Fiction label has a better chance of being published than something called simply “literary?”

That seems to be the case.

Confused yet? I am. I think the publishing biz needs a more diverse, better defined vocabulary.

And what about “commercial” or “mainstream” novels. Are they “genre” or “literary”?

It seems they’re neither. If an agent says “no genre fiction” or “no literary fiction” you can send something you call “commercial.” But you may not get very far. Because nobody knows where adult commercial fiction is going these days, and they’re afraid of it. The days of big commercial books like James Michener’s epics or family sagas like the Thornbirds are over. Nobody knows what’s coming next.

So do you despair and throw your commercial or literary manuscript into the shredder?

No. Because maybe what’s coming next is YOU.

At the CC Writers Conference, agent Katharine Sands told us to query everybody, no matter what they say they represent because everything’s so up in the air that "the Chaos theory is in play." She says things move so fast that "changes in publishing are not always listed in the directories."

Still, you need a label in order to query, so in my next post, I’ll talk about genre categories and subcategories.

Friday, November 20, 2009

Last Post on Harlequin Horizons

Harlequin Horizons is no more, according to Pub Lunch. After only two days, the company is going to drop the Harlequin name from the self-pub enterprise. Established Harlequin authors were seriously peeved.

Thursday, November 19, 2009

More on Harlequin Horizons (Not to be confused with Carina Press)

I guess I shouldn’t have allowed myself to be so hopeful about Harlequin’s new self publishing venture, which apparently is partnered with AuthorHouse. That's the uber-vanity press that has developed a ruthless reputation as it has gobbled up iUniverse, Trafford, Xlibris and so many others.

Writer Beware’s Victoria Strauss has this to say about Harlequin Horizons—and the new Thomas Nelson Christian self-publishing line, West Bow, also an AuthorHouse enterprise.

“I don't for one teeny tiny second believe that discovering new writers…plays a major part here. That's just a marketing pitch. This is about money. Now more than ever, commercial publishers need to shore up their bottom lines--and adding self-publishing divisions is an easy and profitable way to do so.”

In other words, Harlequin and Thomas Nelson want your money (the self-publishing packages cost $600 and up) NOT your writing. Sigh.

Victoria has often warned against AuthorHouse and says these new enterprises show how powerful the self-publishing giant has become.

Some pretty lively discussions of Harlequin’s new venture are going on at Dear Author Jane Smith’s blog and Absolute Write forums

Tuesday, November 17, 2009

Harlequin's New Self-Publishing Line

Could self-publishing your Women's Fiction and Romance be a solid road to mainstream publication?

“Oh, no,” you say. “Scoff, scoff. Self-publishing is a dead end. The kiss of death for a fiction writing career. Strictly for amateurs.”

Well, maybe not anymore. Today Harlequin launched a new self-publishing line: Harlequin Horizons. All you eager self-promoters out there—this is your chance, because:

“Harlequin will monitor sales of books published through Harlequin Horizons for possible pick-up by its traditional imprints.”

That’s right: they’ll track your sales with an eye to taking you on as one of their traditional authors. This is a whole new way to think outside that ever-shrinking publishing box. Instead of being vetted by the endless, soul-crunching process of submissions and rejections from agents and editors, you publish yourself now and let the marketplace do the choosing.

It just might work. (Just make sure you get that book professionally edited first.)

More info at the Harlequin Horizons site

Sunday, November 15, 2009

Do You Write "New Adult" Fiction?

There’s a new fiction genre in the publishing world: “New Adult.” This means books for single people 18-30. According to author S. Jae-Jones’ recent blogpost it includes most of the hipper literary works of the past couple of decades, plus the now defunct (just whisper it) chick lit. Her list of New Adult-erers includes David Eggers, Michael Chabon, Jonathan Safran Foer, Bret Easton Ellis, Junot Diaz, Stieg Larsson, Neil Gaiman, and yes, Lauren Weisberger (The Devil Wears Prada.)

Ouch. I guess old codgerettes like me are supposed to stay home and re-read our dog-eared copies of James Michener.

But here’s the thing. The major, sad thing: there's not much money in publishing new adult fiction these days. Especially adult literary fiction.

According to agent Rachelle Gardner’s super-helpful blog http://cba-ramblings. literary fiction is one of the toughest genres to sell (along with chick lit, memoirs, and novels over 100K words.)

This is why there has been such a stampede by serious writers to the Young Adult category. YA is wide open, even to literary novels. But to be YA, your protagonist pretty much has to be in high school. A bit limiting for those of us who prefer not to revisit the horrors of adolescence, thank you very much.

Hence the invention of “New Adult” –a sort of YA Plus.

So what does all this mean for the vast un/underpublished out here? What if you can’t shoehorn your work into the young hip-and-single categories?

Well, for one thing, don’t shoot yourself in the font by calling yourself “literary” unless you absolutely have to. Can you fit your novel into a genre like Women’s Fiction, Sci Fi, Mystery, Suspense, or Fantasy? Go for it.

Probably that novel chronicling the relationship between Elizabeth and Essex in a series of Petrarchan sonnets will have to wear the dreaded label, but it will help if you can build up some literary cred with an MFA and/or publication in a bunch of high profile literary magazines before you approach anybody with it.

Otherwise, pick a popular genre that’s closest to your work and see if it gets any nibbles. Or make your protagonist under thirty.

More on categories of genre fiction later.

Monday, November 9, 2009


It looks as if the future of publishing is now. While YA fiction still sells in print form, adult genre fiction—especially by new writers—has been a tough sell since the global financial meltdown.

But today, the forward-looking and seemingly recession-proof Harlequin Enterprises Limited offers us an alternative to print publishing. This morning they announced the launch of a new, all-digital publishing house: Carina Press (

They are accepting submissions in all genres of commercial fiction—not just the romance lines they are famous for. And you don’t need an agent to submit.

This is what they’re saying, “If the book of your heart fits into a niche that has very little shelf space in a traditional bookstore, Carina Press is eager to read and potentially publish your story.”

This is good news for writers in almost all genres of adult fiction. They will specialize in erotica and romance, but they are also looking at women’s fiction, science fiction, fantasy, futuristic, mystery, thrillers, horror, and niches.

They will even consider shorter stories under 50,000 words, plus longer, and complex narratives of over 100,000 words—and will also acquire books that have been previously released in print form, but for which the author has either retained digital rights or had digital rights revert to them.

All submissions should be sent to

Submission Guidelines:

Please submit queries for only completed, fully polished manuscripts. In the subject line of your query, please type manuscript name, author name, genre.

Queries should include the following:

Brief, introductory query letter listing genre, word count and a short description of the book, as well as any pertinent information about the author, including both legal name and pen name and any writing credits.

The manuscript saved as an RTF file and attached, with file name TITLE_MANUSCRIPT

2-5 page synopsis of book that details character development, plot, and conflict/story resolution. Attach as an RTF file with file name TITLE_SYNOPSIS .

Carina Press plans to launch in summer 2010 and will release new titles on a weekly basis. Between now and the launch, readers and writers can follow the progress of Carina Press via its blog (
For full submission guidelines ( and more information on Carina Press go to

Friday, November 6, 2009

Writing Rule Number One: listen to your own voice

Great post by Holly Root at the Waxman Agency blog today.
She says we shouldn't let all the persnickity advice about query letters terrify us out of submitting. Here’s a quote:

“Never, ever let any of the voices on the internet, no matter how helpful or authoritative they aim (or claim) to be, take away from your ability to hear your own unique authorial voice.”

Sunday, November 1, 2009

The Only Writer You Can Be is YOU

The wonderful YA writer Natalie Whipple has a great post today on how to write a first draft.

Here’s a quote that’s a great antidote to all the marketing trends stuff that has been getting me down.

“The only writer you can be is you. The only story you can write is your own. The only way you're going to stand out in the market is by channeling your own unique voice. So just accept that and enjoy it.”

(Yeah, I tried that apocalyptic steampunk zombie thing, but only got 500 words. With the literary value of ‘a duck walked into a bar…”)

Grand Prize Winner!

I won Grand Prize in the Writers Chronicle "Spookiest Movie" contest. I said the movie that scared me most was Bambi. When I was four, they had to carry my terrified, weeping self from the theater. They killed his MOM, for goodness sake!

And all you NaNoWriMo Warriors out there: ready, set...CARPAL TUNNEL! (Seriously, you are all brave. I tried it once and only lasted a week. ) Have fun!