The brilliant Matt Haig posted on Twitter yesterday. Anyone who follows him will know this is hardly unusual, but this particular tweet stood up, grabbed the microphone and shouted ‘Faye! I’m talking to YOU.’
Deep, huh? It immediately made me think about the past few years, of moving country and returning to London, and of my determination to ‘fit in’ with people I thought I had things in common with. On paper, fitting in should have made me happy, but instead I managed to accomplish a whole new level of invisible within the environment I’d placed myself, simply by attempting to conform. When Matt wrote ‘The moment you fit right in, you disappear’ I could immediately identify with it, and when I thought about it in the context of writing, I realised the conundrum was also true of books as well.
In fiction there are always trends coming and going – think unreliable narrators, vampires and, if my tween-radar is pointing in the right direction, llamas – and it would be fair to assume that the easiest way to get a publishing deal might be to write to a particular trend. For example, my Twitter feed has been overflowing for a while now with books displaying threatening titles in BIG CAPITAL LETTERS about women with revenge issues. There have been some chillingly great books written in this genre in the past few years. But the original thing we all liked about them was the twist at the end, the unexpected violence, the shocking revelation. Conformity to the genre has rendered invisible many of the books sitting within it. Now we all know what to expect when we pick up one of these books, and we look for it, which makes it less exciting and therefore less attractive to the reader who no longer feels the thrill these books once offered.
I’m not saying it’s not important to write within a genre. If you don’t conform to something then most people are going to struggle to identify what your book is about, whether they will like it, and most importantly, whether they will buy it. If a reader likes books about llamas, chances are they’ll buy more than one of them, too, which is why you generally want your book to sit on a shelf next to lots of other books about llamas. It’s why agents and publishers always look for books they can categorise, preferably one that’s right in the sweet spot of the ‘genre du jour’ so they can ride the wave and max their sales.
As an author, you need to conform to the genre you are writing in so that you can compete. But as soon as you do, you become invisible, so you have to make sure you have something extra to offer. You must write (and write extremely well) in a recognisable genre, whilst maintaining something different about your novel that makes it stand out from the crowd. As a new author in particular, that’s hard, because you’re also sitting in the slush pile – somewhere you definitely don’t want to ‘fit in’.
My novel, The PTA Assassin, sits squarely in the behemoth that is ‘Commercial women’s fiction’. Personally, I think this genre sounds as appealing as cold custard on broccoli, and when I’m submitting to agents, I like to emphasise other qualities of the book that make it different. It’s a spy novel. A middle-aged woman is the protagonist. It’s humorous. Actually, someone told me not to describe it as funny in case it wasn’t – comedy is notoriously hard to pitch – but the rebel in me refused to conform so for better or for worse, I left it in anyway.
Possibly for the better. At the moment my full manuscript is sitting with an agent. Whether the writing is good enough, whether the story holds up, whether the agent believes it will sell, remains to be seen. But it gives me hope that I got off the slush pile, that maybe the book was just different enough to be noticed without being out-and-out weird. Which come to think of it, is exactly how I’d like to be thought of, too.