Jumping Ship: Will switching genres sink your writing vessel?


78812398_8I’ve been contemplating having an affair for a while now. No, not that kind of affair–in fact, my boyfriend is the one who put this idea in my head. For several years now, he’s been suggesting that I consider branching out into the M/F romance genre.

Interestingly enough, not because he is ashamed of my work. We met online, and because he is a geek extraordinaire, he actually discovered (and read) some of my slash fanfiction before we ever went out–and he still wanted to go out with me. But from the beginning, every now and then, he’s suggested that I should go for a bigger brass ring. It’s his feeling that I’m limiting myself by staying with M/M romance, despite the fact that it is currently one of the fastest growing genres in the romance industry today.

I’ve resisted the idea for many reasons. Not the least of which is, ironically, there were so few good strong female role models on television when I was growing up. I know, that sounds kind of backward, but back then, the men got all the cool parts on television. They were the ones in the thick of things–solving crimes and kicking ass, taking names and making us grin with their snappy comebacks and devil-may-care attitudes.  I was a tomboy as a kid. Well, to be honest, I still am. I entered a profession that was so male-dominated that when I first applied to school, only 15 applicants from my area would be considered–and 14 of them were men.

For me it was muddy boots instead of killer heels, a bulky-but-warm down parka instead of gorgeous wool coats in bright colors with silk scarves. Serviceable, practical haircuts instead of magnificent bedhead hair, and so on. Because it was worth it to me to be in on the action: to get the meaty roles. To have the best lines.

But hot boots are very cool...

But hot boots are very cool…

I detested the shows in which the the hero was presented each week with a temporary heroine that was Too Stupid To Live. She was pretty, feisty, and supposedly smart, and yet each episode we were given an example of how this apparently brainy woman-of-the-week would make stupid choices in the name of being independent, in order for the hero to conveniently swoop in and save her. Oh, yeah, and he wouldn’t stick around for the following week because he was off to save someone else. With his best bud/sidekick. Nice object lesson here, Hollywood. Smart, independent women have bad things happen to them and need rescuing. And wind up alone.

You know what one of my favorite movie scenes of all time is? It’s in the Drew Barrymore Cinderella Story, Ever After. She and the Incognito Prince have been taken captive by gypsies. They have been stripped of all their belongings, and a plea is made for her release. The gypsy ringleader tells her that she can leave, taking with her only what she can carry. She gets this gleam in her eye, walks over to the Prince, and hoists him up across her shoulders. She’s buckling with the weight of carrying him, but she faces the gypsy leader down with a gimlet eye as she staggers away under her burden.

The leader bursts out laughing and begs her to come back–and in the next scene, everyone is carousing around the campfire. I love it. Even at the end of the movie, when the Prince is rushing to save her from the nefarious (and ubiquitous) bad guy, he runs into her coming out of the palace where she has just rescued herself. Brilliant. Utterly brilliant. And not something we see very often in today’s storytelling.

Don’t get me wrong. It is getting better for woman in movie and television roles. I loved this scene from the Avengers when Black Widow gets a phone call from Agent Coulson. She’s being held captive, things look bad for her, but from the moment she answers the phone, you can tell she’s in control of everything happening in that room. And when Coulson tells her that someone she cares about is in trouble, she busts her way out of the situation that only moments before looked incredibly dire for her.

But what happened when the cast was interviewed about their various roles in the movie? Scarlett Johansson ends up saying at one point to Robert Downey, Jr. “How come you get asked the really interesting existential question and I get like the ‘rabbit food’ question?” How come, indeed.

Why is it that Kate Beckett has gradually over the five seasons of Castle, morphed from someone who (to me) was visually believable as a sexy, street-savvy NYPD homicide detective into another fashion model? Don’t get me wrong, I think Stana Katic is gorgeous, and I myself go through frequent hair incarnations (having learned the hard way I really don’t look good with short hair), but on some level, I miss the edgy look she had in season one. And I can’t help but think she was forced to give into the pressure that Hollywood places on actresses to look a certain way. Don’t get me started, but it is rare to see an actress in my age bracket who doesn’t have long hair. Mind you, I prefer long hair myself–but I don’t have a colorist and a stylist following me around every day. I WISH.

So, you’d think that I would be delighted to tell more stories with strong, smart, savvy heroines like these, right? Well, to be honest, most traditional romance stories bore the heck out of me. I find myself yawning and unable to finish reading a story if it consists largely of two people meeting, falling gaga in love with each other, being completely incapable of sitting down and holding a ten minute conversation that would solve their communication issues, and then resolving said problems with a snap of the fingers (and some sort of rescue) to live happily ever after.  Where’s the car chase scene? The shoot out with aliens? The threat to civilization as we know it?

I know, write it, huh? If you want it, you must write it.

The problem is, every time I’ve thought about writing a traditional heroine as a main character, my brain automatically short-circuits into the ruts of characterization I’ve been force fed all my life. One of the reasons I think I wrote slash fanfic almost exclusively iwas because there was so much scope for story-telling between the two main male characters in most action/adventure shows. I fell in love with a set of characters and wanted to tell more stories about them. Why don’t I write Castle or The Closer fanfic? Because I think those shows are already doing a better job than I can with the characters I love.

The shows that are a little flawed, that present you with wonderful, compelling characters but also with great gaping plotholes and waffling storylines, or have no possibility of showing you the story you’d like to see–these are the shows that capture the fan writer’s imagination.

When I first discovered slash fanfiction (and from there, on to writing M/M romance) I felt like I’d finally discovered adult fiction for the first time. Here were the stories about characters in love with equal dynamics in their relationships. Here were the stories that were explicit and hot, not shying away into euphemisms or fade-to-black sex scenes. I spent a year absorbing the fanfic of my chosen fandom, and the next five years writing it myself. Somewhere along the way, I got the courage to submit a M/M romance story for publication, and the rest is history.

Saying I can’t do the same with a set of M/F characters is a bit of a cop-out, I know. Blaming it on the lack of good role models is a cop-out as well. The truth is, I’m scared. I have worked hard at creating the Sarah Madison platform. I’ve written a fair number of stories. I’ve won some awards and commendations. I’ve built up a social network. I have the sneaking suspicion that my stories got published in part because the genre I write in is much smaller than romance as a whole, and there was room for one more little fish in it. (I keep waiting for the Authorial Police to show up at my doorstep and demand that I stop calling myself a writer) It’s all I can do to keep the Sarah Madison Fiction plates spinning on their little poles now–do I really want to jump ships?

Up until very recently, I would have said no. Not interested. Not ready. Then, when brainstorming for a story the other night, it occurred to me that there were some very good reasons for making one of the main characters female instead of male. The character as I envisioned him/her is already pretty well-defined in my mind–a brilliant, arrogant genius with not very good social skills, yet with a vulnerable side that is aware of not being the popular kid on the block and deciding that being smart and right trumps being well-liked.

I find it interesting that character traits we tolerate and find endearing in men (think Sherlock Holmes or Tony Stark) we’d very likely bash and malign in a woman. She’s a bitch, she’s mean, she’s rude, and the worst: “She’s stuck on herself.”

And yet, I’m tempted, so very tempted. Because I think in many ways, this character would be awesome.

But it would be a big departure for me...

But it would be a big departure for me…


You’re probably asking yourself, what the heck is there for me to be scared about? This should be easier, right? You’d think so, wouldn’t you? I bet there are some of you reading right now who wouldn’t think twice about adopting another persona and cranking out another set of stories in a totally different field. Maybe you already write erotica and YA fiction. Maybe you write non-fiction and romance stories. You have three pen names, complete with websites, Facebook accounts, and tweet like mad.You’ve got different personas for each, and you can effortless keep them straight in your mind.

Writing a heroine that I can admire isn’t the biggest part of my concern though–it is starting from scratch as a ‘new’ author in a genre where I have no contacts and in a field that is already enormous. Am I diluting my readership by expanding ships or increasing it by widening the playing field? I see that Nora Roberts maintains a link for her J.D. Robb books on her website. Interestingly enough, the J.D. Robb website does not obviously link back to Nora Roberts. So with that in mind, you know what this means: a poll! Or even more than one!

Can a romance writer successfully write in multiple genres?

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If I write in a different genre, do I need a different pen name and persona?

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Will readers of one genre be seriously weirded out by the other?

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If I decide to go M/F, what route should I take?

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I am very much interested in input from both readers and writers here. If you’d rather email me privately, you can contact me at akasarahmadison at gmail dot com. I’m interested in your experiences. Are you a reader that will read any romance, or do you prefer a specific genre? If you’re a writer, what kinds of experiences have you had, good or bad, by writing in divergent fields? Inquiring minds want to know!








10 thoughts on “Jumping Ship: Will switching genres sink your writing vessel?

  1. I’ve been told the same thing, about moving into m/f because it’s a bigger market and the sales are generally better. I’m working on it. Under another pen name.

    There are, according to rumors, several authors who write both het and m/m. I’ve heard they do well at it.

    Time is always a factor. I have to work full time. When am I going to get all this done? I dream of the day when I can write full time. Maybe moving into m/f is the ticket, yeah?

  2. Hey Sarah, as a fellow M/M author, I don’t think that you should be so scared. I like you, am the furthest thing from a girly-girl and likewise loved Ever After of all things. I also love car chases, and crap exploding. But I also write M/F with no reservation. I like you, had come up with a character that would ultimately be better served if it were female. I love the crap out of her because she actually is everything I’m not. She still is ‘pretty and girly’ but like your example she’s a lot like Black Widow: Capable, strong, in-control, and honestly, she’ll step on anyone’s neck that crosses her all while wearing her darling heels.

    Here’s the problem. This project? I have 14 rejections on it to date. I’ve been told, by romance editors, female readers WANT to be able to insert themselves into these ‘blank slate’ heroines. They don’t want to read about a woman that takes no prisoners and is the tragic heroine that is ultimately redeemed by her kindhearted hero. It’s crap. Because every female reader I’ve talked to are CLAMORING for these kinds of stories. But apparently these stories don’t appeal to the lowest common denominator. I’m thinking of ultimately self-publishing the project. But I honestly have no idea what to do with it anymore considering for my OWN re-branding renaissance, I write comedies and dramadies and my beloved project with the heroine I adore is such a dark and serious story.

    On one hand, I think you should totally write M/F. But yes. What you look for in a heroine and what I look for in a heroine, is apparently a tough sell, despite the utter demand for it. One day I hope the market changes. If not, I’ll just keep sitting on this project and keep writing happy fluffy stories about two dudes in love.

    Feel free to contact me if you want to chat more about it. I’ve certainly got boatloads of tips and horror stories. 🙂

    • Argh. This is exactly what I suspected–and one of the reasons I thought about going the self-pub route on this one from the get-go. That in and of itself is fraught with problems, not the least of which is what I pointed out to Theo in this depressing commentary on the subject: http://www.rachellegardner.com/2013/01/5-surprises-about-self-publishing/

      Maybe if we write it, they will come? 🙂

      I mean, one of the reasons I don’t care for the average M/F romance story is because I wouldn’t want to self-insert into any of them. Self-insertion into a novel, television show, or movie means you have my attention, my devoted love, and every last dollar I can spend to keep getting my daily fix from your franchise. There has to be others out there who want what we want!

      I will definitely contact you–I’m very much interested in hearing what you have to say about it all!

  3. It’s funny to hear you speaking in terms of changing to the M/F market for better sales, Theo, simply because I often hear women get accused of changing into the M/M market for similar reasons–jumping on a bandwagon because it is popular at the moment. That really has nothing to do with it, does it? The real issue is how to best tell the story we want to tell at the time.

    This time, it feels like I could go either way with this one main character. And I have to decide which direction I want to go. What feels comfortable and normal for me, or pushing myself out of my comfort zone and perhaps into a genre I might really enjoy, given the chance. The scary part is it feels like a big deal–that I am making a huge choice here either way–one that could make a difference in my writing career if I choice incorrectly.

    I did a little reading on Nora Roberts this afternoon, and was struck by what some people said about her contributions to the romance genre: the non-traditional heroine, and telling the story from the hero’s POV as well. So maybe part of my disillusion with the M/F romance genre comes from the fact I really stopped reading in it about twenty years ago! 🙂

    I read this rather depressing blog post about self-publishing today. http://www.rachellegardner.com/2013/01/5-surprises-about-self-publishing/
    In it, the author was very negative about her experiences, but I honestly think in part this was due to her having formerly published with a legacy firm. Anything would have to feel like a let down after that–but with those of us coming in to publishing in the digital age, I suspect (or at least hope) we’re better capable of adapting to the changes here.
    Sarah Madison recently posted..Jumping Ship: Will switching genres sink your writing vessel?My Profile

  4. Hi Sarah! I don’t think you should be scared at all. I mean, it’s definitely a different world out there in M/F land, but I think that, as with everything, the cream will rise to the top. You should just write what you want to write, and if it’s with a female protagonist, then go for it. Once it’s ready, then throw it into the lake and see who bites. Maybe that’s naive, but that’s how I feel about a lot of things. Have confidence in your skills. I’m sure your story will find a home.

    Separately, I just wanted to mention that I LOVE that scene in “Ever After.” So awesome. 😀
    Nico Jaye recently posted..Books I Loved in 2012My Profile

  5. I have to admit that I’m not overly fond of modern-day M/F fiction. It’s probably because my Mother introduced me to authors like Georgette Heyer, who wrote books with a plot, usually lots of intrigue, and a strong heroine. As an aside, she also wrote detective novels. As a reader, and sometimes writer, I am far more interested in the plot… Too much lovey-dovey stuff and I stop reading. My written works do, I think, show the love without being mushy.

    My latest effort, being part one of a much longer story, is ~18,200 words. It has two M/M sex scenes which together take up about 1,000 words of the whole. 🙂

    • I’m with you here. I read Heyer, Josephine Tey, Ngaio Marsh, Dorothy Sayers, and others growing up. I like my stories as either romances with detective interruptions or vice versa, but undiluted romance of any kind is not for me. I’ve recently spend too much time reading stories in which the main characters endlessly admire each other from afar and then begin a convoluted game of keep-away when one good ten minute conversation would clear the air. I used to think this was a problem primarily of M/F stories, but I am seeing far to much of it in M/M stories now too.

      It occurred to me what the problem is just now as I was typing this. Dialog I don’t think most people have enough dialog between the main characters. We’re told the characters are hot, there’s lots of internal exposition, but in the end, they don’t talk to each other very much. I think that’s far more important than sex scene after sex scene!

      I think your proportions here of sex to plot is about right! I read one story recently that had me skimming the sex scenes because that’s what the bulk of the book was about. And I LIKE sex scenes! *shakes head*
      Sarah Madison recently posted..Jumping Ship: Will switching genres sink your writing vessel?My Profile

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