Wednesday, August 02, 2017

More on category-the zombie topic!

Last week at a writer's workshop, I pitched my contemporary mystery with a strong woman protagonist, social issue theme, and a character-driven plot, to two agents.

One agent told me mysteries don't treat social issues. The other informed me that upmarket fiction has character-driven plots but genre fiction (commercial?) does not.

In a future blog post, could you address the differences between literary, upmarket, and commercial fiction, particularly with regard to character-driven mystery plots?



Genre fiction doesn't have character driven plots? Tell that to the one gazillion readers of romance and women's fiction!

But before I flip out completely



let me answer the question.

Literary, upmarket, and commercial fiction are not either/or categories. Books can be literary and commercial. Books can be upmarket commercial fiction.

Generally we (and by we I mean your Tormentors-agents, editors, etc) use these terms to help editors/marketing departments figure out how to describe the writing in the book.

Commercial fiction tends to be straightforward, without a lot of beautiful sentences that make you stop reading just to get your breath back.  A good example of commercial fiction is Patrick Lee.  All five of his books are compelling, page turning reads. They're brilliantly written. They are not literary. They are commercial. Very good commercial fiction.

By contrast Jeff Somers is actually more literary than you'd think. His book We Are Not Good People is so beautifully written I'd call it literary genre fiction.

The Jack Reacher books are good commercial fiction.

James Lee Burke writes beautiful literary genre fiction.

Jack Reacher books are plot driven in that Jack Reacher is by and large the same guy at the end of the book that he is at the start.

Loretta Sue Ross's wonderful Auction Block series is character driven, rather than plot driven. The characters are changed by the end of the book, and we read the next one in the series to hang out with Death and Wren, not because of the plot.

And all of these are crime novels: genre novels.


You said you have strong woman protagonist and a social issue theme. Your problem is you're talking theme when you should be talking story.  When a writer starts talking about theme, I start wondering how soon till the bar opens.

STORY is what drives all fiction, be it  upmarket or downmarket, genre or literary. Sure your book might have a theme, but that's not how you persuade someone to read it.

And any agent who tells you that mysteries don't deal with social issues clearly hasn't read enough in the category to be making pronouncements about what it is and isn't.

While it's true that traditionals and cozies are very often issue-free, it's certainly not true of all crime novels.  And even some cozies branch into issues. They just layer it into the story.

There are some rules about genre fiction but they aren't about the kind of writing (literary, or upmarket, or commercial.) They're about story, plot and character.

If you want my take on the differences, here they are. Remember though, these are MINE, not an industry standard:

Literary fiction: you notice the writing. Good literary fiction delights you with deft language and metaphor.

Commercial fiction: you don't notice the writing at all. Good commercial fiction delights you with plot twists.

Upmarket commercial fiction: you notice the writing but it doesn't stun you into silence.

Downmarket commercial fiction: if you're a writer, the writing drives you nuts.


35 comments:

Lisa Bodenheim said...

(Downmarket...did Janet just make that up? Let's see what the other commenters have to say.)

OP, what an interesting experience! Hopefully you received some nibbles or even an outright bites?

Donnaeve said...

I'm with Lisa - downmarket? Is that a new category?

OP, no matter how many times this topic gets brought up, I still find it subjective because it seems to me, a writer's story and how it's perceived (differently) by each reader, determines what they think it is...

I just read something absolutely beautiful this morning about the passing of Sam Shepard. If any of you want a taste of what I (and maybe Janet?) would call literary, read this.

Carolynnwith2Ns said...

I so want to write a literary upmarket novel that is as commercially successful as any down-market smash of words which garners a movie deal. I so want to be a size 4. I so want to be 29 again. Oh wait, I am 29 again (each year).

Jennifer R. Donohue said...

When I was reading Patrick Lee there was no way to pause because I needed to know what was next. When I was reading Jeff Somers, I would sometimes luxuriate over a sentence I had just experienced.

We had a panel of local mystery writers at the library a couple of weeks ago (our chief of police was the moderator, it was quite fun), and all three of them write cozy mysteries (or what they were willing to categorize as cozies) and all three of them said their books were character driven. So.....it seems like perhaps the agent who thinks genre fiction isn't character driven perhaps isn't really out there to rep genre?

E.M. Goldsmith said...

Ah...... ummmm...hmmmm hmmmm hmmmm

So story? Ok. I am going to pitch story and nothing else. I think. My head hurts.

Colin Smith said...

Here's where I take issue. When I write a story, I have an idea. I figure out how to develop that idea into a tale that goes from a to b, with some interesting twists along the way. I try to imagine the characters involved, and write them as authentically as I can. I don't think, "I'm going to write literary fiction," or "this is definitely commercial... or is it upmarket...?" I just don't even go there. The story is what it is and if no-one likes it, well... too bad. Okay, rejection stings but I'd rather have written the story than be stymied because I can't fit it into a category. Call me naïve and idealistic, but I'd like an agent who loves my story, believes there's a place for it somewhere in the world, and then uses her industry savvy to figure out where that place is.

What doesn't impress me is someone who says "x-category/genre doesn't have y." Because, ya know, this is fiction. And in fiction, you can do anything, as long as you do it well. That's my motto, anyway. ;)

Mister Furkles said...

For me, as a reader, the problem with issue-driven fiction is that it ruins the story. Basically, ninety-eight percent of readers know for an absolute, irrefutable fact that they know more about any given social or political issue than any writer. So, they are insulted when the ‘issue’ drives the story.

You may write a story that is affected by a social or political issue. It goes as follows: the MC is caught up in dire circumstances because of this difficult environment. But the issue is background to the story. The story better not be a ‘proof’ that the reader must rush into activism to ‘fix’ the issue. And readers hate being lectured.

Melanie Sue Bowles said...

I understand there are rules and guidelines, but hate it when someone says you can't write "this" in a story about "that"...

A close personal friend, who has found success writing travel articles, is working on a novel. She recently got the wind knocked out of her sails and called to lament. Seems she was discussing her protagonist's profession with a published author. Published author told my friend, "Ugh. The main character as that? Very boring."

I said, "What a bunch of BS. The focus of the story is not her profession. The story is a very UNboring adventure with a protagonist who happens to be that."

Donna, Thank you for sharing the article by Patti Smith. Absolutely beautiful is right. Made me weepy...

Timothy Lowe said...

The rules start to mash up and blend in my head if I let them. Cart before the horse stuff, as Colin points out. I find that if I focus on keeping it interesting to me, I'm usually going in the right direction. Unless I'm not. But either way, that's the only story I can write.

Theresa said...

Mysteries don't treat social issues? I'm sure Elizabeth George would beg to differ.

Donna, thanks for the Patti Smith feature. How beautiful.

Robert Ceres said...

This topic is soooo confusing. My question is for this blog's followers: How many of us choose the 'category' we are writing in?
I didn't. Whatever category I'm in just sort of happened out of word-by-word, sentence-by-sentence, paragraph-by-paragraph review. The four R’s. Write, read, revise, repeat. No conscious though to category at all. Though in retrospect, I suppose I paid a lot of attention to consistency of style, except when I didn’t, hopefully deliberately. Literary? Do readers even notice? Commercial?
Then onto my first two full requests. Agent one said it was a page-turner. Read to page 190 in one night, then stopped because the pace slowed down too much. Agent two said it was too literary. What?
Like everything in this endeavor, its so damned subjective.
What’s your story?

Robert Ceres said...

And Colin, I agree completely. And I hate it when relevent posts pop up between when I start writing my post and the time I complete it!

kathy joyce said...

Maybe one lesson here is don't categorize your book to an agent, except in the most broad terms. It's a thriller, not a commercial, upmarket, character-driven, whatever, whatever, whatever. Let the agent decide how to characterize it, if the process gets that far.

Sherry Howard said...

Thanks, Janet! These terms are as wiggly as a python after a mouse. How do I know how wiggly that is? Don't even ask!

BJ Muntain said...

When pitching, start out talking about the story. Your log line. Your one-sentence/one-paragraph description of your book. If the agent says, "Tell me more", you talk more about what happens, maybe character arcs, etc. Only mention theme if the agent mentions it first. If the agent asks you, "What makes your story unique?", you can mention theme, or character traits, or whatever you think makes it different.

All stories deal with social issues in some way, whether blatantly or invisibly. Society is made of social issues, and all human life takes place in a society of some sort. The story may *ignore* those issues, but they're there.

BJ Muntain said...

As for 'this genre doesn't have that'... no. Genre is NOT a 'this is what it is and it has to check all the boxes.' Genre is simply a place on the bookstore shelves.

I get Dave Langdon's Ansible e-newsletter. There's all sorts of comments in there on SFF industry stuff, including 'How others see us', which includes instances of 'I don't write science fiction. It's literary fiction with scifi elements.' Umm, 'scifi elements' is what makes a book science fiction. There is plenty of literary science fiction out there.

Janet Reid said...

Downmarket is indeed a term we use.
It is NOT an insult.
Everytime you hear the word downmarket, a cash register rings.
Sort of like an angel, but with dollar signs, not wings.

Claire Bobrow said...

I love Janet's definition of "Downmarket" :-)

Kathy Joyce: that sounds like the right idea to me.

Donna: thanks for sharing that beautiful essay.

Colin Smith said...

Janet: So "Downmarket" is kind of like "Downtown"--in the Petula Clark sense of the term...? :)

Kate Higgins said...

Ooo, oooh (hand high and waving):

'I have a downmarket, commercial genre, fictional novel about a two headed zombie/vampire and her dragon lover that is beautifully written and will stun the tail off you with it's beautiful language. All my friends, cousins and garden club say it is the best they ever read and they love the way I write beautiful run-on sentences.
I've self-published and sold over 2000 books on ebay. I need an agent who will promote my great book better than me and will make me the next J.F.K. Rolling.
(please send me your resume to see if we're compatible...and a picture)'

kathy joyce said...

Kate: :)

Hermina Boyle said...

Story, as I see it, is that thing inside your protagonist - that unique trait, or tick or trauma - that, in the course of his/her interactions with other characters and situations, explodes, and redefines not only the pro tag, not only the novel's world but in some small way the reader's world as well.
Loved this post! My daughter - pairing writer - and I had some great discussion.

Hermina Boyle said...

er- aspiring writer.

Carolynnwith2Ns said...

Donna Just read Patti's piece over at B's.
Stopped me cold. Now that's literary.

Lennon Faris said...

Oh geez, OP, that is harsh. I hope they delivered those messages (right or wrong) with softer words!

Tell the story, tell the story. People love stories, not messages. A good take home message!

Melanie - I wonder if that published author has ever read Harry Potter? (ha) Something extraordinary happening to the every-day, 'boring' character can make the best stories!

Stacy said...

I don't think that agent was familiar with mysteries at ALL.

Craig F said...

Hermina: A story can be contained in the protagonist. Don't saddle yourself to that being all there is to it. The story is often much bigger than that of the protagonist.

Robert: Just keep querying. One person's opinion is only that. If others say that the action dies, then look at it. The hardest part of action pacing are the breathers that you need in them.

To me, querying is about enticing people to read your work. I am not going to build fences to keep people away. That is all that happens when you close in your genre and category. If it is a mystery query it as such. The rest is too subjective.

smoketree said...

China Mieville's The City and the City is a great example of literary crime fiction that deals with social issues (and does it well, without hitting you over the head with it).

cncbooks said...

Speaking of Patrick Lee, any idea when we'll see a new book? He's one of those writers who blows me away every single time and I miss him!

Margaret Turkevich said...

Very interesting. I remember the last paragraph of one of JL Burke's books about post-storm New Orleans. It was lyrical and mesmerizing. Downmarket? Commercial?

Who cares. It was just plain wonderful.

roadkills-r-us said...

While I will grant that most of my favorite mystery & crime writers are dead, they tended to define the genre and their books are still read today. While most of the short stories were plot driven, many of the novels were character driven.

And they certainly tackled social issues, in a variety of ways from subtle to not so subtle (if not with the effect of a shot filled sock).

Steve Stubbs said...

I reached the same conclusion as Ms. Reid before getting to her comment. It might help to reword the answer, Your problem could be that you told the agent ABOUT the story instead of telling the story itself. There is a difference. Instead of describing the MC as bodacious, tell them what the MC DOES that is bodacious.

And a question: I am intrigued about the possibility of driving writers nuts without being a literary agent. You say downmarket authors do that. Who are some "downmarket" authors we can study as role models?

Craig F said...

I think I just figured out what downmarket is. Fifty shits, that thing with the glowing vampires and moussed werewolves, and half of the crap sold in Wally world.

Maybe even the stuff I write. I do it just for entertainment though I try to have some redeeming qualities in my characters.

Correct me if I'm wrong, please.

AJ Blythe said...

Love JRs definitions. It explains exactly why I read mostly commercial fiction. I love a beautifully turned sentence, but I don't need a whole book of them. Plot twists keep me reading. If a literary book has that I'll read it, but I've read some Aussie literary authors and struggle to keep turning the page (won't name the authors because I'd have to voluntarily move to Carkoon to escape the collective horror from my fellow Aussies).

Colin and Robert, for me personally, I definitely set out to write commercial fiction. I hope my writing has some moments of stunning writing, and overall is incredibly well written, but I love commercial fiction so that's where I want to be on the shelf.

Joseph Snoe said...

AS Janet Reid wrote in another lifetime:


well, an upmarket title does not have 'hip' 'groovy' 'chick' 'love' 'fuck' or 'monkey' in the title.

Upmarket voice is Emily Post and Miss Manners.
Downmarket voice is the Sweet Potato Queens Guide to Love

Upmarket voice is Deborah Tannen's "You Just Don't Understand"
Down market is "He's Just Not That Into You"

Upmarket is Fodors Guide to New York
Downmarket is NFT (Not For Tourists)

Upmarket is Vogue
Downmarket is DailyCandy.com

Upmarket is Writers Market Guide to Publishing
Downmarket is Miss Snark