Friday, June 8, 2012

Pot-pourri books


I've had the privilege of reading some unpublished manuscripts and writing reports on them for their authors. A couple of outstanding ones have come my way, full of whimsical, incredible originality combined with the sort of plot I'd imagine only dreams are made of. They shine with the outstanding and unexpected on almost every page. Such stories are clearly inspired because nobody else could possibly have written them.

When I ponder what I know about the public as an entity, I wonder, if these stories were published, how would they fare in the big wide world? Would they be received well by the masses in general? We live in a world in which some publishers even give perspective authors formulas as required reading because they fill such a niche in the market and know what they want to sell.

An editor once asked me what genre a manuscript of mine was, because she'd got a few chapters into it and couldn't tell. "Is it inspirational, sweet romance, adventure, chit-lit, family saga or what?" She said it was important that I tell her as the knowledge would influence the way she approached the editing. And I couldn't really tell myself. I simply wrote a story that appealed to me. I thought it a pity there is no genre called pot-pourri but it's easy to understand the reason there isn't. Many readers don't want to risk pot luck when it comes to spending their hard-earned money on books.

I've heard of authors writing stories out of their established 'genres', receiving flak from their fan bases and suffering in resulting sales. It seems the only viable option for these writers may be to consider using pseudonyms for certain projects.

My pot-pourri manuscript was eventually worked on by another editor who enjoyed all the disparate elements. It was published as A Design of Gold and its cover was once featured on a romance double page of a Koorong catalogue. I flinched when I saw it there because it is definitely not pure romance and looked odd among all the covers and blurbs of books that were. My kids even laughed at me and I gloomily predicted, "I don't think many will sell." I turned out to be right.

So what is the phenomenon we have? Sometimes I think of it as the "McDonalds" system of marketing books. Many people want to feel safe. They like the predictability of knowing exactly what they can expect when they buy a burger or a book. That's why I've come across many blurbs like the following.

Mary-Belle is contentedly preparing for her wedding to small town lawyer, Tim, when the brash and rude town-planner Hugo sweeps into her peaceful, rural life, determined to raise a civic shopping centre. As she fights him on this, mayhem ensues. Could the brusque villain really be nursing a broken heart? 

Have you read that book before? Well, in one way, it's impossible because I just made up that blurb now. On the other hand, yes, you have, if you're coming from the, "seen one, seen 'em all" perspective. My Design of Gold was up against several similar blurbs to this. Would you feel tempted to read about Mary-Belle and Hugo based on that blurb? I'm sure many people would, in the same way they like to grab a chicken fillet meal deal at the end of a long day. We're worn out and we know we'll get to see the pompous guy with attitude eventually kiss the sassy girl with the perfect figure.

What happens if readers think what you're offering may appear a bit unpredictable at first sight? That, I believe, is one of the things I've struggled with over time, although I wouldn't change it for the world. My books are sort of eclectic with bits from all sorts of sources. Just like real life itself, I like to think my stories have body, flavour and offer a substantial feast.

Do they suffer in sales from being hard to squeeze into cut-and-dried genres? Yes, probably. I call my books 'contemporary dramas' as pot-pourri books would probably get raised eyebrows, and I add that there are elements of romance, mystery and suspense. They aren't totally off-the-wall, like going to a smorgasbord restaurant with goulash, meat pies, pavlovas, mi-goreng, baked trout, chocolate mousse and a Sunday roast all offered on the same table. That would be like having vampires in a time machine suddenly appearing in the middle of your Amish community to whisk Jacob and Rachel away just as they're about to have their first kiss. My books aren't that weird.

But would I struggle to write a novel according to a formula to fit squarely into a defined genre on the off-chance of more success? No, I honestly think that would take the heart out of writing for me. I prefer to keep doing what I've been doing because they have to reflect me and have lifeblood in their veins. Some readers can do that within the confines of definite genres and I think they're lucky, but I prefer to plod on, perhaps making pot-pourri drama romances my own particular brand for the sort of reader who may consider trying something like cayenne pepper in their hot chocolate and discovering that it goes together really nicely.

Paula Vince is an award-winning author and homeschooling mother who lives in South Australia's Adelaide Hills, a beautiful spot for inspiration. Her novel, Best Forgotten, won the 2011 CALEB prize for fiction and Picking up the Pieces won the 2011 International Book Award in the religious fiction category. She believes a well-written story has a way of igniting the imagination like nothing else.

28 comments:

  1. I have tried to write other genres, but whatever I try they all are romances (it's a fact I now accept) though there are an odd mystery in one or two.
    I can't really choose what I write as my stories and characters write themselves. If what I write sells, great, if it doesn't at least I have a written a story I love.

    An author once told me, that her friend suggested to write a vampire drama... I said, "You're a Christian and by the time you get it out there the craze might be over"
    We could all write what sells, but you have to write what is in your heart.

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  2. Hi Melanie,
    You're similar to me then. I've had people urge me to write Mills and Boon novels and I think they've finally got the idea that I'm not going to give it a go.
    PS, I actually got to read a couple of Christian vampire stories last year :)

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    1. Angels in the Shadows by Lisa Grace. A great alternative to vampires. She has three books and in talks with movie company.

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    2. I'll put them on my "to read" list. Sounds like something to recommend to the teenaged girls we know too.

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  3. Well said Paula, I like what you call Pot pourri drama romances, I think there is more 'Meat" in them. Excellent post.

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    1. I completely agree about the meatiness, Crystal.

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  4. I'd say that I write contemporary (YA) dramas too—albeit with environmental rather than romantic leanings. Having recently self-published, I was forced to select between the genres listed in the various web sites. None fitted! I was forced to misclassify my story, knowing that anyone who read it on the basis of the genres with which it was tagged would be disappointed. Sad.

    That said, I'd never buy a book classified as 'pot-pourri' because I'm not into home beautification. ;)

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    1. Peter, I guess you could call yours a hearty man's stew or something like that. If only people would go for that, hey?

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  5. I have to admit - if there was a genre called pot-pourri ... I probably would buy it (only because I'm not a pot-pourri fan) - but I do enjoy books that are mixed genres.
    It's one of the beautiful things about Indy publishing - authors are free to write to the beat of their own drum.

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    1. Hi Michelle,
      Yes, sales are one thing but when you find yourself marching to the beat of someone else's drum, you've got to question the wisdom of what you're doing.

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  6. It is amazing how tightly genres are defined, isn't it? I slot easily in Historical Romance, but if my characters didn't end up together, or if I don't introduce them within the first few pages, it could be called 'not a true romance'. So many rules ... but rules are made to be broken are they not (sheepish grin). ;)

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  7. Hi Amanda,
    Yes, yours are really well-crafted historical romances and your family would be unable to make fun of you in the situation I was in :) So many of these rules you mentioned are implicit too.
    I think a page for eclectic/pot pourri, hearty stew books may be good but I doubt if Koorong would go for it :D

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  8. I would read a "pot-pourri" genre book, I think I'd enjoy them more than a straight romance or similar.

    I recently discovered the "Little Black Dress" books. While they would be classified as romance, they have a bit more too them (and are still a quick, light read)...

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    1. Hi Melissa,
      Yes, I remember being attracted to the covers of those. More for the 'to read' list.

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  9. Oh groan, I know exactly where you're coming from,Paula. I don't know how many times I've asked myself which? what? when I've finished. I've got two books o/seas with an agent and after reading your post, I believe I'll ask for their return now as they're not going anywhere because neither of them "fit".

    A story is a story after all. And real life doesn't fit into any specific genre does it?

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    1. Rita,
      I'm nodding in sympathy. I completely understand. Still, you never know what will happen in this industry.
      I think you're last sentence sums up our POV beautifully. How many people do we know whose lives are a pure romance or adventure or horror story?

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  10. Mary-Belle and Hugo - no way! - I want to read the time machine, vampire, Amish story. Strange? Maybe, but much more interesting.

    I very much enjoy your brand of pot-pourri, Paula. I think that if we don't write what is in our heart, then the story won't be a success no matter how hard we work to a type.

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    1. Rose, yeah, I agree Mary-Belle and Hugo stories are a dime a dozen. You've made me think of the fellow who blended Jane Austen novels with vampires and seemed to make a go of it. I forget his name. I always appreciate your encouragement to stick with our hearts.

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  11. Yes, but that's EXACTLY why people love to read those books. Because they know what to expect, and can be swept away out of the boring humdrum of real life.

    Potpourri books, on the other hand, usually require an effort of the mind and aren't what you would call a light read. Those type of books I prefer to sit down and read in total quiet, so I can mull over them.

    I would much prefer authors to understand the actual craft of writing, which unfortunately a great deal of them don't. They churn books out and still haven't grasped the simple concept of show don't tell, or don't rabbit on in the story.

    A genuine, well-crafted story will trump potpourri or formula writing any day. It's just coming across them which is the hardest thing.

    I am starting to see more and more of them though, so not everything is doom and gloom. LOL

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  12. Thanks, Lee.
    I think to think my books, and those of several others who have commented, fit into the 'genuine, well-crafted story' category too. That's a good description. I rejoice when I come across them too.

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  13. In many ways I agree with Lee. Readers are looking for a good book. Until I began to learn how to write, I didn't know what made a good book, I just knew when I stumbled upon one! And I love the different book, the unexpectedness of general fiction. With your books Paula, I never know what to expect, but I do know it will be good! Don't be pushed into a mould. xx

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    1. Hi Jo,
      I totally believe that unexpectedness is what makes a book stand out in a reader's memory, and readers who remember are going to talk and recommend. A vital ingredient, I'd say.
      I think the formula driven books do well because of "McDonalds" sort of aspect I mentioned in the post, we know what we're going to get and feel in a reasonably pleasant enough mood for it. But I love to try to write the sort of unexpected book that make readers blink and say, "Wow."
      Thanks for your support.

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  14. I loved your post Paula and loved the term you coined as "pot pouri books".I would definitely go for them. A bit of everything is lovely - romance, suspense, drama, humour, mystery..... the lot! I find romance interesting when it's romance that's mixed with a lot of other things. Know what I mean? Where romance happens but it's in the background and a lot of other important things are taking centre stage.
    Looking forward to your next book, Paula. That's for sure! :)
    Anusha

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    1. Hi Anusha,
      There are two books I'm working on at the moment, both, I hope, with real surprise elements in their own ways. And I think the 'bit of everything' you mentioned helps to enhance the romance element in any book.

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  15. Paula, fascinating post :) I also agree with what Lee has said earlier. Genre fiction books sell well because they're a 'safe bet' for publishers as they have a defined audience who keep coming back for more.

    It was once said that romance books with actors and musicians don't sell, then along came Karen Kingsbury with her wildly popular and best selling movie star book series.

    I also think 'The Shack' is an example of a book that doesn't really fit a particular genre but the story has resonated with a large audience.

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  16. Hi Narelle,
    It's always very interesting to see new books come along and cause ripples in the marketing pond, especially when so many authors are trying to stick to the rules of genre fiction, believing that's the only way they'll be picked up.
    It just proves that although there will always be safe demand for genre books (my McDonalds analogy), there is a wider audience out there hungering for the unusual and unexpected.

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  17. Hmm think I'll stick to writing devotionals and educational material!!

    Narelle N

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  18. LOL, Narelle. At least you know what to expect.

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