Those puzzled by the differences between fiction genres left the Guild’s Sept. 8 workshop much wiser after hearing from local authors Jo Hiestand (mystery), Camille Faye (speculative) and Mia Silverton (romance).
“The settings have imaginative elements and futuristic ideas,” she said. “There are a lot of arguments about where to shelve these books, which often blend more than one genre, like paranormal romance.”
Some of the speculative fiction subgenres she described were:
§ Science fiction – “what if” stories about advancements in science and technology (think DNA, UFOs, etc.)
o Steampunk is a subgenre, using tech of 19th century industrial steam-powered machinery
§ Fantasy – often set in medieval times
§ Paranormal/supernatural – a little spooky, but not hard-hitting like horror – ghosts, vampires, werewolves, magicians
§ Magical realism – Looks like the real world but has a magical undercurrent because someone has a special quality, revealing magical or mystical elements – more literary or artistic than commercial fiction.
She gave the example of Laura Esquivel’s Like Water for Chocolate, the magical realism story of a woman whose feelings become part of the foods she cooks.
Because of its literary nature, where the goal is to have beautiful turns of phrase in every single sentence, authors of magical realism have difficulty meeting the criteria for commercial authors.
“Midlist authors have to crank out two to four books per year, focusing on story, plotline, and character development to make their books page-turners,” Camille said.
Why write speculative fiction? For Camille, it’s about sharing big ideas.
“You can make sense of this world by creating imagined worlds and showing how they are influenced by interpersonal relationships, cultural movements, technological advances, or new philosophies with regards to scientific advancement,” she said.
JO HIESTAND said the direction of your plot determines what mystery subgenre a story falls into. Using the well-known Wizard of Oz plotline as an example -- four characters trying to get to the Emerald City -- what kind of story will this be?
o If they’re being chased and given one clue after another before they move on, you have mystery.
o If it’s not about “who dunit” but focuses on their challenges to get there, it’s action/adventure or thriller.
o If they’re trying to get there before the Wicked Witch of the West, it’s suspense.
o If the Munchkins are mutant killers, then it’s horror.
She described the three main mystery subgenres as:
o Classic – draws on solving the crime – usually a murder is the core of the story, and the focus is on finding the murderer’s identity
o Suspense – the crime has not yet taken place – the culprit may be known or suspected, anticipation builds tension, to see if he/she can be stopped from striking again
o Thriller – focuses on feelings of excitement and suspense – espionage stories with sex and violence, detective stories focusing on the struggle between good and evil, kill or be-killed situations
Within these three subgenres are other categories defined by your protagonist and the direction your plot takes:
o Amateur sleuths – cooperate with authorities but are viewed as meddlers, but they solve crimes – archeologist, librarian, dog trainer, the list is endless
o Police procedurals – crimes solved using police rules of evidence
o Private detectives – usually licensed or ex-police
o Cozy – small towns, seemingly peaceful places, little violence, usually off-stage, no gory details, satisfactory conclusion
o Golden Age – emphasis on solving puzzle
o Hard-boiled mysteries – noir novels with grim details, settings dingy and rough
o Cat crimesolvers
o Hobbies or careers – portrayed by protagonist – scrapbooking, quilts, baseball
o Medical and legal – protagonist not a detective but solves as part of legal practice
To heighten suspense, stories should have a bad guy who is as good as the sleuth (e.g Sherlock and Moriarty), she said. All the characters should either help the sleuth or muddy the waters. The solution should make sense and give reader satisfaction.
Keys to this are the suspect’s “motive, means and opportunity,” Jo said. The suspect must have:
o a reason to commit the crime
o a way to commit the crime
o a chance to commit the crime
What if you don’t want to write about murder, which is the ultimate social crime? Your focus needs to be something important or valuable, such as government papers, stolen jewels, poison pen letters, vandalism, threats, or kidnapping.
“The motive can be anything plausible – debt, feud, jealousy, love, rage, revenge,” Jo said.
How long should a mystery be? The average book is 80,000 words. Cozies can be shorter – 55,000 to 79,000 words – and thrillers can be longer – 100,000 words.
“If you want published by a traditional publisher, you should pay heed to the suggested word counts,” she said. “Publishers think books of this length work the best.”
If your book is incredibly long, make it a trilogy or a two-parter. “People love series,” she said. If it's short, add another character or a subplot that gives the sleuth another way to investigate.
MIA SILVERTON noted that romance books are a $1 billion industry, accounting for 34 percent of the fiction market, with about 20,000 titles published each month.
“The main plot focuses on individuals falling in love and struggling to make their relationship work,” she said. The ending has lovers rewarded with emotional justice and unconditional love as they accept each other. Traditionally, romance books had “happily ever after” endings, but some are now “happily ever after – for now.”
Romance can take on any tone, style, place, or time. This gives you more opportunity to address other socio-economic issues.
The “heat” levels range from sweet to extremely hot, creating different subgenres:
· Sweet – handholding, some kissing, no sexual content – G-rated
· Moderate – more seductive, physical quality, most is off the page—PG-13-rated
· Sensual – lots more sensuality, descriptive quality, more R-rated content
· Erotic – explicit description, entire physicality shown, not BDSM (Bondage, Discipline, Sadism and Masochism)
Each publisher might have different word counts, so always check before submitting. A general word count guide is:
· Novellas 20,000 to 40,000
· Short 40,000 to 56,000
· Medium 56,000 to 84,000
· Long 84,000+
· Historical 89,000 – set before the 1950s, including medieval and ancient China
· Contemporary 84,000 – set 1950s to present
Romance books can also be about sports, the military, rock stars, billionaires, religious or spiritual themes, erotica, New Adult/Young Adult, or suspense.
Discussing disclaimers, Mia said, “the best authors explore the concept that the central character always offers [sexual] consent for both parties – [Authors] are also very conscious to label the back of their covers with trigger warnings for sensitive readers.”
When it comes to crossovers, “that’s the fun of romance these days,” Mia said. Some popular titles are Jeannie Lin’s historical steampunk Gunpowder Alchemy, Diana Gabaldon’s Outlander series, and Angie Fox’s Southern Ghost Hunter and Demonslayer series.
The three authors agreed: First write your story and don’t worry so much about the genre. It might be the thing that changes someone’s life – they need your story! You can think about genre classification later, and your critique group or the Writers Guild can help you with that.
While you should write what you want, you should also deliver what readers want.
“It is a business,” Mia said.
How do you market your books?
Mia – She relies on social media ads, word of mouth, networking, talks, Penned Con, and Red Coat PR.
Jo – “[On my first book], I kept getting rejections with comments – almost there. Another member of Sisters in Crime who was published read it and gave me a five-page critique. I was mad, but she gave me three great pieces of advice.” Jo’s now been published for fourteen years.
Camille – “I did a marketing plan with the release of my second book; for my third book, due out next April, I will schedule two months for marketing, including in-person signings, talks like this, Penned Con (and other writing conferences).” Facebook and everything online leads to her website, and she has a reader email list.
Mia – After getting recommendations from other writers and looking at editors’ websites, she narrowed her search to three editors. She submitted five pages to see how well they’d work together. She encourages writers to get developmental editing to check for holes in the plot, what’s not working, or changes needed so the reader can connect to the characters.
“It doesn’t matter if the writing is perfect if it’s boring,” she said. Editors will usually want to see a sample of your work before giving an estimate.
What’s next for you?
Camille’s third book is coming out soon. With children ages 10 and 5, she was able to finish writing it in one year. Her next goal is to finish the series with books four and five.
Jo said one of her series, traditionally published with Wild Rose Press, is now available in audio. The other series is self-published. “And last night, I thought of new series,” she said.
Mia’s identified a couple of agents she would like to work with. Her Work in Progress is a rock star series she hopes to launch one book a month, in addition to working fulltime
Camille – Beginning writers worry that someone will steal their work, but just let go of that fear. Chances that some random stranger will get your story published are slim, and you automatically have copyright.
An audience member who works for law firm noted that if you should need to pursue legal action such as a lawsuit or cease/desist order, your work would need to be registered with the Library of Congress (that costs $35 and can be done online).
Are you able to support yourself by writing?
Camille – “If I did two to four books per year, I think I could. I’m trying to decide if I'm willing to work fourteen-hour days, six days a week. I’m doing well for what it is.”
Jo – “If the price of a book is $15 and the author gets $1.50, how many books per month would you have to sell? Very few people are supported by their writing.”
Mia – “No, I am not making a living yet. I am only just starting in this business. I feel it’s finding a balance between learning, producing, and not overworking. It’s not for the feint of heart. The nurse in me says ‘take care of your body. It’s essential.’ The whole body system will start to shut down working fourteen-hour days, setting you up for obesity, cardiovascular issues, and increasing the risk for diabetes. Schedule your exercise, eat healthy. If you’re not at peak performance, your writing won’t be either.”
About the Speakers
JO HIESTAND is the founding president of the Greater St Louis chapter of Sisters in Crime. She graduated with a BA degree in English and departmental honors from Webster University. She writes three mystery series -- two British and one local. She’s been a secretary and a graphic designer. Her hobbies include photography, music and researching the Scottish branch of her family.
CAMILLE FAYE lives in Missouri, loves on her family, and writes while her kiddos are in school. Her writing is inspired by her experiences growing up in a haunted house and her travels to 28 countries and counting! “Like” her Camille Faye Author page on Facebook where you can give your feedback for upcoming books. And visit to sign up for her newsletter, download book discussion questions, and get the latest on Camille’s writing.
MIA SILVERTON is a St. Louis-born, contemporary women's fiction and romance author. As a writer, she feels called to help change lives in a different way -- by crafting dynamic stories. She promises to bring worlds full of strong characters, witty fun dialogue filled with heroes and heat. She strongly believes that we can all find happiness, sanctuary and even healing in a beautifully written book. Many times in the past, a well crafted phrase, word or story created a shift in her when the time was needed and she feels called to pay that forward. Mia loves to interact with her readers and you can connect with her on FB, Instagram, Twitter or visit at www.miasilverton.com. Make sure to stay up to date with the latest and greatest news by joining Mia's Silver Pen Tribe on her website.