Rogue Novels

About a year ago, we hired a company to clean our carpets.

The gentleman who arrived at our door looked like someone who would be, perhaps, even better suited to perform at a bachelorette party.

But Therefore I opened the door wide for him and spent the next few hours pretending to write as he cleaned my carpets.

When he finished, and I handed him my Visa, he smiled. “You know, Mrs. Callender, cleaning carpets is just my day job.”

“Oh?” Suddenly I felt uncomfortable.

He reached for his back pocket, pulled out his wallet and slipped a business card into my hand. “I’m a writer. And an actor.”

“Ah,” I said. “Got it.”

“This card is for my new movie . . . check it out if you want.”

I read the card aloud. “Rogue Saints: The greatest church, diamond heist, romance, comedy, drama, adventure you’ve ever seen.” I smiled. “Wow. All those things in one movie!”

When my husband got home that night, I held up the business card, moving it around as if tantalizing him with a treat. “Not sure you want to commit to just one genre?” I murmured, my voice sultry. “Try Rogue Saints: The greatest church, diamond heist, romance, comedy, drama, adventure you’ve ever seen.”

Who would fund a film that clearly had such major identity issues? Who would write a screenplay that was such a blatant, unapologetic salmagundi?

Well, my friends, the Mocker is now the Mocked as it seems I, too, have managed to write a genre-straddler of a novel.

Some readers have sworn my novel is for an adult audience (this, in spite of the child narrator). Others have claimed it’s a prime candidate for New Adult, the new genre on the block. Still others have thought it feels closest to YA.

Years ago, after reading part of a less polished draft, one YA agent assured me I had absolutely, positively written a YA novel. Or at least it would be YA if I built up the teen romance. If I took the mother out of the forefront of the story. If I focused more on the narrator and less on the family dynamics of the book. If, if, if . . . then my book would fit neatly into a tidy, clearly-labeled box.

As you know, traditional publishing loves labels. That’s because traditional publishing is made up of traditional human beings.

The human brain looks at that which is different or unfamiliar and attempts to assign it a digestible identifier. Labels, genres, color coded files help us to understand and arrange things and stuff.

Humans do it to make sense of the world. Publishers do it to sell books.

But can we writers do anything other than tell the story that is simmering in the crock pot of our brain? Maybe. Maybe not. And because I’m in the Maybe Not category, my manuscript is going out on submission as is. As YA.

My agent and I suspect some editors will take one look and say, “It’s a girl!” Others may shout, “It’s a boy!” As long as it’s healthy, the gender of the baby matters little to me.

Meanwhile, as this book goes out on submission, I am working on Book #2, a story about memory and exploding space shuttles and ornithology, told from the perspective of a fourteen-year-old boy and his forty-year-old uncle.

“And what about this book’s genre?” my agent asked.

Hm. What is this next book? YA? New Adult? Good old fashioned Adult Fiction?

My agent’s question was important, especially if I wanted a graceful professional trajectory. If my first book is YA, my second book should be, too. Readers get disappointed when authors are inconsistent, and traditional publishing doesn’t want disappointed readers.

But what worried me was the possibility that messing with the soul of a story, just to center it in a single genre, might render the story lifeless. I worried that if I tried to cram Book #2 into a box, if I over-guided or stifled the story’s true personality, I would only assure that its adulthood would be spent on the couch of some therapist. So. Tell me about your author.

“I honestly don’t know,” I told my agent. “I just know it’s a book that I would love to read.”

“Great,” she said. “Don’t try to tweak it to fit a genre. The story will be what the story is.”

Lucky moi. I have an agent who understands that my book simply needs to find a gutsy editor who appreciates a book that may, at times, hopscotch off the beaten path.

And what about my on-the-side carpet cleaning friend? Just last month, I was at church, using the loo, when I noticed a flier pasted on the bathroom stall, advertising an all-church film event the following week. The film? Rogue Saints. The greatest church, diamond heist, romance, comedy, drama, adventure you’ve ever seen.

I smiled at the photo of the man who had cleaned my carpet, a guy who had managed to get his multi-genre’d film out in the world, a guy who was doing his best to be an artist just as I am, even when it’s not easy to stick a single, tidy label on our work.

But I realize that tough-to-label endeavors aren’t necessarily a bad thing. Just look at this blog. With its variety of contributors, its wide range of topics, styles and personalities, WU isn’t one neat and tidy blog that’s consistently and constantly one single thing.

WU, however, is the greatest inspirational, nuts-and-bolts, encouraging, comedic, honest, community-building, professional, personal source of writerly wisdom you’ve ever seen. How’s that for a rogue blog?

What about you? How have you been able to make a piece of quirky, off-beat writing more commercial, marketable or traditional? Or, how have you found success with something that initially seemed too weird or unwieldy for a label?

Do we honor a story by telling it as it evolves (even if doing so means it will get fewer readers) or by getting it into the hands of as many readers as possible?

I’d love to hear your thoughts!

Photo courtesy of Flickr’s: Enokson


About Sarah Callender

Sarah Callender lives in Seattle with her husband, son and daughter and is currently working on a novel titled BETWEEN THE SUN AND THE ORANGES. Sarah is a terrible house-cleaner, a lover of chocolate and hats, and a self-professed cheapskate who has no trouble spending money on good chocolate and hats.


  1. says

    Sarah, besides always making me laugh, you also always seem to inspire Arnold Horshack-like waving from me. “Ooo, Ooo, Ms. Callender, I’ve got a rogue ms!”

    I used to struggle with it. I wrote a fantasy-like alternate history with strong romance elements. My biggest problem is that most historical fantasy features certain tropes that appeal to fans, like a well-developed system of magic and/or sentient non-humans. Romance, not so much. In response, I decided to just continue to slap an oversized epic historical fantasy sticky-label on it. It’s by far the closest genre to my rogue-mutant-baby.

    I’m so glad you’ve got a gutsy agent and are sticking to your guns! Great description of WU. Congrats to carpet-cleaning-film-guy. Hug your agent. Fingers crossed for your rogue baby!

  2. says

    I am very much an advocate for letting the novel-baby grow into what it wants to be, and not trying to stuff it in a category. I’m not yet published, of course, but even as I begin that process I struggled putting my completed novel in the science-fiction or fantasy category. It didn’t seem to fit in either place, while I was content just thinking of it as a story that happens to be set in the year 2570 and involves persons who might not be entirely human. Because I also see romance and celebratory nods to Victorian-era works and my own childhood games inside of it as well. Genre is going to be part of the game, I know, but I just hope that I find an agent who will be as understanding as yours! Thanks for your insightful words!

    • says

      Thanks, Jillian. I love all the ideas that are simmering in your story. You had me at “childhood games.”

      And, I’m so glad I’m not alone in writing a rogue story! Thanks for taking the time to comment. Best of luck in your writing.

  3. says

    I know where you are coming from. I recently visited NaNo’s genre chat room and couldn’t even find my genre listed. Ditto for a short story contest I was going to enter. Read Therese Walsh’s fine debut novel and you will see it defies easy genre categorization, but it is a well-written story with clear, compelling themes. My advice: write the story that is within you, the story you want to tell. Thanks for this great perspective.

    • says

      Yes, CG. I love that you mentioned Therese’s novel. It’s the perfect example. She has referred to it as “quirky,” but I just see it as fresh, and lovely, with elements of magic realism and romance and family drama. It’s beautiful BECAUSE of its richness.

      Thanks so much for your comment.

  4. says

    No matter how rogue a story is, there is always a dominant aspect of it that defines its genre. It could be the setting, characters, the story itself etc.

    • says

      Good point, Walter. Thanks for mentioning this! I think as long as publishing can identify that dominant genre, it will feel more comfy taking the risk on a particular book.

      I have author friends who have written genre-straddlers, and they sometimes are shocked to see on what shelved and in which categories their books end up. It’s fascinating that publishing has far more say than authors when it comes to labeling a book. I suppose it shouldn’t surprise me . . .


  5. says

    I think that as you write you need to be aware of the genre your story is part of, simply because there are certain tropes, themes, and styles that are an essential part of (or are excluded by) your genre. However, no story is JUST one genre; my stories are YA (older teen) action-adventure, but they are also sci-fi/fantasy, alternate history, and just, well, superhero stories. And they sell well even though I haven’t been able to find an agent to represent them.

    At the end of the day, if you have a great story you can always pitch it to one genre; the smart agent/publisher will simply describe it as “adventurous” or “unique” within its genre-label.

    • says

      Yes, that is true, Marion. Thanks so much for your insight. And I worry that because I wasn’t exactly thinking about tropes and genre when I wrote book #1, it will take some creative thinking to get it out into the world.

      I always appreciate your thoughtful comments. Thank you!

  6. says

    “But can we writers do anything other than tell the story that is simmering in the crock pot of our brain?”

    For me the answer is, No. Sadly. I published my 1st book & working on the 2nd w/a 3rd in mind before I’m done. In the meantime, I’ve got this great idea for a YA book. But – I _gotsta_ finish this trilogy first, which is – sigh – a cross-genre work looking for an audience.

    “Lucky moi” you say? Hells to the yes you are! :)

    Great post & best of luck!


    • says

      Hi Walt. This comment made me laugh out loud. Thanks so much . . . and YOU are lucky that you have so many simmering ideas. You are clearly not a one-hit wonder!
      WE are lucky.

  7. says

    I’m part of a rogue blog? Would it surprise you to know I love that idea?

    I can’t write anything “straight”, either, but I don’t think that’s near the handicap it once was. I’ve got enough issues with craft and structure that I can’t worry about commercial appeal. Who knows what will be in or permitted in two months, anyway? Besides, lose my tap-dancing desert pirates? Never. ;)

    • says

      It surprises me not a jot that you are part of a Rogue blog, Jan. It also surprises me not at all that you’re focusing more on story than commercial viability. Just one of many reasons I like you!

      On what do tap-dancing desert pirates sail? Camels? With tiny dance floors erected on their humps?

      (Did you like how I used “erect” and “hump” in one sentence?)

  8. says

    I don’t really have genre issues, but the premise of the relationship seems to be an issue for a lot of people. A manuscript I’ve been working on for a while starts with a one night stand and the relationship develops from there. A lot of feedback I’ve received said this doesn’t work, that they want to see the relationship developed before they have sex. It’s frustrating because the premise of the relationship is that it wasn’t intended to be one. I’ve contemplated this for months and finally caved. I’m now writing a couple chapters at the beginning that have them meeting and developing the attraction.

    • says

      So interesting, Susan. I think your point is one we all struggle with . . . to what extent to change, edit and revise our stories based on the feedback of others.

      “Caving” is not always a bad thing, though if you feel like it ruins or soul-sucks the story, that is a bad thing. Right? I have made many changes to my book, at the suggestion of editors, writing partners and agents, and while making some of the changes was, initially, difficult, I am SO glad I listened to the wise counsel of others. Maybe that’s the key; listening to WISE counsel.

      Best of luck with your work-in-progress, Susan. Thank you for sharing this!

  9. says

    It was so nice to read your post this morning. I was fortunate to recently have my novel accepted for publication when I worried because I couldn’t fit it neatly into a genre box. The publisher is going to put it into her new Paranormal line. I think of it as a historical (not regency) romantic suspense with a past (Mayan) life that includes mystical elements. Or, reverse order any of those categories–ha! We’ll have to see how it works out.

    • says

      Three cheers for you, Cora. That is so exciting! Thanks for giving us all hope through your comment.

      And, three cheers for your publisher. Gosh, I love hearing such happy and hopeful news in the morning. Thank you and huge congrats. :)

  10. says

    Hi Sarah,
    Thank you for this wonderful post. It’s actually the first I’ve seen to talk about what I call genre confusion. An affliction I, myself, suffer from.

    My first novel was contempory fiction. My second was historical fiction. I write for children and adults. Some books are literary. Some are humorous. Some are literary and humorous. Some have a mystery at the core. Some have a romance. I can’t be pinned down and labeled easily. Welcome to my creative process.

    In the long run, I may not be as successful as most (even though my latest book received a starred review by Kirkus!), but at least I will have been true to my creative process. Fool that I am!

    Susan Gabriel
    author of The Secret Sense of Wildflower

    • says

      I loved your comment, Susan, partly because I can relate, and partly because even in this wee blog comment, I can see the life and the personality in your writing.

      I am naive (this is a fact), but I am also a believer in the fact that good writing will get published in some way, by some publisher. And, it sounds like you get “picked” by your stories; THEY do the picking, not vice versa. When that happens, we best just sit at our computers and get to work, no?

      Thanks for taking the time to comment!

  11. says

    I’ve written two novels, and they are both genre straddlers. The first was an upper-middle-grade historical fantasy, and the second was a middle-grade contemporary fantasy/mystery with scifi elements. I don’t know if I succeeded making either commercial! The first was agented but not published. The second did not interest an agent, but was recently published by a small press. The irony is that after the first novel, I tried very hard to make my second novel commercial, but I didn’t quite get there…

    • says

      Yes, and I think that’s the point, Kell. My agent didn’t want me to change too much about Book #1 because who knows what publishing will “want” next month or next week? We can go crazy trying to figure out what will be more commercial/hot/trendy.

      The longer I am a writer, the more I understand this: No one, no agent or editor or publisher or writing partner, knows what is going to be a big hit. No one. So I guess we writers just best tell the darn story and keep our fingers crossed. Otherwise, we’ll drive ourselves crazy trying to figure out how to “be” commercial.

      That said, I know several authors who are very successful at making themselves more commercial. Maybe that’s the difference: we can make OURSELVES more commercial but we can’t necessarily make our stories more commercial. Maybe. Not sure about that . . . food for thought!

  12. says

    Love love love love this. :)

    I’m 100% behind the rogue idea. I write stories. Recently when someone asked me what kind of novel I was writing (meaning which genre) I just stared. “Um…. It’s got… it’s got action. But also some romance. And …. characters?” (need to work on the articulation thing, ha!).

    Thanks for the encouragement. I’ll now just tell people, “I’m writing a rogue novel. It’s a story, it’s fiction, read it and see!”

    You’re awesome.

    • says

      I love your new pitch, Sarah. Brilliant. It IS so tricky to describe our work, even if it does fit neatly in a genre. If you describe yours as “rogue” it adds such mystique! :)

  13. says

    “My agent and I suspect some editors will take one look and say, “It’s a girl!” Others may shout, “It’s a boy!” As long as it’s healthy, the gender of the baby matters little to me.”

    I love that. :)

    I think one of the best things about self-pubbing/e-pubbing is that books that don’t fit nicely into one little box can have a better chance at life. We can tag them with multiple categories instead of worrying about which one shelf they have to live on. A voracious audience can take a chance on them, serving as a test market, a grassroots podium.

    And, just thinking “aloud” here now, but I wonder if this could lead bookstores to trying out new ways of shelving and displaying things. Just because we’ve got a system doesn’t mean it works. Or, just because it works doesn’t mean it couldn’t work better.

    • says

      Such great points, Kristan. With all of the recent changes in publishing (and the reduction in numbers of bookstores) it will be interesting to see what happens. Buyers still need to be able to know where to find (or search for) certain books, but we do tend to limit ourselves when we shop only in one genre.

      Lydia Netzer’s book, Shine Shine Shine, has elements of science fiction but I RARELY would even consider reading a book that is science fiction. After reading and LOVING her book however, I don’t know why I limit myself. It’s pretty lame, to be honest, and it makes me realize how I should branch out. Genre straddling books help us do just that!

      Thanks so much, Kristan!

  14. says

    Nice article, Sarah. Reminded me of the commercial, “I’m here to snake your drain,” while the other is going to clean her pipes. :)

    That’s what I love about WU – its diversity and inability to fall into any one category, other than Most Helpful Writing Site on the Block.

    Your resistance to commit to a genre and remaining true to the evolution of your story is admirable. I’m almost done with mine, which started off as YA, but now I wonder. We’ll see…

    • says

      Thanks, ML (and thanks for the laugh), though I don’t know if my decision is admirable or just plain stupid. In order to validate all of this time I spend writing, I really do need to contribute financially to our family. If I would write stuff that’s commercial, maybe I’d be able to sell my book more quickly. Sigh. It’s not easy being a writer and yet, I feel so darn lucky!

      Best of luck on your novel. It’s kind of like becoming a parent. You think your kid’s going to turn out one way, and when he doesn’t, it can be quite startling!

  15. Denise Willson says

    I’ll confess to something I haven’t before on WU: I work for Indigo. Yes, Canada’s largest book chain. I buy for head office, not a store, but because of my job, I spend A LOT of time watching people at store level.

    Let me tell you a secret…people read EVERYTHING.

    You can watch a customer walk into the store and head straight for the new releases, then meander over to self-help, wander through sci-fi, and maybe oggle a book or two from the romance department. They might’ve come with a purpose and that book is in hand, but they’re just as likely in search of something that catches their eye, (Q the music) cover art that draws them in. Most books they skim through will have several core elements that could possibly explain why the book is on this specific shelf, and some will seem down-right displaced. They might gravitate towards an author they like. If they’re feeling frisky, they might settle on a romance, even the one they found in the sci-fi deptartment. If they’ve been told by Mother-in-law Dearest they’re looking rather robust, they might succumb to a diet book. If they come back tomorrow, they’ll be sparked by something totally different…cause, well, it’s a different day.

    Okay, you get the point.

    Us writers need to stop allowing others to ramp up our insecurities. We need to write what’s in our gut, edit the hell out of it, then stand proud. Anyone can be a critic. Only the special few willing to bow and share their heart can be a friend. At WU, we’re the rare kind.

    Kudos to you, Sarah, for writing something you beleive in, and finding an agent who sees your vision. Now stand proud. We’ve got your back. :)

    Denise Willson
    Author of A Keeper’s Truth

    • says

      Thanks, Denise, for this great encouragement! Thanks also for your unique perspective. It’s both heartening and reassuring.

      And you’re right. Even though I tend to read mostly one genre, I DO wander a bookstore, waiting for a little darling to catch my eye. Sometimes it’s something entirely different from what I had expected to purchase.

      I should have added that to the list of WU’s traits: “we’ve got your back.” So true!

    • says

      Thank you, Cindy. We’ll see about the editors’ feedback. I am sure that I’ll yield to some external pressure . . . I’d really like to sell this book AND still feel great about the story.

      I so appreciate your encouragement!

  16. says

    I like to think of myself as Queen of the Rogue Manuscripts. (If not queen, can I at least be the Duchess?)

    It’s not that I set out to be a genre-bending rebel (though I am considering having a shirt made with that very thing printed on it). It just seems to happen. I’m a complicated girl. Is it any wonder my characters and story are, too?

    While I sometimes imagine myself clutching my manuscript and seething, “Labels? I don’t need no stinking labels!” I realize that publishers do need them. So I keep writing my rogue manuscripts and allow my publisher to categorize the book in the way that makes most marketing sense.

    • says

      Dear Queen Roxanne,

      What a great comment. Maybe we should see if WU will sell “Writer of Rogue Novels” t-shirts. From the comments, I see you and I wouldn’t be the only ones interested.

      I love your voice and your confidence. And really, it’s out job to write the darn thing; it’s the publisher’s job to market and sell it. Such a good point.

      Thank you for the laugh, too.

  17. says

    Yes, I am in the midst of not-exactly-categorizable stories with you. It’s one of the reasons I decided to self-publsih. :)

    There’s no hope in the immediate future for the next couple of stories I’ve got going, either. One is a follow up to the non-definable one, and the other is a fantasy/science fiction hybrid. I’m okay with it, though. They’re really fun to write.

    • says

      Lara, I am SO glad you mentioned the word, “fun” in your comment. I do believe that it’s clear when a writer is not having “fun” while tromping around in his or her story . . . the result is a flat and joyless piece of work.

      Without fun, why bother? Thank you!

  18. says

    Interesting post, Sarah. It speaks to the dilemma I faced when self-publishing my first novel and had to commit to genre, keywords and the like. Nothing in the drop down menus seemed to fit at all! Had I made a huge mistake in simply trying for a good story and not writing to fit a market niche? Perhaps. But I believe a good story, properly marketed so that it can be found, will reach its readers. Lucky you to have an agent who seems to believe the same thing. I also think, although I can’t predict how, the revolution in publishing we’re living through will somehow shake up the genre-centric market we now face.

    • says

      Great thoughts, Jack. Thank you for commenting.

      I think at some point, we writers just have to commit to some path and do the smallest amount of second guessing possible. The whole industry really does feel like a crap shoot . . . so we just keep our heads down and keep writing the best stories we can. At least, that’s my goal.

      I may be a fool, but as an earlier commenter said, “WU has my back.” Great comfort in that!

  19. says

    I’m also writing a cross-genre novel; actually a cross-genre series. My first novel focused on an interracial romance, but the sequel novel lacks the romance element and places a greater emphasis on the character’s psychological development.

    I’ve no idea how an agent or publisher would respond to this change of focus, but I love the way the story is developing.

  20. Bernadette Phipps-Lincke says


    I love this post which parallels one by Donald Maass on this blog a while ago, about mixed genre.

    One of the many (dead) artists/philosophers I fell in love with early was Kierkegaard who said: “Once you label me you negate me.”

    It seems in order to feel comfortable with art, people, life, everything-even heaven-we humans have a side of our nature that must place it all into a little box to explain it. But there’s also a plus side to this, I believe, because the very part of our nature that must explain and label things is ingrained with the storyteller in us. And we all know that inside even the most sanguine of storytellers their lurks a dangerous and exciting rebel. A rebel who thinks outside the neat order we futilely attempt to bind the chaos of the universe in…

    I believe the revolution of the internet has exposed that rebel in all of us, even the most traditional, and everything including genre labels will never be the same again.

    • says

      This is such a beautiful and eloquent response, Bernadette. I LOVE that Kierkegaard quote, and you so beautifully articulate the tension between being artists, rebels and rogues but also creating work that is accessible to our communities.

      I don’t think we’d be reading WU if we didn’t care, at least a little, about sharing our work with the world. But we need to be true to the stories inside us. Ack! That’s the challenge.

      I’m tired. :)

  21. says

    Once upon a time I had a story that seemed too weird or unwieldy for a label. What helped me to make it saleable was honing in on the aspect that primarily defined it–the thing that, if removed, would make the whole story fall apart. For me, that became the relationship between sisters. Once I had that in mind, the sort of alterations I needed to focus my unwieldy draft became clear.

    Which ties into your question, “Do we honor a story by telling it as it evolves (even if doing so means it will get fewer readers)?”

    For me, yes, that was key. You might not know what defines your story until you’ve finished your first draft, stood back and assessed. That’s also the time when you may have to do a major plumbing job on the story itself (been there, twice), to serve the work.

    All that said, you know there is a special place in my heart for novels that defy labels, and I WANT TO READ YOUR BOOK. For that reason alone someone should publish it ASAP. ;-)

    • says

      That is such a very smart way of looking at it, Therese. Thanks for chiming in.

      There was another comment that suggested something similar: that our work always has a core genre; it’s just up to us to hold on to that nugget as we add the other swirling elements of the story/stories.

      It’s kind of like a quilt. Quilts may be made up of many patterns and hues, but there’s always a distinct “theme” color or pattern or shape. Maybe we humans need some boundaries when we are confronted with a piece of art; without some boundary, we just feel confused and overwhelmed. Maybe?

  22. says

    Totally Googling Rogue Saints: the movie.
    My second novel has nothing to do with the first, except that both feature young female protagonists. I guess that can slide them both under the golf umbrella of women’s fiction.

    Seriously, though: Good for you for writing the stories you want to write. Sometimes authors spin the same tale over and over and the story loses something with each re-telling (yet the books sell so maybe they are smarter than I am). I wonder if their publishers demand narrow allegiance to the genre, whether they resent the limitations, etc.

    Also, can someone please enlighten me as to what the heck New Adult means? I am crossing my fingers it doesn’t mean adult fiction written at a lower grade level (The USA TODAY of novels??)

    • Denise Willson says

      20-24 range protagonist, finished school and starting LIFE. Basically a young adult that gets laid and swears. Oh, wait, isn’t that what adults do? :)

      Denise Willson
      Author of A Keeper’s Truth

  23. says

    I believe there are more readers out there who enjoy genre-straddling, rich stories as much as we writers who can’t help but write them. They’re harder to categorize and measure in the usual ways traditional publishers use.

    Love your post.

  24. Marilyn Slagel says

    Sarah, my carpets could use a good cleaning thanks to my puppy. I can always use some eye candy in the form of a hot steam cleaner, too. Send him over…

  25. sandra gardner says

    I really understand where you’re coming from re: genre labels, etc. The amateur detectives in my mystery series are a woman and her recently deceased 70-year-old mother. Characterizations of my genre have been: paranormal mystery, supernatural mystery, ghost mystery, etc.
    Sandy Gardner