What Sort of Books Do You Write?

Flickr Creative Commons: Daniel Go
Flickr Creative Commons: Daniel Go

There are precious few satisfying answers to the question above. I have gone to the trouble to list them for you here.

“Oh, I dabble in literary fiction, you may have heard my address at the Nobel Prize ceremony?”

“Joanne Rowling. Lovely to meet you.”

“Mainly plays.  Probably nothing you know.  Ah, you’ve read King Lear, have you?”

Or even: “Very few, actually. I’ve barely put pen to paper since dashing off Catcher in the Rye back in the 50s.”

What you don’t want to say is this:

“Well, I’m technically speaking a children’s writer, but not entirely, I mean, older children, some not children at all, many perfectly sentient adults, in fact, seem to like my books, which do, of course, feature adolescents, but often incorporate quite difficult themes, say, on the subject of life and death, so that about half of my UK readers are over thirty and many of my Finnish readers are over fifty…oh, and by the way, I’ve also written three or four picture books, and am kind of mulling over a middle grade series, just for a change of pace.”

And if you think it gets simpler, think again.  I’m just finishing up my new book, with a protagonist who has graduated from art school which makes him at least 22 — a good two or three years older than many of my past protagonists.

Imagine that for a radical departure.

The new book is called Duck Zoo, and my hero has the wrong job and the wrong girlfriend, and two dogs who are trying to sort his life out for him.  It’s pure Meg Rosoff territory, if you’ll allow me to refer to myself in the third person for a minute here (ala Gwyneth Paltrow).  It’s a comedy, kind of surreal, all about love and work with lots of dogs.

But it’s a whole new genre because technically speaking, Jonathan is not a young adult.

And all I can think is, oh dear god, won’t someone save me from marketing departments.

I wonder if anyone said, “Hey, Harper Lee, whaddaya mean you’re writing a book for grown-ups featuring a six-year-old protagonist?  What are you, nuts?  Who’s going to be interested in a six-year-old other than another six-year-old?”  Did anyone say, “Hey, Henry James, you know this What Maisie Knew book you’ve written, could you make Maisie thirty-six so your adult readers can identify with her more?”

“And really, Mr Shakespeare, your Prince Hamlet is a student?  Do you know how hard it is to get nineteen-year-olds to read plays?  How bout we make him twenty-seven so we can appeal to a broader fan base?”

Predicting the publishing market is not a precise science – after all, did anyone ever imagine that so many young adult novels (55% by all reports) would be bought by adults?

I like William Golding’s wonderful quote about Hollywood, that “nobody knows anything.”

On which note, I think I’ll get back to work.

So. What sort of books do you write?

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About Meg Rosoff

Meg Rosoff was born in Boston, educated at Harvard and worked in NYC for ten years before moving to England permanently in 1989. She wrote her first novel, How I Live Now, (released late 2013 as a feature film starring Saoirse Ronan), at age 46. Her books have won or been shortlisted for 19 international book prizes, including the Carnegie medal and the Michael J Printz award. Picture Me Gone, her sixth novel, was shortlisted for the 2013 National Book Award . She lives in London with her husband and daughter.

Comments

  1. says

    Let’s see…I just finished my draft of a futuristic post-apocalyptic sort of thing. No. No nuclear bombs. Zombies? Nope. Plague. Nah, I hate needles. Just, you know, the collapse of a nation and the struggles afterward. So it’s not really post-apocalytpic? Oh. Dystopian? No…no hovercraft…sorrry. Umm…pre-dystopian-post-apocalyptic-sans-zombies? My protag? He’s 40. Good looking guy. Audience. Oh. Young adults. I can’t? But there’s a cute 16 year old who will take over the series from here and…oh, I see. So she needs to be the protag if it’s YA. What? I suppose she could slay a zombie or three. Do federal agents count? No. Okay. Yes! There’s a dog. His name is…what’s that? Middle-grade? No…the kids don’t develop dog-like powers. What is a dog-like power? Rolling in dead things and staring at people until they give up their Cheetos? I suppose they could do that. My kids already do the Cheetos thing, so not a stretch. What’s that? Kids turning into zombie dogs? I dunno. This is getting silly…the marketing department says it’ll be a best-seller in the Topeka Times? By the way, are these the same guys who gave Hillary $8million? Oh…sorry….here’s a tissue. No, really, it’s me. I say things I shouldn’t. Sure. I’ll make all those changes. Will I get an $8million advance? Hey…where are you going? I wanna talk about the cover…

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  2. says

    I write stories with a strong spiritual and romantic thread that explore the culture clash of the 18th century Colonial and Federal American frontier.

    So far I’ve set them in the Mohawk Valley and the State of Franklin (or North Carolina, depending on your politics).

    I’ve written other types of stories, but this is where I’m settled for now.

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  3. Anjali Amit says

    “….after all, did anyone ever imagine that so many young adult novels (55% by all reports) would be bought by adults?”

    Right. Right? And that the absolutely perfect Boss Baby (Marla Frazee) is a board book — board book, good heavens — for adults.

    Just build a better mousetrap…

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  4. says

    Meg– very funny, thanks a lot.
    55%? So much for “When I was a child, I thought as a child, I spake as a child. But now I am a man/woman/transsexual, I have put away childish things.” Writer Unboxed recently published a post that described a new category, called New Adult. Maybe your book fits there. But whatever you come up with, you absolutely can’t go wrong with dogs.
    I write books for adults, about adult characters who have to contend with adult trouble. Needless to say, these books are doomed–although, where possible, I try to work in a dog, just to give myself a fighting chance.
    Thanks again for a witty post.

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    • says

      Great idea – adding a dog. I just thought about it, realistically, and it would add maybe 10% to the size of a novel which will already be about as long as Gone With the Wind.

      But I could really fit a nice dog in there…

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  5. Denise Willson says

    Great post, Meg!

    My answer, “I write what I love. How about you, what do you love to read?”

    Turning the query back to the reader, to the love of books, always makes the conversation less tedious. I’m sure there’s a multitude of psychology terms for this, but simple has its advantages. :)

    Denise Willson
    Author of A Keeper’s Truth and GOT

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  6. says

    I used to shy away from the “F-word” (Fantasy). Particularly in person (versus online). I would say something like: “I write historicals, set in the Ancient Roman era.” I finally got over it, and started saying: “I write epic historical fantasy,” without batting an eye. But this opened a new can-o’-worms. I still mostly get the immediate dismissal I expected from non-fantasy readers—which I don’t mind a bit. But every now and then I run into a fantasy fan. Their litany of queries is a bit more troublesome.

    For example, here’s a recent run-down by a fantasy reader I met while volunteering at our local library. She’d heard from her father-in-law that I was a writer, and asked what I wrote. I easily spit out the words: “Epic historical fantasy.”
    Fantasy Reader: “Epic fantasy, like, for young adults (she actually said ‘YA’)?
    Me: “No, it’s adult fantasy.”
    Fantasy Reader: “So, like, with magic and stuff?”
    Me: “No. Well, there’s mysticism.”
    F.R.: “So like with dragons, or orcs?”
    Me: “No, all the characters are regular humans.”
    F.R.: “So, like Game of Thrones, but without the dragons?”
    Me: (Knowing I had to end it at some point) “Yeah, I suppose that’s pretty close.”
    F.R.: (Now unwilling to make eye-contact) “Oh… Well, good luck with it.”

    I don’t consider myself a fantasy deconstructionist, but I guess I’m grateful to GRRM. Or should I say I’m grateful to HBO? Fun post, Meg!

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  7. says

    “Nobody knows anything.” At least I’m in good company.

    I’ve been querying my novel as YA Mystery, then adding in “infused with history and the stirrings of romance”, but that still didn’t cover everything. Then I discovered the term “magical realism”, which is PERFECT for me. So I write YA Magical Realism (infused with history and the stirrings of romance).

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  8. says

    My latest book is for illiterate people (I am so thankful I can steal this line from Mo Willems).

    I write about what I’m trying to understand, to give a voice to those who have none. I write to change the world, and the world exists in a child’s heart.

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  9. says

    This post gave me such a chuckle today. Loved it, Meg. I write “quiet horror” which is a subgenre of the traditional horror. Mostly ghost stories and supernatural mysteries for adults. Some marketing folk like to joke that these are the ‘scream quietly’ kind of horror novels. Some call it ‘literary horror’ because the stories are more character-driven rather than plot-driven like the traditional horror novels. A quiet horror novelist lures the reader into the story with deeply mysterious entities of evil power. High tension, suspense, and a false sense of security for the characters (not graphic violent scenes, not bloody jaw-snapping monsters) are the main elements. Which, for me, is what I prefer to read … and write.

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  10. says

    What sort of books do I write? Depends who’s asking the question.

    Random neighbor/coworker/passing acquaintance: “Fiction.” (That’s really all they want/need to know.)

    Friends/family expressing interest in my life: “Contemporary fiction, kind of like [insert books they know here].”

    Friends/family expressing concern about my life: “Big, heavy, important ones” or “Fabulous bestselling moneymakers.”

    Agents/Editors/Marketers: “Commercial post-Chick Lit contemporary comedies featuring professional single women in their twenties that will appeal to fans of Big Name Author 1 and Big Name Author 2.”

    The labeling game is one we all have to play. Might as well have fun with it :)

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  11. says

    Since the very beginning I have been struggling with the question of how to answer when asked what I’m writing.

    It’s a mainstream novel with a huge love story embedded at the border between film and writing, an adult love triangle that goes deep into the question of what matters and why, a story of obsession and betrayal. Ultimately, it’s all about the children. Oh, and wanting – and who’s allowed to want.

    And it has no dog.

    I hoped to appeal to women and men in the middle of life with families and children and jobs and pressures. Those who purchase books in hard cover.

    My biggest surprise has been someone entirely out of my expected target demographic: my beta reader is an otherwise normal twenty-two year old. Will marvels never cease?

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  12. says

    I haven’t had much trouble with this.

    “I write cozy mysteries. Like Agatha Christie’s books or like the TV show “Murder She Wrote”.”

    I’ve found that covers it well for most people. If they need more I say that there’s almost no swearing, romance but no detailed sex scenes and no graphically described violence – you know, they’re cozy; and that usually answers any further questions.

    I don’t worry about the age bracket. I fell in love with Agatha Christie when I was nine years old and her books don’t feature children. Kids like mysteries and people at the other end of life’s spectrum like mysteries. :-)

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  13. says

    Great post, Meg! Very thought provoking. I’d say I write what I love to read but I’m read everything. Currently reading a Jim Butcher novel, but last week was reading Carl Hiassan and before that the Help. My tastes are all over the map. I enjoy (some) Francine Rivers and lots of Koontz and Robin LaFevers and Rowling. You see how eclectic I am? Haha.

    My WIP is what I’ve come to call modern/urban fantasy. I try to write stories that grabs your gut and gets embedded in your heart. I write about lost people. And broken people. And I love writing about how in the end, good and love win out because I so desperately need to believe that’s true.

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  14. says

    “People who like fantasy read fantasy, no matter what age either the readers or the characters are.” – Ursula Le Guin

    I write fantasy with characters of every age. So far my protagonists are in their late teens/early twenties, but I also have older POV characters.

    I’d love to write literary fantasy one day, because of the amazing company I’ll have. Shakespeare, John Milton, Charles Dickens, Homer, to name a few :-)

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  15. says

    The short answer is that I write fantasy. The immediate reaction, unfortunately, traps me between the RRs…Tolkien and Martin. “Oh, THAT…so you have elves and dragons and its medieval.” That’s right, the response is uttered as a statement, not a question and often it feels like an accusation. Defensive, I throw out, “It’s more modern…we would think of it as Victorian.” I then cringe because I know exactly what’s coming next. “OH…it’s steampunk. So, you have airships and there are gears everywhere.” *sigh*

    Such are the frustrations associated with trying to go in a different direction. I’ve tried “alternative fantasy,” but that elicits blank stares. I’ve tried “gas lamp fantasy,” but that’s just the slippery slope back to steampunk, and it doesn’t fit.

    In many ways I like to think of it as YA written specifically for adults, but as soon as I refer to it as a variation of something else it becomes the “something else.” Perhaps the greatest accomplishment I can look forward to is defining my writing such that people will have a lightbulb moment and say, “Oh, that’s intriguing.”

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  16. says

    Thanks for this post! I can relate so well, because the “what sort” of my mystery series is a bit blurry.

    I call them traditional mysteries, because they are not thrillers, not suspense, not exactly cozies or police procedurals either. I happened to choose a hero who drives an eighteen wheeler for a living, and the covers feature big, beautiful trucks. Yet I’ve written the type of novel that I (a woman) love to read, with a real puzzle about ‘who done it’, realistic, flawed characters who are struggling with relationships, serious underlying themes, and enough description to draw the reader into the setting.

    And yes, there’s a dog and a cat attached to two of the regular characters, if not to the hero himself.

    I get good reviews from both men and women, but it seems that the majority of one and two star reviews come from men who expected less description, a faster pace and an action-driven plot. (Some of them refer to the author as “he”.)

    Would my books sell better if the genre were more well-defined? Maybe. But I am comfortable writing about a world I was on the periphery of for much of my working life, plus I write as much for my own satisfaction as for financial return. As Denise said, “I write what I love.”

    I also love the quote “Nobody knows anything”! I must be in good company.

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  17. says

    Perfect post, Meg! ;-)
    My main character is in her mid-fifties, a retired teacher who has been recently widowed and is childless. Do you really think people who fit this category would be my only readers? Really?

    Let’s hope we all find marketing/publishing partners with broader views than that.

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  18. says

    The Book Thief by Markus Zusak, is billed as “Young Adult.” I presume that’s because the story revolves around a young girl, Liesel Meminger. As far as I’ can see, The Book Thief is anything but Young Adult. (A tip of the hat here to Scout Finch.) I know of several avid readers who missed out on this wonderful story because they are not into reading Young Adult.

    This is the dilemma with which Diana Gabaldon has always had to contend as well. And look where she is now! This despite all the confusing genre labeling issues. She thought she was writing historic fiction when she began Outlander. But the bookstores insisted on placing it in the Romance section. And indeed there is romance, and plenty of it. But there is also a lot of world history — and time travel, which I’m told falls under the paranormal genre. But that would be even more confusing, and not nearly as many readers would have discovered this wonderful series!

    After eight novels in the series and three generations+ (counting both 18th and 20th century families), it has become more a Family Saga (although Historic Fiction would fit as well). Whatever the Outlander series is, it has earned itself a massive fan base, plus its own series on STARZ!

    Let’s not be such sticklers for exacting a specific genre or label and just get the the good stories out there where readers can find them and decide for themselves!

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  19. says

    The Book Thief by Markus Zusak, is billed as “Young Adult also.” I presume that’s because the story revolves around a young girl, Liesel Meminger. As far as I’ can see, The Book Thief is anything but Young Adult. (A subtle nod here in Scout Finch’s direction. ) I know of several avid readers who missed out on this wonderful story because they are not into reading Young Adult.

    ‘This is the dilemma with which Diana Gabaldon has always had to contend as well. And look where she is now! This despite all the confusing genre labeling issues. She thought she was writing historic fiction when she first began the Outlander series. But the bookstores insisted on placing it in the Romance section. And indeed there is romance in the story, and plenty of it. But there is also a lot of well-researched world history – and time travel (which I’m told falls under the paranormal genre. But that would be even more confusing, and not nearly as many readers would have discovered this wonderful series!)

    After eight novels in the series and three generations+ (counting both 18th & 20th century families), it has evolved into more of a Family Saga. (Historic Fiction would fit as well.) Whatever the Outlander series is, it has won the hearts of millions of fans and now even a series on STARZ!

    Let’s not be such sticklers for exacting a specific genre or label and just get the good stories out there where readers can find them and decide for themselves!

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  20. says

    I so related with this post. From my experience you can’t write a humorous book with a young woman in her twenties because that’s chick lit and chick lit is out. (Even though you don’t use the usual tropes.)
    You can’t write a novel where the character starts out 17 but ends up 21 because what is that? YA? Chick Lit? NA?

    It’s enough to make a person’s head spin.

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  21. says

    I write memoir about my spiritual experiences, how they have/are affecting my life, how I began to recognize them and accept them and ideas I’ve developed from the perspectives they have given me.

    I wrote my first story about one in 1998 and didn’t know what to do with it. A second occurred in 2002 and I still didn’t know what to do with them. I didn’t think mystics, or whatever I am, existed. I see Vaughn mentioned he’s including mysticism in his writing—I’m living it. In 2012, after a third pivotal experience, I made the decision to write a memoir. Then, in April I found out that a well-known writer, Barbara Ehrenreich, has published a book on spiritual experiences she had as a teen (How I found out about her book and what I discovered was even amazing and I share that in my blog post, Lone Pine: Two Feminists’ Take On Spiritual Experiences).

    I know most people will toss what I’ve said here right into the crazy bin, but I have to accept that and keep putting it out there, because I can’t carry these events around and not tell people about them.

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  22. says

    Still giggling – I’m so glad I’m not the only one to struggle to answer that question. In my own case it’s a weird combination of noir and humour so you can imagine how trying to explain that goes down in conversations…

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  23. says

    I utterly sympathise, Meg.

    What do I write? Well, this thing I’m writing now… lemme see…

    Well, it’s set in the near future, which makes it sci-fi, I suppose – but it’s not a technological wonderland ’cause everything’s gone a bit pear-shaped in that department… no, I wouldn’t say it’s post-apocalyptic, no world wars or global plagues or anything… dystopian? Yeah, I suppose… oil supplies are running low so what little modern technology is still available has become the property of only the very rich… but this focuses on just one city, so… erm, Urban Dystopian Sci-Fi… with a sort of hint of romance maybe?

    Who’s the target age range? Well, the protagonist is in her early twenties… COULD slide into Young Adult but… there’s swearing in it – no, it’s not just for effect it would be ridiculous without the swearing, given the social backdrop – and so there’s NO WAY it could be marketed to teenagers (I mean, we all know it’s ‘sort of’ okay to write about teenagers having sex and knowing about drugs in YA fiction, but there’s NO WAY we should be teaching them how to SWEAR!) Thing is, would people in their thirties and above want to read about sci-fi-ish stuff? I mean, don’t they all prefer thrillers and romance or something? That’s what I heard, anyway… What about people in their twenties, like my protagonist, you say? Oh…. do they read then? I thought they just stopped for a bit once they got too old for Young Adult and then took it up again once they were old enough for the aforementioned thrillers and romance novels. So THEY might be interested in my novel then? Ah, but if it’s not officially age-stamped by a proper publishing genre they might think they’re not allowed to…

    So basically, I’m writing a fairly dark and gritty near-future, sort-of-urban-dystopia, character-centric, slightly sweary novel that’s ‘too old’ of YA and ‘not a thriller or a romance’ for the over-thirties. Pfffftttt, it’s okay, I’ll see myself out… :/

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  24. says

    So true – what about Room? Written from the perspective of a five year old boy. Seriously, we humans just love stories about other humans and it really doesn’t matter about the age of the main character!

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