Ask five people for their definition of “Women’s Fiction,” and you’ll get varying definitions from each one. As one of the founding members of the Women’s Fiction Writers Association, I’ve been through countless attempts at nailing down a definition that’s broad enough to encompass all of the subtleties of the genre without being so broad that it loses its impact. Each exercise leads us a step closer until someone raises a “but what about …” question and then we’re right back where we started.
To me, that very head-scratching aspect of the genre is what makes it so special. Women’s fiction can be literary or commercial; it can be historical or contemporary; it can be mainstream or inspirational; it can have elements of magical realism, mystery, romance, thriller; they can be light reads or heart-wrenching dramas; but at its core, all women’s fiction is about relationships – whether between a couple, family, friends, or co-workers – and the emotional journey of the main character.
Women’s fiction is issue driven. The books address topics people deal with in their everyday lives – family dysfunction, divorce, infidelity, parenting, mid-life crisis, identity crisis, career changes, illness, mental illness, suicide, death, abandonment, to name just a few. The stories touch readers, make them feel and think, hope and dream. They’ll see parts of themselves in the characters and, hopefully, walk away feeling transformed in some way.
Women’s Fiction as a Label
There’s been an ongoing debate within the writing and publishing community about using the term “women’s fiction.” Why label “women’s” fiction when there isn’t such a thing as “men’s” fiction? If you go to a brick-and-mortar bookstore, you won’t find a section for women’s fiction. Those books are shelved within the general fiction stacks. If you shop online, you will find a women’s fiction category, although I’m always slightly amused by the books categorized under that label as well as those that don’t show up.
So why do we even need the label? As writers, we need it to know who we’re writing for and how to market our books.
I know, I know … you want to write what the muse tells you to write. Absolutely. Except that you probably also want to sell what you write. Luckily these days, there are more options for publishing and finding readers. That means books that mix-and-match-and-morph multiple genres have a platform. But for those writers who are still looking to go down the traditional path, agents and publishers will generally look for a book that fits within set genre boundaries.
When you query an agent, they’re looking at where you see your story fitting in the crowded marketplace. Those genre labels then help the agents identify the right editor to submit your work to. And those editors who buy your manuscript will be able to more effectively market your book.
Even if you’re self-publishing, you need to know how to market your book. The genre will largely dictate your cover options, the language you choose for your back-cover copy, and the places you target to reach your desired audience.
That’s not to say that genre-straddling books don’t sell. I know many authors who’ve written brilliant novels that don’t cleanly fit under one label. But there’s almost always one label that they fit under a bit more than the others.
As a writer, I don’t hesitate to tell other writers or agents or anyone in the industry that I write women’s fiction. My books address the real-life challenges all of us deal with. They mostly appeal to women, and I’m good with that. It helps me focus my stories and narrows down my target market.
The kicker is when I talk to readers. Most give me a funny look and ask what I mean – “like romance?” is their usual follow up question. For that audience, I usually add that my books are “family and friendship dramas, books about issues we deal with in everyday life.”
Women’s Fiction as a Writing Home
When I first started writing, I struggled finding the right resources to help expand my craft. I joined several writer’s groups and associations and while each one had something helpful, none addressed how to get to the core of the conflict that my characters were dealing with.
It wasn’t until I met a group of women’s fiction writers that I finally realized what had been missing for me – a tribe of writers who understand what I’m writing and who are facing the same challenges.
In 2013, a handful of women’s fiction writers came together with the belief that every writer needs a tribe and every genre needs a champion. That’s the foundation that we built the Women’s Fiction Writers Association (WFWA) on. It’s what keeps us questioning whether we have the clearest definition for the genre and how we can best support the writers and the books that fall under that umbrella.
I learned a lot about the structure of a story, about story arcs, author platforms, pitching and querying, in the other groups I belonged to. But it wasn’t until I started interacting with women’s fiction authors and taking workshops with presenters who understand the nuances of this genre, that I was able to fully grasp how to mine the emotional depth of the characters and tug at the emotional heartstrings of the reader.
Four years after it was launched, WFWA is 1,000 members strong and offers resources that are uniquely tailored to this genre. It’s a fabulous community of writers who understand and appreciate the crazy ups and downs that accompany writing, rewriting, rewriting again; the querying and submission phases; and the glory and heartbreak of reviews. It’s a safe place to discuss those writerly mood swings that baffle our families and friends.
I credit the WFWA community for getting me from fledgling writer to published author. Through the process of launching the association, I learned that I can push myself out of my comfort zone and survive. Not just survive, but thrive. And through daily interaction with members, I learned that with perseverance anything is possible.
Are we any closer to a solid definition for women’s fiction? Probably not. A few months ago, I was at a conference and participated on a panel about women’s fiction. The introduction defined it as books for women. The following discussion showed how much more complex the genre actually is.
But I think the one thing all of us on that panel and within WFWA and any other women’s fiction author can agree on, is that our books are written for people like us.
I enjoy books in many different genres, but I admit to mostly reading women’s fiction. As an ambassador for the genre, I appreciate being able to de-mystify what the label means and introduce readers to new (or new to them) women’s fiction authors. And I love hearing from readers that a novel helped them get through a difficult stage in their lives. That’s why we write women’s fiction.
with guest Orly Konig.
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