This week on Mystery Mondays we have Christina Hoag, author of SKIN OF TATTOOS, and GIRL ON THE BRINK. I met Christina through this blog, so it’s pleasure to have her on as a guest. She’ll share her experience about genres and why and author needs to know where their novel fits.
The Importance of Genre
By Christina Hoag
One of those writing clichés tells aspiring authors to “write the book you want to read.” That may be true, but make sure your book fits into an accepted genre or no one else will read it.
As I was writing my noir thriller Skin of Tattoos, I never gave a thought as to what kind of a book it would be, as in what genre it fell into. After all, a good story is a good story, right? Not quite. As I later painfully discovered, genre is critical. It is how publishers market your book. If your book doesn’t fit neatly into a category, they don’t how to sell it and guess what, they won’t buy it.
Luckily, genre didn’t seem to matter in getting a literary agent. After much querying I landed a good agent, after first signing with a bad one. But then the agent had to figure out how to pitch the book. Was it noir, which involves telling an inside crime story from the point of view of the criminal? Well, yes. My novel is set in the gang underworld of Los Angeles and is told in first-person by a gang member protagonist. Or was it a thriller, which involves escalating tension between two characters as they battle over high stakes? That also loosely applied to my book as Mags, the narrator, is in a power and revenge struggle with his rival homeboy Rico for leadership of the gang.
Then there was my style. Amid the gang slang, Spanish phrases and occasional profanity, there was a lot of lyrical prose that wasn’t the usual style for a thriller, plus Mags’s character has an arc. In the end, the agent described it as a “literary thriller.” Although I hadn’t thought of myself as a thriller writer before, I thought that was an accurate enough description and out the book went.
The rejections rolled in. There was high praise for the writing, story elements, originality, and so on but the most pervasive comment was “who would be the audience for this book?” In other words, “literary thriller” wasn’t cutting it, especially coming from an unknown author. My agent consoled me, saying these were rejections based on “business decisions,” which was much better than having the book rejected for story reasons. Still, I saw that my book was too different, too original. I lamented that to my agent, who responded “publishers do want original stuff, but at the same time they want the same stuff. The same, but different.” Not very helpful.
Eventually, she ran out of places to submit and I got my manuscript back, but I wasn’t going to give up on it. I knew it was a good book. Top publishing editors had said so. I just needed to find someone to take a chance on it. I revised it yet again, cutting out about 13,000 words, including stuff that both agents had me add and that I now saw went nowhere. In fact, the additions didn’t make much sense and simply made the manuscript too long.
I sent the tightened version out to small publishers that accepted unagented submissions. The same thing happened. It was praised, but it didn’t fit in their lists. I started to despair then a publisher, Martin Brown Publishing, offered me a contract on it.
Skin of Tattoos finally was released in August and has been well received. Several readers told me the book is “unlike anything I’ve read before.” I take that as a compliment, unfortunately the mainstream publishing industry doesn’t.
I had another genre problem with my second novel, a YA called Girl on the Brink I was calling it a “contemporary romance,” but it’s not a romance because it’s about teen dating violence. Romance novels must have a happy-ever-after ending, which mine does not. But then the genre gods blessed me. I discovered my book did have a built in category: “contemporary social issues.” Since it contains a lot of suspense and escalating tension between the protagonist and the guy she fell for, I also describe it as a “romantic thriller,” which sounds like a less heavy read.
As for my third book, I’m making it a thriller after another discovery: I have to have an author brand because I’m expected to keep writing the same genre to build readership. So although I never set out to write thrillers, that’s now become my brand by default. Moral of the story: Know your genre.
WHO IS CHRISTINA HOAG
Christina Hoag is a former journalist for the Miami Herald and Associated Press who’s been threatened by a murderer, had her laptop searched by Colombian guerrillas and phone tapped in Venezuela, hidden under a car to evade Guatemalan soldiers, posed as a nun to get inside a Caracas jail, interviewed gang members, bank robbers, thieves and thugs in prisons, shantytowns and slums, not to forget billionaires and presidents, some of whom fall into the previous categories. Kirkus Reviews praised Christina as a “talented writer” with a “well crafted debut” in Skin of Tattoos (Martin Brown Publishing, 2016), a gangland thriller. Her YA thriller Girl on the Brink (Fire and Ice, 2016) was named to Suspense Magazine’s Best of 2016 YA list. She also writes nonfiction, co-authoring Peace in the Hood: Working with Gang Members to End the Violence (Turner Publishing, 2014), a groundbreaking book on violence intervention used in several universities. Christina makes her home in Santa Monica and lives on the web at http://www.christinahoag.com.
SKIN OF TATTOOS
Los Angeles homeboy Magdaleno is paroled from prison after serving time on a gun possession frameup by a rival, Rico, who takes over as gang shotcaller in Mags’s absence. Mags promises himself and his Salvadoran immigrant family a fresh start, but he can’t find either the decent job or the respect he craves from his parents and his firefighter brother, who look at him as a disappointment. Moreover, Rico, under pressure to earn money to free the Cyco Lokos’ jailed top leader and eager to exert his authority over his rival-turned-underling, isn’t about to let Mags get out of his reach. Ultimately, Mags’s desire for revenge and respect pushes him to make a decision that ensnares him in a world seeded with deceit and betrayal, where the only escape from rules that carry a heavy price for transgression is sacrifice of everything – and everyone – he loves.
GIRL ON THE BRINK
He was perfect. At first. The summer before senior year, Chloe starts an internship as a reporter at a local newspaper. While on assignment, she meets Kieran, a quirky aspiring actor. Chloe becomes smitten with Kieran’s charisma and his ability to soothe her soul, torn over her parents’ impending divorce. But as their bond deepens, Kieran becomes smothering and flies into terrifying rages. He confides in Chloe that he suffered a traumatic childhood, and Chloe is moved to help him. If only he could be healed, she thinks, their relationship would be perfect. But her efforts backfire, and Kieran turns violent. Chloe breaks up with him, but Kieran pursues her relentlessly to make up. Chloe must make the heartrending choice between saving herself or saving Kieran, until Kieran’s mission of remorse turns into a quest for revenge.