What Do You Write?

Hi, my name is Caren and I’m a Taurus. I know that because zodiac signs have dates that define them and my birthday is mid-May. I could also tell you, if asked, my marital status, political party affiliation and religious preference. All those things have boundaries, definitions and rules. But here a question that stumped me for years: What do you write?

When I joined RWA, this was the first thing other writers wanted to know. Initially, I didn’t know paranormal from mainstream or historical from inspirational. After listening and studying the romance genre, I learned the subtleties of long versus short contemporary and the hairsbreadth separating erotica and romantica. Still, the question haunted me: What do you write?

Oddly, once I found out that I was supposed to know what I was writing, I couldn’t write anymore. The pressure to categorize my work froze my muse in her tracks. Writing went from effortless bliss to doubt-ridden agony. What was I writing? Was it marketable? Was the market saturated, dying, dead? Was it hooky?

My first manuscript, written in blind ignorance, was sheer delight. It was a story about a girl who worked at Wal-Mart, had only “online” friends, was obsessed with the TV show “Highlander” and learned sword fighting from a con man in a self-storage facility. It was hilarious–and completely unmarketable. My second manuscript (and first romance) was a time travel set in the early 1500s with a modern-day art curator heroine and a 16th-century hero who was a sculptor and inventor. Clever, funny, compelling–and completely unmarketable.

I learned. My next couple of manuscripts were long contemporary category romances cleverly targeted toward a specific publisher and line. They had hooks, urban settings and witty dialogue. They also had heroines who were, according to my critique partners, “too strong” for category. Editors and agents confirmed that, indeed, I was probably not a category writer. So all that time, effort and learning had only taught me what I did not write.

At that point, I admit to being greatly discouraged. I had four books (and dozens of ideas and at least one partial) in a drawer that would never see the light of day. Casts of characters I loved, great settings, dazzling dialogue and plots I had agonized over. All turned into reams of liners for the bird cage. And still, I couldn’t answer the question: What do you write?

I thought. I studied. I prayed for an epiphany. Write what you know. For some reason, that oft-repeated phrase kept percolating to the surface of my mind. Write what you know. But what did I know? Nothing interesting–or so I thought. Then I wondered, what do women like me know? Suburban, professional, married women with children. Well, I knew about raising smart kids with sassy mouths. I knew about divorce, from having lived through those of my parents, grandparents, sister and friends. I knew about being a single parent. I knew about falling in love. I also knew a lot about making unpopular decisions and having to defend them to family, friends and community.

If I knew those things, surely other women like me knew them, too. If those things interested me, maybe they would interest women like me. Maybe even a few who were not like me. So I wrote a book about those things. A good book. One I am proud of. One that made it to a senior editor’s desk and the Golden Heart finals.

I figured out what made that book so different for me. It was fun. Fun! Remember sitting down to write and being excited about it? It was still hard, like all books are, but it made me happy. I’ve written a couple more since then. I am not sorry I wrote those four books that will never sell. I had to write them. I had to learn what I do not write to figure out what I do write. I write Lady Lit, or as I like to call it “Chick Lit for older chicks”. It is not what I planned to write, but it’s where I have ended up.

So, please don’t be discouraged if you don’t know what you write. Not knowing is a great place to be. You have a world of possibility open to you. Keep writing. Try things. Test the waters. Read books, go to workshops, take classes. Listen and learn. And write, write, write. One day, you will craft something that resonates in your soul. Something that brings you joy. Then, instead of living in fear of the dreaded question, you will know just what to answer when someone asks: What do you write?

And if you, like me, end up with a drawer full of “unmarketable” manuscripts, do not throw them out. Someday, there may be a place for sword-fighting Wal-Mart clerks or 16th century inventor-sculptors. Then, when the market has shifted yet again and editors and agents are desperate to find a book just like yours, you can smile and say, “I write that.”