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When You Outgrow Your Genre: Tips From a Romance-Turned-Literary Novelist

After writing romance novels that sold over half a million copies, Anna Schmidt wanted to break away from genre fiction to write literary fiction. Here's what she learned from making the switch.

After writing romance novels that sold over half a million copies, Anna Schmidt wanted to break away from genre fiction to write literary fiction. Here's what she learned from making the switch.

Anna Schmidt The Winterkeeper

The level of success I’ve had as an author is something I never could have imagined at the start of my career: I sold over 500,000 copies of my romance works to a loyal fanbase. My work has received top reviews and has been a finalist four times for the coveted RITA award presented by the Romance Writers of America. There have been other awards as well, but nothing I treasure more than the letters and e-mails I’ve received over the years from readers who have been touched by my stories.

And yet, there came a time when I felt stuck. I knew I had bigger stories to tell, some of which had been simmering for years, and all of which were more complex than the genre fiction work I had been doing for my then-publisher. But how could I get these stories out into the light of day? How could I pivot, and how difficult would that process be?

The answer: very difficult.

Sometimes I found that there were alternative niches in the system that I could burrow into. For instance, I was fortunate to find an editor in the “inspirational” market who gave me the freedom to test the waters. My WWII series—The Peacemaker Trilogy—and a more contemporary series about Florida Mennonites—The Women of Pinecraft—were both published by Barbour. Both series required in-depth research and intricacies that aren’t usually expected in the world of genre fiction. Having proven myself, I believed I could go to other genre publishers, show them this growth, and they would give me my shot.

It didn’t happen. Publishing is a business. Publishing novels for the legion of romance readers out there is BIG business. It was not a matter of whether or not I could tell a larger story; it was a matter of what might sell. Having worked in the corporate world for several years, I understood that. I didn’t have to like it, but I knew you can’t mess with success. And my success was in the genre market. The bottom line is that publishers want what has been proven to sell, and they aren’t in the business of gambling.

Within the same stretch of time, something far more impactful happened: I suffered the death of my husband—the love of my life. This loss made moving away from romance fiction feel vital. I quickly became impatient with my heroines and their naive views on love and romance. Sometimes I would be writing a scene in dialogue with my heroine, and I would think, Love is so much more (and so much more work) than romance! I wanted her to understand what the long-haul meant. How much beauty and pain is contained in living the whole love story, not just the first part. I wanted to write about what ‘happily-ever-after’ truly means and what it takes to get there.

I was stranded in limbo with characters and plots swimming around in my head. But I was determined to move forward. I had a story that I wanted—needed—to tell and decided to follow the advice I often offer new writers attending my workshops: The only reason to write is because you can’t NOT write. If you find yourself in a similar position, hitting walls while trying to reimagine yourself as a writer and storyteller, here are some tips that may help you navigate the journey:

Publishers love a good story as much as anyone, BUT they are beholden to shareholders and employees who rely on them to keep an eye on that bottom line. You know yourself as a writer. You know your capabilities, and perhaps most importantly, only you know what you really thirst to write and can write. So first, ask yourself why anyone—publisher, editor, reader—should care about this story. What is unique about it? What else out there is like it? (You need the answer to both questions before pitching the idea to an editor.) You are asking them to make a substantial investment in your idea—in you. It takes more than just writing a good book to persuade them to make that transition with you.

Be prepared to write the entire book without any promises. A pitch or proposal isn’t going to cut it when you’re trying to warm the right people up to what they see as a whole new writing venture for you. You’ll need to show not tell that you have what it takes to write this story—to deliver the goods of memorable characters engaged in a page-turning plot. Returning to the mentality of singing for supper can be hard for some writers, so consider whether or not you’re willing to revert to this way of life (and all of its uncertainties) before you take the leap.

You may have to start over entirely. As mentioned in the point above, if you’ve been in your pigeonhole for the better part of your career, people may have a tough time digesting the switch— publishers and readers alike. This can spell “reincarnation” or it could be a major hassle depending on your mindset. My name carries some weight with readers of romance fiction, but would those readers follow me to something new? Something different? Even my work in the inspirational market—stories that were closer to the ‘big book’ novel I wanted to write—didn’t have the crossover of readers one would hope for, and didn’t give me any legs during publication attempts.

Open your mind to self-publishing. If you have been traditionally published for years, self-publishing can seem like an unappetizing option. Some even still think of it as a step down. But in this day and age, the gap between traditional and self-published books is closing. Just don’t forget: in self-publishing the key word is self. You do everything or else you hire people to do things like editing, marketing, uploading, cover design, etc. This can be a hassle depending on how web literate you are and how deep (or shallow) your rolodex of editors is.

Self-publishing took me several months—and failed attempts—to conquer the learning curve. But here I am, published and happy. My novel—the one I wanted to write—The Winterkeeper released this April. Just as I published The Winterkeeper, I was finishing revisions on the final story of my romance series, Harvey Girls and Cowboys, which have both been published since.

And that’s when I realized I don’t have to choose between traditional or self-publishing, between being a literary fiction author or writing genre fiction. If I have a story to tell, there are paths for telling it. In a few weeks, I’ll be at a conference, pitching the idea for my next big project to an editor at the house where my romance novels currently reside. She may love it or not. She may ask to see a proposal—or not. But now I have options. You see, the publisher is not the only one running a business here. So am I—and so are you.

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