There are a number of cardinal rules for lesfic authors. Chief among these: never kill a puppy, be nice to small children, and always include a bit of romance. The rules might have various origins (the readers, the editors, the publishing houses, the authors themselves), but woe betide anyone who fails to abide by them.
I know that every reader – myself included – brings expectations to a book. My expectations are formed in numerous ways: by the cover, the blurb, the marketing, the genre, and my knowledge of the author’s previous work. For some readers of lesfic, though, the belief that each and every novel in this field should feature a romantic plotline seems to supersede everything else, no matter what the genre or the other related gubbins might say. Authors who stray beyond this narrow bracket run a genuine risk of poor sales and poor reviews, which probably explains why romances rule the lesfic roost and why publishers advise authors to hint at the romantic elements of their novels in the blurb and advertising, regardless of the actual genre. Like any other business, the demand forms and defines the supply, but in this business I worry that it’s also stifling creative growth and variety, as authors who step outside of their readers’ comfort zone may find themselves shoved back into it when those readers desert them and their sales fall.
My first couple of novels (Snowbound and Desolation Point) toed the line. Sort of. They probably contained more death and graphic bloodshed than the average lesfic, but they were classified as “Romantic Intrigue” and they followed the traditional formula of Girl + Girl -> have an adventure -> fight off a few bad guys -> fall in love = Happy Ever After. They weren’t romantic enough for some readers – it’s hard to go on a date or make smoochy eyes when the bullets are flying – but by and large the requisite boxes got ticked, and most people were happy.
Tumbledown came next, a sequel to Desolation Point that I was never supposed to write and that was tricky to categorise. It wasn’t a romance, because its protagonists were already a couple, but it ended up being called one anyway, and readers seemed to like it for what it was: a crime thriller with a rock-steady established relationship at its heart. That book signalled a change for me, a step away from Girl + Girl = HEA, and a step toward the crime genre. Frustrated by the limits of a standalone novel, I started to think in terms of a police procedural series, where a single case would shape the A-plot, and the characters would prop up the B.
So for my latest novel, No Good Reason, I created two leads – Sanne and Meg – who’ve been best friends since childhood and who occasionally sleep together. As this was the first in a series, I didn’t wrap it all up with a HEA, nor did I make their relationship the be-all and end-all of the book: the investigation of a kidnapping forms the bulk of the plot. Somewhere in the process of doing all that, though, I broke a couple of those aforementioned lesfic rules. See, Meg and San aren’t strangers who fall in love at the drop of a hat. They’re mates who take the piss out of each other, date other people, and fail to acknowledge that they’d make an ideal couple, because they’re terrified of mucking up what they already have. Bearing this in mind, I asked that the book be categorised and marketed as “Crime” rather than “Romance” or “Romantic Intrigue”, so that readers would be under no illusions about its genre. Then I simply wrote Sanne and Meg as I wanted to write them: funny, sarky, and comfortable together, with a wealth of background and shared experiences that I could draw on to give the characters more depth.
I’ll hold my hands up and admit I was expecting to take some flak for No Good Reason. It’s written in the broadest of northern British, replete with slang, swearing, and colloquialisms (and god love Bold Strokes Books for having the balls to leave all of that alone); its pace is more measured than my previous books; the crime around which its investigation revolves is a brutal one; and – most shockingly of all – no one owns a pet, unless you count Sanne’s shithead of a rooster, which I don’t. A few months post-release, and I seem to have got away with most of this. The advent of e-readers leaves little that can’t be translated, and Google is good for the rest. A deliberate avoidance of graphic detail has made the crime bearable, and the lack of cute fluffy things hasn’t even raised an eyebrow. Meg and San, however – now they have stirred up a bit of strife.
Some readers have got them and got the book – got it all so utterly that they made writing it worthwhile – but others less so. And while I’m not arrogant enough to expect romance fans to hop over to crime (or any other genre) just because I felt an itch to broaden my authorly horizons, I would hope that those readers who did follow me across might check their preconceptions at the door and judge these books for what they are, rather than by some pre-established definition too narrow to apply to every entrant. Lesfic may be synonymous with the romance genre, but I’m all for authors who want to challenge the status quo, reshape people’s expectations, and step outside of the norm. Please invest in a pair of Kevlar undies and carry on.