One of the best pieces of advice I received when I was trying to find a home for my first novel came from an agent. She suggested that I not be afraid to try writing a genre western. As I had been writing short stories, articles, reviews, and poems for several years and was taking a big step toward book-length fiction, I was hesitant to try a second novel if my first one wasn’t going anywhere. But with her encouragement, I went to work on an idea for a traditional western. It took me a couple of years, in and around the shorter things I was writing, in addition to my full-time teaching position, but I ended up with a western novel.
When I wrote to the agent to ask if she was interested, she told me she had had to give up agenting because she wasn’t making enough money and had to find another line of work. She wished me well, and I still appreciate her good will and good advice.
Other writers have seconded this advice. I remember more than one person in Wyoming Writers, people who were further along in the journey than I was, who told me that an agent or an editor wanted to know where to put a manuscript—what to call it, how to perceive it, how to present it to the world. On my own, I figured it was not a good idea to call a story something that it wasn’t (for example, my first novel, a contemporary story about a hunting guide, was not men’s adventure, even though the protagonist was a man who had adventures).
Finding a publisher for my western took me a couple of years more, but I ended up with a nice hardcover publisher in New York who published three of my traditional westerns before the owners canceled their western line. I worked with a good editor who was willing to consider original story lines rather than the usual gunfights, stagecoach robberies, and Indian battles. I came to understand that even if a person wanted to try something different, he or she had to fulfill the expectations of the genre. In other words, if something was going to be marketed as a western, it had to have some of the recognizable characteristics, not only in subject matter but also in story line or structure.
My next publisher was a mass-market paperback company, and again I had the good fortune to work with an editor who was willing to try something different while staying within the general lines of the genre. From the beginning, my westerns often had an element of mystery, so I continued to write in that style from time to time. I found myself writing more deliberate crossover stories, which I began to think of as western mysteries, even though they were marketed as westerns with the beloved covers of men and guns and horses. (I also had a love story in almost every novel, but women never appeared on the covers.) I was doing well, with a new western mystery written and under contract, and the next one in progress, when that publisher folded.
In my search for a new publisher, I saw what I had inferred before, which was that even though genre publishers say they want “something different,” most of them want a product that not only is safe, tried, and true, but that also resembles other products in their lines. As I was not writing a lawman series, or a series about a fugitive accused of a crime he did not commit, or thick novels with a plethora of historical details and adverbs, I was disconsolate.
Again through good fortune, I found yet another publisher who was willing to try something a little different. Five Star Publishing was bringing out a new line of Frontier fiction, which meant stories that did not fit neatly into the usual patterns. Furthermore, Five Star was (and still is) interested in Frontier mystery. To date, I have published ten hardcover novels with them—four with a series character who is a sleuth, four standalone amateur detective stories, and two novels for young or new adults. These works are marketed as Frontier fiction (no men and horses on the covers of my works until the most recent one, Great Lonesome), not westerns, but they are reviewed and regarded as westerns.
So the lesson remains. One way to get somewhere as a writer of book-length fiction is to write within a recognizable category or genre. Agents and editors and booksellers know what to do with it. One way to earn distinction is to do something original but to stay within the parameters of the genre, which may or may not be flexible, depending on the editor or publisher. It does seem as if, today, there is interest (especially in smaller publishers) in crossing over between genres such as western and mystery, western and young adult, historical and romance, romance and mystery, and so forth
Perhaps the overarching rule is that genre fiction in general, even when it crosses over, needs to have a strong story line with clearly defined conflict and a definite resolution. During my first half-dozen westerns, I experimented with subdued, non-violent endings, but I found that I wasn’t connecting with the readers as well as I would like, and I wasn’t writing satisfying stories (or at least, once I had done it a few times, I had done it enough). I went to work at writing stories in which the protagonist has to work his way up the chain through a sequence of encounters and, of course, deal with the worst character last. This, for me, has been the biggest lesson and the hardest work.
I am still not at the top of the pyramid, not of western writers, much less fiction writers on a national scale. But I am doing better than I did before I received and followed good advice and figured out a couple of lessons on my own.
I wrote the above commentary a little over two years ago for a Wyoming Writers blog, and I have updated it to share it now.