Pub Rants

New York State of Mind

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STATUS: It’s really late here in New York and I have to say I’m a little tired so I’ll make this short.

What song is playing on the iPod right now? Poor little iPod is lonely in Denver

And yes, I’ll get back to Agenting 101—hopefully tomorrow—but right now my brain is too tired to concentrate on explaining option clauses.

I did, however, go to a lovely dinner with St. Martin’s editor Nichole Argyres at Ocean Grill on Columbus Ave. on the Upper West Side.

Of course we got to talking about women’s fiction (as we are wont to do).

Needless to say, we are both big Jodi Picoult lovers and if I could find a new writer that had the same level of mastery in terms of characters and emotional intensity, I would snatch that person up (as would Nichole if I sent her such a submission).

We both agreed that what we’d been seeing way too much of is this tired storyline: woman in her early 40s gets a divorce (and her husband invariably has found a younger woman—as if 43 is old or something) and then must discover who she really is. Usually two kids are involved.

I know this is an important event that women in their 40s often face but darn if I have trouble suppressing a yawn when I read queries for this plot scenario or even if I see sample pages.

Rarely is the material handled in a fresh or engaging way. The tone is usually serious and full of angst (and basically overly dramatic).

I want a women’s fiction novel that grabs a hold, forces me to keep reading, and won’t let go until I finish. It has that level of emotional realism and intensity. I feel that way about every Jodi Picoult book I’ve read.

When I find a debut from a new writer that does the same, I’d sign that person tomorrow.

29 Responses

  1. Bernita said:

    Wish you wanted one where the 40-something widow gets involved in time travel, terrorists and temptation….
    Wait – that’s not women’s fiction – that’s romantic adventure.
    Never mind.

  2. Ryan Field said:

    Does women’s fiction always have to involve a 40-something, mid-life, struggle type of thing? As a gay man, and writer, I’ve always wondered what it would be like to portray a female charater with the same instincts as a gay man. A strong woman who likes sex, uses (in the nicest way possible)men to satisfy her needs and only becomes emotionally involved when it’s absolutely necessary. I believe the question in fiction should always be, “What if?” Not “Guess what really happened?” It’s been done to a certain extent, but never fully realized…from what I’ve read. Maybe a female John Irving character, but as the protagonist in her own women’s fiction.

  3. Wesley Smith said:

    We both agreed that what we’d been seeing way too much of is this tired storyline: woman in her early 40s gets a divorce (and her husband invariably has found a younger woman—as if 43 is old or something) and then must discover who she really is. Usually two kids are involved.

    What if she went on a psychotic killing spree? That’d be different, wouldn’t it?

  4. Amie Stuart said:

    You know I remember in my early early 30’s *sob* writing a story about a woman who was 42 (whose hubby left her–sue me lol) and STILL THINKING “God 40 is so old!”

    *sob* Many years later, writing 40 year olds ain’t what it used to be.

  5. Anonymous said:

    Now I know why I’ll never get published. I picked up a Jodi Picoult novel and got through two chapters before I gave up. If that’s what publishers are looking for, I can see why I rarely buy new books.

  6. Kanani said:

    40 is the new 20. Depressing. Does this mean we go back to the days of ramen noodles and beach chairs in the living room?

    Real life: The 47 year old woman with two kids and a dumpy husband decides that it is what it is. She takes a look at their 401 k , their house and decide wow… I like living here. So she keeps them all, lets them do their thing, while she goes out and finds whatever it is that floats her boat. Baggage and all, she finds it.

  7. farrout said:

    Your post, Kristin, brought to mind a conundrum. . .one related to all genres of writing. I’m going out on a limb here, but i would say that agents reject original-story voices as often as tired-theme voices, and for similar market-demand reasons. Anyone else perceive this conundrm?

  8. Elizabeth Byler Younts said:

    I’m a huge Jodi P fan. I think she’s not only a great writer but I heard she was rejected by 100 agents before she got signed. That is perseverance! I hope the journey isn’t that daunting for me but I am stacking up some rejections though! But her story should give us all hope…and look how many bestsellers she’s had. I wonder what the agents who said “no” are thinking now? It’s a curiousity.

  9. Sasha said:

    Question: Does women’s fiction always have to be about women in their forties or over? I’m thinking Fried Green Tomatoes and Shirley Valentine.

    20’s is chick-lit and 40’s are women’s lit. So what about women who are thirty?

    I guess they shrivel and die b/c no one writes about them. Better search the obits.


  10. Anonymous said:

    Ryan…. yes, there are real live women out there who pursue sensual pleasures as men do –gay or straight. The problem in writing is that all too often the writer decides that somehow the woman is ‘lost,’ is impure and has to be redeemend somehow. She becomes two-dimensional, the third dimension taken out by puritanism.

    But we know it’s not like that. I can’t tell you how many of my friends –both male and female have had affairs yet are committed to their marriage and cihldren; or how many singletons have sex-on-call with a buddy just for that. And they’re all decent people, and our friendships are strong. But the problem is that everyone is all too willing to label everything good or bad.

    So if you’re going to do that, go for it. But whether or not the character sleeps around, you’re going to have to make her and her circumstances compelling. She’ll have to be human above all else.

  11. Shanna Swendson said:

    Sasha, 30s is chick lit, too. It’s often forgotten, since a lot of the publishers did rush to find books about 20-somethings, but Bridget Jones herself was a thirtysomething singleton, as were most of the Sex and the City gals. There are plenty of chick lit books about women in their 30s.

    The difference between “chick lit” and “women’s fiction” tends to come in tone and subject matter. “Chick lit” can be about almost any age, but it has a lighter take on the subject matter and more attitude in the voice.

  12. Carolina Black said:

    hi, I’m not in the forty somethings but I am a fresh female writer. I have actually found a place that would host a poem or short story reading night if you or any of your writer friends are interested. If anyone is interested, just visit for more information. Maybe you would be interested or maybe you would just want to read my stuff. I am still working up the nerve to post my writings on my new blogspot. Well, hope to hear from you. -Carolina

  13. wrong reader said:

    I tried the first few pages of a Jodi Picoult novel and thought it the most depressing thing I’d ever read. Written in present tense, no less. Definitely not for me.

  14. Kristin said:

    I love the first Jodi Picoult book I read, then I picked up another…it was just too much. More depressing, sad lives with no happy ending in sight. Not even a slight bit of hope…I think she does write great characters and has a very literary style to her books. But why does every book have to be a weep fest?

  15. Anonymous said:

    Jodi P. is an amazing storyteller, however, she does write about the “dark side” of things. Alice Hoffman is my hero! In my opinion, chick lit doesn’t appeal to 30-somethings in the “real world” who are embroiled in life with young children. “The Devil Wears Prada” doesn’t interest women anywhere but in NY where women supposedly wear designer clothes and shoes to walk their dogs. Most of the women I know are “normal” girls who are just trying to get through the day with their marriage and family intact, and there is nothing wrong with that. As my dad told me once, “There is more to life than love poetry.” I am just getting that now that I am 36 yo with 3 kiddos and trying to write from “fresh perpectives.” Who knows. “Different strokes for different folks.” We need to pay attention to the HINT that Kristin is throwing us!

  16. Manic Mom said:

    What about Elizabeth Berg novels? Do you like them?

    This is great info Kristin; please share everything you know/learn about what the publishers and editors want!

    Thanks! And get some rest! LOL.

  17. Atyllah said:

    Needs to be like this: 40 year old woman dumps husband, thrives on midlife reawakening (though some call it a crisis), has near-death experience, smashes all conventions, discovers the meaning of life and emerges from the cocoon a new a vibrant being.

  18. Anonymous said:

    Rarely is the material handled in a fresh or engaging way. The tone is usually serious and full of angst (and basically overly dramatic)…. I want a women’s fiction novel that grabs a hold, forces me to keep reading, and won’t let go until I finish. It has that level of emotional realism and intensity.

    So what if the new writer (and a mentor who is a published author) thinks his story fits this description, yet he gets a quick rejection on the query? How does the writer know whether (a) the query didn’t do its job, (b) the agent doesn’t think men can write women’s fiction, or (c) he’s fooling himself and it’s really not as good as he thinks?

  19. Anonymous said:

    I am 41, married, and an avid reader of women’s fiction. I love the works of Jodi Picoult, Anita Shreve, Jane Hamilton, Barbara Kingsolver and the like. I do, however, think there is room on the shelves for more writers with a lighter approach to fiction. Anne Tyler and Anne Lamott, for example, come to mind. Divorce may, from the publishing industry’s perspective, be a tired storyline. I know however that nothing gets my book club off topic faster than local break-up gossip. We like to talk about it. We like to wonder about it. And we like to read about it.

  20. Slapper said:

    I have a very hard time buying into female mid life crises. And I’m a female in her 40’s who has a lot of demands made of both time and abilities.

    Why does ‘growing up’ and becoming less self centered have to be termed as ‘mid life’ crises? The choice to change your life can come at any time, but more people evolve over time. The hoary belief that one has to ditch everything and remake oneself like in a Hollywood movie is pathetically small minded.

    It seems to me to be a western , upper middle class, well educated women’s construct. Something to cry “victim” for because they haven’t slogged through really serious issues that women in third world countries have every day.

    Yes, I agree. A big yawn.

  21. Ryan Field said:

    Thanks for the comments, anon. When I write erotica, which is usually well received and almost always sold and published (to my surprise)I don’t hold back; the readers (and editors) want that. But mainstream is very different. I think computer technology will change this in the future. We, as readers and writers, won’t be subjected to the taste of a handful of agents and editors, who for the most part are awfully dull people. We can pick and choose through the e-slush pile and see what suits our own tastes. (everyone try to read agent Joni Evans letter to the editor in the NYT book review last week; where she politely attacks John Updike for knocking e-publishing).

  22. witliz said:

    Here I am Kristin! You wanna stop by my house tomorrow? I’m only 200 mi from NYC. My brother lives in Denver, will that give me a leg up?

    Better grab me, before I head over to Miss Snark! lol

    Seriously, there does seem to be a lack of what I call steak and potato kind of books.

    I think the thing that gets to me most is that there are so many people who love to write, and have great ideas. They have the discipline, the drive and the creative ideas to sit and write, but they can’t get published, or they’re put through the grinder when they finally do get published.

    To me that’s an issue that needs to be addressed.

    Agents could possibly get more involved in seeking out newbie writers that they feel have a chance to produce quality work they can sell. They could work with them from the ground up, polish them to silver and let them loose on the world. Too often I see mentoring by authors, perhaps its time more agents get nvolved in this area.

    Of course I could be FOS too, but I’d love to see newbie writers from all genre’s given a better chance than they are being given right now.

  23. Molly said:

    “The Devil Wears Prada” doesn’t interest women anywhere but in NY where women supposedly wear designer clothes and shoes to walk their dogs.

    And yet somehow it became a huge national bestseller and sold millions of copies before being made into a hit movie.

    Yes, obviously chick lit hardly interests anybody.

  24. Ryan Field said:

    Interesting, ANAON @9:10 puts Anne Tyler in with women’s fiction, and considers her (Tyler’s)fiction light. Now that is a classic, subjective opinion. Anne Tyler’s fiction is taught as literature in Universities (while working on my BA I took one of these courses). Though she’s mastered her craft, and her style is tight, I doubt anything Anne Tyler has ever written could be considered light fiction. I re-read the comment five times to see if I missed something. I don’t know many fiction writer’s who have won a publizter (BREATHING LESSONS, Anne Tyler) that are considered writers with a “lighter approach.” Maybe I’ve been missing something about Anne Tyler all these years.

  25. Anonymous said:

    In response to Ryan’s comments regarding Anne Tyler – anon @9:10 follows up. You are correct, reading is a subjective activity. We filter every page through our own experience. I want to state that I meant absolutely no disrespect to Anne Tyler. She is literary. Her work is literature. It sounds as if Ryan would classify women’s fiction apart from literary. I would not. I think women’s fiction has many subcategories.
    At any rate, I was thinking specifically of Accidental Tourist, which was lol in my opinion. Tyler is a master at taking a common storyline (divorce after death of child) and infusing it with poignancy and funny, quirky, memorable characters. Jodi Picoult is a highly gifted writer and I am transported by her writing. She has however never made me laugh. Sometimes I like a book to lighten up at times.

  26. Ryan Field said:

    In response to ANON @ 9:10…I truly enjoy almost all fiction, from women’s commercial to literary (though sci-fi isn’t topping my list, I have enojyed some)but this is why there are genres, with clearly defined lines. I do know there’s difference between commercial women’s fiction and literary fiction about women. And, there is a difference. I’m not commenting about taste or feelings or subjectivity here; just fact.

  27. Anonymous said:

    anon@9:10 replies, again, to Ryan. I maintain that women’s fiction is an umbrella term that can encompass many forms of writing, including literary fiction. In fact, I am pasting below a description of women’s fiction from the website (,subcat-INDUSTRY.html) that includes Anne Tyler as an example of women’s fiction writers. Again, the words below were copied, they are not my own.

    Women’s fiction

    It’s common knowledge in the publishing industry that women constitute the biggest book-buying segment. So, it’s certainly no accident that most mainstream as well as genre fiction is popular among women. For that reason, publishers and booksellers have identified a category within the mainstream that they classify as Women’s Fiction. And its no surprise that virtually all the selections of Oprah’s Book Club are in this genre.

    From a writer’s perspective, some key characteristics of these books include a focus on relationships, one or more strong female protagonists, women triumphing over unbearable circumstances, and the experiences of women unified in some way. The field includes such diverse writers as Barbara Taylor Bradford, Anne Rivers Siddons, Alice McDermott, Judith Krantz, Anne Tyler, Rebecca Wells, and Alice Hoffman.

  28. Ryan Field said:

    Well, ANON 9:10, I guess that’s called “Thinking outside of the box.” I could probably find a hundred other definitions to argue the point (one I once read, by a literary agency, said, “We’re looking for women’s fiction riding that thin line of literary”), but I won’t. You seem convinced and that’s all that matters.