Pub Rants

4 Is The Number And The Number Shall Be 4

 29 Comments |  Share This:    

STATUS: It’s going to be working weekend as I catch up on some client reading.

What’s playing on the iPod right now? LIGHTNING CRASHES by Live

This is more of an observation than a rant per se because there really isn’t anything wrong with doing or having this. It’s just sometimes when a query element is repeated often enough, it can become a cliché, and I don’t think there is any way for a writer to know this to be true unless I mention it on the blog.

Or maybe I should state it this way. If you are an African American writer tackling women’s fiction, you don’t have to write a novel about four girlfriends with intertwined lives.

Seriously, you really don’t have to. I know that WAITING TO EXHALE was an enormous and powerful book that really broke open this market (and for those of you who have been living under a rock and don’t know, this novel is about “four 30ish black women bound together by warm, supportive friendship and by their dwindling hopes of finding Mr. Right” (Publishers Weekly).

I have to say that for the last several months, Sara and I have not seen a query for African American women’s fiction that wasn’t about four girlfriends. Nary a one.

And we’d really like to. This is a market with plenty of room to grow. We’d love to see more African American women’s fiction but we don’t want to see a reinvention of EXHALE (which unfortunately the emphasis on 4 tends to create).

So, just an observation. It’s not like we are going to say NO to a query just because it’s about 4 girlfriends but it might make us pause and hesitate to say “yes”—and that’s never what you want an agent to be doing.

29 Responses

  1. Chumplet said:

    Note to self: Think twice before submitting The Toast Bitches to Kristin.

    Not to worry; it isn’t written yet, so there’s time to add a fifth ‘bitch’.

  2. Serenissima said:

    Dang! Four seems to be such a nice number of friends to write about.

    Sex in the City
    Desperate Housewives (Edie’s not really one of the gang)
    Sisterhood of the Traveling Pants
    Stand by Me

    …my WIP

    Thanks for the heads up!

  3. Angela said:

    Well Kristen, it’s all fine and dandy to say this, but the reality that black writers face is that Waiting to Exhale has been the only black-authored women’s fiction book that reached mainstream prominence, and was high-profile enough to get a movie adaptation.

    The audience for black-authored women’s fiction/romance/chick-lit is very small due to a combination of things(non-blacks don’t read them; the books are only marketed to blacks; the books are rarely stocked as frequently as their non-black counterparts;etc), so just the way non-black authors will write derivatives of Sex and the City or hop on the paranormal bandwagon to achieve more success than if they did strike out on their own, black authors–and multiply their career worries by 10–feel that same crunch when it comes to this industry.

    In a perfect world perhaps black authors of women’s fiction/romance wouldn’t feel the need to copy Terry McMillan’s success because they would be treated like every other author in their particular genre, but they aren’t so they probably figure they have to do something tried and true to at least get their foot in the door and perhaps even read outside of that “black book niche”.

  4. Tammie said:

    This is funny because as part of HarperCollins First Look program I received Nina Foxx’s No Girl Needs A Husband Seven Days a Week to review and it is 3 african-american ladies It was a great read by the way.

    This one was fast paced, hot and fun but I do have to say I am finding it harder to find pack women stories that keep my interest regardles of race – it seems they are too predictable – maybe it’s just me.

  5. Anonymous said:

    Get ready for the onslaught!!! LOL

    But seriously, as a black woman who grew up on Harlequin and historicals, I love reading books about black women that go beyond the stereotype. I think that’s why Brenda Jackson is appealing. I just want a great love story without all the ‘he did me wrong’ stuff.

  6. Deb said:

    Four is the number that thou shalt count–thou shalt not to three, unless thou passest it to get to four…five is right out.

    Your post prompted me to do thus: go to my WIP and count the number of women characters, including the main.

    What dost mine eye behold? Lo, there are four.

    Four is the number thou must count…

  7. Heather said:

    It’s also popular on television. Many of the black-targeted sitcoms are centered around fours… Girlfriends comes to mind. Lo and behold: four black women.

    One that’s been showing on Fox recently also includes four main characters… two girls, and their mothers.


    Apparently, black women only run in fours. Granted, that goes contrary to my experience, but that’s just weird.

  8. Chumplet said:

    The weird thing is that my WIP is based on a real relationship with 4 remarkable women. We’ve stuck with each other through marriage, children, career changes and divorce. Maybe the magical number 4 occurs through nature, not just fiction.

  9. Staci said:

    I was a little leery about submitting to Kristin before but this post has really turned me off. The “classic four” is a staple of women’s fiction and is not necessarily particular to African-American fiction. Sometimes stories are larger than just a two person perspective, and it’s very rare to find a three woman clique, someone’s always the odd person out. Instead of singling out race, why doesn’t Kristin take issue with the fact that she’s receiving submissions based on a book that’s more than 15 years old. Yes, “Waiting To Exhale” was a powerful book, but trends in women’s fiction have moved forward. If Kristin’s not representing them, I’m sure there were other problems with the submissions other than there being four main characters. I wish this had focused on that rather than making a link to race and an outmoded fiction style.

  10. Precie said:

    My understanding was that Kristin focused specifically on African American women’s fiction because that particular market has “room to grow,” unlike the more general women’s fiction market.

    And, yes, it does seem that women’s fiction leans toward four in general:
    –Divine Secrets of the Ya-Ya Sisterhood
    –The Joy Luck Club (well, 2 generation-based sets of 4)

    I think part of the issue, though, is that just because the number four might be…natural or instinctive or appealing…It’s getting old.

    (I say this knowing full well that one of my WIPs involves 4 women…BUT, she says, they don’t know each other at first…AND, she says, there’s a reason there must be 4 of them. 🙂 )

  11. Julie Korzenko said:

    My interpretation of what Kristen was saying is that if you’re going to write about four African American women — then it had better be fresh, new and not a redone Waiting to Exhale.

    This is true for every genre and is something we, as writers, should never forget.

  12. Merry Jelinek said:

    To me this is an interesting tidbit of information because I think, as authors, we all fall into the trap of mimicking our favorite novels, especially in early works and often without realizing it.

    Someone up there pointed out that four often appear in nature, therefore to keep the story in line with reality it also plays into fiction. But from my vantage point, copying reality precisely doesn’t work it fiction. A lot of things happen in reality that would bore the hell out of me in a story and, as a side note, reality is often too unbelievable to write because it doesn’t follow any rules. Anything can happen in life, but if you use that as an excuse to write anything into your plotline, you’re likely to find an audience that refuses to suspend their belief that far.

    I read a lot of women’s fiction and I’ve found a number of novels that are brilliant with the tried and true four, some named above. On the other hand, I’ve read a lot of relatively entertaining but you forget about them the moment you close the book type of novels with four. The second type generally use four so that they can get one of each stereotypical girlfiend into play (tramp, good girl, well rounded protagonist, ball buster – see Sex and the City) – oh, and most of these either have a gay friend or substitute one girlfriend for the gay guy. Most audiences might enjoy it briefly but unless the writing is brilliant, they won’t take it too seriously or recommend or adore it.

  13. Beth said:

    Staci said: it’s very rare to find a three woman clique, someone’s always the odd person out.

    Which makes it great for fiction, actually. The triangle is a natural for conflict.

  14. Angela said:

    My understanding was that Kristin focused specifically on African American women’s fiction because that particular market has “room to grow,” unlike the more general women’s fiction market.

    But African-American women’s fiction is the general women’s fiction market. That is what I take umbrage with. Kristen’s words imply that she follows the industry’s assumptions that black-authored fiction does is not “general fiction” or “genre fiction”. It’s the “other”. How is there “room to grow” in the market just because the characters are black? Shouldn’t she, as an agent, be an advocate for her potential black clients to be shelved in the genres in which they write?

    Like I stated before: the black-authored women’s fiction market is not pushed to go beyond the stereotype because the industry is just so certain that black readers only like “he did me wrong” type books. And if unpublished writers are told to look at what’s selling and what is selling big (Terry MacMillan), why wouldn’t they copy that formula–just like other unpublished authors follow Regency Historical formulas, or paranormal romance formulas, etc.

    It is not the writers’ faults–it’s the industry that pigeon-holes writers and in this small niche, they’re even more pigeon-holed. It’s so easy to tell an author to go beyond the tried-and-true but if they’re getting rejections when the books don’t fit the mold, the actions are speaking louder than words.

    The industry is flawed, but how can a small niche be criticized when only one author in it has reached mainstream success? Perhaps you should have focused on that and your experience as an agent who does take on African American authors.

  15. Anonymous said:

    I have to agree with Angela. My agent and I decided not to submit my book to a publisher with a known “African American” line so that I wouldn’t be pigeon-holed. It’s taking longer to sell, but I’m willing to wait it out, so that I’m not shoved in that ONE section of the book store not allowing my book to branch out.

    Why aren’t publishers buying more African American fiction outside of the niche? Black writers are only allowed to sell to black readers. This is a problem.

  16. Cheeki said:

    May I venture to ask Agent Kristin her recommendations on the best way to query the first book of a continuing series? How much of the query do you like mentioning the other books and the overal Main plot-line verses the specific plot of book 1 alone?

    is something like this a plus or minus when you read? (from a newbie)

  17. Anonymous said:

    Thanks for the info, Kristin; I love the insights you give us into what works.

    This brings up something I’ve been wondering about. I’m currently sending out queries on a mystery novel. The three main characters are Latino. Other characters in the book are white, black, and Asian. That’s how my world is, so that’s how I write. Should I be mentioning this in my query letters?

  18. Anonymous said:

    For cheeki 1:25 and Anon 2:22 — Kristin doesn’t usually answer questions from the comment trail, so don’t feel bad if you go unanswered.

    Bookends LLC has a blog and they’re pretty good about anwering questions, you might want to give them a try. See their link on the right hand side of this blog under “Agents that Blog.”

  19. Bella Stander said:

    Just after reading this post, I received an ARC for an upcoming novel: FOUR WIVES. Cracked me up.

    Yup, four’s the thing, no matter what race, age, gender, socioeconomic level or sexual orientation. (For the record, this four is white, female, affluent and straight.)

  20. Anonymous said:

    Amen Staci. This is crap on a bunch of different levels. The number 4 is not unique to black women and there are a slew of books by white authors with the same number of friends. There’s another reason Ms. Nelson is turning these books down and it ain’t race related, so I wonder why she’s making it a race issue. I also have news for anyone who thinks being published by a non black publishing house helps you avoid being pigeonholed as a black author: it doesn’t. And it’s not about only selling to black people. If you target everyone you’ll get no one. The success stories are the books that were targeted to the black market and then became cross over successes. The Known World which won a Pulitzer is a very good example. It was published by a black publishing house and that didn’t seem to hurt it. As a matter of fact The Pursuit of Happiness was from the same publishing house and that book was turned into a movie. And then there’s Tavis Smiley’s books which have been all over the bestseller lists.

  21. nyc/caribbean ragazza said:

    hmm, my manuscript is in the first person but my protagonist has three good friends then moves overseas where she meets three expats. I didn’t even think about Waiting or SATC. Groups of four just seem to work for this narrative and my characters rather than three or two.

    The more I read about black female writers (regardless of their subject matter) and publishing the more depressed I get.

  22. Anonymous said:

    I’m a woman, and I’m sick of all these chick-lit stories about women sitting around sharing their petty problems– black, white, wearing a red hat… it’s all dull. Give the women some real problems: they’re homeless, one of them just murdered her husband, aliens landed out back. Come on, they can find time to cry and discuss their relationship problems between scenes of kicking alien ass!
    So, in conclusion, I don’t care about the number. I just think the whole chick-lit, women-crying genre needs to get tougher and bolder. If I wanted to see whiny crybabies I would stop off at the preschool.

  23. Staci said:

    Anonymous 12:21pm, I heart you. You’re the only one who really got my point. I was wondering if I was unclear or something. And thanks for the examples of cross-over successes, along with the ones you mention I’d add T.D. Jakes. If you have a well written, compelling message and/or story, people will read it, regardless of race or whether it has one, four, or seven characters. This was such an odd post, but I’m glad Kristin wrote it. I like seeing where people’s heads are, especially people in positions of power.

  24. 4465 PReSS said:

    We have published an African-American female author who will BLOW YOUR MIND if you are looking for something other than whiny chick-lit; poorly constructed street-lit; or over-intellectualized ethnocentrism. Her name is LiNCOLN PARK; and her books are absolutely incredible!

    Her latest book (all available from 4465 PReSS, amazon, B&N; etc. online)is called The Brevity of the Selves (ISBN 978-0-6151-6685-8). Her first book was, Sculptured Nails and NAPPY HAIR (ISBN 1-4116-4062-4). Don’t let the title fool you. The title is completely figurative.

    We would be delighted to send you copies of each of her novels. We take pride in publishing superior, engaging writing. LiNCOLN PARK has a dark pen; darker than most African-American fictionistas.

    She is currently working on a mainstream book, HANDLE TIME which will take readers on a wild ride inside of an American call center.

    LiNCOLN PARK is on MYSPACE at (Susan Howatch was an early influence for her, she says).

    If you are sincere and would truly like to read someone different, you will take a chance on LiNCOLN PARK.