The most recent issue of The Culture Alliance’s Weekly Update (you can sign up for this newsletter here) included a focus on Cultural Influence Professional Libby Malin Sternberg. Libby is a novelist, the author of six books. She has been published by Harlequin, Dorchester, Bancroft Press, and Sourcebooks. She writes young adult fiction as Libby Sternberg and humorous women’s fiction as Libby Malin. Her first YA mystery, Uncovering Sadie’s Secrets, was an Edgar nominee. Her 2009 humorous women’s fiction, Fire Me, about a woman trying to get the pink slip, has been optioned for film. In April 2010, Sourcebooks will publish My Own Personal Soap Opera, about the head writer of a failing daytime drama who blends fantasy with real life in her stories. In September of that year, Five Star will publish her Jane Eyre-inspired tale of old Hollywood, Sloane Hall.
Here are her thoughts for aspiring novelists, the challenge of writing romance novels, and the range of possibilities for those willing to produce so-called Young Adult fiction. ——
If you had told me, as I began seriously devoting time to writing fiction, that I would eventually be published in humorous women’s fiction and young adult, I would have said you were crazy. My dream of becoming a published author had included “lit-rah-chure” in the label. Romance, juvenile fiction—phhtt, not for me.
This journey has taught me an important lesson that aspiring authors would be wise to embrace—learn what your strengths are, learn about the publishing markets, and use your strengths to fit into the market. So while I might still dream of publishing a title that is both commercial and literary, I’ll use the talent that does sell my stories to the best of my ability.
In fact, other advice I’d give to aspiring novelists is not to eschew genre fiction if your strengths lie in those fields—mystery, thriller, sci-fi, fantasy, even romance. Genre fiction can sometimes cross over into literary fiction. Jane Eyre, after all, is a classic romance.
I decided to try writing romance because I was under the false impression that getting published in that genre would be easy. How hard could it be for a decent writer to come up with the formulaic story of girl-meets-boy, they squabble, have a “dark moment” when all seems lost, and then eventually come to the HEA (“happily ever after,” in romance parlance)?
As it turns out, it’s actually very difficult. When the reader knows the game plan on the opening page, making her care about the characters and keeping her surprised by the plot is a tremendous challenge. I now think that beginning writers would learn a great deal about their writing “chops” if they first tried their hand at romance.
I also write teen fiction, called Young Adult in the book trade, another genre that might seem “easy” to write on its surface, but presents a whole different set of challenges, including choosing appropriate vocabulary and creating relatable characters.
To me, the YA label is something of a misnomer, though. Most teens I know read adult fiction, whereas the pre-teen or “tweener” crowd (9 to 13-year-olds) is more likely to pick up YA.
Because of my understanding of who reads YA, I tend to keep my YAs very clean—no sex, no swearing, no drugs or alcohol. My goal is to entertain my readers, possibly making them feel better about themselves along the way. Even my one historical YA, The Case Against My Brother, is a mystery first, a lesson in prejudice second.
Many YA books cover a wide range of topics, introducing teen readers to questions about sexuality, abuse, drugs, drinking and more. General interest publications would provide a great service to parents if they devoted more attention to YA, offering reviews and round-ups of YA fiction. Currently, YA is reviewed most extensively in publications read by librarians and youth advocates—not by the general public.
For those willing to take a closer look, YA fiction is a deep field with many wonderful historical and contemporary tales—everything from little known history (D. Dina Friedman’s Escaping into the Night comes to mind—the story of a Jewish girl who survives the Holocaust by joining encampments in the forest) to contemporary tales with important lessons (Sara Griffiths’ Thrown a Curve, about a young girl who pitches for a boys’ softball team). Or even mysteries featuring a regular gal who goes to a parochial school (my Bianca Balducci series – Uncovering Sadie’s Secrets, Finding the Forger and Recovering Dad – published by Bancroft Press).
Whether a writer chooses genre, YA or literary fiction as a goal, the same rules apply—learn your craft, learn your strengths, and learn the markets.