December 6, 2011

Guest Post: Terry Odell

Filed under: The Writing Life — jenny @ 12:07 am

Finding Sarah

I’m very happy to welcome author Terry ODell back to the blog. Terry also wrote one of the first Made It Moments. Today she writes about the genre boxes that the publishing world tends to think in terms of–and her liberating experience with indie publishing.

Terry Odell

When I decided to move from fan fiction to see if I could write a totally original novel (although there’s really no such thing, is there?), I began a story in my preferred genre, mystery. However, my daughters pointed out that it was a romance. Since I’d never read a romance, I didn’t understand why they thought I was writing one.

A simple sentence triggered their reaction – and this was in chapter 1, so it’s not like they’d had a lot on which to base their decision. “She looked up into those deep brown eyes again, glimpsing flecks of hazel this time.”

So, apparently I was writing a romance. I knew virtually nothing about the genre and its reader expectations (I refuse to use the terms ‘rules’ or ‘formula’ because they make things sound restrictive.) Aren’t all genres basically following rules and formulas to meet what readers want? The detective solves the crime, the hero and heroine get their HEA, or someone fixes the hole in the space-time continuum and saves the universe.

At any rate, since I had no box to fit my genre-expectations in, I wrote what resonated with me when I read any book. The characters. And that’s really what the book was about. A cop, always following the law. An independent woman determined to make her business succeed on her own.

To me, that was my box. I approached it from those basic conflicts. How could I push the cop to consider crossing his self-imposed line? How could I push the heroine into accepting help from anyone? FINDING SARAH became a story about a cop who met a woman when he responded to a crime. And about a woman who learned to understand that accepting help from someone didn’t violate her own rules of independence.

The world of publishing created a box called “Romantic Suspense” which includes every possible sub-genre of mystery, from cozy to thriller, as long as it has a romance at its heart. But that term “suspense” creates its own set of reader expectations. I’ve never thought of my books as romantic suspense. Rather, I think of them as “Mysteries with Relationships.” Because that’s what I like to read.

Although my box was a story of a relationship, publishers had even more little boxes. Was it a crime? Where was the dead body? Was it a romance? How dare I have another man show up BEFORE the hero? Was it suspense? Where was the villain’s point of view? Was it a mystery? Why was it easy to figure out who the bad guy was?

Because my box wasn’t their box. The story, to me, wasn’t about who the bad guy was. That was easy enough to see. It wasn’t even about solving the crime, which ended up being secondary. The story was having a by-the-book cop have a darn good idea who the bad guy was, but NOT be able to do anything because to do so would have meant crossing a legal line. And, of course, I needed to push him across from the white into the gray, and maybe edge into the black just a smidge. (Since it WAS a romance, he had to keep some of those reader expectations for a hero, after all).

I did find a publisher who looked outside of the usual boxes. The book met with good reviews, and was a finalist in several contests. But it didn’t sell particularly well, because marketing departments only work within the restrictions of their own boxes.

Now, with the surge in indie publishing, I’ve regained the rights, updated and polished the book, and republished it myself. Because readers don’t really care about boxes if they like the story and the characters.

(And, because I never did get into that “you can’t do that” box, I wrote an actual sequel to the book, HIDDEN FIRE, featuring the same hero and heroine, which almost never happens in romance novels. I regained the rights and published that one myself, too.)

I did manage to write a straight mystery novel. Again, publishers were confused as to whether it was a police procedural, because the main protagonist was a cop, or a cozy, because the other two main characters aren’t cops but are still trying to solve the mystery. They said the writing was strong, but they wouldn’t know how to market it. I opted to indie publish this one as well. Look for DEADLY SECRETS on my website.

Terry Odell was born in Los Angeles and after living over 3 decades in Florida, now makes her home in Colorado. An avid reader (her parents tell everyone they had to move from their first home because she finished the local library), she always wanted to “fix” stories so the characters did what she wanted.  She is an active member of the Romance Writers of America and Mystery Writers of America.

For readers of this blog, Terry is offering a special promotion. Email Terry at terry (at) terryodell (dot) com with the words ‘Blog Offer’ in the subject line for details.


  1. Jenny, thanks so much for having me here today. I’ll be in and out to respond to comments. I look forward to hearing from everyone.

    Terry’s Place
    Romance with a Twist–of Mystery

    Comment by Terry Odell — December 6, 2011 @ 12:19 am

  2. I met Terry Odell several weeks ago at the Emerald City Writers Conference near Seattle. I ran home and bought Hidden Fires for my Nook. I liked the book very much. I think it’s more mystery with an emphasis on relationships. There are a number of interesting relationships and even a mess-making co-worker. Crime novels and crime tv shows are so big right now but the ones that I hear spoken highly of are those where the relationships are intricate. The main romance in Hidden Fire involves a heroine who may not be able to handle the hero’s occupation and we watch her work that out. For a time, I was pretty convinced that she could not work that out.

    Comment by Peggy West — December 6, 2011 @ 12:50 am

  3. Hi, Terry,

    Everyone talks about thinking outside the box, but you’ve taken the concept to a new level, dodging boxes right, left, and center. It sounds as though the indie publishing boom has arrived at just the right time for you. If you can garner consistent comments about your strong writing, no box or lack therof is likely to stop you. I’ll follow your career with interest. Liz

    Comment by Elizabeth C. Main — December 6, 2011 @ 2:03 am

  4. Great post. I think over the years I’ve come to appreciate the writers who don’t stick to a single genre, nor do they follow all the “rules”. More mature readers are tired of the “cookie cutter” books and want something different. Looks like you’ve done it well, and I’ll certainly check out your book. (BTW – beautiful book cover!)

    Comment by mountainmama — December 6, 2011 @ 6:29 am

  5. I think it is very important to finally allow writers to write a story not contained inside a box. A good example is a romance, and the happy ever after. Some of the most memorable romances can be summer flings where there is no happy ever after. It had its time and place, and yes it can be very “romantic”.

    Thank you for a good article.

    Comment by Johnny Ray — December 6, 2011 @ 6:36 am

  6. As another author published in romantic suspense as well as romantic mystery,
    I think writing outside the box is fine. Five Star/Gale took a chance on
    both of us and I am grateful for that. But the publishing world does
    prefer to have novels in neat little pidgeonholes obeying precise rules.
    It makes life difficult for creative people!

    Comment by Jacqueline Seewald — December 6, 2011 @ 8:28 am

  7. As a “mature” reader, I agree with Elizabeth that cookie cutter books become tedious. It is confusing sometimes to not know what you’re getting, but if the story is compelling, I don’t care if it’s straight mystery, romantic suspense, or has no identifiable subgenre. I, too, was lucky to find Five Star and then LL-Publishing, which actually looks for out-of-the-box stories.
    Sadly, Amazon’s humongous list of books means that new/different authors are hard to find. I’d like a category something like “Really Original Mysteries”!

    Comment by Peg Herring — December 6, 2011 @ 8:45 am

  8. Good for You. Recently I ran across an author who in trying to describe her novel had seven slash marks. Readers are going somewhere else fast with that kind of confusion.
    A good read is a good read. Word of mouth still does a nice promotion job and part of the delight in reading is to find an author about whom you can say, “You never know what to expect from her.”
    Did you ever notice that with all the repeats in dialogue & description Sue Grafton manages to break every rule plus invent a few new ones and keeps us coming back for more?
    I keep thinking I’ve read “Finding Sarah,” but at the moment I can’t locate it on my shelf or my Kindle. Oh, well, I’ll check it out.
    Nash Black

    Comment by Nash Black — December 6, 2011 @ 9:15 am

  9. I’m so glad that indie publishing allows us to venture outside of the box. Over the years, every time I attempted to wander, my editors were like Border Collies herding me back inside like a runaway sheep. Romance and writing to formula have been very good to me, but now it’s time to do some wandering. Although I still write romance, I don’t care for “summer-fling” stories, so I’ll stick with the happily-ever-after ending. But it sure feels good not having an editor tell me, no, you can’t do that. Oh yeah? Just watch me.

    Comment by Nancy Morse — December 6, 2011 @ 9:43 am

  10. Wow! Good morning all. I got up and saw all these comments waiting. You’re making me feel very welcome–especially warming on a morning when it’s minus 17 degrees outside.

    Peggy – so glad you enjoyed Hidden Fire. That was a romance rule=breaker (unless yo’re JD Robb) because Randy & Sarah are the hero and heroine of Finding Sarah, which is the first of the Pine Hills books. And it was great meeting you at Emerald City.

    Elizabeth – Thanks – and I did get that first mystery, Deadly Secrets, out there. We’ll see if readers can handle the ‘not a cozy, not a police procedural’ story.

    Mountain mama – Thanks. Yes, we ‘mature’ readers are ready for a little box-shaking. Hope you’ll try Finding Sarah (or any of my books!) :-)

    Johnny – good point. The publishing industry would put the story you’re talking about on the literary fiction shelf, not the romance shelf.

    Jacqueline – yes, there are smaller presses willing to give new authors a shot. Some of the best chances for authors come with the e-publishers, which is where I got my start.

    Peg – my point exactly. It’s the book, the story, not the label that matters.

    Nash – I’ve got Grafton’s next book on my nightstand. As soon as I finish the new Michael Connelly, she’s next. An author’s voice will shine through regardless of the genre, and I think that’s another factor that attracts readers.

    Terry’s Place
    Romance with a Twist–of Mystery

    Comment by Terry Odell — December 6, 2011 @ 9:47 am

  11. Oh, yes. This is exactly what I rant about to anyone who will listen. We are escaping from those artificial boxes. Real life isn’t constrained by genre formulas, we don’t live our real adventures according to a publisher’s categories, and now it’s possible to get our writing to the marketplace without formulaic barriers. Yowza.

    Comment by Margaret Koch — December 6, 2011 @ 10:04 am

  12. Nancy – I’ve rarely been good about coloring inside the lines. I’ve been fortunate to have had editors who were willing to listen to my reasoning for taking things in a particular direction.

    Terry’s Place
    Romance with a Twist–of Mystery

    Comment by Terry Odell — December 6, 2011 @ 10:19 am

  13. Terry, I sympathize. Those boxes are too restrictive. I think you should be able to tell a good story and not worry about fitting into a predefined slot. I enjoy your books. Keep it up!

    Comment by Ellis Vidler — December 6, 2011 @ 10:39 am

  14. This essay really hit home. When I began peddling my first book, A NEW PROSPECT, one of the few editors to have the courtesy to comment said, “There’s no body by page 3. Sorry.” Ridiculous, I thought. Life’s not like that. But apparently the ‘template’ for mysteries mainstream publishing uses is. Someone gave me sound advice. Don’t call the book a mystery. So I changed it to a police procedural and finally found a publisher who’d take a chance. But that still left me hanging with that pesky reality thing. To most cops, the murder (or any crime) is just another day in the trenches. Police work is a people business. The people are the important and intersesting things you find during a criminal investigation. So, I vote for mysteries putting the characters first. You said everything very well, Terry. Thanks

    Comment by Wayne Zurl — December 6, 2011 @ 10:39 am

  15. Oooooh! That sounds amazing! *starts counting pennies to buy the book*

    Comment by Alison DeLuca — December 6, 2011 @ 10:43 am

  16. Ellis – Thanks so much for your kind words. I’m still plugging away. Now that Deadly Secrets is up and running (or crawling, which is more realistic) I’m working on another Pine Hills story to round out the series.

    Wayne – I got the “hero and heroine have to meet by page 3″ when I started writing my romance. It was SO liberating to find much looser “rules” in romantic suspense.

    Terry’s Place
    Romance with a Twist–of Mystery

    Comment by Terry Odell — December 6, 2011 @ 10:44 am

  17. Characters are at the heart of any good book and all books need some element of suspense, so you are doing just fine, Terry. Dark and disturbing Swedish mysteries are not my thing. I’d much rather read a book with people to whom I can relate. Marilyn aka: M. E. Kemp, author of historical mysteries

    Comment by M. E. Kemp — December 6, 2011 @ 11:05 am

  18. Marilyn – I hear you. I’m all about the characters in reading and writing, and hope others feel the same way about the ones I create.

    Terry’s Place
    Romance with a Twist–of Mystery

    Comment by Terry Odell — December 6, 2011 @ 11:35 am

  19. I like your term “Mysteries with Relationships” and I agree that readers don’t care about boxes as long as there’s a great story and characters. J.K. Rowling had trouble with boxes, too, when she tried to sell her children’s book — of the numerous rejections she got, one publisher told her it was “too long” for a children’s book. I imagine that publisher is regretting the day he ever held up that “box” as a reason for rejection :)

    Comment by Colleen Collins — December 6, 2011 @ 12:12 pm

  20. It’s absolutely true: agents and editors are not real readers. They are so constrained and cannot see past the ends of their noses, or is that pocketbooks? Real readers “get” it.

    Comment by Savvy — December 6, 2011 @ 12:33 pm

  21. Savvy – that’s why the world of indie publishing opens so many new doors. Of course, most of us aren’t making tons of money, but we’re giving readers choices. I certainly understand the publishing industry, because for them, it’s a business, and if they don’t make money, they’re nowhere. It’s just frustrating to see nothing but vampires, or the genre of the day. Do readers buy them because that’s all there is. Kind of a viscous cycle.

    Terry’s Place
    Romance with a Twist–of Mystery

    Comment by Terry Odell — December 6, 2011 @ 1:07 pm

  22. I am so glad to see the nerve Terry’s post struck. As I wrote on DL today, it’s fascinating to me to wonder whether genres are reflections of the physical need to shelve books (for which we now have a companion technology) or if there’s some human striving toward such categories.

    I’ve met editors, agents, authors, and readers who are some of the most insightful assessors of writing there could be. There seldom seems to be consensus among them. I think that some of the frustrations represented here stem from how subjective the whole thing is–one reader must have that dead body on page 1, another loves the mystery where no one ever dies because it’s so fresh and original. And the content providers have to strive to serve this range.

    Indie publishing definitely provides a workaround, and I’m thrilled for those whom it frees.

    Comment by jenny — December 6, 2011 @ 1:43 pm

  23. Thanks Jenny, and thanks for having me as your guest today. I’m enjoying the discussion.

    Terry’s Place
    Romance with a Twist–of Mystery

    Comment by Terry Odell — December 6, 2011 @ 1:49 pm

  24. Have to push the boundaries…personally, I am tired of formulaic novels and don’t read them anymore. I am in the same boat with genres…Good luck to you.

    Comment by Niamh Clune — December 6, 2011 @ 2:34 pm

  25. Niamh – There’s a thing to be said for “reader expectations” (if the detective doesn’t solve the crime by the end of the book, readers will be upset), and a good writer can make the ‘formula’ disappear. It’s about the journey. But the options can be so much broader than those given by the “big guys.”

    Terry’s Place
    Romance with a Twist–of Mystery

    Comment by Terry Odell — December 6, 2011 @ 2:43 pm

  26. Great Post. I have to say that I do care a little about the boxes, but only as a way of talking about a book. If you say you wrote a romantic mystery or suspense I expect the romance to be a subplot and the who or howdunit to be the main plot. I would be disappointed if an author then wrote a romance with some mystery elements. That’s only one part of why I read a book.

    Publishers don’t seem to understand that. Why is it that publishers think that all readers care about is what shelf the bookstores choose for a particular book? I sometimes wish there were only two sections, fiction and non-fiction.

    Comment by Gwen Mayo — December 6, 2011 @ 3:15 pm

  27. This is so encouraging to me as I am writing in the “genre cracks” as well. I just went to B&N and purchased the Nook book of FINDING SARAH. Look forward to reading it. Thanks so much.

    Comment by Lucy Merrill — December 6, 2011 @ 3:21 pm

  28. I’m feeling a quiet day coming on so I want to read all your books.I should start with one I already have on my kindle, but that is not how a bookaholic operates. I’m looking forward to FINDING SARAH.

    Comment by Lil Gluckstern — December 6, 2011 @ 6:02 pm

  29. I enjoyed your post, and congratulations on re-releasing your books and best wishes with them.

    Comment by Sherry Gloag — December 6, 2011 @ 6:38 pm

  30. Gwen – Maybe there should be shelves BETWEEN shelves at the bookstore.

    Lucy – Thanks so much! I hope you’ll enjoy meeting Randy & Sarah.

    Lil – thanks for bumping Sarah to the head of the line!

    Comment by Terry Odell — December 6, 2011 @ 7:00 pm

  31. Hi Terry!

    I’m so glad that you write outside the box(es)! Having worked in the corporate world where labels abound, I hate them. I love reading good books, regardless of what they’re labeled. Enjoyed the post – thanks.

    Comment by Karen C — December 6, 2011 @ 9:59 pm

  32. I love this blog post. Genre casting is obviously an issue for many. I was told by a New York publisher that there is no shelf in bookstores for humorous romantic mysteries. My initial response was why the heck not! He wanted me to take out the minimal amount of romance that was included. Fortunately my smaller traditional publisher recognizes a great story when they read it.

    Comment by Cindy Sample — December 6, 2011 @ 11:05 pm

  33. Cindy – I’ve read your book, and I’m glad you found someone who understood your story. Thanks so much for stopping by.

    Terry’s Place
    Romance with a Twist–of Mystery

    Comment by Terry Odell — December 6, 2011 @ 11:31 pm

  34. Terrific essay. I love “thinking things through” conversations and that’s exactly what I found here. Also loved the story idea about learning that accepting help from people doesn’t negate independence. That’s a thesis I am familiar with in my own writing. Thanks! Radine

    Comment by Radine Trees Nehring — December 7, 2011 @ 11:16 am

  35. Great topic, Terry. My favorite books (as both a reader and a writer) are those that don’t fit the standard boxes. Maybe that’s because life doesn’t usually fit into nice little categories, and I like reading about people in real life situations (well, maybe real life situations pumped up a bit). And as with Cindy, my first book got an early rejection from an agent who told me there was no room for humor in a mystery because murder was serious stuff. I was devastated, but later proved her wrong.

    Comment by Jonnie — December 7, 2011 @ 12:11 pm

  36. Terry,
    Your book sounds wonderful. I found myself smiling when I read your post. I always have a romance going in my mysteries. And I’ve written a romantic suspense or two. We write books that cross genres, that–as you put it–fit in a box of their own. I think indie publishing is great. I’m about to put up the sequel to my mystery, A Murderer Among Us, myself.

    Comment by Marilyn Levinson — December 7, 2011 @ 2:27 pm

  37. Marilyn – thanks. Making people smile is always a day brightener for me.

    Terry’s Place
    Romance with a Twist–of Mystery

    Comment by Terry Odell — December 7, 2011 @ 2:43 pm

  38. Terry, great post!

    I’m sure your indie books will sell like hot cakes =)

    Comment by Mel Teshco — December 7, 2011 @ 7:17 pm

  39. Thanks you for the information on how you included the romance aspect Terry. This is what I have been looking for.

    Comment by Janet Kerr — December 8, 2011 @ 2:31 pm

  40. Sorry to have been away from comments…apologies if I missed anyone. Sometimes they cross in cyberspace.

    Karen C – labels have their places. I just don’t think they necessarily work in publishing.

    Radine – thanks. For me, it’s always about the conflict.

    Jonnie – by all means. Real life isn’t quite so neatly packaged.

    Mel – I hope so, but I’m not holding my breath. If my goal was to make money, I would find another occupation.

    Jan – glad to help. Romantic suspense is really like writing 3 books at a time. Hero’s story, heroine’s story and the mystery.

    Comment by Terry Odell — December 9, 2011 @ 2:12 pm

  41. Liked this post as well. I agree with several of the comments, and I can see why sometimes a box is an important thing, but sometimes the best thing about a box for me is when it doesn’t give me all the details of what I’ll find inside.

    And for me, I believe to be a true success, you have to cross genres. For me, I know that a horror reader will probably love my book. However, I also want someone who doesn’t normally read horror to pick it up and enjoy it. I think you can only do that by thinking outside the box. And as you said, just writing a good story.

    Glad to hear you are finding success.

    Paul D. Dail A horror writer’s not necessarily horrific blog

    Comment by Paul Dail — December 12, 2011 @ 7:42 pm

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