Finding your novel’s niche

Photo by Jason Leung on Unsplash

(This essay also appears as a video on YouTube. The text here has been slightly edited for clarity.)

In my recent essay on Kevin Kwan’s Crazy Rich Asians, we looked at how that novel uses the concept of genre to hook readers. I wanted to explore that topic further, so I reached out to the editor of Crazy Rich Asians, Jenny Jackson. She’s vice president and executive editor at Alfred A. Knopf. In addition to her twenty years of experience in the industry, she’s also going to be a debut novelist soon, so she has a unique perspective from both sides of the publication process. She’ll share some valuable insights that are relevant for all of us who are trying to get our writing out there. But I started our conversation by asking her where her love of fiction actually began, and how that led her to a career in publishing.

Jenny Jackson: I’ve always read an insane number of books even in my free time. If we were going away on a family vacation for ten days, I would pack ten novels in my suitcase. My brother does the same thing, my mom does the same thing, my dad does, too. One of the things my husband was so confused by when he first started spending time with my family is that, in my house growing up, at breakfast and at lunch, it’s perfectly acceptable to sit down at the table with a book and not talk to anyone, and just read the entire time that you’re having your meal. He sat down at lunch and was like, “Aren’t we going to talk to each other?” “Shh, no.”

How The Novel Starts: “This is family time!”

JJ: Exactly! “We’re all going into our books.” It’s always been an obsession of mine. I was an English major. I did a lot of creative writing in college, but I didn’t think I was ready to pursue writing full time. I’m pretty social, I enjoy working in groups, I enjoy talking to people. Also, I enjoy working on a lot of things at once. So I went to the publishing course at Columbia University. I didn’t know anyone in publishing. I had one friend in New York. So I moved here with two thousand dollars and was like, “I hope I get a job!” I was hired as an editorial assistant at Vintage, the paperback arm of the Knopf Doubleday Group. I spent ten years working on paperback reprints, and then started to acquire my own titles. Then ten years ago, I moved from paperback to hardcover, and I work exclusively now on hardcover, almost all fiction. It’s amazing. I get to pick out the books I want to work on. My list represents what I love. It runs the gamut from very literary to super-smart commercial fiction.

HTNS: Getting these manuscripts, reading, selecting and having your interest piqued by a particular story… It’s been a couple of years since you got Crazy Rich Asians, but I wonder if you could think back to getting the manuscript on your desk, physically or in your inbox, opening it up, and going into the story for the first time. What was your reaction, your feeling? When did you know, “This is something I am really passionate about and want to see brought into the world”?

JJ: When I first read this book, I had no way of knowing it was going to end up being as huge a success as it has been, that it would go on to be a blockbuster film, that it would be as a big a bestseller as it is. But I did know right away that there was something that sparkled on the page. It’s interesting because while Crazy Rich Asians does fit into a genre — it’s a rom-com — there’s something so fresh about it. We hadn’t read this story before. That to me is gold, when it’s a book that pulls you in, that engrosses you, and that you feel immediately intrigued by the world of, but that also feels like it’s taking the genre in a step forward, that it’s challenging the status quo, and it’s just better than what you’ve read before.

HTNS: That brings me to a couple of things I talked about in the essay. I talked about those different elements, how as you’re saying it falls within a genre but it also subverts that, it pushes it a little bit further. I ended the essay by asking the viewer, “After I’ve listed all these things, what do you think the genre of Crazy Rich Asians is?” I want to throw that question over to you, Jenny. You said it’s a rom-com, but what defines that in your mind as being in that genre?

JJ: There are a couple of things Kevin does really well in Crazy Rich Asians. One is that he has given us Rachel as a protagonist. Kevin’s real goal with Crazy Rich Asians is to introduce the global reader to the high-net-worth individuals of Singapore. I’ve never been to Singapore, I don’t actually know any billionaires, and yet he brings us into this world. The best way to bring your reader into an unfamiliar world is to offer them a character much like themselves, an outsider. The reader experiences the journey with Rachel. Rachel is an everywoman. She’s a middle-class American girl who is plunged into this world of splendour. That was an incredibly smart thing for Kevin to do. We talk about how there are only X number of stories and one of them is “a stranger comes to town.” That’s Rachel. She’s the stranger who comes to town. Rachel is the key to unlocking the world of Crazy Rich Asians. The other thing that Kevin has done well that is so smart is that while Rachel and Nick are the heart of the book, he lets them be the most relatable characters. Then he populates the book with a huge cast of secondary characters who are extreme, extravagant, absurd, who are a lot more “extra” than Rachel and Nick: Eddie, who is a complete wild man; Astrid; Araminta; Peik Lin. These characters are able to be totally wild because we’re rooted in Rachel and Nick, who are the more relatable centre in the book. He does a great job of accessing the more outrageous pieces of culture in Singapore through his secondary characters while keeping the reader engaged through the main characters.

HTNS: There was this promotional piece that I think you wrote about Crazy Rich Asians for a reading group. It was highlighting a lot of the luxury side of the novel. “You’re going to see these amazing handbags and yachts! You’re going to fly around the world with these jet set elite!” I, as you, don’t know a lot of billionaires, so that didn’t particularly hook me, but the character story is what gets me. For another reader, it might be that this is a group of Asian and Asian-American characters who are unapologetically who they are, they’re going about this amazing story. That’s attractive, too, to a different reader. Maybe ideally all those things line up in your ideal reader persona. Could you talk about how those different aspects of the book can reach different audiences? Are they something that you identify and say, “We’re going after this genre and demographic, and with a different readership we’re going to talk about the book in a different way”? Or are you saying, “This is the book and we’re trying to hit a broad audience”?

JJ: Kevin was very thoughtful about what he wanted to do with Crazy Rich Asians. There are countless phenomenal Asian writers and Asian-American writers. I don’t think that we had read about these specific Asians before as American readers. There aren’t a lot of books like Crazy Rich Asians about this milieu. Kevin was doing something new. That was celebrated, definitely. There were also readers who said, “Why do you have to write about rich people to make people want to read about Asians?” Kevin said, “You don’t. This is my story. It’s not everyone’s story. Tell your story.” Kevin did a great job of writing something new that people needed to hear and to experience. But it was important for us to reach out to Asian communities early on with the material and build that excitement. It was very organic. That community starts on Goodreads, it starts among bloggers, it starts among reviewers. Then the other piece that we explored with this was the luxury piece. In publishing this, we placed first serial with Vogue. It’s unusual for Vogue to publish a piece of fiction, but they absolutely loved the book. They loved all the fashion in it, they wanted to take a stand on it, so they ran an excerpt in Vogue before the book came out. That really hooked in all the fashionistas and a huge swath of readers that came to the book for the fashion. So there are a lot of different ways in on this novel, and we did make a point to go out and reach those different readerships through different placements before the book came out.

HTNS: Right. So we use this word genre. Is it possible for you to define that and how it works in the minds of editors and publishers from the sentence level, paragraph level, all the way up to those marketing decisions, in how you work on a book, how you acquire it, how you talk about it?

JJ: People often assume that genre is the opposite of literary. That’s a common assumption but I don’t think it has to be true at all. One of the things that readers have embraced over the past decade, if not before, is a hybrid, a literary take on a genre. I published Emily St. John Mandel’s Station Eleven. That’s an example of a hybrid between genre — science fiction — and literature. Kevin’s book is a great example of a hybrid between romantic comedy and literature. But when you think about genre — thriller, science fiction, romance — they are defined by certain parameters. A thriller is probably going to have a murder in it. Science fiction is going to have something speculative in it. Romantic comedy is probably going to have a happy ending and centre on a romantic relationship. I do think that it is easy to market books where they have a specific genre. There are different media outlets and marketing avenues that you can go in when you have a genre work. There are different conferences for thriller writers, for mystery writers, for romance writers. That’s an easy way for us to tap into those audience. One of the tricky things is when you have a book that sits between general readership and literature, and genre, is making sure that you understand exactly where your book fits, because if your book is not actually a mystery but it has mysterious elements, and you pitch it hard to mystery readers, mystery readers are not going to have that. They’re not going to like it, it’s not going to be what they wanted, and you’re not going to get good reviews. So you have to be mindful and can’t try to shoehorn a book into a genre that it doesn’t actually fulfill.

HTNS: I love that point. It’s something I’ve struggled with or grown and learned in my own writing. I would identify more as a fantasy type writer, but there’s a full spectrum of what fantasy actually means. I would say I’m on the literary end, if you want to call it that. So people say, “You’re magical realism.” I guess? If you want to define it that way? But bringing it back to Crazy Rich Asians, one thing that was smart about it is it’s very clear about the niche it’s filling, and it does that very early on. You know exactly what experience you’re in for as a reader, and the nuance and subtlety it’s able to play with. I wonder if you could talk about, from your point of view as an editor, when you see a novelist bring in a story and maybe the genre isn’t quite as clear as that one, how do you nudge them to get to that clarity? How important is it to have that clarity? What can writers do to accentuate that?

JJ: I’m totally going to disappoint you with my answer, because I don’t think I do that. I don’t think I will ever help my author make their book fit more into the genre. It’s my job as the publisher to match what the finished product is with the right audience. The book deserves to be the best version of whatever it is, but I don’t want to make it more of a mystery if that’s not the heart of it. I don’t want to make it more fantasy if that’s not the heart of it. Instead, when it comes time to market that book, that’s when we have to be really good at our jobs to make sure we are explaining to readers exactly what the book is, so that we’re not met with disappointment or misunderstanding in the marketplace. But when you have a writer who is trying something new, yeah, sometimes it doesn’t work. One of the phrases that you hear editors say when they’re evaluating a manuscript is, “It falls between two stools.” It’s a silly way of putting it, but it means it’s not a mystery, it’s not literature, I don’t get what it is. And that’s valid, right? As a publisher, that’s you saying, “This is what it is, but I don’t get how to reach readers for it.” So you shouldn’t take it on; you should let someone else take it on. But if something is really exceptional, even if it falls between two stools, we’ll figure out a way to do it. There are a lot of weird books out there that defy expectations, that are hard to talk about, yet they’re so good that you have to publish them anyway. This is a funny example but you think of Emma Donoghue’s Room. What was that? The mom and son trapped in there. Was that a thriller? Sort of. Was it character-driven? Yes. That book defied genre, but it was so good that it didn’t matter. But for most books, you do want to understand and be able to say what it is. But it’s not my job to make the book be one thing in particular.

HTNS: Is that something writers should be self-conscious about or cognizant of as they’re writing and thinking about, “Where is my book going to fit on the bookshelf or in the bookstore?” Or should they just pursue their artistic vision and hope for the best, in some sense?

JJ: Two things. A writer should stick to their artistic vision and follow that. But I also think that there comes a point in writing — maybe you’ve written a third of the book, maybe you’ve written half the book — where you should sit down and write what we call a sales handle. You should write sixty words that describe your book. Put it on a Post-it, tape it above your desk, and make it really good. Make it the sales handle you would want splashed on the back of the book. Make it the thing you want people to say in an elevator. Tape it above your desk, and as you keep writing it, keep looking at it, and make your book live up to your definition of it. If you can have that kind of clarity about what you’re trying to do as you’re writing, you’ll be a lot more likely to end up with a commercially viable project.

HTNS: That sounds great. That’s a really tangible thing people can take away.

JJ: There’s one other interesting takeaway that I actually took from Kevin Kwan and that I think readers might enjoy hearing about. If you’re going to put one Post-it note that has your handle for the book, Kevin told me that he keeps a Post-it note above his desk and it just says the word joy on it. So Kevin set his intention when was writing: he wanted to bring a reader joy. You can feel that on every page of Crazy Rich Asians. What he writes — he wants it to be joyful. I have another writer, Chris Bohjalian, who wrote The Flight Attendant. Chris likes dread. He wants to conjure a delicious sense of dread as he’s writing these thrillers. So having a Post-it note that states the intended feeling for your reader can also be a really useful tool to keep the tone of your book on track when you’re writing.

HTNS: That’s similar to something I’ve come up with myself which is the term “postcard image.” If I had just one defining, iconic image of what my story is, what do I keep going back to? What emotion comes out of that image? Whenever I get lost in the story, what does that postcard image in my mind actually look like, what does that mean for the text or the chapter, for the character? It’s encouraging to hear that other writers who are further along have a similar system. It’s something people can use and should use in their process. That’s great. […] You mentioned a number of novels and different types of genres you’ve worked with, different authors… As I understand you’re also on your way to publishing your own novel in the near future. Before we dive into what that’s about, I’d love to know some tips or best practices or things you’ve learned along the way editing that you were able to leverage into your writing process, that other people could think about and use as well.

JJ: I knew when I was sitting down to write that when you choose whether you’re going to write in first person, third person — or, God help you, second person — you need to think about how you’re going to be limiting yourself in terms of what you can know at any point as you’re writing. A first-person narrative is so tricky because you only know what your character knows, unless you’re doing something with an unreliable narrator, or a really “voicey” narrator where the reader sees things that they don’t. In general, you’re stuck to just that worldview. I definitely kept that in mind as I was deciding how I wanted to approach my own material. I foolishly thought that writing from multiple perspectives would be the easiest. One piece of advice that J. Courtney Sullivan, who wrote Maine and Saints For All Occasions, once said is that she likes to write from multiple points of view because whenever she gets stuck with one character, she can just get going on someone else. It’s true. When you write from multiple POV, you don’t get stuck so much because you can keep going on to the next, on to the next. My shattering discovery is that while it’s easier from multiple POV, when you go back to edit, it is an incredible headache. When I wrote my first draft, it all strung along well. When it came time to edit, my editors asked me to move some major plot points up in the book; it was like taking apart a jigsaw puzzle and swapping out pieces. It was so much harder to edit because certain characters couldn’t know things that had to happen at certain points. So maybe it’s sort of like a “measure twice, cut once” kind of rule. It’ll be easier to write if you go multiple POV, editing’s going to be tricky. First person can be a lot harder to write — I haven’t done it successfully yet — but editing seems it would be easier.

HTNS: We’re all intrigued to know what your story is now. What is the name of the novel, what is it about, and where are you in your process of finishing it?

JJ: The book is called Pineapple Street. It’s a story of three women in the same Brooklyn family. It’s really about Brooklyn. It’s about inherited wealth from a female perspective, and the way in which families can and can’t talk about money. I was inspired to write it because I was reading this interesting article in the New York Times about these twenty-five-year-old billionaires who are deeply uncomfortable with having inherited money from their families, and are working to give away that wealth. It’s complicated. Family lawyers are saying, “You’re twenty-five. What do you know about money? Let’s not be so rash.” And these kids are saying, “Income inequality is one of the greatest blights on our country and I don’t want to be part of the problem. I want to be part of the solution.” So I read this and it got me thinking about how Millennials are going to be the greatest inheritors in American history. It’s called the Great Wealth Transfer. And yet young Millennials have seen a lot of societal ills caused by income equality. That’s why Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez and Bernie Sanders and a lot of politicians have so much support among young people. So it sparked an idea for me: What would happen if a young, rich Millennial wanted to give away her family money? How would her family feel about that? That got me going down the path of writing this novel.

HTNS: Where are you in the process? Is it close to publication? Is it still being worked on? Where are you?

JJ: I hope that I’m really close to done with edits. I handed in my first full draft in April [2021], and I’ve done a couple of big rounds of edits since then. I did a major restructure where I moved a lot of the big plot points up earlier in the book. Then in the second round of editorial feedback, I was told that one of the characters needed to have more relationships outside the family, so I built in some friends and some fun scenes there. I’m hoping that I’m close to done, but I know I’m going to have one more round of line edits. Then, in theory, the book will be coming out in January, 2023.

HTNS: Amazing! That’s really quite close.

JJ: It feels soon, yeah!

HTNS: As our time is slowly winding down, I want to get a broader view. What is it that inspires you as a writer, as a reader, as a human, that you want to contribute artistically in this great conversation we call literature?

JJ: At the risk of sound like I was some kind of precocious little twit — which I certainly was — my mom tells this story about how I was four or five and I came in crying. She said, “Jenny, what’s wrong?” And I said, “I’ll just never know what it’s like to be someone else.” It’s kind of an absurd thing for a child to say, but that’s it, right? We’re all stuck in our own heads, stuck with our own experiences, and art is the best way for us to actually create empathy and understand other people’s experiences. I know some people find film gives them that real understanding. I know other people find visual arts… For me, that’s what reading is. For me, reading is actually the very most immediate way to feel like I truly understand how somebody else’s brain works. Sometimes you read a book that has a narrator you know you would never ever encounter in real life, and you get to have this whole entire experience that lives with you. I’m sure there are books you read as a kid that formed the way you think about things. So that’s where my passion comes from as an editor: being able to build bridges between people and help us just understand each other, and hopefully be better humans because of that.

Jenny Jackson is vice president and executive editor at Alfred A. Knopf. She spoke to me from New York City, and you can follow her on Twitter.

This was the first interview on How The Novel Starts, but it’s something I want to keep doing in the future, so I hope you’ll stick around for that. In the meantime, leave a response or even Applause. Follow me to be notified of future essays, where I look at the craft of writing great fiction.

Drop by my YouTube channel to see this essay as a video, and support the creation of my content on Ko-fi.

I explore the opening chapters of popular novels, and figure out what writers can learn from them for their own work.

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How The Novel Starts

How The Novel Starts

I explore the opening chapters of popular novels, and figure out what writers can learn from them for their own work.

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