It tookÂ seven years before Publishers Weekly finallyÂ stopped referring to me as a former romance writer.Â During that time, I wrote sixÂ thrillers.Â One of them was a high-tech nail-biterÂ set aboard the International Space Station (Gravity).Â Another wasÂ a medical thriller about organ transplantation (Harvest).Â TwoÂ were serial killer novels.Â Â Yet I’ve never quite been ableÂ to shake off that label of romance author.Â
I’ve always been proud of my romance roots.Â But I’ve been trying to expandÂ my audience and let’s face it, there’s a whole swath of readers out there who despise romance novels, and if your nameÂ retainsÂ just aÂ lingeringÂ whiff of “former romance author”, these readers will turn up their nosesÂ at all your books.Â Â Soon after I was nominated for the Edgar Award, one mystery reader expressed surprise that it was my first nomination.Â “You mean you’ve never won any awards before?” she asked.
Â “I wonÂ a Rita Award for The Surgeon,” I told her.Â “From Romance Writers of America.
“Oh, that,” she said, and gave a dismissive wave.Â That’s how little she thought of the Rita Award — and of romance novels in general.
I treasure my Rita.Â The gorgeous statuetteÂ is displayedÂ in a place of honor in my writing studio.Â But with one wave of her hand, that woman told me exactly where she thoughtÂ lowly romance novels resided in the literary universe.Â Â Â
Unfortunately,Â the media seems to share her disdain.Â That’s why so fewÂ romances get reviewed in large newspapers.Â And when they do get reviewed, it’s with that snooty attitude of “this is a fun but mind-candy read”.Â
So you can see why an author trying to establish herself in the mystery genre wouldÂ find her romance-writing past an impediment to being taken seriously.Â Â A few months ago,Â when I was hearing negative chatter about my Edgar nomination, it was no surprise that several critics were quick to dredge up myÂ earlier career.Â “Tess Gerritsen started off in romance, for god’s sakes!Â Â How did she get nominated for an Edgar?”Â
As if writing romance rots your brain and makes you unable to write anything else.Â
Writers aren’t one-trick ponies.Â Â Some of us need to be continuallyÂ challenged.Â I love getting out of my comfort zone and tacklingÂ a subjectÂ I knowÂ almost nothingÂ about.Â That’sÂ why I wrote Gravity.Â I love trying out new voices.Â That’s why I created the character Mila in Vanish.Â
Nowadays, I’m trying to peel off yet another label: “Medical thriller writer.”Â My last six books have not been medical thrillers, but crime novels, starring homicide detective Jane Rizzoli.Â Yes, there’s a medical examiner in the series, Dr. Maura Isles, butÂ aside from the autopsy scenes, there’s nothing particularly medical about these books.Â Yet when VanishÂ got the Edgar nomination, Library Journal called it “a medical thriller”.Â Â And this was aÂ novel about sex trafficking and defense contractors.
I guess I should just be grateful they didn’tÂ add “and it was written by a former romance author!”
The lesson here is this: if you try to evolve as a writer, if you try to do something new or startling or different,Â the media’s going to hold you back.Â Â Once they’veÂ slapped a label on you, that label’s going to stick, unless you work hard to shed it.Â Â You may have to write five or ten or even twenty booksÂ before you’re accepted in your new genre.Â