There are sometimes not enough words

Having gotten it in my head that I’d like romances from the 1980s, I came across The Copeland Bride by Justine Cole.  It seemed like the right amount of gut-twisting, darkly tragic stuff I’m back into these days.  Talk of Moliere, a Dickensian back drop, and two people damaged by it all.  There were even a few wittier moments in the beginning.  It could have been great.  And it wasn’t.  If only the writer actually wrote the parts that matter though.

This story was a prime example of why “telling” is not better than “showing.”  I felt like my enjoyment of the story was thwarted at the door of what could have been an exciting exchange ten times too many.  She showed the boring parts and told the interesting parts.  When a character pours their heart out to another, the reader needs to hear the character’s exact words, not the author’s Reader’s Digest version of it.

Entire swaths of what should have been the most poignant parts of the novel were boiled down to a few narrative paragraphs that offered little emotion or sincerity.  It reads more like a historical encounter than a literary one because the characters don’t have strong voices.  They don’t tell their story, the narrator has high-jacked the story and told it for them.  There’s a certain distance that needs to be maintained, and if not it can ruin the story.  A good third person narrator is like a good scientist in the field, observing astutely but not interfering.

I disliked Quinn’s treatment of Noelle a lot the more I kept reading.  In the first half, he was just angry.  In the second half, masochistically cruel would be the appropriate term.  There isn’t a redeeming feature other than his face, which considering that this is romanceland, he’s a dime a dozen.  Noelle isn’t a strong heroine, in spite of the insipid narrative that she’s street smart and carries a knife.  A heroine carrying a weapon doesn’t magically make her self-reliant and able to take care of herself.  The word “rape” gets tossed around too easily.

It just goes to show that the devil is in the details. It also reflects the need for good editors who should be able to spot and correct these kinds of things. But alas, there’s more antagonism toward proper editing and revision these days, so I can hardly be hopeful about future pulp writers.

The 1-2-3s of Romance Heroes

Now for my breakdown of the guys for romantic book trilogies.

Book 1: Alpha Male aka “The Head Honcho” – Usually in romance trilogies, the first hero is the one of the highest social rank (alpha male of the pack, king/prince/duke/earl, oldest son, leader of whatever group the trilogy heroes are a part of, etc.).  He’s the opposite of the more docile heroine he’ll be wooing – more domineering, inflated sense of his rank and never hesitant to put anyone in their place.

Book 2: Beta Male aka “The Second in Command” – This hero is usually the Head Honcho’s wingman or best friend.  He’s often also the “good guy” in the trio or the one most honor bound and solemn as a monk.  Well, I guess it does take a lot of patience to wear heroine #2 down.

Book 3: Omega Male aka “The Rebel Without a Cause” – The last story often involves the most rebellious, least mature of the trio.  Often, he’s the one getting into bad scrapes but he manages to handle himself quite well until heroine gets involved.  He is also a thwarted lover, of either one of the previous heroines or another girl from his adolescence or some years before the stories take place. Where he goes, trouble is likely to follow.

The 1-2-3s of Romance Heroines

I’ve started noticing a pattern when it comes to romance trilogy heroines, linked by male leads.

Book 1: The Outsider aka “Alice in Wonderland” – Heroine is brand new to the fold, be it a clan, coven, pack, planet, dimension, etc.  She doesn’t know the workings of the world she’s gotten into, so many of her pitfalls come from her lack of knowledge, and a majority of her role is uncovering the hero’s realm.  This heroine is more naive and docile.

Book 2: The Insider aka “The Warrior Princess” – This book’s heroine is often someone who is already part of the hero’s world, understands it but in some way has rejected it or doesn’t fit into it.  Out of the three heroines, she’s often the most independent minded.  She belongs to their world but isn’t necessary connected to the three main men until something happens to throw her into their path.  This heroine often has an axe to grind and will fight the hero of this novel more than if they were in Book 1.

Book 3: The Outlier aka “The Girl Next Door” – Often the last heroine and hero are people who were lingering around in the first and second books, that you thought would hook up then but ended up with their own stories.  Usually she’s connected to a large aspect of the previous novels – either as a sibling to one of the male leads or tied into a  overarching plot or continuing subplot device in the series. The heroine for Book 3 is well acquainted with the world she’s in (can be either an insider or outsider), but doesn’t feel like she belongs because of something in the past.  Book 3 heroines skew more toward knowing what they want but not how to get it.

What happened in the year 2000?

Any good literary analyst can tell you that books are snapshots of the time period they’re produced in, in spite of whenever or wherever the book takes place.

I knew that the writing style of historical romances circa the 1970s/1980s was different than the 1990s and then the 2000s.  The 70s/80s romance novels (historical or contemporary) were post second-wave feminism.  The tales from the 80s were skewed more toward dark, violent and tragic.  The 90s retained this grittiness but riding on the third wave of feminism were less abrasive in their violence toward women, and more about making women into complex characters.  The 90s met the take-charge heroine, and so came the fall of the damsel in distress heroine.  In the 2000s, there was a shift to fetish virginity and attach it to nobility of character and a dire need to make a martyr of the heroine with her always trying to save orphans, poor people and fallen women in the most conflated ways.

These are the trends I’ve noticed in the pop fiction, which really says a lot about the evolution of the perception of women by other women over the last two decades.  The current trend skews toward martyrdom and I believe that comes with the more pseudo-sentiment of community we’ve been espousing for the last few years.  The virgin excitement may come from a generation that is used to people not being virgins and finding that era’s norm a peculiarity.

I found these little things worth noting, because they really offer an insight into how women perceive themselves and how the values of a culture change over time.

Top 5 Most Overused Title Words

1. Midnight – An overused word in general when it comes to the internet (I claim guilty on this) because there’s just something cool about the clock striking 12 – time’s up.

2. Iron – Of late, this has been coming up a lot in the titles of books I’m encountering.  Between the fairytale/fantasy and growing steampunk genres, it’s lost it’s strength as a title word.

3. Confessions of…  –  In the early 2000s, “confessions” became a huge catchphrase for marketers.  Everyone was confessing to something – Madonna, Usher, Paris Hilton, shopaholics.  It was the formative years of the age of perverse spectacle that we’re in now, where everyone is expected to reveal everything and be surprised when they’re judged.  I wonder if the 2010s will be the In Denial of… craze.

4. Mad Libs Titles – Since Girl with the Dragon Tattoo exploded onto the scene, there’s been a craze toward elongated titles that sound like they were put together by mad libs.  It’s more of a stylistic rather than wording choice, but it’s pretty overused.

5. Title: A Novel/The True Story of… – This by and large falls under the stupidest titling trends.  Well, thank you for clearing that up, I thought this was a technical manual or autobiography!


When It’s Done Right

Here is a rare gem indeed – I’m going to rant about a historical romance done right.

The characters are multi-dimensional, humanistic rather than characteristic, and there’s a level of genuine drama, not melodrama lingering between them.  Connie Brockway has been on my radar since last year, but I hadn’t touched her McClairen family series until now.

The trilogy is formulated around the three Merrick silbings, whose tragic family history haunts them and their truly villainous father Lord Carr is at the heart of it.  This hearkens back to my theory that a hero is only as good as his/her villain, and Lord Carr is the exact scheming, mad and cunning evil genius that keeps the heroes on their toes.  He isn’t the usual caricature Jafar villain of historical romances, he’s actually got his hands all over the pot and proves difficult for his children and their respective spouses to combat.  His greedy motivations and deft ability to play the role of wolf in sheep’s clothing puts him in a league above 98% of the other historical villains I’ve read (and I’ve read a lot of those).

The stories unfold like a chess match.  It is a true battle of wits in order to survive, and the Merrick children pull it off in such a smart and heart-felt way.  Though they love, Brockway makes it natural and subtle rather than large pronouncements and obnoxious repeats of how in love they are.  No crying around virginity being the exaltation of being, though there are female virgins.  And Brockway knows how to conduct romantic tension like it’s the New York Philharmonic. She takes time to develop the plot and the romance together, rather than tacking on a plot to the romantic plot.

Elements of foreshadowing and Gothic flair add to this series.  The conclusion is befitting, though rushed it works.  While there are some weak points, I find that this has to be one of the best romances I’ve come across and it deserves way more credit than it has.

Romancing is Hard to Do

I think the hardest genre to write for is romance.  There’s really an art to doing it, whether it’s in a super hero comic book or a Harlequin special for $3.99 at the drugstore.  Everyone has their own ideas about romance and who they think is their ideal mate, so often this can be hard to gauge.  Everyone has their own fantasy about how it unfolds.  Some like it quick, some like it slow, some like it somewhere in the middle.

I tend to prefer a slow build-up into something akin to epic, but it’s a harder way to write it.  When writing the romantic plot for the characters, I have goal post scenes that I aim for that are in my head.  Every touch and every hint has to be played out correctly to lead into that particular scene.  Fan fiction has been great at helping me practice these techniques.  Sometimes I rush too much, sometimes the tension could have been built better, and sometimes I’m too subtle and miss a moment.  It’s not always easy finding the right balance.  I think about authors who’ve achieved what I’ve set out to do and break it down.  I also look at authors that didn’t and see what went wrong and fell flat.

At the same time, each story and each writer has this sort of gusto that will draw people in.  It doesn’t come in equal amounts to either.  Some romances could be greatly written, but the reader might not fall in love with the characters as they should.  Some romances could have been written better, but there’s something about the characters that makes them intrinsically likeable and interesting that the reader can’t help but love with them.

Romance may be the most popular genre around, but at the same time it’s a challenge to achieve balance and win over a large crowd.  It’s a question of how stand out from the largest crowd.  It’s about knowing how to control yourself and your writing.  Most of all, it boils down to sheer luck that you’ll strike all the right chords to make it right.

How To Write A Good Cliche

It’s been a long time since I read a good book.  A really good book.  One that I have to read every word of, get completely wrapped up in and love to reread again and again.  That’s how I felt about Anna and the French Kiss.  It’s the well worn ‘girl gets sent to boarding school against her will and is a fish out of water’ plot set up.  But it’s not just the story, but how well the story gets told that really makes it special.

1) When writing a cliche, the focus should be character based. The readers are familiar with the story, but creating a connection to the characters can make the story stand out.  Example: Anna doesn’t really say she’s different or misunderstood, she focuses on who she is and what she does, which is what makes her unique and colorful.  Sure, St. Clair is pretty much every wishy-washy guy with a troubled home life that girls seem to fall for, but he’s genuine in his friendship with her.  It’s basically the same thing in real life.

2) It’s the little things that make a big difference. In the ‘fish out of water’ stories, the focus is often on feeling out of place in general.  The book uses a different approach, with Anna going out and exploring those differences and turning it into her own world.  The little things like what she does in her spare time, what she eats or what she studies are really fleshed out to truly recreate the experience of being in a new place and adapting.

3) Make the experience feel unique. Everyone and everyone’s story is unique, cliche as that sounds.  In one branch of literary theory there are two types of plot – tragedy and comedy.  In another, there is theorized to be only one – the main character is living his/her normal life when something occurs to take them out of their routine.  Now think about how many stories there are in the world.  Good, amazing, brilliantly original stories.

So go ahead, be cliche.

Reviews, reviews, reviews…

We’ve all been led astray by resounding numbers of 5 star reviews of a book, only to discover our own marks would be closer to 2 or 3 stars, or a rarer occasion of upping a 2 to a 4.  That’s a large reason why I take reviews with a boulder of salt, sometimes the book is positioned incorrectly for its genre and people have a knee-jerk reaction to take away stars for that or they see the story with rose colored glasses since it fulfills a specific fantasy they have.

There’s another way I judge reviews to figure out if I’ll try the book or not — how articulate are the most highly ranked reviews?  Sites like Amazon and Barnes & Noble have customers vote for the best reviews to make it to the top of the reviews, so it gives a sense of whether the there’s a flood of disingenuous 5 stars when most people feel it’s closer to 2.  I use those reviews to determine what kind of writing people that read the book like — if the top review is articulate, precise and well-written, I’m more likely to give it a try than a review that was written clumsily.  This isn’t fool proof of course, because sometimes a story just doesn’t strike the right chords with you, or there aren’t enough reviews (I’d say as long as there is at least one extremely low and one fairly high, along with three others, this method works well enough).

So I secretly judge writers by their readers.  It’s been a pretty effective method so far, so I’ll keep using it.

The Hunger Games: Gale vs. Peeta

A day late and a dollar short.  The story of my life.

Spoilers ahead, so if you haven’t read the books don’t blame me…

Last week, I finally finished reading Suzanne Collins’ The Hunger Games Trilogy.  I usually don’t read fad books, but I found a copy at the library and the premise got me — dark and gory, the story of one girl fighting for survival against other kids isn’t for the faint of heart.  I really liked the first book The Hunger Games, which displayed Katniss and her world in a very vivid and Outsiders’ fashion.  The boy Peeta who’s always had this ominous presence in her life is actually in love with her, and she starts falling for him and ignoring her survival instincts.  The second book, Catching Fire, took a little warming up to because the early chapters are Katniss being bored and thus we’re bored but eventually it picked up momentum when she ended up back in the ring for the Quarter Quell game.  Catching Fire also showed a bit more of the other districts and introduced Gale’s love for Katniss beyond friendship and the start of the rebellions.  Finally, Katniss becomes the symbol of the revolution in Mockinjay.  This book I had a hard time deciding if I liked or not, because either you love it or you hate it.  I’m somewhere in the middle, with parts I liked and those I didn’t.

Mostly, I didn’t like what they did to Gale at the end.  He doesn’t seem remotely like the boy Katniss grew up with, and while I liked how they drifted apart, I think attaching him to Prim’s death or District 2 (traitors to rebellion and lapdogs to the Capitol) was too extreme.   Though Gale in real time did not match Katniss’ memories of him this was actually a good literary technique, because it shows she doesn’t see things as objectively as she’d like to think.  Her affection for Gale does cloud her thoughts of him, and even in Catching Fire she learns he kissed other girls and that he knew he cared about her for a long time.  We know so much about Peeta, but he seemed hollow to me at some points, existing solely as Katniss’ personal Jiminy Cricket.