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.

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.

Historical Romance Cliches 101

Usually, I prefer fantasy or sci-fi novels, but for the last couple of months I’ve been on a historical romance kick.  Georgette Heyer is by far the reigning queen of the genre, and also the foundation for most of the writers that come later, so her stuff might seem cliche when it was kind of like the grandmother.

Anyway, I’ve decided to list some of the cliches I use to screen what I’m in the mood to read:

1) Married by force — The hero and heroine are forced to get married because of extenuating circumstances (betrothals, monetary situations, alliances, revenge, social faux pas).  Usually, this is really common but if the author does it right, it’s a pretty fun read.

2) Kids the hero doesn’t know about — While highly realistic that most heroes who sleep around will have kids, how they’re handled in story can make or break it.  One cliche I really really hate is when the heroine shows up with his baby and acts like its hers, when it’s not.  a) What kind of jackass is he that he doesn’t remember who he slept with? b) How pathetic is she to try something that ridiculous?  I’m not a fan of hearing that they conceive kids after only one encounter.  Really?

Trending 2010

The trend stats from Scholastic for 2010 show more adults reading YA fiction.  Honestly, I’m not surprised.

I was about eighteen when I walked into my local library as usual, and went straight for the YA section like I always had.  I felt guilty because at that point, I was supposed to be reading “adult” novels especially since I had been reading ahead of my grade level for years.  I had tried adult novels when I was around sixteen, but in all honesty I found the quality of adult fiction horrific. I realized I would rather live in YA forever.

As an aspiring YA author, of course I’m going to be a bit biased toward YA.  How did I get there though?

I wanted to grow up and move on to more adult books at that age, though I constantly found something lacking.  There’s something about most adult books that got on my nerves the most — they were often far wordier than necessary and tended to drone on and on with drab details.  I would have to dig my way out of that mess to find the story.  With YA authors, they seem to understand how to get to the story and be more engaging overall.  They can build their worlds better and give their characters more depth.

Another major difference between adult and YA fiction is character growth.  YA literature takes into account the changing sensibilities and social dynamics of their demographic, whereas the adults seem stuck in some sort of rut and it’s more about things that happen to them than internal change.  People don’t stop growing and changing.  I forgot which YA author said this, but she said that she preferred YA because the characters were getting to see the world for the first time and unlike adult characters, YA characters actually have a lot more hope for the future and more adventures waiting for them.

So, I think it’s great that YA is opening up more, because I don’t wanna grow up either.

Why are Historical Romances written today so bland?

Historical romances have to be one of the most cliche and white bread variety of all fiction genres.  Historical romance writers play it safe, the characters are always virtuous to some end.  But novels printed in bygone eras weren’t all Jane Eyre and Jane Austen.  Georgette Heyer played close to the vest in her imitation of Austen’s novels, but she was from a conservative era as well.  For some reason, the media likes to paint the past as this idyllic and overly intelligent time bygone.

Guess what?  People don’t change that much and they’re as fun and flawed and ferocious as they’ve ever been.

So here are some literary novels that will knock your socks off and have yet to be banned from the public:

1) Moll Flanders by Daniel Defoe (1722) – Prostitution, incest, illegitimate children galore can be found in one of the earliest English novels.

2) Les Liaisons dangereuses (Dangerous Liaisons) by Choderlos de Laclos (1782) – Better known to Gen Y as Cruel Intentions and Gen X as Dangerous Liasions, two former lovers plot the downfall of innocent misses.

3) The Canterbury Tales by Geoffrey Chaucer (1380s) – Though this isn’t a novel, it is a collection of some of the bawdiest tales to grace English ears.  Chaucer is considered by many to be the Father of English Literature, all thanks to a sex-starved college student and a dangerous old cougar.

The Next Big Thing

When I was at NYC Comic Con last October, most of the science fiction and fantasy titles announced involved shifters.  A few years before that, vampires were a bigger deal due to the Twilight craze (I think Team Jacob spurred the shifter trend) which has been winding its way back down.

I think I was lucky to spend my childhood in the late 90s, when it was a bigger, darker scene for sci-fi and fantasy.  The teen horror, sci-fi, and fantasy realms were run by R.L. Stine, Christopher Pike, Tamora Pierce, K.A. Applegate and quite a few other awesome people I can’t recall at the moment.  Nickelodeon aired “Are You Afraid of the Dark?” while Disney Channel had “So Weird.”  Dark stories for teens like The Hunger Games weren’t as uncommon, they were actually closer to the norm for children’s books at the time.

The first time I picked up on SFF trends, it was when Buffy hit the scene.  Suddenly, it was vampires everywhere.  It was at the tail end of that when Harry Potter became popular.  There was also a bit of alien/space opera still lingering from The X-Files and Firefly.  The witch trend was next, which had Harry Potter and Charmed and some other book series I can’t quite recall.  During college I kind of lost track of most media, but I think the it was the Twilight vampire bandwagon again, then followed by few fey stories were big those years.  Shifters/paranormal romance have now overtaken the scene but I feel like that’s winding down.

While I was meandering around the Regency era (I usually didn’t care for historical romance before), I started noticing that more historical paranormal and steampunk novels have been coming out.  Then looking at the Nebula Awards Nominees, there were more than two entries that fall into that category.  For an obscure sub-genre like historical paranormal to have that many entrants is peculiar.  I think that will be the next genre to get major print, especially after Supernatural’s Wild West episode airs, that might just be it’s shotgun to the race.

How You Know You’re Reading a Cliche Romance

I’ve started noticing rather mundane patterns in  romances.  Overall, I like the quality of historical romance stories because they actually have decent plots, but after reading a couple I’ve noticed some things.  They follow the same plot line.

1) The cover is always way more salacious than the actual content of the story based on sexual content.

2) The heroine is usually some kind of redhead (auburn, strawberry blonde, orange flames).  The hero is tall, dark and handsome.

3) Her Prince Charming is an off-kilter high-ranking nobleman (frequently a duke, earl or viscount) who doesn’t like being a duke/earl/viscount and resents “society.”

4) Heroine is tomboyish, constantly getting into mischief and resents the role of being a lady.  Yet somehow she is fine with the role when she accepts to marry the hero.  She is also often an orphan or orphan-esque and acts childish for someone often over the age of twenty.

5) The heroine and her hero meet when he catches her at some type of criminal act or mischief.

6) Somehow hero and heroine don’t know each other, but they’re all over each other before exchanging names.

7) Hero and heroine get caught in a compromising situation due to trying to cover for heroine’s criminal activities, and to preserve her reputation the hero ends up telling people that they’re engaged.

8) Heroine gets into more mischief with something to do with political intrigue or property rights.

9) Hero moons over heroine and ways he will keep her safe and bed her, the conflicting notions make him crazy.  This results in several steamy make-out sessions and/or they just screw each other’s brains out.

10) Heroine tries to prove that she doesn’t need hero and does something stupid.

11) Hero steps in and saves the day, but we pretend the heroine did most of it on her own.

12) Epilogue explaining happily ever after.