Archive for May, 2010

Recently, I’ve been reading a series written by a Prominent Romance Writer in her salad days. It concerns a family of sisters and the men who love them, and it’s pretty enjoyable, except for one thing. All the sisters seem to loathe the men they end up with, at least initially. And they show this loathing by throwing hissy fits. They snarl, they toss insults, they flounce off in a huff. The heroes never seem to find this behavior surprising. In fact, they’re immediately smitten.

Now far be it from me to criticize romances for being “unrealistic” (realism has never been much of a requirement for me in a romantic plot), but that particular romantic trope has always bothered me. The hero is supposed to find the heroine’s spirit appealing. She’s a spitfire. She’s untamed. She’s someone who’ll give him a good fight. And gosh she’s just gorgeous, too. Every time I see this reaction, I find myself thinking “Really?”

Consider this hypothetical situation—it’s the first time you meet someone, and he behaves like an absolute jerk. Do you say to yourself, “Boy howdy, look at the pecs on that guy. And he’s spirited, too. Can’t wait to see him again.” Nah. You say, “Geez, what a freakin’ jerk” and go on your way. While I can’t guarantee what the male reaction would be, my guess is it would be fairly similar.

Don’t get me wrong here. It’s possible to have legitimate friction between hero and heroine when they first meet. Heck, I’ve even done it myself (see Wedding Bell Blues). It gets the necessary conflict going from the start. The problem for me comes in the way that conflict is handled.

In one scenario, the hero simply ignores the heroine’s jerkiness or he finds it wildly attractive. In another, hero and heroine mend their differences fairly quickly and begin finding some kind of common ground that will allow the plot to proceed. Of the two, I’m a lot more comfortable with the second possibility. Among other things, it allows the author to let the hero or heroine start acting in a way the reader can find appealing too since it’s unlikely we’re going to be as charmed by irritating behavior as the other characters may be.

And that’s the problem I have with this particular Prominent Romance Writer’s series. Since the hero finds the heroine’s bitchiness attractive, she has to keep being bitchy. And that, in turn, means that the reader has to either make excuses for the heroine (she’s under stress, she doesn’t realize what a great guy the hero is because he reminds her of her nasty ex-boyfriend, etc.) or, quite probably, start to dislike her. It’s this second possibility that should give an author pause. Maybe the hero is willing to tolerate Miss Pris, but it’s quite possible the reader won’t.

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As I’ve said time and again, I love critique groups. They provide a writer with that most valuable of commodities, feedback. Not all of the feedback is good, mind you, but even lousy feedback can tell you something. I can still remember when I started critiquing, though, and I remember the biggest problem I had—what do you say to good writers?

Figuring out what to say to somebody with difficulties isn’t usually an issue, although figuring out how to say it without bruising the writer’s tender feelings may well be. But what do you say to somebody who’s smokin’? “Love it, keep up the good work” may be accurate, but it may not be what the author’s looking for. This is particularly tough for someone who hasn’t had a lot of experience in critiquing others’ work before. After a while, you learn how to see minor problems even in well-written things. But at first, that’s hard to do.

However, a frequent response to this problem is to manufacture weaknesses so that you have something to comment on. You change the wording (becoming a dreaded Rewriter), you  tell the author you need more information on a character’s background (although you’re reading chapter four in the book and can pretty much guess that background has already been provided somewhere else), you make global assumptions without much basis in the MS (I once had a reader tell me to change my story to M/M because she didn’t think the hero really cared for the heroine—who didn’t appear and wasn’t really mentioned in the pages she’d read). This kind of thing is almost guaranteed to piss off the writer, while not providing her with much in the way of useful advice.

So here are some things to keep in mind as you, a very new critiquer, approach those pages:

1. You may not have done much critiquing, but you’ve undoubtedly done a lot of reading. Approach the MS as you would a book. What appeals to you? What doesn’t? Some of that will probably be personal taste, but even so the writer might like to hear about it. Chances are other people in her potential audience will share the same tastes. On the other hand, telling a writer “I hate paranormals” won’t be much help.

2. Be aware of where this particular set of pages is in the total manuscript. If it’s chapter one, then you can talk about whether you need more backstory or whether the backstory is too dominant. But if it’s chapter five, you can’t really complain that you don’t know the hero’s background—although you can make a comment to the effect that you assume this background was covered earlier, which implies it should have been.

3. Don’t make changes in the writer’s language unless you can explain the reason for making them. Some changes are legitimate (repetition, for example—but that may be handled better by simply highlighting the repeated words), but some are just a matter of your style differing from the author’s style. If the only reason you have for making a change is that it “sounds wrong,” it’s probably best to let it alone.

4. If you don’t have many comments to make, don’t worry about it. If nothing else, that tells the writer she’s on the right track.

And good luck. Trust me, the more you critique, the easier it becomes.

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