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Archive for August, 2010

Are You Listening?

My critique group just went through a very painful episode in which one member was banned from submitting anything for a while. The situation was this: the writer had been submitting chapters of something she’d written several years ago. This in itself is risky (as I’ve pointed out elsewhere ), but not really a problem. What made it a problem was that the writer wasn’t bothering to revise the chapters she was submitting before she submitted them. Thus each week her submission contained the same errors she’d had the week before. The people who read her submissions became tired and frustrated with pointing out the same things over and over again. The moderator tried to explain what was wrong to the writer, suggesting that she spend some time working over the submissions, taking care of the obvious errors before sending it in, but she refused. She wanted the whole MS critiqued before she started making any changes. The moderator finally gave up and told her to stop.

I was one of the ones who was frustrated by those submissions (although, I swear, not one of the ones who complained). When you take the time to do a very thorough critique, you want to believe that your comments have some impact, that, in fact, the writer is listening to you. This doesn’t mean that that writers must unfailingly do what a CP tells them to do—writers and critiquers can have honest differences of opinion on some things. But if a CP points out that you’ve got serious problems (like POV shifts or missing explanations or garbled prose), you need to at least take heed and try to avoid doing the same thing next time around.

I think most of us in critique groups are willing to put up with submissions that have lots of problems: That’s part of the price you pay to be part of the group. But if you know the writer in question is going to have the same freakin’ problems week after week, you start wanting to avoid her if possible. For example, as a former copyeditor, I have a hard time reading through mechanical errors without trying to correct them. But if the writer has so many mechanical errors that I lose the thread when I’m reading, I may start sounding testy after a while. It’s one thing to miss the occasional comma. It’s another to throw in semicolons with reckless abandon and without any clear idea of what they’re supposed to do. Does that mean I expect other writers to be mechanically perfect from the get-go? Obviously not (although I can always dream). But it does mean I don’t expect to see semicolons used with the same cluelessness in the next MS I read from this author.

In the end, it all boils down to time, as it frequently does with writing. Submissions with lots of errors take a lot longer to read. Like most critiquers, I’m willing to give other writers that time at least once or twice. But if I seen the same thing over and over again, I’m going to start feeling like my time is being wasted. And that, as Don Corleone used to say in a very different context, I do not forgive.

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I just finished Nancy Taylor Rosenburg’s thriller The Cheater. It’s part of a series, although I didn’t realize that when I picked it up. The heroine is a former DA who’s now a judge in Ventura, CA.

She’s also a mess.

Mind you, she has every right to be. In previous novels she was raped by an intruder who also raped her twelve-year-old daughter. She then murdered the man she thought was the rapist. She divorced the father of her daughter, and he was subsequently murdered by the actual rapist. She’s now married to a serial adulterer who’s also an alcoholic. In other words, she has Personal Problems.

Not surprisingly, the heroine herself is close to a basket case. She has flashbacks to the rape that distract her when she’s holding court. She’s afraid to be by herself, particularly at night. Her relationships with her husband, her daughter, and her colleagues are shaky at best. In fact, you find yourself wondering how this woman ever ended up on the bench (and hoping that you don’t have anyone like her on the bench in your town).

Clearly, The Cheater isn’t a romance, but I found myself wondering if a romance could have a damaged heroine like this. Frankly, I doubt it, but I’d make a distinction between the flawed heroine and the damaged heroine. Damaged heroines couldn’t make it in a romance that demands people pull themselves together in the end. Flawed heroines can, and frequently do.

Flawed heroines are quirky and sometimes annoying because they’re not perfect people. Contemporary romances are full of flawed heroines. Think of Jennifer Crusie’s Agnes in Agnes and the Hitman or Susan Elizabeth Phillips’s heroine in Natural Born Charmers or Kristan Higgins’s heroine in The Next Best Thing. They have their annoying idiosyncrasies, but they’re still people you can depend on, and heroines who have more admirable traits than defects.

Damaged heroines (and heroes) show up a lot more in mysteries and thrillers. Patricia Cornwell’s Kay Scarpetta is damaged. So is James Lee Burke’s Dave Robichaux. There are times when you wonder if they’ll be able to make it to the end of the book without cracking up.

I think the basic reason romance writers (and readers) prefer flawed to damaged is that our books tend to follow a rising story arc. We want our heroines (and heroes) to get stronger as they go. To recover. To grow. Basically, we want them to be better people at the end of the book than they were at the beginning. I worked with that idea with Long Time Gone–Erik was flawed, certainly, but he was better by the end of the book. Damaged characters can’t do that—once broken, they’re not likely to be healed in any real sense.

I don’t dislike books with damaged heroines or heroes, but I don’t necessarily seek them out either. At the end of The Cheater, I didn’t have any high hopes for Lily Forrester to become a more together person. She got through one dangerous situation, and she may be able to repair some of the damage to her life, but she’s never going to be whole. Overall, I have to admit, I sort of prefer the kind of thrillers written by somebody like Elizabeth Lowell, which are basically romances in thriller mode with a more-or-less romantic endings. And that’s fine with me. I don’t want to have to worry about who’s going to pick up the pieces after the novel ends.

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