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Archive for May, 2011

virginAll regency heroines are virgins. It’s a standard trope. The only exceptions to this are widows and the very occasional courtesan. But mostly the regency heroine is untouched as the driven snow, no matter what her age happens to be. And thus the scene in which the hero discovers that he’s making love to a virgin is a common regency convention.

On the other hand, a virginal heroine in contemporary romance is, well, weird.

These days any contemporary heroine over the age of, say, twenty is presumed to have had some kind of sexual experience. Now she may not have had much, and it may not have been great, but she has to have had some or she’ll seem a little peculiar. If a writer decides for some reason that her heroine has to be a virgin, she also has to come up with a reason. The heroine is shy. She comes from a small town and was the twenty-first century version of a bluestocking. She has a really awful fashion sense.  But there’s got to be an explanation for why the heroine maintained her virginity when all about her were losing theirs.

I’m sure some people find this particular strain in contemporary romance troubling. After all, thirty or forty years ago women were still expected to maintain their virtue until the wedding night, although, of course, their hubbies were supposed to have had enough sexual experience to be able to perform without a problem.

If I were still an academic, I might consider doing some research to discover just when this particular change took place. I’m pretty sure the virginal heroine was still the norm in the romances of the seventies and early eighties. But at some point, writers apparently decided to stop kidding around. The sexual revolution had already taken place. Clearly the virgin bride had become the exception, even if the bride had lost her virginity to her  future spouse.

I’ve gotta say, as a writer of contemporary romances, I don’t find this much of a problem. In fact, the lack of the “losing her virginity” scene makes my life somewhat easier. Given that I already find sex scenes tough to write, I really don’t want to have to struggle with virginity too! And for those who are still upset about this, I recommend Inspirational romance. I’m pretty sure the virgin bride still reigns supreme there. But in other romance, as in real life, sexuality has definitely evolved. Only the regency heroine still gets to present her virginity on a platter to her thoroughly discombobulated partner.

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Build the World

werewolfI’ve developed a new taste for other-worldly paranormals lately. You know the ones I’m talking about—where the author has come up with an alternate universe peopled with unlikely heroes and heroines. The Egyptian underworld actually exists! There’s a parallel demon society! Fairies live in a mound outside St. Louis! Done well, these paranormals are a lot of fun. Granted they take a certain amount of “willing suspension of disbelief,” and they frequently require you to sort of ride along with the alien world for a while because the author can’t really stop and explain things. Well, she could, but if she did the entire narrative would come to a screeching halt. Not a good idea.

The really tricky thing about this particular kind of paranormal (as opposed to the sort of “normal” werewolf or vampire tale) is coming up with a functioning universe. The best of these books manage to mix the mundane (apartments, cars, Starbucks fixations) with the totally strange (supernatural beings who appear at unexpected times, arcane tools that can be used for strange and not-very-wonderful purposes). If the mundane is recognizable, you’re more likely to accept the totally strange.

The other important element in all this is the nature of the characters who populate this world. Supernatural beings can’t be too supernatural. That is, they’ve got to retain enough humanity to allow a reader to understand and sympathize with their reactions. It’s a tricky mix because a demon who doesn’t seem like a supe isn’t going to hold your interest, but neither will a demon who doesn’t have any human reactions.

But the most crucial thing in all of this world-building is that the author has to play fair. She can’t conceal crucial facts about the world until they become convenient to reveal. This is similar to the major rule in mysteries that the author can’t withhold a crucial clue from the reader until the mystery is solved. The reader has to be given the facts and given the chance to solve the mystery on her own.

I thought about this lately when I was reading a largely enjoyable demon-world paranormal. The hero was one of those exotic paranormal breeds—half vampire and half werewolf. He’d gotten himself into a bad situation where his circumstances were threatening the life of the heroine, his beloved. And so he had another character kill him. Shocking. A show stopper.

And then in the next chapter we find him being revived and bitten because apparently the rules of his clan said that he could be reborn without the werewolf half. Which took care of all his problems. At that point, I found myself going, “Hold it! At what point did you tell us this was possible? And if it was possible, why did he wait until now?” The author had seemingly availed herself of a last-minute save by altering the rules of her universe to make it happen.

And that’s not fair. Not really. When you set up your universe, you have to let the reader understand how it works. And once you’ve gotten the universe established, you have to keep those rules in place. It’s not fair to suddenly say, “Oh I forgot to mention—in this world vampires aren’t affected by sunlight.” And it’s really not fair to say, “Oh I forgot to mention, although in most cases werewolves die when this happens, in this particular instance, he doesn’t.”

I sympathize with paranormal authors—they’ve got a tough row to hoe. I’ve even tried writing some paranormals of my own (which some day someone may want to publish), so I know how complicated it is to keep all the rules straight. Nonetheless, if you want me to visit your world, you need to make that world a place that functions predictably. I don’t mean boring; I do mean comprehensible. And if it’s comprehensible, I’ll play along. Even if it does involve twice-born werewolf vampires.

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lettersI’m on record as believing user reviews are basically a good thing. I can’t tell you how many times I’ve used these reviews for purchasing decisions on things like slow cookers. Reader reviews can come under the same heading, but not always. Some reader reviews are thoughtful and make a lot of sense. Some reader reviews are ridiculous. You pretty much have to know what kinds of things you like and don’t like before you start taking reader reviews to heart.

For example, I’ve had reader reviews that criticized my books for having too much sex. I’ve also had reader reviews that criticized my books for having sex that wasn’t hot enough. I consider these two opinions to be at opposite ends of the spectrum, but they were directed at the same book. Clearly, if you’re somebody who doesn’t like sex scenes in the books she reads (and good luck in finding a lot of modern romance that doesn’t include them), you probably won’t like my books. Similarly, if you’re someone who concentrates on erotica, you’ll probably find my sex scenes pretty tame. But if you’re someone who falls between these two extremes, neither review is going to be all that helpful to you.

Lately, I’ve seen a lot of commentary on authors’ loops about the fairness or unfairness of readers who leave negative reviews on books they’ve downloaded for free. The basic argument here is that, hey, it’s a freakin’ free book! So what do you want—your money back? Other, more level-headed authors have pointed out that people who read library books and borrowed books also get them for free and have also been known to leave negative reviews (although, to be fair, somebody bought a book here, just not the review writer). I can see the argument that everybody has the right to express an opinion on a book, free or not. On the other hand, if you download a book in a genre you hate (erotica, say, or inspirational), it seems remarkably mean-spirited to then criticize that book for fulfilling the demands of the genre.

I do read reader reviews, but not all of them. But then, I have a model to follow here. For over twenty years I taught at a public university where I was required to have my classes evaluated by my students once or twice every semester. At first, I read these evaluations carefully when they were handed back during the next semester. And I was always devastated by the negative ones, particularly the negative ones that seemed like personal attacks. But after a while, I began to figure out what was going on. Students who’d done poorly in the class because they’d slacked off or missed assignments or showed up only sporadically were pissed at me because they hadn’t been able to finesse their own weaknesses. They used the evaluations as a way to strike back. They didn’t have anything constructive to offer because they were getting revenge, so I basically stopped reading their comments.

Book reviewers aren’t really seeking revenge, but the nasty ones aren’t really trying to help you either. Reading reviews where the reviewer seems to have a personal ax to grind or where the reviewer is being negative because it gives him a feeling of power aren’t going to do much other than make you feel lousy. They sure won’t improve your writing.

And really that’s the only reason to look at reader reviews in the first place—to see if they can offer suggestions that could help your writing. If they can’t, you might as well sigh and move on.

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You know how it is. You start reading a new novel and slowly you begin to see the outlines of the plot emerging. And after fifty pages or so, the pieces start falling into place. Okay, it’s another poor-bluestocking-goes-to-London plot—which variation will this be? Will she become a companion for her beautiful cousin? Will she help her beautiful sister find a rich husband to save the family? Will she track down her rich uncle and beg him for money for her almost-starving siblings? How exactly will she Save The Day, once she manages to catch the interest of the cynical, decadent, and filthy rich hero, who will marry her in the end (after, of course, deflowering her midway through the book)?

It’s a formula, one you may have seen several times. And once you recognize the pieces, you can settle back and watch how well the author uses them. What will she do to make this one different? How will her characters measure up to those in similar books? How will this particular version of the formula take those pieces and make them fresh and intriguing? Or not.

Formulas are another thing that many critics hate about popular fiction. It’s “formulaic,” they sneer. This is undoubtedly true. I’m just not sure it constitutes a problem. Formulas have their place, and done well, they can produce the pleasure of the familiar mixed in with a pinch of the adventuresome.

Romance, for example, has almost as many stock characters as restoration comedy and there are only so many ways those characters can interact. Formulas represent a way of setting up the chess board, as it were. If a contemporary romance features an ambitious young heroine, trying to claw her way up the professional ladder, who needs to Get A Life, you know she’ll end up in some situation where her driving ambition won’t help her and where she’ll learn how to cope with an unexpected complication. She’ll have to deal with a dilapidated bed and breakfast bequeathed by her Great Aunt Maude, say, or a directive from her boss to close down a newly acquired subsidiary business that happens to be the mainstay of that quirky small town in the wilds of Wyoming. If it’s a formula you enjoy, you’ll read on with pleasure. If it’s one you’re not excited by (and the ambitious young career woman brought low has never been a favorite of mine), you probably won’t get beyond the blurb.

The people who don’t like formulas are usually people who demand that fiction be constantly new. And who leap on anything—like, say, Pride and Prejudice Meets the Three Stooges—that fulfills that desire.

But there’s a long, long tradition of using plots and storylines that readers already know. Shakespeare’s plots were hardly unique. Dickens’ novels were full of detail and character sketches, but the stories themselves weren’t exactly unpredictable. And coming up with a story line that no one’s ever thought of before may be impossible anyway—it’s more typical for an author to take something that worked in one setting, like a folk tale motif, and transfer it to another setting, like a space ship orbiting Antares.

Personally, I’m more upset by formulas that are used badly than by the fact of the formulas themselves. I love to see someone like Loretta Chase play with audience expectations in Lord of Scoundrels, but I’m never in any doubt where the hero and heroine will end up. Elizabeth Lowell can teach me a lot about jewels in Midnight on Ruby Bayou, but I’m not upset that the plot runs on clearly identifiable rails. When the Nine Naughty Novelists did our send-up of vampire/werewolf paranormals, The Zillionaire Vampire Cowboy’s Secret Werewolf Babies, and our Regency parody, Love’s Savage Whiplash, we had a lot of fun playing with all the conventions of the genres. But you’ll notice we ended up in pretty much the same place we would have ended up even if the books had been played straight.

So here’s to formulas, y’all. Done well, they’re actually a lot of fun. It’s always enjoyable to have one part of your life that you can rely on to work out the way it should.

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