Posts Tagged ‘romance writing’

woman writingMost romances are written in third person. It’s not a requirement, mind you. There are first person romances, some of them classics (Jane Eyre springs to mind). But using third person allows you to use multiple points of view, switching back and forth between hero and heroine, for example, with the villain thrown in sometimes for a little variety. First person tends to be somewhat hermetic, locking the reader into a form of deliberate tunnel vision. Since romance delights in showing what both partners in a relationship feel, third person frequently works best.

Mysteries and thrillers, in contrast, use first person more often. It gives mystery writers the opportunity to play games with narrators, including the ultimate unreliable narrator, the murderer himself. And since mysteries can benefit from having a limited point of view (more opportunities to overlook vital evidence and to be deluded by preconceptions, for example), first person can work well.

But things start to get murky when authors want to introduce more than one point of view. If getting one voice right is tricky (and it is), getting more than one right is a real balancing act. Still, both romance and mystery writers have found interesting ways to experiment with multiple narrators—as well as some familiar ways to fail.

One recent mystery example is Margaret Maron’s Long Upon the Land, part of Maron’s Judge Deborah Knott series. The series began as simple first person, all narrated by Deborah. But at a certain point, Maron decided to add another point of view through Deborah’s husband, Dwight. Rather than having two first person narrators, however, she writes Dwight’s chapters in third person and Deborah’s in first. Long Upon the Land also adds another third person point of view, a series of flashbacks showing the love affair between Deborah’s parents. The great advantage of using both first and third person comes in making a clean demarcation between points of view: if the chapter is in first person, you know it’s Deborah; if it’s third, it’s either Dwight or a flashback. Maron succeeds in making these three voices distinct and readable. Judith Merkle Riley does something similar in Serpent Garden. The heroine narrates her sections, with a engagingly quirky, first person voice. The sections focusing on the hero or the various supernatural characters are written in third person, switching the point of view from the heroine’s more limited, sometimes confused perspective to a deliberately omniscient overview.

Using more than one first person narrator is also possible, although a great deal trickier. Linda Fairstein’s Devil’s Bridge uses two first person narrators, the heroine, Alex Cooper, and the hero, Mike Chapman. Unfortunately, Devil’s Bridge illustrates all the problems that come with that technique, chiefly that these two voices, supposedly from two very different people, sound remarkably similar. We know that we’re reading Mike’s narration because Alex is missing for most of the book, but it might as well be Alex. There’s nothing distinctive about the voice—when Mike makes references to Alex’s Porthault sheets and Chanel perfume I found myself wondering why a tough NYC detective would know or care what brands his girlfriend uses. The answer, I’m afraid, is that both Alex and Fairstein care, not Mike.

So what choice is best? Hard to say since it depends a great deal on the skill of the author involved. To me, multiple first person narrators are tough, but I can see the attraction. The main thing is that all these point of view choices have to arise from the story. In the wrong hands, both first and third person can be clunky. In the right hands, they can sing.

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A few weeks ago, Amazon announced an interesting statistic: their e-book sales, which had earlier eclipsed their hardback sales, had now exceeded their paperback sales. E-books were officially Amazon’s best-selling format.

The response from a certain segment of the romance-writing community was immediate, although not exactly what you might expect. Amazon, they said, was lying. E-books couldn’t be more popular than print. They never would be. It was all marketing—Amazon just wanted to sell Kindles. E-books were just a passing fad and e-book readers were selfish swine who were destroying independent booksellers and probably responsible for the bankruptcy of Borders. Lalalalalala—I can’t heeeeear you!

Those of us who write e-books may not have found this response all that surprising. For years some segments of this community have tried to marginalize us or pretend we don’t exist. We were told our books weren’t “real” books. We were told that the “stigma” of electronic publishing would prevent us from ever being published by a print publisher. For a few years, we were even kept out of the Professional Authors Network of RWA because membership required a publisher’s advance of twelve hundred dollars, and most e-publishers give higher royalty payments instead of advances (the membership rules have since changed). One former president of RWA wrote editorials in the organization’s magazine that were so patronizing to e-book authors (and so dismissive of their work) that several e-book authors I know dropped their membership in protest.

RWA has become somewhat more ebook friendly since then. The current leadership is much less inclined to dismiss us and changes have been made to contest rules and rules for discussion and special interest groups to make it easier for us to participate. But the old attitudes still lurk around the edges, especially when the topic of e-book sales comes up.

Now let me go on record here as saying I believe Amazon is telling the truth: their e-book sales probably have exceeded their other sales. But I also believe that e-book sales in general are still not as great as print sales in general. I own a Kindle myself, but I read more hardbacks and paperbacks for the most part (courtesy of my trusty local library).

Still, I also believe the growth in e-book sales isn’t going to slack off for a simple reason: my younger son reads his newspapers and magazines on line. I don’t, you see. I have a newspaper subscription, also subscriptions to several magazines. I have no particular interest in reading them on my phone or on an iPad. But my son has no interest in reading them in paper. My son’s generation will eventually be the major book buyers, and my son’s generation has no problem with reading electronically. In fact, they seem to prefer it.

So will print disappear? Of course not. Will it become less common? I think so, but perhaps not soon. Will the romance-writing community learn to suck it up?

Lordy, let’s hope so. I’m really tired of these discussions about how e-books are either a flash in the pan or the end of Western civilization as we know it.


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I have a friend who’s been trying to publish his novels for several years. He writes literary fiction, with an occasional foray into science fiction and fantasy. He’s come close to publication several times—I’d get a message that he’d gotten an agent or that one of his manuscripts was under review at such-and-such publisher. He even tried screen-writing, and again, his screenplays would get positive comments from someone in the industry and he’d be on the verge of being optioned. But nothing ever worked out for him, although he’s managed to produce lots of manuscripts over the years.

A few weeks ago, this friend asked me to lunch. He wanted to ask me a few questions about electronic publishing. As it turned out, he was very excited about electronic publishing in general. But more specifically, he was very excited about the possibility of electronic publishing in romance.

Now this friend has always been somewhat lukewarm about romances, including mine. In general, he seems to feel that romance is a second-rate genre, and that it didn’t take much talent to write one. Now, however, he’s seen that electronic publishing in romance has been growing by leaps and bounds. To make a long story short, he figured that with all the new electronic publishers around, he could knock out a few romance novels and get them published in no time at all.

As you might imagine, I did my best to disabuse him of this idea. His opinion about romance writing isn’t all that uncommon, though. A lot of people who write literary fiction are convinced that popular fiction in general (and frequently romance in particular) is easy to write, and that anyone who can handle literary fiction can certainly turn out publishable pop fiction with one hand tied behind his/her back.

I think the reason this opinion keeps turning up is the fact that pop fiction genres frequently depend on conventions, while literary fiction is, at least nominally, less convention-bound. Romance has several, of course—the happy ending is the most common, but you’ve also got minor conventions and tropes that show up repeatedly in various romance subgenres. Romance writers (and readers) know them well and have come to rely upon them. But the mistake these literary writers make is in thinking that all a writer has to do is plug those conventions in and voila, instant bestseller.

Now I still judge contests occasionally, and I’ve read a lot of wannabe romances in my time. I’m here to tell you, plugging in conventions is only a small part of what it takes to write a successful romance novel. Most contest entrants can use the conventions of whatever subgenre they’re working in, but only a few of them can do it in a way that makes you want to go on reading. There’s a vast difference between a contest entrant who knows that a Regency heroine is supposed to dance at Almack’s and a Julia Quinn who knows how to make that dance into something you’re really dying to read about. Like everything else in writing, handling conventions is a matter of skill.

I wished my friend luck, but I also tried hard to nudge him in the direction of science fiction and fantasy. At least he’d already had some experience and success in those genres, and they’re also areas where electronic publishing is increasingly widespread. He might actually be able to get one of his old manuscripts into shape for a publisher. But his chances of succeeding in romance writing, given that he doesn’t really read romance novels and also doesn’t like them much, are slim.

Electronic publishing has made it easier for more people to get their books into print, but it hasn’t made it any easier to write a good romance any more than it’s made it easier to write good literary fiction. And all popular wisdom to the contrary, good romances are still what publishers (electronic and otherwise) are looking for.

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Romance and Politics

It’s campaign season and it’s killing me. In “real life” I’m a very opinionated person—just ask my friends and family. I can fulminate with the best of them and I have very definite political beliefs. All of which I have to leave at the door when I become Romance Writer.

When I taught at Enormous State University, I was always careful to keep my political opinions to myself. I didn’t want my students, many of whom held political opinions that were radically different from mine, to feel that they were in any danger of being persecuted for their beliefs. This was easier for me than for some of my colleagues since I taught things like document design and Web writing, where the subject of politics rarely came up (my friends in the history department were more hard pressed). Even so, I worked to keep my own opinions in the background. I knew what it was like to be on the receiving end of teacher prejudice more than once (when I was a kid, one teacher ridiculed me in front of my homeroom class for having a book about dinosaurs, which obviously meant I believed in (gasp) evolution).

Now as a novelist I’m in a somewhat similar position. I don’t want to limit myself to any particular group of readers, and I don’t want to exclude anyone from my books if I can help it. I’ve had some people complain about the sex scenes in my books, and I can’t do much about that (or anyway, I don’t intend to). Others have complained that my characters take the Lord’s Name in vain, and again I’m not going to change that since I want my dialogue to sound the way most people talk. But I try not to make my characters reflect any particular political agenda because as a reader I’ve been annoyed when authors did that. Some authors, like Jane Haddam, can get by with having political discussions in their work, but most of us can’t do it. I’ve found myself exasperated by characters in romance novels who suddenly start preaching about a particular social philosophy, and even more exasperated if the author inserts a hateful or absurd character who happens to share my own social philosophy. I abandoned one popular series when the author went out of her way to slam some political programs I happen to believe in. And that, of course, is the danger: when you step up on a soapbox, you risk alienating all the readers who don’t agree with you.

But my beliefs do show up in my books. My characters share my values—how could they not? When they stand up for something or against something, they’re reflecting my own ideas. So my leanings aren’t exactly a secret, even though they may not be blatantly expressed in my writing.

Still, at times like these I have a hard time keeping my mouth shut. Every day I hear things that I find outrageous and wrong. I’m longing to say something about it on Twitter or Facebook or MySpace, or to write a really blistering blog piece about the stuff that’s in the wind. But I won’t. Or anyway, I don’t think I will. The sound you hear is me, gritting my teeth so hard it hurts.


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