10 Problems with Romance Novels

In my new book, The Perigee Moon, one of the characters will be a romance novelist. Mostly it’s for comic effect, but also the premise is that the author loves what she does, and only hopes to help a few romance-starved ladies be a bit happier because of her stories.

I wanted to research romance novels, and strangely couldn’t find any that were written in the 60s and 70s. Apparently these are out of print, and you can’t find them in the library, nor on Amazon. The only place I could find them was eBay.

Here are a few facts I found about romance novels when searching:

  • Many romance novels have the word “Love” in the title. I would guess upward of 40%. The word may also appear in regular  fiction, but not with the same frequency.
  • Romance novels are written according to a formula which must include conflict and sex. If it doesn’t have both, forget it, it will never be published. There are a minimum number of sex scenes allowed and a minimum of crisis points allowed.
  • Romance novels always have a Happy Ending.
  • There are sections at the library, specifically reserved for romance. A red heart on a pink background designates it at a  romance, at least at the library I visit.
  • Romance fiction is the largest share of the consumer market.
  • During economic downturns, the sale of romance novels goes up.
  • It has been identified that many women are addicted to reading romance novels, in the real sense, such that they neglect  their work, their families and ruin marriages.

While waiting for my decades-old romance novels to arrive, I researched a modern romance, thinking that it must be a lot like the older ones, but with more sex. I discovered I don’t really like them very much, at least the one I selected, which I did at random since there were about a billion to choose from.

And besides, an author can learn a lot about writing just from reading, not limited to what is liked but what is not liked. Here are a few things I noted while reading my chosen novel. I only got to Chapter Ten, I had had quite enough by then, and put sticky tabs on the pages where I noted some fun things to blog about.

Names and specifics have been changed to protect the identity of the novel.

1. Show vs Tell. Always, it is taught, show through narrative and dialogue what the character thinks. Don’t tell us. Here are a couple of examples of Telling Extraordinaire. This is common in romance novels in order to set up the conflict that must be there. That’s why romance novels don’t have to conform to the rules of other literature, because they are the soap operas of novels, and we know soaps are never subtle.

  • She shuddered as she felt the full force of feelings she thought she’d buried so deep she would never have to face them again.
  • He realized that he was standing at the bottom of the escalator, lost in memory, blocking other people from getting off…
  • Because he had walked away from her all those years ago, it had cut her too deeply, too completely, for her to risk passion again.
  • His intense nearly black eyes narrowed and he looked at her as though seeing her for the first time, hearing the wistfulness and sensitivity so unlike her usual manner.
  • She was the only woman whose mental and physical response to him had made him reach down to the deepest parts of himself, satisfying needs that were less tangible and more enduring than lust.

2. Overused back story. It’s always convenient for anyone who could have helped out or intervened in a situation in order to make it less  traumatic for the heroine, to disappear. In this case, our heroine is left without either parent at the same time she is left by the bad guy hero and has just learned she is pregnant.

Then her parents had stepped on the wrong airplane and died in the kind of crash that left little to be buried except her own childhood.

3. Lazy descriptions. Yet again, a beautiful woman. Not a subtle way to describe our heroine. It should have been much less obvious. Let’s ix-nay the grimace. And also the rainwater eyes. And who likes pixies anyway?

She grimaced. She didn’t need a mirror to know that she was small, slender, and appealing if you liked pixies. With her pale blond hair and rainwater eyes, she made great photo material….

 4. Too unrealistic. Here he is thinking thoughts that wouldn’t have been in anyone’s head as they contemplate death. He returns  to the story, so he obviously didn’t die, and would more likely have been thinking about how to get out of a rather, um, precarious situation.

When he’d hung head-down over a chasm, looking at his own grave two thousand feet below, it had been her face that came to him, her voice that he heard. He regretted losing her more than he’d ever admitted to himself until that moment, when it was too late.

5. Too convenient storyline. Obviously, the hero doesn’t know about the child, and the heroine isn’t about to tell him, so it’s just a little bit too easy that the kid just happens to be away for a week, thus allowing our hero to remain uninformed as to the existence of his offspring. And the “Oh wait! Now I remember!” is a bit of an eye-roller.

A quick glance at her watch told her that she still had plenty of time to pick up her daughter at the ranch, which served as a school bus stop. Then she remembered that Annie was spending the week with her closest friend, at the ranch.

6. Sappy metaphors, or putting Thesaurus.com to good use. The following is after the heroine has poured water on the seats of a  hot Jeep that has sat out in the Arizona (or some Southwestern state) sun in mid afternoon.

She wished she had something as useful to pour on her smoldering memories.

7. Typical sex scenes. Romance novels describe sex in more detail than other literary works, which allude to it (preferred) rather  than expound on it. It’s also common practice to use cute phrases for body parts like “button”. Romance novels are not explicit like erotica, but impart way too much information. We all know how it’s done, we don’t need it ‘splained. I especially like “pouting promise”. Ah, alliteration.

  • He’d kissed her then, a kiss that had narrowed the world to the heat and hunger of their joined mouths.
  • He wanted to pour himself into her, filling her until she overflowed and turned to him with her own need, her own demand that he be part of her until they were one and that one burned with an endless fire.
  • Finally, lured by the pouting promise of her breasts, he pulled his mouth away from hers.

8. Conflict that is too extravagant. The whole premise of this story is trumped up to make the differences between the couple so drastic there can’t possibly be a solution.

  • (Our heroine reflecting on the hero leaving years ago) Then he’d walked away without a backward look, never calling, never writing, tearing out her heart and leaving her to bleed in silence.
  • (Meanwhile this is what our hero is thinking) Emotion shook him, a fury he hadn’t felt since he’d discovered that she had aborted their baby.
  • Hate him. Hug him. Scream at him. Soothe the lines of exhaustion from his face. Take a piece of muddy rope and strangle him. Kiss him like the world was burning down around her.

 9. Dialogue that is unbelievable. This is said by another guy to our hero for the sole purpose of informing the reader that the hero is one smart guy! It’s the author’s attempt to show through dialogue I think, but it doesn’t ring true. No one would say this.

I’m a real fan. You’re the only writer I’ve ever found who was as accurate as he was exciting to read. The story you did on the discrepancies and order of precedence between drawings and specifications was nothing short of brilliant.

10. Men saying or thinking things that, in the real world, they never would.

My God! Did I hurt her so badly that she refused to trust anyone after me? Did she really mean it when she cried out her love in my arms?

I hope I do not offend any romance novel lovers with my critique. Likely, there are good and well, not so good, ones. The one depicted here is in the latter category.

What do you think about romance novels?


Perfection is the Enemy

My post is a little early this week. But I wanted to share it.

I had an eye-opening discussion with my daughter-in-law over the weekend, as I attempted to assist her with an upcoming interview. When I asked if there was a time she sacrificed quality on a project, she said something interesting, that yes, there were times when absolute perfection might not be the ultimate goal, if it involves missing a deadline or going over budget. And as my husband says, “Perfection is the enemy of just good enough.”

It occurred to me, that’s what is happening to me, even though I don’t want my book to be “just good enough”, the comparison is clear. I have edited, and proof-read, Second Stories so many times that I think I might know it by heart. And every time I say, I’ll just look at the things I changed, make sure that’s right, and then I end up reading the whole thing through again. Frankly, I’m sick of it. And now I’ve found one thing, yet again, that I don’t like. I’ve fixed that, and a couple of other things that nagged at me and now I am ready to pull that trigger. Get it out there. Has anyone else gone through this?

Second Stories is actually my first book. I put it on the shelf for a while, and wrote Whatever Happened to Lily?, and afterwards went back to it. It needed to be tweaked, of course, and many parts were completely rewritten but the basic story is the same. It’s the story of four men, and a lasting friendship among them, since their first day of work at Bethlehem Steel. The office politics, the union problems, the angst when the place shut down, all of that is in the book. Of the four, three of them have relationship issues, to varying degrees. Especially one of them, a guy who always tried to do the right thing, and discovered he’d done everything wrong.

They say the first book is autobiographical, and that’s probably true. You write what you know. There’s Lydia, who is agoraphobic, and has low self-esteem, and renovates her house, and all she wants is to have her beautiful home and the love of her family. Of course, she can’t have that, because she’s married to the guy who did everything wrong. Then there’s Bonnie, who went back to school later in life, and Angie who became a macramé addict and a feminist and a computer programmer in the eighties, and Patti, who loved soap operas and romance novels. They are all me, to varying degrees. I took something of myself, and exaggerated it and formed four separate characters. Although, in defense of my soap-watching days, I did that while steaming wallpaper off the walls. Well, mostly, I did.

I wanted the book to be about experiences in the sixties, seventies, eighties, up to the present. The first chapter is a bit of a prologue, it takes place in May, 2008. Then there is a history of each of the four couples, up until the time the men start work in August of 1968. Then the Steel years, the changes that take place in the relationships of the couples, and finally, back to 2008 and the last half takes place from May through New Year’s, when the excrement hits the fan, with Lydia and her wrong-doing husband, and other changes take place, with the other couples. There’s a little politics in the book, as the guys sit around in a delightfully dumpy bar, named Wally’s, and discuss the events of the day, and the upcoming election. The model for Wally’s is a bar called Obie’s in Toledo, Ohio. Mr. Obie (aka O’Brien) used to lean on the counter and pass out beers and talk to the regulars, while Mrs. Obie just smiled at everyone and flipped burgers.

Back in the sixties, it was a lot easier for misunderstandings to happen. That’s why I like writing about it. Today, with voicemail and email and texting and IMing and Twitter and Facebook and LinkedIn to name a few, combined with the way people are today, free, unencumbered by hang-ups like we were, or maybe not to the extent we were, it seems harder to me, to have the kinds of gut-wrenching problems that could have happened back then. Back when there weren’t even answering machines, and the phone just rang and rang and rang when nobody was home.

Remember when Jay tried to call Lily after she stopped writing to him? He called and no one answered. That’s because Lily couldn’t talk to him, she was there but didn’t pick up. She didn’t have the guts to tell him what had happened. If she’d had an answering machine, he’d have left a message. If she didn’t return his call, he would have got it, that she didn’t want to be with him any longer. End of relationship, end of story. But he really didn’t know what happened to her. Ah, conflict. Conflict = Good.

Do you recall the story of the Duke University student who rated her lovers, last year? I thought, wow. That’s sure a lot different than it was back when I was a college student. Back then, we still were a lot more romantic about sex. I think I liked that better. I’m pretty sure there are a lot of young women out there who will find the kinds of issues that happen to the Second Stories characters, a bit, uh, dated. Or silly, or just plain stupid. But then, as I said in an earlier post, this may not be their genre. And it’s history. It wouldn’t happen today, but it could have happened back then.

Who agrees? Love to hear from you…

Not everyone has to like your book for it to be a success

I’ll bet every writer feels the same way, when that first novel is finally out there, and s/he waits with a great amount of trepidation, what will the comments be? What will people say about it? The notice goes out, okay all you Friends and Family, I’ve been talking about it for a couple of years now, it’s ready for prime time. And they tell you, I just ordered your book, or I’m going to order your book but couldn’t find it on Amazon, or I looked for your book in the store but couldn’t find it, and so you answer each one, because after all, it’s important for as many people to get their hands on it as possible.

(Never mind that Amazon’s search engine won’t find the book unless the title is typed in exactly, “Whatever” is one word not two, and “Lily” is with one L not two, and if you mess up, you won’t find it. That’s not good. I’m betting if you screwed up one of John Grisham’s titles, it would probably come up anyway. But that’s another story.)

The first two weeks are the hardest, although occasionally someone will tell you that they are reading it, and they really like it, or once in awhile they’ll say, “I can’t put it down.” That’s good. But still, no one has reached the end yet, so maybe they can’t put it down now, but it gets boring in the end, or maybe the end is just, well, dumb.

I gave a proof copy to my daughter-in-law. She likes cozy mysteries, and has a job, and a five-year-old, and a house to take care of. She doesn’t get much time to read she said. She texted me six days later to tell me she’d been hooked from the first, that she thought it was really, really good. To say her comments were important to me, and very, very gratifying, would be an understatement. I was stunned. I hadn’t expected it.

And then I got an email from a high school friend, who ordered the book and it arrived in time for him to take on a trip to Europe and he read it on the plane, and while he was there, and on the trip back. He wrote to me when he got home and told me he absolutely loved it, that the characters were great, and he used lots of exclamation points. I could tell he meant it, he wouldn’t have had to be that complimentary, and I had only seen him once in twenty years. He wouldn’t have had to say anything, but he did. That was a turning point for me. Two people liked it, and one was a guy. I was on my way.

And a few of my friends, women, started to tell me they really liked it too, and I noticed some were very moved by the story. But still, some of the comments were more like “Good job, I liked it”. I went to a week long gathering with six friends, and they all liked it, but I knew some liked it more than others.

One of my best friends said it was the best book she’d ever read. Although she may have actually said “it was maybe the best book I’ve ever read” or “one of the best books I’ve ever read”. I’ll have to go back and check that voicemail, which I kept.

Another close friend of mine ordered it, immediately after it came out. And to this day, not one word has been said between us, about it. To me, this means she probably started to read it, didn’t care for it, and gave up on it. Or maybe she read the whole thing through, gritting her teeth the whole time, and still didn’t care for it, or disliked it a lot, or actually thought it sucked, but couldn’t say that.

I talk about it with my husband sometimes, my writerly insecurities, and one day he said, you know, not everyone has to like your book for it to be a success. And I thought about that, and how right he was.

My close friend, above, the one who has yet to say anything, is a Stephen King fan, a lover of Dean Koontz. She likes action movies, science fiction. We can hardly find a movie to talk about that we both like, although we did both like Fargo and Pulp Fiction. She likes musicals. I dislike musicals. She loves the TV show Glee. So I tried to watch Glee. You Glee-watchers will know the plot better than I, but I watched a segment about the cute cheerleader, who is pregnant and everyone thinks it’s one guy’s baby, but it’s really another guy’s baby. Apparently the Glee cheerleaders are doing more in their spare time than practicing their back flips. The guy-who-everyone-thought-was-the-father, while at the cheerleader’s house, and at the dinner table with her parents, breaks into song, “You’re Havin’ My Baby”.

What?!! Really?


Is it any wonder, then, that perhaps she couldn’t be as enthusiastic as some of the other readers, who might be more inclined to favor the genre in which I write? She just doesn’t have the guts to say it. Your book… well, it sucked. For me anyway.

I’ve read reviews of Jonathan Franzen’s Freedom. Most liked it. Some did not. We all know how successful that book has been. Oprah liked it, that’s enough. The reviewers who didn’t like it probably gave rave reviews to the Twilight series.

The President’s approval rating will fluctuate between 40% and say, 60%, although that’s on the high end. There are 40% of people out there who will never approve of the President no matter how good a job he does. If he found every single American a job, and stopped global warming, and secured the borders, and reduced the deficit to the point where we had a surplus, and didn’t raise taxes, and wore a flag pin every day, and even learned how to bowl better, 40% of the population still would not approve.

So the moral of the story is: Not everyone likes the same stuff. And it’s a good thing we don’t.

I’d love some comments!

First Entry – January 9, 2011

First Entry! I’m glad to be here…

I’m new to the blogging world. It’s a little harder than I first thought it would be. I decided to start out simple, maybe progress from there, so it might look different week to week. I hope so, at this point I’m not too sure about anything. Hopefully, it will become easier with time and I’ll figure out how to get neat things on the sidebars. For now, it’s pretty basic, I’m afraid.

A few years back, I decided I’d like to write a book, which is not an uncommon goal. Many people want to and some actually do it. There are more books being written today than at any other time.  I’d thought about it for years, what it would be about, what the characters might be like, where the plot would take the reader. It was to be a story about a group of women, friends who had graduated from high school together, and still live in the same town, and get together once a month at each other’s homes and play a mindless game, of maybe, Bunko. The purpose of the gatherings is not to play Bunko of course, but to gossip and compare notes and outdo each other with fancy margarita recipes.

I didn’t end up writing it, but maybe I will someday. I still like the concept, that the women continue to get together month after month, year after year, because it’s become a habit. Their lives have gone in very different directions and today, many of them would very likely not be friends at all. Some are nicer than others.

I ended up writing a book about a friendship among men instead and the relationships with the women in their lives. Second Stories, which will be available very soon. Before that, I wrote one about a romance that didn’t end properly, Whatever Happened to Lily?, a love affair which left many unanswered questions, and the two people in it hadn’t properly closed the chapter on that time in their lives.

When the books are written, and available on Amazon.com, what comes next? The author must market them, whether s/he publishes in the old traditional way, or in the new traditional way, i.e. self-publishes. The author has exhausted his/her circle of family and friends, so how to break out of that sphere and go, dare I say, viral?

I took an online course called Social Networking for Authors (Beth Barany, it’s well worth it) who shares her tips and tricks. Pick your poison, she says, decide what works for you and concentrate on that. We can’t do everything, after all. I decided to put up a Facebook fan page for my books, and began to tweet some and thought about blogging. I knew if I decided to blog, I had to decide how often I would post, and commit to it. Nothing will discourage readers more than their visiting your blog only to discover it hasn’t been touched in three weeks, after you’d advertised that it would be updated weekly. If it were me, I’d probably take that off my Favorites right then and there.

How many blogs are out there? Millions! Millions of blogs, the number goes up every minute. Who wants to read another one? I’m not sure, I only know what will happen if I don’t try, and that’s… nothing. So I’m committing. It will be a weekly blog, and will be updated at the end of each week. And if there’s an emergency, if I’m in the hospital, or if I have such a case of writer’s block that I’m paralyzed by it, there will at least be an entry to explain it, and beg for forgiveness and to be allowed to remain on your Favorites list a while longer.

The subject matter will, naturally, center on writing, but also on things one degree removed from that, or two, or three. And maybe I’ll write next Christmas when my annual trip to Toys R Us is over, when I haven’t done a good enough job ordering online, and have to actually, venture into that evil, fluorescent den of Chinese-made, overpriced, marketing miracles they call toys these days. Just an example.

Subjects like, listening to music while you write, writing in your head when you can’t be at the computer, things I’ve learned along the way. Maybe I can even help some people. I’d like that. And subjects that interest my target audience, men and women who grew up in the sixties and seventies.

Please comment and come back next week!