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Realism in Romance?

Thank you, Errin for hosting me on your blog today. My topic is inspired by comments from one of my editors as well as some reader feedback to my Moonlight Romance series. I hope my essay will inspire thought and even some comments!

How Realistic Should Romances Be?

I’m not talking about what happens in the bedroom or merely the aspects of a relationship here. I’m talking about books in every sub-genre of romance. Do readers expect some level of fantasy? Reading is escapism so is the genre supposed to be a Hollywood version of life? All readers have their own thoughts on this issue. Here are mine.

Let’s start small and work to bigger issues, shall we? Living with or dating another person is never always rosy. Do we want to know that the hero has bad morning breath? Do we want to know that the heroine hates folding laundry and has clothes piled up on her floor? I think many readers can relate to such small flaws. No one is perfect. What I hate most about a book is when a character is practically perfect. A few flaws will make them more human, more real.

Okay, let’s go a little deeper. Do we want to know that hero blames himself for his younger brother’s death? That could be the foundation to a multi-faceted character. I can picture a woman coming into his life and helping him heal, perhaps helping him to see the truth. He was only eight. He wasn’t old enough to watch his little brother in the pool. What if he did know better? What if he picked his little brother up from football practice and they got into an accident because he was driving drunk? Is that too much reality? Would you prefer his little brother only had some scars?

We’ve all done stupid things in life and hopefully we learned from them. Our characters need to learn, too. An author’s own level of reality tolerance should guide their writing. While some flaws or necessary the writer gets to pick which flaw and how deep the flaw runs. Do not try to guess what the audience will want. It is impossible to please all your readers. The best you can do is to write a story you are proud of and that pleases you. Even classics such as Shakespeare have 1-star reviews.

There are even darker issues that appear in some romances: bullying, blackmail, physical abuse, rape, racism, etc. I’ve touched on some of these darker issues myself. Why do I choose to bring a gritty realism to my romances? I feel readers should learn and reflect on what they read. I’m not one of those fluffy feel good authors. If you are, I have nothing against you. Feel good books have their place, and when I’m depressed I reach for one of those and a carton of ice cream. Some romances seem like pure fantasy, and I don’t mean just fantasy and sci-fi romance. The dashing alpha males and sexy billionaires can make my heart race, but little about them feels realistic. I don’t know about you, but I haven’t met any billionaires. Those are my thoughts on the subject. Now it is your turn to weigh in.

How realistic do you think romances should be?

Haley is an author of historical romance set in the Civil War era. Many of her titles are interracial or African-American. In her free time Haley enjoys hiking, antiquing, and being a slave to her cat. If you want to read more about her, drop in at http://haleywhitehall.com/ for updates and release information. Her re-release Midnight Caller is on sale for 99 cents through the end of August.

http://haleywhitehall.com/ for updates and release information. Her re-release Midnight Caller is on sale for 99 cents through the end of August.

Reader Beware.

Reading rivals everything I value on this planet. Everything. Before I was a wife, mother, writer – even really a friend to anyone – I lived/breathed/survived on fiction. Don’t ask me what I liked to eat growing up, ’cause I couldn’t say. But ask me what I read, and get ready to shoot me if you hope to get out of my fervent, evangelical clutches when I launch into an answer.

I make my confession without shame, since I know many of you are the same way. In fact, I’m posting this essay on my personal blog site because of the solidarity I feel with other readers, not on LinkedIn from the standpoint of a writer, since writers are already well aware of the problems with online book reviews. And there are problems you should be aware of, friends.

It’s like this: have you ever read a book you out-and-out loved, gone online, and queried the internet for recommendations on others like it? Sure you have. Despite how compromised the information might be, I still do it. The big book sites make it easy, even, running titles of “similar” books, or “books you might also like” when you make an online purchase. Embedded in these recommendations are ratings tied to reviews to help us readers make an informed decision, with one star indicating the book is not up to snuff, and five stars telling us this could be The One. The One we read through 25 other books to get what we most crave out of reading. Enter the emotional and economic capitalists, i.e., people seeking relevance by writing reviews to have influence, no matter how sad, on others; and people out to convince you they have what you need so you’ll buy it from them.

Genuine reviews are still out there, but they’re buried among the purchased and coached and not-quite-honestly motivated. Reader referral sites have deep – not just superficial – sales ties these days, and Amazon gives greater prominence on its site to books with more than 50 reviews, which has prompted some authors to buy them from services that offer such things, or create ghost accounts by seemingly different people and post glowing reviews. Why wouldn’t they? Amazon, being the biggest distributor, has come under fire for not doing more to protect readers from unethical reviews; Google Books, from reports I’ve read, is a more careful steward of reader trust, but they’re no Amazon when it comes to reader influence. I found this Forbes article to give any of you interested more background on the various issues in play: http://www.forbes.com/sites/suwcharmananderson/2012/08/28/fake-reviews-amazons-rotten-core/

Authors are at fault, too, and reputable reviewers are leaving the online community because of them. Two long-time reviewers I know took their sites down recently due to threats from authors to whom they did not grant five-star ratings. And I already posted this link to an article that ran in The Guardian last year, http://www.theguardian.com/books/2014/oct/18/am-i-being-catfished-an-author-confronts-her-number-one-online-critic In this particular drama, the author, who feels justifiably offended, acts pretty suspiciously, herself – one former reviewer I know had this funny but chilling comeback when she read the piece: “I so very wish [this author] had come to my doorstep. I promise you, she would not have left it.”

I don’t know the answer to this problem, except to talk about it, and maybe encourage readers to keep asking questions. I believe the companies we buy from will act on our behalf if we do, either via existing vehicles or a new one. One thing I can say as an author is I know many, many talented, caring writers who want to make this situation better, their professional interests aside.

So. Have you ever been taken in by a disingenuous review? Have you found reviewers you trust, or sites you now return to for recommends? Post a comment and let me know what you think!

Be a sister.

Every year, a student from my alma mater calls our house, I suspect as a requirement for her work-study aid package, to ask for a donation during the school’s annual fund drive. I’m a Katie, which means I graduated from what was the College of St. Catherine (now St. Catherine University), an all-women’s college established by the Sisters of St. Joseph in St. Paul, Minnesota, in 1905.

I love St. Kate’s. I love the old-world character of the place, from the haunting and austere chapel that feels so weighted with humanity, you’d think Christ himself prayed there; to the modern student union and performing arts center, which, despite their fresher architecture, somehow stream 13th century European light through the windows. I love that one of the college’s first presidents, Sister Antonia McHugh, foiled St. Paul’s plans to run a road through campus by ramrodding the construction of a massive building at the precise juncture the city wanted better traffic flow. I love how all the nun presidents, including the one in office now, Sister Andrea Lee, accept no salary, that the money they would be paid cycles back into scholarships and upgrades to the campus. I love the intellectual curiosity the school fosters, and I love how it births, year after year, an ecumenical and activist student body that seems, at first glance, oppositional to its traditional Catholic roots.

Less than half of the undergrad population at St. Kate’s was and is Catholic (as in Roman), but by the time everyone leaves, I like to think they/we all end up catholic (as in universal). I have vivid memories of a sheik’s daughter being dropped off each day via limo, space being made in a common area for a Buddhist shrine, and the regular appearance of sari-clad students, whose brilliant silks were an ocular shock next to us soberly dressed American girls. It was heady stuff for a bunch of nervous, semi-adults embarking on a journey to separate their understanding of “self” from home and hearth. Any prejudices we had were quickly challenged by the need to study together, or share meals or laundry soap, or to lend out supplies when a pencil broke or book got left behind.

Few of the faculty are nuns any longer – I was taught by only five when I was there – but the nuns deserve 100 percent of the credit for continuing to enlarge the world both on and off St. Kate’s campus. They educated themselves to the limits of their own abilities in order to teach, and they taught everyone. Their goal was not to evangelize or convert. It was the St. Joe Sisters who loved what educated women could and would do, who manifested moral and educational values so appealing, girls from all over the Midwest – not to mention France and India and England and Brazil – flocked to learn from them. It was their high hopes for all of society that drove and still drives a thoughtful liberal arts curriculum, one that has turned out thousands upon thousands of smart, engaged women who went on to become doctors, lawyers, teachers, nurses, and social workers – they even produce, I’m told, the occasional paranormal romance novelist…

That aside, show me a Katie, and I’ll show you someone interested and interesting, someone with a refined understanding of who she is and what she needs to do, and who has the discipline to act on that understanding.

A different student calls me each year, but she always asks the question, “Do you have any advice for me as a freshman starting out here?” The marketer in me knows this is meant to play on my loyalty so that, hopefully, I’ll contribute, but I still bite. Katie alumnae do care about St. Kate’s, and the school is smart to have us start a conversation with future alums.

I used to try to give them a “big” answer, something that touches on the soul-edifying influence a St. Kate’s education will have later, when they’re working women, mothers, wives, or artists; but my callers aren’t interested in sermons, and I don’t blame them. When you’re just starting out, you shouldn’t be asked to figure out your beginning AND how you’ll feel about it in thirty years. Instead, I praise them for getting themselves there in the first place, and I tell them to eat well, get enough sleep, and go to class. I don’t have to say what I really hope for them, because if they make it through, it’ll happen. But I think it. I think how this person I’m talking with is learning, at this very moment, to be someone the sisters envisioned when they built that school, and how lucky she is, and how lucky I was to have gone there.

Self-proclaimed experts.

A writer friend in Atlanta sent me this link, and I found the article fascinating. In this age of online-ness, where we often don’t ever meet the people we rely on professionally, I found this cautionary tale especially salient. The author was nuts, of course, and way, way out line going to the extent she did… but part of me is glad she did it. Maybe the rest of us won’t have to? See what you think: http://www.theguardian.com/books/2014/oct/18/am-i-being-catfished-an-author-confronts-her-number-one-online-critic

Still a New Age?

I was doing a bit of research this morning as I dither over a possibility I have with a smaller publisher (I’m tentatively excited!). I used to follow Nathan when he was an agent, and I think the guy’s a terrific member of the online community and not just for writers. Anyway, I found his analysis on ebook sales pertinent enough to share. I also clicked on his Freelancers Union link, ’cause I think that’s interesting enough to share, too! Hope you found the following as useful as I did:

http://blog.nathanbransford.com/2013/04/no-e-book-sales-are-not-declining.html

“Writer without permission.”

Someone really liked my tagline on my LinkedIn page and wrote a post about it. How sweet!

conversation is an engine

Write On Your Own Dime

A new LinkedIn friend in the Minneapolis/Saint Paul area has a job title “Writer without permission.” The genius of her title is to say out loud what most every writer is thinking—nobody asked for this, nobody gave me permission, and frankly, no one is waiting for me to finish it. The whole thing is entirely self-motivated.

Let there be more of her tribe.

Writers without permission may encamp here as needed--not that you need permission. Writers without permission may encamp here as needed–not that you need permission.

Writers often stop mid-sentence and think,

I am entirely unqualified to write this. When will someone knock on my door and say, ‘Hey—Stop it: You got no business writing that.’?

When those Philip Glass moments occur, whether real or imagined, the writer without permission pauses and then continues the sentence. And the next sentence. And so on—breezing past the “No Trespassing” signs posted around the perimeter of the topic.

If…

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