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…

View original post 281 more words

Huh?

So I’ve been getting these strange comments, mostly on my “One Hundred Words” entry, and I truly don’t understand what’s going on with them. Here’s the second one I opened this morning:

 

 

“Hi there, just came alert to your blog through Google and found that it is really informative. I’m gonna watch out for brussels.

I’ll be grateful if you will continue this in the future. Many people will be benefitted from your writing.

Cheers!”

No kidding. And this is like the seventh such comment I’ve had on my blog site. Wha…?

Making book.

Okay, so I’ve been playing around with my third manuscript, which I’m developing under the title “Outrush,” and I’ve selected the following section of narrative for my opening. Could change my mind tomorrow, but I’m liking it for now. This story is the third in my New Adult Paranormal romance series, the first of which was “Updrift,” the second parked under the title, “Breakwater.” For your reading pleasure (I hope…)!

Maya took a break from her notebook to sip her coffee. Afterward, she stretched in her chair, using the activity as an excuse to check and see if the guys following her were still across the street. Yep. The Undertaker was behind the wheel of his car, reading his newspaper as usual; and Jethro was in the window of the café opposite hers, texting on his phone.

She didn’t know these men, but she’d needed to call them something, and the Undertaker was a gaunt, cadaverous-looking guy. Maya could picture him draining blood in a basement mortuary, hence the name. Jethro looked even less like a detective, Maya thought; he was too beefy and handsome and built, and not at all inconspicuous. Her made-up story for him was that he’d been sent over from central casting to shoot a toothpaste ad and got lost on his way to the studio.

Week four, Maya sighed, rubbing her eyes. About a month since she’d noticed she was being followed, or watched, or whatever. Most people would have run, she supposed, and at first, she wanted to. Not that she’d done anything wrong, as far as she knew, but being the subject of someone’s surveillance mission was creepy, made her want to sneak away even if she was innocent. The scientist in her prevailed, however, and, instead of acting to avoid scrutiny, she’d done the opposite. She maintained an even stricter schedule, leaving and returning to her apartment at the same times each day, running errands on set afternoons to the same places, even stopping for coffee at the Bean Machine each afternoon, as she was doing now. If she found her regular table was taken, she took her second regular table instead, and then moved if her first choice opened up.

This constancy, which she knew made her easier to trail, also allowed her to verify she was being followed, and by whom. Now she could recognize the characters sent to attend her, and she’d become familiar with their quirks, like the Undertaker’s tendency to tap his fingers when he was restless, and Jethro’s fondness for chewing gum. She’d trained them, too; like good little ducks following her mother-duck lead, they had fallen into the pattern she dictated, meaning they took up the same posts in the same places each time she took up hers, and wasn’t that just a sad testament to their spying competence? There were four of them on rotation – Porky and Popeye had the day off today. Which she could predict at this point, since it was Tuesday, and Tuesdays were Jethro and Undertaker days.

One thing for sure, these guys weren’t the low-level paparazzi she was used to seeing around her socialite in-laws. These guys didn’t have the look – no cameras, no slouching around in what looked like permanently slept-in clothing. Even their expressions were wrong, devoid of the mix of desperation and defiance Maya considered a kind of trade calling card.

No, these guys were paid babysitters looking for something other than media currency, which was the variable in this situation she couldn’t, no matter how hard she racked her brain, figure out. What did they want? What had she done to warrant such an action? She stared at her notebook screen again and pretended to take interest in her work…

…and then she felt it, that overwhelming sense of peace she sometimes, God knew not often enough, experienced like a gift, always when she was teetering on the edge of a nervous breakdown. Her last reprieve had been weeks ago. But here it was again out of nowhere, blanketing and embracing her like her own mother’s caress, and oh, how lovely to feel cared for and protected and like everything was going to be okay. She understood just how tightly wound she was if a fantasy encouragement could undo her to this extent. And here she thought she’d been coping just fine with her disaster of a life and smashed-up emotions. She was wrong.

But for the moment, her feeling of well-being was complete and intensifying. Something was coming, and she opened her eyes, realizing only then she’d closed them. A man approached her table, no one she knew, but she instinctively identified him as the source of her comfort. When he reached her, she smiled at him as if they were old friends.

He stopped to rest a hand on her shoulder, a hand she clasped in gratitude and held against her cheek.

Everything will be okay. I’m going to help.

She heard the words as if he’d spoken them, and she was so grateful, she thought she might cry. She turned her face to press her forehead against his forearm. Thankyouthankyouthankyoupleasestaybyme, she thought. The man looked out the window and frowned, and then gently disengaged his hand from hers. After a stroke to her hair, he walked away.

Maya noticed the alarmed expressions of her watchers across the street but couldn’t be induced to care. As she reveled in her break from anxiety, she followed their actions without real concern, like she was watching a television show instead of real people who might be planning to hurt her. Jethro spoke grimly into his headset while the Undertaker left to tail the man Maya considered her angel of mercy, and she knew they were reacting to the exchange they’d just seen. Even so, nothing pierced her calm until she became aware of what Jethro said.

Her protector was retreating, his soothing influence dissipating as he went, but she still felt connected to him, was still fortified and hopeful, even imagined she heard his voice. Just now, he whispered urgently in her ear, You need to know what’s going on, Maya. Then he provided a kind of short-distance translation of Jethro’s phone conversation.

“Contact’s been made,” Jethro was saying. “Looked like a lover, but that had to be a front. Been here all month and never seen the guy before. May have passed a message. We’re following.”

Maya’s confidence faltered, but she still felt bold enough to meet Jethro’s eyes when he looked up from his call. She was tired of pretending to be unaware, tired of his lurking oversight, and really tired of the subterfuge he and his colleagues represented, one she couldn’t figure out and could no longer stand to live with. Jethro held her gaze while he discreetly moved a panel of his jacket aside, just enough for her to see his holstered gun. She’d thrown down a challenge, and his response – a clear threat – caused fear to rocket through Maya’s veins like a shot of jet fuel to an over-primed engine. She launched herself from her chair, grabbed her things and bolted away from the window, running through the kitchen to find a back way out.

Old skool.

I’ve been buried in a creative writing program the last six months and had fun playing with a vignette where I tried out a male voice in the style of Nabakov. Ha! Thought I’d share:

            The summer I turned thirteen, I transitioned from boyhood during a car ride with my grandparents, my transport a dung brown ’77 Oldsmobile with stained seats and the inescapable scent of life gone stale. Papa pontificated from behind the wheel, musing on the mystical fate that led some people to fortune and others to struggle. Nana sat on the passenger side, gazing out the window, which she had cracked at the top to receive her exhalations of cigarette smoke.

            “Slow down, Rob,” she interjected, showing rare interest in her surroundings, or maybe she wanted a reprieve from her husband’s tyrannical introspection. “I want to see the yards.”

            The car itself reflected our social station. It was used, purchased from someone affluent we badly wished to emulate, someone from a posh neighborhood such as we were visiting that afternoon. An undiagnosed mechanical click announced our presence as we progressed, compelling a nervous cadence to Papa’s speech. “Goddamn engine,” he muttered. “Not like I need more problems.” He resumed his sermon on the valor of the oppressed poor over – and here he indicated the palaces around us – “those greedy bastards who take from the rest of us.”

            “Slower, Rob,” Nana insisted. “What do you think of that curved walkway?” Our pace became a crawl.

            My independent experiences convinced me I was better than all this. I was aware, for example, of the unquantifiable salience of the rock band, Rush; and had achieved mastery in “Asteroids” and “Pac-Man.” Why should I, with such worldliness, suffer the tired imprecations of those who were bitter and old? I turned away to consult my own reveries.

            I imagined living in the white Mediterranean on the corner. I would have my own room and plenty of quarters for the arcade. I would own a better bike and ditch my paper route. The curtains parted and Debbie Bristol from school stared at me from the other side.

            “Drive away,” I whispered desperately.

            “Stop the car,” Nana ordered, and our clicking was like a rainfall of anvils sent from above to crush me. Debbie raised her hand and mouthed, “Hi.” I wanted badly to disappear, to not be seen gawking from a poorly maintained vehicle in a neighborhood we clearly didn’t belong. I composed my face to reflect indifference, but Papa’s and Nana’s expressions revealed resentment, as well as naked, burning want.

            Thus I was caught, not for how I wished to appear, but as I actually was, my life in vivid dissection before a girl I liked.

             “Who is she?” Nana asked, her sharp stare reflected in the mirror on her visor.

            I half heard her, absorbed as I was in an epiphany regarding my identity, and who I might be ten or twenty years from now to a girl like Debbie. I was heartbroken over my insufficiencies, over the delta between my current state and the man I would have to become, but I waved back. “She’s just a girl from school,” I said.