At the last romance novel convention I attended I did my fair share of
dodging glares from authors who haven't earned very positive reviews from our
site in the past. Sometimes I wasn't even the reviewer who gave their book/s
the bad grade, but the fact that I was from The Romance Reader was apparently enough to send
a few writers into high dudgeon.
TRR, I learned, has somewhat of a rep in the world of romantic fiction as
being a tough but fair review site. The fair I can understand, but tough?
That I don't get. None of us here are egotistical literary snobs more
interested in penning a bad review than in promoting a really good story. All
of us are just normal women, mere average readers who love reading good
"But what," She of High Dudgeon might ask, "constitutes good romantic
fiction? All readers are, after all, different!" To which She of TRR replies,
"True. But that doesn't mean that there aren't basic premises that the
majority of all readers expect."
So what are these premises? What separates a one or two heart
read from a four or five heart one?
I doubt there is such a thing as an all-inclusive list, for She of High
Dudgeon is correct in assuming that all readers (and therefore reviewers) are
different people with varying tastes, but there are still some definite
things to watch out for. Based upon endless heated comments I've heard from
other romantic fiction enthusiasts, an exhaustive examination of some of the
negative reviews given here at TRR, and just plain old common sense, I have
compiled the following list: (Do with it what you will!)
1. Do your research.
This is the cardinal rule for any author of historical romance. Although most
readers are willing to overlook small factual inaccuracies when the plot and
characters are compelling enough to warrant it, many readers tend to become
annoyed by errors that are so glaring as to detract from the novel's
experience as a whole. And if you haven't penned characters and
storylines powerful enough to overcome these foibles, that's when your
readership (and critics) get up in arms.
From describing a 30-year-old woman's age as threescore (which is 60!), to
giving Scottish brogues to English characters, to interchanging the words
"sennight" and "fortnight" as if they mean the same thing (a week and 2 weeks,
respectively), to employing the use of modern words and phrases in a medieval
setting...I have seen just about every glaring error possible within the
historical romantic genre.
So please, do your book and your potential readership a favor: if you don't
know what year Bannockburn was won, look it up. If you aren't certain how
many children Charles II sired, don't just arbitrarily make up a number...look it up!
The same holds true for contemporary research. If you want to pen a Navy Seal
hero for the studliness factor, yet have absolutely no idea what a Seal's job
description is...look it up! If you think it would be fun to set your book in
modern day Ireland but have never been there and have no clue as to what
sorts of phrases the Irish use...make Internet pen pals! In other words,
romance writing and laziness do not go together. Do your research!
2. Beware of brogues.
Och but I ken 'tis verra little in this wee world quite sae sexy as a brawny
Scottish laird, but when ye canna ken the bluidy meanin' o what yer hero's
sayin' it makes the lassies readin' yer book go a wee bit daft.
Gwen Osbourne (of TRR) pointed out to me that the same holds true for
regional dialects and slang. A little southern drawl or ethnic lingo goes a
long way. Don't give your readers migraines as a thanks for trying to
decipher the dialogue.
3. Kill the cliches.
An evil mistress, a tiresome trip to the modiste, a stubborn hero who refuses
to acknowledge his feelings for the heroine until she almost dies of the
augue, a wilted lily heroine, an instant and inexplicable electricity between
the protagonists under unrealistic circumstances, an emotionally stilted hero
with an abusive and/or neglected childhood, a cop-out hero that never wants
to marry because his parents' marriage was terrible...the list goes on and
We've all read these scenarios a million times over and don't care to read
about them a million and one. If you want to make your mark as a fresh voice
within the genre, be innovative in your storytelling. Don't reinvent the
wheel; smash it to pieces and start from scratch.
The same holds true for overused words, phrases, and descriptions. Consider,
for example, the phraseology many a Regency and Victorian Era author
manipulates to hit you over the head with the fact that (before meeting the
heroine) her hero is a naughty little bad-boy in dire need of a spanking. How
many times have you been obliged to endure the term "profligate rake" or
"faithless rogue" in your reading? And why must every "profligate rake" hero
be a crack shot on the dueling field, an unmatched boxer at Jackson's, the
best whist player at Whites, the local whorehouse's favored patron, and in the Prince
Regent's set? With such a daunting social schedule when precisely does the
man find time to meet the heroine, let alone fall in love with her?
Probably the worst sort of cliches are the contrived ones that make no
sense, yet authors still continue to employ them
because...er...well...probably because other authors still do. How many
times, for instance, have you read a passage in a romance novel like, "She
itched to reach up and brush that rakish lock of hair out of his eyes," and
then thought to yourself immediately after reading it, "you know, I have never
once in my life entertained the desire to do such a thing"? Not only are
phrases such as the aforementioned one cliched, but they are also, well,
4. The Big Misunderstanding is a big no-no.
He thinks she cheated on him. She thinks he's still sleeping with his former
mistress. He believes she wants nothing to do with him while she is so in
love she can scarcely contain it. Did he marry her for her dower lands? Did
she seduce him for his title? [sigh] We've all read way too many of these
stories where the angst isn't resolved until the final chapter, creating a
storyline glutted with tons and tons of minor misunderstandings and
miscommunications throughout the read that stem solely from the employment of
The Big Misunderstanding.
Anyone can write a thousand different dismal scenes to keep their
protagonists apart until the end. A true artist can forgo The Big
Misunderstanding and still keep their readers' attention. Add a little
suspense, add a little intrigue, but spare us all the ill-conceived would never happen in real life except to two people too
stupid to live storylines.
5. Heroines are not wallpaper.
This is not only one of my biggest gripes, but also one of the major reasons
a lot of romance novels suffer at the hands of critics and readers alike. Yes, women
love to read about larger-than-life heroes, but there is also much to be said
for a spunky female lead. To think that a romance novel sells on hero power
alone is a major faux pas. In fact, every five heart review I have ever given
has always contained a colorful heroine.
From Dark Magic by Christine Feehan to Third Time Lucky by Claire Cross, the
more dynamic the heroine is the more enjoyable the book. If you're going to
pen a winning romance novel, pay as much attention to Jane as to John. If you
haven't fallen in love with your heroine by the time all is said and done,
why should readers?
6. Write about humans, not about aliens.
Unless you're writing a science fiction novel, all protagonists should be
penned in such a way as to reflect the fact that they are human. Creating
heroines that are gross caricatures of perfect femininity, for instance, is a
major turnoff to your less than perfect readership.
An exemplar novel of what NOT to do that immediately springs to mind is a recent category heroine. Gina is a
30-year-old virgin that does absolutely no wrong. She's as pure as the driven
snow, as flawless as a Florida sunset, and as sweet as Vermont syrup. Gina
never curses, never raises her voice, has never had an impure thought, never
thinks to back talk her man, always wears pink, and never eats anything with
too many calories.
Since the majority of your potential readership won't be qualifying for
sainthood in this life or any other, it is safe to say that Gina isn't an
adequate reflection of them as human women. If you want to lure in human
readers, write about human people.
7. Stay away from overdone narrative and overwhelming dialogue.
Pages and pages and pages of narrative with nary a word of character dialogue
in between puts the D in Dull. Conversely, pages and pages and pages of
character dialogue with little to no narrative as a mental break is daunting.
Superior storytelling generally contains a carefully scripted balance between narrative and
character dialogue. Both ingredients are necessary to capture
your readership's attention and keep it.
8. Read and reread your work.
When I asked my fellow reviewers at TRR to give me feedback on the rough
draft of this article, quite a few of them responded with the assertion that
bad grammar and spelling errors are major turnoffs for them. Susan Scribner,
for instance, says that although she isn't too much of a stickler for minor
historical inaccuracies, butchering the English language turns her off every
Using "who's" instead of "whose", "there" instead of "their"...I even recall
one novel where the word "funguses" was used instead of "fungi". Yeek!
Please bear in mind while penning your novel that the stereotype you've heard
about romance readers is not true. In other words, don't insult your
readership's intelligence with spelling errors and atrocious grammar, because
we are not a bunch of ninny morons who failed the fifth grade. Yes,
the spell checker is your friend. Use it!
9. Be consistent.
In some ways this point belongs under point number eight because I'm convinced
that if authors took more time to reread their work, consistency wouldn't be
an issue. Referring to a secondary character as "Jake" in Chapter One and
"Joe" three chapters later, for example, is confusing and annoying.
A perfect example of this type of error: In one historical romance, the heroine's name is Sabre and
Sabre's sister-in-law (the heroine from a previous book) is named Rachel. At
one point toward the end of the read, Sabre becomes ill and the hero is at
her bedside wishing her well. Wanting to make certain Sabre is still alive
and ticking, the hero "laid his head lightly against Rachel's chest".
Oh he did, did he? Needless to say I figured out that no, the hero hadn't
been manhandling his sister-in-law, and that the author had merely made a
name mistake. Nevertheless, the error is a significant one because it
detracts from an emotional moment between Sabre and her husband that
otherwise would have been quite powerful.
10. Sex is red hot and wonderful. Don't color it purple.
True, not only must you satisfy your potential readers, but you must also satisfy your publisher.
While readers seem to lean more toward wanting sex scenes that don't depict
the act and the human body in an obscure way (obscure being "manroots" and
"loverods" for penises, "sheaths" and "love valleys" for vaginas, "a fissure
of electricity jolting her love grotto" for getting wet, etc.), it seems that
the majority of mainstream publishers are the polar opposite and prefer the
The best advice I can give an aspiring author is to pen your sex scenes
without the prose and let your editor ax it later. Don't, however, give up
the ship without a fight. Argue with your editor that readers want to read
about normal sex and normally-named body parts. Send them a link to this
article. Do what you must. Just don't give in without a fight.
11. Stay true to yourself.
In the end, you can't please everybody so aim to please yourself. On this
score She of TRR and She of High Dudgeon agree. However, if you pen a decent
plot, create interesting characters, and take note of the Hot Buttons above, I
can't see your literary endeavor garnering less than three hearts from any
Nevertheless, readers and reviewers are not clones of one another. We all
have different tastes in what we consider a good romantic read. Some readers
enjoy historicals with tons of rich detail woven throughout the plot...I
prefer wallpaper historicals where there's just enough detail to give it a
realistic feel. Some readers like lots of heavy sex...some like one or two
scenes at best. In other words, we are all unique individuals with unique
romance novel tastes. You can't please all of us, so strive to please
yourself and chances are you will pick up quite a few happy readers along the
But that's my opinion.
Readers, email The Romance Reader with your opinion. Have an idea for a Forum of your own? Let us know.
March 7, 2001