TRR Forum:
Pushing a Reader's Hot Buttons
by Tina Engler
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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 romantic fiction.

"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 on.

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, bizarre.

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.

Gag me.

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 time.

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 purple prose.

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 reviewer anywhere.

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 way.

But that's my opinion. What's yours?

Readers, email The Romance Reader with your opinion. Have an idea for a Forum of your own? Let us know.

March 7, 2001


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