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Shortcuts

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Robin talks about this all the time. A short cut is a romance convenience, not just a convention. All genres have them but I’m most familiar with the romance genre and thus my attention is placed on its foibles.

Shortcuts are when an author relies on an archetype or trope in order to draw upon the collective memory of a romance reader to fill in the necessary motivation or backstory for a character. This often results in anachronistic behavior which confuses the reader and results in accusations of the reader not understanding. It can also result in distance between the reader and the story because the reader simply isn’t provided enough information to relate to the characters.

Despite how silly it may appear, JR Ward appears on her boards in character from time to time. She knows her male characters intimately, down to the type of liquor that they like to drink; whether they wear jeans, tailored slacks or leather pants; and if they are a boxer, brief, commando guy. Unfortunately, her heroines are not so well developed. The depth of their characters largely rests on the color of their guns and perhaps their pre-BDB employment.

In TV and movies, the actors themselves bring flavor to the character in terms of facial expressions, body language, and intonations. If an author does not provide this, the reader is required to fill in all of this information.

There are some authors who excel at characterizations: Lisa Kleypas is one. Cam is quite a different hero than Merripen even though they are both of gypsy descent. Nora Roberts and Suzanne Brockmann are equally adept at creating memorable and different characters.

But often you see a reliance on shorthand to provide the flavor of a character. It is this reliance that produces the cookie cutter feel of the genre. So much of how a character acts in the course of the book should depend, not just on the circumstances, but what has gone on before the story ever starts. What was their childhood like? In Lord of Scoundrels, Loretta Chase sets up her story by showing Sebastien as a child, eager to earn the love and appreciation of his father, only to be cast aside brutally for a speech impediment and his swarthy looks. He grows up to despise his appearance and believes that he is not loveable. Jessica Trent, on the other hand, has been a poor relation with a open minded grandmother/guardian and a hapless brother. Jessica creates some of her own messes by constantly bailing out her brother and not forcing him to make decisions for himself.

A character that springs fully formed without backstory or acts with inconsistency often provides a disjointed read. What was their childhood like? Did they have siblings? Where in the order of the family did the character place? Did the character grow up in the country? city? rural? urban? Who were the most influential people in their lives and why? Did religion affect them?

To some extent, I think the worry about writing racially diverse characters can be allayed if authors spend time thinking about the character rather than focusing so much on inserting one or two elements to prove the character’s nationality.

There should be elements of the character’s life that the author knows but we may never see. Where the backstory informs the character’s decision making process. I wish as much time were spent constructing hte character as an author spends constructing the world in which the character’s live.

Robin: It’s interesting, because at first I didn’t notice the genre shortcuts/shorthand. I read books I thought were so interesting and then I’d talk to a friend about them and she was like, “eh, I’ve read hundreds of those.” Now that I have read hundreds of those, I get it. And in many cases it frustrates me.

I understand that authors feel constricted by diminishing page and word lengths, but some of my favorite books in the genre remain the old Laura London (aka Sharon and Tom Curtis) category Regencies. Without explicit sex, often little more than a few hot and heavy kisses, these books, from Love’s A Stage to the Bad Baron’s Daughter, feel so richly layered to me, even upon multiple re-reads. Allusions to classical literature and myth, primary and secondary characters posssessing surprising dimension, interesting plot turns (how about getting the hero and heroine into an escaped hot air balloon and stranding them in a crumbling country manor house for the night?), and tight, elegant prose, books like these make me somewhat impatient with complaints about the limits of space. Especially when book after book seems to be turning out another profligate aristocrat, penniless debutante, quirky widow/divorcee with a fluffy little dog, and Navy SEAL.

Even more problematic, I think, is the was shortcuts become entrenched genre authority, passed between books so readily and indiscriminately that readers will often insist on the authenticity or accuracy of something that is, in fact, completely invented. Although I still don’t understand the system of titles and entailments, I know that these areas are a source of constant frustration for those who know intimately how it really worked, since the genre so rarely seems to conform to historical reality. I get a little crazy every time I see the maurading Viking hero presented as the exemplar of uncivilized lustiness. Or American Puritans as sexless prudes. We see it everywhere, from small examples (red hair in a heroine equals fiery and passionate; the FBI/CIA hero equals mysterious and/or brooding alpha in need of love and understanding) to large (Heyer’s Regency history has been accepted as real and has populated the genre with who knows how many misnomers and mistakes).

Although I do not believe that shortcuts reflect lazy storytelling, I do think that if we don’t spend some time thinking about whether they are still valid and useful, the genre runs the risk of getting stale and, more problematically, of perpetuating outdated and undesirable stereotypes. The sheikh as the “exotic other lover,” for example, or the virgin widow as the sensuous virgin, or the trusty Black sidekick as a dose of ethnic flavor, or the pedophilac villain as everything evil imperiling the romantic couple. And when I see resistance to taking a second look at these shortcuts, I’m always puzzled, especially when I see authors talk about how devoted to the craft of writing they remain. I know that many regard Romance as formulaic (I prefer to see its boundaries as those of form rather than formula), but every good recipe depends on fresh ingredients. If you use stale flour to bake a cake, it’s not going to be comforting and delicious – it’s going to taste like cardboard, or worse.

With all of the ways the genre riffs off its broad history, there is a vertible treasure trove (and we know how much Romance loves treasure, especially if it’s accompanied by a sexy pirate) of types and tropes to refresh and reinterpret. Sure, one day those will become shortcuts, too, but hopefully by then we’ll have moved on to the next interpretive movement within the genre.

Jane Litte is the founder of Dear Author, a lawyer, and a lover of pencil skirts. She spends her downtime reading romances and writing about them. Her TBR pile is much larger than the one shown in the picture and not as pretty. You can reach Jane by email at jane @ dearauthor dot com

160 Comments

  1. Lizzy
    Nov 03, 2009 @ 07:47:50

    I love the heroine in Bad Baron’s Daughter, but I don’t think I would if she wasn’t so well-written (i.e., she does a lot of wall-banger type stuff that would irritate me a less superior book).

  2. Jody
    Nov 03, 2009 @ 08:18:08

    Very interesting and insightful article and perhaps why romance is looked down on by literary snobs.

    Within new constraints of reduced word counts and number of books published, generating fresh and engaging characters in a credible story is indeed a challenge to authors.

  3. A
    Nov 03, 2009 @ 08:21:59

    I understand that authors feel constricted by diminishing page and word lengths, but some of my favorite books in the genre remain the old Laura London (aka Sharon and Tom Curtis) category Regencies. Without explicit sex, often little more than a few hot and heavy kisses, these books, from Love's A Stage to the Bad Baron's Daughter, feel so richly layered to me, even upon multiple re-reads. Allusions to classical literature and myth, primary and secondary characters posssessing surprising dimension, interesting plot turns (how about getting the hero and heroine into an escaped hot air balloon and stranding them in a crumbling country manor house for the night?), and tight, elegant prose, books like these make me somewhat impatient with complaints about the limits of space. Especially when book after book seems to be turning out another profligate aristocrat, penniless debutante, quirky widow/divorcee with a fluffy little dog, and Navy SEAL.

    I feel your pain. I suspect many authors aren’t telling the story they’d like to tell so much as writing stories that sell.

    I can’t tell you how many comments similar to yours I’ve seen (LOL at the irony.) Sales figures suggest the general public WANTS “shortcut storytelling.” In epublishing, a work is termed a “novel” if it’s 40,000 words long. “Shortcut and sexy” outsells the kind of storytelling you’ve described.

    As a writer, sometimes I’m metaphorically tearing my hair out thinking “I can do MUCH more with this character/secondary character/plot/subplot/scene…if I could just do away with some of the love scenes.”

  4. Jane
    Nov 03, 2009 @ 08:24:08

    @A I think the point that Robin was making is that we’ve read a number of stories written in the short form that don’t stint on characterization. And why focus on secondary characters in such a short format? I’ll never understand that.

  5. joanne
    Nov 03, 2009 @ 08:32:18

    Sales figures suggest the general public WANTS “shortcut storytelling.”

    eh, I’m certainly not sure about sales figures but maybe what the public wants is authors to cut the crap.

    Pages and pages of sex between what amounts to strangers (to each other and the reader) and pages and pages that go nowhere and say even less about the characters/storyline make me, as a reader, roll my eyes.

    As this articles says it’s nice if the author ‘knows’ her characters and the world they live in. The trick of the trade is to give that knowledge to the reader with insightful writing and ‘complete’ characters. IMO

  6. A
    Nov 03, 2009 @ 08:47:41

    @Jane:

    Well, Jane, I’ve written nice “shorts” (30,000 words) where people gushed over my characters, setting, romantic tension, world-building, secondary characters…and then complained “it’s a good romance, but there’s no subplot.” (since the book was not “super hot” erotica, that was a complaint also.)

    I do believe there are readers who genuinely want a 100,000 word novel condensed to 30,000 words with none of the original depth and integrity lost.

    And why not develop secondary characters? If a character does not contribute texture and “flavor” to a book, s/he doesn’t belong there.

  7. DianeN
    Nov 03, 2009 @ 08:59:11

    Something I find frustrating about shortcuts is that they tend to repeat themselves right across the genre. Someone writes a successful vampire sheikh novel, and within months everyone is writing vampire sheikh novels which implicitly refer back to the first one. No matter how well written the original was, the copycats have an easier time of it because all they’re doing is changing the names and a few details of plot and characterization. And the publisher is laughing all the way to the bank because they believe that genre readers are happy to keep reading favorite tropes even when they’re lazily written rehashes. Sadly, I think those publishers are probably right more often than not. I suspect that’s why some readers prefer to stick with a certain subgenre–say, Regency romances–because they’re familiar and comfortable, and not the least bit challenging.

  8. A
    Nov 03, 2009 @ 08:59:57

    @joanne:

    eh, I'm certainly not sure about sales figures but maybe what the public wants is authors to cut the crap.

    Professional authors cannot gage their careers based upon speculation as to what the public wants. Authors’s works are published because people purchase them. Without “salability,” a work is essentially worthless.

    So, if X number of people say “I want books like this, this, and this…” and sales figures demonstrate that a different type of book is selling…publishers publish what they believe readers will buy.

    As this articles says it's nice if the author ‘knows' her characters and the world they live in. The trick of the trade is to give that knowledge to the reader with insightful writing and ‘complete' characters. IMO

    I agree. In my prewriting stage, I utilize character dossiers. Dossiers for my main characters are sometimes 10+ pages in length, and it’s remarkable how a tidbit character trait or background info contributes to plotting, whether or no those elements appear in the story.

  9. mina kelly
    Nov 03, 2009 @ 09:16:40

    Very interesting and insightful article and perhaps why romance is looked down on by literary snobs.

    Of course, literary fiction has its own genre shortcuts and conventions. All genres do. I have to admit, I’ve never really enjoyed literary fiction (making the rest of this paragraph horribly biased), and the way many literary snobs put down “genre” fiction tends to make that worse. Have to say, though, and English Lit degree left me with the impressrion literary fiction takes just as many shortcuts: blank sheet characters with no apparent motivations, ever; stream of consciousness neurotics with a constant babble that hides the fact they have no other defining personality characteristics; older men with regrets that can’t understand the younger generation because neither they nor the younger generation have been given any personal touches by the author. I mean, I like to think I could have my mind changed, but I’m just too busy reading books I do enjoy!

    I think Romance suffers more from sheer volume – with 400 books being published a month it’s easy to find a certain number depending on the same shortcuts, and point to them like there couldn’t possibly be an equal number of original and un-shortcut books from the same sample. For comaprison. though Sci Fi is still popular, it’s nothing compared to the output of the 50s pulp era, when critics could labast it because all alien women were sexy, all alien men cold and logical, and all alien planets like a single climate zone on earth. If you actually read the stuff, not nearly as many pulp authors take those shortcuts as you’d expect, but it’s still the overwhelming shadow cast over the genre even now.

  10. Jody
    Nov 03, 2009 @ 09:44:21

    I think Romance suffers more from sheer volume – with 400 books being published a month it's easy to find a certain number depending on the same shortcuts, and point to them like there couldn't possibly be an equal number of original and un-shortcut books from the same sample.

    Absolutely! It’s easier to point the well manicured finger of snobbery at a broad genre than at the multitudinous varieties of literary fiction, where it seems as though borders are growing fuzzier by the day. After the success of the No. 1 Ladies Detective Agency, for example (literary, mystery, chick lit, or a whole new category?) and the Steig Larsson Millennium series, non U.S. and British detectives are exploding into the U.S. market, though not at the rate of 400 books a month. Some are excellent, and some are purely awful. (SO off topic here, but the best ones I’ve read were originally published and enjoyed success in other countries).

  11. Jane
    Nov 03, 2009 @ 10:04:53

    I agree that the sheer volume of books published hurts the image of the genre and frankly hurts the genre in general. It would be one thing if the sheer volume was because of diversity but it’s not.

  12. A
    Nov 03, 2009 @ 10:29:56

    It’s intriguing to me that readers express desire for diversity, variety, “something different,” and so on. I don’t question readers’ sincerity, but…again…sales figures suggest readers in general don’t favor variety, or, at least, hesitate to purchase in favor of “tried and true” trends slow to change over time.

    I know I, as a reader, am much quicker to plunk money down on books matching my tastes than “something different.” Yes, I may finish reading disappointed, shaking my head, and calling “Book B” a ripoff of “Book A.” But I still opted to pass on purchasing “Book C.”

    This year, I’ve been building my Heyer library. It’s a fact that many of Heyer’s Regency romances follow a standard formula. It doesn’t matter to me. I like Heyer and enjoy (or, at least usually enjoy) her writing, and I know I won’t be disappointed.

  13. Caligi
    Nov 03, 2009 @ 10:53:49

    I will always choose the oddball offering over the tried and true, whether it’s books, music or video games.

    As brilliant as these oddball offerings are, I will concede that they don’t heat up the charts. Katamari Damacy was, in my opinion, the best game to come out on the PS2, but have you heard of it? I’ll bet you’ve heard of Madden, though, and that’s the same game every year, albeit with roster changes. I’ll bet you’ve never heard of many of my favorite games, which are common favorites among the diehards, but you’ve likely heard of the games I consider ho-hum.

    The same mechanic explains pop music. Coldplay sells tons of records, even though they’re boring as all hell, because they’re unoriginal. They’re accessible and comforting and people like that.

    Readers in general ARE boring people in it for the formula, just like they are in music and video games.

    Readers who post on genre blogs are not indicative of the general fan base. They’re hobbyists, and hobbyists love the unique and groundbreaking.

    This is why I think romance hobbyists are so into ebooks. Ebooks allow small runs of oddball and unique books that would be unprofitable in print. No one will get rich writing interracial steampunk romantic suspense, but indie rockers are poor too.

  14. Jane
    Nov 03, 2009 @ 11:10:36

    @Caligi I think even the casual reader enjoys a well written book. The overreliance on shorthand doesn’t just result in boring, formulaic books. Further, given that only a small percentage of authors out there are achieving significant success doesn’t provide justification for the morass of books to be boring.

    So I don’t think readers in general are boring people in it for the formula. I think readers in general want quality work but don’t know where to find it.

  15. Jane
    Nov 03, 2009 @ 11:12:48

    @A Again, you seem to miss the point. It isn’t that we are arguing that books are formulaic. The whole point of genres is writing within a set of guidelines or formulas. The point is that within the formula and/or guideline, the use of shorthand results in not only sameness but also questionable character motivations.

  16. L. M. May
    Nov 03, 2009 @ 11:20:47

    Katamari Damacy was, in my opinion, the best game to come out on the PS2, but have you heard of it?

    (Jumps excitedly up and down.) I’ve heard of Katamari Damacy! We just bought it a week ago. That game is wonderful to play with kids. And the music is catchy earworm stuff–gets stuck in our heads. And we all end up craving Japanese food after playing it.

  17. Caligi
    Nov 03, 2009 @ 11:24:16

    @Jane: I was more answering A’s “people don’t buy different” comment, but I’m not so sure the average romance reader notices shortcuts, since you mention it.

    I definitely agree that the shorthand is lazy and likely gives the genre a bad name, but I think people are willing to overlook it. After all, it seems most people shop by theme rather than storytelling skill. That seems to me that people are willing to fill in exposition gaps if it’s the fantasy they’re looking for.

    @L. M. May
    Naaaaaaa na na na na na na na Katamari Damacy (cue royal rainbow…)

  18. A
    Nov 03, 2009 @ 11:26:12

    @Jane:

    by Jane November 3rd, 2009 at 11:12 am
    @A Again, you seem to miss the point

    I haven’t missed the point. Lazy writing results in a “stillborn” reading experience.

    My response: publishers publish what readers buy. If readers want a particular reading experience, they must support that quality and the authors who produce it via purchase and perhaps some favorable words and recommendations.

    By the same token, authors ambitious to “make it” in publishing are going to cater to their main audience. The authors cannot hope to stay published without earning sales for their publishers. If “shortcutted” work is outselling quality work, “shortcutted” work will be published in greater quantity than quality work.

  19. Robin
    Nov 03, 2009 @ 11:27:18

    I always find the “it’s what sells” argument frustrating for a number of reasons.

    Publishers, it seems to me (that is, traditional print pubs), are incredibly inefficient at knowing what readers want. They are always working about 2 years in advance; they are basing decisions about what to publish purely on sales numbers that do not tell the story of how many readers did not love the book once it was published, *why* readers bought the book in the first place, and what readers did and didn’t love about the book.

    Further, and even more important IMO, is the difference between books that share superficial similarities but are unique in voice, story, detail, etc. Jo Goodman is always my go-to example of an author who consistently breathes life into well-used genre types. If every SEAL book or every unredeemed rake book had that level of artistry and originality and emotional/psychological authenticity, I’d be fine.

    More often, though, we readers hear these justifications of what’s published as a function of what sells, when even if that formula is true, it does not account for either market saturation of virtually the same book and lack of diversity even within these repetitive types and tropes. Which, I think, is one of the reasons some readers apply the tag of “lazy” to these patterns.

    Similarly, I think the “online readers are not the *average* reader” assertions are similarly unsubstantiated, even though they are tempting and may even have some element of truth (although IMO all you have to do is look at the differences among readers of RT, AAR, SBTB, DA, Book Smugglers, and every other blog & board to see significant differences in reader taste and adventurousness). But honestly, despite my respect for the work editors put into their acquisition efforts (and I know they are often poorly compensated and harshly criticized, when their primary interest is in pleasing readers and selling books), I am not convinced that the traditional publishing model is very well-suited to understanding or knowing readers in any meaningful way.

    When you think about how these trends start — the publication of something new, something challenging, exciting, envelope-pushing, whatever — it strikes me as self-evident that some balance between novelty and familiarity drives genre fiction’s evolution. But even familiarity doesn’t need to mean *shortcut writing* IMO, and I think that’s one of the most difficult things to get across as a reader who is not averse to familiarity and repetition in the genre, but who feel strongly that familiarity does not have to come at the cost of well-developed plotting, multidimensional characterization, and original voice/prose.

    A lot of times I don’t think we readers know *what* we want until we get something we like. And not every book is going to please every reader. But I just won’t ever believe that the *average reader* (whoever that is) prefers shortcut craftsmanship, even if she is not particularly adventurous in her reading choices.

  20. Jane
    Nov 03, 2009 @ 11:27:44

    @A So what I hear you saying is that authors shouldn’t strive to write better books because the perception is that quality books aren’t selling? I love it.

  21. L. M. May
    Nov 03, 2009 @ 11:30:10

    @Caligi Naaaaaaa na na na na na na na Katamari Damacy (cue royal rainbow…)

    Ack, Caligi, now it’s stuck in my head again! Oh well, at least it’s soothing, unlike some earworms.

  22. A
    Nov 03, 2009 @ 11:31:43

    @Caligi:

    Readers who post on genre blogs are not indicative of the general fan base. They're hobbyists, and hobbyists love the unique and groundbreaking.

    I disagree. I’m a lifelong bibliophile — my shelves runneth over. While I do sometimes take a chance on something new, I have my favorites and, well, those favorites are my favorites. Not everybody is looking for innovation, some people are satisfied with status quo.

  23. Caligi
    Nov 03, 2009 @ 11:36:55

    Pop music is technically bad and popular video games are uninspired. Why would books be any different?

    Readers value storytelling over writing. Stephen King is a great example of this.

    Am I missing the point entirely? I gathered you were calling for better writing with your tropes.

  24. A
    Nov 03, 2009 @ 11:48:55

    @Jane:

    by Jane November 3rd, 2009 at 11:27 am
    @A So what I hear you saying is that authors shouldn't strive to write better books because the perception is that quality books aren't selling? I love it.

    I can’t imagine why you hear that since I did not say that.

    I said nothing about about authors not striving to produce the best quality storytelling possible. I said the best quality storytelling possible won’t do authors or publishers any good if folks don’t buy it.

  25. Jane
    Nov 03, 2009 @ 11:52:06

    @A I do appreciate that readers are at fault, once again, for the use and overuse of shorthand in books.

    The fact is that not everything can be blamed on the reader (as much as authors would like to do so). There are so many factors that contribute to why books don’t sell that to assume that we readers won’t buy diverse books or that we won’t buy well written books or we are satisfied with shoddy product is not only shortsighted but wrong.

    Readers, regardless of whether their “type”, deserve quality work. I advocate for that and I am dismayed, although I guess not surprised, to read that rather than argue for increasing the quality, authors like you purport to be A, are justifying the reliance on shorthands.

  26. A
    Nov 03, 2009 @ 11:53:16

    @Caligi:

    Pop music is technically bad and popular video games are uninspired. Why would books be any different?

    Readers value storytelling over writing. Stephen King is a great example of this.

    Am I missing the point entirely? I gathered you were calling for better writing with your tropes.

    Great analogy. Pop fiction is definitely entrenched in the industry.

  27. Jane
    Nov 03, 2009 @ 11:56:06

    @Caligi I agree that people enjoy a good storyteller, but there are few gifted storytellers. The great majority of books aren’t successful. That’s a fact. So maybe if authors tried harder to increase the quality of their writing, rely less on shorthands, fully develop their characters then maybe more of those books would be a success.

    I’m never going to apologize or stop asking for improvement from my genre.

  28. Robin
    Nov 03, 2009 @ 11:58:09

    @Caligi: I don’t know who you were addressing with your comment, but I wanted to say that I am a reader who absolutely does not “value storytelling over writing.” There are instances where that’s true (Dara Joy’s Rejar, for example), but I value both and absolutely believe that I am not the exception.

    Just because people who love to read will choose books that are not all that well-written does not IMO generate the automatic conclusion that readers prefer storytelling over writing or that they like or don’t notice weaker writing. Readers will never agree on stylistic issues — some hate Judith Ivory’s prose, others can’t take Diana Gabaldon’s — but I have *never* seen a reader complain that a book was too well-written to be entertaining.

    I may not know the nutritional value of everything I eat, but I know I like delicious food. Some of that will be “healthy” some not so much, but what appeals is the flavor. I think that’s pretty typical, and I think it applies to books, as well. Readers may not all be able to discern why a book is written well, but it doesn’t mean they eschew strong writing because it’s too good. Although I do think it might be more convenient for the publishing industry to believe otherwise, despite the risk of condescension to readers in general such an attitude IMO reflects.

  29. Robin
    Nov 03, 2009 @ 12:06:45

    Here’s an interesting piece by literary agent Nathan Bradford about the “soft bigotry of low expectations” when it comes to fiction. Definitely relevant in this discussion.

    I see a much stronger bridge between the “elite” and the “masses” in the appeal of fiction, but IMO his insights about the reverse snobbery of genre fiction is extremely timely and important.

  30. Robin
    Nov 03, 2009 @ 12:12:21

    @Lizzy: Oh, there were so many scenes in BBD where I wanted to find Katie completely unlikeable but I just couldn’t. Although I’m not universally enamored of the young heroine the Curtises specialized in, I could not help but find myself utterly charmed by most of them (my favorite is Frances from Love’s A Stage and my least favorite is Lynden from Moonlight Mist). Love’s A Stage is still, I think, my favorite of their categories, but I adore BBD and The Gypsy Heiress, as well.

  31. A
    Nov 03, 2009 @ 12:17:15

    @Jane:

    by Jane November 3rd, 2009 at 11:52 am
    @A I do appreciate that readers are at fault, once again, for the use and overuse of shorthand in books.

    I have no idea why you appreciate that.

    The fact is that not everything can be blamed on the reader (irrelevant sarcasm removed). There are so many factors that contribute to why books don't sell that to assume that we readers won't buy diverse books or that we won't buy well written books or we are satisfied with shoddy product is not only shortsighted but wrong.

    The issue, to my understanding, is not about blame. Availability of books and quality levels of books are related to the market. No one is at fault; this is simple economic reality.

    And I agree readers deserve the best quality fiction authors can produce (keeping in mind the subjectivity of taste.) Yes, multiple factors contribute to a book’s sales including marketing, promotion, popularity of the book length and the genre.

    In the end, it boils down to sales, though.

    authors like you purport to be A, are justifying the reliance on shorthands.

    You are lying and I resent your defamatory statement. I am not justifying anything, nor do I purport to use “shorthand” endaevors in my work. I am saying “Publishers publish what (the publisher believes) readers buy.”

    You know, if you feel this strongly about it, why don’t you open your own publishing company? You may personally supervise acceptance of all manuscripts, release what you consider best quality fiction to find its readership, and enjoy the perks and/or consequences of said venture.

    Who knows? You might end up doing the entire industry a huge favor.

  32. Caligi
    Nov 03, 2009 @ 12:20:54

    @Jane: I wouldn’t expect you to.

    I’d much rather have 40 Kinsale caliber books each month than the 400 paper dolls too, but I don’t think it’ll ever happen. Most people don’t notice bad writing.

    Not that I think that means authors shouldn’t try to write great books. It’s just that great writing is not as valuable as great storytelling. Readers will forgive a lot for a good story. Your mention of Ward is a good example. Those books are really bad, but people keep buying them, myself included.

    It’s not that well-written books wouldn’t sell, I’m pretty sure they would sell great, but that so-so written books do well enough that publishers will just keep buying them.

    I don’t know, it’s pure anecdote, but I feel like bestsellers and big namers are all pretty so-so in the writing department. They seem to sell fine.

  33. Jane
    Nov 03, 2009 @ 12:22:21

    @A These are your statements.

    I said the best quality storytelling possible won't do authors or publishers any good if folks don't buy it.

    I said the best quality storytelling possible won't do authors or publishers any good if folks don't buy it.

    My response: publishers publish what readers buy. If readers want a particular reading experience, they must support that quality and the authors who produce it via purchase and perhaps some favorable words and recommendations.

    The authors cannot hope to stay published without earning sales for their publishers. If “shortcutted” work is outselling quality work, “shortcutted” work will be published in greater quantity than quality work.

    Your entire comment trail here has been nothing but justification for why authors write using shortcuts. If that is lying, then I suppose we have a different interpretation of the definition of lying. I should caution you, though, to impugn a person’s honor by calling them a liar is defamatory per se and I suggest you dial back your rhetoric.

  34. Jane
    Nov 03, 2009 @ 12:25:36

    @Caligi But good writing and great storytelling are not mutually exclusive. I used Ward as an example because she really does work hard at creating individuals who act and react uniquely. She does it very well with her male characters but not well with her female characters. I tend to see storytelling as a gift but writing is a craft and those who don’t have as much of the storytelling gift can increase the consumption of their works by increasing their craft.

  35. Kalen Hughes
    Nov 03, 2009 @ 12:26:50

    This discussion makes my head hurt. I totally get what Caligi is saying (hello, Stephen King, Dan Brown, Stephanie Meyers; millions of readers can’t be wrong, can they?). I also get what Jane and Robin are saying . . .

    As a reader, my biggest challenge is to find the good books (or the books that I'm going to enjoy, as my tastes don't always seem to align with everyone else's) among the staggering number that are released every week.

    But I think that every writer out there is doing their best (their best may or may not be “good” to any individual reader however). I don't know anyone who slacks off and says “Hey, I'll just cut a corner here and fall back on a conventional trope so I don't have to do any work.” And I don't know why some books connect and some books don't. I don't think anyone does. If they did, we'd have a lot more hits and far fewer midlisters.

  36. Maili
    Nov 03, 2009 @ 12:28:18

    @A
    You could be very well right that some readers enjoy shortcuts in romance novels, but it still doesn’t make it right. Some authors recycle those shortcuts without dirtying their hands by doing the actual research.

    I’m not talking about finding out what materials would be used for a ball gown during a certain time in a certain location. I’m talking about basic history (social and factual) and a character’s basic personality and motivations that fit within that context.

    I have a deep aversion to Scottish historical romances because it’s a paradise for recyclers of invented facts, English-styled tropes and stereotypes. Because it recurs so often that readers – who trust authors to do their homework – come to accept these recycled invented facts as part of a reality.

    Because of the sheer numbers and times those myths-as-facts/tropes/stereotypes are recycled in this sub-genre, many readers tend to reject anything that doesn’t fit what they learnt from the majority of Scottish historical romances, especially those by authors who claimed they did proper research.

    For example, “everybody knows” that only legitimate eldest sons get to inherit their fathers’ Chieftain roles in their clans, as outlined repeatedly in Scottish historical romances.

    The reality: the old clan system was democratic, and the Scots law treat illegitimate children and legitimate children equally. And the modern clan system (which was invented, populated and adopted by the Scottish English and English Victorians) was modelled after the inheritance system in England.

    Another example, a highlander hero hates the English and would do everything in his power to fight against the English. Some readers accept this as a given because “everybody knows” that the highlanders/Scots hate the English. But my question is usually “Why does he hate the English?”

    I ask because it was – and still is – rare for people of the highlands to “hate” the English. A national feud has always been between people of the highlands and people of the lowlands.

    In the highlands, the majority of landlords who did an injustice to their people were Scottish, not English. And it was the Scottish nobility and the Scottish merchant bankers and the rich of Edinburgh who betrayed Scotland by bankrupting the country (with the Darién scheme) enough to get themselves signing the Treaty of Union to save their own skins.

    Yeah, it’s no wonder why people of the highlands has a long history of dislike towards people of the lowlands. So where does this “Highlanders vs. the English” idea come from? I’d not be surprised if there was one or two in the highlands that didn’t like the English, but in Scottish historical romances, their reasons are rarely explained and if they were explained, their reasons didn’t ring true.

    Shortcuts may be easy, but it doesn’t do anyone a favour if those shortcuts are based on incorrect information, stereotypes or myths.

  37. Amber
    Nov 03, 2009 @ 12:31:11

    A book with sketchily drawn characters will fail with me. But books that devote 30 pages of prologue to describe a character’s motivations will also fail. Romance (in a general sense) is about a specific period of time. Do I really need to know what brought the characters to this specific moment in time–and every single potentially character shaping incident? No, I don’t.

    Truly skilled writers don’t rely on shortcuts, but neither do they spend an inordinate amount of time explaining why characters act the way they do.

    I don’t think readers are demanding (or even expecting) shortcuts. But I think many writers have interpreted a general dislike of long prologues as a dislike of backstory. I don’t mind learning about events from a character’s past that have relevance to his or her present or future. But I prefer that information to be revealed in snippets, woven seamlessly throughout the story rather than slapped at the beginning of a novel.

  38. Caligi
    Nov 03, 2009 @ 12:33:35

    @Maili: Pfft, Americans don’t know their own history. You expect them to know another country’s?

  39. A
    Nov 03, 2009 @ 12:36:18

    @Jane:

    Your entire comment trail here has been nothing but justification for why authors write using shortcuts.

    Stating fact (“publishers publish what readers buy”) is not justification.

    I don’t justify “shorthand” or any other inferior quality writing. I comprehend economic reality. Do you?

  40. A
    Nov 03, 2009 @ 12:40:01

    @Caligi:

    by Caligi November 3rd, 2009 at 12:33 pm
    @Maili: Pfft, Americans don't know their own history. You expect them to know another country's?

    I’m quite the history lover and know quite a bit about my own country’s history and some history of other countries.

  41. joanne
    Nov 03, 2009 @ 12:44:36

    @Caligi:

    Most people don't notice bad writing.

    OR: it’s not bad writing to them. Personal taste, the different views that readers take on tropes and styles and genres, are what make the publishing business go round.

    One persons’ Kinsale (as an example, only) may be another’s’ wall-banger. If I like my vampires to drink blood through a straw and you like your vampires to sparkle and someone else gags at the thought of reading a vampire book, it is what makes the business of publishing successful.

    @A: That has nothing to do with taking short cuts to flesh out the characters in the books that we buy. The point is do we, as readers, mind if the Duke shows up and starts acting like an asshat when we have no background or history to support that asshattery (spelling???) or make us want his HEA. I’m sure there are hundreds of books that are beautifully written that I’ve never read or even heard of but the ones that I buy, and the authors that I return to, have the knack and talent to make me connect with their characters.

    And it’s not my fault as a reader that stories are poorly written and/or published.

  42. A
    Nov 03, 2009 @ 12:47:50

    @Maili:

    by Maili November 3rd, 2009 at 12:28 pm
    @A
    You could be very well right that some readers enjoy shortcuts in romance novels, but it still doesn't make it right. Some authors recycle those shortcuts without dirtying their hands by doing the actual research.

    I'm not talking about finding out what materials would be used for a ball gown during a certain time in a certain location. I'm talking about basic history (social and factual) and a character's basic personality and motivations that fit within that context.

    I have a deep aversion to Scottish historical romances because it's a paradise for recyclers of invented facts, English-styled tropes and stereotypes. Because it recurs so often that readers – who trust authors to do their homework – come to accept these recycled invented facts as part of a reality.

    Well, I don’t underestimate the value of cultural knowledge of history, including fashion. Fashion is an aspect of culture, particularly in historical periods where clothes and fabrics denoted social status.

    I commiserate with your antipathy toward Scots romances. I feel the same way about many American antebellum novels and their reliance upon bizarre stereotypes.

  43. Jane
    Nov 03, 2009 @ 12:49:07

    @A Hmm. What a difficult question. I say difficult because I’m not sure what your “reality” is. In my reality, publishers have no data about their customers. They, as Robin pointed out, are in the business of anticipating market trends 2 years down the line. They don’t have any good sense as to why readers buy books or why books are successful (case in point, the Simon & Schuster advance of $5 million for Audrey Niffenegger’s second book). Thus the theory that readers are buying books because they are looking for low quality books is not one in my “economic reality.”

    Additionally, your comments have become increasingly abusive over the last couple of weeks and I would ask that you either engage in a courteous fashion or leave.

  44. Robin
    Nov 03, 2009 @ 12:51:52

    Is publishing the only industry that *doesn’t* research its customer base?

    I ask that seriously, because given the current crisis in traditional publishing, I cannot believe that anyone can argue, with a straight face, that publishers understand how to publish books that readers want.

    Conclusions drawn from incomplete or completely lacking data beyond one or two figures is at best problematic and at worst dangerous. Just look at the new Freakonomics book, for example, in which the authors correlate more opportunities for educated women with a drop in the quality of education. Conclusions drawn simply from that correlation can be terribly reactionary, unless you start adding in additional data, like the fact that teaching is an extremely low-paying job or that occupational opportunity for educated women has enriched society in so many other ways. Books sell because readers want to read, but to assume that readers *won’t want something else* because X and multiple copies of X are selling is not sound economic reasoning.

  45. Kalen Hughes
    Nov 03, 2009 @ 12:51:53

    Nathan Bransford: “What about aspiring to create something that is great, rather than merely popular? What about pushing the envelope even when it’s not what’s currently in fashion? What is wrong with being elite and appreciated by experts if not by the masses?”

    There's nothing wrong with it, so long as you don't plan on making a living as an author. *rolls eyes* I mean hello, it's called literary fiction and publishers can only support it (and its totally out of wack advances) by “churning out” a bunch of “pulp” that people actually want to read (cause lit fic sure doesn't self-support, seeing as next to no one reads it). I say all this as someone with an MFA who has CHOSEN to write genre fiction because I think there's great scope in writing within genre constraints and because I'd like to write books that actually get read. But my choice of genre in NO WAY means that I'm not aspiring to create something great, and the implication that I'm settling in a genre ghetto because I don't want to “aspire” and work hard is offensive.

  46. A
    Nov 03, 2009 @ 12:52:22

    @joanne:

    @A: That has nothing to do with taking short cuts to flesh out the characters in the books that we buy. The point is do we, as readers, mind if the Duke shows up and starts acting like an asshat when we have no background or history to support that asshattery (spelling???) or make us want his HEA. I'm sure there are hundreds of books that are beautifully written that I've never read or even heard of but the ones that I buy, and the authors that I return to, have the knack and talent to make me connect with their characters.

    And it's not my fault as a reader that stories are poorly written and/or published.

    I have made no claim to that effect. I claim only that publishers publish what sells or what they believe they can sell. If you’ve evidence I’m mistaken, please share it with the thread and I’ll retract my claim.

  47. Robin
    Nov 03, 2009 @ 12:57:19

    @Kalen Hughes: Michael Chabon is also an MFA, as well as a Pulitzer Prize winner, and he has not only started writing crossover genre fiction, but is also writing about the inter-relationship between literary and genre fiction. So I think that old separation is breaking down, and by that I mean people are realizing that these two are not mutually exclusive, not that readers or writers are substantially different. And I think the boundary busting is consistent with the history of what we call classic literature, from Dickens’s serialized novels to Shakespeare’s mass dramatic appeal during his lifetime.

  48. Sunita
    Nov 03, 2009 @ 12:58:30

    I think it would be helpful to differentiate between different types of shortcuts. Obviously all cultural products rely on shortcuts of one kind or another, and consumers/audiences often like these shortcuts, either because they’re reassured as to the nature of the product, or because they find them comforting, or because they signal particular meanings. Every form of story from the Greeks onward features those types of shortcuts. I’m guessing that in the post you aren’t talking about those, but rather the shortcuts that *substitute* for depth in character, plot, context, etc.

    I also think that setting up an opposition between the familiar and the innovative sidetracks the issues you are trying to highlight. Sometimes I like reading a novel that plays with tropes, and sometimes I want to read one that conforms completely to a set of tropes but does so with great skill. And sometimes I just want a comfort read, which may or may not be well written. My guess is that on average, people read genre fiction (SFF, mystery, horror, not just romance) for the third category more often than they do for the first two. While they might prefer the first two types of reads, they’ll settle for the third. So we wind up buying more of the third, especially since it’s produced in greater quantity. But that doesn’t mean we wouldn’t read a lot more of the 2nd (and some of the 1st) if it were more widely available.

  49. Jane
    Nov 03, 2009 @ 13:03:05

    @Sunita Thanks for getting us back on track. Of course, you are right that there are shortcuts that are almost unavoidable and I agree with Amber who says she doesn’t want 30 pages of backstory (I don’t want that either). But I do think the examples that Robin gave: the redhaired, feisty heroine; the heroine who eschews society and was raised like a boy by her father; the rake hero (my least favorite); etc are perhaps what you would refer to as “substitutive”.

    You are absolutely right that familiar and innovative have nothing to do with the usage of shortcuts. Maybe my reference to writing ethnic characters was confusing. I like genre conventions which is why I read genre books but within the genre, I liked fully developed characters.

    I often feel, particularly in the mixed subgenres like paranormal romance and the like, that there is more time spent to developing the world than developing the characters.

  50. A
    Nov 03, 2009 @ 13:08:40

    @Jane:

    Thus the theory that readers are buying books because they are looking for low quality books is not one in my “economic reality.”

    Once again: I said publishers publish what readers buy (or what they believe readers will buy.) Not that readers actively seek poor writing quality.

    I accept responsibility for what I say, not for creative reimagining of my statements.

    I am a writer. I am also a reader. As a reader I’ve purchased “stillborn” books. It’s unfortunate, but it happens. I don’t blame the author, the publisher (unless the book has obvious problems like poor editing, character development, plot holes, etc..) I don’t blame other readers, though I’ll admit to wondering why they liked the book.

    I can only assume, as others in the thread already pointed out, one man’s trash is another’s treasure (or maybe one man’s trash is a million others’ treasure would be more accurate.)

  51. Robin
    Nov 03, 2009 @ 13:19:35

    As a reader I've purchased “stillborn” books. It's unfortunate, but it happens. I don't blame the author, the publisher (unless the book has obvious problems like poor editing, character development, plot holes, etc..) I don't blame other readers, though I'll admit to wondering why they liked the book.

    IMO the mistake is in assuming that all the readers who bought that book liked it. I cannot tell you how many books I have purchased over the years that I have ended up disliking or even hating. I’ve bought them from recommendations, from reviews, from browsing, from author recognition, from the blurb, the cover, the title, etc. Bad books can move like a virus, in fact, with readers catching the buzz, buying the book, and wallowing in their subsequent disappointment. But publishers seem to spend little to no time understanding and capitalizing on the immense loyalty of readers. We *will* read crap books when we have the urge to read, but that doesn’t mean that a) we want *more* crap, b) we like crap over not crap, or c) we will continue to buy that kind of crap.

    Now we’re seeing the breakdown of trad publishing, and while it’s creating a lot of unrest, unemployment, and chaos, IMO it’s also presenting an opportunity for publishers to finally get it together and come up with coherent business plans and integrated operations. Will they do it? I don’t know. But with the continued rise in epresses and even self-publishing options, it may not be all that long until their monopolistic control over genre readers will be gone, baby, gone. And I cannot bring myself to see that as a bad thing. Although I think it would be even better if they would actually adapt, evolve, and start paying attention to readers. God knows there’s already enough raw data online to keep a marketing researcher busy for a long, long time.

  52. Sunita
    Nov 03, 2009 @ 13:24:08

    @Jane: I totally agree with the examples you and Robin give, and I also agree that we see way too much of the bad kind of shortcut in our genre, maybe even more than in other genres because of its sheer size. I don’t really read paranormals (except for Meljean Brooks’s Demon series) even though I loved Buffy and Angel and read plenty of SFF, and I think my dissatisfaction with the worldbuilding is part of it. Also, not really into Fated Mates, which cuts out a lot.

    You raise a really interesting question for me, though: given that in romance we have all these good shortcuts, shouldn’t authors have *more* leeway to write interesting characters and contexts? What I mean by that is, if we all know what the governess-meets-rake storyline looks like, shouldn’t the author be able to spend less time on establishing the setup and more time on the people? Or at least giving us great dialogue?

    One of the reasons I read categories is that I think some authors are doing just that (and Jane, I think your reviews often highlight those books for me). I remember the first Marion Lennox book I read, on someone’s blog recommendation. It featured a prince and a made-up country, two tropes I usually avoid like the plague. But the characters were totally unlike what I expected. Same with Liz Fielding; her books don’t subvert anything that I can see, but she often shows you how diverse the characterizations can be while still conforming to the form(ula).

    ETA: I think it’s much more difficult to use shortcuts well for characters who belong to minority groups, because the shortcuts that every reader knows are usually stereotypes and usually either offensive to the group, exaggerated, or flat-out wrong.

  53. Jane
    Nov 03, 2009 @ 13:28:55

    @Sunita I think this has been Robin’s argument for a long time, that there is actually quite a bit of room for artistic expression within the formula constraints. I do love a good category because I think that when the focus is solely on the characters, rather than the setting or external set ups, authors are forced to write full featured protagonists.

    I am just finishing my third Ellen Hartman book in two days and I am really struck at how real the characters feel to me. In the past four years, I’ve really gained a lot of appreciation for category authors so the length of books never should determine whether the story is successful.

  54. A
    Nov 03, 2009 @ 13:35:10

    @Amber:

    A book with sketchily drawn characters will fail with me. But books that devote 30 pages of prologue to describe a character's motivations will also fail. Romance (in a general sense) is about a specific period of time. Do I really need to know what brought the characters to this specific moment in time-and every single potentially character shaping incident? No, I don't.

    Truly skilled writers don't rely on shortcuts, but neither do they spend an inordinate amount of time explaining why characters act the way they do.

    I don't think readers are demanding (or even expecting) shortcuts. But I think many writers have interpreted a general dislike of long prologues as a dislike of backstory. I don't mind learning about events from a character's past that have relevance to his or her present or future. But I prefer that information to be revealed in snippets, woven seamlessly throughout the story rather than slapped at the beginning of a novel.

    I dislike excess backstory and info-dumping also. I don’t believe readers prefer “shortcut” writing (as in poor/incomplete characterisation.) That said, there is pressure to keep word counts down, because purchasers are buying shorter books. I think some authors start to feel very claustrophobic and they throw out important story elements to “shorten” (length/word count) and this ultimately costs story integrity. In addition to shorter (word count,) more erotic love scenes are preferred (these EAT word count!)

    Something I view as a “plus” is my most recent e-novella received several reviews who loved the story’s elements but “wished it was longer.” I think the comments in this thread are a good indicator that afficionados of good quality COMPLETE storytelling are here. Let’s hope this impacts the publishing community as it continues to evolve.

  55. Kalen Hughes
    Nov 03, 2009 @ 13:36:29

    Michael Chabon is also an MFA, as well as a Pulitzer Prize winner, and he has not only started writing crossover genre fiction, but is also writing about the inter-relationship between literary and genre fiction.

    And he ROCKS!!! But he’s “the exception that proves the rule” IMO. Some books (and authors) are cross-over hits with mass appeal, but I don't think we can explain why, or that the author can demonstrate that they had had that goal or how they achieved it (I could be wrong; Chabon is a freaken genius after all). I mean explain World War Z to me. Yes, the book is amazing and it's superbly well written and all, but it's a book about the zombie apocalypse. If you'd ever told me that the one book every single member of my family would agree upon as a stellar read would be about zombies, I'd have laughed my @ss off. But I've now read it three times and I've given away ten copies to disbelieving (but soon converted) friends.

  56. Robin
    Nov 03, 2009 @ 13:41:16

    You raise a really interesting question for me, though: given that in romance we have all these good shortcuts, shouldn't authors have *more* leeway to write interesting characters and contexts? What I mean by that is, if we all know what the governess-meets-rake storyline looks like, shouldn't the author be able to spend less time on establishing the setup and more time on the people? Or at least giving us great dialogue?

    I tried to make this argument near the end of my part of the piece, but maybe it wasn’t very clear.

    Somehow when we have these discussions a lot of different things get bundled up together, but for me it’s not an issue of shortcuts = bad, but more shortcuts can lead to mindless repetition of tropes and types in the genre. The thread on race demonstrates why that can be more than just an annoyance, but even when it’s an annoyance I think it can curtail book sales when readers check a blurb and anticipate something they aren’t going to like, simply because they’ve read 50 other books with the same thing treated in the same way.

    So I would never argue that we need to eliminate shortcuts — as you point out, every genre has them and many of them are important to genre integrity — but more that periodic reflection helps keep things fresh and opens up spaces for re-thinking an old type in a new way. And I agree with you and Jane that it’s often the categories where some of that is taking place right now.

  57. Kalen Hughes
    Nov 03, 2009 @ 13:43:41

    IMO the mistake is in assuming that all the readers who bought that book liked it. I cannot tell you how many books I have purchased over the years that I have ended up disliking or even hating. I've bought them from recommendations, from reviews, from browsing, from author recognition, from the blurb, the cover, the title, etc. Bad books can move like a virus, in fact, with readers catching the buzz, buying the book, and wallowing in their subsequent disappointment.

    Except that if many readers disliked it, you’d expect there to be a precipitous drop off in sales for the author’s next book . . . and I often see the next book go on to do well, even when everyone I know thought the previous book sucked. Since the author continues to build readership and to sell, the publisher can only assume that readers LIKE these books, and thus they buy and publish more by said author and more by similar authors. *shrug*

  58. A
    Nov 03, 2009 @ 13:44:17

    @Jane:

    I often feel, particularly in the mixed subgenres like paranormal romance and the like, that there is more time spent to developing the world than developing the characters.

    In paranormal, SF/F, and the like…the world is another character, and it’s possible for the author to get “lost” in the new “world.” In situations like this, honest editors are a godsend.

  59. A
    Nov 03, 2009 @ 13:50:00

    @Kalen Hughes:

    Except that if many readers disliked it, you'd expect there to be a precipitous drop off in sales for the author's next book . . . and I often see the next book go on to do well, even when everyone I know thought the previous book sucked. Since the author continues to build readership and to sell, the publisher can only assume that readers LIKE these books, and thus they buy and publish more by said author and more by similar authors. *shrug*

    I confess to purchasing sequels and serials even if I wasn’t crazy about the first book. In some cases, I see potential or there’s just enough intrigue for me to want to follow and find out what happens next. Sometimes it’s sheer stubborness (“I already invested time in reading the first story, I’m going to find out where it goes.”)

    Ultimately, I suspect the publishing industry is not interested in what readers like or dislike; they are interested in providing what readers buy.

  60. Robin
    Nov 03, 2009 @ 13:52:32

    @Kalen Hughes: But is that due to loyalty to the author or is it due to the book? I have never seen readers buy so many books as Romance readers, even when an author persistently disappoints. Jane has talked about this many times — the phenomenon of waiting for the next great book from a beloved author.

    IMO Romance readers’ loyalty often works against us, because our loyalty is not so much understood by publishers, even as they attempt to exploit it. And they will succeed in a number of cases, simply because they’ve got a bankable author to sell or an allegedly bankable trend. But that doesn’t necessarily mean that they know much of anything about what readers want in a broad sense.

  61. Kalen Hughes
    Nov 03, 2009 @ 14:19:18

    @ Robin: I’ve got no clue, but I hear over and over (and even see in the reviews here on occasion) that a book was no good, but that they’re queuing up for the next one. Maybe we're just too damn hopeful? Personally, I have a two strikes policy for authors I like. If an author I've loved in the past disappoints me two times in a row, I stop buying them. If it's a new to me author, they're likely to only get the one chance.

  62. Kalen Hughes
    Nov 03, 2009 @ 14:34:42

    Ultimately, I suspect the publishing industry is not interested in what readers like or dislike; they are interested in providing what readers buy.

    I think they assume that what readers buy is what they like (and what they’ll buy more of). It’s a fairly logical conclusion IMO. Clearly readers like white, wanabe gangbanger vampires, and sparkly emo vampires, and dukes (!), and Navy SEALS, and impossibly European and Christian sheiks, and virgin secretaries, and secret babies, and amnesia victims, and feisty, red-headed heroines . . .

    People, in general, aren't very good at articulating what they like and dislike. They're also not very honest about it, esp if they're answering publicly. But the almighty dollar doesn't lie. I don't know how publishers are supposed to know what readers will buy except by paying close attention to what they're already buying.

    Plenty of good books get overlooked and undersold and die a silent death (and plenty of good manuscripts never even get that far), but that doesn't change the fact that publishers buy and sell what they think readers want (and what readers have demonstrated they want by buying same or similar in the past).

    We can talk about publishers taking a risk on a good book that pushes (or is outside) the envelope, but at the end of the day if that risk doesn't pay out, they're not going to keep taking such risks over and over and over. They're going to buy the next author that they think might appeal to the readers of Julia Quinn, Suzanne Brockmann, J. R. Ward, etc.

  63. A
    Nov 03, 2009 @ 14:36:52

    Yes, Kalen. You’re absolutely right. : )

  64. Janine
    Nov 03, 2009 @ 14:40:41

    Something else that should be taken into account is the pressure on writers to write faster. Whether that pressure comes from readers or publishers is debatable, but I think when you factor in tight deadlines on top of decreased wordcounts and increased demand for sex scenes, it’s no surprise that not every author can deliver a great or even good book.

    There is only so much time in the day, and many authors have children or second jobs that they need to devote some time to, but even if they are researching and writing like maniacs, sometimes an excellent book can’t be produced in four months because not everyone writes that well that fast.

    Readers should always continue demanding better books, absolutely, but better researched, sexier, tighter, deeper, more layered, more beautifully written, more culturally sensitive AND written more quickly, all in one package, is going to be difficult to deliver every time.

  65. A
    Nov 03, 2009 @ 14:48:02

    Excellent points, all, Janine. In a culture of instant gratification, I know authors striving to release a book every month or every other month.

  66. Caligi
    Nov 03, 2009 @ 14:49:59

    @Janine: Here’s hoping there’s an influx of romance books written by childfree black women who are independently wealthy.

    I wonder why people keep associating lit fic with good writing. I’ve seen lazily written lit fic aplenty. I hardly consider it some sort of standard to hope romance meets some day.

  67. Laura Vivanco
    Nov 03, 2009 @ 15:00:16

    Is publishing the only industry that *doesn't* research its customer base?

    I ask that seriously, because given the current crisis in traditional publishing, I cannot believe that anyone can argue, with a straight face, that publishers understand how to publish books that readers want.

    I don’t know about publishing in general, but the impression I got from reading Paul Grescoe’s book about Harlequin (The Merchants of Venus) was that, at least in the past, they took market research very seriously indeed. Here’s part of an obituary of Larry Heisey:

    Heisey was born in Toronto. He attended Lawrence Park Collegiate, the University of Toronto and earned an MBA at Harvard. He learned his craft at Procter & Gamble in the ’50s and ’60s. He was later a vice-president at Standard Broadcasting.

    In 1971, he was named president of Harlequin, a modest reprint business at the time. Toronto Star Ltd. bought a controlling interest in the company in 1975.

    Many great careers are forged by one blinding insight. Heisey had at least three. All of them revolved around the idea that, as Heisey liked to put it, publishing wasn’t Harlequin’s problem. Marketing was.

    Looking around the internet, I came across details about Harlequin’s “Tell Harlequin” website:

    At http://www.TellHarlequin.com/eHqn, we are recruiting thousands of romance readers to be our online advisory panel. Panelists will participate in fun online surveys, voice their opinions on topics such as new miniseries ideas, new series concepts, cover designs and much more! Join today and with your input, we can continue to create the romances that keep you coming back for more.

    Is that the kind of research into the customer base that you were thinking of, Robin?

  68. hapax
    Nov 03, 2009 @ 15:14:12

    I think that one of the real problems is that people aren’t very good at articulating what they like about a book. I mean, I liked the TWiLIGHT books, not because they were “about” vampires, and certainly not because they were well written, but because the author did an exceptional job of capturing a certain emotional state (the obssessive insane hormonal rush of first love). I quickly became tired of them after they never moved beyond that.

    To translate that into an interest in books “about” vampires, though, doesn’t work. For many readers, it’s more a matter of tone, or voice, or mood, that captures their fancy, and not the nominal subject matter. I will read and enjoy practically any novel of manners, whether it’s set in Regency England, ancient Rome, alternative-history Japan, alien planet, or Swordzensorcerylandia. But how does a publisher know what is really catching my interest, rather than thinking “Aha! Alternative-history Japan sure is hot this year!”

  69. Kalen Hughes
    Nov 03, 2009 @ 15:33:24

    Something else that should be taken into account is the pressure on writers to write faster. Whether that pressure comes from readers or publishers is debatable, but I think when you factor in tight deadlines on top of decreased wordcounts and increased demand for sex scenes, it's no surprise that not every author can deliver a great or even good book.

    This whole business scares the bejebbus out of me. I’m old skool slow (like a book a year) and I’m going to have to find a way to change that . . .

  70. AQ
    Nov 03, 2009 @ 17:33:21

    I think the reading experience issue is multi-fold as it pertains to shortcuts.

    One is the experience that the reader is seeking whether that is being scared, turned on, made to question their preconceptions, etc. Our menu choices here start with genre and anticipated tropes based on cover art, blurbs and previous experience within the genre/author.

    AKA Reader shortcuts.

    Kind of a like: am I in the mood for tater tot hotdish, beef bourguignon, thai seafood curry with basil and mushrooms, chicken mole with black beans and rice, beer cheese soup tonight?

    Each satisfies a different taste bud and craving. But if I go to a restaurant and order thai curry but the server brings beer cheese soup to my table instead, I’d be pissed. Even if the soup was perfect in every way.

    So when the author (or perhaps publisher) promises me one thing through the packaging and shortcuts but delivers something completely different. I’ll be pissed even if I might have loved that book in other circumstances.

    The second shortcut experience is from the writer side and that has to do with the author understanding the experience that the reader receives/seeks.

    AKA Writer Shortcut

    A story resonates with an audience and a writer see that and wants in. Not necessarily to copy it or jump on the bandwagon but to get at the heart of the reader’s experience and be able to give them that experience but with their own authorial twist.

    But look at all the details that go into a story. Place, setting, character arcs, plot arcs, subplots, then the tropes themselves. Pulling apart a story that resonated with you and then recreating it with your own style and skillset —Wow. Very tough.

    I suspect that most authors get caught up in the story details and never make it to deeper levels of why and how a story resonates. So they use the shortcuts. Those surface details that help categorize the story.

    Example:
    Fated mate, a story which is at its heart a hero in pursuit on steroids, loses that subtle characterization that allows the reader to experience the hero’s obsession and courtship colliding the heroine’s desire to choose her own path/fate until the heroine realizes that her path is intertwined with his.

    Too many times, the fated mate shortcut seems to forget entirely about the courtship. The couple is simply meant to be together because the author has said the relationship is fated. See I wrote a fated mate story without understanding the resonance. I did good, right?

    Reader response: FAIL!

    Why? Because the author hadn’t either 1. mastered their storycraft well enough to either give (or hint that eventually they’ll be able to give) the reader the experience they craved, 2. gone deep enough to understand the reader experience/resonance, 3. didn’t have the time to unravel the details necessary to fully create the experience, or 4. didn’t understand what they did the first time around so can’t recreate it at will.

    Unfortunately, we don’t necessarily reward one level of storytelling over the other. Sometimes good enough really is, especially if an author can consistently produce an experience while keeping/expanding their audience. If author doesn’t consciously understand what they’re doing but can consistently do over and over again, we’ll reward you for that too if it gives us the experience we’re seeking or even if it just provides the framework for what we’re seeking. Cuz reading is an interactive experience and my imagination is already part of the equation.

  71. Magdalen
    Nov 03, 2009 @ 18:15:35

    I blogged about this a few months ago here — well, not the original topic of “shortcuts,” but the larger topic of how why romances are stigmatized as a genre.

    One reason is that some proportion of romances are sloppy/poorly-researched/inadequate, and that’s tolerated by the market. I called it the potato-chip approach to publishing, and I was genuinely shocked when a smart, educated friend of mine admitted simultaneously that she loved romances and didn’t have any favorite authors because (shock!) she didn’t know who the authors were. I mentioned the “potato-chip” theory and she nodded happily — yup, that’s what romances were for her. Something to read one-right-after-the-other.

    Market forces are complex, but there is an obvious point: if people stopped buying romance novels as fungible, interchangeable units of romantica, and only bought really well-written, well-researched novels with complex characterization, good grammar, and believable yet satisfactorially romantic situations, publishers would actually take note.

    Here’s the problem I have with that as a viable way to affect the market: We’re in the choir already. Whether you blame the authors, the publishers, the readers or the earth currents — we are all singing the basic song, namely some books ARE genuinely more equal than others.

    But as influential as Dear Author is, it’s a good bet that the millions of people who buy Harlequins and the like at their local Wal*Mart without even reading the blurbs on the back covers aren’t in the same choir as the hundreds (thousands?) reading this debate.

    The answer for us choristers is already in place: Hardworking authors like A are writing books almost certain to be better than the average, while hardworking reviewers like Jane are reading and reviewing books to highlight the good ones and warn us off the less-good ones.

    I am grateful for everyone’s hard work, I am. I personally benefit from your efforts. But until the market for potato-chip books dries up, someone will write them, someone will publish them, and someone will buy them. After my lunch with my friend, I honestly don’t know how you convince a reader like her — who can’t remember a single title she liked, wouldn’t recognize the name of a single author if she saw it again, and doesn’t recall the details of any romance she’s read — to stop buying romances as potato chips.

  72. AQ
    Nov 03, 2009 @ 19:47:52

    @Magdalen:

    I can buy into the potato chip factor.

  73. Jody
    Nov 03, 2009 @ 20:09:42

    I’m betting most potato chip readers are in the HEA euphoria of early stage romance reading and will grow more discerning with time and awful books.

    The summer I discovered romances, I read one after the other until one day I was absolutely cheesed out and sick of them. It was a year before I discovered Heyer. THAT name I remember–it was These Old Shades– and the previous gazillion authors and titles are just a cheesy blur. I’m still reluctant to pick up a Harlequin.

  74. Elly
    Nov 03, 2009 @ 20:50:12

    @Robin:

    IMO the mistake is in assuming that all the readers who bought that book liked it.

    Absolutely! This is something publishers could easily fix, imo. Do they ever ask readers if they liked something? Where are the customer feedback surveys? Especially now with the advent of digital publishing – how hard would it be to have a link at the end of a book (or emailed out to the purchasing email for either e-books or hardcopies bought through an online store) that a reader could click to select some boxes on how they liked it? I would love to have a comments section where I could remind Harlequin how I bought their HP DESPITE the ridiculous title for instance, but I know I’m never going to make the time to email them with those comments without being solicited. It wouldn’t be a lot of work to make a questionnaire (how well did you like this book overall – Extremely, Somewhat, It was Ok, etc. – would you buy another book from this author and/or from this series again, etc. – leaving room for comments where needed) – although I suppose actually using the responses might be more difficult…

  75. Suze
    Nov 03, 2009 @ 23:11:46

    I think the shortcut thing is in every aspect of life, and it’s unfortunate. We look for patterns, and once we find them, we stop paying attention. They cast people for roles in movies based partly on their how the actor looks. How they appear is a shortcut for characterization, as well. I don’t know if we’re being programmed by the movies we watch, or if it’s ingrained, but marketing research as shown that we, the public, don’t like it if the actor doesn’t look or sound right for the character s/he’s playing.

    The short, skinny, nerdy, glasses-wearing intellectual. The bespectacled, be-bunned library. The tall, muscular, deep-voiced business man. The short, chubby, slightly unkempt childcare worker.

    In the early days of music videos, Blues Traveller had thinner, more attractive people lip-synching their song, because they didn’t LOOK like a band should look.

    That’s why we keep electing boobs to public office. They say what we want to hear, assure us that we don’t have to think too hard. In Blink, Malcolm Gladwell discusses how Warren G. Harding was elected president because he had the looks, the voice, the style–he just seemed so darned presidential! And he was (according to many sources) one of the worst US presidents ever.

    It’s frustrating all ’round.

  76. Patricia Briggs
    Nov 04, 2009 @ 02:03:05

    First, I don’t think it is completely (or even mostly) a publisher fail. Publishers would love to have dozens of Loretta Chase, Nora Roberts, Laura Londons to choose from. How lovely (I assume they would think) if they had hundreds of terrific books that they could look at and say — this year sheiks are big. So lets pull out a couple of terrific sheik books for each month . . . Editors, like readers, love the Joanna Bournes, the Laura Kinsales, the Nalini Singhs — and we treasure them for the terrific storytellers they are. They combine lovely prose with great ideas and wonderful characters. The reason we treasure them is because they are rare.

    So editors look at the second tier books — Storytellers who maybe don’t have great prose or authors who have terrific prose and not so great stories. There was an author for the Silhouette IM line that drove me nuts in the eighties. I could never remember her name (which was close to another author I liked) and her books sounded so good. She had awesome ideas and carried them out in a very forgettable fashion. I think I bought five or six of her books because I couldn’t remember her name — probably a lot of people did that . Anyway back to what I was saying . . . Editors find the authors who have talent, but not the experience to write the stand-out book. Authors who are learning or maybe just can reliably crank out mediocre books on time. And sometimes editors are forced to buy books that the best thing that can be said about them is that they have a beginning, middle and end and are written in the right subgenre.

    Is it a writer fail? Of course. I’m responsible for every mistake I make. That stupid place where I wrote bow when I meant bough — and all the rest. There is no such thing as a perfect novel (Tolkien tried for decades to perfect his work)– all I can do is try to write a better book every time. To do this, I go to conventions and talk with other authors. I read and pay attention to techniques I like and the ones that fail. And I read reviews and come to places like Dear Author (thank you) to see where I can improve. I would hate for people to judge me for my first few books — and if Ace hadn’t bought them, I probably would not have made the effort to write more and work out the kinks in my craft abilities.

    Short-cuts or stock characters/situations are some of my favorite tools actually. In the right hands they can be a lovely jumping off point to make a small scene more interesting. Look at the Waitress from Hell in Linda Howard’s Duncan’s Bride, which was, come to think of it, a great example of an overused troupe (mail order bride) that made a terrific book. Or they can be turned on their ear and made interesting — like the psycho serial killer (a troupe if there ever was one) who became a sincerely, loving father figure to the blind boy whose mother he had killed — on (I think) last year’s season of Criminal Minds. Creepy and sweet at the same time.

  77. ardeatine
    Nov 04, 2009 @ 03:29:35

    Let’s not forget cover shortcuts.

    In epublishing especially, we’re seeing a lot of ‘hint of historical’ one size fits all covers. Which do give unfortunate (deserved or undeserved) messages about the contents.

  78. Jessica
    Nov 04, 2009 @ 05:43:37

    Great discussion. I don’t have much to add, except that I do think online romance readers are different, as Magdalen’s example shows, although that is not meant to dismiss or disparage in any way the important things Romland denizens have to say about the genre. For one thing, RWA’s own stats suggest the vast majority of romances are sold to people who only read one or two romances a year.

    I also like Magdalen’s point that many romance readers are consumers of fungible products, rather than (at least intentionally) “literature”. For this, it probably doesn’t matter whether shortcuts are taken. Isn’t that why we have lines in Harlequin that promise a very highly specific experience, from a type of hero and heroine, to a level of conflict, to a certain setting, to a certain level of “heat”, all the way to whether a secret baby is involved? Those lines sell by the shortcut, it seems to me.

    I like both “potato chip” romances — the ones where a certain kind of factory production ensures I will get what I expect when I reach into the bag — as well as more challenging romances.

    So, in my view, some “short cuts” are perhaps not good writing, but they are good business and good entertainment.

    I also think it’s an interesting question what the difference is between a “short cut” versus a “genre trope”. Looking at romances at art, the phrase “short cut” is derogatory, because it connotes a lack of originality, aesthetic laziness, etc. On the other hand, any genre works because it repeats permutations of a basic set of elements. (Indeed narrative works for the same reasons. There’s no wholly new story.) I wonder how we tell the difference? I am just learning to do this, or hoping to.

    When it comes to market research, I would think by default it would tend to be predictive for “potato chip” romances (more vampires! more sex!), and not very illuminating for other kinds of romance novels.

  79. Kalen Hughes
    Nov 04, 2009 @ 09:29:32

    Let's not forget cover shortcuts.

    In epublishing especially, we're seeing a lot of ‘hint of historical' one size fits all covers. Which do give unfortunate (deserved or undeserved) messages about the contents.

    Not just in ePub. The new review at the top of DA (Runaway Lady, Conquering Lord) has a woman in a vaguely Medieval gown snuggled down with a man in what appears to be late 18th century clothing (ruffled shirt and breeches). Scroll down a bit . . . I have no idea WTF the woman on the cover of Stephanie Lauren's new book is wearing. Looks like a modern bridal gown to me (and yes, most of the big NY pubs are gulity on this count). It's certainly not a Regency gown. Nothing about that cover except the name of the author (and my past experience reading said author) indicates to me that this is a historical romance (and why is she barefoot in the freaken snow?). And let's not even get started on the slew of Scottish books out there with kilted heroes hundreds of years before the kilt existed (of course I've found that these books often actually contain heroes running around in kilts, so maybe that's not the art department's fault). Kilt = “shorthand” for Scottish.

  80. A
    Nov 04, 2009 @ 10:39:11

    @ardeatine:

    Let's not forget cover shortcuts.

    In epublishing especially, we're seeing a lot of ‘hint of historical' one size fits all covers. Which do give unfortunate (deserved or undeserved) messages about the contents.

    I think a lot of “cover shorthand” exists. I’m collecting the current versions of Georgette Heyer’s works. Some of her Georgian period novels feature Regency cover art. Regency period novels feature Victorian or even Edwardian cover art. All of them are beautiful, but it’s jarring to me as a reader, particularly when one takes into account the extreme differences of the respective periods. A “Gibson girl” doesn’t belong on a Regency novel cover. The natural, unpowdered, unrouged, classical lines of Regency costume clash soundly with powdered wigs and panniers.

    Another “cover shorthand” that grinds my last nerve is de rigeur reliance on lurid black, red, and white color scheme and font for paranormal/vampire books. This type of cover is so common it’s almost generic.

    Something else “shorthanded” into vampire fiction: the concept that exposure to sunlight damages and/or kills vampires.

  81. Robin
    Nov 04, 2009 @ 10:45:17

    @Laura Vivanco: Thank you for posting that about Harlequin! They are, indeed, the one publisher that seems to have formally reached out to readers (and isn’t it interesting that they are not NY or even US based?). There are many things in Harlequin that don’t thrill me (I just reviewed a single title HQN that was one big shortcut IMO), but there are also many innovative books coming out from them, IMO.

    @Janine: I am so ambivalent about your comment, because the pure reader in me feels that it should never be my responsibility to care about how hard it is for an author to produce a book. While I recognize that the publishing model many authors are currently working under has got enormous problems, I also feel a little like authors should be knowledgeable about what they’re getting into when they sign up.

    Also, I think there’s an interesting slippage between the commercial and artistic aspects of writing Romance. And I feel that it manifests differentially depending on the angle of discussion. For example, when there’s talk of Romance are pure commercial fiction, a product, etc., the defense of ‘it’s also art’ emerges. And when, for example, readers talk about how they want more art, all these concerns about commerce and the need to produce within this commercially driven system arise.

    I get that there’s a tension, and god knows I’m the reader who’s pushing for a more literature-based perception of the genre, but at the same time, I sometimes feel there’s a tendency to seek from the reader a recognition that the work of the author is superior somehow, that it should be protected in a way beyond the work other people who may not even be involved in the arts is.

    And I’m *not* saying that you’re doing this, Janine, just that when the whole ‘I can’t make a living writing these books,’ and ‘I have to have a day job’ laments emerge, I think about how few people in society can devote their lives solely to their “art,” whatever that may be. So I tend to have a kneejerk reaction of ‘so what – let me tell you about my career burdens’ when I am asked to entertain the sacrifices authors have to make to make it in big publishing.

    At the same time, I am absolutely supportive of many things that I think would make it easier on authors — fewer books cranked out, and fewer books published every month. But I know that not all authors would support those things, because they (understandably) want every opportunity to make a living through their writing, and fewer books written + fewer books published by publishers would diminish the chances of that for the large number of authors currently writing.

    I’m sorry for how harsh this comment sounds, because on a personal level I can sympathize with the things you’re saying, and would even add that these multiple burdens are even more predominant for women. But from the perspective of the reader-only, my belief is that the book should be judged independently of the author’s life (good and bad).

  82. Kalen Hughes
    Nov 04, 2009 @ 10:47:23

    Something else “shorthanded” into vampire fiction: the concept that exposure to sunlight damages and/or kills vampires.

    Is it really “shorthanding” to comply with the mythos?

  83. Robin
    Nov 04, 2009 @ 11:08:32

    @Jessica:

    I also like Magdalen's point that many romance readers are consumers of fungible products, rather than (at least intentionally) “literature”. For this, it probably doesn't matter whether shortcuts are taken. Isn't that why we have lines in Harlequin that promise a very highly specific experience, from a type of hero and heroine, to a level of conflict, to a certain setting, to a certain level of “heat”, all the way to whether a secret baby is involved? Those lines sell by the shortcut, it seems to me.

    And yet, when I think about where to turn for books that break the types, it’s most often Harlequin. Not that some books don’t perpetuate these shortcut types shamelessly, but many don’t, and when that happens in a category book, it just lowers my tolerance for all the shortcuts in single title Romance.

    I also think it's an interesting question what the difference is between a “short cut” versus a “genre trope”. Looking at romances at art, the phrase “short cut” is derogatory, because it connotes a lack of originality, aesthetic laziness, etc. On the other hand, any genre works because it repeats permutations of a basic set of elements. (Indeed narrative works for the same reasons. There's no wholly new story.) I wonder how we tell the difference? I am just learning to do this, or hoping to.

    Absolutely. Which is what I would argue is going on with a lot of those Harlequin titles, as awful as they often are, as well as their distinctive lines.

    For some reason, these kinds of discussions always seem to create what I would argue are artificial distinctions between things that are not, by any means, mutually exclusive. For example, I think it’s completely possible to produce core genre fiction that does not mindlessly repeat genre shortcuts. IMO Susan Napier does a good job of this. And Jo Goodman. And Joanne Bourne. Anna Campbell. Kresley Cole… Whether these authors are always successful is debatable, certainly, but I think what I’m most frustrated about is what I perceive to be a sometimes *thoughtless* repetition of shortcuts throughout the genre that neither readers nor authors are stopping to reflect on: does this shortcut work here? is it still relevant? is it contradictory to the other themes in this book? etc. And sometimes when these questions are raised, responses range from ‘it’s just a fantasy/it’s just entertainment’ to ‘it what readers want/publishers are making us do it.’

    So if I had a request to make here, it’d be relatively modest: can we agree that it’s not a bad thing to be thoughtful about the shortcuts that race through the genre in pandemic proportions?

    Now, for @Jessica and @Magdalen: What about “potato chip books” precludes thoughtful craftsmanship?

    @Patricia Briggs:

    Short-cuts or stock characters/situations are some of my favorite tools actually. In the right hands they can be a lovely jumping off point to make a small scene more interesting. Look at the Waitress from Hell in Linda Howard's Duncan's Bride, which was, come to think of it, a great example of an overused troupe (mail order bride) that made a terrific book. Or they can be turned on their ear and made interesting -’ like the psycho serial killer (a troupe if there ever was one) who became a sincerely, loving father figure to the blind boy whose mother he had killed -’ on (I think) last year's season of Criminal Minds. Creepy and sweet at the same time.

    Yes Yes Yes! Even when it’s not completely successful, I would often rather read a book in which it’s clear the author is trying to reconsider *thoughtfully* some of these shortcuts than simply repeating them. Skill almost always wins the day for me, whether that be in immersed repetition of shortcuts or complete rebellion. But those moments of thoughtfulness can, IMO, raise an otherwise unremarkable book from pure mediocrity to something relatively interesting. Jane’s Warlord, by Angela Knight, often comes to mind in this regard, and reading that book resulted in my purchase of many other Knight titles, in which I hoped for more of that spark. For me, the greatest sin a book can commit — even worse than offending me — is that of total forgettability.

  84. Kalen Hughes
    Nov 04, 2009 @ 11:09:18

    But from the perspective of the reader-only, my belief is that the book should be judged independently of the author's life (good and bad).

    Yes, but it can’t be judged independently of the paradigm that exists currently in the world of publishing. Most authors I know are being asked to produce at LEAST one book every six months (either two a year or three every eighteen months for those being published back-to-back-to-back). This is a change from the “one book a year” model that held sway for most of the 80s and 90s (from what I've been told). For many, this is no problem (they're either already successful enough not to have a day job, or they have partners who support them and allow them not to have a day job, or they're just amazingly fast and disciplined). For a lot of us though, the pressure to produce on the publisher's schedule is intense, and I do believe it can compromise the quality of the work. Something has to give: it may be time to plot, it may be length, it may be depth, it may be research. And I think the writers most affected by the push to publish rapidly are the newer ones, those who may not yet know if they can really keep up with the publisher's proposed schedule when they sign that first contract. I honestly believe that all of us are doing our absolute best, but I also know that our best might be better if we had more time . . . unfortunately, if you can't keep up with the schedule that is currently in vogue, you're unlikely to continue to be published.

  85. A
    Nov 04, 2009 @ 11:47:17

    @Robin:

    the pure reader in me feels that it should never be my responsibility to care about how hard it is for an author to produce a book.

    Hi, Robin. Your statement intrigues me. If I am unaware of the ease or dificulty in a product’s production, I’m incapable of assigning value to that product.

    We all understand (or at least have some idea) why certain foods cost more than others. Why a designer gown cost more than a day dress sold at the local discount store. Why real estate in one neighborhood is more expensive than another. And so on. We may agree or disagree with the value assignments, but we at least possess awareness as to the where, when, and why.

    We also understand that particular practices and production methods result in higher quality (i.e., naturally grazed cattle yield better beef than cattle fed grain, hormones, and antibiotics, BUT the grazing cattle are smaller, so less product — beef — is produced. It’s better quality beef, it’s costlier beef, but there’s less of it.)

    But from the perspective of the reader-only, my belief is that the book should be judged independently of the author's life (good and bad).

    I think this is what most authors want.

    At the same time, authors deserve respect for the hard work that goes into their work. Not saying you’re obliged to like the author, or obliged to like his/her work. Just be aware it is hard work, requiring discipline, commitment, time, and expense (for education, for research, production materials, and so on.) Even the lousiest author of the worst novel I’ve ever read invested time, discipline, and effort into his product. Perhaps s/he isn’t “ready” for publication yet. Perhaps his/her style lacks appeal to me. Perhaps s/he has no talent. I still commend the effort.

  86. A
    Nov 04, 2009 @ 11:54:01

    @Kalen Hughes:

    Is it really “shorthanding” to comply with the mythos?

    Since multiple mythologies, including ancient Egypt, specify vampires being active in daylight…the “sun allergy” is a relatively new plot device.

  87. Magdalen
    Nov 04, 2009 @ 11:59:33

    @Robin

    Now, for @Jessica and @Magdalen: What about “potato chip books” precludes thoughtful craftsmanship?

    I honestly don’t have the full answer to your question. I have a limited experience as a would-be author but 25 years of rejection still doesn’t answer the question of what does, and what should, get published. And I have very little idea what agents, editors and publishers do to influence the series books we see on the shelves.

    However, my ignorance has never stopped my imagination. Here’s what I imagine might be going on. Let’s say there are two authors, Chris & Lee (androgenous names that, I hope, don’t suggest anyone real). Chris writes well-crafted romances that are delightful and surprising series romances. Lee writes less-well-crafted romances that meet all the requirements of the series.

    Chris’s agent may (should?) be trying to get Chris a better contract with a publisher that will focus on Chris’s unique voice. Lee and Lee’s agent (if Lee has an agent) may be satisfied churning out series romances until either Lee stops, or the publisher stops publishing them. Lee may be, in fact, writing the best books that Lee can.

    Five years on, Chris’s books may be celebrated and even better (until they’re not — we’ve not touched on the previously-excellent author who rests on his/her laurels and writes the same book over and over…), with bigger print runs, etc. Lee’s books at the same stage may be the pretty much fungible as Lee’s books were at the beginning. And they may still be getting published year after year. Lord knows, they’re cheap enough manuscripts to buy!

    Again, I deny any actual knowledge, but my guess is the current publishing industry wants both Chris and Lee to write at their respective levels. We (those of us concerned about the actual and perceived quality of romances) worry about the Lees out there, but I really believe Harlequin is happy with Lee’s books — they’re not bestsellers, but they’re also reliable. If all their authors were as good as Chris, there’d be more turnover of authors as they “graduated” from series books to other imprints.

    So, no, nothing in the “potato chip” model precludes careful craftsmanship, but authors capable of careful craftsmanship tend to rise above “potato chip” publishing. And now we’re back to the fact that there is a market for “potato chip” books.

  88. Jessica
    Nov 04, 2009 @ 12:14:51

    @Robin:

    So if I had a request to make here, it'd be relatively modest: can we agree that it's not a bad thing to be thoughtful about the shortcuts that race through the genre in pandemic proportions?

    Now, for @Jessica and @Magdalen: What about “potato chip books” precludes thoughtful craftsmanship?

    In answer to your first question, yes, of course. I hope I didn’t imply otherwise in my own comment.

    As to the second, my short answer is “nothing”. My long answer is still being formulated!

  89. Kalen Hughes
    Nov 04, 2009 @ 12:16:21

    Is it really “shorthanding” to comply with the mythos?

    Since multiple mythologies, including ancient Egypt, specify vampires being active in daylight…the “sun allergy” is a relatively new plot device.

    Right . . . but an author chooses which mythos to play off/with, so IMO it’s not shortcutting to have your vampires be unable to function in the sun (anymore than it's shortcutting to have them fully or partially able to function in the sun), it’s only shortcutting if you haven’t developed your own version of the mythos enough to understand/explain why (aka you've failed to worldbuild).

  90. A
    Nov 04, 2009 @ 12:26:08

    @Kalen Hughes:

    Well, Kalen…so far as I know…No RL mythology supports the “death/injury by sunlight” mythos. Now, I am not saying writers cannot adopt the “death by sunlight” mythos popularized by authors such as Chelsea Quinn Yarbro (though I think even her vampires could survive in sunlight, just found it uncomfortable) and Anne Rice, that’s fine. What’s disturbing to me, both as a reader and as a writer, is that the “sun allergy” is now so universally accepted as “real mythos,” vampires who don’t immolate in sunlight are viewed as unusual or “going against the mythos.

    The ancient Egyptians held a belief that lunar eclipse occured as the result of vampires attempting to devour the moon in order to eliminate the night so they might be active at all times.

    I’m not saying paranormal authors shouldn’t use the “sun allergy” in their own mythos, but it’s a little like an author’s using fictional characters, places, and events from Heyer’s work because they assume erroneously those elements are real/factual.

    When I read about vampires active and unharmed in sunlight, I know the author did his/her research and isn’t “borrowing” from other popular fiction.

  91. Laura Vivanco
    Nov 04, 2009 @ 12:34:38

    Chris writes well-crafted romances that are delightful and surprising series romances. [...] Chris's agent may (should?) be trying to get Chris a better contract with a publisher that will focus on Chris's unique voice. [...] I really believe Harlequin is happy with Lee's books -’ they're not bestsellers, but they're also reliable. If all their authors were as good as Chris, there'd be more turnover of authors as they “graduated” from series books to other imprints.

    I see absolutely no reason why a romance author whose “unique voice” is perfectly suited to writing category-length romances should be made to feel that she has to “graduate” to single titles. There’s nothing inherent in the length or form of either category or single titles which makes one or the other superior as a literary form.

    Yes, some authors do move out of category into single-titles, just as some romance authors move out of romance and move into other genres, such as women’s fiction. This just demonstrates that authors with long careers may eventually want to tell different stories. A movement of authors from romance to women’s fiction etc doesn’t prove that the romance genre is inferior, and neither does the movement of some authors from category to single title. Just as some talented authors write romances and nothing else for all of their careers, there are talented category romance authors who grow and develop their talent and do so while continuing to write category romances.

  92. Kalen Hughes
    Nov 04, 2009 @ 13:04:30

    @A: I haven’t a clue what “RL Mythology” means, and I’ll admit that vampires aren’t a specialty of mine. I have no idea where the “vampires burn up in sunlight” element traces back to, nor do I really care. For the sake of my point, it doesn't really matter if we're talking about vamps or weres or sirens. Most mythological creatures have various and conflicting mythos (esp as we tend to lump similar things from dissimilar cultures together; i.e. all “blood drinkers” are “vampires”). If someone chooses to adopt and follow the rules of a SPECIFIC mythos (for example, the Egyptian day-walking vampires), then they need to know and understand that mythos. If they choose to use a specific mythos or a general mythos as a springboard, then all they have to do is have clear rules for their own world AND STICK TO THEM. But this is where it gets tricky. IMO the author has to actually create a working mythos that explains the paranormal aspects of their world, regardless of what they're basing the world upon. Being heretical and creative about something of this nature isn't “shortcutting”, it's “world building” (unless you've chosen a specific mythos and you're simply getting the details wrong).

    Now, as to the whole Heyer and history and Romanelandia's “Regency World”, I too have a problem wallpaper historicals that appear to base their entire understanding of history upon a few fictional novels. History is factual. Being “creative” with mythology is worldbuilding. Being creative with history means you're not writing historical fiction, you're writing historical fantasy. Nothing wrong with that, except when it's presented as the former (as it so often is). It drives me nuts when people get basic and important things wrong (laws, inheritance, etc.) as much as it bothers me when they import one eras values and mores into another (I think a lot of Victorianism has leaked backwards into Georgian novels). But the first is much easier to counter as laws can be quoted (though this doesn't stop books with legally impossible-’not implausible, IMPOSSIBLE-’plots from being published, getting rave reviews, and hitting lists). Mores and values are flexible and evolving and different for one class vs. another. They're slightly more akin to mythos, esp as different eras and settings have certainly developed a Romancelandia-mythos that is hard to fight against (like the one about having to marry if you're caught kissing; soooo not the case).

  93. A
    Nov 04, 2009 @ 13:35:25

    @A: I haven't a clue what “RL Mythology” means,

    OK.

    A. Ra/Amen/Amen-Ra/Re/a gazillion other names = sun god of Ancient Egypt; historical records exist concerning the myths of Ra, his cult, his priesthood, etc. Portrayed generally as a benign god beneficial to mankind.

    B. Ra = fictional character in the film “Stargate,” an extraterrestrial utilizing his superior technology to subjugate and rule ancient Egypt, enslave ancient Egyptians, and transport them via a stargate to Abydos as a worker/slave class.

    Ra (A) is the subject of several RL myths. By that, I mean he had a cult, a religious following, and various stories designating his place and purpose in nature, etc..

    Ra (B) is a fictional character with little, if anything, in common with Ra (A) apart from sharing the name and worshipped as a deity/pharaoh.

    Most mythological creatures have various and conflicting mythos (esp as we tend to lump similar things from dissimilar cultures together; i.e. all “blood drinkers” are “vampires”). If someone chooses to adopt and follow the rules of a SPECIFIC mythos (for example, the Egyptian day-walking vampires), then they need to know and understand that mythos. If they choose to use a specific mythos or a general mythos as a springboard, then all they have to do is have clear rules for their own world AND STICK TO THEM.

    I’m not quibbling over whether or not vampires should have the “sun allergy” or not. I’m saying I don’t know any documented mythology portraying “sun allergic” vampires (or vampiric creatures.) So, if a writer chooses to portray his vampire character/s as tolerant of sunlight, IMHO the writer IS “complying with the mythos.”

    My analysis: the sun allergy is something 20th C. authors implemented to provide some kind of limitation to vampiric power/s, replacing religious sacraments (i.e., holy symbols, holy water, etc.) as a “weapon.” Evidently, the implementation “took,” and voila! Modern mythos.

    Not saying it’s “wrong” or “bad.” Anne Rice also portrayed her vampire characters as sexually impotent, disregarding the myth of “dhampire” (half-human, half-vampire offspring.) Given the excesses of vampire romance and romantica available, that mythos didn’t “catch on.” ; )

  94. Janine
    Nov 04, 2009 @ 13:45:13

    I'm sorry for how harsh this comment sounds, because on a personal level I can sympathize with the things you're saying, and would even add that these multiple burdens are even more predominant for women. But from the perspective of the reader-only, my belief is that the book should be judged independently of the author's life (good and bad).

    It actually doesn’t sound harsh at all. At least to me. I completely agree that from a reader’s perspective books should be judged independently of the author’s life, and that it should never be your responsibility as a reader to care about how hard it is for an author to produce a book.

    In fact I think if readers have an important role beyond reading the book, it’s to be honest in their opinions; to hold authors’ and publishers’ feet to the fire and demand good quality in their reading. I intimated as much when I said “Readers should always continue demanding better books, absolutely” but my main point was just that there is often a tension between quality and quantity.

    Because, just as it is not the reader’s responsibility to think of how difficult the author’s life may be, it is, IMO the author’s responsibility to think of it. Their responsibilities are not only to their art and to the readers, but also to their editors, their children, their bosses at other jobs, and to their own mental and physical health.

    For some, starving or working like crazy for one or two great books a year is totally worth it; for others, it is more worth it to write ten shortcut filled books a year since readers still buy those books. Is that crappy to the reader? You bet. Do readers have a right to complain? Absolutely.

    I’m not saying that you as a reader should give a damn about any of that when you read a shortcut-filled book, just that IMO those books are not a surprising outcome of the current situation.

  95. A
    Nov 04, 2009 @ 14:04:32

    Because, just as it is not the reader's responsibility to think of how difficult the author's life may be, it is, IMO the author's responsibility to think of it. Their responsibilities are not only to their art and to the readers, but also to their editors, their children, their bosses at other jobs, and to their own mental and physical health.

    Also important is the author’s sense of priority. Their art and their readers do not merit priority above health, family, and livelihood (if the author must work outside his/her writing career.)

  96. Janine
    Nov 04, 2009 @ 14:09:09

    @A: I don’t know about that, A. I think their sense of priority is going to be different from author to author. Some may choose to put off having children in order to concentrate on writing, or to marry someone who can support them while they write, and I don’t see anything wrong with that.

  97. A
    Nov 04, 2009 @ 14:23:44

    @Janine:

    by Janine November 4th, 2009 at 2:09 pm
    @A: I don't know about that, A. I think their sense of priority is going to be different from author to author. Some may choose to put off having children in order to concentrate on writing, or to marry someone who can support them while they write, and I don't see anything wrong with that.

    I see no harm in that scenario either, provided the writer’s motives and priorities are sound.

    If a writer or aspiring writer chose to marry someone simply to acquire a meal ticket so the writer can write, I see plenty wrong with that. If a writer or aspiring writer prefers to concentrate exclusively upon his/her writing career and s/he and his/her spouse agree it is to their mutual benefit the writer do so, and they enjoy a better quality of life because of it, well and good.

  98. Moriah Jovan
    Nov 04, 2009 @ 14:30:50

    If a [person] chose to marry someone simply to acquire a meal ticket…I see plenty wrong with that.

    That’s been going on since the beginning of time.

  99. Janine
    Nov 04, 2009 @ 14:33:29

    @A:

    If a writer or aspiring writer chose to marry someone simply to acquire a meal ticket so the writer can write, I see plenty wrong with that. If a writer or aspiring writer prefers to concentrate exclusively upon his/her writing career and s/he and his/her spouse agree it is to their benefit that the writer do so, and they enjoy a better quality of life because of it, well and good.

    I wasn’t trying to suggest that writers should look for meal tickets to marry in order to write, merely to say that I think that if a writer and his spouse chooses to make an economic sacrifice for that writer’s art, that is their choice and I don’t disapprove.

    There have been great artists who have chosen to starve for their art, and we are all richer for their set of priorities. That’s what I was thinking of.

    But actually, since you bring up morality, there have also been artists who have treated others like dirt because of their single minded focus on their art. Jessica has a great post on her blog about Gaugin as an example. Obviously he was not a wonderful human being. I personally don’t approve of his priorities, but there is no denying that we are all richer for his art, too.

  100. A
    Nov 04, 2009 @ 14:35:21

    @Moriah Jovan:

    If a [person] chose to marry someone simply to acquire a meal ticket…I see plenty wrong with that.

    That's been going on since the beginning of time.

    And there’s something wrong with it. Your point?

  101. Kalen Hughes
    Nov 04, 2009 @ 14:39:09

    I think their sense of priority is going to be different from author to author. Some may choose to put off having children in order to concentrate on writing, or to marry someone who can support them while they write, and I don't see anything wrong with that.

    Why is it that now all I can picture is the Lichtenstein painting of the woman thinking about how she forgot to have children, LOL!

    I mean, I had no idea that it was as easy as choosing to marry someone who can support me while I write. Is there a sign-up sheet somewhere that I missed?

  102. Janine
    Nov 04, 2009 @ 14:42:08

    @A:

    And there's something wrong with it. Your point?

    I’m not Moriah, but I want to point out that the thrust of the post that started this thread is that there is something wrong with the poorly thought out shortcuts that fill so many books, too.

    Life often comes down to a choice not between good and evil, but between greater evil and lesser evil. Now is it better to write crappy books and sell them to readers than to marry someone for a meal ticket and write good books? That depends on your perspective, and your set of priorities.

    They are both bad IMO and the question for writers, as it is for everyone in this life, is how to find the balance and be fair to others while also being fair to oneself.

  103. Janine
    Nov 04, 2009 @ 14:44:39

    @Kalen Hughes:

    I never said anything was easy. I was only saying that writers have multiple responsibilities and it is up to each writer where art figures in their set of priorities.

  104. Kalen Hughes
    Nov 04, 2009 @ 14:48:06

    I'm saying I don't know any documented mythology portraying “sun allergic” vampires (or vampiric creatures.)

    Not being “in” to vampires I had no idea that the whole sun aversion thing dates to the film Nosferatu (1922) until today (yeah, I looked it up; couldn’t help myself). I wonder why they put it in there and why it caught on like it did? I mean, I knew Stocker's Dracula didn't burn up in the sun (he walks down the street in full daylight at one point in the book). For some reason (probably because the setting for Nosferatu predates the setting for Dracula and it's German) I had assumed the sun thing dated to/came from the 18th century German poems about them.

  105. veinglory
    Nov 04, 2009 @ 14:54:55

    Well, the sun allergy goes back as far as the first popular vampire novels, like the Victorian penny dreadful Varney the vampire.

    I appreciate new twists and takes on the vampire thang myself, but I see no problem with using the modern conventions either if it serves the story.

    I mean, why does almost every romance heroine never have a period, or poop? That’s just how we do it.

  106. A
    Nov 04, 2009 @ 14:57:42

    @Janine:

    I think that if a writer and his spouse chooses to make an economic sacrifice for that writer's art, that is their choice and I don't disapprove.

    I hope married couples make decisions conducive to their own happiness and fulfillment. Not all happiness and fulfilment relates to economics.

    There have been great artists who have chosen to starve for their art, and we are all richer for their set of priorities. That's what I was thinking of.

    Without overdosing you in TMI, I have an unusual medical condition that has resulted in multiple hospitalizations and some rather extreme dificulties. Some of the life-threatening problems I experienced are directly related to too many hours at the desk (I was editing a lengthy manuscript and had a sedentary day job at the time). Because of my young age, my earliest symptoms were not diagnosed correctly. I nearly died–twice–and…let’s just say the measures taken to save my life were quite rough and recovery’s been hard.

    It was a horrible experience, but it was also a wonderful experience because I learned something about myself. I learned I loved something more than writing. I love me — I mean my body, my ability to walk and to breathe. I love my family. I love my pets. I love my plants I love my friends.

    If someone is less than thrilled with my writing– its quality, speed of production, you name it–I laugh about it. I’ve nearly died to write. No one is going to die or risk death to read a book.

  107. A
    Nov 04, 2009 @ 15:00:56

    @Kalen Hughes:

    I think their sense of priority is going to be different from author to author. Some may choose to put off having children in order to concentrate on writing, or to marry someone who can support them while they write, and I don't see anything wrong with that.

    Why is it that now all I can picture is the Lichtenstein painting of the woman thinking about how she forgot to have children, LOL!

    I mean, I had no idea that it was as easy as choosing to marry someone who can support me while I write. Is there a sign-up sheet somewhere that I missed?

    LOL…Can we specify preferences? I want a Kevin Costner look-alike. Preferably a similar voice, too.

  108. Janine
    Nov 04, 2009 @ 15:12:44

    @A: I’m sorry to hear you nearly died and glad you are finding a better balance of priorities. All I am saying is that where art figures in a writer’s priorities is up to that writer.

  109. Kalen Hughes
    Nov 04, 2009 @ 15:14:41

    @Janine: And I was responding tongue-firmly-in-cheek to something that I assumed was clearly a run-together misstatement (the idea that everyone has the choice to marry for support so they can indulge their art; or maybe I'm the only one here who knows a lot of singletons?). Clearly everyone makes sacrifices in life, whether it's for art, family, travel, independence, etc. What's worth the sacrifice, what to sacrifice and how big a sacrifice to make are the questions.

    What it comes down to is that I wish there was a bit more flexibility in the publishing world right now. If you're naturally a slower writer (and yes, I am), your feet are really being held to the fire. Publishers aren't asking how many books you think you can write. They're telling you they want so many books in so many months, and if you can't deliver, then no contract for you. There's almost no discussion and very little flexibility. And I'm not sure when the publishing world (or the market) decided that if you can't produce two books a year-’minimum-’you're not worth publishing, but that's certainly the message I've received (LOUD and CLEAR).

    I guess I'm just longing for bygone days when one book a year was the norm/goal. Since I know that's not an option, I also know that I'm going to have to sacrifice (there's that word again) something to the publishing gods. My day job isn't an option (the charm of being “the homeless romance writer” eludes me). So I'm going to have to sacrifice time with my friends, but that won't be enough. I'm also going to have to make writing sacrifices. This may mean a “smaller” plot. This may mean no secondary romance. This may mean a shorter book. Who knows. This doesn't mean I'm aiming to crank out a crappy book, but it does mean that I'm making compromises that I might not make if I had longer to finish the book.

  110. A
    Nov 04, 2009 @ 15:17:23

    @veinglory:

    Well, the sun allergy goes back as far as the first popular vampire novels, like the Victorian penny dreadful Varney the vampire.

    I’m pretty sure Varney the Vampire didn’t have the sun allergy, not 100% sure, haven’t read that one, only a synopsis.

    veinglory, I’m refering to the “sun allergy” as a “shortcut” in vampire fiction because the sun myth isn’t standard in vampire legend and folk tales. I’m geeky enough to own a “Vampire Enclyclopedia” (and geekier enough to have read it.) No sun allergy, but…it’s a myth the modern (20th C.) public “bought.”

  111. AQ
    Nov 04, 2009 @ 15:20:49

    In fact I think if readers have an important role beyond reading the book, it’s to be honest in their opinions; to hold authors’ and publishers’ feet to the fire and demand good quality in their reading.

    @Janine:

    Readers don’t band together and I suspect that if they did they would have a difficult time coming up with a definition quality as it pertains to their book buying decisions. Too many books, too many factors go into that decision: cover art, blurb, author name recognition, series, trope, reviews, etc.

    At any given moment: Which books are new? What am I in the mood for? Has the author disappointed me in the past? What have my friends recommended? What can I download from Amazon, Sony, Ellora’s Cave, Samhain right this moment? How long is the library waiting list?

    Asking authors and publishers to live up to some type of quality standard is like asking for the moon because there isn’t a one-size fits all answer to the question of quality although I do sympathize and agree with Kalen.

    The thing is that wallpaper historicals aren’t the only type of entertainment which gives us false information that some of us accept as historically accurate. There Oscar Wilde’s version of Salome and the Dance of the Seven Veils, the biblical version of Jezebel, the movie Gladiator and Brave Heart and so on. Some things make into our cultural consciousness quite easily. Sorry, I was going somewhere but I lost it.

    Back to books. Let’s say you and I both loved the same book. You loved the writing/prose while I loved the edge of my seat excitement. Those two things aren’t mutually exclusive, but when it comes time to reach for the next book, you choose another book that indulges your love of prove while I seek out that excitement rush of danger I experienced.

    How would a publisher be able to parse that type of information from sales or even customer comments? How would an author know what it was that made either of us pick up that book without a lot more detailed information? How would Kalen’s historical knowledge interfere with her ability to lose herself in a book vs. someone who wants to live out their fantasy of that time period?

    Given the realities of today’s marketplace: is it the author’s responsibility to work harder on their final product to bring a higher quality to their when the reality is that it probably won’t make a difference on their sale numbers? Or is it the reader’s responsibility to figure out a way to find a book that fulfills the experience they are seeking? Maybe even bond together with some other readers who desire the same thing and then ask the publisher to fulfill that niche. Of course that presumes that the reader group actually consistently purchased what they asked for.

    I know, I know. Somewhere there’s a balance to be struck. I’m just not sure where it is.

    …his spouse chooses to make an economic sacrifice for that writer’s art…

    I really dislike “art” in the context of this paragraph. Must work on my connotation of the word “art.”

    …Gaugin as an example. Obviously he was not a wonderful human being. I personally don’t approve of his priorities, but there is no denying that we are all richer for his art, too.

    I could care less about Gaugin so in my mind I’m not richer for his art. Society as a whole? Maybe, but I fear that’s an argument for another day.

  112. A
    Nov 04, 2009 @ 15:27:50

    @Kalen Hughes:

    I'm also going to have to make writing sacrifices. This may mean a “smaller” plot. This may mean no secondary romance. This may mean a shorter book. Who knows. This doesn't mean I'm aiming to crank out a crappy book, but it does mean that I'm making compromises that I might not make if I had longer to finish the book.

    This is heartbreaking, and exactly the kind of thing I hate to hear.

  113. A
    Nov 04, 2009 @ 15:39:09

    @AQ:

    Given the realities of today's marketplace: is it the author's responsibility to work harder on their final product to bring a higher quality to their when the reality is that it probably won't make a difference on their sale numbers? Or is it the reader's responsibility to figure out a way to find a book that fulfills the experience they are seeking?

    I consider both parties in the transaction have obligations.

    As a writer, I owe my publisher a good product s/he can sell. As a writer, I owe (myself and readers) the absolute best quality writing I am capable of creating within parameters of my contract.

    As a reader, I owe it to myself to investigate a prospective book and evaluate whether or not I wish to invest time/money in the book.

  114. AQ
    Nov 04, 2009 @ 15:57:55

    @A: Quite reasonable.

    Here’s my follow-up.

    As a writer, I owe my publisher a good product s/he can sell. As a writer, I owe (myself and readers) the absolute best quality writing I am capable of creating within parameters of my contract.

    Would you ever feel comfortable delaying fulfillment of a contract if the work wasn’t up to quality YOU expect from yourself? What if any ramifications might be in store for you as an author?

    Please note that I’m not saying that the actual quality is bad in this scenario, rather that it’s not up to your standards. No right or wrong answer here. I’m only drawing imaginary lines in the sand.

    For readers I ask: Could most readers tell the difference between the two versions? Enough that it might influence future purchases. Keep in mind that this isn’t a question of two different stories done by two different authors. It’s the same author so the core and style of the story will be the same. It’s the quality that SHOULD be different.

    I think this question is extremely important because it hits publishers and authors where they live. Sometimes good enough is really good enough. At least that seems to be what our culture tells us about all other types of products. Is it surprising that books would be just another product in our culture’s marketplace?

  115. Janine
    Nov 04, 2009 @ 16:06:43

    @Kalen Hughes:

    @Janine: And I was responding tongue-firmly-in-cheek to something that I assumed was clearly a run-together misstatement (the idea that everyone has the choice to marry for support so they can indulge their art; or maybe I'm the only one here who knows a lot of singletons?).

    It was poorly phrased on my part — obviously I didn’t mean that at all. I was responding to A’s comment which seemed to me to imply that art should always come behind other priorities like working for a living or raising a family, and I was just countering that *some* (the word I used, not “everyone”) exercise other options. Obviously not everyone has those options, and even to some who do have them, these are not the right priorities.

    Clearly everyone makes sacrifices in life, whether it's for art, family, travel, independence, etc. What's worth the sacrifice, what to sacrifice and how big a sacrifice to make are the questions.

    Yes. And I just want to make the point here that some women in other career tracks put off having children so as to focus on those careers. I’m not sure why this part of my comment was so laughable. If I’d said that some put off having children in order to go to medical school, would it have been taken the same way? I am not saying that this is what every writer should do, just that there are some people for whom it is the right choice.

    What it comes down to is that I wish there was a bit more flexibility in the publishing world right now.

    On this we agree completely.

    If you're naturally a slower writer (and yes, I am), your feet are really being held to the fire. Publishers aren't asking how many books you think you can write. They're telling you they want so many books in so many months, and if you can't deliver, then no contract for you. There's almost no discussion and very little flexibility. And I'm not sure when the publishing world (or the market) decided that if you can't produce two books a year-’minimum-’you're not worth publishing, but that's certainly the message I've received (LOUD and CLEAR).

    I guess I'm just longing for bygone days when one book a year was the norm/goal.

    Me too. I am rereading Black Silk by Judith Ivory/Judy Cuevas right now and marveling anew at the writing. Now I think Ivory was a genius and that is no small factor in the quality of the book, but I checked the pub dates and this, her second book was first published in July of 1991, three and half years after her first, Starlit Surrender (January 1988).

    Would she have been able to write a book of this quality in six months? We’ll never know for sure but I think it’s unlikely, and that it’s also a crying shame that she is no longer writing at all.

  116. Janine
    Nov 04, 2009 @ 16:17:06

    @AQ:

    I could care less about Gaugin so in my mind I'm not richer for his art. Society as a whole? Maybe, but I fear that's an argument for another day.

    Society as a whole was what I meant by “we are all richer for his art.” I’m not phrasing my posts very well today, obviously.

    I totally hear you on all the different ways readers choose which books to purchase and also, on the different kinds of enjoyment.

  117. Jane
    Nov 04, 2009 @ 16:19:01

    Is this really the thread or even the forum for authors to come and discuss whether they should sacrifice for what kind of career, etc. etc? I think that is a fair derailment of the question of whether shortcuts/shorthand is good for the genre.

  118. Janine
    Nov 04, 2009 @ 16:34:38

    @Jane: Sorry! I didn’t think it was totally off topic because if we go with Robin’s STD metaphor, it is part of a discussion of what conditions lead to the spread of STDs, and how can STDs be prevented. But I will respect your feelings.

    IMO shortcuts are generally very bad for the genre, unless they are subverted in the manner Patricia Briggs described. I could be wrong, but I think almost everyone here is in agreement on that, and maybe that’s part of why it’s not getting discussed more.

  119. Kalen Hughes
    Nov 04, 2009 @ 16:34:58

    Yes. And I just want to make the point here that some women in other career tracks put off having children so as to focus on those careers. I'm not sure why this part of my comment was so laughable.

    Not laughable, just made me think of that painting (which I LOVE, as I’m one of the women who “forgot” to have children aka “the child free”).

    I think that is a fair derailment of the question of whether shortcuts/shorthand is good for the genre.

    Sorry. Sometimes online chatter does rove off in strange directions . . . but I do think that shorthand is possibly a development due to the sacrifices authors have had to make to keep up the pace. So, yeah, I do think it's kind of relevant to the discussion.

  120. A
    Nov 04, 2009 @ 16:38:32

    @AQ:

    Would you ever feel comfortable delaying fulfillment of a contract if the work wasn't up to quality YOU expect from yourself? What if any ramifications might be in store for you as an author?

    Please note that I'm not saying that the actual quality is bad in this scenario, rather that it's not up to your standards. No right or wrong answer here. I'm only drawing imaginary lines in the sand.

    Please keep in mind I speak only for myself. I am not a full-time author and enjoy my non-author profession. I would never seek a full-time author’s career unless it was the more financially sound course for me.

    Yes, I have delayed fulfilment of a contract before due to unhappiness with my manuscript. There have been less than positive outcomes related to that, in terms of my relationship with one publisher. Was I satisfied with the manuscript upon release? Yes, I was.

    Writers have different “quirks.” It’s always hard for me to relinquish a manuscript. I have books several years old and occasionally I experience a pang and think, “I could have done this and that…I could have worded it more like this.” I don’t think I’ve ever published a work where I didn’t experience regret or sense of lost opportunity later. I even feel irritation with my editors (“Oh God! How could they accept this? Why didn’t So-and-So tell me to do this or that with it?”) It’s like I get attached to the work and can’t let go…

    “Great work is never completed, it’s only abbandoned.”

  121. Jane
    Nov 04, 2009 @ 16:38:42

    @Kalen Hughes: I don’t know that justifications for shorthand are relevant and I think that those types of discussions are better served as Absolute Write or Romance Divas or other blogs that are devoted to author type discussions. I think the type of comments that highlight the author’s plight tend to deter readers from discussing the genre. It’s hard to have readers discuss the genre when authors are here talking about how they have to sacrifice this or that to put money on the table. Everyone has to sacrifice to put money on the table. Everyone has to work hard. Authors are no more special in that regard. Perhaps if authors feel the need to discuss the sacrifices of being authors that could be better served somewhere else.

  122. Reader
    Nov 04, 2009 @ 16:53:51

    All readers are not equal.
    All authors are not equal.

    These two statements might seem confusing at first, but there is a reason I wrote them, which I hope will become clear as you read on:

    Not all readers have the ability to recognize shoddy writing in terms of the material available to them. I say this because many times, I have read books rated highly on Amazon and the same book has not only failed to deliver on its promise but made me determined to never buy from the author again. In this one particular instance that I can clearly recall, I am talking about poor characterization, poor plotting, and insipid writing style that garnered raves. To be honest, as I understand the situation, it is not simply a case of one man's trash is another man's treasure but also that there are quite a few readers who are simply not possessing of a more discerning eye in regards to their reading material. This is not literary snobbery on my part but a statement of fact based on my own reading experiences, which might or might not reflect other people's own experiences.

    As far as authors using tropes and clichés and poor characterization, I must echo the sentiments in this blog and say I would love to read high-quality products regularly. Instead, I know I will probably read hundreds of books of which maybe one will be “keeper” or maybe not. Most would probably fall into bad, average or good, only a few making the cut of very good, never mind “keeper.” In an odd way, I don't blame authors for their bad writing because I don't know if they can completely help their writing quality or even if they would want to when they keep getting published. Instead, I blame the publishers for buying these subpar books for public consumption. I don't think readers are complacent in their reading tastes, but the vast majority of commercially viable novels in the bookstores would have us mistakenly believe that most readers are. For the few readers who cannot perhaps either recognize truly bad writing and therefore support the bad authors' products for whatever reason, maybe lower standards, all readers are lumped into the category of not being discerning and therefore deserving of lower-end quality products. I don't think that is particularly fair. Are “most” readers buying these shorthand books because they like low-end quality products or only because that is what is available to them?

    I don't think either the shortcuts or the shorthand are good for the genre. How can they be good for the genre when that type of thinking is what has led detractors to underestimate and devalue the Romance genre in the first place?

    If authors are capable of delivering high-end quality products, then by all means they should use whatever tools or means are at their disposal to deliver that wonderful novel that truly deserves raves. But I suspect that most are not capable of delivering the “goods” so-to-speak and therefore use the “few” readers whom I speak of above as a crutch to justify putting low-end quality products into the hands of “most” readers.

  123. A
    Nov 04, 2009 @ 17:10:30

    If authors are capable of delivering high-end quality products, then by all means they should use whatever tools or means are at their disposal to deliver that wonderful novel that truly deserves raves. But I suspect that most are not capable of delivering the “goods” so-to-speak and therefore use the “few” readers whom I speak of above as a crutch to justify putting low-end quality products into the hand of “most” readers.

    I am not aware of any writers “using readers as a crutch” to justify the release of substandard books. I have never met a writer whose goal is to write substandard books, have substandard books published, acquire a reputation for writing substandard books, etc..

    Writers are human beings. A wide range of writers offer a wide range of storytelling. Techniques and elements vary, as does talent. No writer undertakes a project with the intention of writing substandard material and then use readers as a “crutch,” or “justification” or whatever else one wishes to call it.

  124. Moriah Jovan
    Nov 04, 2009 @ 17:15:28

    @A:

    If a [person] chose to marry someone simply to acquire a meal ticket…I see plenty wrong with that.

    That's been going on since the beginning of time.

    And there's something wrong with it. Your point?

    My point is that your morality. There is nothing inherently wrong with it. People marry for all sorts of reasons, which you may or may not like.

  125. A
    Nov 04, 2009 @ 17:20:44

    Everyone has to sacrifice to put money on the table. Everyone has to work hard. Authors are no more special in that regard.

    I disagree. Creating a novel — or a novella or shorter work — requires extensive work. It is indeed special and a serious achievement to commit oneself to and complete such an extensive, involved project. Fashioning a novel indicates ability to plan work, research work, perform work, and polish work.

    Authors are special. The work they do is special and demanding and has purpose, whether to entertain, to educate and inform, or both. With rare exceptions, most authors do not HAVE to write, they CHOOSE to write.

    That is special and worthy of regard and respect. If it was not, the industry would not exist.

  126. Moriah Jovan
    Nov 04, 2009 @ 17:22:29

    I’ve contributed to derailment. My apologies.

  127. Jane
    Nov 04, 2009 @ 17:24:36

    @A I appreciate that you think you are special but could you contain yourself and talk about the topic. If not, then I would ask that you not comment. Please consider this your last warning on the blog.

  128. A
    Nov 04, 2009 @ 17:27:53

    @Moriah Jovan:

    My point is that your morality. Just because others do it does not, in fact, make it wrong. People marry for all sorts of reasons, which you may or may not like.

    It has nothing to do with my moral code. It has to do with marriage. The point of marriage is for the married couple to commit to each other and to complete each other, not for one person to marry another person to use that person to benefit himself/herself.

    Marriage vows, “To love, honor…” not “To use to benefit my own career aspirations.”

    Mind you, I don’t object to couples reaching the decision that one spouse need not work in the interest of pursuing other possibilities, such as education, self-employment, home-based career, etc.. If they decide to take that step together, wonderful.

  129. Reader
    Nov 04, 2009 @ 17:37:18

    @ A

    I have seen authors use the readers who like their books to justify them not taking valid critiques of people who didn’t seriously. I am sure, as you said, that authors do not write books with the intention of delivering a so-so product, but I have seen some justify their so-so product when it is labeled as such by talking about publishers’ deadlines or public demand; sometimes, authors don’t even need to do that for the readers who liked their previous books or like their style in general do it for them. I agree with you on the point that you mentioned about writers otherwise. However, I must clarify that I am not talking about “all” authors everywhere. I am talking about self-aware authors who justify their bad books on the basis of “numbers:” 1) people are buying them or the 2) the tropes and cliches work, or 3) both. IMO, these are the authors who are “using readers as crutch” to justify their “bad” releases. And they, including some others I suspect, like I said originally, are simply not capable of delivering high-end products.

  130. Kalen Hughes
    Nov 04, 2009 @ 17:39:35

    I think the type of comments that highlight the author's plight tend to deter readers from discussing the genre.

    I thought I was making a relevant point. But as you disagree I’ll pipe down and stop participating in the discussion.

  131. AQ
    Nov 04, 2009 @ 17:40:18

    @Jane:

    You’re right there’s a line but the answer to the shortcut question is integrally intertwined with author situations, reader acceptance and sheer numbers. To get to the heart of bad or good, one needs to look at all sides of the issue and continue to break it down.

    Readers play an integral part in the author’s situation because they’re supporting the current marketplace so if they aren’t satisfied with the shortcuts (i.e., shortcuts are bad for the genre), then they need to understand more about the environment which is fostering these shortcuts and their own role in it. e.g, are they willing to pay for more for the quality they seek or is it the author’s responsibility to develop a wider audience? Or…

    If, on the other hand, they believe that shortcuts are good for the genre and are happy with their reading options, then the author side really isn’t important.

    Personally, I’ve come to believe that most reader are satisfied with their options even if they aren’t always satisfied with the book they read.

    Therefore, I conclude that shortcuts are good for the genre if not the individual reader. Why?

    Because according to stats most American read what 1-2 books a year. Those of you who read 50 books a year are exceptional. 100-200? Stop. My brain is exploding.

    The funny thing is that even if you read 200 books a year, if Jane’s stats on 400 romance novels published in a month are correct then you are only reading half of the books offered in a month. How could anyone know whether or not shortcuts are good for the genre with that type of limited sampling?

    All: I apologize for hijacking the thread with my commentary/questions and will listen for a while instead.

  132. Sami
    Nov 04, 2009 @ 18:23:57

    Someone made the point earlier that book covers/titles are shortcuts in themselves. I agree with this. A title like ‘The Vengeful Billionaire’s Pregnant Secretary’ basically give away the entire plot of the book, and as such is a shortcut to telling a potential reader what it is about. This is a shortcut–but it’s a marketing shortcut and completely the decision of the publishing company. It has nothing to do with the author, as they don’t choose those titles, but it’s as much a part of the genre (I suppose I am specifically referring to Hqn here), as are the different lines published. I know the type of story I’ll get if I pick up a Blaze, as opposed to a Presents or an Intrigue. This is how harlequin target their market.

    However, I believe the initial post referred to authors themselves using shortcuts in their work (one I particularly dislike is the conniving would-be girlfriend of the hero, who is so often blonde with long red fingernails. Grrr). Is this good for the genre? No, because ultimately it lowers the standard of the writing if it is used in lieu of real character development. And yes I believe character development can be done well in a short format-’I've read authors who've done it. But not all authors can do it, not all want to do it and it doesn't seem to make any difference to whether or not they get a publishing contract.

    The potato chip argument was relevant I think because this is in fact how a lot of readers consume romance. I also have a friend who is well educated with a job and kids to care for who reads romances because, she says, she doesn't want to think at the end of a hectic day. She wants to escape, she doesn't want to be asked to do more mentally challenging work, as she might be if she read a literary type novel. She likes to read the sex. And it really, truly doesn't bother her if the book is formulaic or there are short cuts used. In fact I doubt she would recognize a shortcut if she saw one and this is in no way a reflection of her intelligence. As I said, she is a well educated, smart woman. But she doesn't read a book with the intention of critiquing it. She wants the experience, and if it delivers on her expectations, she's happy. I think she is a prime example of the type of consumer who feeds the economic model of romance publishing. The reality might simply be that there are more readers like her, than readers like those who visit blogs like this one. Not everyone wants to pull apart the genre and work out how it ticks. I enjoy the dissection myself but it’s not for everyone.

    I'm not saying any of this to excuse a writer from using a shortcut/stereotype. As a writer/reader I hate to see it done and I believe you can deliver on expectations and STILL surprise a reader. That's the challenge I like to set for myself when I write, but it is not the motivation of all authors (and neither do I know if I achieve my aim all the time). Some writers are motivated external factors like money or bestseller lists etc., or just plain making any kind of living from their writing. And that's fine with me.

    Live and let live, I say. Let discerning readers seek out the authors who give them what they want and let everyone else make their own choices.

  133. A
    Nov 04, 2009 @ 20:33:09

    @Sami:

    I'm not saying any of this to excuse a writer from using a shortcut/stereotype. As a writer/reader I hate to see it done and I believe you can deliver on expectations and STILL surprise a reader. That's the challenge I like to set for myself when I write, but it is not the motivation of all authors (and neither do I know if I achieve my aim all the time). Some writers are motivated external factors like money or bestseller lists etc., or just plain making any kind of living from their writing. And that's fine with me.

    Live and let live, I say. Let discerning readers seek out the authors who give them what they want and let everyone else make their own choices.

    Bingo. : )

  134. Suze
    Nov 04, 2009 @ 21:44:11

    I would hate for people to judge me for my first few books -’ and if Ace hadn't bought them, I probably would not have made the effort to write more and work out the kinks in my craft abilities.

    And you do get better with every book, Ms. Briggs!

    I actually got a little anxious reading about a fantasy world in which every book published was a polished jewel of literary perfection; I felt a little intimidated.

    I do think there’s a place for new authors having books published, in which they show their rough edges, and I tend to think that the shortcuts are sort of training wheels. I think that good authors get better, and use them less as they develop their skills.

    Regarding potato chips, I often refer to Harlequin Presents, which I love, as jellybean books. They, most of the time, are a nice little vacation that don’t require a lot of mental effort on my part. I don’t mind the shortcuts in them so much unless they’re a) particularly egregious or b) in a book by an author I know can do and has done better.

    Publishers aren't asking how many books you think you can write. They're telling you they want so many books in so many months, and if you can't deliver, then no contract for you.

    This really puzzles me. The publishing industry is having to cut back, they can’t possibly publish all their options every year, there are really good books written that never see the light of day, and yet publishers are demanding more work from people who feel they’re compromising their work if they keep up that pace. It seems really counter-intuitive to me. Like much of the publishing industry, actually.

  135. Magdalen
    Nov 04, 2009 @ 22:49:37

    I wonder how authors are supposed to know that their work is sloppy, specifically by their use of shortcuts, shorthand, cliches, and tropes.

    I believe that the relationship between some authors and their agents can include some criticism leading to valuable revision. Certainly, editors are supposed to do that. But if what Kalen relays is true, it sounds like the relationship with the publisher can be, for some romance authors, perfunctory. (And, if you’ve contracted to produce two or three manuscripts in a year, is it expected that those manuscripts are as perfect as you can make them, or does the publishing staff work on revisions? Not a rhetorical question — I genuinely wonder.)

    For would-be authors, in theory critique groups and writing partners are the answer, but how does an author know if the feedback she’s getting is actually helpful? Those can be complicated relationships that don’t always facilitate the brutal but constructive (if that’s not an oxymoron) criticism necessary to get the best book possible?

    And when her manuscript is accepted by a publisher, doesn’t that suggest to the author that her book was good enough? She can do better — we can all do better — but that book passed an important test, one that so many manuscripts do not.

    From Jane’s perspective, of course, none of this matters. I respect that. When you are reviewing published novels, you are entitled to disregard everything but the words, characters, plots, etc as you find them. The published novel is either good or flawed.

    But when you pose the question, Why do some authors use shortcuts?, I think you open the door to discussions of the industry and how it all works.

    I think publishers of romance novels have a lot to answer for. My reasoning is this: Readers can only read what’s been published. The publisher picks from the manuscripts submitted by first-time authors, but does that publisher work with the author to make a good story even tighter? If the industry model is to contract with authors for multi-book deals, is part of that contract some effort to keep the quality of the writing as good as the author can be?

    Clearly the argument can also be made that some authors are lazy / some readers are insufficiently discriminating / some Amazon reviewers are from another planet (I’ve thought this) / some covers & blurbs are misleading / and so forth.

    Oh, and no one else has mentioned it, but I will — is it relevant to this discussion that many authors are really badly paid for their work? Would a different economic model for romance novels — one in which fewer books were published but those books were better written and those authors made more money per book — that have the direct or secondary benefit of improving the quality of the writing overall.

  136. A
    Nov 05, 2009 @ 09:13:02

    @Magdalen:

    Oh, and no one else has mentioned it, but I will -’ is it relevant to this discussion that many authors are really badly paid for their work? Would a different economic model for romance novels -’ one in which fewer books were published but those books were better written and those authors made more money per book -’ that have the direct or secondary benefit of improving the quality of the writing overall.

    This is an interesting question. In simple economics, the “cream of the crop” in any profession tends to follow the path most rewarding and beneficial to them. It’s just human nature. If a dynamite writer earns greater intrinsic satisfaction and financial reward in a non-writing profession than in writing…it stands to reason the writer is more likely than not to consider alternatives.

    It’s nice to think a strong writer with excellent technique, voice, and grasp of the craft will see appropriate return on the time/effort invested in creation and promotion on his product, but we all know this isn’t necessarily true. We’ve all read great books — or even good books — that made little or no headway in the market and we’ve all read tripe hailed with excessive pomp and ceremony.

  137. A
    Nov 05, 2009 @ 11:59:03

    @Reader:

    @ A

    I have seen authors use the readers who like their books to justify them not taking valid critiques of people who didn't seriously. I am sure, as you said, that authors do not write books with the intention of delivering a so-so product, but I have seen some justify their so-so product when it is labeled as such by talking about publishers' deadlines or public demand; sometimes, authors don't even need to do that for the readers who liked their previous books or like their style in general do it for them. I agree with you on the point that you mentioned about writers otherwise. However, I must clarify that I am not talking about “all” authors everywhere. I am talking about self-aware authors who justify their bad books on the basis of “numbers:” 1) people are buying them or the 2) the tropes and cliches work, or 3) both. IMO, these are the authors who are “using readers as crutch” to justify their “bad” releases. And they, including some others I suspect, like I said originally, are simply not capable of delivering high-end products.

    You make a very good point here. “Pop star syndrome” in a writer is a drag. Look at what happened to LKH.

  138. Robin
    Nov 05, 2009 @ 12:55:10

    Okay, here’s what I’m trying to figure out: why does this topic always turn into the battle of art v. entertainment?

    Is it that authors think Jane and I are calling for a complete overhaul of the genre? Because *that* would require a lot of work for authors, without a doubt, as well as definite uncertainty regarding how books would sell.

    But why does, say, rethinking the feisty redheaded heroine or the trusty Black sidekick who understands fashion and serves as the no nonsense confidante automatically translate into taxing an author’s energy beyond acceptable means?

    On the one hand we’re being told how hard authors work, how much respect they deserve for their efforts (note: I may include effort in my evaluation of *student work*, but IMO that would be insulting in regard to professionally published books), and how they pout heart and soul into the work. But it’s just too much to think carefully about whether a shortcut is necessary, applicable, current, and helpful to this work of the heart and soul?

    Besides the fact that I will never be convinced that so-called potato chip books have to be shortcut replete, I also don’t believe that books with high levels of originality have to be beautifully written. And when a book sells widely, I agree with Jane that it’s broad appeal likely has to do with the author’s ability to tell a story in a compelling way to a diverse number of people. Further, in order for a book to appeal to a large diversity of readers, IMO it’s likely going to be a compromise of many different things, of different strengths and weaknesses assessed and characterized differently by different readers.

    For me, this always comes down to mindfulness — as readers and authors — to the tropes and types used in the genre. I also don’t think that “potato chip books” have to be of low craftsmanship, but that’s a slightly different issue. In terms of shortcuts, I don’t think the choice is necessarily between good writing and bad writing, entertainment and art, but merely about how what we recognize as *stock* in the genre *works* in individual books. And obviously, not all readers are going to respond the same way; some are going to see originality where others see stock. But that’s the way it is with every book anyway.

    Eh, I guess what I’m really trying to say is that I don’t understand why this seems like such a monumental desire.

  139. A
    Nov 05, 2009 @ 13:20:32

    (note: I may include effort in my evaluation of *student work*, but IMO that would be insulting in regard to professionally published books)

    All of life is a learning/growth process, save in the unfortunates incapable of learning and growth.

    As a writer, I routinely refer to my work as attempting (to discuss this issue, portray this era, bring this mythology to life.) I don’t release my work until I consider my goals met, not everyone will feel that way, and that’s fine.

  140. AQ
    Nov 05, 2009 @ 15:14:31

    Okay, here's what I'm trying to figure out: why does this topic always turn into the battle of art v. entertainment?

    @Robin:

    Please go back and re-read the original post you and Jane wrote. It’s a great post with wonderful examples from two different points of view. But the net the two of you cast is pretty darn huge. The two of you go from from setting to stock characters to layering. You discuss authors getting readers to invest in them/their series as opposed to just purchasing the books. Historical appropriation rather than historical accuracy. And so on. Too wide. It’s natural for people to head toward that art v. entertainment argument given the scope of the starting point. And even more so when the word shortcuts has so many different meanings.

    On the one hand we're being told how hard authors work, how much respect they deserve for their efforts (note: I may include effort in my evaluation of *student work*, but IMO that would be insulting in regard to professionally published books), and how they pout heart and soul into the work. But it's just too much to think carefully about whether a shortcut is necessary, applicable, current, and helpful to this work of the heart and soul?

    Although this paragraph is relevant and raises a whole host of tangent questions, it’s too vague because which shortcuts are you talking about. I could assume that the shortcuts refer to the examples in the paragraph preceding it but those shortcuts aren’t necessarily the ones that bother me personally so every time you throw out the word shortcut I’d have to re-check to make sure that not only are the two of us talking about the same thing but that we’re on the same page as the rest of the commenters.

    This type of conversation deserves an in-person Socratic round table discussion. One where a whole host of questions get asked to nail down the specifics of what you’re trying to get at. In a case like this, where we’re having a discussion with authors and readers, I almost think you need just pick a few books either by a specific author or within a specific subgenre, nail down the specific of what you’re seeing and then we tear the premise apart from the creator and the consumer point of views.

    Right now I feel like we’re trapped in theoretical pie in the sky nowheresville or that I’m completing misunderstand the heart of what you’re trying to ask us to explore.

    Besides the fact that I will never be convinced that so-called potato chip books have to be shortcut replete, I also don't believe that books with high levels of originality have to be beautifully written.

    I thought the potato chip conversation had more to do with the way romance novels were being consumed by a certain segment of the consumer marketplace rather than that the books themselves were more apted to filled with shortcuts. As far as this:

    I also don't believe that books with high levels of originality have to be beautifully written.

    I agree with you but what does this statement have to do with the issue of shortcuts?

    Further, in order for a book to appeal to a large diversity of readers, IMO it's likely going to be a compromise of many different things, of different strengths and weaknesses assessed and characterized differently by different readers.

    Don’t agree here. But this takes us away from “shortcuts” into a different conversation. One that would end up right back at the art vs. entertainment discussion.

    Eh, I guess what I'm really trying to say is that I don't understand why this seems like such a monumental desire.

    What exactly are you referring to when you say this in the context of your sentence?

  141. Janine
    Nov 05, 2009 @ 18:38:55

    Okay, here's what I'm trying to figure out: why does this topic always turn into the battle of art v. entertainment?

    Sorry but in this case, I don't see the battle. I think almost everyone is philosophically agreed that shortcuts, unless subverted or riffed on, aren't good, except perhaps to new readers who don't recognize them. Maybe I'm wrong, but I think the badness of shortcuts is patently obvious and inherent in the connotation of the word “shortcut” itself.

    For that reason, without specific examples from specific books, I feel there's not much more to say.

    I also don't think anyone is trying to justify the use of shortcuts, even when we get into a discussion of how the entertainment industry functions and the dilemmas writers face. I know I certainly wasn't. I saw that conversation as being a discussion of the why of shortcuts, but not as any kind of battle or attempt to justify.

    Is it that authors think Jane and I are calling for a complete overhaul of the genre?

    I see you as calling for more thoughtful reflection on genre tropes.

    But why does, say, rethinking the feisty redheaded heroine or the trusty Black sidekick who understands fashion and serves as the no nonsense confidante automatically translate into taxing an author's energy beyond acceptable means?

    I don’t recall anyone saying that it (at least by itself) does. I certainly didn’t. If you’re referring to something I said, I don’t see a way to explain what I meant without returning to the subject Jane asked us to avoid.

    Besides the fact that I will never be convinced that so-called potato chip books have to be shortcut replete, I also don't believe that books with high levels of originality have to be beautifully written.

    Not sure which post you’re referring to here, either, but if it’s one of mine, that was not something I intended to say.

    Eh, I guess what I'm really trying to say is that I don't understand why this seems like such a monumental desire.

    I’m also confused about what you mean by “this.” Do you mean a discussion of shortcuts that doesn’t venture into the entertainment industry topic, or do you mean more thoughtful writing and less use of poorly thought out shortcuts in the books thesmselves?

  142. Robin
    Nov 05, 2009 @ 19:38:36

    @Janine and @AQ: By this, I am referring to the “this” in my previous paragraph, to wit:

    For me, this always comes down to mindfulness -’ as readers and authors -’ to the tropes and types used in the genre.

    Which in turn refers back to my original post:

    Although I do not believe that shortcuts reflect lazy storytelling, I do think that if we don't spend some time thinking about whether they are still valid and useful, the genre runs the risk of getting stale and, more problematically, of perpetuating outdated and undesirable stereotypes.

    I thought I was pretty fixedly singing the same tune there, lol, so sorry if it wasn’t as clear as I thought it was.

  143. AQ
    Nov 05, 2009 @ 19:41:20

    …I think the badness of shortcuts is patently obvious and inherent in the connotation of the word “shortcut” itself.

    @Janine
    Shortcut by itself doesn’t have a negative connotation for me. Not even in the context of this conversation. It depends on what we are trying to measure. Much like the Gaugin aspect you touched on yesterday.

    Are we talking public good, author good, publisher good, reader good, art good, entertainment good? What do we mean by good and what are we using as our yardstick?

    —–

    How about picking something that appears in many romances regardless of subgenre, trope, etc.

    The hero is willing to die for the heroine in his final confrontation with villain.

    It’s a shortcut for true love in the romance genre. The actions of hero throughout the story may not support his doing so. I, as a reader, may not believe that the hero loves the heroine or that the hero is capable of making that type of sacrifice. Hey, it’s the hand of true love. LOL

    So in this one very specific and yet multi-faceted shortcut example, tell me is the shortcut good for the genre and why or why not?

  144. Robin
    Nov 05, 2009 @ 19:49:18

    @AQ:

    But the net the two of you cast is pretty darn huge.

    I’m confused by this, AQ, because I thought Jane narrowed things down right off the bat with this definition of shortcut:

    Shortcuts are when an author relies on an archetype or trope in order to draw upon the collective memory of a romance reader to fill in the necessary motivation or backstory for a character. This often results in anachronistic behavior which confuses the reader and results in accusations of the reader not understanding. It can also result in distance between the reader and the story because the reader simply isn't provided enough information to relate to the characters.

    As was pointed out during the comments, there are other types of shortcuts, some of which are core to the genre’s purpose, and every well-used type also provides opportunity for a new twist or take. And then things kind of veered off into the whole “potato chip books” and ‘well, readers are obviously buying certain books’ and ‘here’s why authors are struggling to write the books they do’ and so on.

    And I readily admit that I followed each thread without trying to pull back to the IMO relatively narrow issue that Jane and I set out, so I take responsibility for contributing to the divergent threads of conversation that ensued.

    But how do you think we could have done a better job of narrowing/clarifying our topic? I’m asking this sincerely, because IMO we were pretty narrow in focusing on and giving examples of different character types from across the genre.

  145. AQ
    Nov 05, 2009 @ 19:53:41

    @Robin:

    I think I’ve gone into over-thinking mood cuz I’m missing you here.

    But what does monumental desire refer to and what is it for?

    I thought I was pretty fixedly singing the same tune there, lol, so sorry if it wasn't as clear as I thought it was.

    I’m not sure it’s a matter of clarity on your part cuz I’m not convinced that we’re talking about the same things.

    Written language can be so limiting sometimes.

  146. Robin
    Nov 05, 2009 @ 20:03:51

    @AQ: The desire for more thoughtfulness about the various types and tropes in the genre used to create stock characterizations. More questioning around whether these types are still useful, why they work in a certain book, whether they conflict with other things the author is trying to create, etc. Like the heroine whose fiery nature is communicated primarily through her red hair, because *everyone reading Romance* knows that red hair is code for “feisty.” Or the alpha hero whose commanding personality is communicated primarily through the fact that he’s a SEAL or FBI agent or the like. Because *everyone reading Romance* knows that SEALs are alpha males.

    Although I did not extrapolate about it here, one of my complaints about these stock types is that they often require that the reader fill in the blanks of characterization. Which readers so often do, because we’re so conditioned to the types and tropes. And we often don’t even notice we’re filling in details that are missing in the text. While OTOH, sometimes readers become so overdone in regard to a certain type/trope that they won’t pick up a book that contains that type, even if the author twists it in the text. That is, we get so used to seeing these stock types that we do not anticipate they will be interpreted afresh, and in some cases, we don’t care, because we’re just so done. There was a very famous scuffle over the use of the virgin widow a few years ago in a historical Romance, and I was amazed, actually, at how many readers said they would not touch the book with a ten foot pole, no matter how well rendered the heroine was. They were just done with the way the virgin widow has traditionally been used to establish sexual and moral virtue in the heroine without making her an ingenue.

    Does that help?

  147. Janine
    Nov 05, 2009 @ 20:31:11

    @Robin: I don’t think wanting greater mindfulness is a monumental desire. I’m not sure where you saw that people said that it was. To use an analogy which may not be perfect, if I discuss the conditions that can lead to famine in developing countries and say that given those conditions, it is not that surprising that famines happen, does that mean I am justifying famines, saying that famines are good, that I am A-okay with them, or that we should not do what we can to prevent them?

  148. A
    Nov 05, 2009 @ 20:35:16

    From Robin:

    Although I did not extrapolate about it here, one of my complaints about these stock types is that they often require that the reader fill in the blanks of characterization. Which readers so often do, because we're so conditioned to the types and tropes. And we often don't even notice we're filling in details that are missing in the text.

    From Jane:

    And why focus on secondary characters in such a short format? I'll never understand that.

    Interesting. It seems readers feel cheated or deprived by use of “stock types,” tropes, etc…and they are also less than thrilled with well-developed, original supporting characters.

  149. Jane
    Nov 05, 2009 @ 20:36:14

    @Janine I was the one that asked the comments be moved back on topic. I did this because I felt like the focus became too centered on what authors needs are. I think that it can be intimidating for readers to come to a thread to talk about genre issues if the majority of the comments are by authors talking about how the market is limiting their abilities. I understand that authors are feeling the pressure and strain of publishing but that can be the excuse for everything.

  150. Janine
    Nov 05, 2009 @ 20:48:39

    @AQ:

    Shortcut by itself doesn't have a negative connotation for me. Not even in the context of this conversation.

    Taking a shortcut implies skipping or bypassing something. In the context of characterization, the word implies a kind of skimping to me.

    Furthermore, Robin described it as leaving blanks for the reader to fill, and not the good kind of blanks (where our imagination is engaged by silences, or the absence of the full picture in a deliberate way), but thoughtless blanks, where the author has not fully thought out or understood her character, but has instead relied on a stock character or archetype to do some of her character-building work for her. It may not be lazy writing but it is thoughtless writing. Therefore it seems bad to me.

    It depends on what we are trying to measure. Much like the Gaugin aspect you touched on yesterday.

    Are we talking public good, author good, publisher good, reader good, art good, entertainment good? What do we mean by good and what are we using as our yardstick?

    Jane asked if we thought shortcuts were good for the genre. I guess that could mean different things to different people but to me it read as a request to gauge the effect of shortcuts on the quality of the writing in the genre. To which I have only one answer: if they are not innovated on in any way, or subverted in any way, and simply passed along without thought or reflection (and this was what Robin’s post implied to me) then clearly their effect on the quality of the writing in the genre is negative. I don’t see how anyone can justify them.

    -’-

    How about picking something that appears in many romances regardless of subgenre, trope, etc.

    The hero is willing to die for the heroine in his final confrontation with villain.

    It's a shortcut for true love in the romance genre. The actions of hero throughout the story may not support his doing so. I, as a reader, may not believe that the hero loves the heroine or that the hero is capable of making that type of sacrifice. Hey, it's the hand of true love. LOL

    So in this one very specific and yet multi-faceted shortcut example, tell me is the shortcut good for the genre and why or why not?

    If it indeed used as a shortcut (the blanks are left for the reader to fill) and the actions of the character are out of character and unconvincing, then clearly it is bad.

    However that does not mean that all instances of a hero willing to sacrifice his life for the heroine are shortcuts. If you take a book like Kinsale’s For My Lady’s Heart, where the secondary character, Allegreto, risks his life over and over for the young woman he loves, I would say that Kinsale takes no shortcuts in this book. She make the shift in Allegreto’s loyalties (his father is the villain) completely believable and convincing; the actions come from the character rather than from genre prescription. To me, that is not a shortcut.

  151. Janine
    Nov 05, 2009 @ 20:56:33

    I was the one that asked the comments be moved back on topic. I did this because I felt like the focus became too centered on what authors needs are. I think that it can be intimidating for readers to come to a thread to talk about genre issues if the majority of the comments are by authors talking about how the market is limiting their abilities. I understand that authors are feeling the pressure and strain of publishing but that can be the excuse for everything.

    @Jane: I can respect that and I’m not trying to push the topic back into the conversation. I absolutely was not using it as an excuse, though.

  152. AQ
    Nov 06, 2009 @ 01:59:25

    @Robin:

    I'm confused by this, AQ, because I thought Jane narrowed things down right off the bat with this definition of shortcut:

    Short answer: The post meanders and doesn’t stay tight enough to the stated definition. It mixes genre stereotyping and craft with romance archetypes and tropes then throws in cultural mindsets.

    Shortcuts aren’t author reliance on archetypes and tropes, it’s the archetypes and trope themselves. Or at least that would be my starting point.

    I understand that authors feel constricted by diminishing page and word lengths, but some of my favorite books in the genre remain the old Laura London (aka Sharon and Tom Curtis) category Regencies…

    This paragraph isn’t about shortcuts, it’s about craft. The next paragraph addresses genre authority. The genre authority examples given speak to the cultural mindset rather than the romance genre shortcuts. It also is outside of stated definition of a shortcut.

    I do think that if we don't spend some time thinking about whether they are still valid and useful, the genre runs the risk of getting stale and, more problematically, of perpetuating outdated and undesirable stereotypes.

    In order to get outdated and undesirable stereotypes we’d need to start by unraveling the archetypes and the tropes that exist within the romance genre. We must know what they are and what function they serve before we can make a determination. The shortcut definition doesn’t allow that. It’s focus is on authorial craft rather than stereotypes.

    Although I do not believe that shortcuts reflect lazy storytelling ,… And when I see resistance to taking a second look at these shortcuts, I'm always puzzled, especially when I see authors talk about how devoted to the craft of writing they remain.

    Taken as a whole this paragraph is a slap to authors.

    Actually now that I’ve re-read this post a few times I’d say the whole post calls the author out.

    I’m left with: I do not think this post said what it was meant to say.

    ————-
    Here’s my original rambling response on where my mind was in this discussion after your latest post. It has value but it should probably be redone. I’m going with it because I’m tired and I’ve already spent too much time drafting it.

    I read Lord of Scoundrels for the first time this year. Overall I enjoyed the story and appreciated the craft but I had some serious reader disconnects. Those disconnects had nothing to do with author reliance and everything to do with my definition of genre shortcuts.

    So if we want to look at the shortcuts that I see to make a determination of whether or not

    …they are still valid and useful, the genre runs the risk of getting stale and, more problematically, of perpetuating outdated and undesirable stereotypes.

    What criteria are we to use to make the above determination for this one book? How do we measure it? Can this information be applied to the rest of the genre? Or is this book an exception? Do shortcuts taken in combination make a difference or do we only look at shortcuts individually?

    I don't know how to answer these questions or apply what I think you're trying to get at, so I expand out; trying to account for the hows and the whys involved in the first phrase: creation. I look to the author and their skill set. I want to understand how shortcuts are used consciously or unconsciously by different authors. How does author background affect their use of shortcuts? Are they more likely to use one shortcut vs. another depending on that background? How do publishing contracts and timelines impact shortcut use? Ta Da I'm on the Art side.

    Then I look at the entertainment side. The reader. What are they receiving from the shortcut? Are they consciously noting the shortcut or would someone need to point it out to them? Is the shortcut something that most everyone understands and accepts within cultural itself (Puritan are sexless prudes) or something specific to romance (great sex always equals love for the romance heroine)?

    Is the shortcut necessary to the fantasy or the experience the reader is seeking? How does the shortcut experience differ between a casual reader vs. a voracious reader of the genre. What does the shortcut represent either to the genre or the cultural mindset that it is created and consumed in? Do consumption patterns matter? e.g. the potato-chip factor vs. the seven-course meal

    Then I start to pull it back to story level to ask questions like this: Does author belief that a shortcut is necessary to meet reader or publisher genre expectations impact their use of it?

    For example, the belief that many readers want pre-hero virgin/orgasm free heroines?

    Is this used because it prevents the couple from having sex right away and thus raises the story tension? Is it because of cultural mores of either the author or the reader? Is it because great sex = love? Is it because not having sex puts the heroine at a great disadvantage to the much more experienced hero and thus the heroine's win over the hero is much sweeter?

    The answer may be complex but if an author understand the experience the reader seeks from the shortcut then they can take that shortcut and twist it. Or use something entirely different and refresh the genre.

    And of course, somewhere in all of this questioning we must address the publisher's role.

    -’
    Robin, it's possible that none of these questions I've raised are relevant to the issue that you're addressing but without further criteria from you this is the way my mind tackles the post and the commentary. Hence, my “the net cast is too wide” statement.

    But how do you think we could have done a better job of narrowing/clarifying our topic? I'm asking this sincerely, because IMO we were pretty narrow in focusing on and giving examples of different character types from across the genre.

    Change the definition and go after the tropes and the archetypes. Don’t challenge authors to defend themselves or their craft.

    If we ask readers and authors to pull apart something like virgin heroine, it becomes more of an intellectual exercise. Authors get to think about why a certain trope or archetype is important for a given story/plot. What they hoped to achieve with it, etc. Reader get to talk about resonance and what they were hoping to experience during the read. Why the trope or archetype worked. Of course, this exercise is limited by the written language and the ability for us to ask specific enough questions and for the responders to give specific enough answers.

    And obviously a lot more goes into a book than that one small piece we’d be looking at. But if we could go down to that level of detail and keep it specific, perhaps we can make a real determination of is this still a valid genre shortcut. Authors could use that information to consider new twists and readers potentially get a refreshed trope.

    And that’s how I would approach this issue.

    Off to bed. Everyone can send me hate me in the morning.

  153. AQ
    Nov 06, 2009 @ 02:20:00

    @Janine:

    I really must go to bed but I’m going to comment this one sentence of yours.

    Taking a shortcut implies skipping or bypassing something. In the context of characterization, the word implies a kind of skimping to me.

    It does and it doesn’t. The answer depends on the skill set of the individual involved. In IT we take shortcuts to problem solving all the time. We take troubleshooting leaps based on experience to cut down the amount of time it takes to resolve a problem. How someone like me attacks the problem will be very different from someone who doesn’t have any hands-on experience. What the problem is also plays a hand in the shortcut chosen. So it just depends.

    In the writing world, shortcut needs to move away from a shorthand for bad author. If we want to get past us vs. them in terms of something like characterization, the conversation should contain questions like: what did the author tell/show us about the character, does that fit a genre trope or archetype? is the pattern being used or subverted? What info did the reader receive about the character? did characterization/motivation flow within the context of the story? If not, where’s the disconnect?

    Sorry, I’ll have to read the rest of your comment tomorrow. I really must go to sleep.

  154. Jane
    Nov 06, 2009 @ 08:13:27

    @Janine I didn’t think you were. I thought it was the direction of the comments (and of some commenters, not you)

  155. Robin
    Nov 06, 2009 @ 11:43:59

    @AQ: Thanks for your response. All I can say is that IMO opinion posts are meant to open the door wide enough for people to comment and discuss and issue. You raised many issues in your comment that that have been fantastic topics of conversation *in the comment thread*. Jane and I have strong opinions (not all of which are in total agreement, as our comments in the post revealed), but we are not trying to establish rules for the genre or for authors.

    One thing I have learned as a blogger is that if you write too much of what you think about a topic, you forestall discussion because people don’t see a way in to discussion. No post ever represents anywhere near my every thought about an issue – they are all merely attempts to generate discussion. You and Janine raised a number of issues — authorial intention v. reader interpretation, shortcut as them v. shortcut as type. One of the things @Janine‘s comment raised for me was the question of whether readers sometimes prefer shortcuts because they can fill in the gaps re. character description. For example, there are readers who dislike heroes with mustaches, so maybe an author doesn’t want to give too much of a physical description in case the reader dislikes something about her hero’s physical presence. Maybe some readers want to fill in the blanks on a backstory so they can exercise their own imagination. I personally don’t want to have to do any of the writing work on a novel — I want the author’s vision to be mine for the time I’m reading, and I want that vision to be like looking through a window at a complete tableau to the point where I feel both a part of and an observer of the world of the novel. If it’s different for other readers, then why/how is it different?

    This paragraph isn't about shortcuts, it's about craft. The next paragraph addresses genre authority. The genre authority examples given speak to the cultural mindset rather than the romance genre shortcuts. It also is outside of stated definition of a shortcut.

    If a shortcut is all about passing the burden of the fill-in to the reader, how is that not about craft? As several people noted in the comments, sometimes those choices serve the genre in ways that do not reflect well or negatively on the author’s crafstmanship, but in other cases, I think it does. In the ways Janine pointed out in her post, for example, or the ways in which readers debate whether the use of a certain type or trope is at odds with other things the author is trying to accomplish.

    For example, the virgin widow novel I referred to in my comments: when I read the novel, I actually had no beef with the type itself, but IMO it did not fit with the character of the heroine as she was portrayed in detail, motivation, or general personality. There was a clash, for me, that weakened my ability to invest in her character and suspend disbelief. In a review, I would obviously note that as a craft issue, even though the author might disagree.

    Further, that novel illustrates, IMO, the point at which craft issues and market issues intersect and even overlap. The author changed the heroine’s past at the suggestion of her editor. Although she was clear that she took full responsibility and did not feel pushed, I don’t think there was a reader who read the author’s admission who did not understand that the suggestion was clearly a marketing consideration. And the author obviously attempted to merge that consideration with her craftsmanship, and the result worked differentially well for different readers. And, as I said, there were many readers who insisted they wouldn’t even pick up the book because of the virgin widow type, while I’m sure others would not have read the book if the heroine was not a virgin. But in any case, I don’t think you can separate the question of typing in genre fiction without addressing craft.

    Change the definition and go after the tropes and the archetypes. Don't challenge authors to defend themselves or their craft.

    Is there any topic we can discuss these days that isn’t interpreted by authors as a “calling out”? Seriously, I feel like the author v. reader dynamic has exponentially multiplied during this period of extreme market contraction. I imagine that it’s as wearying to authors as it is to readers, but honestly, I can guarantee you that neither Jane nor I was hoping to goad authors into defending their craft. While I do believe that there are definite craft issues here, I’d hate to think that every time readers raise these issues that authors believe their integrity is being impugned. And I’m certainly sorry anything I said made you or any other authors feel that way.

  156. Robin
    Nov 06, 2009 @ 12:13:09

    @Janine: I wasn’t responding to your posts (as I addressed your comment in my own, earlier), but I, too, was trying to avoid going back off the rails with my own characterization of the debate (i.e. I might have phrased it differently otherwise ;D).

    However that does not mean that all instances of a hero willing to sacrifice his life for the heroine are shortcuts. If you take a book like Kinsale's For My Lady's Heart, where the secondary character, Allegreto, risks his life over and over for the young woman he loves, I would say that Kinsale takes no shortcuts in this book. She make the shift in Allegreto's loyalties (his father is the villain) completely believable and convincing; the actions come from the character rather than from genre prescription. To me, that is not a shortcut.

    I love your phrasing here: “the actions come from the character rather than from genre prescription.” It is only as I’ve become a more experienced reader in the genre that I’ve been able to recognize that. It’s downright intimidating, sometimes, to venture into other genres, find a book fascinating, and then have seasoned readers of that genre be all, like, ‘yeah, we’ve seen that a thousand times; big deal.’ And obviously, to the reader who is just discovering the type, it can still feel exhilarating and mark an entrance point into the genre.

    Then, of course, there is the inverse (obverse?) situation, where the non-genre reader cannot recognize the code of the genre and feels totally disengaged from the book. This happened to me with Kinsale’s The Shadow and the Star. It was like my second Romance novel ever, and at first I thought Leda was a prissy, anti-feminist dishrag (yes, my academic sensibilities were fully engaged there, lol). It was not until I had read a few more Kinsale and Ivory novels that I went back to TSATS and saw Leda differently.

    And now, a number of years later, I realize two things: that Kinsale is playing with the genre prescription in all sorts of ways, and that my outsider bias against the book was not completely *wrong* in that there have been many other books where I’ve felt the same way, except that I’m reading from inside the genre instead of outside. Which has created an interesting dynamic for me in that I understand how people get these stereotypical views of the genre but am not always sure how to challenge them, because I do think that there’s a certain coding in the genre that readers recognize.

    I don’t see the coding and shortcuts as the same, although I do think there are points and instances of overlap. And I also wonder how either/both of these things registers differentially on genre and non-genre readers (or, for that matter, on readers who love genre fiction but who have not read much Romance).

    I’m not sure where I’m going with this, but I wonder, sometimes, if readers and authors of Romance don’t blend them together in our experience of the genre. For example, the Harlequin titles that others have pointed to — I see those as genre coding, but they do, in fact, also refer to particular shortcut types. And yet, is the shortcut something that is identified within individual books (here, obviously, I’m invoking a craft issue, a la AQ’s comments), or is it more general. Is the Sheikh of the Harlequin Presents title a shortcut or a code? Is there a difference or has the difference been erased as the genre has evolved?

    I think I’m starting to see the shortcut, per se, as a book to book issue, and coding as more generic (heh), but I can’t say it’s the same for every author and reader.

  157. Janine
    Nov 06, 2009 @ 14:04:24

    @AQ:

    I really must go to bed but I'm going to comment this one sentence of yours.

    Taking a shortcut implies skipping or bypassing something. In the context of characterization, the word implies a kind of skimping to me.

    It does and it doesn't. The answer depends on the skill set of the individual involved. In IT we take shortcuts to problem solving all the time. We take troubleshooting leaps based on experience to cut down the amount of time it takes to resolve a problem. How someone like me attacks the problem will be very different from someone who doesn't have any hands-on experience. What the problem is also plays a hand in the shortcut chosen. So it just depends.

    In the writing world, shortcut needs to move away from a shorthand for bad author. If we want to get past us vs. them in terms of something like characterization, the conversation should contain questions like: what did the author tell/show us about the character, does that fit a genre trope or archetype? is the pattern being used or subverted? What info did the reader receive about the character? did characterization/motivation flow within the context of the story? If not, where's the disconnect?

    Sorry, I'll have to read the rest of your comment tomorrow. I really must go to sleep.

    I think we are defining the word “shortcuts” differently because I see it as being related to tropes and archetypes but not the same thing. An archetypal character or a character whose actions fit within a certain trope can be a shortcut, but isn’t necessarily one. If you read the rest of my earlier post, you may see what I mean. To me, it’s a shortcut when it reads like the author hasn’t given all the questions you ask thought. If it’s a fully devleoped character, or a thoughtful subversion, then by definition it is not a shortcut (as I understood Jane and Robin to mean the term). So perhaps we are hanging up on semantics.

  158. Janine
    Nov 06, 2009 @ 14:57:05

    @Robin:

    One of the things @Janine's comment raised for me was the question of whether readers sometimes prefer shortcuts because they can fill in the gaps re. character description. For example, there are readers who dislike heroes with mustaches, so maybe an author doesn't want to give too much of a physical description in case the reader dislikes something about her hero's physical presence. Maybe some readers want to fill in the blanks on a backstory so they can exercise their own imagination.

    Although I don’t think there is anything wrong with that, this wasn’t what I actually meant when I was writing about thoughtful gaps. I was thinking more in terms of POVs. For any given word, we only have one character’s or narrator’s POV, and if a book is written in alternating-by-scene third person POV, which many romances are, then one of the main character’s viewpoint is absent from any given scene. In some books, a whole chapter can go by without us knowing what a character is thinking, though of course, hints can be given as to their thoughts in other ways. But in this way, the author can sometimes create a mystery that engages the reader’s imagination.

    The book I was actually most thinking of is one that I absolutely adored as a teenager and still have a lot of affection for, Dragonflight by Anne McCaffrey. Although it is not a romance genre book, I think it could be published as an SF/fantasy romance if it were being published for the first time today.

    In the beginning of the book, the heroine’s POV is given, then quickly alternated with the hero’s, etc., in the first quarter of the book, in which the hero convinces the heroine to abandon her home and inheritance and join the ranks of dragonriders ( a special group of people telepathically bonded to an alien species called “dragons”) whose job it is to protect the planet from a danger that is only a few years away.

    The book then skips three years into the future. The heroine has attained an important position among the dragonriders but the group has a leader who doesn’t believe the planet is really threatened and won’t do anything about the danger. The heroine is frustrated because she has expected the hero to care about this and do something about it. But he shows a kind of nonchalance about the whole thing.

    During this time there is a long section in which we don’t have access to the hero’s POV, and though there are some signs that he is not stupid and that all is not what it appears to be, I still wondered why the hell he wasn’t taking action. Then, just when I was as frustrated as the heroine the hero does something unexpected and thrilling, yet it fits completely within his character. We are returned to his POV to see that he has not disappointed us after all, and had good reasons for his earlier inaction.

    But the section in which his POV is missing engages the imagination deeply, and the section that follows, in which the heroine’s POV is withheld, does the same thing to an even greater degree. The hero doesn’t know where he stands with her, whether or not she is on board with his plans, how much he has convinced her to side with him politically, and whether their personal relationship, which isn’t entirely of their own choosing (it is a kind of marriage of convenience), is something she will ever accept.

    As he is wondering these things, I was wondering right along with him. The author uses other cues, like things the heroine says and her body language, to show how the character’s feelings are changing, but the fact that the POV is withheld forces readers to pay attention to these subtle signals, and gives each one a lot of weight.

    That is what I mean b good blanks. Or, to use another example, if two characters are best friends and one greets the other warmly but the second snubs the first, while we don’t have that second character’s POV, we will wonder at the reason for the snub. When it’s deliberate, when I feel like I’m in the hands of a good author, that to me is a good kind of blank — a blank that invites the reader’s imagination in.

    I personally don't want to have to do any of the writing work on a novel -’ I want the author's vision to be mine for the time I'm reading, and I want that vision to be like looking through a window at a complete tableau to the point where I feel both a part of and an observer of the world of the novel. If it's different for other readers, then why/how is it different?

    I think I understand what you are trying to say, but IMO the reader is always going to have a vision that isn’t exactly the same as the author’s. No matter how well the author describes something, the reader isn’t going to see it exactly the same way in her mind. Furthermore, there are always blanks left, even in the very best books. For example most authors don’t mention that their characters’ shoes are tied, but rather trust the readers to assume it on their own unless it is otherwise stated.

    As for your mustache example, it made laugh because I do dislike them and would rather not have them mentioned. Another example is Jessica’s recent complaint (at RacyRomanceReviews) about all the contemporary heroines who are bikini waxed. That is an example of the kind of detail I do not mind reading but also do not need to have described in order to find the book satisfactory.

  159. Janine
    Nov 06, 2009 @ 18:56:45

    @Robin:

    @Janine: I wasn't responding to your posts (as I addressed your comment in my own, earlier), but I, too, was trying to avoid going back off the rails with my own characterization of the debate (i.e. I might have phrased it differently otherwise ;D).

    Thanks for clarifying.

    However that does not mean that all instances of a hero willing to sacrifice his life for the heroine are shortcuts. If you take a book like Kinsale's For My Lady's Heart, where the secondary character, Allegreto, risks his life over and over for the young woman he loves, I would say that Kinsale takes no shortcuts in this book. She make the shift in Allegreto's loyalties (his father is the villain) completely believable and convincing; the actions come from the character rather than from genre prescription. To me, that is not a shortcut.

    I love your phrasing here: “the actions come from the character rather than from genre prescription.” It is only as I've become a more experienced reader in the genre that I've been able to recognize that. It's downright intimidating, sometimes, to venture into other genres, find a book fascinating, and then have seasoned readers of that genre be all, like, ‘yeah, we've seen that a thousand times; big deal.' And obviously, to the reader who is just discovering the type, it can still feel exhilarating and mark an entrance point into the genre.

    I’ve been reading in the genre since my early teens so I don’t have great insights into what that is like.

    Then, of course, there is the inverse (obverse?) situation, where the non-genre reader cannot recognize the code of the genre and feels totally disengaged from the book. This happened to me with Kinsale's The Shadow and the Star. It was like my second Romance novel ever, and at first I thought Leda was a prissy, anti-feminist dishrag (yes, my academic sensibilities were fully engaged there, lol). It was not until I had read a few more Kinsale and Ivory novels that I went back to TSATS and saw Leda differently.

    I love Leda but I also think the variety of reactions to the character shows that there we always bring our personal experiences and worldviews to a book. IMO there needs to be a place for the reader’s imagination to enter into the reading experience, for her imagination to interact with the writer’s.

    This is why I don’t see gaps or blanks as synonymous with shortcuts. A shortcut can be the result of too much that is left for the reader to fill in, but if there is an attempt to spell everything out, and leave no room for interpretation, that can also be a bad thing IMO.

    I feel that making inferences, putting two and two together, is one of the pleasures of reading. I like to be given enough information to puzzle things out, and I love it when I feel that a character is gradually excavated in front of my eyes. From one facet or angle they may appear one way, and from a different one, otherwise, but I get to put together the full picture as I read, and the whole fits together and makes sense even if the character is full of the kinds of contradictions that human beings possess.

    But as I understand the word “shortcut,” that means something different to me — a character who isn’t fully thought out, who doesn’t transcend type, who never fully comes alive to the reader because, in giving them a shorthand characteristic, the author has assumed that they are complete, without bothering to develop them sufficiently beyond or outside that characteristic.

    To some degree that can be seen as a problem of blankness, of not having enough there, but I would argue it is also a problem of not inviting the reader’s imagination in — not giving the reader’s imagination a space to enter into, or enough thoughtful gaps to play with or build on. There is an assumption on the author’s part that the picture is sufficiently complete, because the picture has been filled out with some kind of shorthand, but I see the shorthand as being so flat (for lack of a better word) that it is almost like coming up on a dead end: once I reach it there is no place for my imagination to go. Instead of caring about the character, I balk.

    And now, a number of years later, I realize two things: that Kinsale is playing with the genre prescription in all sorts of ways, and that my outsider bias against the book was not completely *wrong* in that there have been many other books where I've felt the same way, except that I'm reading from inside the genre instead of outside. Which has created an interesting dynamic for me in that I understand how people get these stereotypical views of the genre but am not always sure how to challenge them, because I do think that there's a certain coding in the genre that readers recognize.

    I don't see the coding and shortcuts as the same, although I do think there are points and instances of overlap. And I also wonder how either/both of these things registers differentially on genre and non-genre readers (or, for that matter, on readers who love genre fiction but who have not read much Romance).

    I think the coding and tropes are part of make the genre a genre, but in and of themselves I don’t see them as bad. I agree there is some overlap but their presence doesn’t indicate shortcuts in every instance. Some of the very best books in the genre rely on familiar tropes and our coded responses to them, but don’t take shortcuts. I also agree that a reader who is not familiar with the genre might have a different response to a character or situation in a book.

    I'm not sure where I'm going with this, but I wonder, sometimes, if readers and authors of Romance don't blend them together in our experience of the genre. For example, the Harlequin titles that others have pointed to -’ I see those as genre coding, but they do, in fact, also refer to particular shortcut types. And yet, is the shortcut something that is identified within individual books (here, obviously, I'm invoking a craft issue, a la AQ's comments), or is it more general. Is the Sheikh of the Harlequin Presents title a shortcut or a code? Is there a difference or has the difference been erased as the genre has evolved?

    I think that the answer is going to be different for different readers. For example readers who are tired of virginity as a shortcut for virtue may view any virginal heroine as a shortcut. Over a long period of reading, we get jaded because we see certain shortcuts over and over again, so even if a particular book may be thoughtful in its use of a code, some of us may not want to give that book a chance (which is not to say that we can’t sometimes be won over despite our skepticism).

    I think I'm starting to see the shortcut, per se, as a book to book issue, and coding as more generic (heh), but I can't say it's the same for every author and reader.

    I agree with you on this too.

  160. AQ
    Nov 07, 2009 @ 07:11:02

    @Robin:
    This is in response to comment 155. The last comment I read prior to that was 144.

    All I can say is that IMO opinion posts are meant to open the door wide enough for people to comment and discuss and issue.

    Agreed.

    Jane and I have strong opinions (not all of which are in total agreement, as our comments in the post revealed), but we are not trying to establish rules for the genre or for authors.

    Didn’t think you were.

    One thing I have learned as a blogger is that if you write too much of what you think about a topic, you forestall discussion because people don't see a way in to discussion. No post ever represents anywhere near my every thought about an issue – they are all merely attempts to generate discussion.

    Agreed. Wasn’t requesting a longer post and understood that there were many facets to explore both in your opinion and the discussion at hand.

    I personally don't want to have to do any of the writing work on a novel -’ I want the author's vision to be mine for the time I'm reading, and I want that vision to be like looking through a window at a complete tableau to the point where I feel both a part of and an observer of the world of the novel. If it's different for other readers, then why/how is it different?

    Author skillsets being equal, this reader desire falls under style. Craft tells an author that they must set the stage for the reader but the level of detail and decision on what to include have to do with style.

    This paragraph isn't about shortcuts, it's about craft. The next paragraph addresses genre authority. The genre authority examples given speak to the cultural mindset rather than the romance genre shortcuts. It also is outside of stated definition of a shortcut.

    If a shortcut is all about passing the burden of the fill-in to the reader, how is that not about craft?

    I don’t agree that author reliance on archetypes and tropes to tell a story is passing any undue burden to the reader. IF there’s a burden, it’s more likely there because of skill set of the author. But even that’s not a guarantee unless one removes all reader variables from the equation.

    An aside: What is the reader responsibility within the framework of this discussion? Just curious because the onus seems to be on the author.

    The author draws the outline, the reader’s imagination creates the final image. There’s a difference between an author drawing an incomplete outline, a reader thinking a bowl in the outline should have been filled with cherries instead of grapes and a reader thinking the picture is crap.

    A reader can experience a disconnect with a complete outline. No backstory or character motivation fill-in required. Which means two things:
    1. Reader disconnect isn’t necessarily a function of author reliance on archetypes or trope. (It can be but it doesn’t have to be.)
    2. There’s not necessarily anything missing from the story.

    Actually there’s one more:
    3. The disconnect experienced by the reader isn’t necessarily the author’s fault.

    From your original post. Included to make more clear what I was attempting to convey.

    I understand that authors feel constricted by diminishing page and word lengths, but some of my favorite books in the genre remain the old Laura London (aka Sharon and Tom Curtis) category Regencies. Without explicit sex, often little more than a few hot and heavy kisses, these books, from Love's A Stage to the Bad Baron's Daughter, feel so richly layered to me, even upon multiple re-reads. Allusions to classical literature and myth, primary and secondary characters posssessing surprising dimension, interesting plot turns (how about getting the hero and heroine into an escaped hot air balloon and stranding them in a crumbling country manor house for the night?), and tight, elegant prose, books like these make me somewhat impatient with complaints about the limits of space. Especially when book after book seems to be turning out another profligate aristocrat, penniless debutante, quirky widow/divorcee with a fluffy little dog, and Navy SEAL.

    My original comment:
    This paragraph isn't about shortcuts, it's about craft.

    This paragraph doesn’t address the use of shortcuts, it’s addressing a a reader preference based on an author’s skill level and style. It doesn’t help us look into authorial reliance and reader disconnects, it moves us right into craftsmanship and the reading experience, which are a separate from the issue of shortcuts.

    I apologize for using the word craft in my original commentary. The word was too imprecise to be useful.

    Even more problematic, I think, is the was shortcuts become entrenched genre authority, passed between books so readily and indiscriminately that readers will often insist on the authenticity or accuracy of something that is, in fact, completely invented. Although I still don't understand the system of titles and entailments, I know that these areas are a source of constant frustration for those who know intimately how it really worked, since the genre so rarely seems to conform to historical reality. I get a little crazy every time I see the maurading Viking hero presented as the exemplar of uncivilized lustiness. Or American Puritans as sexless prudes. We see it everywhere, from small examples (red hair in a heroine equals fiery and passionate; the FBI/CIA hero equals mysterious and/or brooding alpha in need of love and understanding) to large (Heyer's Regency history has been accepted as real and has populated the genre with who knows how many misnomers and mistakes).

    In the above paragraph, genre authority is essentially a combination of cultural mindset and research. It’s not a trope, it’s not an archetype. It’s not even a cheat. An author uses cultural mindset as a tool to show a reader a world that either meets their preconceptions or challenges them into seeing the world in a different way.

    Whether or not an author can include any of the examples you listed above and make it work, or refresh it, is a function of the author’s skill and reader preconceptions. Calling for authors to challenge their own preconceptions or write a story which challenges cultural mindset is a personal reader preference. It has nothing to do with the shortcut definition.

    As far as the research portion is concerned, that’s also outside of the issue of shortcuts because it concerns an author’s work ethic and ability to do and use the research.

    —-
    So what have I come to believe?
    The original post really isn’t about shortcuts despite the title and the defintion. It’s not about questioning trope, archetype or genre authority validity. Or even asking whether or not they are good for the genre. This post is about author skill level and work ethic as it pertains to reader satisfaction. Not the entire reading audience but a very specific slice of it.

    I freely admit that I missed that when I joined the discussion. I grabbed post points and went along with tangents to explore the topic. Why? Because the the post resonated with me. I didn’t question the argument in the post until I suffered my own disconnect.

    Robin, you asked me an honest question. It was fair and I struggled to find the answer. And I mean I struggled for hours. I went round and round. Wrote posts, rewrote, threw away. I even believed I finally had it but I kept going back to the original post knowing there was some disconnect. I still haven’t mastered it.

    Here’s what I’m left with.
    One shouldn’t start a conversation whose core argument rests on judging authors and finding them wanting and then shut down those same authors when the discussion turns toward author circumstances, pressures, deadlines, etc.

    The author situation is relevant to any conversation whose core rests on author judgment. Readers shouldn’t be exempt from judgment either. They need to understand how their role (as a group force) within the publishing paradigm contributes to the author (also as group) situation.

    Notice I didn’t say story judgment in the above paragraph. If we’re talking about tearing apart a story for the purpose of exploring the tropes, archetypes, plot points, cultural mindset then the author situation has no place in that discussion. I don’t care about deadlines or sales figures. The only thing I care about here is what’s how the page and how it measures up to the criteria I’ve decided to for my analysis.
    —-
    I thank all for providing me with many hours of conversation. Also for challenging me to think. I apologize to anyone who directed a response to me and didn’t get a response in return but I’m going to step away from the conversation now.

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