Are Your Characters Despicable?

I requested reviews for my novel Sycophants, published late last year on Amazon, so it’s time to take some flak. Overall, the reviews aren’t bad, and much of the criticism is couched in compliments. Almost everyone thinks the writing is solid, the dialogue is snappy, and the story flows reasonably well. It’s the characters that seem to give critics heartburn. I meant to make them reasonably flawed, like real people. So how did some of them, even ones I don’t think are so bad myself, turn out downright despicable to more than a few readers?

The novel poses some questions about the nature of friendship. Can a relationship possibly be healthy if one of the participants possesses most of the charisma and power, possibly encouraging something that borders on hero worship? In Sycophants, there is a basic imbalance between the co-heroines, Imogene and Sara. They are former college roommates (as depicted in my 2007 novel, The Rock Star’s Homecoming) who team up years later for a movie-making venture. They pick up where they left off at school, with Sara the leader and Imogene the follower.

In their new situation, Sara is the boss of a production company with headquarters in New York City. Imogene has been hired not for any particular qualifications, but because they are old friends. Imogene jumps at the opportunity, having become disenchanted with the mostly clerical jobs she has held in the publishing industry. Her marriage to a young lawyer, also an unequal partnership,  is on the rocks. Somewhat naive and unprepared,  Imogene finds herself scrambling to gain a foothold in the high-powered company. She does manage to benefit from her business association with Sara, as she earns a decent salary, plays at being a publicist, and works toward acquiring some credits as a screenwriter. But there’s no way she can catch up to her friend.

It isn’t that Sara is the worst boss in the world. In fact, she is fairly generous in putting up with Imogene’s early miscues, for which another supervisor advocates firing her on the spot. Still, the super-busy Sara blows hot and cold. One moment she might chide Imogene for overstepping her authority; in the next breath, she might exhort her to develop more of a backbone. There are limits to how much Sara can prod Imogene toward success; the neophyte will have to do that herself.

I never intended Sara to be “despicable,” although she does tend to collect “sycophants” through the force of her personality. Her older brother Jake, a fading rock star, is the one who uses that word to describe his sister’s  relationships. He’s offended when Sara proposes to salvage his career by putting him in a movie, although his grumbling doesn’t prevent him from accepting her help.

Not every reader finds this friendship weird or the characters totally unlikable. Some comments fell along the lines of “flawed, not perfect, just as in real life.” Some thought the chemistry between Sara and Imogene had potential. Others felt the need to refer to the “friends” in quotes. To paraphrase one reader, “These people might be realistic, but I’m glad I don’t know them!” They are pegged as users, especially Sara. “Friendship to her is a one-way street,” another reader says, adding that Imogene is too much of a wimp to avoid being her prime victim. Why, these critics demand, can’t Imogene learn to stand up for herself, benefit from experience, and take responsibility? (I had hoped the story demonstrated her doing more of those things as time passed).

The most extreme reaction came from a reader who professed to like the writing, but not the book. She admitted to being predisposed against the “coming of age” genre (although that’s something of a stretch, as my characters start off in their late twenties, having left college about eight years before). For this reader, sycophantic behavior equates to being obsequious and brown-nosing. She concludes, “I’m not sure I’ve ever despised characters so thoroughly.” I’m kind of flattered that I evoked such a strong reaction, even if I didn’t exactly mean to!

I can understand why readers take Imogene to task for bad choices. One observes wisely, “Working for a good friend isn’t always a good idea; neither is blaming your husband for your career failures.” It’s always incumbent on authors to get readers to care what happens to their characters; not caring enough, as one critic says, tends to slow down the reading. Sara’s company is stacked with ambitious people besides herself, and blind ambition tends to make them all unlikable from the start, even before they get to be out-and-out sycophants. Imogene is also taken to task for assuming that her husband is cheating on her and acting accordingly, without real proof (although her suspicions turn out to be true).

To sum up, they are “all shallow, money-driven users with no redeeming qualities. No true villains but no heroes either.” It was suggested that if I had put in a few “true villains,” it might have made the “minor villains” seem less bad. I did introduce an armed kidnapper, but he might have come off as more deluded than evil. And maybe the perpetually drunk minor musicians, who are prone to settling their artistic differences with their fists, served more as comic relief.

Once in a while you get a criticism that you actually like! One reader thought I was emotionally distant from my characters, more in the vein of 19th century literature than modern writing. As a former English major who often prefers the old style myself, I really can’t get too upset about that. If it means my book is somewhat “literary,” I’m all for it.

I’d be interested to know how many of my fellow authors have taken a similar trip with their characters. Have you set out to make them realistically flawed, but perhaps gone too far and accidentally made them despicable?

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Corralling A Hot Mess

I’ve reached a milestone of sorts in my semi-illustrious self-publishing career. I have finally disposed of a story that has been cooking inside my brain forever, that has kept on haunting me even as I set it aside and went forward with other unrelated novels because they seemed to come easier. I’ve somehow corralled the scraps of this tale that have lurked ever since I first began to entertain an imaginary friend in childhood. That “friendship” has persisted well into middle age. She still hangs around, advising me and leading by example, since she possesses all the aggressiveness that I lack. She’s the leader of the story, a composite of strong women I have known and admired, while the character based on me is the follower. The story has always been called “Sycophants,” even as it went through revisions too numerous to count. I fear it’s a somewhat self-deprecating title that pegs my heroine, Imogene, as less than heroic, although she does manage to conquer a few demons here and there.

The outlines of Sycophants came to me during my college years in the early 1970s. I was an introvert who tended to gravitate toward the take-charge personalities in my dorm. My college was in rural Maryland, a very pretty spot, but I often longed to escape to New York City, over 200 miles away. A previous novel, The Rock Star’s Homecoming, published in 2007, dealt with college roommates Sara and Imogene as they embarked on a road trip to the big city. Their mission was to bring back the homegrown band fronted by Sara’s brother Jake, now a famous rock star, to perform at the annual Homecoming concert. Sycophants is a sequel to that novel, in which the original characters have grown up and are now laying the groundwork for their fondest dream, a movie production company. My blurb describes Imogene as a country girl by birth who determines to leave the farm where she grew up and join her former roommate in this exciting venture.

I’ve “finished” the manuscript for this story a few times before, only to abandon it as awkward, uncontrollable, and illogical. In short, it was a hot mess that wouldn’t seem to cool down. For starters, I didn’t know enough about the movie business, and what would be plausible in a do-it-yourself situation in the late 1980s. So I began to read numerous books about all aspects of film-making. I presented the first chapter to a critique group that gave it a real beat-down, leaving me incredulous as to how I could have made so many missteps in just twenty pages. Since traditional publishing was the only real option then, I queried a few places. A few literary agents admitted to liking the concept, but that was as far as it got.

The various manuscripts for Sycophants have a storied history, grinding through all kinds of primitive technology. I typed it on my first computer, purchased around 1987, a Kaypro which had no hard drive and could only store ten pages at a time on floppy disks. Over the years, as the available technology evolved, I transferred it to each new computer. There were times when the ideas flowed smoothly, and other times when they got tangled. I started from scratch more than once.

Now I’m done with it … at least for the moment. I had what I thought was a semi-decent rough draft by May 2018. I reread the whole thing to make sure it was minimally coherent, at least to my own eyes. My current critique group, a much more helpful bunch than the previous one, had beta-read it a few pages at a time, making many useful suggestions. However, that system didn’t allow for an overall assessment. I found that the story hung together, but that the language needed either tightening up or fleshing out in numerous places. I went through the rewriting process at least five times between May and October.

Finally, after farming out the cover design and line editing, I decided to publish directly to Amazon for the first time. My previous four novels were published by iUniverse, and received the Editor’s Choice designation. The last two of those novels, Let’s Play Ball and Handmaidens of Rock, went through the full developmental edit process, which I found thorough and professional. This time I went with only a line edit, not the full process, simply because I had rewritten it so many times myself that I just couldn’t face doing it again. I was something of an editor myself in my Federal government career, and I critique other writers’ work on occasion, so I’m not totally helpless in that area. Still, this feels something like walking a tightrope without a net. But having decided that perfection is the enemy of progress, I determined to let  my “life’s work” fly. At least I’m confident that the professionally designed cover reflects what the book is about … amateurs and semi-amateurs trying to worm or pay their way into the movie business.

But in Amazon’s system, is anything really finished? The files are always available to be unloaded, revised, and reloaded. To my disgust and chagrin, there were a few errors that I didn’t catch until I had the published paperback in my hands. Formatting errors, as long as they’re few and far between, don’t trouble me much. That seems unavoidable, with all the format changes that a manuscript has to go through to be readable on various devices, as well as ready to print. At least the story seems to flow and cohere as well as I could make it. The one thing that made me break out into a cold sweat was discovering that I twice used the wrong name for a minor character. I cursed myself, while wondering if anybody else would notice or care.

I’m sure many of my fellow authors have stories churning in their heads that they can’t seem to finish, but that won’t let them go either. These days it’s fairly easy to go “live” with your books, whether they’re perfect or not. Do you ever get to the point where your work is absolutely finished, and never to be touched or altered again?

A novel about film-making can’t exist without a video, so here’s the link:

Our Imaginary Friends

The world would be a dull place if it were populated only by real people. Fortunately, we authors have a propensity to create alternate worlds and fill them with characters as original, outlandish, or ordinary as we please. Assuming you’re one of these hyper-imaginative people, how do you come up with the characters that populate your stories? Do you make them up from scratch, or are they thinly disguised caricatures of people you know? Maybe you use both methods, even creating the occasional character who’s something of a hybrid. The question follows: do characters who spring fairly complete out of your imagination tend to be less believable than those who can be traced to an actual person? Which type does a better job of advancing your story?

Authors live to make things up, but they also have to live in the real world. Our flights of imagination might get us locked up if we didn’t have an outlet for them. As it is, fantasy can intrude more than is safe or advisable. You better not be daydreaming when you’re supposed to be driving, cooking, or using power tools. However, as long as we make reasonable concessions to the real world, we’re pretty much free to dream up any kind of outrage, crime, or cataclysm we please.

Sometimes I get a mild shock, on rereading my novels after a long interval, at what my characters are capable of. I’m a believer in the philosophies of Gandhi, Martin Luther King, and other prophets of non-violent resistance, yet some of my creations commit violent acts or at least contemplate them. Not that this should be surprising for a writer in the USA, with its insane gun culture and its almost daily headlines heralding yet another massacre. I live in a country where even dead schoolchildren can’t seem to move lawmakers to shake off the poisonous influence of a rich and powerful gun lobby. Yet I was startled when I recently opened the first chapter of The Rock Star’s Homecoming to find an ordinary coed imagining a violent attack against a much more attractive hallmate of hers who was favored to win the crown of Homecoming Queen. The character in question wasn’t violent per se, but her jealousy poisoned her imagination.

Any “normal” person … by that I mean a non-writer … would take us for lunatics if we revealed too much about our creative processes. I tended to be a loner at school, especially during the earliest grades. One time my older brother spied on me when I was by myself on the playground, and reported to my mother than I was behaving strangely. At the time I was probably acting out some kind of story in my mind. My mom was concerned, but thankfully didn’t rush me to a child psychiatrist or otherwise overreact. My folks took the right approach, I think, by continuing to encourage reading and imagination, but warning me against acting too different at school.

At the risk of sounding a little crazy, however, I must admit I’ve had one particular imaginary friend since I was a young kid. Owing to my lifelong love of rock music, I envision her as the sister of a rock star, quite talented herself although overshadowed by her brother. Both siblings suffer from a turbulent family background, yet she’s managed to become a nicer, more approachable person than he is. Besides that, she’s everything I always wished I could be: athletic, articulate, courageous, extraverted. All in all, she’s a composite of the traits I most admire, although not without flaws that get her into trouble. I named her Sara for the purpose of taking a starring role in The Rock Star’s Homecoming. She also appears to be grabbing control of my next projected novel, Sycophants, having evolved from college student in the first novel to professional filmmaker in the sequel, which picks up about eight years later. Being wiser than me, as well as more experienced in the world, she pops up at my side occasionally to give me advice which I follow if it suits me. She keeps prodding me to write about her, yet I can’t connect her to any known real-life counterpart.

By contrast, I used to have a work acquaintance who has appeared in different forms in no less than three novels. She goes by variations on her real name: Cass, Carolyn, Caroline. She was an office colleague and a casual friend, although not a close confidante. Nor was she a memorable person. In fact, she became my model for ordinariness, but that is not really meant as a criticism. She may be the epitome of the average person, but she’s also good-hearted and open-minded, a friend to everybody, and an antidote to the social nastiness I often write about.

Many years after I last spoke to the real-life counterpart of this character, I read her obituary in the newspaper. I knew she had left the quasi-government job where I had known her, and had drifted for a few months, by her own admission searching for something more exciting to do. I learned from the obit that she had found a job as a secretary at an international law firm. I knew her to be very good at such supporting roles, taking her secretarial tasks seriously, and she apparently made the same impression on her bosses at her final job. The obit described her as “a very dedicated and loyal 20-year employee” who “considered each member of the firm as family.”

I’m not sure how I feel about that tribute. It is well-meaning, no doubt, but it strikes me as sad. It’s not something I would want for myself. My work colleagues could never stand in for my family, even if all of my family were gone. But maybe my pity for my old colleague is misplaced. The way she keeps haunting my imagination, she must be more significant than I know.

Can I Invent My Own Genre?

It’s been twenty years or so since self-publishing first became a viable thing. Two decades of growth in the indie fiction field have made it increasingly clear which writing styles and marketing tactics tend to be most lucrative. The “secret” to writing bestsellers is to define your genre and audience and satisfy them for all you’re worth. If you can manage to grind out several books in a series, you have the best chance of creating a steady revenue stream. That means developing a theme or formula that can sustain more than one book, exercising as much creativity as you can within those boundaries, and repeating the basics as long as your readers keep snapping it up. Writers who can do this also seem able to turn out books at supersonic speed.

Employing this “secret” isn’t as easy as it sounds. Personally, I don’t seem to have the skill that it requires, but that doesn’t make me bitter. On the contrary, I rejoice for those who can do this, since it makes all of self-publishing more legitimate. I remember all too well the days when gatekeepers stood in the way of aspiring authors, letting in a privileged few and making a point of mocking the rest of us and worse, wasting our time. I used to read or listen to advice given by “professionals” in the field who pretended to “encourage” those of us on the outside. Their real purpose was to keep us prostrating ourselves before the gates, so that they could pretend to stand in some beatified light from above that had blessed their own efforts. Now we can tell them what to do with their “advice.” It’s been exposed, if not as fraudulent, then at least as archaic.

Some of us have problems with genre. I’m not particularly a fan of romance, science fiction, mystery, or dystopian themes (although I’m most tempted to try my hand at the last one, in light of the disastrous presidential election of 2016 and its increasingly scary aftermath). I define my stuff as chicklit, generally speaking. Does it follow that just because I don’t write to suit a more exact genre, that few readers will get my stuff? I can’t be the only person in the world who likes to read long, complex, character-driven, woman-dominated stories, and tends to write in the same vein. Stories like this take a while to read and absorb, and accordingly take forever to write. One of the reasons this process is so arduous is that I go where my characters take me, not necessarily where the market dictates they should go. My stories usually feature a relatively weak heroine who is trying to get stronger. All I can say for her is that she’s not quite as big an idiot at the end of the story as she was at the beginning. Her life isn’t totally straightened out, although it’s getting there. Can a story like that represent a category in itself? Maybe we could call it the Incompetent Chick Genre.

If I depended on confused and indecisive heroines to move plots along, they’d spin their wheels for 300 pages. So I surround them with stronger characters, often female, who aren’t afraid to yell at them to get off their asses, and then show them how it’s done. In Secretarial Wars (2003), an ambitious but easily frustrated secretary, Miriam, needs such a push. She works for a Federally funded grants program that she suspects is subject to corruption, but doesn’t know how to prove it. She encounters Pamela Whittle, a college professor who has been rejected for one of these grants, and has determined not only to figure out why, but to reverse the decision. Whittle carries on with this plan until she becomes part of the corruption, at least in Miriam’s opinion.

When my critique group read Secretarial Wars, they took to Whittle much more than they did to Miriam. Like most writers, my colleagues enjoy playing the game of choosing which famous actors should ideally play the lead roles in any prospective movies based on their stories. The role of Whittle, according to the group, would be perfect for Kathy Bates, who is well known for her portrayal of dynamic, sometimes crazy women. In fact, it seems that every strong female role I come up with is a perfect fit for Kathy Bates. How about a new trend based on this phenomenon? We could call it the Strong Female Rescuer Genre.

In Let’s Play Ball (2010), I imagined a close but uneasy relationship between fraternal twin sisters who have taken radically different paths in life. Miranda is a government bureaucrat with a lawyer husband and a house in the suburbs, while Jessica is a sportswriter who sacrifices normal career prospects, relationships, and financial security for many years in order to establish a magazine. Jessica’s publication finally catches on, and her personal life seems equally settled when she becomes engaged to a Major League ballplayer. Her less conventional path seems to end up making her both happier and more successful than her twin. Then the balance of power is knocked off kilter again when Jessica’s fiancé is kidnapped, and circumstances plunge both sisters into the investigation … with Jessica harboring suspicions against Miranda even as she requires her twin’s help.

My two music-inspired novels, The Rock Star’s Homecoming (2007) and Handmaidens of Rock (2014), both unfold partially on college campuses. I made use of my own experiences as an academically conscientious but socially awkward coed in the early 1970s. In those days, the friends I made tended to be stronger personalities than I was. More often than not, I let them set the tone of the relationship. The heroine of “Homecoming,” Imogene, feels herself getting crushed between two powerhouse roommates. One is a hopeless snob, and the other is the sister of a rock star whom Imogene worships from afar, and eventually gets to meet. In “Handmaidens,” aspiring journalist Candy struggles with a bad freshman roommate, who hypocritically criticizes her timidity with the girls in the hall while systematically badmouthing her behind her back. Although that situation mirrors my own unhappy freshman experience, I did not leave my small-town school, as Candy did, for the more congenial and diverse surroundings of a big university. I stuck it out, and eventually found my niches.

All in all, the “incompetent chick” in my stories resembles me, while the “strong female rescuer” is the more dynamic friend who swoops in and takes over. If I were casting a movie based on this dynamic, any number of ingénues could play the innocent girl.  But I couldn’t do without Kathy Bates, or a Kathy Bates type, to move in and threaten to blow her off the screen.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

My Girls Are Unlikable

Why do readers and critics of chicklit fiction demand likable heroines? When asked why this is so important, some say they can’t get into a story unless they find themselves rooting for the central character. They must be able to identify with her, or at least care what happens to her. They’ll concede that everyone has flaws, and a perfect heroine would be dull, but she must overcome whatever foibles are standing between her and a happy life.

So how flawed can a heroine afford to be? Must she achieve near-perfection during the course of the narrative to allow the reader to develop the necessary sympathy? Do readers really strive for such perfection themselves, or think they can achieve it with such a person as a role model? In the process of writing four novels, I’ve come up with imperfect and perhaps even unlikable heroines. I never thought they were bad people, just a little messed up. Of course they tend to be self-absorbed, but aren’t most young people like that? That’s how I defend them from naysayers.

In Secretarial Wars, a story inspired by one of my office experiences, the recently divorced secretary Miriam is still sleeping with her ex-husband, although he wasted no time marrying someone else. That’s certainly not nice of her―in fact, it’s called adultery. She actually gets a kick out of risking discovery by the volatile and jealous second wife. Miriam’s professional goal is to shed her secretarial identity and become an investigative journalist. This presents a conflict of interest, as her efforts to uncover malfeasance at the office make her something of a turncoat to the agency that pays her salary. Along the way, she takes some tentative steps toward personal happiness, but without benefit of a real epiphany that would lead to a character makeover.

I chose a small-town college setting, like the one I experienced myself, for The Rock Star’s Homecoming. Imogene, a college senior, rants and raves because her unreliable boyfriend Steve won’t commit to taking her to her final homecoming dance. What will that mean for her chances to leave college with the all-important “Mrs. degree”? To makes Steve jealous, she allows herself to be seduced by the rock star who returns to campus with his now-famous band to play the dance. Since her strategy kind of works, has Imogene learned any real lesson? At least she realizes that she wants more from her post-college life than just a husband.

Handmaidens of Rock also involves girls sleeping with musicians, although the three who hang out with the band called AMO certainly have career aspirations of their own. The way they use the musicians to acquire fame and fortune in their own right might not make them the nicest people. Still, if they didn’t grab some benefits from the arrangement, the arrogant band members would be far too inclined to treat them as mere groupies.

In Let’s Play Ball, fraternal twin sisters Miranda and Jessica penetrate the world of baseball while pursuing widely different career paths and personal lives. Miranda is a bureaucrat with a stable job and what looks like a solid marriage to a lawyer. Jessica, by contrast, is a sportswriter who has sacrificed conventional career prospects and relationships to establish a magazine that pursues controversial topics. After a long struggle, she makes a success of it, and becomes engaged to the major league ballplayer who was the subject of one of her most famous profiles.

All hell breaks loose when that ballplayer is kidnapped, and Miranda is caught sleeping with a teammate whom Jessica suspects of participating in a wide-ranging plot. Obviously, Miranda is no paragon of virtue, although she claims to have been driven to it by her cheating husband. Jessica’s self-righteousness doesn’t endear her to readers either. She tends to regard herself and her fiancé as perpetual victims, and is too quick to accuse everyone in sight of participating in the vast conspiracy to destroy her perfect happiness.

I’m hardly alone in creating less-than-virtuous heroines. Famous authors have been known to do it, although they rarely make their girls totally unlikable. If they do, critics and online reviewers savage them. For example, Candace Bushnell has created a plethora of heroines in her many chicklit novels, including One Madison Avenue, Lipstick Jungle, Trading Up, and the best known of all, Sex and the City. The four SATC girls who were featured in the television series and movies tend to rise from the confusion as fully realized characters, simply because we’ve known them for so long. Carrie the writer is the most relatable to me, but Miranda the career-minded lawyer, Charlotte the homemaker, and even Samantha the nymphomaniac publicist are likable most of the time.

In one instance, however, many of Bushnell’s readers think she went too far. Trading Up features a total narcissist in Janey Wilcox, a superstar model with Hollywood aspirations. This novel has received more one and two-star ratings than I have ever seen on Amazon for a famous author. The description reads: “Modern-day heroine Janey Wilcox is a lingerie model whose reach often exceeds her grasp, and whose new-found success has gone to her head. As we follow Janey’s adventures, Bushnell draws us into a seemingly glamorous world of $100,000 cars, hunky polo players and media moguls, Fifth Avenue apartments … Unseen forces conspire to bring her down, forcing her to reexamine her values about love and friendship―and how far she’s really willing to go to realize her dreams.”

This description is somewhat inaccurate, in my opinion. As far as I can see, the only “reexamination” Janey undertakes is to figure out why she hasn’t hit the big time as forcefully as she expected. She latches onto a Hollywood mogul by pretending to write a screenplay, only to be exposed as a fraud. She marries another star maker who actually loves her and tries to help her, but he proves to be a dead end, forcing her to “trade up” again. There is no come-uppance that would make Janey a better person. There is only a vague discontent that keeps her moving on.

The soulless heroine isn’t a totally modern phenomenon. In fact, Edith Wharton raised the topic way back in the early twentieth century. Bushnell was perhaps giving us a sly wink in that direction when she had her character Janey propose Wharton’s 1913 novel, The Custom of the Country, as a film subject to one of her producer lovers.

Wharton’s heroine in that novel, Undine Spragg, was like Janey in a different era, lacking the Hollywood glitter. Undine marries three times, leaving a trail of destruction and never looking back except to offer self-justifications. Her first husband, who doesn’t share her taste for high society, bores her. He is too busy trying to support her and pay her bills to keep her amused. When she moves on, she abandons her young son, until she later sees some benefit in having him with her. An ensuing custody battle ends up destroying her first husband. Predictably, once she wins the child back, she neglects him. Her second husband has a noble title but not enough money. Her third husband does have enough money, but rather crude manners.

Wharton sums up Undine’s dilemma: “She had everything she wanted, but she still felt, at times, that there were other things she might want if she knew about them.” Both Bushnell and Wharton suggest that their heroines are trapped in the societies they inhabit, and are therefore perhaps not entirely to blame for being so ruthless. Undine was born into an era in which marriage provides the only outlet for an ambitious woman. Similarly, Janey is social-climbing in a community that values her beauty much more than her mind.

Both authors have created beautiful sociopaths, who by definition are incapable of change. Does that mean they’re unworthy heroines, as many critics suggest? I find them fascinating in their own way. Sociopaths may be disturbing and infuriating, but they are people too.

 

Uncooperative Heroines

I used to think it would be great fun to write steamy romances and watch them sell like hot cakes. Theoretically, it didn’t seem too hard. The requirements of the genre, as established by publishers such as Harlequin and Silhouette, were very specific as to length, type of plot, and the need for a happy resolution. Authors who mastered this form seemed able to generate at least two or three books per year. Their stories were gobbled up like candy by their addicted fans. None of these works had long shelf lives, but presumably the speed with which they were produced made up for that.

So why couldn’t I acquire this lucrative skill? I actually started my first two novels with romance at least partly in mind. Secretarial Wars is the tale of a secretary, Miriam, who aspires to be an investigative reporter, and discovers malfeasance at her quasi-government agency. Her plan is to impress a handsome underground editor with her journalistic skills. The Rock Star’s Homecoming features a college senior named Imogene who can’t get her boyfriend to commit, not even enough to take her to their final Homecoming dance. She concocts a plot to make him jealous by pursuing the leader of a homegrown rock band that returns to campus to perform at the dance (and incidentally, to cause a riot, just like the old days).

The problem with Miriam and Imogene was that they refused to behave like romantic heroines. The guys they pursued acted like jerks, which is typical male behavior in romances, especially at first acquaintance. The genre requires that the men eventually overwhelm such heroines with their redeeming qualities, beginning with sheer sex appeal. Unfortunately for Miriam and Imogene, the guys they were most attracted to were pretty much who they were, and never improved much when it came to character.

My heroines’ stories took a long time to unfold and never got totally resolved. I suppose the long epilogues, which some critics objected to, were a giveaway that there were many loose ends to tie up. I couldn’t seem to envision these stories whole. Like life, they didn’t come to me with a blueprint. It seemed the more I worked on a particular story, the more complicated the plot would become. Even though I edited as I went along, I acquired multiple threads and a profusion of secondary characters. I tried to bend my plots and characters to certain rules, but these conventions eluded me. I felt like I was back in first grade, trying in vain to color within the lines and finding out I was hopeless at art.

Back in the 1980s and 1990s, I studied certain hot-selling examples of the genre, trying to figure out what made them so popular. Some of these books I couldn’t finish. Not that they didn’t contain some decent writing and interesting plot twists. But in my opinion, the ever-present, required formulas dragged down what could have been intriguing stories. I found the predictability stultifying. Beyond that, the heroines simply didn’t speak to me. It’s not quite fair to say they were all alike, and yet in some ways they were.

I liked sex when I was younger, and I still like it theoretically, but I find endless, repetitive sex scenes quite boring. I roll my eyes and think, there they go again. Two people who are barely acquainted, or even dislike one another at first sight, can’t keep their hands off each other. Who really acts like that?  Lovemaking scenes rarely rise above trite writing. Can’t authors leave some of this to the reader’s imagination?

Miriam and Imogene didn’t cooperate by living happily ever after, although they were still young and hopeful when I left them. When I looked for romantic prototypes to model them on, I found too many women sacrificing every other passion in their lives for a chance at a perfect love. That is something Miriam and Imogene simply couldn’t do, as much as they longed to embrace their magic men. You can smell the main lesson of a traditional romance a mile away: a woman can’t possibly live a fulfilled life as a workaholic. In my sampling of romances, I encountered a ruthless prosecutor feared in the courtroom by criminals of all stripes, who happens to wander into a physically perilous situation while on a rare vacation, and has to be rescued by a sexy man. Of course she’s infuriated by her own helplessness, but how can she deny the pounding of her heart? I squirmed at the clumsy symbolism of a widely renowned heart surgeon whose own heart is broken. The question hovers over all of these heroines: what frustration or heartbreak are you covering up when you work so damned hard?

Sandra Brown’s Heaven’s Price, which I first read around 1983, is a prime example of a romance that has both the virtues and flaws of the genre. As far as writing and plotting, it’s not bad. Ms. Brown’s success as a romantic author is astounding. According to her Amazon page, she starting publishing in 1981 and wrote over 70 novels, 60 of which are New York Times bestsellers. Judging by her picture, she’s also blessed with movie star looks. Heaven’s Price was relaunched more than ten years after its first publication, due to customer demands. I guess you can’t argue with that kind of success. Or can you?

The very title of this book screams what it’s about and how it’s destined to end. A woman has to pay a price for her “heaven,” which is defined as the love of a good man. A man’s “goodness” is measured not by his kindness or virtue, but by his ability to turn her on. In this case, we have a heroine pushing thirty years old, who has enjoyed moderate success as a dancer but is discontent because real fame and fortune have eluded her. Her knees have been damaged by years of pounding stages, forcing her to take time off from city life and move to a remote location for treatment and rehabilitation. Her new landlord acts like a creep, but a sexy one. He pretends to be the masseuse she’s expecting, and has thoroughly manhandled her by the time the real masseuse turns up. Of course she’s angry at the deception, but who can resist such virility? What’s a little violation when you can get aroused like that?

As the relationship develops, the landlord proves to be seriously controlling in ways that would raise all kinds of red flags if this were real life. The sexual relationship develops quickly, and strikes me as barely consensual, which is typical of the genre. She might have said no at first, but she really meant yes, and since he could tell she really wanted it, he presses ahead. He also strikes me as both angry and possessive. She realizes she’s been loved before, but “never with such dominance.” Her growing need for him “could well destroy her life’s blueprint.” At one point, he tells her, “If you weren’t already battered, I’d be tempted to punish your insistence.” That seems to suggest that he didn’t need to resort to violence—just the suggestion of it was enough. Later, he comes out with, “I ought to knock the hell out of you for saying that … or better yet, I ought to throw you down on the bed …” As if violence and lovemaking are synonymous. When she pursues an audition before her knees are completely healed, he sabotages it “for her own good.” Of course she’s furious. The pain in her knees makes her even angrier, since it proves he was right. Once again, he knew better than she did what was best for her.

What really set my eyes rolling was the cheesy conversation these two have at the end, when all their differences are neatly resolved and they’re safely married. She has forgiven or soft-pedaled all of his offenses against her. Both are caught up in youthful passion, as if nothing else in the world mattered. It leaves me wondering what a couple is supposed to do when that burns out, as it inevitably must. Is there such a thing as a popular romance that depicts a relationship substantial enough to take a couple through middle and old age? Or are we to presume that fond memories of all that hot sex will suffice to keep the spark alive? At least my Miriam and Imogene will keep on trying to climb their respective career ladders, if only to have something to talk about with any future partners who respect their intellects as much as their bodies.

Trads vs. Indies: Will This War Ever End?

0601161425Traditional publishers will probably never embrace independent authors as equals. They will be loath to admit that the terms of engagement in this ongoing battle are changing, that the combatants are becoming more equal, and that some authors even find a way to go “hybrid.” It’s becoming increasingly clear that the trads are losing the high ground they once held in the area of editorial standards.

Examples of bad editing crop up more and more in the traditional world. For example, there are few authors more successful at traditional publishing than Anne Rice. She also specializes in the hottest subjects in fiction, vampires and werewolves. Yet Floyd Orr, editor of the long-running review site PODBRAM, and a rabid Rice fan, reports: “Anne Rice’s 34th book contains more errors than I have ever seen in a top-selling, traditionally published hardback! There are errors of every kind: repeated common words, misused spellings of words that are real words that actually mean something else, misuse of tense, and various other types of boo-boos. What do these errors all have in common? They are the sort that appear in books because human eyes did not read and reread and proofread the text before publishing it. There was an obvious reliance on computer programs to find the errors. Was this by Ms. Rice, her editor, or Knopf in general? Who knows?” Floyd kindly goes on to point out that the error count of Rice’s book easily surpasses those of several of the self-published books he has reviewed, including my own Handmaidens of Rock.

Trads were guilty from the start of not fighting this war honestly, but things have progressed to the point that self-published authors don’t have to suffer the same nonsense anymore. They can take or leave “friendly advice” from self-appointed arbiters of what deserves to be published. No doubt these experts will persist in warning us against “vanity” publishers, a term that should have been deep-sixed years ago. We can now call out websites that masquerade as help for the self-published, but are actually designed to discourage us. Certainly there are bad self-published books, but the argument that we’re all equally bad doesn’t hold water, any more than the argument that traditional publishing guarantees quality.

Several years ago, I sent my 2007 novel, The Rock Star’s Homecoming, to a site called “The Self-Publishing Review,” a blog run by an author who’d had a fair amount of success in publishing non-fiction. Some speculated that her generic-sounding name might be a pseudonym to protect herself from backlash. Certainly the name of her blog was misleading. Once I had read a sampling of her “reviews,” it became clear to me that these were something else altogether. By any fair standard, a reader who purports to provide a review must, at the very least, read the book. Her object was to throw cold water on authors by subjecting them to the kind of treatment they would receive if they sent their manuscripts to a “legitimate” publisher. Admittedly, that might be a useful service, but it was not what she advertised.

To be fair, she warned us: “I’m an editor, and expect published books to be polished. I’m going to count all the errors I find in spelling, punctuation and grammar and when I reach fifteen I’m going to stop reading. I’ll work my way through up to five pages of boring prose or bad writing before I give up.” Despite that stern warning, I felt okay about sending her my novel, although it had to be shipped overseas at some expense. I’ve been something of an editor myself during many years of technical writing for the Federal government. I knew I had gone over my novel carefully and that it had been edited by professionals.

My book, like almost every other that this hot-shot editor “reviewed,” was discarded after about seven pages because of alleged mistakes. I was sure there were not fifteen errors of the type she warned against in the whole book, much less in the first seven pages. When I asked for an explanation, she admitted that there was nothing wrong with my “spelling, punctuation and grammar” per se. My sin was “exposition,” apparently a common complaint against self-published authors, and a handy one if the arbiters can’t find more obvious mistakes.

What does this sin consist of, exactly? Wikipedia defines exposition as “the insertion of important background information within a story; for example, information about the setting, characters’ backstories, prior plot events, historical context, etc.” The article quotes fantasy and science fiction author Jo Walton on the importance of “scattering information seamlessly through the text, as opposed to stopping the story to impart the information.”

My problem with this criticism, legitimate though it might be, is that famous authors do it with impunity. I pointed out that two of my favorites, Pat Conroy and Gail Godwin, tend to not even start their stories until the scene is thoroughly set. If any arbiter tried to impose rules on them, about exposition or anything else, they’d laugh in that person’s face. Ah, the arbiters say, but there’s a right way and a wrong way to do it. All I conclude from this is that it’s always wrong when self-published authors do it.

What about the credentials of these arbiters? Despite their successes in the non-fiction realm, they tend to be sitting on piles of unpublished novels like everyone else. Ironically, that’s where they’re offering their harshest criticism. Since self-publishing is for losers, they disdain that route—although they might admit to putting excerpts of their novels on the Internet, as if that were not a form of self-publishing.

We’ve all heard plenty of those traditional “success stories,” touting the efforts of authors who kept writing and rewriting the same story for fifteen or twenty years, submitting it to numerous agents and publishers, revising and starting over to suit each new critic, perhaps even trying to re-envision their stories as plays or screenplays. Sometimes two decades of effort and perseverance are indeed “rewarded,” but that’s not my idea of success. How many other stories could these authors have been writing during those endless years spent twisting their original vision a hundred different ways to suit one critic after another? Was the original inspiration even recognizable by then? Fortunately, no one has to settle for this kind of treatment any more. The fight rages on, with one of the combatants, in my opinion, looking increasingly desperate.