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Friday, January 03, 2014

ROMANCING THE CRONE...

RECENTLY, I CHECKED OUT NovelRank to see how my debut novel The Tattooed Witch was doing. Sales are slow; I wish they were better. I have to remind myself to have faith in my publisher’s advice that over the long haul, the book will likely make as much money as it might have in six months, if a bigger NY house had picked it up. Sometimes, it’s hard to keep the faith.

As much as I like sharing what I’ve learned about writing in my ‘ABC’s' posts or my more recent ‘Letters to the Slush Pile’, I also use Suzenyms as a platform to promote The Tattooed Witch and the rest of the trilogy. Part of the trouble is that the books are hybrids. My agent told me last year (before the book sold to Five Rivers) that the marketing departments of the NY houses didn’t know where to place it – the concern was that there was too much ‘strange’ magic in it, which might unsettle romance readers, and too much romance in it to appeal to the fantasy reading crowd. 

From some of the reviews I’ve received, the fantasy readers (many men, surprisingly) haven’t minded the romantic elements. I’m sharing a portion from Dave Laderoute’s review of The Tattooed Witch on Goodreads, here:
“Honestly, going into this book, I was a little wary; it came across as a ‘woman's book’ and, well, I'm a guy. Two or three pages in, I realized I was wrong, wrong, wrongity-wrong. This is a fantastic book for anyone to read (okay, perhaps not for some younger readers, as in some places, the book—if not actually explicit—is pretty clearly treading into mature places involving violence and/or sex). The author has drawn some extremely compelling characters, and placed them in a well-constructed, consistent and richly-textured world that resembles our own Medieval Spain. Miriam, the main character, is both strong and vulnerable; she is far more than the dreary old female tropes that plague most speculative fiction i.e. ‘the guy with boobs’ or ‘the shrinking flower/damsel in distress’….” (Dave goes further. If you’d like to read the rest of the review, you can read it here: http://www.goodreads.com/book/show/18174746-the-tattooed-witch.
Anyway, I very much appreciate his thoughts. But it does occur to me, if fantasy readers are okay with some romance depending on how it’s handled, just how far are romance readers willing to go? I’ve given this a lot of thought. So far, I haven’t done much to promote the book to the romance reading crowd. The Tattooed Witch doesn’t follow classic romance formulas. Before the book was published, my agent warned me that most romance readers want only one love interest. The Tattooed Witch has two. I wanted to explore the different types of love we experience – so, two very different men representing different kinds of love. Alonso, a disembodied spirit, is my protagonist Miriam’s ‘soul mate’. Joachín is her earthy, physical love; they share a strong sexual chemistry but don’t see eye to eye. Neither man is the typical love interest portrayed in most romance novels, ie. the strong, arrogant, and potential rapist that so many romance novels present.

Years ago, long before I wrote Witch, I bought a ‘how to write romance novels’ book and quickly set it aside. Its suggestions turned my stomach. Here are a few of them, slightly revised:

1). Make the hero rich. (Alonso is dead, and Joachín is poorer than poor, a vagabond and a thief.)

2). Make the hero proud and disdainful, sure of himself, strong and virile. (Neither Alonso nor Joachín is disdainful, nor are they always sure of themselves. Like most men, they’re vulnerable and make mistakes – sometimes terrible ones. They also let Miriam know, fairly early on, that they love her. I have never liked disdainful men. Why should I expect my readers to? Miriam’s problem is she loves Alonso and Joachín both in different ways. I explore their relationships further, creating an unusual and frustrating love triangle in The Tattooed Seer.)

3). The hero sees the heroine as an utter innocent or a schemer. (To me, this kind of ‘innocence’ is just another word for stupidity. Why should my heroine have to be innocent? Why should men see women in one of these two ways, which also reflect the Madonna and whore stereotypes? Why should Miriam have to be any less than what her counterparts are?)

4). Early on, the hero scorns the heroine. This is shown through how he smiles at her (cruelly, mockingly, etc.) (Oh, please. I hate this kind of crap. First of all, portraying the hero in this way is stereotypical. If you’re going to make your hero a ‘bad boy’, do it in ways that are provocative. Push the morality borders, but keep him likeable. Any man who sneers at a woman isn’t likeable, he’s abusive. I find it disturbing that some women find this attractive.)

5). The heroine sees the hero as a threat. There is often the potential for rape. If he does rape her, it must be for some reason that excuses him – he was drunk, for example. (This is where I stopped reading the book years ago and set it down. I understand that this is a sexual fantasy, but I don’t condone the message it imparts – it’s okay to victimize women; they find it desirable.)

I will never, ever, write this kind of schlock. Because I don’t, this may be why the book hasn't yet appealed to the romance reading crowd.

I can’t believe it won’t, though. Surely, we’ve outgrown such lame excuses for a good story. If romance readers are quick to embrace novels like ‘Twilight’ and other books that include a fantastical hero—a vampire—then I fail to see why they wouldn’t like a ghostly priest who falls in love and is an honorable man. Or how my protagonist is faced with two impossible loves – one, a spirit, and the other, a man who loves her more than life but is her complete opposite. Romance readers are tolerating supernatural elements now, more than ever. The boundaries between paranormal romance and fantasy overlap and blur.

(If you'd like to read a sample of The Tattooed Witch, Amazon includes a free peek of the first four chapters here, plus a five star rating with more great reviews. If you're wondering about the release of The Tattooed Seer, I'm hoping it will be available by summer, 2014.)

6 comments:

  1. The Tattooed Witch sounds awesome - will add to my list!

    My jaw hit the floor at #5 - I am not a romance reader but is that actually a common thing in romances? As for the rest, it sounds like this romance guide was laying out how to write Mr. Darcy, without nuance ;).

    I think you're right that fantasy / romance is becoming a Big Thing - certainly Twilight, but I feel like most of the YA fantasy I read includes a romantic storyline. But it may indeed be that fantasy readers are happy to have some romance in their stories, rather than romance readers embracing fantasy. Still, I know a lot of people who like both! I think you will find your audience as the series builds.

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  2. Ugh, what terrible advice! Most modern romances aren't like that at all--at least not the ones I read. The heroes are occasionally rich and often 'alpha' males, but they are not abusive--the modern heroine, who is rarely an innocent, wouldn't stand for it.

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  3. Fair enough, the book I read wasn't recent. Maybe I need to read more modern romances. Thanks for commenting, Nicole.

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  4. Thanks also, for commenting Catherine. If the rape scenario isn't a common thing now, it certainly was. I hope you're right about finding my audience! Thanks for your support. :-)

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  5. I think books like these are why people are snobbish about romance. About it being a 'lesser' genre.
    I agree with what Nicole said. Most modern romances aren't like that. And the ones that are won't be read by most romance fans.
    Romance is one of the most popular genres and the most denigrated. Yet, there is romance in almost every piece of popular fiction.
    I write Urban Fantasy and Paranormal Romance. The lines are ever more getting blurry. Patricia Briggs, Ilona Andrews and Nalini Singh - all powerhouses in the UF world have series which are more romance-based.
    Nora Roberts, who also writes as JD Robb - her 'In Death' series base is about love and romantic love, but her mysteries are becoming just as intricate as Michael Connelly's or James Lee Burke's.
    I enjoyed reading your post, but before you propagate more misinformation about the romance genre, I'd recommend that you read a bit more romance, and read about writing it a bit less.
    Thanks for the post!
    Jill

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  6. Thanks for your comments, Jill. I do intend to read more romance. However, the memes I wrote about *are* formula romance, perhaps old style but still insisted upon by many houses. As my anonymous contributor pointed out in my second post on the subject (Romancing the Crone, Part Two), she is frustrated with the constraints placed upon her by her own publisher. The reason she chooses to remain anonymous is because she's afraid her publisher may take punitive action, or simply no longer publish her work. Her worries are very real. She isn't propagating misinformation any more than I am.

    That said, I am glad to hear that you think the genre is evolving. Thank you for suggesting good romance writers and their titles that I, and others, can check out.

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