For a bit over a week I read several really good books. For the most part, I enjoyed good writing, correct punctuation and sentence structure, and a dearth of misused apostrophes. The angels sang.
That streak ended yesterday.
I downloaded, began reading, and discarded two books long before finishing them. One was an historical romance, which I generally like. Unfortunately and despite the author's competence with the mechanics of language, it bored me to tears.
I took a chance on the second book, a "New Adult" romance. Egad. That book delivered every defect of which I complain in the sub-genre: confusion between plural and possessive (that apostrophe thing again), alternating points of view narrative (that's a personal preference), morally ambiguous characters, and tired tropes.
Tropes are, in essence, stereotypes. They can be used well or poorly. In "New Adult" romance, we have the following tropes:
In each of those stereotypes, too many authors seem to gravitate toward the least attractive aspects of attitude and character, perhaps in an effort to show how "broken" and "damaged" they are so the love of their soul mates can serve as the catalyst for redemption.
That leads to the question of what I do expect. First and foremost, I expect competent writing. In any work exceeding a few pages, I won't be put off by the occasional typo or comma error. We're human, we make mistakes. But content riddled with errors gets an immediately negative reaction. I've blathered on and on about that before. 'Nuff said.
I expect dialog that sounds natural. To get personal, I have children, which means I've had intimate relations with a man (my husband, to be precise). More than once. I don't recall engaging in extended, eloquent conversations during said intimate relations. Why would your characters? When speaking to friends, acquaintances, and colleagues, we use contractions. We don't add lots--if any--personal identifiers when speaking to them.
I expect people to deal honestly with each other. Any book in which the main characters' relationship is based on lies (stated or by omission) is an automatic fail for me, especially when all that contrived conflict could be resolved if the characters just sat down and talked candidly for a few minutes.
I expect either a believable plot premise or to be able to suspend disbelief. If the premise involves contrived circumstances, especially arising from a character's consistently poor decision making, then I'll discard the book. When extraordinary circumstances happen to an ordinary character, then I'll be looking for realistic reactions. Harking back to the hero-kidnaps-the-heroine premise, if said hero tortures and/or abuses the heroine, then why, oh why, would she fall in love with him? The abused heroine's love redeeming the abusive criminal who abducts our leading lady is not a premise that is even remotely believable.
So, to end today's extended gripe:
In romance and its many sub-genres these days, there is a common trope for the leading male character. He's tall (usually several inches over six feet), he's built like a brick sh*t house, he's an unrepentant womanizer, and he's affluent if not obscenely wealthy. In short, he makes the ladies swoon just by cocking an eyebrow at them and lifting the corners of his mouth in a knowing smirk. They're nearly always at the top of their profession: the business owner, the elite warrior, the high ranking nobleman. Let's throw in the occasional rancher, who's usually the largest landowner in the county.
There are two general variations on this paragon of masculine pulchritude: the arrogant swine and the decent gentleman. Guess which one appears least?
OK, we're dealing with fantasy here. Yes, Virginia, romance is fantasy. But why are we all dreaming about the same guy? What is it about the arrogant swine that makes us ladies want to read about them? They're controlling, possessive, protective, and so damned superior that each one desperately needs to be knocked down a few pegs and learn some humility. These are the alpha males: they tell their heroines what they want, what they're going to do them, and they don't brook refusal. And we eat it up.
I wouldn't care to deal with one of these guys in real life, so why do we write about them as ideal mates for our heroines?
What the hell is wrong with us, ladies?
It happens to all of us eventually, I guess. We go into something with enthusiasm and a bright outlook only to be scaled back by reality.
I set my per-word rate for writing content at $0.05, which is $12.50 per average manuscript page. (An average manuscript page is 250 words per page.) That's not outrageous; in fact, it's actually a bit on the low side for writing original content. But I have come across too many bid requests that vastly undervalue the work writers do. Some examples:
Yesterday I responded to a bid request for a ghostwriting job. The potential client wants a book and cover blurb written under his name and copyright for not more than $500. He has specific formatting instructions. OK, I said, I'll do all that up to 15,000 words, which with one round of editing thrown in for free, should work out to be 6-week project. (That essentially means the 200-word cover blurb is thrown in for free.)
That's too expensive, he replied, because his book will be 50,000 to 60,000 words. Was I willing to negotiate? So, knowing that he wants me to write his book for less than a penny per word, I asked him what he was willing to offer in exchange. We'll see if he even bothers to reply.
Today I came across another bid request to ghostwrite a 100-page book in 30 days for a flat fee of $25. That's payment $0.001 per word and doesn't include time spent on editing. Really? Really?
I'm a freelancer, not a volunteer. That means I expect to be paid a fair wage for my work. I might negotiate a little on my rates, but I won't grossly undervalue my work or undercut the profession. If I want to work for free (or practically free), I'll write my own stuff and publish it.
Oh, yeah, I already do that.
Today's writers are emulating a old sales techniques used by Charles Dickens: the serial. While I have my personal preferences regarding serials, I have to say that I appreciate when the author notes in the book summary whether the book is part of a series or a serial. Don't know the difference? Here's a quick description:
Since I enjoy reading book reviews, I can tell that there are many readers who detest serials and will leave negative feedback and cliffhanger warnings. I don't particularly like serials and will thank a reviewer for leaving a cliffhanger warning if the author doesn't explicitly state in the book blurb that the book I'm considering purchasing is merely an installment in a serial. More often than not, I will decide not to purchase the book.
Back in the '80s and '90s, I bought series that, in all honesty, were serials: The Belgariad, the Mallorean, Thomas Covenant the Unbeliever, the Shannara series, etc. However, when I started them, I knew they were going to continue over multiple volumes. It was difficult--and can still be--to find a standalone fantasy novel. With the advent of indie publishing, there are more standalone novels than ever--and more serials.
So, what's better? It's purely a matter of preference. There's no right or wrong. To other writers, however, I ask you to please, please, please specify clearly if your book is part of a series or a serial. That courtesy annoys far fewer readers than not doing so.
Last week I had the privilege of serving as a beta reader for a young writer eager to publish in the genre of erotica. She informed me that the work was 80% complete in that she was just about ready to publish. I disabused her of that notion.
The 22,000-word manuscript she sent me wasn't a story. Regardless of genre, a story needs some sort of conflict, some tension, some suspense, something that the main character either strives toward or must resolve. You know: a plot. Contrary to what you might think, erotica is more than just a regular romance with lots of added kink. Unfortunately, this manuscript was little more than sex scenes linked together by a bit of narrative or dialog. There was no plot. Yes, folks, even erotica requires a plot.
The writer has an excellent command of the English language (she's a native of a European country that's neither Ireland or the UK), so I was pleasantly surprised on that point. Unfortunately, she peppered the content with $5 words that didn't mean what she thought they meant. Folks, regardless of what you write, if you use big words, be sure you're using them correctly. Know your vocabulary.
Another cardinal sin she committed was to wallow in heavy, florid description. Purple prose, anyone? A little description is good and necessary; a lot just bogs the story down and makes it drag. Repeated description of the same thing also becomes wearisome. At one point, I highlighted a passage and simply commented, "Enough already! We got the picture." She also indulged in long, descriptive phrases when a simple statement would have been more effective. Throughout the manuscript, I cut out unnecessary description.
Passive voice further marred the content. Quick review, folks: active voice is the subject acting upon the object; passive voice is the subject being acted upon by the object. Which do you think offers the stronger phrasing? Anyway, I noted that throughout, too, and suggested alternate phrasing to tighten and strengthen the writing.
On the plus side, she used her apostrophes correctly. I did not have to remind her that plural and possessive aren't the same thing. I marked those comma errors I found and corrected some arbitrary capitalization issues. There were few misspellings or typos.
I was honest, but not gentle. Once she puts her work out there, readers won't be gentle. Better to endure the sting of criticism now when it can be fixed before publication than later when scathing reviews that can't be removed will deter readers from making that purchase.
Don't call me cruel, call me candid. I truly was glad that this young author asked me to go over her manuscript, even though it needed substantial rewriting. I can only hope that she wasn't deterred, will learn from this exercise, and will continue to pursue writing.
Hard boiled, scrambled, over easy, and sunny side up: eggs are the musings of Holly Bargo, the pseudonym for the author.
Looking for a place to swap blogs? Holly Bargo at Hen House Publishing is happy to reciprocate Blog Swaps in 2019.
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