Don’t make the same mistakes they did!
Stumped on my NaNoWriMo, and having a quiet week to rest, I decided to tear into my potential competition. I used to be an avid reader of free and cheap romance and erotic lit through Apple, Amazon, and online websites. I wondered if the market had changed. What are people writing? What sells? And are authors still lazily inserting themselves into history? (Unsurprisingly yes).
In fairness of judging accuracy, I should say I examined ten ‘average length’ books of a mix of contemporary, paranormal, and historical sub-genres. It’s a small sample size, but the mistakes recurred to the point where I could say this is what distinguishes a great book from a generic one. I feel it is important to say that all these books were rated no lower than four and a half-stars online, and were very popular. I’ve heard about paid reviews as a significant scandal, but it does make me wonder when I found some to be unworthy of that judgement. In the name of politeness, I won’t name names, although I did leave private reviews as I think constructive criticism is important. I hope someone would tell me (please tell me). These are all mistakes I’m almost 95% sure I’ve made at some point.
1. This Is So Boring I Want To Become Celibate
The most horrifyingly common mistake I found was how truly generic, and boring the majority of the novels were. I was suckered in by a great, engaging blurb, and a well-put-together cover more than once. What was so disappointing was that the books that did this usually had truly interesting plot ideas. But their lazy generic characterization, boring prose, and a plot that ends up leaning uncreatively on cliché shoots their glory in the foot. What could have been a great book wasted away before my eyes.
Of course this is a subjective criticism – readers still might certainly buy and enjoy those books. But I personally felt cheated for having to pay money for the six books (!) that disappointed me. Admittedly, only one was so painfully bad I had to fight to finish it – I kept shutting my iPad to escape. The other five were just average: not great, not memorable, just average. They could have been so much better!
Probably the worst of the generic offences is in the characters. I have a hypothesis that even the cheesiest, most cliché plot can be redeemed if you can make me care about your character. Of course movies and television have the upper hand as a skilled actor/actress can bring him/her to life. Books don’t have that advantage. It is up to the writer and the writer alone to pull off that portrayal. Writers know this – but as a consequence, we’re given blocks of back-story often within the first few chapters. The narrator, or even the character, helpfully reflects back her childhood or her best-friendship, or backfills how the majestic billionaire/prince etc knocked her up however many years ago. Admittedly, back-story is necessary, otherwise you’re wandering around the first chapter wondering who the hell anyone is.
Backstory might tell me her childhood best-friend is Sarah, but if she’s another beautiful, but boring girl where her only ‘flaw’ is that she’s clumsy/insecure but obviously traditionally beautiful/gets lost/loses her tongue around hot guys/victim bait I will give up. And these women always seem to have jobs, studies, and even careers they must have worked hard for, but its hardly their passion. They never talk about it. It’s not that important. Their passion ends up being rippling abs. A job is just a convenient, or even inconsequential, bit of plot dressing. Hell, I’m even guilty of this.
Real people have real flaws. We’re rude, impatient, liars, needy, lonely, lazy, cheaters, annoying, selfish, competitive, cynical, alcoholics, greedy, and probably some of us are homophobes. But then, that’s not just who we are, most of us are still great friends, good at our jobs (although lazy with laundry), or unconditionally love our pets. Not everyone thinks we are beautiful. We aren’t always endearing, or nice. You’ve probably had people hate you/dislike you for no good reason. But you and I would react differently to different situations.
These are usually best pointed out by ethical conundrums, like a dropped wallet. But if your character is a chronic air-head they might forget all about it for six months straight, left to sit idly in a drawer. Or deathly afraid of responsibility, so they leave it on the street. Or visually short-sighted, so they never see it, and walk by. Or a weirdo who lacks social understanding so they stalk the wallet owner and fall in love. Or they trip on the wallet (clumsiness is only a flaw if it actually has consequences like a broken face, or a lost job; or because they are genuinely ignorant of their surroundings). In most of the stories I read, the character was so bland, they wouldn’t know what to do with a dropped wallet. They had no development to even approach a distinguishing reaction (probably just trip cause she’s such a klutz and need rescuing by some abs).
But flawed people I recognize and can relate to. Don’t be lazy.
If I can replace your character with a sexy/handsome lamp and the narrative doesn’t change much, it probably needs work.
2. I Can’t Masturbate To Historical Inconsistencies
I talked about this with the Amish, but I’m sure it’s a personal demand at least one other nitpicker has: I can’t enjoy your work if its historically inaccurate. Four of the sample were historically oriented, only one had bothered to do more than cursory research (but suffered because of formatting and prose issues). I’m not talking about writing your book in Ancient Greek or making sure your pre-1600 story doesn’t contain phrases probably coined by Shakespeare. But if you’re selling me history, those lazy historical inconsistencies like inaccurate geography, politics, dress, and attitudes will make me shut your book, and probably demand a refund.
Research what your characters wore. Please try not to excessively appropriate and flout cultural and period values, albiet it’s usually necessary for your narrative to have fruition, or your character to be sympathetic. Racism makes everyone uncomfortable – but it happened. And dudes in the 1700s probably were about as sympathetic to women’s issues as Tea Party Republicans are. Also, and this is a biggie, educated society began long ago, even a time-traveller from the 1700s isn’t a ‘savage’. Your mileage probably varies on this – I know it isn’t everyone’s pet peeve – but if you’re hitting it historical, don’t be lazy. It’s part of your selling point to bring a historical period to life.
*You can go too far, but there’s always obvious differences between someone who did a bit of homework versus someone who slapped together a bunch of misconceived ideas and called it Victorian. M’lady.
3. The Author Didn’t Proofread
Only one novel is truly guilty of this, luckily, but I imagine it’s an easy mistake for self-published authors to make. Even published works that are run through by publishers and editing services have spelling mistakes or misprints. But if you’re producing an Ebook, formatting is especially key. I’ve googled a little bit myself, but a lot can be apparently lost in the conversion process from word documents to epub or other ebook formats. If it isn’t easy to read, appropriate page breaks are missing, there’s no paragraphs, or the formatting doesn’t work: you’re going to have a hard time. If your reader feels as strongly about formatting and mistakes as I do history, they might walk away from you forever.
Either educate yourself (will someone please teach me how to use WordPress?), find a smart friend or mentor to give tips, or get an editor. It’s free or cheap, there’s no excuse for your work not to be beautiful and professional looking.
4. Let’s Be Boring Together
I’ve made this a specific crime because not only can the characterization of guys be as dull as their female counterparts – several failed to make me successfully buy their relationship. He’s so appallingly dull, you sit there and say, why? He’s not interesting, there’s no work put in to make him physically/emotionally attractive, nor is it well telegraphed. Their relationship is flat. They seem to end up together because, well, he’s there, and she’s there. I guess so.
The really great books had interesting/flawed characters, but also built sexual tension, sold me on their interactions and attraction, showed and told, and made me care enough to actually see the narrative through.
5. I Love Portraying A Manly Man Who Can Sexually Harass Me And Put Me In My Woman Place
I’ve put this last because it’s implicit in our attitudes, rather than a genuine ‘mistake’. It’s a consequence of our reproduced social values, there is sexism in our lives, and in many ways inequality is made ‘erotic’. Being a feminist doesn’t mean writing about equal opportunity utopia’s. But I was fairly alarmed that all the stories had elements of women being characterized as small, and even infantalized, as well as plots that bordered on sexual harassment (by both the heroine and hero FYI). I don’t mind if he’s homophobic or an asshole that finds redemption, I just have a hard time buying that the heroine is falling head-over-heels after he inappropriately propositions her/gropes her/stalks her/turns their conversations sexual. Especially if this guy is portrayed as a ‘good guy’. Unless it’s part of your plot to have him do this with consequences or you’re writing to domination etc fantasy taboos, it’s not okay to reinforce sexual harassment and abuse as elements of an ideal romance.
Stalking is creepy. It’s not ‘okay’ just because he’s dreamy.
As for infantilism, the women were always juxtaposed in the books as small, where he is big and tall. She needed a man to fix her problems, or she literally couldn’t fix her own problems by herself (of course if she’s looking for heterosexual love, it is probably the only problem he can be the only one to fix). She’s never had sex, or if she has it was non-consensual, or awful, or forgettable. Although the mileage on this was usually limited to other dudes being 10/10 bad at oral sex (which isn’t far from the truth). He teaches her all about it (which is admittedly kinda hot). Her youth and inexperience is sexy – but he’s never inexperienced. He’s never infantilized or valued for his innocence as she is. Her dream man may also do this too: tells her she needs protection, he’ll take care of her problems, she’s cute, she doesn’t know she’s beautiful, get her a job, and intervene to save her. Women were also always placed in an unequal position of economic standing and/or employment: he was her boss, her literal hero, a prince, and always better off financially. On a shorter note, but by no means less significant, all main characters were white, heterosexual (albeit I was reading heterosexual stories), monarchy-positive (those that referenced it in their structure and values), and the historical stories didn’t recognize colonialism or cultural/racial conflicts.
But while we’re raised in a culture that values kinds of gendered behaviours, we still want to read about it. We’re still going to write about it. Even I like a tall man. I’d like him to be able to take care of himself. But if we never defy it, we’ll continually reinforce the same power structures that alienate those outside of sexy innocence, and manly man. It’s harmful to both genders.
Unless sexual and social domination is part of your book’s kink (it’s a powerfully undervalued freedom to access and read whatever we want), it can’t hurt to be aware while we write what we write.
Your readers are highly likely to be women – but they have agency, even when restrained by circumstance. I want to read about other women who have agency, or if not, still move within their societal constraints. While all the books had elements of it, only three were highly problematic in their attitudes. They contained situations that would have genuinely made me feel uncomfortable, and that the heroine often could not say no to as he was her boss/needed his help/he had power over her. If someone does this to you (no matter the genders), it’s not okay.
At the risk of getting preachy, there is such inequality gendered and racial representation in film and television production and texts, there’s a power we have being able to write female narratives where it’s thought that 90% of us are women, writing for an audience of over 80% of women (1). It’s probably the only space where we have a majority voice (admittedly still a majority white, heterosexual, and privileged educated voice). Although there is still an inescapable stigma swirling over the very thought of writing or reading ‘glorified porn’, I earnestly only write under a pseudonym to protect my family from stumbling on it. I’m far from ashamed of my sexuality, and professional choice, but my Grandma googles me, and I want to feel comfortable putting my work out there. She’s a tough woman, I can’t wait ten to twenty years. She might outlive me.
Give Me Five Good Reasons To Change
1. Using generic, unflawed characters that could be replaced with a lamp, unoriginal prose, and leaning hard on cliché trappings for your plot will kill your interesting ideas every time.
2. Lazy historical inconsistencies and appropriation are unforgivable (to me).
3. You will drive readers off if your work isn’t formatted for e-books, or isn’t proofread.
4. You need to sell the relationship between interesting characters (see 1). Great books had engaging characters, built sexual tension, and sold the relationship with believable interactions and attraction.
5. Sexual harassment is not sexy, and not okay to be portrayed as a value of an ideal relationship. Consent is sexy. Attitudes that infantilize women and demand comparable power of men are problematic to both genders. Check the implicit gendered, cultural, social, and racial values of your work. We can’t erase it, but we need to be aware of how and what we perpetuate as ‘ideal’.
My sample size is too small, and biased, but this is what I found kept the five-star books apart from the books that often died for me before chapter one even finished. Combinations of these reasons made certain I would never buy from that author again, nor recommend them.
If you’re worried I reviewed your book, or that unfinished story idea you have on your computer, get in touch for reassurance, commiseration, and a list of development resources I’m still building. I would love critique, criticism, discussion, sexist vitriol, trolling, or even a casual chat – send me an ask on Tumblr or get in contact via email (email@example.com). I also accept hashtag puns on twitter.
*Originally posted on bethcoxlove.tumblr.com on November 4th 2015