One man’s love letter to romance authors and readers

Listen: romance novels don’t get enough respect.

Not for the amazing army of authors. Not for the editors and literary agents.

And not for the millions of loyal readers.

That should change. Here’s why:

1) The world needs books more than ever

If you care about ideas and words, you should care about books.

Newspapers and magazines are below books on the food chain of ideas and insights. I say this as a former journalist who bleeds newsprint if you cut me.

Only books give a writer enough space and time to truly dive deep into a topic.

Every library is an arsenal of liberty and each book is a foot soldier in the war against ignorance, apathy and hate.

We need books more than ever, with propaganda, misinformation and tyrants—or wannabe tyrants—one the rise around the world.

Books matter. When it comes to ideas, they are irreplaceable.

Oh, television and movies make billions. Money isn’t the same as importance. TV, movies and the Series of Tubes can’t replace the role of books.

And the foundation of a healthy book industry? Romance novels.

It’s not even close.

Crime and mystery novels are No. 2, at $728 million a year in the U.S. book market. Sidenote: there are conflicting opinions of what genre is No. 2. I’m not getting into that fight.

Romance novels lap the field with a staggering $1.44 billion a year.

2) Romance is not a fad

Age cannot wither her, nor custom stale her infinite variety.

You can make a case that YA dystopian fiction was a fad, just like a zombie movies and books were once hotter than the sun but now colder than an icy hand wrapping around your throat at midnight in a graveyard.

There are fads in publishing, just like anything else.

Romance novels, though, are eternal and infinitely varied.

There’s contemporary and historical, futuristic and fantasy, gothic and paranormal, series and suspense, straight and LGBTQ.

Sidenote: I believe a good percentage of romantic suspense novels would get placed on the mystery and thriller shelf if you reversed the genders of the protag and love interest. Switch the genders of my favorite series, the Reacher novels, and bookstores would put those on the romantic suspense section. I own every Reacher novel and they all have a strong romance subplot, with the love interest the most important character aside from Reacher, somebody who gets more time on the page than the disposable villain Reacher will inevitably outsmart before he crushes their bones into powder. The fact that the gender of the protag determines where the book gets placed on the shelves kinda pisses me off.

3) Women rule the book world, yet men dominate book reviews

Women hold 70 to 80 percent of publishing jobs and make up the majority of both literary agents and book buyers.

However: male authors and male critics dominate book reviews.

That’s upside down.

It’s smart business to pay attention to what people buy, and dumber than dumb to ignore the actual market and what your customers want.

If movie critics ignored 90 percent of action movies and only wrote reviews for black-and-white French existentialist movies, the average movie-goer would be hacked off. I don’t care what industry you talk about. Car reviewers who only write about $240,000 exotic sports cars aren’t really helping their readers, who buying sedans and pickups and minivans.

Book critics and book reviews should reflect what book buyers actually put down money to buy.

4) Romance is a story that needs to be told

Literature—and all stories—is really about what’s worth living for and what’s worth dying for.

War and action movies answer the question of what’s worth dying for.

The best stories about what’s worth dying for show how tough this choice can be. CATCH-22 doesn’t say World War II was a bad war. Clearly, Hitler needed to be stopped. The question Yossarian struggles with is truly this: After the war is basically over, do you really need to risk your life flying more missions that will probably get you killed, or should you save your life by becoming a deserter, shunned by your country but still breathing?

Romance novels are about what’s worth living for.

Who should pick as a partner or spouse, to love and cherish and maybe start a family?

That’s a massive, massive question. You better get it right, because getting it wrong can be the biggest disaster ever.

Romance novels show people struggling to make the right choice. Who should you pick as a partner in love and life?

5) Romance authors, editors and readers are strong where male writers are weak

If you’re a male writer, I’d suggest getting editors, critique partners and beta readers with a romance background.

Every. Single. Time.

Hear me now and believe me later in the week: Romance folks are strong where most male authors are weak. Seek them out. And when you need a professional editor, hire them.

The opposite is also true. I’ve edited novels for a number of female authors, including romance authors writing thrillers (or romantic suspense), and I think we both learned a ton each time. Strengths and weaknesses should be complementary, and you won’t find that with an editor, critique partner or beta buddy who’s a clone of you.

Also: romance authors and readers have the biggest and best-organized communities, online or in person. They have their act together.

RWA is an army, folks. Do not mess with them.

6) HFN and HEA are squad goals, people

Men should push for tax breaks for romance novels. Seriously.

This is my experience: My wife reads everything. She’s a trial attorney and the mayor, basically working two jobs. And sure, we have all kinds of books in our library and all over the house: books on rhetoric, the classics, non-fiction, thrillers, mysteries. Everything. Yet the last thing she or I want to do after a hard day is to read heavy non-fiction or dense, depressing lit-rah-sure, which on weeknights makes me feel like I have to pull an all-nighter to write a 20-page term paper, and I am done with all that.

Romance novels let her relax. They make her happy, just like reading thrillers makes me relaxed and happy.

Happy wife, happy life.

There’s a reason why if there’s no HFN (Happy For Now) or HEA (Happily Ever After) that it’s not actually a romance novel. Could be a tragic love story, like ROMEO AND JULIET, but not a romance.

The message of romance novels is that despite how hard it can be to pick the right person, and build a strong relationship with them, all of that is worth the effort. That’s why the ending has to be HFN or HEA.

I like that message.

Strike that. I love it.

It’s hopeful, noble and something we all need to hear.

Because in the end, it’s our relationships—not how many digits are in your bank account, or how fancy your car and house is—that really matter in life.

P.S. As a bonus, check out this great infographic from PBS. My only quibbles: at the end, they give FIFTY SHADES OF GREY and the e-book trend too much space, though this was back when that book was huge and e-books seemed like the future. Now, readers are pushing back for more physical books. Because hey, there’s nothing like the smell and feel of a read hardcover.

The Red Pen of Doom puts a stake through TWILIGHT

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CHAPTER ONE – FIRST SIGHT

My mother drove me to the airport with the windows rolled down. It was seventy-five degrees in Phoenix, the sky a perfect, cloudless blue. (Fiction Law #1: Don’t open with the weather or your mom.) I was wearing my favorite shirt – sleeveless, white eyelet lace; (Fiction Law #2: Don’t open with what you’re wearing, because nobody cares.) I was wearing it as a farewell gesture. (Here we go, our first bit of conflict or story: a farewell.) My carry-on item was a parka. (This relates to how much it rains in Forks, and I guess you could argue it’s a bit of foreshadowing, but my God, no story on earth turns on whether a teenage girl is taking a parka as carry-on luggage versus stuffing the damned thing into her Samsonite.)

In the Olympic Peninsula of northwest Washington State, a small town named Forks exists under a near-constant cover of clouds. (This reads like was cut-and-pasted from Wikipedia, with a surplus of Things in Caps, and it is all Rather Boring.) It rains on this inconsequential town more than any other place in the United States of America. It was from this town and its gloomy, omnipresent shade that my mother escaped with me when I was only a few months old. (Conflict! A tiny bit of it, finally.) It was in this town that I’d been compelled to spend a month every summer until I was fourteen. That

(END OF PAGE 1)

Continue reading “The Red Pen of Doom puts a stake through TWILIGHT”

I threw it on the ground — why people stop reading books

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Like you, dear reader, I devour books. I eat them for breakfast, munch on them for lunch and blast through an endless buffet of books in bed, waiting for the Sandman — because books, they are THE BEST.

However: there are books, even famous best-sellers and literary masterpieces that eager graduate students dissect for their dissertations, that are simply unreadable. You start them, you want to be blown away by them and instead, you toss them through the air to test their aerodynamics.

Goodreads asked their peoples about books they started, and wanted to love, but simply couldn’t finish.

Some books at the top of their Couldn’t Finish List include:

  • FIFTY SHADES OF GREY, which is complete trash, and not in a good way. Here’s my take on the first page of that stinker: The Red Pen of Doom impales FIFTY SHADES OF GREY
  • THE GIRL WITH THE DRAGON TATTOO, written by a fellow Swede, and I wanted to love this book, I really did, but couldn’t get past page 30-whatever. 
  • ATLAS SHRUGGED by Ayn Rand, who couldn’t write her way out of a wet paper bag if you handed her a sharpened pencil. I took a red pen to the first page of her most famous book here: The Red Pen of Doom murders THE FOUNTAINHEAD by Ayn Rand
  • CATCH-22, which I’ve read a zillion times and love. Maybe I’m crazy.
  • THE LORD OF THE RINGS, an immense and dense tome that I started to read and despite being (a) on a beach in Maui and (b) chock full of mai tai’s, I couldn’t (c) get past the 60-page introduction to the prologue or whatever because it was massive amounts of academic text lecturing me about the sociology of hobbits and elves, with no story whatsoever, and it put the B in Boring.

So I agree with Goodreads about throwing most of these books on the ground.

Here’s the story with all kinds of comments.

The Red Pen of Doom impales FIFTY SHADES OF GREY

As is my custom, and habit, and my Bobby Brown prerogative, I’m going to go with the first page — as printed.

You know, printed with ink at these places we used to call “stores of books,” where you handed the nice folks who live there paper decorated with dead presidents and they let you walk out with ALL KINDS OF YUMMY WORDS.

So if you read the first page of this thing on a Kindle or iPad or Atari 2600, your page 1 will doubtless look different and such. Please give my regards to the Complaint Department.

After a line edit of Page 1, we’ll talk about our general literary impressions — about how metaphors are like similes, only different; about how my hatred of semi-colons runs deeper than my loathing of A-Rod; and how somebody wrote a mainstream and incredibly successful novel about sexy nonsense without putting any sort of sexy nonsense whatsoever on page 1.

FIFTY SHADES OF GREY
Does the title and cover matter? Nah. Only if you want to sell 40 bazillion books.

FIFTY SHADES OF GREY

I scowl with frustration at myself in the mirror.  (This may be a world record. Bam, in the first sentence, she breaks a cardinal rule of fiction writing: don’t tell readers what the hero or heroine looks like by having them stare into a mirror, gaze upon their reflection in a pond or, I don’t know, whip out their driver’s license and say, “Huh, five-foot-ten, a hundred and twenty pounds, red hair, green eyes and a few freckles. Howbout that?” Ugh. This is not exactly “Call me Ishmael.”) Damn my hair – it just won’t behave, and damn Katherine Kavanagh for being ill and subjecting me to this ordeal. (Unless the heroine’s hair is crucial to the plot — unless she starts out with unruly hair in Act 1, switches to a bob in Act 2 and shows how much she’s grown and changed by rocking a purple Mohawk in Act 3, the hair, it is Boring, and a Distraction. Also, nobody refers to friends and such by their full name. If she’s your bestie, you say “Katherine.”) I should be studying for my final exams, which are next week, yet here I am trying to brush my hair into submission. I must not sleep with it wet. I must not sleep with it wet. (Enough already with the hair. Seriously. The only two words with any kind of real conflict and potential are “final exams,” and unless she flunks those, and therefore gets kicked out of university and has to live under a bridge in a cardboard box, it does not matter for the story.) Reciting this mantra several times, I attempt, once more, to bring it under control with the brush. (More about the hair? MORE? Not necessary, not interesting and not entertaining, unless her hair is secretly a sentient being, organizing a plot to take over the world, one follicle at a time. I’m guessing Bruce Willis, being immune from such attacks, will get recruited to foil this plot in DIE HARD 17: THE HAIR DYES HARDEST.) I roll my eyes in exasperation and gaze at the pale, brown-haired girl with blue eyes too big for her face staring back at me, and give up. (Back to the staring-at-the-mirror trick, which has to go. Find another way to describe the heroine and make the reader care about what the heroine looks like in the first place. I don’t know, a conflict, a situation, a hook.) My only option is to restrain my wayward hair in a ponytail and hope that I look semi-presentable. (Now we’re beating the Dead  Hair Horse on its way to the glue factory.)

Kate is my roommate, and she has chosen today of all days to succumb to the flu. Therefore, she cannot attend the interview she’d arranged to do, with some mega-industrialist tycoon I’ve never heard of, for the student newspaper. (Awkward. First reference is Katherine Kavanaugh and now she’s Kate — just call her Kate both times. Also, how many student newspapers score interviews with “mega-industrial tycoons” … who you’ve never heard of? If they’re really mega, then you have heard of them. Bill Gates, Steve Jobs and so forth. If you haven’t heard of them, they aren’t mega at all. Edited text follows in red.) Kate is my roommate and she’s chosen today, of all days, to succumb to the flu. That means I’m stuck interviewing some industrial tycoon for the student newspaper. So I have been volunteered. (Redundant.) I have final exams to cram for, (already said that) one essay to finish, and I’m supposed to be working this afternoon, but no – today I have to drive a hundred and sixty-five miles to downtown Seattle in order to meet the enigmatic CEO of Grey Enterprises Holdings Inc. As an exceptional entrepreneur and major benefactor of our university, his time is extraordinarily precious – much more precious than mine – but he has granted Kate an interview. A real coup, she tells me.

Damn her extracurricular activities. (The last sentences were brought to you by the letter E: enigmatic, exceptional entrepreneur, extraordinarily, extracurricular. There are other modifiers that start with the letter E: extraneous, excruciating and ejector seat. I am looking for the handle, because it’s time to pull it.)

Kate is huddled on the couch in the living room.

“Ana, I’m sorry. It took me nine months to get this interview. It will take another six to reschedule, and we’ll both have graduated by then. As the editor, I can’t blow this off. Please,” Kate begs me in her rasping, sorethroat (compound modifier) voice. How does she do it? Even ill

(end of page 1)

Notes from the Red Pen of Doom

Are you kidding me? ARE YOU KIDDING ME?

I thought THE FOUNTAINHEAD was a bad Page 1 (here’s my post about that debacle), but Ayn Rand is flipping Shakespeare compared to FIFTY SHADES OF AWFUL.

Page 1 of this turkey consumed barrels and barrels of red ink, even though all my red ink is digital and such. Had to change my way of editing to handle this thing, because usually, anything edited gets turned red, but if I did that to this first page, 90 percent of this thing would be red, and it would be all Confusing and such.

So this is a mess, and not a hot mess.

God bless anybody who sells a ton of books or movie tickets. I adore books and movies, and the more people read books, and see good movies, the better. HOWEVER: the first page of a book is a lot like the trailer for a movie. You start out with your best stuff, and it’s a rock-solid guarantee that the writing doesn’t get magically better ten pages or 100 pages later.

The first page, and the first chapter, get polished and polished until they are a shiny diamond made of words.

Maybe you could argue this book is the one exception to that rule.

From the reviews of this book, though, that’s not the case. Here’s a review of the novel in the London Review of Books.

So why did something like this sell like hotcakes?

I believe, deep in my soul, that packaging matters more than the product. Not because that’s how things should be. It’s just reality.

The title of a book — or a movie, or a TV show — can save your bacon or kill you dead.

What else can sell or sink you? Images. That’s why the cover of a book or punk rock album is so important. It’s why we remember the movie poster for JAWS. When we’re thinking about what to spend our monies on in Barnes and Noble, and  what to see on Friday night at those giant buildings where popcorn costs $9 a bucket, covers and posters and titles are where we start. Images are more visceral and powerful than words. I am not making that up. THERE IS SCIENCE AND SUCH.

Also, quality itself doesn’t sell. You need something else, a different hook. (Related posts: You can pitch ANYTHING except quality and Quirks and legs matter more than talent and perfection)

If you gave this a more typical title for the genre, and a more typical book cover, you’d probably end up with a title like A BUSINESS AFFAIR and some kind of Ryan Gosling clone wearing a suit on the cover with the heroine nearby, messing with her pony tail while she wears the highest of high heels and a business suit with a skirt that is just this side of immodest. Or the cover would feature a blindfold and a pair of handcuffs.

If you really want to go traditional, it’d be Fabio wearing a suit while he holds a blindfold and a pair of handcuffs.

(Related posts: Romance novelists are a secret, epic army of man boosters and Why every man should read a romance — and every woman a thriller and The best Fabio romance cover OF ALL TIME)

And if you put that different title and cover on this very same book, it wouldn’t sell 40 bazillion copies and get turned into a movie. It’d be just another book in a genre that isn’t exactly new and wanting for titles.

I bet you anything the unusual title and cover is why FIFTY SHADES OF GREY went viral and became a smashing success.

True story: guess what the author of THE GIRL WITH THE DRAGON TATTOO wanted as a title for his novel? Go ahead. Guess.

THE GIRL WITH THE DRAGON TATTOO
Originally, Stieg the Larsson wanted to title his novel MEN WHO HATE WOMEN. Think would sell more than five copies to his mom?

I am not making this up: Larsson wanted to go with MEN WHO HATE WOMEN.

Raise your hand if you think that title would have set the world on fire and led to hit movies starring James Bond.

The title and cover — the packaging — are 90 percent of the battle. The packaging matters more than the product.

FIFTY SHADES OF GREY is an interesting, literary title. The cover photo of a grey tie is also atypical of the genre and really stands out. The combined effect gives the book a literary veneer.

Some people might feel embarrassed getting on Flight 435 to Frankfurt and pulling out a paperback titled A BUSINESS AFFAIR with Fabio holding a blindfold and handcuffs on the cover. And you can bet the male audience for such books is hard to find with a microscope.

Give the same novel a different title and cover — and the gloss of lit-rah-sure — and that makes it OK for people to read what they might otherwise never get caught dead: romance and erotica.

This reminds me of the early Eric van Lustbader novels, like THE NINJA, which were hot sellers because they slipped in page after page of shockingly naughty scenes to readers — mostly men — who simply expected ninjas fighting with swords and such. It was like a James Bond movie where they didn’t fade out when 007 kissed the girl, but switched from a nice safe PG movie to something unsafe and dangerous and wild. I can tell you 14-year-old boys around the globe had their minds blown. You can print this kind of stuff without getting arrested? I can buy it at the store and they don’t ask for my driver’s license, because I don’t have one yet? NO WAY.

Verdict

Back to  FIFTY SHADES OF GREY and why the first page, aside from the awkward messiness of it all, is just not interesting. You could hire a team of authors to rewrite the same plot points and they would throw up their hands and say forget it, we can’t do magical things with wet unruly hair and cramming for finals week, because there’s nothing truly at stake here.

It is beyond boring to read about some college student kvetch about her hair and her schedule. Try having a job and a kid and a commute, then talk to me.

There’s no conflict, no reason to care about the heroine. Is she fighting for any cause greater than herself? Are there public stakes at all? No. Private stakes that we can divine? No. Maybe if her boyfriend just dumped her, hey, now we have somewhere to go. A catalyst, a hook. But we’ve got nothing to work with here.

The heroine seems shallow and self-centered. I have no feelings about her, Kate or this Mr. Grey, because there’s nothing on the page to make me care, and no foreshadowing that anything more exciting or interesting might happen on page 2, page 22 or page 222.

I don’t mind entertaining trash, no matter the genre. In fact, better that a book or movie embraces its entertaining trashiness than beats me on the head with the Cudgel of Prententious Nonsense, which is never any fun at all.

HOWEVER: Entertaining trash better be GOOD trash, and not forget the entertaining part. This page 1 is an epic fail on both counts.