At the Back Fence Issue #20 Alisa Herr
Laurie’s News & Views
At the Back Fence Issue #20
February 11, 1997
I hope you enjoyed reading Cathy Sova’s fascinating look at category romances as much as I did. And, though I appreciated the time off, it’s good to be back in this forum. There is quite a bit to catch up on, so let’s get right to it!
The 1997 Unofficial Romance Reader Awards
The results are in! Here are the winners (and occasionally the losers) for our 1997 Unofficial Romance Reader Awards:
Michael and Catherine Kenyon from Mary Jo Putney’s Shattered Rainbows
Sebastien de Saint Vallier and Marie DuGard from Judy Cuevas’ Dance
Alex and Daisy from Susan Elizabeth Phillips’ Kiss an Angel
Nina and Alex from Jennifer Crusie’s Anyone But You
Hearing From the Big Winners :-
The big winner for 1996 releases was Mary Jo Putney. Her Shattered Rainbows was a huge hit with readers, and her River of Fire had many mentions as well. Other big winners were Jennifer Crusie for Anyone But You and, to a lesser extent, The Cinderella Deal, and Nora Roberts for her Death series. Other authors who fared extremely well overall were Judy Cuevas, Jo Beverley, Linda Howard, and Susan Elizabeth Phillips.
Mary Jo Putney – Mary Jo received word of her wins/mentions upon returning from a well-deserved vacation in Aruba. Here is the short q&a we conducted:
LLB – “Obviously your writing touches the hearts and minds of a great many romance readers. They love the stories you tell, the heroes you write, the heroines you write, and the relationships you write for them. You have written a great number of books – how do you keep it fresh, especially at a time when so many other authors seem to be going stale?”
MJP – “I can’t say for sure what readers relate to in my books, but I try to make my characters complex, with a basic decency and honesty. I like them to be mature–people with a few scars on their souls who have been made stronger rather than more selfish by their tribulations. People who are kind to each other.
“I guess part of my underlying philosophy is that everyone encounters major problems in life, and how we cope with the problems determines the quality of our lives. I think all readers can relate to pain and self-doubt, and will cheer for characters with the courage to transcend their problems and find a better life.
“In plot terms, I consciously make sure that each story has elements that I haven’t covered before – elements that interest me, and I hope will interest my readers. For example, the military history in Shattered Rainbows, and the art in River of Fire. I do try to prevent the stories from being overburdened by my research, but at the same time, I try never to condescend to the readers. I assume that they are intelligent people who will appreciate the most intelligent book I am capable of writing. That means weaving in ideas as well as plot and romance. Most readers seem to respond well to this–or if not, they’re too polite to tell me otherwise!”
LLB – “What’s up next for you?”
MJP – “Believe it or not, I think my next book will be a contemporary. I’ve been wanting to try a contemporary for some time, partly because there are things that can be done in contemporary that would be impossible in an historical, and partly so that I won’t go stale. One reason I’m ending the Fallen Angels series with One Perfect Rose (Ballantine, July ’97), is that I think I’ve pushed the tortured Napoleonic hero about as far as I can. (Also, of course, seven books are quite enough for a trilogy!) I love historicals too much to abandon them forever, though.
“Other publications include stories in two upcoming anthologies–a Christmas collection from Onyx (11/97) with a story called The Best Husband Money Can Buy, and a faery romance collection with three of my favorite authors: Jo Beverley, Barbara Samuel, and Karen Harbaugh. We authors generated the collection, and we had a wonderful time writing the stories. It will be a January ’98 release from Kensington, and will probably be entitled Faery Magic.”
LLB – “Did you know when you wrote Shattered Rainbows the impact it would have on your readers? Do you feel the same about all your books, or are there certain ones you just know will be readers’ favorites? Is it a favorite for you as well? If not, which is?”
MJP – “Well, I know that readers particularly like tortured heroes, but I can’t say that I predicted readers’ responses to Shattered Rainbows. I love all of my books and characters or I couldn’t write the stories. I suppose if I had to select books that were really, really close to my heart, they would include The Rake & the Reformer, Dearly Beloved, Uncommon Vows, Silk & Shadows – no, I can’t do this!
“Btw, do you have Jennifer Crusie’s email address? I read The Cinderella Deal while on vacation and want to write her a fan letter.”
Jennifer Crusie – When I contacted Jennifer about writing humorous romances, she had this to say:
“Thanks so much for the great news! I’m honored to be one of your winners, and please convey my gratitude to everyone over at your place.
“The most important thing about writing humor for women (well for anybody, really) is that humor creates community. People who laugh together become very close very quickly because they know they share a worldview. In romance, that’s very helpful because once the reader sees the heroine and hero laugh together, she’s likely to believe in their relationship. One mistake some writers make is assuming that banter between the heroine and hero must be insulting. Banter is just the opposite: it assumes a caring and respectful knowledge of each other so that the wordplay never insults; banter is a ping pong match with words and you don’t play ping pong with grenades. In an exchange of insults, each person is trying to silence the other; in banter, each person is eager to hear what the other is going to bounce back with because that’s what makes the conversation play . . . and foreplay.
“Just as important as the hero and heroine laughing together is the reader laughing with them because that’s when she becomes a part of their community, too. Of course, the kind of laughter is vitally important because women don’t find hurtful humor such as poking fun at underdogs funny; we like laughing up at people in positions of authority who have threatened us. There’s a lot more – I think humor is the most powerful tool anyone can use which is why I’m writing my dissertation on it – but the most important aspect is the community and connection that laughing together brings.”
Nora Roberts – I contacted Nora online about her wins and honorable mentions. I also asked her about her writing remaining fresh (indeed, she is the only major author about whom I have never heard a “this author is getting stale” comment), and the fact that her readers are following her into the mainstream of fiction (whereas other authors often lose their romance readers). Here is her response:
“Laurie, I’m delighted! I’m so fond of Eve and Roarke that to have readers consider them a favorite hero and heroine, and a favorite couple is a real thrill. I chuckled over Eve as feistiest heroine. I imagined someone calling her feisty – then imagined her popping that someone in the mouth. In a feisty way.
“Thanks so much to you and the readers for showing their appreciation of these characters who’ve come to mean so much to me.
“I’m also delighted with the honorable mentions for Daring to Dream and Rapture in Death. Acknowledgements like this let an author know her work is read and appreciated. And it makes a huge different to morale.
“I’m a little vague on what being author most glommed entails. I’m assuming this is a good thing. LOL.
“As far my writing – and the well (that has run dry for other – I think the main reason my work stays fresh – and again thanks for letting me know it’s seen that way – is simply that I really love to write. I love the process of writing. Even when it’s miserably hard, as it often is, I love it. I know it’s the best job in the world. I stay at home, I don’t wear pantyhose or commute, I make up stories. They pay me! What a deal.
“And another part of the reason is that I’m able to write so many different types – from the big romantic suspense, to the mass market trilogies, to category, and then the Robb books. It keeps me, I hope, from becoming stale. In addition, I write quickly. I just have a fast pace. In that way I can generally write several books a year, in different sub genres, and always have a new set of characters, a new setting and storyline to explore.
“Being able to do this makes me happy, keeps me more than content in my work. I would think that being happy in your work often makes the reader happy when they read that work. At least that’s my theory. (g)
“Again, thanks so much for letting me know the results of your votes. I’m really honored, really flattered. And I hope the readers continue to enjoy my stories as much as I enjoy writing them.”
Jo Beverley – While Jo did not win in any category, she did receive numerous honorable mentions. I asked her to comment on writing The Shattered Rose. That book, as with so many of her earlier Regency romances, stretches the boundaries of the genre. Here is what she had to say:
“Laurie, how wonderful that readers are enjoying my work. You know, I find I have to write the story that comes to me, and sometimes I have Horrible Doubts. Not doubts of the story per se, but whether readers will go along with me on a wild ride. I should know better. Romance readers are wonderfully adventurous!
“I did wonder about The Shattered Rose, however. I thought everyone would love Galeran; I couldn’t see how they could not. But I feared people wouldn’t be able to accept a rather cool, difficult heroine like Jehanne. But she had to be like that.
“The story was one that came to me. I worked hard at telling it right, but not at all at what it was, at least for the first half. And it all comes out of Jehanne. If I fiddled with her, if I tried to make her softer or less assertive, then the whole thing would have collapsed. The best I could do was give her a friend (Aline wasn’t in the first draft) to reflect a warmer side.
“And I hoped that readers would accept that anyone Galeran loved so deeply had to be a remarkable woman. It seems they do, and I appreciate romance readers even more.”
Some old favorites did not fare well with many of our readers. Indeed, Catherine Coulter, Jude Deveraux, Johanna Lindsey, and surprisingly, Diana Gabaldon, were authors many readers no longer seem to enjoy. Other long-time favorites such as Arnette Lamb and Bertrice Small seem to have disappointed recently as well. Relatively new author Gayle Feyrer, whose The Thief’s Mistress enchanted The Romance Reader, did not enchant our readers; receiving dishonorable mentions in both the Most Disappointing Read and Purple-est Prose categories.
The biggest loser in our unofficial awards? New author Patty Salier, whose only published book to date, The Sex Test, garnered “awards” for both Most Disappointing Read and Purple-est Prose.
One thing I found particularly interesting in this process that is not reflected here, is the variety of books that touched readers. Many more books were nominated than won or received honorable mention. Of special interest to me is that most of the books I nominated did not make it to the finals. Also, I didn’t read most of the books that received awards here. What can I conclude from that? That my tastes differ from most readers who voted? Yes, there’s that. But there is also the fact that I haven’t had time to read some of those highly touted books! Sitting on my shelves are both Mary Jo Putney releases, and the two Jennifer Cruisie titles that fared so well. While I didn’t have the time to read those, I was assigned Patty Salier’s book, as well as the latest releases by Johanna Lindsey, Bertrice Small, and Arnette Lamb.
To all those who participated in this process, thank you. I am keeping a ballot at my archives site in perpetuity, expanded in the number of categories and including romances from every year, so that readers may vote on all-time favorites. To see how other readers have voted, please click here. To access the ballot, please click here. There are links back to this column from those pages.
More on Authors: What is the Problem?
The results of my balloting were not terribly surprising. For every three readers that loves a certain author, there is generally one reader who is lukewarm to or actively dislikes that same author. The entire list of authors that some readers have given up on reads like a Who’s Who in romance writing. The following authors are the most disliked of all, and each is a lead author:
Jayne Anne Krentz/Amanda Quick
This next grouping of authors, while voted on less often, also received negative nods. Among this list too, are many lead authors:
Ruth Jean Dale
One name is conspicuously missing from either of those lists – Nora Roberts. As I indicated earlier in this column, I have never received from a reader a less-than-favorable comment about Nora Roberts. I think she alludes to it herself in her comments about keeping her writing fresh through the variety of genres and sub-genres she tackles. Reader Pam agrees as well, and perhaps alludes to the reason why so many other long-time favorites get stale: “I believe that Nora Roberts can be held up as an example of an author who didn’trun out of steam. Nora is a prolific writer and nearly all of her books are top notch because she doesn’t have a formula per se. She writes futuristics and contemporary, trilogies and single issue, varies the locale, creates interesting yet believable professions for her H/H, adds in creative conflict, etc., etc. Some of the other authors mentioned got into a “mode” that was successful for a while and didn’t bother to shift out of it. ‘If it worked once, let’s try it again,’ is the impression that I get sometimes when I see yet another plot returning.”
Reader Teri spent some time thinking about the reasons some authors get stale and produce books they could have written in their sleep. While I printed her letter at The Archives, it’s worth a second look here:
“I think that there are many factors. Probably the publishers ask the bestselling authors to produce more books. That’s the case with Joanna Lindsey, I think. In my opinion, she’s quite prolific. As for McNaught, she has absolutely no excuse. She spent years completing Remember When.”These are some of the reasons I came up with:
Pressure from the publisher
“Whatever I write sells, so why bother?” syndrome
“I’m tired so I need a break” syndrome
“If they don’t like my books, tell them to find something else to read” syndrome (or otherwise known as Coulter Syndrome)
“There’s no way my editor’s going to bitch about my manuscript no matter how bad it is since I ama bestselling author” syndrome”
I’ve received numerous e-mails from readers on the authors they think have lost it and why. Teri’s e-mail seems to sum it up quite nicely. On the other hand, a couple of authors have their own opinions on the matter. Judith O’Brien, for instance, spoke as both a reader and an author. She said, “Speaking as a reader, I, too, have been let-down by authors, and wonder how someone who wrote one of my all-time best-loved books could write something so bland. And editors can only work with what they are given – they can improve a book, but they can’t add the magic that all the best writers seem to have. My editor calls it ‘alchemy’. Anyway, as a writer I really understand that not everything I write will ‘speak’ to each reader in the same way. . .Other times readers don’t like it when authors try something different (a romance writer trying suspense, or someone who usually writes historicals trying a time travel). I guess writing a book is like cooking – you have to get used to the simple fact that not everyone’s going to like your Taco Souffle, and those who do may not like your Chicken a la Prune.”
Category romance author Renee Roszel shed a different light on the matter altogether, illuminating things most definitely from an author’s perspective:
“I’ve been in the biz a long time and have had the pleasure of knowing some very popular authors. I’ve heard horror stories from a few about how the sales force want titles, plot blurbs and cover info on books that aren’t written and barely even an idea (for catalogs they put out to retailers). The poor author is forced to write before she’s ready, to push, push, push to get stuff out there to her readers. It’s her very popularity that works against her so that she doesn’t have the luxury of time to come up with a great book. Editors are crying for pages, pub dates are pushed up, all to get those authors works to their readers – faster and faster – while the goose is golden. It can be a nightmare for the author who suddenly finds herself being treated more like a ‘product’ than a creative person with wants, needs and frailties. I feel for those writers, and I think many times they feel like they’re writing not for themselves or for their readers, any longer, but for the salesmen and the publisher’s bottom line. It’s sad, but it’s true. The romance genre, like all others, is a for-profit business. I guess I should be glad I’m not so popular to have the salesmen clamoring for information for some catalogue they’re making up for a year from now, demanding from me information that I don’t yet even know, myself. Fame and popularity can be hard on writers (on anybody, I guess). And the more popular and famous, the worse it is. The irony is that once an author’s sales start to slump (due to rushed books), they very well could be dumped because of sagging sales.”
Another, and obvious yet overlooked reason, was sent to me by Yen Nguyen. She said, “Perhaps these authors have just finally run out of steam. We can’t expect them to write terrific romances forever. Considering the enormous number of books that authors such as Johanna Lindsey, Catherine Coulter and others have written, it is not really surprising that they haven’t come up with anything new or fresh recently. While I’ll always consider Johanna Lindsey among my favorite authors, personally, I think I’ll stick with her vintage stuff. Johanna Lindsey’s latest book was boring, trite, and worst yet – badly written, which I’m finding to be true too often with her books of late. It’s time to retire some of these writers and focus on new talents emerging; there are many new and exciting authors that are coming out with excellent books. Julia Quinn and Susan Elizabeth Phillips to name a couple. Frankly, I don’t expect to buy another Johanna Lindsey or Catherine Coulter book, but there are a lot of other authors to look forward to.”
Wait a Minute, Something’s Different This Time!
You are so clever to have noticed there are no “please respond by e-mailing me here” links in this column. Frankly, when I set out to write a column, often I have a good idea where it will lead. Other times it just happens. Such was the case with this column – when I received such fabulous author feedback, I decided to present it en toto, and we’ve run out of space.
If you would like to respond to anything you’ve read in this column, please e-mail me here. And, if you are interested in reading about and/or including your feedback on two recent topics, sexuality and organizing your library, I’ve set up pages at The Archives for both (and both have links directly back to this column). The sexuality page is entitled Readers Rant About Sexuality. The organization page is entitled Readers Rave About Their Libraries. Each of these topics will remain open for your comments, especially on the organization topic. Again, each of those pages will have a link directly back to this column.
Harlequin Historicals – I recently posed this question to Harlequin, “A Harlequin Historicals author I am in contact with with mentioned on the phone awhile ago that, in order to pacify those readers who complained about too-small print size, and, in order to maintain the current price of an HH, the word count is being reduced.”
Public Relations spokesman Greg Sarney responded that HH Senior Editor Tracey Farrell stated, “This is probably referring to the fact that certain authors have been asked to reduce their word count because the style in which they write does make the type too small for our page length.”
When I asked for clarification of that statement, the response was, “the print sizes generally do not vary, but the word counts can. To reaffirm, authors are not being asked to reduce their word counts.”
While I accept Harlequin’s response, I was surprised to receive, around the same time, an e-mail from HH author Elizabeth Mayne regarding a review I had written on her book Lord of the Isle. My criticism of that book included this statement, “There is quite a bit of book crammed into 346 pages. I believe that is the problem here. Rarely do I believe Harlequin Historicals are too short, but in this case, I do. This book really does have the feel of an epic squeezed into the stringent HH format.” Elizabeth’s response was, “Laurie, you’re right. This is what happens when one contracts a 110,000 word historical and on receipt of the copy edits is told it must wind up only 84,000 to be safe. Stuff gets cut. Either I do it or heaven help the reader, some of the powers that be do. With any luck, given the word constraints now forced on all writers at Harlequin, I shall do better. Read on. Enjoy.”
Other publisher news – There are new publishers cropping up in the romance market. You may have noticed a recent review on this site of a book published by Scarlet, a company which is publishing four contemporary romances a month. Another fairly new publisher is Commonwealth. There is some controversy about this company because they enter into some publishing agreements with authors as joint ventures. However, The Romance Reader takes no position on this type of publishing but simply presents the information for the reader. There are also two electronic publishers I have been made aware of – Hard Shell and New Concepts Publishing.
If you are an author signed to any of the above-mentioned publishers, I’d like to hear from you. If you are a reader who has bought a book from any of these publishers, I’d like to hear from you as well. Please e-mail me here.
Until next time, TTFN, Laurie Likes Books
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