At the Back Fence Issue #247

December 4, 2006 

From the Desk of Anne Marble:

AARList: Hot Topics of 2006

Last year Laurie suggested I start a new ATBF tradition and put together an annual ATBF column about the hot topics on AARList. AARList, which is technically “AARList2,” hosted by Yahoo Groups, is one of two AAR-hosted discussion groups. It is open to readers and authors. The “debut” column was fun, so I’m back for a second time. Look for Laurie’s annual year-end column in a couple of weeks, and Robin’s annual “Buried Treasures” ATBF in early January; it’ll kick off our annual reader poll.

In 2006, AARList lost one of our most popular members, Quinn (LaNita Cornwall).. I quoted Quinn often in ATBF columns, and I’ll miss her contributions to both AARList and this column. It was heartwarming to see the tributes to Quinn that appeared on AARList after her passing was announced.

Some of our liveliest discussions involved publishing, particularly new formats such as e-books and trade paperbacks. But many other exciting discussions were about books in general. While I love the threads on publishing trends, it was great to see so many list members going back to talking about books – what works, what doesn’t work, and what drives them up the wall.

The appearance of heroes made for an interesting general discussion. Karen Scott was an advocate of “I don’t mind flawed heroines, but don’t mess with the heroes” delegation. Other posters, such as Kay, wanted more variety, even if they couldn’t imagine heroes who looked like Danny DeVito. While I would raise an eyebrow at a romance hero who looked like Danny DeVito (not to mention his lack of discretion in showing up drunk for an appearance last week on The View), I do get sick of all those heroes who look like Arnold Schwarzenegger. Would it really be so bad to have a hero with a receding hairline? (Hey, it works for Law and Order: SVU’s Christopher Meloni…) One thing most readers could agree on was that heroes with constant erections were annoying. And no doubt painful for those poor heroes, something with which Anne Stuart had fun in her European Historical Devil’s Waltz.

 What about the heroines? Many discussions about heroines ended up being about virginity. Jessi admitted to getting whiplash whenever she read romances where the heroine’s virginity is contrived. For example, while reading a Janet Chapman book, her reaction took her so much by surprise that she said “What the hell?” while reading it. Like Jessi, I’ve come across “virginity excuses” that made me roll my eyes, though if the book is well written enough, I’ll accept this sort of plot. If a writer can make me believe a librarian ends up witnessing a terrorist plot in the Ozarks, then making me believe a heroine is a virgin isn’t so hard. A great writer can make me believe in the most convoluted of stories. Virginity isn’t an annoyance for all readers. Some readers, like Diana, admitted that they preferred reading about virginal heroines. Other readers like virgins in historicals but are annoyed seeing them in contemporaries. I’d like to see more experienced heroines in historicals, such as widows or even courtesans. But virginal or experienced, most of all, I want heroines I care about.

What would a year on AARList be without a thread about profanity in romance or about the use of euphemisms versus the “P” word? Kay is sick of profanity in romances, but others, such as Karla, think that profanity is fine as long as it fits the character and the tone. As far as the “P” word goes, down with euphemisms such as “lance” and “sword.” Ouch! We have a couple of votes for c_ck, and two who are sick of c_ck. Jessi wishes the authors would use words the characters would actually use instead of whatever’s “in vogue.” I’m all over the board on this one. I hate phrasing like “his mighty lance” and “her silken sheath”, and disagree with the argument that romance readers prefer/preferred terms like “manhood” and “rod” because they could pretend they weren’t reading sex scenes. In some stories the “P” word and the “C” word (both of them) would be really out of place, and “manhood” and “rod” better fit the style. In others, only the slang terms suit the story.

In addition to euphemisms, other kinds of writing styles attracted attention. Karen W says, “An author has to be egregiously bad in order for me to even notice their writing style, at least to the point that it would bother me.” And she’s not alone. Most readers found that the story was more important than the style. On the other hand, while style usually isn’t enough to make her dislike a book, Varina find that a good writing style is “like icing on an already fresh, moist cake.” And there are some cases where the writing style became a distraction for her. Generally, the story is more important than the style to me. But sometimes there are some stylistic problems that just get in my way. Awkward sentences are the biggest offender. If I keep stopping to try to figure out what the author means, forget it! Dull writing is even worse. One stylistic “glitch” that several readers hated was authors comparing a character to a celebrity. Peggy B sees it as cheating and lazy writing. Or as Ann puts it, “Lazy writer. Bad author, no biscuit!” I had to smile at this because it reminded me of the Father Koesler mysteries by William X. Kienzle. I used to love these stories, but I got sick of hearing Kienzle refer to the way Father Koesler looked like Ken Howard of the TV show The White Shadow. By the time the books had been in print for a while, the series had been off the air for years. Many newer readers probably asked “Who’s Ken Howard…what’s The White Shadow?”

Glitches in stories were another item for discussion. As on our boards, AARList members are annoyed by grammar and spelling problems. Kay was bugged by continuity errors such as a hero who takes off his shirt only to still be wearing it several paragraphs later. This reminds me of the scene in Pretty Woman where Julia Roberts’ character picks up a croissant, but when the camera looks at her again seconds later, she’s eating a pancake. And she still looks so thin! While not specifically mentioned on AARList this year, Marianne Stillings’ still-infamous F review of To Tame a Renegade by Connie Mason was discussed on our Reviews Message Board not long ago for this sort of error. In her review she wrote: “I knew I was in trouble when, on page 3, Chad Delaney rode ‘his spirited black stallion down the rutted road, noting the vast number of saloons on the main drag.’ Then, on page 6 – three pages later! – Chad ‘patted the big gray gelding, his favorite…’ Not only a horse of a different color, but somewhere on that trip down the main drag, poor horsy lost some very important body parts! I can certainly see why he was no longer so spirited.”

On the Internet you never know what topic will burn up the threads. When someone mentioned e-book editing, the controversy heated up. Sarah complained about bad e-book editing and set off a firestorm, and the flames only got hotter when it turned out that she was a new e-book author herself. Like any good controversial discussion, this one also brought out the best in people. A number of list members helped Sarah by sharing information and giving her encouragement. Thanks to posters such as AngieW, list members learned about the editing process that some e-books go through. (It’s only on the best lists that heated discussions end up being educational!) As an e-book fan, I’ve come across typos in e-books, but I think the situation seems to be improving. That view isn’t necessarily shared. Another list I’m on, for those who read , and write, e-books (Fictionwise), is currently going through an e-book typo complaint thread.

Sometimes a glitch for one person can be a plus for another reader. First person POV is the red-headed stepchild of romance. While some people love it, many hate reading romances written in the first person. Both Peggy B and Peggy S dislike romances in the first person. Peggy S finds sex scenes written in the first person to be “completely ludicrous”. Falcon likes Joan Wolf’s first person romances but thinks most writers can’t write in first person that well and that “first person limits the depth of the character’s insight.” Like Falcon, I’m in the school that thinks you can successfully write a romance in first person, but it’s harder than it looks. I’ve read many a Gothic romance ruined because they were narrated by really boring, insipid heroines. Shelly might be one of the exceptions to the rule because she likes the way first person adds an extra layer of mystery to the romance, and Terry likes the way it can add depth to characterization. Author Eve Silver also likes the way being in only one character’s head mimics real life.

Periodically I will ask list members how they feel about the term “wallbanger”. Although the very first wallbanger discussion on the old Prodigy Romance List was a terrific one – with readers and authors willing to engage in some terrific discourse – more recently some members (readers and writers alike) have admitted that they object to the term “wallbanger”; for them the term is offensive because it is cruel to the author. Furthermore, they argued, just because you hated the book, that didn’t mean someone else might not like it. This was particularly sad to me because AARList used to be more open in discussions about topics like this, but over the years the term became politically incorrect.

This year, though, when I asked about wallbangers, authors and readers alike had no problem with the term – and no problem telling others why they hate a book. Hurray! We’re back! Instead of tip-toeing around the term, this year frustrated readers were out in force. Generally a forgiving reader, Mellanie is no stranger to wallbangers, which she defines as “a book that leaves me so frustrated that I could shred paper with my teeth.” I agree with Mellanie, though her metaphor makes my gums hurt. Some people think of all bad books as wallbangers. To me, a book has to be bad in a “special” way to qualify. It can be a book that is well written but makes me angry because of a flaw in the plot or a nasty character, or it can be a book that keeps me reading even as I loathe it for some reason. Author Eileen Wilks defines the wallbanger as “a book that succeeds in one sense – it elicits a strong emotional reaction – and not the one the author intended. It’s a book that draws me in, then boings me back out, often repeatedly.” What frustrates readers ranges from skanky villains to historical errors to improbable plots to contrivances. My wallbangers get flung against the wall because the heroes do something nasty to the heroine. One thing we all agreed on was that wallbangers are memorable, even if we wish we could forget them.

The flip-side of wallbangers are books we like so much that we re-read them. If she likes a romance enough, Shelly will keep it for rereading. Re-reading lets her concentrate more on the writing and character while giving her that feeling of revisiting a comfortable place – “kind of like going home for Thanksgiving minus the calories.” Dolly doesn’t re-read books too often, but she will listen to the audio book versions of books she has enjoyed in the past. Because she knows how the story will turn out, she can experience it again without having to worry about the setbacks the characters experience. Like Dolly, I’ve used audio books to relive stories that I liked, from Lois McMaster Bujold books to A Midsummer Night’s Dream and The Phantom of the Opera. Karen W has found that the books she re-reads aren’t necessarily the ones she enjoyed the most. Sometimes a flawed book makes a better reread because it is a comfort read with likable characters, while most other books only frustrate her when she tries to read them again. LinnieGayl, one of AAR’s pollsters, turns to Nora Roberts and Julie Garwood when she needs a comfort read and re-reads selected scenes from Susan Elizabeth Phillips when she needs a lift. I keep Lois McMaster Bujold and Theresa Weir novels around just in case I’m in the mood. On the other hand, I must like living on the edge because I succumbed to … I guess you’d call it nostalgia… and recently started re-reading Flowers in the Attic, which is about as far from a comfort read as you can get. Not every reader enjoys re-reading a comfort read, however; Karla tried re-reading some of her favorites and found that she was disappointed because she knew how the stories would turn out.

Sometimes, the busiest topics are about publishing, marketing, and bookselling. When a story came out about a “sting” where someone sent prize winning novels to publishers, only to get rejection slips, many readers expressed their frustration at publishers. (If they reject V. S. Naipul, who else are they rejecting?)

I was less than impressed with the experiment. Similar experiments have been done before and the problem is that to an editor may believe that the manuscript is being sent by a plagiarist. What would an editor do if they received a thinly disguised copy of a famous story in the mail? This happens more often than we realize, and editors do usually recognize the attempted plagiarism. When they respond with a form rejection, it’s often because they’re afraid of setting off a potential kook. Publishers also came under fire during the Opal Mehta plagiarism case, where a Harvard undergraduate’s hotly anticipated novel, How Opal Mehta Got Kissed, Got Wild and Got a Life, turned out to include multiple passages lifted from books such as Megan F. McCafferty’s Sloppy Firsts and Second Helpings, and even some from Meg Cabot’s The Princess Diaries. Many readers wondered what part the publisher played in this, not to mention the book packager. Did the publisher pressure a young writer into accepting a contract before she was ready to publish a novel? Was there a ghostwriter involved? And why aren’t publishers giving more attention to less photogenic but better authors?

E-books were discussed in conjunction with threads about publishing, editing, and so forth, which may be a sign that more readers are opening up to the world of e-books. My own e-Bookwise is almost always in my purse. Several posters eagerly talked about the new Sony e-book reader, before it was on the market. I can’t wait to see what the future of e-books holds!

Marketing and promotion became a surprisingly popular (and sometimes controversial) topic on AARList this year. Author Pamela S. Thibodeaux asked for opinions on blogging and newsletters, and boy, did she get them. Lots of helpful – and impassioned – replies. Later in the year, in typical AARList fashion, a controversy about promotional posts turned into a nifty discussion about weird promotional tips and whether they actually work. I was fascinated to learn that tips that sound silly on paper (such as handing out your bookmarks to waiters) can actually work out well for authors. We also talked about “book trailers” and whether we thought they were a great promotional tool, or just a fun but expensive toy for authors to play with.

But don’t think that’s all we talked about. Other topics this year included dialect in romances, guilty pleasures, villains, audio books, Christian romances (what works and what doesn’t), characters who act true to their times, and what we’d like to se in paranormal and vampire romances. When it comes to books, we’re nothing if we’re not opinionated.

 Questions To Consider:

  • Do you like stories about heroes who aren’t physically perfect? Or are you firmly in the “Don’t mess with the heroes” delegation? If flaws are OK, are there some that are OK (scars, a limp), while some you could never imagine in a romance novel hero (middle age spread)?
  • Oh, God, not another question about virginity. Do you often roll your eyes when you see the convoluted steps used to preserve the virginity of the heroine? Or does that depend on the story, author, setting, etc.?
  • Are you a fan of the “P” word over terms like “manhood”? What about outright slang, such as the “C” word (both of them), and for that matter, the “D” word? (I can guess there will be one poster who objects to that one!) Are there some euphemisms that are OK while others you can’t stand. (For example, member is fine now and then, but no “mighty lances” please.)
  • Do problems with writing style throw you out of the story? Or do you notice the style only when the story itself is flawed in other ways? What types of stylistic problems throw you out of the story? Also, what glitches throw you out of books? There are web sites that collect “film flubs” – can you think of similar flubs in romance novels? Also, have you had problems with editing in e-books?
  • Do you like first person, or does it send you running for the hills? Do you find first person acceptable for other genres but annoying as all get out for romance? What about love scenes in the first person?
  • Do you think the term “wallbanger” has become politically incorrect, at least to some readers and writers? Or are we ready to admit that sometimes, a book is wallbanger?
  • Did you keep track of the “Opal Mehta” plagiarism case, or similar cases, including the copyright infringement cases we’ve covered at AAR (Janet Dailey/Nora Roberts, Gina Wilkins/Gail McFarland, Cindi Lewis/Linda Turner)? What do you think of the way those cases are reported in the media?
  • Marketing and promotion is a huge part of romance novels on the Internet. While some authors have come under fire for their promotional efforts, most avoid upsetting people. What are the most memorable promotional efforts (both good and bad) you have ever seen, on-line or off-line?

Anne Marble

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