At the Back Fence Issue #261

April 16, 2007 – Issue #261

From the Desk of Anne Marble:

Little Things Mean a Lot

Years ago there was a commercial in which a woman sang “Little things mean a lot” in a voice, so sickly sweet that I avoided listening at all costs. I think about that song when I read a book where the little things bug me. Some errors are like gnats. A few are annoying. Too many are so irritating I look for a new picnic spot. This brings me to my main point, while hot topics provide a lot of meat for discussion, it’s often the little things, seeming too small to mention, that drive readers nuts.

What drives me nuts? Lets look at a few stories I started and put aside recently. Bertrice Small’s Love Wild and Fair had too many “Dinnas” for my tastes. Dialect can pull me out of a novel faster than you can say “Dinna talk like that.” Amanda Ashley’s story in the Stroke of Midnight anthology started out with the line “Death carried a sword and rode a tall black stallion” and more of that kind of thing kept distracting me for as long as hung on.

 Shirlee Busbee’s Lady Vixen started out well enough with the heroine and her brother enjoying a special day. Then she woke up and remembered that her brother was dead, as were her parents. Yikes, it’s the “It was all a dream” plot! But none of these are dealbreakers, and in the right mood, I might be eager to try any of these again.

What annoys readers on AAR discussion lists? Little things that drive them crazy range from a hero with red hair to a heroine who wears glasses, to typos. What stops one reader won’t stop another. One reader might hate reading about bottle-fed babies. Another dislikes heroines who insist on breastfeeding. It can be the use of italics, or outright errors of the smallest kind. In an otherwise terrific Marsha Canham book, for instance – it earned DIK status from me here at AAR – a character plays a piece of music by Chopin more than a dozen years before the composer was born. Although it didn’t change my grade, the mistake did pull me out of the story.

Many readers are thrown out of stories with errors, particularly when those mistakes are made in their areas of expertise. I’m glad I’m an editor because the ins and outs of editing rarely crop up in romance novels. I’m never going to be thrown out of a romantic suspense novel because the heroine edits a journal article in half an hour when it should take her several hours. Unfortunately for librarians and lawyers, errors about libraries and the law are common. These mistakes drive many readers crazy. AAR’s Teresa hates errors about sign language, and boy, are they frequent! She loved J. R. Ward’s Lover Eternal but had to put the book down every time Ward mentioned American Sign Language (ASL), which was often. She added that it was hard enough to believe that John, one of the pre-transition vamps, was fluent in ASL even though he was in and out of foster care, but “then the Brotherhood learned ASL in about three months, maybe less. That’s like expecting us to believe that the Brotherhood learned fluent Chinese in three months, even though they were all busy fighting the Lessers.

Some of the biggest offenders are geographic errors. For AAR’s Sandy, errors about the city she lives in are a huge problem. Many stories are set in Washington, D.C. so this comes up a lot. I can relate because I was pulled out of a romance when the characters visited the “Baltimore Aquarium.” Unfortunately, that aquariam’s name is the National Aquarium in Baltimore. Yeah, it’s a small thing, but it still took me out of the story…would it have been so hard to check? AAR’s Kate was upset with an error involving Canada. In Katie MacAllister’s Hard Day’s Knight, a character travels to Hamilton, Ontario from Seattle, and when she gets there, she’s surprised by how warm it is considering how much farther north it is. A quick look at a map shows that Hamilton is actually farther south than Seattle. Whoospie!

Botanical errors drive AAR’s Ellen up the wall. “When the author has spring flowers blooming in the summer or some other botanical blunder I spend several minutes muttering at the book.” AAR’s Lea is also annoyed by floral errors, such as “descriptions of bouquets of flowers in which the array of flowers contained within can’t possibly be growing naturally at the same time.” (Sounds like a Thomas Kinkade painting!)

Language errors have become common. Shoshana hates stories with lots of uncorrected errors, such as typos. Mrs Fairfax also hates typos and continuity errors (such as clothing that changes color or wounds that appear and disappear). Teresa is being driven bonkers by misspellings, such as using “breath” instead of “breathe.” Or as Ellen points out…”It’s hearty handshake, not hardy handshake!”

Some readers are sensitive to errors in historical detail, including British aristocratic titles. AAR’s Blythe gets thrown by historical errors, such as “people taking the train to Oregon before there was one or people traveling by wagon train in the railroad era. Then there was the author who implied that Denver had one store, when it was a town of over a hundred thousand people at the time.”

Anachronisms drive readers crazy. Many readers hate it when modern terms appear in historicals. AAR’s Lynn hates historicals in which the women have chats that sound like something out of Sex and the City. And what about those anachronistic names? Names are a little big stumbling block for many fans. I once put a book down because I came across a Norman invader named Brian. How did a Norman invader end up with an Irish name? But I can put up with anachronistic names if a book is good despite the error. The Brian book did not make the cut.

Suzanna hates “Medieval Marilyns, Tudor Charlottes, pre-20th century Fionas, etc.” Androgynous names confuse readers. Ellen hates having to remind herself while reading “that the dude with the macho name is a lady.” She will never forgive Sandra Brown for having a heroine named Remy. As if gender confusion weren’t enough, fans of paranormals and SF/fantasy sometimes find themselves tripping over hard to pronounce names, or names with too many blasted apostrophes.

Writers sometimes fall in love with a particular word or phrase and reading it over and over again can become like fingernails on a chalkboard. KimberLab remembered a JAK book where the heroine was described as having “toast-colored” hair. Then the hero thought of her hair as being “toast colored.” But the last straw may have been when the villain described her hair as being “toast-colored” as well! When you mention overused phrases, Stephanie Lauren’s “ruched nipples,” are bound to come up. JennyM is ready to create a Bar Cynster drinking game. (“‘Cynster male?’ Drink! ‘Leashed power?’ Drink! Character ruminating in one-word sentences? Drink!”)

And what about writing style? Woodiwiss drove me crazy talking about the Brandon kept scowling darkly. He would scowl darkly, then have a dark scowl, then be scowling darkly again. What a ray of sunshine that Brandon was! Awkward phrasing yanks me out of a story like someone picking me up by my collar. And don’t get me started on books where characters whisper, murmur, shout and mumble constantly. I also hate onomatopoeia. Too many “booms” and “bangs” and “thuds” can make a book read like a bad children’s story.

Purple prose will pull Laurie out of a story, even if it’s just one purple line in an otherwise good story. A book she read last summer – and enjoyed immensely, btw – had one line of prose so purple she LOL while reading and then had her husband read it. He laughed too. Later on, after she finalized Blythe’s review of the same book, the two traded stories. Turns out Blythe too had her husband read the very same line of dialogue after LOL herself, and he was equally incredulous!

Laurie is also annoyed by stories that don’t have enough dialogue tags because she goes nuts trying to figure out who’s talking. Along those lines, AAR’s Vicky often finds body placement in stories to be a big stumbling block. “Since I am such a visual person, I am constantly running through me head the scene before me and if the author states that the hero is standing across the room looking out the window and then next is described as having his arm around the heroine, I go back to read where I missed him crossing the room. It bothers me if I see no bridge between the placements.” This drives AAR’s Lee crazy as well. She tries to figure out where everyone is standing and then tries to figure out how they got there.

While body placement gets in the way of some readers, others are annoyed by body parts. No, not those body parts. Many readers hate beards and moustaches, so much that when they read about a hero with facial hair, they have to keep stopping to picture the hero as clean-shaven. Others can’t get past heroes with red hair, virginal heroes, short heroes (shades of Randy Newman), or heroes who fall in lust in the first page or two. This is an area where one woman’s stumbling block can be another’s hunk. I don’t mind short heroes, being “undertall” (in Garfield’s words) myself. And I think a hero with red hair would be a nice change now and then. Yes, even if he has a beard.

Just as nobody agrees on what the perfect hunk looks like (or acts like), no one can agree on how heroines should appear. Some readers are knocked out of the story if the heroine wears glasses. Others are distracted by heroines with tiny breasts. At the same time, JennyM doesn’t mind heroines with small breasts but is sometimes forced to “suppress a tiny sigh” when reading about heroines with big breasts.” While certain readers come to a full stop when heroines spend a lot of money on designer products, plenty of others love reading about shopping sprees for designer stuff.

While a character’s appearance can make some readers stumble out of the story, a less expected distraction can be the way one smells. Cyl hates vanilla scents, so vanilla scents are a major distraction for her in stories. Nikki read a book where a hero smelled like pine. It made her think of cleaning products. Mint and musk get to some readers. Lee says “Although most of our historical heroes are enchanted by it, the smell of lavender reminds me of the disinfectant we used in our foyer after my son threw up.”

What about bad breath when a hero and heroine have sex in the morning before brushing their teeth? Or worse, what about body odors when they have sex in a jungle or a desert – often with bullets whizzing by their heads – when they haven’t washed for days. Yuck! And it’s less a bathing issue for AAR’s CindyS than those “morning rituals”; she can’t rid of the picture of a character going to the bathroom out of her mind’s eye.

What pulls you out of a story? Is it errors, illogical behavior, cloying scents, dated references, political opinions we disagree with, religion, PC stories and stories that aren’t PC enough, music you don’t like or that dates the author.? They pop us right out of a story.

All in all, however, it’s important to remember what counts. The best authors give us an experience so good it’s worth setting aside distractions and getting on with the book even if the hero has red hair, a beard, and morning breath and disagrees with us on every political issue!

Questions To Consider:

How picky a reader are you? Do you tend to gloss over small mistakes, or do they get under your skin? Do certain types of errors bother you more than others, and if so, which ones?

Are there small things in a romance that bother you even if they aren’t errors? Are you turned off by red hair, a moustache (twirling or otherwise), a certain body type, a clunky piece of dialogue, or a purple description, etc.?

How often do you notice an author’s politics creep into her story? Does this happen only when you share views…or oppose them?

Do errors in historical romances bother you more than those in contemporary settings? What about the reverse, and in either case, why?

Talk about some romances you liked a great deal – or loved – in spite of small errors or things that otherwise pulled you out of the story. Conversely, can you talk about a romance you didn’t like because of an accumulation of small things?

Anne Marble

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(AAR uses BYRON for its romance reference needs)