Thursday, March 25, 2010

Does the Writing Matter?

I've been pondering this question for some time, wondering whether I dare raise it on my blog. Then I thought, what the heck. I'm not going to name names...

I've been writing, and hence reading, erotic romance for about three years now. I review for several official sites as well as my own. I do peer reviews. And I visit lots of my colleagues' blogs and read lots of excerpts.

I've come to the tentative conclusion that in this genre, an author's writing skill is far less important than other considerations in determining popularity and sales.

Sometimes I feel as though I'm reading the same book or the same excerpts, over and over. Same vocabulary. Same tired images. All too often I'm yawning by the second paragraph.

Then there's the head-hopping and the grammar errors and the factual inconsistencies. I find myself wondering how this author ever got published--or what her editor was doing instead of cleaning up the text!

Yet some of these authors have huge fan bases and sell many more books than I do. I'll be honest and admit that I find this annoying.

I am starting to believe that what matters in romance, more than anything else, are the characters. If the characters grab the reader, she won't care too much if the prose is of indifferent quality. The plot can be familiar, the resolution can be obvious, but this won't bother the reader at all if she really identifies with the hero and heroine. My theory is that romance readers are looking for that "love high"--the pure emotion that shoots through you when the hero and heroine (or the hero and the other hero) connect. Everything else is secondary.

Am I right about this? If so, then maybe the time I spend on crafting my sentences and searching for just the right words is wasted. I'd hate to think that's true, but maybe I've got to be realistic.

What do you think?

28 comments:

  1. Imho, as writers, we can't sacrifice craft, plot, creativity, character development, etc., simply to compete with someone who has online fans. If you're increasing your writing SKILLS, then you're not wasting your time. After all, we became writers because we love to write. (my 2 cents, anyway!)

    Lana
    lanagriffin.blogspot.com

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  2. Thanks for your input, Lana,

    I'm sure that you're right. But that doesn't stop me from feeling frustrated.

    Regards,
    Lisabet

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  3. I think the whole package is important and look for authors who deliver that for my personal reading. Not just character. Not just emotion. Not just plot. And I really do like a certain amount of grammar, punctuation, spelling, etc.

    On a recent blog I commented on, the discussion was about writing vs. storytelling, and I agree that some authors can get away with gross errors in writing, because they are such good storytellers. For me, storytelling would include characterization and emotional punch.

    At the same time, depending on who you are reading (author as well as publisher), you may be seeing cookie cutter books. I LOATHE it, and it galls me that so many publishers go for cookie cutter at the expense (in my opinion) of the breakout books.

    Then they wonder why they see trends of 'X is dead' or 'Y is coming back.' Because they didn't offer anything new in X, and they bored the readers to death! They haven't put out much of Y lately, so readers head there for something [strike 'new'] recycled. If they'd just handed over breakout books in both X and Y, they might keep the readers reading it. That's why indie presses can still sell (for instance) Regency in droves, when NY says it's dead. It's not dead. The simple economics of diminishing returns says cookie cutters will lose the interest of buyers eventually.

    Now...my horror story... I was reading excerpts on a publisher site (now defunct, thank goodness) and found two excerpts by the same author that were the SAME (word for word, save the character names involved). Sure, it was a sex scene, but if it's literally the same...wouldn't readers notice? How could they not?

    And my funny story... I try about once a year to break into NY. My problem? I've found that NY is not ready to embrace dark work in romance lines, and spec fic lines are not ready to embrace erotic romance in the spec fic mix. I recently shopped a book to NY and had three agents and an editor I admire all shy at the realism in the mix, after being forewarned that it was an urbanized fairy tale...urbanized...dark, gritty, real. That book sold to the first indie I showed it to, came out...has spent the last two months on the top 20 for that publisher (the first month in the top 5), spent two weeks in the top 10 erotic books on Fictionwise, spent an additional 2 weeks on the top 25...and is still in the top 100 today. Nope...no audience for that book, at all, I can see. Grinning...

    Brenna

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  4. Lisabet, I can sympathise with your frusration. I read/wite/review m/m romance an erotica, and yeah, writing skills somtimes seem to take a back burner. And no matter how hot the sex scenes, or how much I like the characters, I will not pull my punches in a review over poor writing and editing. Now there are a lot of talented writers out there, don't get me wrong, but I often wonder how it is that some writers out-sell others. It comes down to what so much of life comes down to: popularity contests, and I appologise now to my fans for when I get too busy writing to socialize and chat. It may cost me popularity votes, but I can't help myself. I really would rather be playing with words and teasing that perfect twist of a phrase out of my keyboard, but I'm just a geek that way. My RL friends grumble about my obsession, too...


    When I get frstrated over all this, I remind mself; I never started writing to make friends or get rich. The friends have been an unexpected blessing and the money, though not huge piles of it, is nice. I do this because it is as ncessary to me as sleeping, eating and breathing. It's so much a part of who I am that I can't imagine not doing it. It might be selfish of me, but truth is, I write and I work at it for me. Not for anyone else. I do it because it soothes me when I need soothing, calms my fears and brings me joy. If people want to buy my stories and read them, I'm not going to stop hem :) But that isn't why I write them, and it is't why I constantly strive to get better at it. That struggle for improvement is for me, too.

    So, if you are looking to be a top seller, then the craft is important, but so is the networking, and if that's important to you, that's what you should be doing. If you write because you need to write, then whether it translates to sales or not, doing it the best you can is where your focus shoud be. It's a different game for everyone, and what's important to you today might not matter so much tomorrow.

    Good luck, hon. And know that this m/m reader dosen't read just anyone's het romances... ;p

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  5. It is hard when you see an author who is out selling everyone and when you read an excerpt you wonder how the heck readers are getting through the whole book.

    I don't think you can point at the romance industry or the erotic genre specifically. There are some incredible authors with HUGE followings whose writing is layered and well done.

    I think it falls in the hands of the publishers who are willing to publish books that aren't ready for publication for one reason or another.

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  6. I'll tell you what I'm noticing and it horrifies me. It seems more readers are interested in how popular on Facebook and Romance loops a writer is and how much promo they do and how much swag they give out. Real writers just want to write, but in order to get noticed, you have to spend all of your writing time promoting and chatting. I just can't do that. I keep trying, but it's hopeless.

    But regarding the main thrust of your blogpost, I edited for a while and was horrified at the lack of original plot and dialogue. One of the very worst pieces I edited was so terrible and formulatic I spent hours writing comments and edits only to have it rejected by the author. I was pissed off and then guess what happens next? That story went on to win awards. Without a plot, with canned dialogue, and with two of the most predictable characters EVER. But the writer in question is all over loops and has contests every other day...so she wins an award for something an eight year old could have written.

    The end.

    Hahahaha - I'm not bitter; just wondering how the hell I can get people to buy my books if I'm not on forum boards hawking them and developing a following based on my contests, not my "content".

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  7. Maybe I'm a snob. Maybe it's that I tend to read many other genres besides erotica (I freely admit that I'd much rather read the more honest and explicit erotica any day over romance.)Maybe *that's* why I have unrealistically high expectiations when I read erotica. (And, as a result, why I am so picky about what I read.)

    To me, as a reader, writing matters. If the dialogue winds up being too trite, if the phrasing is formulaic or worse, full of poor grammar and poorer word choices, even the most original of concepts completely fails to turn me on. After reading one or two at the most stories by an author like that, I take them off my list of people to watch. I might be in the minority here, but of course I'm not speaking for anyone else.

    As a writer? Please take this with a grain of salt, because I've had exactly one story published so far and it isn't even out yet!

    But again, speaking only for myself as a writer, I *need* realistic dialogue, fun and interesting turns of phrases, and maybe even the silly little alliteration or two in order for me to love my own story. When I don't love my stories, I stop writing.

    If in any way this might happen to be the case for you, Lisabet, please please please don't stop loving your writing. I don't have many writers that I can follow with regularity and know that I'll get a good read.

    You're one of them.

    Don't ever stop.

    -Madeline

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  8. As a reader, NO! I'm interested in concept and writing style. If a writer has good style, then the characters are almost always good too. However, as a manuscript assessor and author, I believe it's the CONCEPT that sells. The high concept is vitally important. It might be a tagline, or a 25-word high concept (you might call it a log line). I've been about in the writing world for more than thirty years and it's taken me most of that time to get my head round the fact that what *I* love is not necessarily what others love. In fact, I lack popular taste. My favourite authors are almost never in published top 10s... why? Because I read for style and originality and many publishers AND readers really prefer the easily accessible and easily identifiable familiarity factor.

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  9. I'm sure this won't be a popular answer with most writers but here goes. In my personal opinion, too many authors try to get too skillful with their word choices. It's nice that you know big fancy words, but you have to realize that the average erotic romance reader is looking for an escape not an education.

    I've read romance books that are perfect in sentence structure and grammar but left me bored to tears. When I read a book, I want the words on the page to disappear. I want the book written in a simple manner while still getting the story across. If I come to a word that isn't used every day, it pulls me out of the story. Also, as a mother of two young children, I know how many times I get interrupted while trying to read a book. For that reason, I tend to write very short paragraphs. As a reader, it is so much easier to address those interruptions when I don't have to go back and figure out where the heck I was in my story.

    I also believe the characters are the most important element of a story. It doesn't matter how fantastic the plot is, if your reader doesn't care about the character, you've already lost them.

    I'm not saying plot and creativity aren't important, they are. I just happen to believe a good story doesn't have to be perfectly worded in order to appeal to readers. I was talking to an editor recently who told me she puts most submissions through a program that tells her what the reading level of the story is. Believe it or not, the most popular stories with readers fall into the 5th to 7th grade reading level category. It has nothing to do with the education level of a reader. Once again, I think it goes back to the ease of reading prompting an easier escape.

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  10. I agree - no surprise there - but then it's not just erotica or romance - there are many best selling mainstream authors who can't write for toffee either. or who don't get edited half as hard as they should.

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  11. Oh, Erastes! You are so right on that. One of my newest pet peeves are authors that have had editors switched on them. The books are fab, but the new editors are crap...not at all what a book and author of that calibur deserves.

    B

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  12. I think it depends on the reader, and what they are looking for in the book. But I think many would rather have certain types of characterization than a beautiful style, though they won't usually turn down the style if it goes along with whatever else they want.

    There's something in media fandom called the "bulletproof kink." If the story has your BK, you will at least start reading it, no matter how badly it's written.

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  13. As a somewhat picky reader and been told I'm a tough reviewer, I'd have to agree with you. I see reviews of books I thought were so badly written they shouldn't exist yet get rave reviews from readers that ADORED (with all caps) every part of it. I usually point out mistakes because I feel they shouldn't exist but a lot of readers tell me they just ignore them.

    I think even with the recent push to "legitimize" romance that readers still feel this is a guilty pleasure. Thus they almost accept low quality work because it's better than nothing. There is the flip side that Carol Lynne pointed out that a book can be stunning in it's language and yet attempt to be too literate with the high dollar words and bore readers.

    Yet I think authors that take the time to write a good book without cliches, without misspellings, or mistakes with names and so on should be applauded. Yet it takes the masses to stand up for quality to see it happen. Right now most are still so happy to have anything, they take the bad books as better than nothing.

    As a reader that appreciates well written books, please keep writing. It's not much solace but hopefully it's something.

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  14. Lisabet...Lisabet...Lisabet...you've brought up a topic that has plagued me for years, both personally and as a writer, so I am going to share this very sad truth with you...you (and me) sweetie, we are not like everybody else. And that does affect what people, aka readers, want to read. Your writing just breathes new life into every sentence. Mine, too. But I don't think 99 percent of the population gives a flying fuck about that. I remember getting my MFA and this one teacher would always have us write like some famous writer. And I would always just write like me! It pissed her off and frustrated me but I have to be who I am as a writer and as a woman. Stephanie Myers is rich...rich...rich and I don't think her writing is all that good or original. Same goes for that guy who does movies like Message in a Bottle. He goes for the obvious emotions and people love it. I just don't get it. I love words. I love originality. I gotta be me, I guess. Thanks for letting me vent!!! Mary Kennedy Eastham

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  15. Lisabet, one of the reasons I don't read erotica is because the few I have read for review were so poorly written, I decided I would not suffer through the explicit sex to read and review something I'd be hard pressed to review favorably.

    The pull of romance novels, and now erotica, is too much about the sex and not enough about story, character, craft, and use of language. I am very definitely of the old school where bedroom doors stayed closed.

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  16. Thanks so much to all of you for sharing your thoughts and your knowledge.

    Brenna -- "cookie cutter" is exactly what I am talking about. I think your comments about the difficulty in selling anything that doesn't fit into a nice neat genre box are all too true.

    Jaime & Robin -- Interesting, but I never really considered that "networking" and popularity were such a significant factor. You might be right. I'm trying to build an on-line presence but mostly because I want to know my readers and have them feel that I care what they think (which I do).

    Sally -- If it's the concept that is primary, why do I see so many books with the exact same concept?

    Carol -- I don't disagree with you at all. "Style" to me doesn't necessarily mean flowery metaphor and big words. It has to do with freshness, vitality of the words themselves, independent of the story and the characters. But maybe the story and the characters are what's really critical. One positive aspect of my writing romance has been that I think my sentences have become more direct and comprehensible and I've discarded some of my more academic habits. Certainly you are right when you say that the language should not get in the way.

    To all - thank you for a great discussion. I'll check back soon to see who else has joined in the chorus.

    Warmly,
    Lisabet

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  17. Agree completely. Some of the bestselling stuff I've read and/or edited could've been written by an 8th grader. It is something I struggle with for Coming Together. Do I accept the story (with its "indifferent writing") by a high-selling author knowing it will help us raise more money for charity? Or, do I hold out for the more literary erotica? I want both.

    I have often considered creating a pen name to use to mimic that "indifferent writing" in order to draw sales. I could be extremely prolific if I let go of the standards that slow me down. I just don't have the time/energy to mess with another identity. Besides, I've released some older material with far-from-enviable writing, flat characters, and no plot -- and I'm still not a bestseller. *grin*

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  18. As a reader, I like a balance of sympathetic characters, easy readability and pure entertainment value with well written prose that has that little extra something in terms of style. Doesn't have to be floweriness or fancy words and all that, just the odd flash of beauty or a kind of indefinable something that lifts the story and its characters and makes them even more appealing and even easier to warm to.

    As a writer, I aim for the above, although I'd be the first to admit it's sometimes a very tough goal and I don't quite achieve it.

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  19. Alessia -- Don't compromise! Anyway there are enough "indifferent" writers out there, as you say, without you wasting your time emulating them.

    I don't think that writing poorly is a requirement for popularity. I just suspect that in many cases the quality of the writing is irrelevant.

    Portia - I think you succeed brilliantly. As I indicated above, fancy words aren't what it's all about. Your characters live and breathe! Whatever you're doing, don't stop!

    Best,
    Lisabet

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  20. I don't think it's characterization, exactly--a poor writer can't do good characterization. But I think a lot of readers are looking for stereotypes--the 'bad boy' or whatnot--and as someone else said, if you hit the right kink it doesn't matter how bad the writing is. A lot of readers just don't care because they don't know bad English when they see it.

    There's also the promotion aspect. Each of us has 24 hours in a day. Those of us who spend more time trying to write really well are not going to get as much 'facetime' as those who dash off a formula and spend 75% the their time doing the Look! At! My! Hawt! New! Book!

    I've said it before--the best writers I know are modest about their work and lousy at self-promotion. The worst writers don't seem to know how weak their stuff is, or they don't care, or they figure they have to push twice as hard... and you'd think their stuff was Pulitzer material to read the promos... but the lousy grammar and typos always tell the truth.

    As far as the typos and bad grammar in the published volume are concerned--that's edit-fail. You don't need a degree in English, or even A's in High School English, to call yourself a publisher--all it takes is the ability to package a manuscript and negotiate the marketing system--and an 'editor' is whoever the publisher says it is. Some publishers seem to try to get qualified editors, many do not. I've had a 'reputable' editor change a word from something slightly original to downright cliche, for no apparent reason.

    I think this is part of what has kept the reputation of e-books below par. Yes, small presses give writers a chance to do books that have no appeal for the mega-production New York market... but they also produce the equivalent of fast-food writing. I've bought books by some of the best-known m/m publishers, and given up in frustration because if there was any editing done, it wasn't done by someone who knew what to do with an apostrophe.

    I don't think there's any solution to this. In the end, it comes down to how much pride you have in your own craftsmanship.

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  21. Great topic of discussion! As a reader there are things I look for and often many books find or hook me into reading them just by the blurb or buzz that may surround them, so I have to admit a good book buzz may weaken me. Often, I realize, that buzz does come from the internet. The last book I bought was an e-book, and it was the author posting her blurb that made me buy it. Publishing houses may go the extra promo effort on their movers and shaker authors, hatchling authors may have to rely on self, and wits.

    Does the writing matter? Yes, but there is such a diverse reader age base in many genres, too, that if a writer's style/voice includes use of certain words or phrases it can strike a generation connection in the reader. (Words like hottie, or hawtt vs handsome, gorgeous, beautiful; a sensual story vs a smokin' hot story :) etc...I think a reader will buy and read many, many books before finding a voice/voices that they connect with. Your book, or story, might be part of their journey along the way.

    Also, an editor has influence on how the finished, polished product looks, but if I don't agree with something, I'll state why, I'll ask may I do this to bring us closer to the outcome we want? Sometimes a publishing house has their own rules.

    One thing that helps remind me I'm a little author swimming around a sea of behemoths is that (not that I need reminding, lol) many behemoths started off as little fish fry, too. Shrug. Like Dory in Finding Nemo sings: "Just keep swimmin'...just keep swimmin'..."

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  22. Lisabet,

    I've had the exact same complaint during my tenure as an erotica writer. No matter how hard I work on crafting my story, which thoughtful turns of a phrase I include, or the number of inventive lexical reassignments I create, it seems there are no less than a dozen 'romance' or 'erotica' authors per literary trick whose abilities are sub-par. This disappointing reality is the very reason I even set my hand to penning the first successes I had in publishing erotica. Like many I'm afraid, I've had several things get published and not seen major major sales, likely because I don't repeat imagery or particular wordings (that's called plagiarism, after all), and I spend a great amount of time ensuring that I come up with something truly original. I think, however, that there is one simple reality about which this thread has yet to speak, and that is that I read some months ago and article by educational researchers (it was glaring at me from the Yahoo! front page, what could I do?) that social networking sites such as Facebook, Twitter, MySpace, as well as the rapid, unbridled, almost requisite for adolescence expansion of the blogosphere has caused a wholesale contraction of the lexical development and syntactical capabilities of the newer generations. In reality, what we may be seeing in our own writing genre, as is painfully evident across the vast breadth of printed (or online) text is, much to our detriment, the exposition of this very concept for the viewing public. Eventually, given a constant rate of evolution, the whole of American English may indeed pass throught he truffle reduction process and reach a point once predicted by George Orwell, where one simple, elegant word is capable of expressing the whole of human experience, thought, and emotion. Doubleunplusgood, that.

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  23. Just don't ever, ever ... ever use a sentence with passive voice. You can write "Lolita Potter Kills a Mockinbird" but if you dare to err with a single passive sentence you'll be black balled as a hack.

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  24. Greetings, Lee, Lelani, Don and M.,

    I wonder if it's a coincidence that some of the writers I admire most are the ones who share my concerns in this area. (I suspect not.)

    I suppose it's true that some readers have such poor English skills themselves that they don't notice sloppy writing. Still, a large part of the romance audience is women my own age, who predate (by decades!) the advent of the Internet and text messaging. I really can't believe that they are all semi-literate.

    Ithink Lelani's comment about certain words and scenarios inducing an automatic reaction (similar to Victoria's notion of "bulletproof kink") is well-observed. I find that particular scenarios that push my personal buttons will make me far less attentive to issues of language.

    A funny aside: I send text messages from my mobile occasionally, mostly because I find phone calls can be disruptive. But I cannot bring myself to use the kind of contractions that have become common. Even if it takes me twice as long, I HAVE to write "Are you free Tuesday?" instead of "R U free 2day?" The other day I steeled myself and started using text-speak, and I just couldn't follow through. I went back and changed to full words!

    Best,
    Lisabet

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  25. Lisabet, I'm with you on not using contractions in my text messages. I insist on punctuation too, otherwise I end up shaking my head at myself.

    I agree with a lot of what's already been said so won't repeat it. I think the only thing I can add is that many of the successful names that come to mind, and whose books I can't get through, are also extremely prolific writers. In the epublishing world success seems to be heavily weighted in terms of how many titles you have available. People like to be able to jump in and read a 5/10/20 book series. They don't like waiting while you spend months/years crafting something beautiful and that meets you own exacting standards. It's all about instant gratification and quantity over quality.

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  26. As a reader I want a story where I can lose myself. I don't want to be required to keep a dictionary beside me when I read. Yes, I like to learn but mostly I want to be entertained when I'm reading for pleasure. If the grammar and spelling are really bad then it generally means it's not a good story but if the grammar sounds like I would speak it, then it doesn't matter. Many stories are cookie cutters of one another. One excellent book comes out then everyone runs to copy that type of book. I've heard it said there are only 7 (or is that 11) original ideas and every thing else is a variation of them. If that's the case, then it's how the author spins the variation that determines how well I will like it. I hate books where the blurb is better than the story. I'm not looking for the next Pulitzer Prize winner but I do want a story with characters that make me care about them and a story line that takes me out of the every day world. I guess I'm not that fussy. But if I've read and liked you, you'd better keep your standard of quality. I always try an author twice. If the second time doesn't redeem you, I won't read you again. That's only happened once.

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  27. This is a great discussion Lisabet. I don't have much to add except that the growth in epublishing has I think resulted in poor editing and poor selection. The publishers are not discriminating enough. I'm not sure why since there are a lot of writers out their clamoring to be published.

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  28. Keziah,

    I'd say the opposite. The established indies are usually very discriminating (some exceptions but...). With longevity and a name, most of the indies are going to keep putting out quality work. I find the ones that disappoint me are usually the fly-by-nights. An established indie will usually take between 1 in 50 and 1 in 200 submissions...the latter with the ones that are getting 400+ submissions in a month.

    Brenna

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