Jilly: Not My Story

Not My StoryAre there some kinds of story that just don’t do it for you?

Several of the 8 Ladies entered the RWA Golden Heart contest this year (in case you missed it, Jeanne won 🙂 ), and last week we all received our preliminary round scores. Of course we immediately compared notes, and one thing that was common to all our entries was that one judge scored the story substantially lower than the others – in some cases astonishingly so. The highest and lowest scores are discarded, so the single thumbs-down didn’t affect our final placing, but it was interesting that out of five readers, we each managed to find one who did not respond favorably to our stories.

Golden Heart judges aren’t asked to provide comments, but I’ve entered other contests this year, and I’ve had a wealth of feedback from those, mostly helpful and sometimes not so much. Occasionally when a judge is asked a question like ‘would you keep reading?’ they’ll say something like ‘this story is well-written but it’s not for me.’ I always wish the judge would add a few words about why, but as a reader I know exactly what they mean.

Out of curiosity I spent an hour yesterday afternoon compiling a list of Not My Romance triggers.

In general I love great characters, intelligence, humor and community, but as long as I get my fix of that, I’m not picky about sub-genre. I read contemporary, historical, paranormal, romantic suspense and urban fantasy. I like the love story to be the central spine of the book, but I’m almost as happy if it’s a strong sub-plot. Either way, I have to be interested in the non-romance plot, too.

If I’m considering investing in a new-to-me author, I often browse the comments on Amazon to try to build up an impression of the story. Here are a few of the things that would be an immediate turn-off.

Erotica and Inspirational

I don’t read these two sub-genres at all, because they are by definition stories where the most significant part of the story’s emphasis will be on something that doesn’t engage me. I enjoy reading a well-written sex scene that’s emotionally important, I’m not particular about heat levels, and I like my characters to have a strong moral code, but these are books whose story promise is about physical gratification or spiritual redemption. Not my catnip.

Ensemble pieces

As soon as I read a blurb about three friends, or three sisters, or three neighbors, or whatever, I’m done. Firstly because when I read a book I want to invest deeply in one hero and heroine’s love story, not three inter-twined short stories, and secondly because typically the most important, over-arching story will be about the relationship between the friends/sisters/neighbors, and if that’s what I wanted to read about, I’d be browsing women’s fiction.

TSTL heroines

I dunno, maybe it’s the corporate refugee in me, but I don’t find ditzy heroines adorable. They frustrate and infuriate me and I spend the book wanting to slap them and tell them to sort themselves out. By the time they finally do, I’ve torn most of my hair out and my stress levels are stratospheric. And giving a gorgeous, intelligent hero to one of these airheads makes my brain melt. Sophie Kinsella is a brilliant writer, but I am not her reader (millions of women are, so I doubt she’s losing any sleep about it).

Plot Moppets

I don’t expect all heroes and heroines to be childless, and I’m not against kids in romantic fiction, as long as they’re interesting characters in their own right. If all children were as fun as Dillie in Jenny Crusie’s Welcome To Temptation, or Nadine and Ethan in Faking It, I’d eliminate this category, but I can’t stand them when they’re manipulative little plot vehicles. I love Susan Elizabeth Phillips, but I can’t bear Edward in Dream A Little Dream. I’ve read and enjoyed books by Elizabeth Hoyt, and I heard many good things about Darling Beast, but I didn’t go there because many of the reviews put such strong emphasis on the role of the heroine’s child. If I made a mistake, perhaps somebody would let me know.

Love Triangles

I want to know which characters to invest in and I want to spend the majority of the book making that investment. I don’t want to read scene after scene of the hero or the heroine failing to understand that they’re with the wrong guy or girl, only to see the light at the end of the book. And I don’t want there to be a credible alternative to the romantic relationship, for either character – there should be The One and no other. I have no idea where Stephanie Plum’s love life stands now, because I bailed out early in the Morelli/Ranger/Stephanie triangle (I doubt this breaking news will worry Janet Evanovich 😉 ).

The Big Mis

She believes he killed her father or ruined her family, based on something tenuous she overheard and despite all evidence to the contrary. He believes that she’s a slut because he saw her embracing a mystery man or repairing a ripped dress or whatever. Both of them leap to conclusions that create non-existent obstacles to keep them apart for an entire book and which evaporate once they finally talk to one another. Gah. No, thanks.

Love Is All

In the best love stories the hero and heroine have something else to work with, not just their personalities and attraction to one another. They have a goal, a mission, a problem, and they’re either tackling it together or they’re on opposing sides. Usually resolving this challenge, whether they’re saving the family home or saving the world, is what helps to foreshadow their happy and fulfilled future life together. If they have nothing going for them except chemistry, who cares? Not me.


I like to enjoy the journey as well as the outcome. If the story is emotionally powerful and sad, then that’s the feeling I’m going to take away from the story, even if it has a happy ending. I adore Loretta Chase’s books, but I’ll read Lord of Scoundrels or The Last Hellion a thousand times before I re-read Silk Is For Seduction. It’s a superbly written sad book with a happy ending. Pass.

I’m sure I’ve missed a few, and I bet there are honorable exceptions to the above on my keeper shelf, but just the handful of personal preferences I’ve identified here means that there are thousands of brilliantly written, wildly successful stories that won’t ever be the book of my heart.

The world would be a boring place if we all liked the same things. What are your triggers for book avoidance?

19 thoughts on “Jilly: Not My Story

  1. You hit all of my unenthusiasms, Jilly, the books where I pull the lever and they drop through the floor. And let me just say about Janet Evanovich and the Plum/Morelli/Ranger conundrum: it should be as clear as day that Ranger is the right guy, because he’s the one who strengthens her. He teaches her about weapons, builds her stamina by taking her out to run, gives her cars, gives her work, and watches her back. She resists those things because in this long-running series, she can have no character arc, so she sees Ranger as a “bad boy.” But Morelli infantilizes her, chuffs at her when she does something dangerous, and otherwise is not helpful. Drives me nuts.

    • I never thought about the Plum/Morelli/Ranger triangle that way before (it’s been awhile for me and those books), but you’re absolutely right, about Ranger and about that fact that if Stephanie did actually choose and change, the long-running and strictly-adhered-to series story promise would be broken.

      • I bailed on the Stephanie Plum series, as well. For all the reasons given here. And I totally agree on the Ranger thing. Plus, I found him vastly more interesting as a character than Morelli.

    • Yes, that’s exactly right, Kay. Even if she’s looking for the “father of her children”, Ranger would be a better dad, taking the kids as they are. Morelli would be a patriarchal asshat.

      I think I got to book 12 . . . Stephanie Plum needs to make some choices, and get with the program. The huge problem with doing that, though, is if the author doesn’t find established couples interesting. Does anyone remember the very old police drama, Remington Steele? Remington Steele was a cover identity for a woman detective so she could create her own agency (in more ways than one!) — clients didn’t mind working with a woman if she had a “boss man” over seeing her. But then one day, a con man came in and said HE was Remington Steele. And there was much chemistry and bickering and bantering to be had. As a teen, I found it impossibly romantic! Loved that show . . . but when they finally came together, a lot of the fun fizzled out, and the show was cancelled.

      Moonlighting had much the same problem, I think. Resolving the love story killed the chemistry.

      I wish it didn’t have to be that way . . . .

      • Michaeline, have you ever seen any of the Thin Man films? The characters are NIck and Nora Charles played by Myrna Loy and William Powell. They play a married couple who solves crimes, and the tone is humorous. The movies are uneven, some better than others, and not in a steadily descending arc, but the first one is good. It’s a good example, I think, of how you can have a married couple in fiction that has chemistry but also disagreements, although of course the disagreements aren’t serious. But the relationship really sparks.

  2. The Big Misunderstanding and the TSTL Heroine are my main “not my story” triggers. I’m not that fond of overly cutesy pets either, but that’s not a deal-breaker. For historicals, the hero who “knows what’s best for our heroine” even when she says “no” is a story killer for me. I enjoy Amanda Quick’s books, but there are a few that cross that line and are off the keeper-shelf.

    Stories where the heroine doesn’t have a boyfriend and needs to find a date for a wedding are getting close to making the list as well. I love Bet Me, but three of the last four books I read, as well as a movie I watched today, all had the date for a wedding theme. Enough already.

    • Yes to both of those, Elizabeth! One of the many reasons I love Jenny’s Crazy for You, is that it does such a great job of skewering the ex who knows what’s best for our heroine, even when she’s made it clear she wants something else.

      Wedding dates – exactly! It’s supposed to be cute and funny, but arm-candy dates for a wedding and pretend boyfriends in 21st century stories get me yelling at the heroine again (Bet Me excepted). I’m not phobic about fake engagements in historicals, but I wouldn’t rush to buy either – I think it’s hard to do anything new or interesting with it.

      • On a practical level – the date to the wedding thing – I subscribe to the etiquette rule that if you aren’t married or engaged (or lifelong partner types), you don’t take a date to the wedding. Most weddings these days are excruciatingly expensive. Whoever is paying for the princess’s big day is likely shelling out over $100/person. Unless you plan on giving them a check as a present that is worth at least as much as your and your guest’s meal ticket, leave the date at home (can you tell this is one of my pet peeves). Who wants a stranger at their wedding – all they’ll do is look back at pictures and say, “who the hell is that?”

        • Who wants a stranger at their wedding? Exactly. And you’re right about it being rude from a financial perspective too. Plus, if you’re a guest, it’s their day, not yours, so does it really matter whether you have a trophy boyfriend? Yep. That trope is definitely going on the list.

        • My father always told me that if I ever wanted to get married, I should give him a little notice, and he’d set the ladder up outside the window. Meaning, I should elope. I agree about trying to find a way to right-size, as they say, the expense and size of weddings: I’m all for the couple having a nice day to celebrate with friends and family, but you also have to balance the cost of a big day with what you could do with that money in your married life. Like buy a house, for example.

  3. I pretty much agree with you, although I don’t like most paranormal or urban fantasy (I could go into great detail about what I don’t like about these two). I’m okay with ensembles, as long as each character has their own book. I am reading Nora Roberts In The Garden trilogy right now and it has three women and each have their own story with a plot like and an overarching plot (there is a ghost – I can handle that kind of paranormal). I like ugly dogs (mutts) if they contribute to the story. NR has some great ugly dogs with personalities of their own (Tribute). And I hate The Big Misunderstanding or stupid conflict like “I refuse to love again so I will fight my attraction to you.” Those plots are idiotic.

  4. I don’t care for books with gratuitous violence. It’s why I gave up on the Outlander series. Too much really bad stuff happens to the characters that doesn’t move the plot along.

    The only thing that keeps me from finishing a book is bad writing, but the biggest thing that keeps me from being satisfied with a book is lack of character arc–that’s my reason for bailing on Stephanie Plum, even though I think Evanovich may be the best slapstick writer in the world today.

    And I loathe books where there’s a small child of four or so who’s a genius, so they talk and act as though they’re ten. If you need a character with the agency of a 10-year-old, then make her ten. Not sure why they do this–maybe because smaller kids are cuter and more engaging? I always walk away with the feeling the author knows doo-wah about kids.

    Nice job of putting me in a snarly mood first thing Sunday morning, Jilly!

    • Oops, Jeanne, but to borrow from social media – sorry, not sorry 😉 – the comments are interesting, and funny how many pet peeves we all have.

      I agree with you about the violence, though. It was my big problem with Outlander, and Nora’s JD Robb In Death series, too.

  5. I am definitely not your writer for WF, Jilly! I love to focus on friendship stories, and My Girls has three protags. You’re not alone, as one very high-level editor gave me lots of kudos and some elements of my manuscript, but said she just does not love ensemble casts. She might also dislike the way I wrote an ensemble cast and was being too polite to say it :-).

    Agreed about the big misunderstanding and TSTL. And re: TSTL, it doesn’t just apply to the heroine. If she surrounds herself with friends who are TSTL, I question her judgment and don’t invest in her story. There was a very popular vampire series a few years ago that was recommended to me, but I couldn’t get past book 1, wherein her best friend does stupid thing after stupid thing. I just wanted the protagonist to write off the friendship and let TSTL friend get eaten by a vampire, already!

    • The three-protag structure is hugely popular, Nancy, and writers like Nora Roberts use it with great success, so clearly there’s a large readership that doesn’t share my aversion 😉

      Totally agree about TSTL friends and families. That seems to me like a way for the author to sneak stupidity into the plot while protecting the heroine. Just because it’s not the main character, it’s still annoying and frustrating to read, especially if the heroine keeps compensating for other characters. Even Jane Austen – I can handle Lizzy Bennet and the saintly Jane, but I can’t take Emma and Harriet Smith.

  6. One trigger that I stumbled over (again) recently was the multiple love interest problem. In real life, I know a girl can like more than one guy at a time (heck, I was that girl!), and definitely find dozens of men sexually attractive. And in fiction, I can handle a love triangle. What I roll my eyes at is a fictional heroine who is scoping out every single guy.

    I think for me, when a girl notices a guy in a story, it’s a big clue to the reader that Here Is An Important Character. But if she’s admiring A’s tattoos, and B’s biceps, and C’s salsa-ing hips, and the cool caramel voice of D . . . . Just who is important here? Now, maybe if she does it all in one paragraph, so we know she’s a player, it can be OK. But if each one gets a moment of special, I think I’m being set up to pay attention when this guy next shows up in the story. And if he doesn’t show up in the story, then I’ve wasted brain cells remembering him.

    The other thing I don’t like is the feisty heroine who is feisty on general principles — her default mode is to misconstrue and criticize. If she’s feisty when she needs to be, that’s wonderful . . . although I’d call that plucky, I guess. I’m re-reading some Georgette Heyer this week, and Venetia is the kind of plucky gal I like. She knows what she wants. But Serena (hah! nothing serene about her!) of Bath Tangle is just feisty. It gets her in trouble, and yet she finds it very hard, even at age 25, to control her short temper. I’m in the middle of Bath Tangle, and I hope there’s a satisfactory ending. But I seem to remember finishing it the first time and thinking, “yes, that really was a tangle, wasn’t it?”

    • It sounds as though the A, B, C, D thing is setting up a bunch of hot guys for a series, and I’m more than fine with that, but the heroine has to single out Her Guy, and then realise that although the other hunks are smokin’ hot, they’re not for her. Then the reader knows who’s Mr Right Now and who’s going to get his moment in the spotlight later. Unless we’re talking erotica/menage, when the writer had better be giving the reader a totally different signal 😉 .

      I don’t remember Bath Tangle, which means it’s a Heyer I didn’t like so much. If it’s a Big Mis story, that explains it. I don’t care for Frederica either – stupid, beautiful sister and rampant younger sibling plot moppetry from what I recall. Never mind. There are so many wonderful Heyers that I tend to forget there are a handful that are Not My Story.

  7. Pingback: Elizabeth: That’s My Story | Eight Ladies Writing

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