Like some of the other ladies on the blog, this year I was a judge for an RWA contest, the RITA. I was tasked with reading seven published books in different contest categories (read: not competing against each other) and given approximately two months to complete and score them. Easy peasy. I would read one contest book per week, record my scores online, and be done in plenty of time.
Er…Um…Well, you know how it goes. I got behind on writing here, picked up books off my TBR pile there, got distracted by a shiny object across the room, and the next thing I knew, I only had two weeks left to read all seven of my entries. Goal: seven romance books in seven days, with a week of wiggle room. Outcome: seven books in ten days. Deadline, schmedline. I finished with four days to spare.
Because I’ve always read in diverse genres and like to mix it up, I’m not sure I’ve ever read that many books in a row in romance or any other single category. This unusual (for me) approach to reading allowed me to compare and contrast the books as a reader and as a writer. Three of the books were quite good. If I’d been reading them in the wild, I would have stuck with them and probably given up some sleep and, for one or two of them, possibly even some writing time to finish the stories. A fourth was also good and I would have finished it, but it would have taken me a few days and several reading sessions to do so. A fifth was just ‘meh’ for me, and absent the requirement to read it for the contest, I might have wandered away from it if I’d had another book waiting. (And honestly, who doesn’t always have another book or ten waiting?) As for the last two books, oy! They would have been DNFs for me if I’d had a choice.
Following are my top takeaways from going all romance, all the time, for seven books and ten days, starting with the good, moving to the bad, and ending with the ugly.
What I Loved
Romance writers aren’t writing relationships in the #MeToo era perfectly, but many are doing a damn fine job. I was so glad that, in the seven books I read – even in the ones I didn’t like – I didn’t get a squicky feeling about a single one of the heroes. Across the subgenres – historical, suspense, Western, and borderline erotica – the sex was consensual and no one was slut-shamed. That’s not to say there were no era-derived consequences. In one of the historical books, a gay couple had to take great care with and at times put themselves in danger because of their love in a time when they could have been put in prison for it or worse. But the love interests treated each other with respect, which made me believe there was hope for their long-term HEAs.
Romance writers are an evocative group. Details. Oh, the beautiful, world-building, scene-setting details. I don’t mean visual or other sensory descriptions, use of which varied considerably among the books I read. I mean taking us deep into characters’ thoughts and emotions with character- and story-specific language and frames of reference. As readers, we don’t come to stories just to see or smell the characters’ worlds; we come to feel them. Several of the romances I read did a beautiful job of putting me right in the midst of the emotions.
What I Didn’t Love
Deja vu all over again. Either I normally read really short books, my attention span shrank significantly in the days before I started reading the entries, or some of these books could have been edited to get to the point and the HEA a LOT faster. Two of the books I read were close to 100 thousand words, which is long for genre fiction these days. But only one of those two made me feel like it was taking forever to get to the point. The difference? The one that stalled had multiple scenes with the same stakes and outcomes, and taught the characters the same lessons.
In the ‘meh’ book I read, which was one of the two very long stories, the plot moved forward with most scenes and stakes changed and rose at a reasonable pace. But the characters’ internal thoughts – and this being romance with all the emotion it evokes, there are a lot of passages of internal thought processes – didn’t keep up with the changes. Instead of seeing incremental evolution, or even a-step-forward then a-step-back change in the characters’ thoughts about each other and their potential relationship, we saw the same thoughts often verbatim, in scene after scene and act after act, until the final complete 180-degree turn they both make in the final act.
This problem came down to pacing and hewing to the narrative thread of the story. Unless a story is built on a patterned structure that is by definition repetitive (these books were not), each scene should move us closer to the goalposts and show us the characters’ emotional evolution along the way, lest readers get bored and wander away.
What I Hated (aka You Just Threw Me Out of the Story)
I get the feeling the hero/ine doesn’t want to be here. In one of the ‘I wouldn’t-have-finished-it’ books as well as the ‘meh’ story, at least one of the romantic leads didn’t seem particularly interested in being there. The ‘meh’ book was a reunion love story, but while character a pined (and had been pining for years) over character b, character b seemed totally disconnected. That’s okay in the beginning, although I would have liked to have seen some sort of spark from character b from the jump, but by the midpoint of the book, I needed b to feel something beyond vague nostalgia. By the end of the book, I did not believe the couple would stay together, because their feelings for each other would never approach equilibrium.
In the other book, character 1 needed character 2’s help with a problem that forced them to fake a relationship for a specified period of time. Aha! This is a well-worn romance path, but it can lead somewhere. But character 2 had no motivation to go along with the plan. In some scenes, 2 would think lascivious thoughts about 1, and then in other scenes, would go over the laundry list of reasons for not being attracted to 1. But this didn’t feel like a struggle that would lead to an emotional break-through, because the character never ruminated over these opposing thoughts at the same time, thus never showed an internal conflict.
Without strong motivations and deepening feelings drawing a couple together, the romance falls apart. If I get to the last page and think either one of them could get out of bed tomorrow morning and walk away from the relationship, inexplicable mind-blowing sex aside (because of course the couples have that going for them), I don’t feel like I’ve read a romance.
I can’t suspend my disbelief on that one. As an historical romance writer, I understand the difficulty of deciding which historical details to put into a story, which to leave out, and how to balance a making our romance leads familiar enough to appeal to the modern reader without turning them into a twenty-first century being. But when it comes to day-to-day details of life that do not impact the story, it’s better to stay silent on ‘icky’ things than to change them to try to fit our modern-day sensibilities.
For example, in a story set in Europe in the Middle Ages, if you don’t mention bathing, then unless a character gets covered in mud or horse dung, I’m not going to be fixated on when s/he bathed. But if you have one character complain that another smells after a few days without a bath, all I’ll be able to think about is how they would all ‘smell’ to anyone who showers daily because it’s likely none of them have bathed in a month! Even the casual historical reader will recognize that jarring anachronism.
The books I read for the contest are just a tiny sample size of the thousands upon thousands of romance books released each and every year. My data points are anecdotal and not statistically significant, YMMV, etc. But the stories are representative of the small but important subset of books in the running for RITA awards. And my observations from my week(ish) of romance book immersion echoed many of the trends I’ve noticed over the past couple of years in the genre. They also provide guideposts and caution signs for my own writing that I hope will help me keep readers in my stories, move them past feeling ‘meh’, and make them love the books.
What trends, good, bad, or ugly, have you noticed in the romances you’ve read recently?