Monday, May 08, 2006

Likelihood of Failure? Too High

The other day the thought occurred to me that, maybe, I was making things too hard on myself. Here I was, knee deep in world building and developing a village's worth of characters and trying to interweave the plots and subplots of half-a-dozen hero/heroine pairs, when I began to wonder if maybe I should Keep It Simple, Stupid.

Maybe I should start with something more basic. Boy meets Girl. Boy and Girl have issues that keep them apart. Boy and Girl overcome issues and live Happily Ever After. All of it set in today's real world. All of it told without convoluting the picture with brothers and sisters and best friends waiting in the wings for their own stories.

Maybe, what I needed to do, was start with a category romance. Two points of view, max. A sweet (or at least a little spicy) story that centers around one couple and a fairly straightforward problem. Guidelines from the publisher that keep me in line. Something...simple.

Not that writing category romances is simple. There is nothing simple about taking the same old worn out tired plot and stock characters and finding a new, fresh way to employ them, all within a word-count limit that I think of as more of a novella length than a true novel. When it's done well, the category romance is a sight to behold.

But, let's face it, part of the appeal - and demands of the publishers - of category romance is that they follow a straightforward path with jogs and bends that are a bit softer than the single title. Too, the very word limit keeps a writer like me from wandering off the road to explore all kinds of tangents. To write a category romance, you pretty much have to stick with the story at hand. They don't suffer rebels well.

Except, I'm generally not a big reader of category romance. I'm a fan of the more complex, the sub-plots and extra characters and the sweeping worlds you only find in single titles.

And...big admission here...I don't seem to have much luck in regards to quality when it comes to the categories I pick up.

Case in point. I went on line and made a list of all the series lines in Harlequin's and Silhouette's stables. List in hand, I trotted off to the UBS to stock up on a handful of each so I could do some research. Would I be more of a Silhouette Intimate Moments gal (which seemed to be the obvious choice since Suzanne Brockmann's Tall, Dark and Dangerous series SIMs are some of my all-time favs of any genre) or maybe I'm the Harlequin American Romance kind. What, exactly, is the difference between a Harlequin Romance and a Silhouette Romance? And why are the Super Romances super? Since I'm not a big reader of any specific line, I figured maybe I just needed to jump in and find one I really liked, and there I might make a home.

OT - does anyone else notice how the graphics on the eHarlequin website of all of those couples look much like the couples in ED advertisements?

My local UBS has an entire wall of category romance. Granted, it's stuck in the back of the store, through the door that leads to the stock room. Some of the wall was blocked by the towering bags and boxes of books recently dropped off, and I didn't have the guts to go so far as shift stuff around to help myself. In fact, I'm never even sure if I'm really allowed to go back there in the first place unless I have some kind of special access authorization, like the owner of the store only lets her very best most favorite customers see what she has to offer in the way of category. But since I had a mission, I risked it and stood in the stock room eyeing the booty before me.

I was immediately struck by the number of "secret babies" and "virgins" and "brides" that seem to populate the genre. I knew they were out there, but until you see probably a thousand books all in one place, a good 80% of them with either baby, virgin or bride or some combination of two or all of the above in the title, you don't realize how much of a cancer these themes have become.

Since I have no intention of writing about secret babies or virgins or brides (or billionaire Greek/Italian/Texas/Businessmen tycoons), I immediately passed by any with such a title. I tried to look for names I recognized (do you know how many different people write category romance? I had no idea) and general themes that appeal to me - ex-Spec Force guys, tortured pasts, rescue scenarios, friends into lovers, that sort.

I walked out of the UBS with only five books. Because frankly, the whole thing was just too overwhelming for my tiny brain to fathom. Plus, I'd brought the dog with me and could hear her barking up a storm in the car, embarrassing me to no end.

I came home, plopped down in front of the laptop and logged on to AAR to see if the titles I'd chosen had been reviewed. Just curious since I'd chosen these five pretty much working blind.

And here's the reason I don't buy category romance. Of the five books I'd selected, three of them had earned a 'D' grade, two of them flat out 'Fs'. Normally, I won't let a low grade stop me if I really want to read the book. But reading the reviews and the flaws pointed out by the reviewers as reasons for the low grades, my hopes sank immediately that it just might be a matter of personal preference. These books had serious flaws, not just an irritating quirk that irked that specific reviewer but might not bother me a whit.

Out of over 1,000 books at my fingertips, I'd selected five that avoided my hot buttons and should have appealed to my reading preferences, and not a single one of them came recommended in any sort of way. Granted, I was shopping in a UBS, which by it's very nature implies that the books you'd find there aren't necessarily keepers. But come on. Five out five given a failing grade by those who are supposed to like category romance as a genre? This experience completely confirmed my overall experience with category romances I've bought off the shelf in bookstores.

And it solidified my reluctance to read in the genre. I'm not sure what I'm going to do with the recent five I've acquired. I still need to do that research (sort of), so I may give them a shot. But with all my other TBRs plus the gazillion other things I have to do, it's not looking good.

The quality of category romance is simply too hit or miss for me. Unless, like Brockmann, it's a proven entity, I just do not see risking my time and money on an unknown because the likelihood that I'm going to be disappointed is just too great.

Again, not to dis the writers of category romance. It's not an easy gig. And I don't think the publishers make it any easier. I have no idea if it's a matter of the high demand leading publishers to accept less than stellar work, or if my expectations are just too damn high. But when the chance that anything I select will rate a D or F is near 100%, I'm just not very motivated to try and try again to find a winner.

It reminds me of those crane games you find at restaurants and pretty much everywhere they think kids will be bored and try to sucker their parents into giving them a couple quarters. You know, the game where you steer the giant claw-on-a-chain until it's poised over the prize you want, usually the only cool stuffed animal in the massive plexiglass box. Then you hit the button, the crane drops the claw which grasps wimpily at your object of lust only to grab air before moving back into position to await the next sucker. It keeps your 50 cents and you walk away with the burn of disappointment in your belly. I try to explain to my kids that you might as well take your 50 cents and drop it down the sewer drain because the likelihood of losing that game is pretty much guaranteed.

I kind of feel that way about category right now. Unless it comes highly, HIGHLY recommended or is someone I've come to know writes very well via their blog (and I do have a stack a mile high of TBR categories by writers I know via their blogs, which I expect will be very good), it's just not worth the risk to come up with nothing but air and a bitter disappointment.

Which, I guess, means I shouldn't consider writing category. If I don't want to read them to do the research to find out how, then I don't have much of chance of succeeding in writing them.


Sandra Richards said...

You know what? If you had to go out and buy a category romance in order to know if it's what you might write as opposed to single-title, it's not for you at all!

And I agree about the "Virgin Bride's Secret Baby" types stuff. There's so much of it that, in the end, it all sort of blends together into a grayish oatmeal bleh.

However, if your description of your plot isn't flip, I also suggest perhaps you do need to simplify. That doesn't mean writing category! It just means--unclutter that plot. Knock it back to the bare bones of the relationship, and, since it seems you're writing something that might have paranormal elements, take it one major love story, one major adventure, and two smaller love stories as sub-plots at a time.

That's not shrinking it down to a formula, because every relationship is different, so every novel is different. We all know they fall in love, that's why we read romances. But the how is what makes us curious. We all want to see how someone else does it. We all want the hope that it'll happen to us, or that our happiness isn't a fluke and the world can become happier one couple at a time.

I write paranormal-fantasy type stuff, with some historical tossed in, myself. I've tried to pick up Desire and other Harlequin imprints. Ew. I've been disappointed. There's not enough room in those skinny novels for the beadth I crave from a book. Some of their newer lines--HQN and Luna in particular--have the word count high enough that it's not an issue. But in the main, I avoid Harlequin unless it's a colleague's work and I'm reading them to be able to talk to chat with them about the book.

I will leave you with this, however. Last weekend Los Angeles Romance Authors, my local chapter of Romance Writers Of America(R), had its 20th anniversary luncheon. We had a guest speaker--an editor from a publishing house that specializes in romances. She point blank said that if a writer keeps on writing, submitting and trying to get published she will eventually be published because she believes that good books will be published.

So, no giving up on your single-title. Just do what's right for the story. Use your gut and your smarts. "Think it. Write it. Sell it." D'Anne Avener, a friend and colleague.

Lynn M said...

Thanks for the excellent advice!

Honestly, I kind of felt like I was missing something. The fact that categories make up such a huge market, that so many people read them, seems to me that there is something appealing about them. However, other than a handful, I'd never found anything that kept me interested. Again, not that all categories are bad or anything, just that I seemed to have the most awful luck in picking out winners. And after you go through a handful of disappointments, you tend to become prejudice and determine that they all must be the same way.

As for my writing, from the get-go I assumed I'd be a single-title writer. I'm with you on needing the depth only permitted in single titles, not to mention my desire to move outside of certain category restrictions (word count and use of specific language to top the list).

But after spending the last year knee-deep in the writer blogosphere, I was beginning to think I was going about it all wrong. Like, perhaps I needed to start small - categories, which are fairly straightforward as opposed to complex - and move up as I became experienced.

But I see what you are saying. If I have to force myself to read them, then I certainly wouldn't have much success in writing them.

Sandra Richards said...

Hey, Lynn, you write what you write. And you tend to write what you're already reading. My folks were charter members in the Science Fiction Book Club. The first full-on novel I read was A Wrinkle In Time and I picked up a Victoria Hold gothic called On The Night Of The Seventh Moon in high school. All have paranormal elements, if not full-blown hard science fiction/fantasy backgrounds. The likelyhood that I'll stray too far is down to just two chances: Jack and sh*t. And Jack left town.

It took learning how to plot the details ahead of time and really plan it out to get my aimless expanding first novel under control page and word count wise.

I read your profile, and I didn't see a website. Are you a member of Romance Writers of America(R)?

Lynn M said...

Actually, I'm not yet a member of RWA. At this point, I feel like I'm not ready yet. Until I've completed a manuscript that I feel really good about, I want to wait so I can get the most out of all RWA has to offer. At this point, I'm afraid I'd feel like some kind of poser if I started going to meetings, like far too much of a writer-wannabe than an actual writer!

I know. I know. It's all about going over the hurdles. ;)

Sandra Richards said...

Lynn, Lynn, Lynn! You're right, you're not ready. You are beyond ready. You are not a wannabe. You write, therefore you are a writer. A writer writes!

If you're waiting for a sign that you're a writer, go to MS Word, orient your page to landscape, and in the largest most god awful font you have on your little compy type this:


Hit print, then tape it up near your computer so you can look at it always.

And joining RWA(R) was the best business decision I have ever made. Between networking opportunities and friendships, industry information(sometimes changes come within minutes), and the education about how to do everything from pre-writing and writing to the writing life to the business of writing, it's the best bang for my buck! I've not only learned a lot about improving my writing skill set, I've met authors of all sorts in all stages of their careers and can ask anyone of them a question and get a reliable answer. I have a wonderful set of critique partners who have helped me immeasurably as I improve my writing.

I joined RWA in December 2003 with barely 60 pages writen. I finished my first single-title manuscript in late 2004, queried an agent, and, though I was rejected, it got me RWA PRO status--which means that I get early jump on the appointments with editors and agents at RWA's National Conference. I also get access to online e-mail loops and a special PRO Retreat at National conference--all with further instruction in all facets of writing and publishing. And they give you a nifty pin, too.

I can understand that you might think your novel needs help before you show it to an agent or publishers. Gods all know mine was pathetic with a capital "P." But right now, the first three chapters and synopsis are on the desk of an editor at Dorchester publishing. I owe all of this to two things, sticking my butt in my seat and writing, and being a member of RWA(R).

**steps down off of her soap box, smiles** Okay, shameless plug over with.