Disrespecting your reading audience 101

by Sunita

Recently Janet linked to an intriguing story in one of the daily news posts at Dear Author. A self-published author undertook an experiment, writing in a genre with which she was almost entirely unfamiliar (both as a writer and a reader), to see if she could sell well without developing an “author platform,” i.e., big promo push. She chose frontier/western romance, which I agree is underrepresented.

A commenter at DA said she was willing to buy the book to see what kind of review it would get, and I decided to download the sample and see how it was.

I opened the first chapter, which announced that the book was set in 1875. So I was surprised to find the heroine and her mother returning to their brownstone on the Upper West Side of New York City, where they had lived all the heroine’s life (i.e., since the 1850s). They weren’t just pioneers, they were before their time!

This isn’t a big error; lots of authors compress historical periods to make a bunch of things happen together for fiction’s sake. It drives me crazy but I know most readers don’t mind and I’m used to it. But the mishits just kept coming.

(1) The heroine’s family is moving to Greeley, in the Colorado Territory. The author has the settlement and its origins described correctly, but no one would have called it Greeley in 1875, because it wasn’t named and incorporated as such until the mid-1880s. It’s a pretty well-known town because of its unusual origins as a planned, “model” colony.

(2) The heroine will therefore not be able fulfill her dream to go to Vassar, where she has already been admitted and “chosen her courses.” At freshwoman summer orientation, one presumes.

(3) Happily, the buffalo are not endangered in this frontier world. Apparently, “the plains were overrun with the beasts.” Oh, wait. We are in 1875, remember?

(4) The (probable) hero is suffering the trauma of having lost his wife and infant son three years before. After that tragedy he left Leadville and “stumbled down from the mountains to the Front Range.” That’s a 100+ mile stumble, through the “Front Range,” to the plains. The author adopts today’s usage of Front Range, which is a short version of “Front Range Corridor,” i.e., the I-25 corridor. But the Front Range is technically a mountain range (in the eastern part of the Rockies and facing the plains of Colorado, hence the name). Back then, Front Range would have meant mountains. I wonder if the author was misled by the fact that Greeley is about 4600 feet above sea level; the plains ascend very gradually from mid-Kansas to the Rockies, which is how Denver can be both flat and mile-high. You can see that Greeley isn’t in the mountains from this map.

(5) You knew this was coming, didn’t you: Leadville wasn’t Leadville in 1875. Or 1872.

OK, I can hear you through the intertubes: But VM, you say, it’s a historical romance! We accept little mistakes, and even big mistakes, if the storytelling is good and the characters are well portrayed. And fair enough; I do too.

But infodumping does not make a story good. And whoa, is there infodumping all over the place. Every character engages in as-you-know-Bob internal monologues. That’s how we learn their backstories. For example:

He’d spent long days, and some long nights, alongside Giles Forsythe, one of the most highly esteemed veterinarians in the state—a transplant from Britain—famous among race horse circles. Forsythe had taught him so much, not just mentoring him but serving as a substitute father when his own father had died in the flu epidemic of ’58. Those years had ingrained in him a deep love for horses and respect for life—giving him the dream that led him to attend veterinary school years later in Philadelphia, once the war ended and he’d left the fields of bloodshed and death behind him.

Even worse are the stereotypes. Our Heroine is almost the only positively portrayed female in the sample. Her mother is a shrinking, henpecked wife who takes to her bed and her laudanum when she can’t cope. Her sister-in-law is a pale, wan, woman who has suffered repeated miscarriages. Here’s an infodump about Heroine and S-I-L:

Emma now realized she could have made a greater effort to visit her sister-in-law, but truth be told—her brother never made her feel welcome in his home. Ever since he married, he’d devoted all his time and energy to helping their father grow their business empire. And she had to admit—he doted on Lynette, but he often seemed to treat her as if she were a delicate caged bird, keeping her close and never letting her really spread her wings. Emma wondered what dreams Lynette harbored in her heart—aside from wanting a family.

That also gives you an idea of the writing style. Obvious metaphor? Check. Anachronistic wording? Check. Faux-folksy phrase? Check.

But the stereotypes don’t stop there! There is one other positive female portrayal in terms of gender, but it describes American Indians in ways I hoped we weren’t using anymore in  western romance. The rancher for whom Hero Material works is part Cheyenne, which gives her (stop me if you’ve heard this one before) that special, only-Natives-have-it intuition about animals, and life more generally.

He’d never known anyone with such an intuitive sense about everything, but he chalked it up to her Cheyenne blood, and the fact that her grandmother had been a medicine woman in her tribe.

The sample is teeming with these kinds of errors, clichés and clunky style choices, and even when the references are correct they’re the fiction equivalent of name-dropping. You’re supposed to notice all the “research” the author has done. If only so much of it didn’t seem to be from sources that make Wikipedia look like JSTOR.

On reflection, the sample reads exactly as you would expect it to, given how fast it was written and how little the author knew about the genre and the period. In her post on the topic she says quite straightforwardly that she doesn’t read or much like romance, and it shows.

Cranking out 125K written words, plus doing what’s needed to produce the ebook and upload it to Amazon, and we’re talking a NaNoWriMo pace. Except even NaNoWriMo participants now know you’re not supposed to hit “send” on the email with attached manuscript on December 1st.

So, I’m sorry, AlexaB, but there is no way I’m spending my hard-earned reading and reviewing time on the remaining 90 percent of this deathly prose. I know you’ll understand and sympathize.

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