Disrespecting your reading audience 101

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.

19 thoughts on “Disrespecting your reading audience 101

  1. Appreciate your time and efforts to highlight the way that this experiment insults readers. I’m of the same mindset. You won’t make an easy buck off of me.

  2. My question is, it does insult readers, but why would I want to insult *myself* by writing something that bad? I write because I enjoy telling the story itself. Whether the reader likes it too is just icing on the cake. I don’t understand writing something I don’t like, because I … don’t like it. Isn’t that an ipso facto situation? Hmm.

    • Great point, and I should have noted that this strategy disrespects *authors* of the genre too, because it suggests that anyone can write this type of book.

      What’s weird about this experiment is that in some ways it is the essence of professional/commercial writing, i.e., you write to an audience, with profit rather artistic motivations. It’s what people who don’t know better think Harlequin authors do, for example. And some great writers have written on contract: think of the mystery pulp genre, which had writers like Elmore Leonard writing in it in the early years. Or screenwriters in the Hollywood system.

      But it’s a lot harder than it looks. In this sample the seams really showed. You can tell when she’s throwing in the folksy language to remind you it’s a Western, and the invocation of period objects and events is really clunky.

      • Having done corporate writing, and maybe I’m in the minority here, I actually enjoy it. I find the subject fascinating and I like talking to people about what interests them. I don’t think I’d do very well writing about something that was really not interesting or dull; that’s one reason I don’t work for a newspaper because I wouldn’t get to pick my subjects. But even then, if I did, I would find the beat itself interesting and there’s always *something* in our work, no matter how banal, that we can find to be interested in.

        The part I just don’t get, not to mention feelings of being insulted, as you rightly point out (the whole I’m going to write what you write because it’s shit and easy and marketable), is WHY someone would do it. There are so MANY topics that are marketable, and ones we don’t even know yet are marketable (think of the book that shall not be named, for example, if someone had asked ahead of time if it was marketable, how many of us would have said it would sell like hotcakes and be available on Walgreens end caps, for the love of Pete?). Passion, the desire to tell a story (and, one hopes, a “good” story), and a sense of fun are needed to write engaging material. I know Harlequin authors and the ones I’ve met enjoy their work. Yes, it’s work. It’s like the soap opera end of filming. You crank out story after story after story – but at the end of the day, I admire their ability to do that AND get paid for it. I don’t understand doing that for purely mercantilian reasons; it’s one reason I chose to make my daily living in the insurance and financial sectors and leave my writing to my passion. Yes, one day I hope to make a full time living from it, but do deliberately cheapen it to something I don’t like and know nothing about, just to see if I can sell some of it, is a mystery to me.

  3. I find this deeply reassuring somehow, because I didn’t believe that a book written in this cynical way COULD be good, or that it SHOULD be good. So I’m relieved that it wasn’t. But I guess the goal was not “good” but “good enough to sell.”

    I admit I’m a bit confused by the Vassar point, though. Couldn’t she have reviewed a paper catalogue and decided what she wanted to take? (Even in my much later women’s college days, that’s what we did, and we registered once classes started by handing a paper form to our Dean in the Great Hall. LOL, that makes me ancient, although quite possibly they still do it that way; I’m not sure online registration systems would be cost-effective for small institutions). Sorry to be side-tracked by such a minor thing.

    • I should have been clearer on the Vassar point. In the sample the Vassar references came across to me as treating Vassar as if it operated in 1875 the way it operated in 1975. But colleges in the 19thC were a long way from what they became in the early and mid-20thC. Vassar was barely a decade old at this point, and it had a couple of hundred students and a handful of professors. They wouldn’t have had a real admissions process (students sat for exams instead) and while there was a catalogue, entering students took a compulsory set of courses and didn’t get to exercise course choice until well into their second year. And that’s if Our Heroine was adequately prepared and could pass the exams; if she couldn’t, she would have been required to take a sequence of pre-college prep courses. Vassar’s website gives a history of some of this, and I found other stuff as well in a quick Google search. I also have the advantage of having read a bunch of history of American higher education studies in a previous life. ;)

      • That makes sense–I was wondering how much choice there would have been, and I know in the early days not all students were what we now think of as “traditional college age” or fully prepared for college-level study. I did a paper in my undergrad days on the birth of women’s colleges, but that was a LONG time ago!

        • The idea of what it means to “be educated” has evolved as well. In the time period referenced, there was a strict canon of material one would have been expected to study. Latin, Greek, the classics… One did not decide to go on a whim and just because Vassar existed, didn’t mean it was culturally acceptable for a woman to decide to go there to be educated. Her first duty was elsewhere, so to fight that and decide to go anyway was a political act, not a light romantic notion of oh, gee, I think I’ll go to school because I don’t know anything else to do. My own grandmother, who attended university in the late 1930’s early 1940’s (not sure the exact year), left in her sophomore year to be married – and it was expected that she should do so. If I had done that, it would have shocked my family and contemporaries because the education was seen as being the primary aim. For her, and women before her, the primary aim (culturally) was to find a husband.

          I suspect you know this already; your comment just made me think and I wanted to share my tidbit, so I hope I don’t come across like I’m trying to lecture. It’s said in the spirit of “Yeah, what you said!” :)

          • Exactly. In this book it was “I’m going to Vassar!” and then “No, we’re going to Colorado so you won’t be going to Vassar.” That was it.

    • Exactly. I’m also reassured by this review. I’d hope that such a cynical attempt would be bad.

      This is a bit of a tangent but I remember hearing Eloisa James, ages ago, on some quirky public radio show, talk about how she decided to write romance because she wanted to make money writing. She read 5 books each by 5 best selling authors (irrc) and analyzed them and then wrote her first romance. After hearing that, I read my first James (skeptically) and was pleasantly surprised. I think that her earliest books have a paint by numbers quality, and she’s a bit hit or miss for me, but her hits really work for me, so I’m willing to forgive her.

      • I guess that’s less off-putting because there’s a sense of fun to what she did. These folks here are successful, I’ll emulate them because I want to be successful too. It wasn’t, “I know nothing and will make no effort to know anything about this because it’s stupid and the readers who like it are stupid and I’ll make money off their stupid selves because I’m just that mercantilian.”


        I didn’t realize this one ticked me off this much. Hmm. I think I’ll go knit something. ~sheepish grin~

      • James was also EVISERATED by readers and reviewers for all the errors in her first book. So much so, that she begged her publisher to allow her to revise it before it was reissued in paperback. So if you want to really see what her results were, you have to find a hardcover first edition of Potent Pleasures.

  4. Every romance I have ever tried to read has been as clunky-junky as this!! Is there a stash of good romances out there I need a secret password for? I have vowed to read genres outside of my comfort zone this year. Does someone want to suggest a Romance novel I won’t ditch after my three chapter rule?

    • The website I review for, Dear Author, lists recommended reads, or you can search by grade categories. There are also Best Of yearly lists that might be helpful (the lists have links to fuller reviews). All About Romance has been reviewing romance novels for over 15 years and they have a DIK (Desert Island Keeper) category that lists their favorites.

      I would surf through those to start and see which plots, characters, and writing styles work for you. As with other genres, there are a lot of badly written books but also some real gems.

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