Tuesday, May 05, 2009

Romance books. . . getting better?

This is the cover of my very first book, published in November, 1983. I was green as a willow twig when I wrote it. I had read all of three historical romances at the time and was working full time and raising two kids and working on a home addition. . . oh, and trying to be a wife, community volunteer, and church-going citizen. I needed romance books to stay sane. Plus, they were a heckuva lot of fun. . . to read and to write.

But that was a long time ago.

Three or four years back I had the opportunity to re-write this first book and bring it out again. Weird contract thing. So I spent six months revising the story and reworking the creaky early-eighties plot and breathing new life into characters I barely recognized. And I realized early on that this was not a book I would have written today. This book was written and published before I found my writing voice and viewpoint on life and stories. It just wasn't me in so many ways. It was quite a struggle to make it my story. . . or some version of my kind of story for the second time out.

This was the cover (and title) for the second publication of that same book. Much nicer. . . and personally I thought the story was pretty darned good. . . especially considering where it started. Not everyone agreed. Readers are a fickle lot. The book sold well, but there were a few "commenters" who skewered the book. My feeling was that if they paid for the book, they have the right to comment all they want. ahem. But I KNOW it was a much better book. Twenty years worth of writing craft and skill went into the revision. The dialogue was sharper, smarter. . . the characters were better defined. . . the conflicts were more believable. . . it encompassed more issues and ideas than the previous version. It did, however, end in the same place. . . a happily ever after in early America.

I recently read books for the RITA contest. . . a whole slate of them. There were some surprises and a few disappointments. But overall, I enjoyed trying out new writers and wholly new genres and storylines. One thing that did surprise me was the quality of the writing. The tone and character development and depth of feeling conveyed was amazing compared with what I might have expected. Now, maybe I just hit a "good" batch of books, but I prefer to think that they were a representative sample of what is out there on the racks.

A number of the books from "smaller presses" surprised me with how vivid their storylines were and how well-drawn and likeable the characters were. My feeling was that most of them missed publication in a "big house" because of a quirk of setting or character that put them outside the mainstream. . . but did nothing to diminish the readability or the enjoyment of the story.

Mulling all of this, I went back to peek at a few of the golden oldies that I loved in the early days and was a little surprised. Some had characters that were not appealing to me at all now, some had conflicts that drove me crazy(that "Big Misunderstanding" plot, ugh), and some were just melodramatic, wordy, or florid to the point of being bizarre to a woman of my age and experience. I scratched my head, wondering what I had seen in the book. Personally, I think books are generally much better written today. Cleaner, more focused, more to the point.

You might say, it's just a different, faster-paced time that requires a faster-paced read. I would agree. But I also think we in RWA and across the Romance genre have educated ourselves as writers and have educated our readers to expect tighter, more realistic and resonant stories.

Occasionally, when I run across a book that violates my writing/reading sensibilities, I am actually shocked. And I try to analyze what it is that makes the book NOT work for me. It's often that the characters are unconvincing. . . or that someone has tried too hard to "hip" up dialogue and characters and in the process ignored the human part of the equation that would allow me to connect. And dialogue. . . it has to ring true on the ear and in the brain. Fortunately, there are many books out there that fill the bill for me these days.

What do you think? Are books betting better? Are they better than when you started reading romance? What turns you off on a book? Have you looked up a golden-oldie read lately and been surprised?

Also, did you judge the RITAs? Better or worse than in previous years? Does RITA finalist status influence you to pick up a book?


Kylie said...

Betina, what a lovely cover this time around!

I did judge this year but it wasn't the best lot I've ever gotten. Shrug. Luck of the draw. That said I do think romances are better now, as some from the eighties didn't stand the test of time and knowledge. The writing seems much sharper now but I suspect in twenty years we may feel the same way about current offerings. It's hard to write a book that's going to stand up to changing cultures and attitudes.

But when I fall in love with the characters and the author's voice, the story remains a favorite even if the plot device now seems worn and cliched.

Kathleen said...

I think the writing is becoming much better in most of the authors I have read. I think in contemporary genre, the charcaters are becoming more indepth and the story lines more true to life. The writers are getting to the heart of what really matters today, and not just hinting about it. In historicals they are being more presise about what era they are writing, getting more detailed.
Of course sexsual intimacy has in the last number of years become more explicit. Some like it, some don't. But authors today give the readers what they want and that is a good story, characters that can reach inside of us, make us laugh, cry, ache for the wronged, and glad when the villian gets their due. We when at long last the lover find each other and live happy every after, but most of they make us want to turn the next page to see what is gonna happen next!!

Kathleen Eagle said...

Betina, I judged this year, and I didn't have a particularly good lot. There were a couple of really bad books, the rest really average. No finalists, which wasn't surprising. But considering how many entries there are and how few finalists, you know this is to be expected

Last year I had two outstanding books in my judging assortment, and both made the finals. One was a winner, but both should have been. I felt very lucky to receive two wonderful books in my group. What are the chances?

Kathleen Eagle said...

Betina, I know the books are better now than they were when we started. It was a fledgling genre back then, and we've helped it grow into what it is now. I know I'm writing much better books.

It's fun to be writing series again. I've looked back at my early Silhouettes and thought about the guidelines we had to work with back then. Some things have changed, but the payoff for the reader is still pretty much the same--uplifting endings. It's nice to have a little more leeway in reaching that ending. The demand for rich relationships and character-driven stories hasn't changed. Those are some of the things I love about this genre.

Anonymous said...

As an unpublished writer, I think it harder to get published today because the authors today do write better, tighter. There's more information and education on how to develop your craft. There's more interaction between editors/agents and struggling authors. We know that the competition for the few publishing slots is fierce. We have to be better than "blah" to get there.

HOWEVER, I just judged the published division for the KOD Daphne. Last year I had a couple of books that just knocked my socks off. This year? not so much. In fact, I'm still trying to figure out how one of the them got published (and yes, it was a NY house publisher). Maybe luck of the draw for books this year.

Now, you ladies are all well-known authors, so feel free to disagree with me BUT I think as authors with track records, you can get away with writing a blah book every now and then...a book that will get published because YOU wrote it. A book that if I had presented as a first-time author, it'd have been rejected.

But bottom line to the question..yes, I do believe that romance writing is getting stronger.

lois greiman said...

Interesting topic, Betina.

I've always loved your books, but I think we improve or die. It's the way of the business.

I've read some old favorites lately, and while I still enjoy them, they definitely move at a different pace. I must have been more patient back then.

Playground Monitor said...

I've only been reading romance for about 7-8 years and I do think the books are better because the competition for book contracts is so fierce. I write series romance and there's only so many slots per month.

I'm not published so I didn't judge the Rita, but I judged the Golden Heart. All of my entries this year were disappointing but fixable. I just hate we can't give comments about the reason for our score. Hopefully they've entered somewhere else where they did get feedback.


Claire said...

There was a collaborative book that hit #1 on the NYTimes list a couple years ago that absolutely stunk. The name of one of the authors is what got it published and pushed it to the top of the list cause it certainly wasn't the content. I hate when that happens because it makes non-romance readers do more finger-pointing about how bad romance is when in fact 99.99% of the books are well-written and great reads.

Debra Dixon said...

I think my tastes have changed over the years because I have so much content from which to make decisions. I'm an informed consumer NOW but I wasn't always.

It's like people who don't drink wine a lot will love a crappy wine. Just because my husband recognizes it as a crappy wine because he has a basis of comparison doesn't change the fact that the new drinker of that wine is excited and wants to find more great wine.

Michele Hauf said...

I judged this year and was thrilled because I got a great batch. Three of the books ended up in the finals. I NEVER get books that end up in the finals. So I have to say the quality was very high. And then some years the quality makes me slap my forehead.

But I can look back at my first books and slap my forehead as well. I've grown.

flip said...

When I started reading romances at age 10, I was reading Georgette Heyer, Mary Stewart, Jill Tattersall, Jane Aiken Hodge, and Anya Seton. I still consider their books some of the best that I have ever read. I definitely would not consider the novels today better written. However, many novels today are just as well written. No matter the romantic subgenre, the necessary elements should be there, good characterization, plot and setting. Sometimes to the popularity of the genre, modern publishers publish books lacking these elements.

Kathleen Eagle said...

So YOU'RE the one who got all the good stuff this year, Michele.

I'm with Deb. I don't know if my tastes have changed so much, but I want to read about women I can identify with, and now that I'm in my prime, well...oh! a hawk just landed on a branch right outside the window!

Keri Ford said...

never judged a published division. I think somewhat, they are better. But better because there's so much more information to really strengthen a book. There's less rambling.

However, I have picked up some romance books that just had my mouth open with a big 'ol WTC is this that I'm reading?

One book had chunks of nothing (about 10pg sections) but 2 MC chatting about what they *would* do tomorrow. And then something would happen and shoot all those plans out the window. Really. Happened couple times in the book.

Another book? Hero killed an innocent woman in the opening pages. Yep. Killed her.

Another book--Hero scares daylights out of heroine in the opening, or at least should have. instead she's too dizzied by his sex appeal to worry about her physical safety.

And these were NOT books by well konwn authors.

MarthaE said...

Hello Betina - I would have to go back to read Mary Stewart to compare my first reads with my reads today!! I sure loved her back then. I have read a Victoria Holt over the past year or so and I would say it did not seem quite as "full" in character and plot as some newer books I've read. Or maybe I just wasn't crazy about the heroine.
I like your newer cover better! I loved your Test series!! I have collected many of your older books..so maybe I'll get to reading them and compare to your newer ones!

Cindy Gerard said...

Love the second cover, Betina - mainly because your name is so much bigger - as it should be!!

I always judge the Ritas and the past few years have been dismal - I started to wonder if I was just too picky. But then THIS year I got some GREAT entries. I was so happy!

And Arkansas Cindi - I agree with you that sometimes a MAJOR author will get by with a clinker book every now and then but I think I can safely speak for the rest of the authors on this blog, we are all still out there hammering our heads against the grind stone trying to turn in the very best book we possibly can. It doesn't get any easier, at least not in my experience. But, yes, i have read some books by authors with super star power and thought - whoa, my editor would NEVER let me get away with that. Now, that's not to say that every book I turn in is a book that I'm truly happy with. Some books just turn out better than others. Some you wish you had a second crack at. I guess if I were to ever get complacent, I'd start to worry because that's when most careers head south.

Helen Brenna said...

Betina, this is an interesting topic. Unfortunately, I can not offer an opinion. The more I write, the more critical I get of writing.

I get to judge one of the final rounds of the RITA for the first time this year, so I'm excited. Some good reads in there.

Betina Krahn said...

Hey, guys-- sorry I had to be absent so much of the day and couldn't respond to comments.

I agree with our Cindy-- it does get harder with every book. You try to make something fresh and interesting of every story. sometimes it works and sometimes it doesn't. I've come to the conclusion that not all ideas are created equal. . . that some ideas are better just left on the chalkboard inside an author's head.

I just read a book like that. . . I could see the author's passion for the idea, but it totally passed me by. Maybe I'm too grounded in reality-- I just couldn't buy the premise or the way she introduced it. The older I get the harder it is to suspend disbelief just because I pick up a book. I feel like the author and idea should merit me letting go of my reality for a while-- convince me. Am I just being crotchety?

Some years are better than others in judging the RITAS. . . it's just a fact. But I confess: judging forces me to read things I ordinarily wouldn't and I always learn something in the process.

Venus Vaughn said...

I've been doing a bit of re-reading of older titles lately. I re-read Mr. Valentine (1997) by Vicki Lewis Thompson 2 weeks ago.

It was a good book, she wrote a wonderful, sensual kiss in the middle that blew my socks off. But all in all, I don't think the book would sell to a publisher today. It relied a bit too much on assumed sexism that wouldn't fly now. The hook was very fun, but for a modern reader, I want more.

I also re-read Midnight Rainbow (1986) by Linda Howard. It was definitely a romance of its time in terms of plot and set-up.

The thing that wouldn't fly with that book today (I hope) is the pages of plot/info dump in the first 1-2 chapters. She introduced the hero and the heroine on the first two pages, and then it was 25 pages of set-up. Then, finally, H&H met.

And other one I re-read in the past 30 days is Baby Love (1999) by Catherine Anderson.

It held up really well. The only thing that might need to change upon re-write for that book would be an update in technology.

I try to take older publications in the manner in which they were intended. ie, I don't judge an old book by new standards. But sometimes you just can't help but be grateful that we've come a long way, baby.

Betina Krahn said...

Great to hear from you, Venus! You are so right about books being "of their time." It's astounding the way attitudes and social conditions change in a relatively short time. Look at the political scene of the last ten years! Yesterday the fifth state (Maine?) just signed gay marriage into law. Think of where all of that discussion was 10 or 12 years ago. Mind boggling.

Ditto changes in technology. There are so many older books where lack of communication is a major plot point. With the advent of cell phones in the 90's that whole "out of touch" and "desperate to get word to someone" is much harder to pull off. I personally have canned two beloved ideas permanently on that very point.