Years ago, I used to do aerobics with an aspiring writer. One day she told me about the book for young readers that she was working on, which involved a villain who went back through time to take Joseph out of the Christmas story. “That’s interesting,” I said. “Why?” It turned out she had never thought about “why,” or what his motivation was, or what he was accomplishing by his actions, or what difference it made. But she told me she was glad I asked. No one had ever put it that way to her.
Sometimes snark can be our stock in trade as reviewers. We have genres we deplore, stock characters that we consider ridiculous, and tired tropes we hate (and at AAR, we privately used to make fun of the word trope, which we considered pretentious until we started using it all the time too). But the fact is, that when a good author uses any of these, we can buy into it, because that’s what good writing and characterization is all about.
Not everyone has that level of persuasiveness, of course. Sometimes, it makes complete sense in the author’s head but doesn’t stand up to even a small amount of scrutiny, like my friend’s Joseph-napping story. Sometimes the author just fails utterly to convince the reader of the character’s motivation. We understand what the author was trying to do, but it isn’t believable to us. Or, to paraphrase a long ago reader on our message boards, “we get it, but we don’t buy it.”
I think we see this both in contemporaries and historicals. In contemporaries the tough-sell premises include elaborate will stipulations (“You can’t inherit the family ranch unless you live here for one year with Bill, the handsome foreman, because romance novel!”) and marriages of convenience (Come on, it’s 2014). Thankfully I think we’re kind of moving away from sheikhs, whose allure utterly escaped me (“Come with me, my beauty, and live in my awesome country where women can’t drive! It’ll be great!”). In historicals the classic tends to be the heroine disguised as a man. I always like when the hero is completely fooled by this ruse and confused by his burgeoning same-sex attraction, then has sex with the heroine the minute he discovers the truth.
Sometimes it can be so over the top that it becomes fun and we just don’t care. Did anyone else watch Swiss Family Robinson as a child? My sister and I watched it obsessively for a while. Not only does it feature the aforementioned cross dressing, there is a long scene at the end where they throw logs at hordes of pirates, all of whom are easily felled even though they vastly outnumber the Swiss Family. The production values were bad even to the 80s eye, but it was fun anyway. And besides, I wanted to live in that tree house, preferably with Fritz (the picture above was my favorite scene). There are plenty of modern book equivalents to that. Do I really believe that the wealthy Roarke runs his empire just fine on no sleep and has plenty of time to assist Eve in every single investigation? Not really. Does it matter? Not really.
But I also think a really good author can simply sell us on the tough sell, even though long time readers can get a little jaded. There have been a few times in recent months when an author has made me buy into a premise I don’t usually like. I’ve seen people carry off romances with socially unequal heroes and heroines, Big Secrets, Big Misunderstandings, prostitutes, and thieves. None of these are favorites with me, but if you can sell me on the characters’ motivation, if you can make it make sense, then I’ll go along for the ride. My most recent example, Meredith Duran’s Fool Me Twice, had three of those things, and it still worked for me.
And when don’t those themes work? Pretty often. You have to have a reason you’re not sharing your Big Secret, a reason you became a prostitute, and probably a convincing villain for your Big Misunderstanding. We’re not going to buy it if you just use romance novel shorthand and depend on the hard work of better writers who have gone before.
So here’s my nickel’s worth of free reviewer advice: You can go one of two routes. The first is to go big or go home, a la Swiss Family. If you are going to have a beat a bunch of armed pirates, you should probably have them do it with a nine year old on an elephant, a log booby trap, and…wasn’t there a zebra? Or have your twenty-seven year old, Fifty Shades of Fucked Up anti-hero make more money than Bill Gates and Mark Zuckerberg, because your whole story is already silly anyway.
Second route: Sell it. Have a reason your villain is taking Joseph out of the Christmas story, or your heroine is stealing documents, or your dashing, rich hero refuses to marry. A reason that makes sense and holds up to scrutiny. There are no shortcuts with this, and your reason can’t be “Because Romance Novel”. Believe me, we’ll know.