Judging a Book by its Cover

The question has been bouncing around on blogs I read — most notably Dear Author and Smart Bitches, Trashy Books — as to why so many people, without ever having picked up a romance novel, instantly declare the whole genre as trashy, pornographic bodice-rippers.

Having long done exactly that, and being a recent convert to romance-reader, I believe I can answer that.

It’s the covers, both front and back.

Take this as an example:

The title itself is a little off-putting: Forced Wife, Royal Love-Child. And get a load of the back copy:

Sienna Wainwright has one passionate night with international financier Rafe Lombardi before he unceremoniously casts her out of his bed. Sienna hopes never to see his seductively arrogant face again, but six weeks later their world changes—forever….

Rafe is no longer just a billionaire, but is revealed as the prince of Montvelatte. What’s more, Sienna is pregnant—with his twins! What choice does she have now? Rafe is determined to claim his heirs and take Sienna as his royal wife!

In two short paragraphs, several tropes are blatantly played, and the story sounds like the stereotypical one that most non-romance-readers expect in a romance novel. But this could very well be an excellently written novel with rich, engaging characters and surprising twists that take the traditional tropes and bend them in new ways. It must be doing something right — it is the number 2 best seller on eHarlequin.com.

Unfortunately, being a relatively new initiate into the world of Romance, I don’t have many examples to cite as to a great book wrapped in a terrible clinch cover with violent violet prose on the back. But, being new to the genre, I do know how hard it is to find that true gem amongst the gaudy baubles that line the shelves of the Romance section. When every back cover reads just about the same — vary only whether there’s a Secret Baby, a Marriage of Convenience, SexyVamps, or the time period — and the front covers either feature scary men in chest-baring poses clutching bored women or porn stars dressed up Regency style, it’s not hard to see where romances get their reputation. And when the books themselves are only available for a short period of time — a month or two, depending on the company and the author’s reputation — it makes it that much harder. Heck, I’m still trying to find a copy of Mr. Impossible, which is far more difficult than it should be.

Another way to think about this is to take a classic, one that is almost universally acknowledged as being well-written and enjoyable, and slap one of those terrible clinch covers on it, one of Fabio, dressed as a Regency gent, clinging to a narcoleptic Lady who is draped on his side, standing in a field of heather somewhere. Then imagine flipping it over to be assaulted by this for a back-cover summary:

HE was the ultimate gentleman, but he was as cold as ice.
SHE was a woman ahead of her time, unwilling to stoop for any man.
They were attracted by a force stronger than nature…but when scandal strikes, can the budding feelings they have for each other be saved, or will they remain forever slaves to HER Pride and HIS Prejudice?

Would you really buy that book if you saw it on the bookstore shelf? Or would you say “meh” and put it right back down? (Note: Hopefully you can tell that I’m referring to Pride and Prejudice, and if you can come up with a more groan-worthy or accurate back cover copy, please let me know and I’ll feature it here)

I don’t speak for all the people who either used to hate romance without having read it or still do. However, I think that this is a pretty reasonable explanation for the logic behind it.

Hopefully publishers will get the message — which they have, to an extent, especially with Paranormals — but I somehow doubt it. Their books sell no matter what they package them in, so there’s little motivation for change. So I’ll stick to reading Romances that have been recommended to me, and taking my chances with the rest, until the covers catch up with the content.

Side note: It’s not just Romance that suffers from this. Sci Fi and Fantasy have been suffering quite the cover conundrum lately too. In fact, I’ve avoided new Sci Fi and Fantasy for quite a while because they all have the same plot summary with a few subtle changes, and the covers are all either ridiculously boring or really terrible. Anymore, it seems like I don’t read something unless somebody recommends it to me or I recognize the author as someone I like to read.

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Published in: on March 10, 2009 at 2:30 pm  Comments (4)  
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Blogs in Spaaaaaacccceeee!

Lieutenant Colonel Gar Cuttsit stared at the blue-haired, green-skinned alien sex slave. He ground his teeth, driving any feelings he had for this admittedly alluring creature away. His hand shook as he pointed the ray gun directly between her seven eyes.

“But Gar!” she cried in her husky, silken voice. “I love you!”

“Save it!” Gar growled, quenching back the multitude of emotions that threatened to overwhelm him. “You’ve betrayed me for the last time!”

Oy. The Space Opera: a classic sub-genre of science fiction, it was once the fodder of serial novels and short movies. Nowadays, the serial novel is all but extinct, and movies that even show a hint of Space Opera-tude get laughed out of the theater. It’s been parodied extensively on television, from the Pigs In Space skits on the Muppet Show to Tek Jansen on the Colbert Report. But is all this ridicule really deserved? If one looks at a similarly bashed and battered genre, Romance, one would see that even though the general perception of the genre is very far off the mark. But talking about Romance isn’t my job (I’ll leave that to the Smart Bitches), nor am I even remotely qualified to do so. Instead, let’s focus on Space Operas and why they have the reputation that they have.

Space Operas are a sub-genre of science fiction, which in turn is a sub-genre of speculative fiction. Speculative fiction is described by Wikipedia as:

…a term used as an inclusive descriptor covering a group of fiction genres that speculate about worlds that are unlike the real world in various important ways. In these contexts, it generally overlaps with one or more of the following: science fiction, fantasy fiction, horror fiction, supernatural fiction, superhero fiction, utopian and dystopian fiction, apocalyptic and post-apocalyptic fiction, and alternate history.

However, that description doesn’t really get at the heart of what speculative fiction is. Essentially, speculative fiction takes our everyday world and ponders what would happen if one (or sometimes more) thing was different. So a story might expound on what would be different if we had faster-than-light travel, or if the Allies had lost World War II, or if magic had existed since the beginning of time. While much of science fiction and fantasy fit into that category (take Stranger in a Strange Land or the Harry Potter series, for instance), some doesn’t quite fit the bill. For example, some science fiction or fantasy is so far removed from our current reality, and so many speculative assumptions had to be made on the way from our reality to that of the story, that it hardly counts as speculation any more. An example of this would be Star Wars. Though there are some tenuous connections between its universe and ours, it is so different from our world that it hardly counts as speculation. Similarly, fantasy stories set in unique worlds, such as the world of Forgotten Realms, are so far disconnected from our world that they barely qualify as speculative fiction. It would probably be more accurate to describe science fiction and fantasy as overlapping with speculative fiction rather than being sub-genres.
Overlapping genres
Speculative fiction may be the larger genre, and may overlap with most fantasy and science fiction, but there are areas that are independent of it.

But Space Operas are almost universally a sub-genre of science fiction. So what is science fiction? Well, trusty Wikipedia doesn’t tell us much on that front, other than

Science fiction differs from fantasy in that, within the context of the story, its imaginary elements are largely possible within scientifically established or scientifically postulated laws of nature (though some elements in a story might still be pure imaginative speculation).

This could encompass any number of things, and, indeed it does; everything from near-future fiction to, well, Space Operas. It can be very strict (the purple area of the ven diagram) or even involve some fantastic elements (such as steam punk; the orange area). And sometimes, science simply becomes a pat explanation for strange, impossible or highly improbable things, essentially acting as magic sometimes does in fantasy. The train of thought seems to be that if it sounds scientific, your deus ex machina is rendered believable. Star Wars (with its midi-chlorians), Star Trek (time and time again), Futurama (although there it’s intentionally played for laughs), Flash Gordon, and many others fall into this particular category. Space Operas seem to be particularly prone to this fallacy, thus earning their somewhat laughable reputation.

So Space Operas are science fiction, but what is it about them that sets them apart from the pack? The key is mainly in the plot. Generally, Space Operas are sweeping tales that focus on broad themes, playing out melodramatic adventures against the backdrop of space. Technology and science act more as a prop than as a focus of speculation or the drive behind the stories. This, perhaps, is what most strongly sets Space Operas aside from science fiction in general. Science fiction strives to predict what could happen if variable X is altered (spaceflight, nuclear war, etc). If you remove the setting, the variable that has been changed, then the story ceases to exist. Not so with Space Operas. Since Space Operas play on large themes — romance, melodrama, good and evil, tyranny and democracy, freedom and slavery — the setting can be changed dramatically without the underlying story being altered much at all. For example, say a Space Opera that tells the tale of a rebel alliance fighting to overthrow a repressive galactic regime. The fact that it’s set in space adds a “hook” to the story, but the underlying themes of tyranny and democracy wouldn’t change a whit if you set it in Stalinist Russia instead of the Galactic Federation.

Although largely defined by its broad themes and sweeping scope, Space Operas are also defined by the cliches that are specific to the genre. While a good Space Opera can be written without falling prey to these cliches, they are unfortunately common. These are oddities most readers are familiar with: faster-than-light travel with little to no explanation as to how, a vast excess of humanoid aliens (especially ones with compatible genitalia), larger-than-life heroes, an alien race bent on destroying planets for no concrete reason, guns that never run out of ammo and have a “stun” setting, etc. These cliches can be written well, but it is the (often highly visible) cases when they are not that end up giving the genre a bad name.

So are Space Operas inherently a trashy genre that’s made up of nothing but cliched pulp fiction? No, of course not. While they may not be my cup of tea (I’d much rather read “hard” science fiction any day), when done well, they are as much a piece of literature as a well-written fantasy (or “hard” science fiction, or mystery, or horror, or romance) story. However, if you’re setting out to write one, ask yourself two questions before you start. First, is it really necessary to set your story in space, or would transporting it into a different setting still get your point across? And second, does your story avoid the pitfall cliches of the genre? If your answer to both is a whole-hearted yes, then by all means, have at it.

Purple Prose: Where’s the Line?

Budding authors looking to get published live in fear of the dreaded purple prose, painstakingly going through their rough drafts and debating the necessity of each and every adjective. With the preponderance of critique-less form replies from publishers and agents, the newbie author struggles to determine whether their prose was too purple or too stark and barren. What with the recent publication of some suspiciously lavender novels, and the resulting backlash from the Purple Prose Patrol, the world of eloquent writing is doubly scary for the entry-level author. Is purple prose inherently bad? Yes, it is; it jars the reader out of the world created by the author and either leaves them laughing or confused. But where to draw the line between pale lavender and ultraviolet is an issue that budding authors, including myself, struggle with, often without much support.

So what, exactly, is purple prose? According to Wikipedia:

Purple prose is a term of literary criticism used to describe passages, or sometimes entire literary works, written in prose so overly extravagant, ornate, or flowery as to break the flow and draw attention to itself. Purple prose is sensually evocative beyond the requirements of its context. It also refers to writing that employs certain rhetorical effects such as exaggerated sentiment or pathos in an attempt to manipulate a reader’s response.

Television Tropes & Idioms echoes this definition, if you can ferret it out of the ultraviolet passage. Deb Stover, a prominent romance writer, has a definition that is more accessible and may be of better help to a writer:

One way of identifying purple prose is by your reaction when you read it. Does it make you laugh out loud because it’s so ludicrous? Or does it make you shake your head in disgust? If it does either, feed it to the Purple Prose-Eater. He’ll appreciate it a lot more than your readers will.

So where does that line fall? Of course, there’s no objective way to define that; much of the definition of purple prose is in the reaction of the reader, and every reader reacts differently. However, there are a few things that can act as tips that a passage is dyed purple. Take the following passage, for instance, from Stephanie Meyer’s Twilight (I didn’t record the page number, unfortunately, and I no longer have my copy, so apologies for the poor citation):

His skin, white despite the faint flush from yesterday’s hunting trip, literally sparkled, like thousands of tiny diamonds were embedded in the surface. He lay perfectly still in the grass, his shirt open over his sculpted, incandescent chest, his scintillating arms bare. His glistening, pale lavender lids were shut, though of course he didn’t sleep. A perfect statue, carved in some unknown stone, smooth like marble, glittering like crystal.

Now, there are several indicators that this passage is at least a little lavender, even if it doesn’t read like the examples given on Wikipedia or Television Tropes and Idioms. First, the sentences are generally long, with several clauses linked by commas. While this isn’t necessarily a bad thing, it can make the passage seem long-winded. Second, it reads like thesaurus tossed in a blender. Even though different adjectives are used, because they’re all synonyms or very close cousins, it comes across as repetitive. Also, there are far too many adjectives; a few of the nouns are modified by at least two adjectives, and the rest have at least one. This lessens the impact of the scene, as well as making the reader groan. The last tip off is the use of certain phrases — “smooth like marble” for instance — that are used with all due frequency throughout the book. If you overuse a certain descriptor it can lead to Purple Prose-itis, rapidly followed by Gangrene of the Modifier. Generally, if you describe the character once, unless there’s significant changes to their appearance, it is acceptable not to describe them again.

Romance seems to be the genre most affected by Purple Prose-itis, though certainly not in its entirety, and no genre is truly safe from its grasp. While romance tends to resort to purple prose in erotic scenes due to the need for euphemisms, as hilariously detailed in Deb Stover’s article, any other genre may devolve into a lavender mist when confronted with an awkward, uncomfortable, or difficult passage. Science Fiction might face issues when trying to describe future technology in as brainy a way as possible. Fantasy, with the need to describe an entirely new and unique world to the reader, faces almost as many issues as romance. Mysteries might get purple while trying to describe a murder scene in detail, or some sort of forensic science. Horror could become purple while describing the terrifying thing chasing the protagonist. A historical or steampunk novel might be very purple to elicit the feel of writing of the time period. The list goes on and on.

The bottom line is that there is no line except for the one you draw yourself as an author. Some writers have been able to write extremely purple prose and be published and lauded for it (although most of them lived in the late 19th century). What is most important is bringing to life your world and your characters so that the reader feels that they are truly engaged in the plot. If a passage or phrase feels to you, or your test readers, stilted or jarring, it’s probably in your best interests to edit it. Otherwise, keep on writing how you write best and worry about the Purple Prose Patrol later.

Do you have an opinion on purple prose, or an example for us? Then drop a note in the comments section!

Mary Sue: As Bad as We Think?

The Mary Sue is a concept that is extending its fingers from the realm of fan fiction and into that of original fiction. Original characters in original world-settings are now being described as Mary Sues or Gary Stus; this is even, at times, extending into the world of published fiction. This begs the questions: Why is Mary Sue so bad? and How much Sue-ness is too much?

Before we begin discussing the answers to these questions, we must first explain exactly what a Mary Sue is. Wikipedia defines the Mary Sue as follows:

Mary Sue, sometimes shortened simply to Sue, is a pejorative term used to describe a fictional character who plays a major role in the plot and is particularly characterized by overly idealized and hackneyed mannerisms, lacking noteworthy flaws, and primarily functioning as wish-fulfillment fantasies for their authors or readers. Perhaps the single underlying feature of all characters described as “Mary Sues” is that they are too ostentatious for the audience’s taste, or that the author seems to favor the character too highly. The author may seem to push how exceptional and wonderful the “Mary Sue” character is on his or her audience, sometimes leading the audience to dislike or even resent the character fairly quickly; such a character could be described as an “author’s pet”.

Television Tropes and Idioms gives a slightly lengthier and more detailed definition:

The prototypical Mary Sue is an original female character in a fanfic who obviously serves as an idealized version of the author mainly for the purpose of wish fulfillment. She’s exotically beautiful, often having an unusual hair or eye color, and has a similarly cool and exotic name. She’s exceptionally talented in an implausibly wide variety of areas, and may possess skills that are rare or nonexistent in the canon setting. She also lacks any realistic, or at least story-relevant, character flaws — or her “flaws” are obviously meant to be endearing. She has an unusual and dramatic Back Story. The canon protagonists are all overwhelmed with admiration for her beauty, wit, courage and other virtues, and are quick to adopt her into their nakama, even characters who are usually antisocial and untrusting; if anyone doesn’t love her, the character who dislikes her will get an extremely unsympathetic portrayal. She has some sort of especially close relationship to the author’s favorite canon character — their love interest, illegitimate child, never-before-mentioned sister, etc. Other than that, the canon characters are quickly reduced to awestruck cheerleaders, watching from the sidelines as Mary Sue outstrips them in their areas of expertise and solves problems that have stymied them for the entire series.

Now, as Pat Pflieger describes in her article 150 Years of Mary Sue, Mary Sues are nothing new to the land of literature; rather, they are commonly the creation of young or inexperienced authors. In order to help these young and inexperienced authors avoid the pitfalls of Suethorship, there are several Mary Sue Litmus Tests available, including The Universal Mary Sue Litmus Test and The Original Character Mary Sue Litmus Test.

The major downfall of these tests is that they can scare a young author away from writing a character that, while well-rounded and appropriately flawed, has several Sue-like characteristics. It could be argued that some characters from popular fiction can be classified as Mary Sues, if judging them solely on this criterion. (For the sake of this article, I will not discuss certain characters in published fiction that have been determined to actually BE Mary Sues.) For example, Sherlock Holmes could be considered to be Gary Stu-esque. He is unbelievably intelligent, always holds the key to solving a mystery, is an accomplished violinist, and so on and so forth. Similarly, Nathaniel/John Mandrake from The Bartimaeus Trilogy could be considered a Gary Stu. He is exceptionally talented for his age, attractive to the opposite gender, has a tragic past, and heroically saves the day repeatedly. However, all this is made up for by his genuine character flaws – pride, arrogance, and so on.

So this begs the question, Why is Mary Sue so bad? Well, Mary Sue is bad when the reader is jolted out of the story or finds the story laughable because of the character’s Sue-ness. More important than any litmus test is the readability test – when a friend or a cohort online reads your story, what is their reaction? Is the story enjoyable, despite the main character’s Sue-ness? And if not, what is it about her that needs to be changed? The best way to correct any Sue-related problems is to listen to critique and take it to heart.

So, then, if not all Mary Sue characteristics are bad, How much Sue-ness is too much? Readers of your typical adventure-genre stories (fantasy, sci fi, horror; we’ll ignore contemporary fiction for the moment, and romance falls under a different set of rules entirely) won’t be interested in reading about an absolutely average or sub-par character. If nothing else, your character has to be able to survive in the situations the plot throws at them. An interesting way to look at this is to think about it like character creation for Dungeons and Dragons. The Player Handbook describes stats of 10 as being average — for adventurers. Commoners fall more closely into the 8 or so range. This higher base stat is what allows the adventurers to survive attacks by goblins, bugbears and so on that they face during the course of a story. Now, if you were to have a character with stats of 18 across the board, people would think you cheated, and you would stray into the Land of the Sue. While higher abilities and exceptional skills across the board are something that makes a character a Sue, having some exceptional skill or higher ability is all but necessary to keep the reader interested. Who wants to read about Joe the Farmer and Nothing Particularly Exciting? People want to read about Joe the Barbarian and the Angry Bugbear Hordes. They just don’t want Joe the Barbarian to also be an accomplished bard and wizard.

The main point of this article is to open the doors to conversation on this topic. Mary Sues are typically derided, and while generally it’s deserved, more good can come of encouraging young and inexperienced writers to improve their characters instead of scaring them away from writing certain character types.