I am no reading snob. I never have been and I never will be. I value excellent writing wherever I find it but I also value entertainment that isn’t reaching for literary heights or accolades but is just offering enjoyment – whatever kind you seek. I read though my library when I was a kid with a voracious appetite. I read all the Madeline L’Engles and Nancy Drews and Island of the Blue Dolphins and James and the Giant Peach etc etc. I read everything that was considered good reading for my age and then some. By the time I was twelve I felt I had exhausted my library’s offerings and was moving into adult reading territory. I found myself reading Gertrude Stein and loving her wild use of parentheticals within parentheticals (you can DO THAT?!). But I was looking for more and found a local floor to ceiling used book store that specialized in romance novels. I ATE THEM UP. I had a proper Barbara Cartland summer. I didn’t know to be ashamed of enjoying pulp romances. They were fun and breezy to read. I knew, even back then, that the writing wasn’t of high quality. But who cares? They were so enjoyably predictable and in that way I knew I could count on a happy ending. Sometimes people need that. You know who doesn’t give you predictably happy endings?
But my love of romance novels has always been like my love of soap operas – I can devour quite a bit of them in short bursts and then I find I’m annoyed with the same things as last time I read a bunch of them and I have to give them up for a good long while. Apparently my tolerance for such irritations has decreased over time because I just read “The Scotsman and the Spinster” by Carolyn Madison and although I have a few Victoria Holts to read I’m not sure I have the patience to get through all the nipplage and the pert-ass noses. I would like to frame these peeves as suggestions for romance authors to improve their game. It all really boils down to not being a lazy-ass author. I have clearly become spoiled by the Mary Stewart, Anne Stevenson*, and Georgette Heyer quality adventures and suspense novels which always have a satisfying romance in them but without the irritating devices that so many romance authors depend on.
Let us have a look:
Noses. I have a thing for noses. Apparently, so do romance authors. I love an aquiline nose on a man or a woman. I am guilty of having used the word “aquiline” to describe Grey’s nose. (I think) Romance authors assume that the only nose attractive on women is a “snub” nose, a “pert” nose, or a “button” nose or my very favorite “retrousse”. Blech! I am so unimpressed that every single romance heroine has tiny little upturned nose. Fuck that shit! The most beautiful women in the world, in my opinion, almost always have more significant noses. Noses that are either aquiline (that word again, my apologies, it is the CORRECT word for the kind of nose I’m referring to but sounds annoyingly posh) or hooked or crooked or sculpted in some magnificent way. Sharp long noses or noses with nostrils that have a tendency to look flared giving a woman an intense and passionate look. Writers: if you want to imply that your heroine is “only passably good looking” then don’t give her a fucking retrousse nose because we all know that that’s your code for “most adorable pert little delicate female in the world” that men will want to possess and conquer immediately.
The Nose Challenge:
The next time you’re designing a romantic heroine’s features, don’t be lazy. Challenge yourself. Describe a nose without using these words: PERT, SNUB, BUTTON, or RETROUSSE. Can you do it? You can, and I will thank you.
Special note to snub nosed women: I am NOT saying you aren’t beautiful and attractive. You are. I am only saying that your particular type of nose has been worshiped in fiction as THE ONLY standard for beautiful noses and I’m tired of it. You’re still beautiful and/or cute, but so are women with all different types of noses. I’m just saying that it’s time they got to shine in fiction.
Height/body type. I get how it’s classically attractive to pair up a really tall man with a really small woman. I understand how we traditionally think that it’s sexier for a man to be taller than his woman. However, I would like to see more variation here. Georgette Heyer has played with height and form a little more than others (though she still keeps all her fictional men taller than their respective women). At least Georgette had the good grace to have one character whose form was a little bit dumpy – NOT short and spritely but short and plump. This same character had a complexion that was described as indifferent. I loved it. I love this character. Drusilla (from “The Quiet Gentleman“) has no spit-fire qualities (a favorite with romance authors) nor does she have a flirtatious bone in her body. So how could she be a heroine that a man could fall for and that you can root for? It’s amazing how a good writer can make you love all different kinds of heroines and how a good man can love a woman who doesn’t have a snub nose or a graceful body or a fiery temper.
If you look around you you’ll observe that men do not all share the same tastes in women.
The height/body type challenge:
Create a heroine that is short and plump, or tall and plump, or flat chested and medium height – body heights and types that do not get much play in romance fiction. Go further – challenge yourself to create a hero who is medium height, same height as his love interest, scarecrow thin, or a little portly, or with a biggish ass. Remember that stereotypes of beauty are tedious and boring. If you’re worth anything as a writer you can make readers root for romance between people of every height and body-type combination. (Cricket is flat chested and of medium height. I did this for all the flat chested gals like me in the world who have been left out of the romance genre almost entirely)
For extra credit: create a dashing short hero who gets together with a woman taller than himself. If you have trouble imagining a short man being the hero of a romance novel I direct your attention to how many women of all heights are crushing HARD on Jon Stewart. Why? Because he’s handsome, funny, smart, kind, and hot. I have a friend who is 6 feet tall who would marry Jon Stewart if they weren’t already both married and, you know, had opportunity to meet in real life. I am only slightly above average height for a woman and I feel the same way about him even though if I’m going to crush on anyone who is not my husband, I tend to crush on very tall men. The truth is, before I married a tall man I went out with guys of all different heights. I went out with a guy who was about 5′ tall and it sure as hell wasn’t his height that broke us up. Men can be sexy and hot at any height and if you don’t recognize that – then you are a blind idiot. Height is never a factor for me in whether a man is hot or not.
Flicking tonuges in make-out/sex scenes. There are two things that come to my mind when I read something like this:
Ross’s mouth was ardent in its demand, moving skillfully against hers until she parted her lips in shy acquiescence. Immediately his tongue surged between her lips, flicking against her own until she was breathless with a wild passion.
Either I think of bad porn where the camera is zeroing in on flicking tongues – getting right up in there on the wet action OR I think of every single Saturday Night Live sloppy fake make-out spoof they’ve ever done. I think of Bill Hader and Fred Armisen slovenly tonguing each others’ faces. Nice. It’s funny, my friends, it isn’t sexy.
Here’s what’s wrong with that snippet: “ardent in its demand”, “tongue surged”, “flicking” – Jesus! The whole damn thing is AWFUL and so unsexy if I had read that right after lunch I would have become queasy. BARF. What’s worse is that this author used “ardent demand” in the previous make-out session too. LAZY.
Make-out scene challenge:
When writing kissing scenes – never mention tongues in conjunction with these words: “surging”, “hot”, “wet”, or “flicking”. Ever. Challenge yourself to imply sexy passion without putting your reader in your character’s wet mouths. The trick is to trust that the reader knows what tongues do in most adult kisses. If the reader is twelve – they will figure out that more is going on if you write the scene well. Let them discover their own first sloppy wet French kisses when it’s their turn. Don’t force your characters to have bad make out scenes.
Nipplage. I just made up that word. It means “always – with the nipples!”. I know, how can characters have a satisfying make-out scene unless there are some hard nipples involved? I would say that if you’re writing sex scenes that are there to thrill your readers who are hungry for some actual SEX – fine. I agree that you can’t have a sex scene without some hard nipples. (Even men have nipples that go hard, people) But when I’m reading a book that is supposed to involve a virgin character (also – virgins – YAWN) I don’t think it’s necessary to include nipplage in make out scenes. Now, I’m not actually a prude. No, really. I mean – nipples are a really nice part of gettin’ it on with a person, right? But I don’t want to hear about it in make out scenes unless you are an author capable of doing it in such a way that it isn’t painfully obvious to me that the only reason you are making nipples hard is to titillate me. (Yes, I’m aware of the word I just chose, it was appropriate, so shut up!) I don’t want to be aware that you are trying to manipulate me. I don’t read books for the purpose of becoming aroused. If I want to be aroused by my books I would read erotica. I would do it on purpose. I’m not a puppet and I resent being treated like one by authors.
The Make-out scene challenge #2:
Tone down the nipplage. Avoid having your hero “cup” his love interest’s breasts and for god’s sake – don’t have him “flick” her nipples. “Flicking”, as discussed earlier, is a cheap porn device. You don’t need this to make me excited that the main characters are getting it on. I have IMAGINATION and experience enough to fill in a hell of a lot of blanks. Bring me to the point where that shit is going to happen – but don’t spell it out. The challenge is to write sexy scenes where you don’t rely on lazy words to make your reader excited – it’s to find fresh ways of writing a sexy scenes that will surprise your reader and allow them to enjoy the make-out scenes without feeling gross.
I think I could write a novel length challenge to romance writers from the perspective of a romance fan, but unfortunately I have run out of time today. Please, romance writers, please listen to what I have said because if you can avoid all of the peeves I have just mentioned – you will have a fan for life in me!
*She is so forgotten these days that she doesn’t even have a Wikipedia page. There’s another writer who’s a poet who has all the light online. I don’t have this book of hers and it makes me mad. But look at that price!!!!!