Friday Night Fragments: Voice and Taste

I was thinking I needed to write a blog post, but on what? No wonder Friday Fragments is becoming a feature here. It’s an excuse for incoherence!

Finding My Voice

This week I finished my (overdue) review for my college’s literary magazine. I figured this would be easy-peasy: I liked the books, had a general sense of what I wanted to say about them, and have written for the magazine before. It would be just like writing a blog post, and I often do those in a couple of hours. (Or, you know, less, on a Friday night).

Well, no. I struggled. My husband said, “What’s the big deal? Probably more people read your blog posts than will ever read this.” I don’t think that’s quite true, but it’s likely close. So why was this so much harder to write? I finally decided it was because I had no sense of my audience and thus couldn’t find a voice. (There’s also the fact that an actual editor, not just my internal one, has to like it). When I write for the blog, I know complete strangers may read it, but I think of the handful of “friends” who often comment here or on Twitter, and write for you. Although I sometimes wrestle with what I want to say and how, I have a writing voice and persona here that feels like “me.” The review turned out OK in the end, I think, but it would have been easier if I could have imagined who I was talking to.

Entangled, Take Two: Author Voice, Reader Taste

I finished my second book from Entangled, Christine Bell’s Wife for Hireand I found it a solidly enjoyable read (if I had to grade it, C+ ish. A good way to pass the time). It made an interesting comparison to Jennifer Probst’s The Marriage Bargain, which did not work for me. These two books have a lot in common: similar character tropes (rich, wounded alpha hero + loving, creative heroine trying to keep it all together) and similar plots (marriage of convenience vs. temporary fake marriage).

Side note: They also both have a scene where the pack of puppies the heroine has taken in destroy something (the guest room, a couch). I know that I am a) super sensitive to this and b) the pot calling the kettle black, since my dog just had an Unidentified Fabric Object surgically removed from her stomach. But these scenes did not make me think LOL, they made me think OMG DANGER! Rather than seeing the heroines as caring, as I’m sure the authors intended, I saw them as careless and unable to ensure the dogs’ well-being. So I hated part of the Big Gesture at the end of Bell’s book and I think this pack of destructive puppies how cute and funny thing needs to die.

Anyhow, as I said in my last post, some elements of Bell’s book felt formulaic or overly-familiar, but it worked better than Probst’s for me for a few reasons:

  • The characters weren’t just tropes and generally didn’t behave in inconsistent or illogical ways in order to advance the plot. A lot of their interactions felt real and engaging.
  • The set-up strained credulity but was somewhat more plausible. Also, I tried to adopt Jessica’s philosophy of “going with the set-up” and seeing where the book took me.
  • The humor worked for me. It was less slap-sticky, more verbal sparring. For instance, Lindy tries to use a sexy Truth or Dare game to get Owen to open up about his feelings. He suggests other games they can play: “Boss and secretary. Doctor and nurse. Or if you want to take it into the twenty-first century, scientist and equally intelligent and highly respected scientist.” That’s my kind of joke. Playing a couple at a special couples’ retreat leads to some pretty funny on-the-spot lies about what their marital problems are, too.
  • The writing was better objectively, I think–fewer errors, better pacing–but I also liked the voice and style more. It was clean and straightforward, where I found Probst’s metaphors strained and distracting.

A couple of other things:

  • I remain underwhelmed by Entangled’s copy-editing. Shopping at “Sacks”? (Do you dress in paper bags?) Plum out of ideas? (It’s plumb.) That seemed like careless use of spell-check. There clearly had been an edit, but sometimes both error and correction stood, so you got lines like “the fabric of him his pants.”
  • This was a Kindle loaner from a Twitter friend who said it was the best book from this publisher she’d read so far. So I wanted to like it and was disposed not to nit-pick. No reading is ever fully objective. Also, allowing e-loans is a great way to build a brand. I’m more likely to pay for another Entangled book now. Are you listening, big publishers who forbid this?
  • I think I have one of Bell’s steampunk books from Carina Press in my TBR. It just moved higher up the list.

More on Taste and Buzz

I mentioned last Friday that a lot of the books being buzzed about in my on-line book circles don’t appeal to me: they are mostly New Adult (i.e. college or just after) books with high-drama emotional conflict or erotic romance with same. I’ve talked before about how I generally don’t like books like this where going on an emotional roller-coaster ride seems like the main point.

I got into a Twitter conversation that helped clarify why for me. I regard over the top anything with mistrust. It embarrasses me. Maybe it’s the WASP in me, maybe it’s just the introvert. I don’t like reality TV. I feel embarrassed and ashamed for the participants, whose over-the-topness is on display for our amusement and mockery. I feel ashamed for watching. Emo books pretty much make me feel the same. If I do enjoy them, it’s a guilty pleasure.

But hey, since I’m not hearing about many new books that interest me right now, maybe I can whittle down the TBR! When I’m not in meetings or revising policies. Sigh.

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10 Responses to Friday Night Fragments: Voice and Taste

  1. willaful says:

    I intensely dislike reality t.v., or any form of entertainment that makes me feel embarrassed for the people involved, but I love emo books. They don’t embarrass me at all and it would never occur to me to consider them a similar form of entertaininment. I come from a “wet” family — I’m assuming you come from a dry?

    • Liz Mc2 says:

      I certainly only meant that FOR ME there’s some kind of connection between the two experiences. Maybe it’s more that I feel like a voyeur?

      I haven’t heard the terms wet and dry used the way you are, but if they mean what I’m thinking, I’d say my family of origin is mostly dry. We have a wet streak, though. It came out in my sister and daughter, for instance, and it’s hard to mesh the two styles/ways of being. How interesting.

      • willaful says:

        I find it a very useful way of thinking about things, especially since my husband’s family is dry. I’ve converted him fairly well, which is good, because our son is the gushiest kid you’d ever meet. I’m always torn when I pick him up at school because I don’t want to tell him *not* to fling his arms around me and declare his love at the top of his lungs, but it’s pretty frowned upon in middle school…

        • Liz Mc2 says:

          Yes, that is tricky.

          I love this concept. It’s a much more positive way to think of my daughter than “drama queen.” She’s “wet” and expressive.

  2. I like emo things too. Your comment about anything over-the-top embarrassing you made me think of something Judith Ivory said in an interview she did at The Romance Reader years ago (it’s no longer available at their site, but can be found through the internet archive).

    “Q: I’ve seen a lot of women writers, myself included, thus criticized in MFA writing programs for being “sentimental”.

    A: Well, I do have a theory. It’s the theory of errors. When you write an intellectual book, if you miss your mark, you end up with some overwriting, an unintelligible idea, maybe some self-indulgent prose. If you are writing an emotional book and miss the mark, however, a mistake there leaves you with a leaden emotion, a gooshy emotion, whatnot. A wrong emotion is just so jarring. The reader knows it instantly, and the writer has no place to hide. An intellectual mistake is simply considered less offensive.

    Q: So does it take more courage to write romance novels?

    A: To attempt an emotional book, to me at least, is to attempt more. There is a quote I love from Transit of Venus by Shirley Hazzard that just sums this up for me so nicely: “It is true he’s made mistakes, in part because he has done so much. Those who undertake less can be more circumspect. (And those who attempt nothing – whether of the soul or the intellect – are safest, and of course most critical, of all. What an atrocious, sustained effort is required, I find, to learn or do anything thoroughly – especially if it’s something you love.” I reread these words from time to time. I think as writers we just have to take ourselves seriously. And tune out the critics who would reduce us to less.”

    • Liz Mc2 says:

      Oh, thanks for this. What fascinating comments, and it really emphasizes that my feelings about super emotional/angsty books are a matter of personal taste and personality, not of book quality.

      I have read angsty, high-emotion books that I’ve liked, but I think the majority miss the mark for me personally, even if I think they are written well.

  3. I agree with you that it’s a matter of personal taste, and I’ve found my taste shifting over the years. I’m more tolerant of certain writing quirks now than I was several years ago, for example.

    One of the reasons that quote is interesting to me is because Ivory isn’t a writer of purely emotional books. Her works can feel too intellectual to some readers — and one has even felt that way to me, at least on rereading. As a writer, I think writing an emotional book without making a misstep is very hard. And I agree with her that the missteps are much more glaring with emotional books than with intellectual ones.

  4. I like emotional roller coaster books as long as it feels organic to the characters and there is some type of humor (or even hope) involved. If a book is one endless streak of up and down, back and forth, I want to tell the characters to get over it–and then I usually get over the book by marking it as a DNF. *g* Life is already difficult enough, and even the most pessimistic people have a sense of humor, so when I find a super angsty romance where the characters are just blobs of emotion, I don’t believe in them at all.

  5. kaetrin says:

    I like the humor you mentioned in Wife For Hire. I might have to check it out.

    I’ve read a few New Adult books but they haven’t been too over the top for me. Generally I find them far more palatable than YA, although my YA reading has been extremely limited. I finished a YA recently where the hero was Amish and all I could think was that this girl should RUN! I guess I can relate to the NA issues better. Emotional stories are fine for me – I don’t mind a bit of soaring emotion in my fiction, whereas I prefer to be more even IRL.

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