A few years back I entered a contest with a romance writing organisation. I was pretty shocked when I moved on to the second round of the contest. However, reading is such a subjective venture and I was not at all shocked when I did not advance to round three. The book needed some serious work. Yet, overall, my round 2 results were pretty decent. Three judges gave me scores from 31-35 (out of a total of 35 points). One judge, Judge 19, gave me a total score of 19. I made a note of the scores from that contest and tossed the hard copy results in recycling bin, but I kept the score sheet with the 19 points until last week. I came across it when I was cleaning out the storage space above my secret shame (previous post on the Black Hole of Crapcutta). I found it quite interesting that not one of the judges had a difficult time with the fact the hero and heroine in the entry, Driving In Neutral, were well past 40. No, no, age was not the issue that pissed off the Judge Number 19. That particular judge was not at all happy with my work, and she told me exactly why:
- I marked you down because of your language. A romance heroine does NOT swear, she would not use the f-word.
- A romance hero would NEVER call the heroine names;
- I am claustrophobic and do NOT want to read about anyone who is claustrophobic. That was a horrible scene!
Judge 19′s low score and unhappiness with me boils down to several things. Again, reading is subjective and what she found in my romance was not her idea of a romance fantasy. There are some romance readers, like 19, who have hard and fast rules about what they considered unheroic or unladylike and what does or did not belong in romance.
OK then. In the Dear Author review of A Basic Renovation, Janye S makes note that there are “readers with delicate sensibilities” and this is true. My fantasy is not your fantasy. My experience of the world is not your experience of the world. In the world I live in people cuss — some more than others, some in different languages, some in a mix of two or three. When I listen to conversations, as in when I eavesdrop on conversations of strangers and those I know, I try to absorb the way people interact, to get a feel for how they talk. I am a very good listener. Trust me on this. People swear. A lot. Young, old, middle-aged, pre-teen, I’ve heard the fucks and the shits and the bastards (BTW, bastard is a term of endearment here in Oz) pepper conversations. I get that some readers find swearing offensive. That doesn’t mean I am going to stop writing romance characters who cuss. In A Basic Renovation, GP has a foul mouth in English, Italian and Sicilian. Lesley, the heroine in ABR also cusses. Willa in my upcoming release in For Your Eyes Only does too. The swearing is within a context. It’s not for shock value and it’s not random cuss words sprinkled in their dialogue.
I completely understand that romance is a fantasy about falling in love, but I write contemporary stories and name calling happens. Grown ups call each other names. It’s a two-way street. it may be a light, sarcastic, “Hey, princess, move your car!” to a “Do you have to be such a bitch?” So what was the offensive name the hero calls the heroine in Driving in Neutral? What did Judge 19 find so dreadful? It all hinged upon, “You wet little rodent!” and “You soggy Chipmunk!”
I know. That was oh-so-foul, wasn’t it?
In terms of Judge 19′s dislike of my claustrophobia scene, well, I see that as a win. My writing in that scene, where the hero calls the heroine names, was successful because in my description, in how I conveyed a character’s anxiety, I managed to make the reader feel uncomfortable. I feel all smug and satisfied by that because 19′s not the only one to mention they were uncomfortable reading that moment, but the others told me I got that scene dead-on balls right.
Subjectivity simply means you can’t please everyone. Reader expectations and ideas of what is romantic, what is awful, unheroic behaviour, or not worthy of a heroine and what is acceptable within the romance fantasy will vary. Some draw the line and won’t pick up a book if it contains too many fucks, as in the word, not the action. For others, it’s the keeping the heroine in a pretty, youthful age range where nothing sags or has wrinkles. Then there are those who want it all hard and fast and full of nothing but, you know, smutrotica. My point is, it’s freakin’ wonderful that the romance genre has such a wide reaching spread of something-for-everyone. My aim is to keep on writing mid-life and older characters as the leads in romance. And be warned, they will cuss and call each other names and get it on. They’ll have wrinkles too.
I put it to you now. When it comes to minding p’s and q’s in romance where do you draw your line? What constitutes a romance RULE for you? Me? Ahem, well, If I see the word maidenhead I stop reading.