Today I’m chatting with Serena Chase, author and reviewer at USA Today’s Happy Ever After blog as well as Edgy Inspirational Romance. As someone who reads dozens and dozens of books a year, Serena knows romance, and she’s here today to share her impressions on what makes a book memorable and worthy of recommendation to her readers.
Carla: Out of all the components in a romance novel, what’s the first thing that stands out to you as being “rec-worthy” about a book?
Serena: Pace. When a plot and its characters are so enthralling (whether through action or relational interactions) that it is painful to put the book down and see to “real life” — that is a book I want to recommend.
Carla: Ah, yes. I think for me, it’s when the characters are real and take on living status in my imagination. I can’t even imagine putting the book down because they might get themselves into trouble while I’m gone and I’ll miss it. Those are the books I recommend to my friends.
Serena: Yes! I agree. It’s such a silly thing. I mean, it’s a book. The pages are static and sure to be unchanged when you return, but it just doesn’t feel that way sometimes! As an author, pace is one of my struggles, so when someone gets it right, I drool. (Beta reader feedback is telling me I’ve done a bit better with that on my next release. *winks* Pirates make it easier, I think.)
Carla: Ah yes, stop teasing me about The Seahorse Legacy until I can read it. I loved the first two. Anyway…sometimes I think authors get themselves into trouble because they don’t realize that all books are plot driven, even romance. Unless you’re writing experimental literature where a guy wanders around Dublin thinking in circles (wait, that’s already been written), you really do need to have stuff happen in the plot. But that does not necessarily mean that you have to have a stalker subplot or literal action in the book. Authors can keep the pace moving by continually upping the stakes, even if that’s just on the characters’ personal internal struggles. (Insert shameless Five Days in Skye plug here… hey, you got to do it!)
Serena: *laughs* Absolutely. As you well know, I’m a fan of those personal internal struggles you write so well. I have a hard time being drawn into books, even fantasy—which I love— if they are relationally/emotionally weak. I need relationships! Interaction! Okay, I’m going to take a risk of sounding like a chauvinist –but anything I would call a “boy book” is not going to hold my attention very long. To me, “boy books” (*cringes* I’ve called them that for years because they are the sort of books my brainy brother used to love. They are not necessarily written by, about, or for boys) are all about the mapping and politics of a world, and although those things might be masterfully presented, I’m a girl who thrives on the relational aspect of a story. I want to know the people. Really know them, you know? Give me great characterization within a superb and driven plot, add in a bit of romance—or a lot!—and I’m all yours.
Serena: Yes, please! Better yet, grow a really deep and true romance in your story and you’ll not only catch my eye, but my heart, as well. For review and book recommendation purposes, my writing venues require a strong romance thread in the plot. I will, of course, read a book [for Happily Ever After]with only the promise of romance for review purposes, but if it doesn’t deliver . . . sorry. It just doesn’t fit the HEA audience demographic (although I do occasionally feature those books at EIR, where Joy & I are the boss ladies.)
Carla: Back to what you said a minute ago about boy books, I totally understand what you’re saying. Really, I think that writers would be better off not thinking of their book as a “chick book” or a “boy book” but a person book. I think the temptation is to say “my target market likes this” and then throw whatever clichés and tropes you can think of. You want to know your readership, of course, but when the plot and characters develop organically with real people, it will not only appeal to the target market but expand beyond that. Even guys can enjoy a love story if it’s not heavy on the cheese.
Serena: I am lactose intolerant in life and literature! No cheese, please! But I sincerely agree that men can enjoy a good love story just as well as women can enjoy a political thriller—if they would give it a chance. (I do hope men start reading more romance. I think they could learn a lot about us girls… but that’s another subject for another post, eh?)
But I think ebooks are making it easier to avoid pigeonholing books as “written for men” or only for women. What “guy’s guy/manly man” wants to be seen toting around a book with a girly cover? I don’t even like carrying some of them around, and I’m a big fan of glitter and other girly things. *lol* But after seeing such a book cover, will a “man’s man” even pick it up to see if they might like the story premise and give it a whirl? Doubtful. Which it is why I adore e-books. They open up the romance market to people who might otherwise be embarrassed to be caught reading a romance novel.
Carla: Well, you clearly read a lot of books. What kinds of tropes do you see all the time that you think are overdone? And what, as a reviewer, would you like to see more of in romance?
Serena: I’m getting pretty tired of western sassy girl meets handsome sensitive cowboy, but that could just be me, though. I have nothing against sassy girls or cowboys. I just see them a lot. And oh! This strange thing I’ve seen popping up of “everyman” protagonists (in Westerns) interacting with famous historical figures (sometimes multiple figures)? That really jolts my suspension of disbelief.
I’ve also noticed a few instances of writing “edgy for edgy’s sake” in both historical romance and contemporary, rather than grafting that sort of content into the story in a way that shows craft and purpose behind its inclusion. To me, that is gratuitous and it comes off as contrived. I won’t name examples, because the inspy romance community is a small world and I’m not a fan of burning bridges or hurting feelings, but I have declined reviewing several books due to that sense of “contrived content.” I would like to see “real” Christians interacting in a real, flawed world with believers and unbelievers alike. I want their struggle to be real—even if it’s a rom-com—, and I want them to make some terrible, but redeemable choices on their way to a satisfying ending.
Carla: I have to say, I don’t mind a cowboy hero, but I’m definitely a “variety is the spice of life” sort of reader. And I’ve come across several great Christian books that do exactly what you’re talking about. I’m optimistic that we’ll be seeing more to come. What about the topics you’d like to see more of?
Serena: Well-written Contemporary Romantic Comedy. I’m simply thirsting for it. I recently talked to several book blogging friends about its absence, and as it turns out, I am not alone in wanting more. BOOK BLOGGERS MISS ROM-COM IN INSPY! (are you listening, publishers?) *crosses fingers* I’m really hoping the summer releases several of those onto my Kindle!
Carla: Ah, me too. I’ll be watching for your recs to see what you’re reading. I could use some summer fun myself!
Thanks for joining me today, Serena, and happy reading!