The *It* Factor

This week has been a bit of a mixed bag.

I successfully moved my website to my new domain. Yay!

I finished my Second Draft Outline, so I can now start real revisions. Yay!

And I read a few new books, only to discover I have no real understanding of what most readers like. Not so yay.

This probably comes as no surprise by this point, but I’m kind of a picky reader. If I am not immediately sucked into a story, or if I come across one too many “flaws,” I will usually not even try to finish the book.

Over the weekend, I found two books on Kindle Unlimited I thought I’d like. I’m not going to name either one because I know the authors worked hard, and I don’t want to turn any potential readers away because of my own admittedly unique and over-the-top standards.

The first was an m/f shifter romance that didn’t have too much of the alpha caveman stuff, and boasted a charmingly plucky heroine. I should have liked it. I went in thinking, this is a gimme.

And I did finish it, which is something. But I’m still not sure it’d be accurate to say I liked it.

Problem 1: The dialogue was terrible. So, so terrible. Stiff and unnatural and using words and phrases even professors in a classroom would find too formal, let alone a werewolf with no higher education who’s lived out his life in the woods.

Problem 2: Repetition. So. Much. Repetition. Every POV switch came with a recap of what had just happened, but didn’t really offer anything new. In fact, it was just blatant “telling” of what we’d already been “shown.”

Problem 3: Unrealistic happenings. This is a huge pet peeve of mine, and I know I’m way more of a stickler than most readers. Suspension of disbelief is a thing, yes, but you have to create a world with rules that make that suspension plausible. Tiny human women cannot get the physical upper hand with super-strong werewolves. Hell, above-average-sized women can’t get the physical upper hand with average human men, unless they train A TON or get in a lucky and well-aimed kick. Take it from a woman who is 5’11” and has never felt anything but pathetically weak when grappling with almost any man of any size.

Problem 4: Stock antagonist. Reading romance, you know there’s going to be a happily ever after. It’s a rule. But the good ones at least make you worry that there might be some consequences. A lasting injury, a seed of mistrust, a sacrifice of something important in order to obtain what the character really needs. Reading this book, I never once worried about any of that. Actually, that’s not true. I did worry, but only because I created my own tension by assuming a third-act twist. I was sure the author had left the antagonist vague because she was going to surprise the male protagonist by making the father who abandoned him and his mom the bad guy. The age was right and there was even a setup for motivation. But no. Just a stock character that showed up twice, didn’t really do anything, and died easily off-screen.

Maybe it’s because I’m reading Self-Editing for Fiction Writers by Browne & King, but these problems jumped out even more than usual to me, since there are entire chapters that cover the first two points in detail. And if you want a quick tutorial about antagonists, go watch this video by Lessons From The Screenplay about why the Joker is so perfect in The Dark Knight. I’d thought I was already the pickiest reader on the planet. It seems there’s still room for growth, though, as I learn more and more about story crafting.

The other book I tried to read was an m/m contemporary romance that had a setup I generally thought I’d enjoy because it wasn’t completely trope-y or overdone in the genre. This one, I didn’t finish.

Problem 1: The character motivations were all over the place. One character was supposed to be super practical and sneered at superstitions, but in the very next scene he was over-the-top religious and kept going on about how he was “sinning” by having evil gay thoughts. The scene after that, he wasn’t worried at all about discovering the other dude being gay. The author never really explained why it was only bad that he was gay, or why his superstitions were legit concerns. How does this make sense?

Problem 2: Didn’t like the characters. Okay, this might be slightly tied to the above, because motivations are how we relate to characters. This dislike goes a little deeper though. There was nothing particularly special or interesting about either of them. One was a neat-freak. That was it. The other was impulsive. Not in an interesting way though. Instead he seemed to just do one big impulsive thing, and then after that made fairly careful, rational decisions while saying he was impulsive. Admittedly, I didn’t finish it, so maybe in the second half he did something that would underline this claim. I didn’t care enough to hang around and find out, though.

This book came across to me like the author was trying to write characters she didn’t fully understand. Particularly with the super-practical character. Even if she had just made a side comment about him acknowledging that his belief about gay=sin was illogical, but his upbringing had conditioned him a certain way, I might have been more willing to let it slide. But the person she described him as would never have acted the way he did. Character descriptions and behaviors need to align.

But here’s the real crux of my dilemma: Both of these books got overwhelmingly good reviews on Amazon. The latter–the one I couldn’t even finish–has a perfect 5 stars.

I don’t get it.

This isn’t the first time I’ve been confused by positive reviews or tremendous praise for books that leave a bad taste in my mouth. I’ve already mentioned how I feel about 50 Shades of Gray. Twilight, I actually enjoyed when I was younger, but as soon as I got to the part in the second book where Bella lays down and wants to die in the woods because her boyfriend broke up with her, I NOPED right out of there. Outlander was kind of the same for me, which I might also have already mentioned. I loved the premise, enjoyed the first third, then as soon as they got married, I was pretty much yelling out my frustrations to Bunny every evening about how silly the main character was acting. And then . . .



The antagonist got killed by a cow. A fucking cow! Seriously? Jamie gets raped, and the just desserts are delivered by a heifer? Dude. No.


–End of SPOILER–


I know I’m in the minority here, that many of my opinions are contrary to most readers of my genre. Therein lies the problem. I want to write romance, but I’m worried that my idea of romance and a good story is just not what appeals. It’s discouraging as hell.

I just spent half an hour looking through the new releases on Amazon, and noticed two things:

  1. Popularity in the m/m genre seems to be going up, because there were a ton of new books with more than 100 reviews, which used to be a rare thing.
  2. I was not interested in any of them.

Some, because the synapses didn’t engage me. Others, because I’d already tried reading books by the authors and couldn’t get into their writing style.

I hope to one day be among the ranks of the semi-popular authors, so I want to make clear that I’m not begrudging any authors their success or think any are undeserving of their high ratings. My concern is that my measuring stick seems to be off. We all certainly have our personal preferences, I know. But how am I supposed to sell books to the general public if I don’t understand the taste of the general public? There are widely popular books out there that don’t have any story structure or traditional character arcs. Some have glaring inconsistencies in motivations or unrealistic character decisions. Some just flat out present unrealistic events that could not possibly happen in our culture without police getting involved, or someone getting fired. And I’m talking contemporary, not the paranormal stuff, where alternate realities are common place.

This seems to work for a lot of writers. But it’s disheartening. I’m putting all this effort into learning about how to craft what traditionally is thought to be a good story, but it could ultimately be for nothing if I don’t have this mysterious “It” factor that seems to draw the majority of people in. I can’t even pinpoint what “It” is, because I personally seem to be blind to it.

This probably is starting to sound a little contrary to my post about what success means to me. Rest assured, I still don’t expect to be the next James, Meyer, or Gabaladron. All of whom I’ve named as examples above because I have zero belief that I’ll ever get on their radars, and so I’m less worried about accidentally offending them. Particularly since no one can doubt they’ve already found success on any measure.

But just because I don’t expect to gain that kind of massive following doesn’t mean I don’t want to try to hit the right note to attract a decent readership with my novels. There a couple things, off the top of my head, I could try in order to get a better understanding. I could read the positive reviews of the books I don’t particularly like, to see why specifically readers enjoyed them. Even better might be to find those readers and ask them directly (ugh, social interaction). I’m sure there are even blog posts out there about some that go in into loving detail about what’s so great about them.

It’s possible I’m getting a little ahead of myself, here. I mean, I still haven’t even finished a final manuscript yet. Worrying about meeting reader demands and matching market trends is probably a few steps down the road from where I am now. Still, it doesn’t hurt to be aware of one’s potential limitations. And I guess it’s comforting to know that I’ve yet to read a book I enjoyed that earned overwhelmingly bad reviews. So maybe my measuring stick isn’t completely broken, just much shorter than most peoples.

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