Author Archives: megbenj1

Our Friend the Adverb – Meg Benjamin

When I was just starting out in fiction writing, I took a short story workshop at a venerable San Antonio writers cooperative. I wrote a story I thought was okay and brought it to class for critiquing. Most of my classmates liked it, and some liked it a lot. One man, though, sat through the discussion with a look of utter disdain. When things finally died down, he gave me his critique. He’d recently taken a workshop with a well-known writer, he said, and she’d told him that using adverbs was the mark of poor writing. He handed me back my MS, and sure enough he’d marked every single word ending in –ly and told me to delete them all. Now some of the words he’d marked were actually adjectives (leisurely, for example), but never mind. I’d heard that advice before. Get rid of all adverbs before you send your MS off to an editor.

Adverbs Bad!

Frankly, that’s crap. It’s also a great example of a half-remembered rule. What the well-known writer had probably told my critiquer was that it’s usually better if you can find a strong verb rather than a weak verb plus adverb. She could also have said it’s better to find a strong noun rather than a weak noun plus adjective. That’s a good principle, but it’s a long way from saying never use adverbs.

Overuse of adverbs is bad, but saying you can never use them, in effect eliminating an entire class of words from your vocabulary, is overkill. I understand why people embrace these ideas, though. It’s a lot easier to say “Never use them” than to try to figure out what constitutes effective and ineffective use. But let’s face it—sometimes that strong verb doesn’t exist. Or sometimes you like the rhythm of the adverb in your voice. Or sometimes you just feel like using “said slowly” rather than “drawled” (and if you think about it, those two aren’t exact synonyms).

In general, I’d suggest caution whenever somebody gives you a hard-and-fast dogmatic writing principle to live by, particularly if it involves style. I once worked for a magazine where the General Editor refused to consider the word dove as a past tense for dive (it was an underwater photography magazine, so this came up a lot). Now I could show her countless entries in usage guides indicating that dove was, in fact, perfectly acceptable. She didn’t care—she knew the difference between right and wrong. She had her principles.

Personally, I’ve always loved what Groucho Marx once said: “I have my principles, and if you don’t like them…I have others.” In this case, the principle should be If it works, do it.


Basil Exposition Strikes Again – Meg Benjamin

You all remember Basil Exposition in Austin Powers—the stuffy intelligence chief played by Michael York whose sole purpose was to provide background information for the plot, i.e., exposition. I thought about ol’ Basil today as I was reading one of my favorite suspense writers because it seemed that he’d wandered into the book while I wasn’t looking. The amount of information the author had started cranking out was enough to choke a goat.

Exposition is a real pain in the ass for most writers. You usually need to explain some things that aren’t going to come up in the action, but you need to do it in a way that keeps the plot moving, or you run the risk of putting your readers to sleep.

The usual way to get the exposition in is via dialogue. The hero or heroine has a conversation with someone into which some of the more important info nuggets are tucked. Ideally, you do this a bit at a time, probably out of chronological order, so that the reader can begin to build a mental map of what’s going on. But if a fact is really important, you’re going to have to find a way to build it in more prominently while simultaneously hiding it so that the reader can have a pleasurable head-smack moment when the final plot twist is revealed. And if the connections are going to be particularly intricate, you may have to have one of those Big Reveal scenes in which all the characters gather to piece things together (if you’re writing a mystery or thriller, the villain may well be one of these characters so that she/he can grab a knife and a handy hostage at the end).

But what happens if you’ve got a lot of historical background to include (like Linda Fairstein or Dan Brown) or if you’ve got scientific information that has to be understood (like Kathy Reichs or Tess Gerritsen)? You can’t really drop those factual nuggets into casual dialog, particularly if they involve a lot of detail. Enter Basil (or Brenda) Exposition, a character or characters whose sole purpose is to explain the technical underpinning of the plot. The problem comes in working Basil or Brenda into the story because if their only purpose is to provide technical information they tend to stand out like very sore thumbs.

One way is to put the exposition scenes in an action setting. Maybe Basil is gassing on about the chemical properties of blood while the characters are careening across the countryside to a murder scene, or maybe Brenda gives you the fine points of the medieval theory of cosmology while the hero searches through the library, frantically looking for a clue.

But whatever you do to them, what they’ll do to you is bring your plot to a screeching halt while they fill in the blanks. If the information is interesting enough, readers will probably tolerate it. If it isn’t, you run the risk of having the reader throw the book into the return stack. Fairstein sometimes makes them villains, which, considering the amount of gab they’ve made us sit through, isn’t a bad idea. Other writers make Brenda/Basil a murder victim. I can definitely sympathize. I’m sure many of us have wished we could just kill those suckers off.

The Problem With Loyalty – Meg Benjamin

I once had a very bad dental hygienist. I didn’t know she was bad, mind you. She was a very nice lady and I liked talking to her. And if sessions in her chair were really uncomfortable and ended with sandblasting my teeth with a saltwater solution that left me nauseated, well, I figured that was my fault for having bad teeth. It wasn’t until I had minor dental surgery and then had my teeth cleaned at the periodontist’s office that I realized my mistake. Even so, it took me another few months to finally get switched over to somebody else. It just seemed so disloyal somehow.

The same thing sometimes happens to me with series. I read the first book in a series and, unless it’s truly awful, I feel sort of honor-bound to keep going even if I’m not exactly enjoying myself. I’ve already invested time and energy in the series, you see. It’s hard to back away.

But sometimes a series just seem to fall apart the further along it goes. The problem comes, I think, in the fact that series are purchased by publishers on the basis of book number one. But the other books in the series may not have been completed when book one is sold. Thus books two and three and, possibly, four have to be written in far less time than book one so that they can be published quickly after book one comes out. Sometimes this works fine because the author has a handle on what she wants to do. But sometimes it’s a disaster. You notice the quality beginning to fall off after the first one but you keep hoping she’ll pull it together in book two. Or maybe book three. But all the time you’re slowly forgetting what it was about the first book you really liked.

It’s hard to say how far I’m willing to go before I give up on a series. Usually I’ll read the first couple of books just to see how things work out. And if book two is decent, even if it’s not as good as book one, I’ll go on to book three. But if book three isn’t back to book one’s standards, I’ll probably decide that’s it and drop the series altogether.

The obvious solution to this problem is to allow authors enough time to make sure each book is up to the standard of the previous one. But we readers are demanding creatures. We want the next book right now, not next year. And then we’re snotty if the next book isn’t as good as the last one.

Maybe I need to work on my author loyalty. After all, I stuck with my lousy hygienist for years. Surely I could give an author the leeway of an extra book or two. After all, she wrote a really good book at the beginning. Maybe she can pick it up at the end.

Tears On My Pillow

A while ago on my blog, I addressed the problem of crying in public places while reading a romance novel. In particular, the problem of crying on a plane and thus terrifying your seat mate, who becomes convinced that she’s sitting next to a loon. Since then, I’ve thought a lot about the whole question of what makes readers cry, perhaps because I’m a chronically weepy reader myself.

For example, I’m a sucker for stories about suffering kids. If the hero or heroine had a sad childhood, and that sad childhood is described in detail, I’ll be sniffling before I’m done. Take Linda Howard’s After the Night. The heroine’s miserable childhood is described in the first third of the book, and it’s so miserable I always find myself skimming that part (yeah, I re-read the book every couple of years). On the other hand, that description is absolutely necessary since it sets up the rest of the book and explains the extreme hostility between the hero and the heroine (at least initially). And yes, I also get weepy when the heroine confronts that hostility and resists it.

The thing is, this tendency for readers to sniffle when reading romance is sometimes used as a criticism of both the genre and the readers. “Sentimental” critics sniff. “Melodrama.” For me, the problem with these criticisms is that they overlook the point that sentiment and melodrama are perfectly okay, as long as they’re appropriate and effective for the story. I remember once hearing a writer (I think it was Larry McMurtry, but I could be wrong about that) say that it’s easy to make a reader cry—you have a child with a dog and then you kill the dog. Bingo, instant tears! What’s harder is to make a reader cry because of the basic situation in the story. I think Mary Balogh is a master at this, but she’s certainly not alone. Linda Howard is another. So is Loretta Chase, although she does mainly comic historicals—there’s always something in Chase that makes me tearful, even if it’s just the painful experiences the heroine or hero has had to endure before they get to the point where they’re funny (try to read Not Quite a Lady without tearing up—I dare you). Being able to inspire tears is the mark of a writer who creates characters you believe it, so why is that considered a point against the book?

But here’s something really weird (or really pathetic, depending on your point of view)—I also tear up at my own stuff. I mean, I know these people aren’t real. Heck, I created them! I also know exactly what happens in the story so their travails aren’t much of a surprise. It doesn’t matter. When my hero in Venus In Blue Jeans murmurs, “So long, babe,” thinking he’s lost the heroine, I still tear up. Ditto when my heroine in Wedding Bell Blues gives her wedding toast, thinking the hero is leaving in the morning. Go figure.

So, okay, enough about me—do you cry at romances? If so, what makes you do it? And have you ever felt sort of embarrassed to be doing it in front of strangers? Just asking.

Pissy – Meg Benjamin

I just finished a novel by a Very Famous Author from the early part of her career (I won’t name her just because the book was from the early part of her career and she writes very differently now). The thing that struck me most about the book was the nature of the heroine—she was truly pissy.

Now there may be disagreements as to the exact meaning of the word pissy. But in this case, I’m going with annoying. She had a tendency to flounce, particularly around the hero, sometimes folding her arms across her chest and narrowing her eyes as she did so. I don’t recall her stamping her foot, but she might have. It would have been in character.

Now granted, the hero was no prize himself. He was one of those classic eighties heroes, the over-confident billionaire who expected the heroine to fall into his arms immediately because…well, just because, damn it! But he was also honest about his attraction to her, whereas she did her best to pretend she wasn’t attracted to him because she wasn’t about to be attracted to anybody who was such a doodyhead.

Thus the flouncing and stamping. She wasn’t going to let him know she cared.

As I say, this was an early book, mid-eighties as I recall. But I also recall that the pissy heroine seemed to be standard at that time. Lots of heroines stamped their feet, flounced their curls, and gave the hero that smoldering, narrow-eyed look that meant I’m really just pretending to be pissed. I’m actually very interested, even though I may not realize it yet. So come and get me, Big Boy.

Well, that was then, this is now. You don’t see many pissy heroines anymore, thank the good lord. Heroines in current romances may be angry with the hero, but it’s usually with good cause. Moreover, if they’re angry, they’re more likely to say so and to explain just where the hero fell short and just what he should do about it. The whole anger-as-aphrodisiac plot has sort of fallen by the wayside, and that’s a very good thing for one big reason: That particular plot seems to assume that women don’t really know their own minds where men are concerned. Or that they do but they frequently pretend otherwise, so men really shouldn’t take no for an answer. And that, my friends, is a very dangerous idea.

I say that plot has fallen by the wayside, but there’s one area where it hasn’t yet—the Hollywood rom com. There you’ll still see Kate Hudson or Katherine Heigl stamping her pretty little foot and pouting at the big strong man who’s supposed to come on over and kiss her silly. A lot of these rom coms don’t make a lot of money, and Hollywood wisdom is that it’s because women aren’t a reliable audience. I’d suggest that’s getting it backwards. Women are a very reliable audience. We’ve just grown up a lot since 1985.

DNF – Meg Benjamin

I have to admit—I was inspired to write this by my friend M.J. Fredrick, who blogged about it first. And I have to also admit that we were both “inspired” by the same book. I’m not going to tell you which book it was—the author is one of my favorites and her other books are wonderful. But this one was a clinker. I really tried to read it, but after the first couple of chapters, I found it heavy going. And then I found myself skimming. And then I stopped altogether. I may go back to this book someday (I bought it, after all, in hardback), but not soon.

I always feel a little guilty when I give up on a book, but I do it fairly regularly, particularly with new authors. I usually give a new author a chapter, sometimes two, to get my interest. But I admit there are some things that will automatically lose me. For example, if the characters are not only clichés, but clichés I don’t like (the big strong alpha, the prissy heroine), I may toss the book even before I finish that first chapter. If the book is a paranormal and the first chapter is chockfull of exotic creatures that the author has to explain in detail, I’ll probably give up because I’ll never be able to remember the difference between a Xanthrimpic demon and a Ziggunal sprite. If the small town is either too dull or too eccentric, I’ll give it a pass. And if the book has a whiny first-person narrator whose boyfriend has just left her after she was fired by her horrid boss while her harpy mother rants from the bathroom, I probably won’t get by the first page.

But in fact I can usually recognize some of those books from the blurb, so I don’t even take them home. The more difficult ones are the books I start but then lose interest in the deeper I venture into the plot. Because you can’t always tell from the first chapter. Sometimes you get sort of intrigued but then discover you’re losing interest quickly. Instead of looking forward to spending thirty minutes reading another chapter, you’re looking for something else to do instead. Those are the really disheartening books. Because you wanted them to succeed, you really did. Yet the deeper into the book you got, the less involved you became. Those I may skim through just to see how everything ends. But I won’t keep reading; the author lost me.

And that’s what this all boils down to—the author and I didn’t connect. I’d like to say that as an author I can learn from this. But I doubt that I can. My taste is my own. Some things I dislike, others may like a lot (Titanic, for example). Sadly, there’s no surefire way to write a book everybody will read. Believe me, if there were, Nora Roberts would already have discovered it!

So what makes you stop reading? Or do you?

Don’t I Even Get Dinner?

Over the last couple of months, I’ve managed to read several books that all had the same plot point: the couples headed more or less straight for bed as soon as they met. Sometimes even before they met, as in “Gee that’s a cool guy standing in the alley there, I think I’ll jump him.”

Now as we all know, constant randyness seems to be pretty standard in romance. I mean, geez, you want the h/h to be panting over each other fairly quickly. But do you really want them acting on their hormones within the first twenty pages? I should also say I’m not talking about erotica here, where the rules are obviously different, but about regular old plain-vanilla romance.

Sometimes I think this motif works. Urban fantasy uses it a lot, and it becomes a way to not only work in some really hot scenes, as in Eve Silver’s Sins of the Flesh, but also as a kind of metaphor for the characters’ desperation. In Silver’s case, the heroine is deliberately avoiding any kind of real contact with another human being, so anonymous sex is pretty much part of the package.

But what about characters who aren’t either sporting a few extra supernatural genes or part of an erotic sequence? What does it do to the story if your hero or heroine jumps into the sack with the first attractive person he/she comes across? For me, I guess it depends on the way things work themselves out. One standard formula, for example, is best described as “Oh my god, I can’t believe I did that, how can I look at him from now on?” A certain portion of the rest of the book is devoted to the heroine’s angst over having been so reckless, usually as the result of having been a) drunk or b) under the influence of some extreme emotional state. I can accept this (although it often means the heroine is something of a ditz) if that’s not the only thing that’s happening in the plot. But if the book now centers around the heroine’s mortification, it’s going to be a long, long slog.

I guess I really prefer to watch the sexual tension grow between characters, to see them gradually move closer and closer to that sex scene so that you can build up some anticipation for what will happen between them. I like heroes and heroines who are a little, shall we say, selective. Who spend some time scoping out a potential partner rather than rushing right into the clinch.

So which do you prefer—the heroine who gets it on with the stranger in the alley or the heroine who waits at least a week or so before she and the hero do the double-backed boogie? Yes, I’m overstating it, but it’s my party and I’ll cheat if I want to! –Meg Benjamin

“Nobody Likes To Read” – Meg Benjamin

So I’m driving around one day listening to Terry Gross on Fresh Air, one of my favorite NPR shows. She’s interviewing this guy whose name escapes me. He’s a big-time literary fiction author, and he’s just done Something Really Daring—he made a trailer for his latest book. Terry asked him why and his answer was, “Well, nobody likes to read these days, so you have to reach them with other things.”

I, of course, was sort of amazed to hear that. Nobody likes to read? Really? That’s not the way I hear it over here in Romanceland. A lot of romance readers are really voracious. I read a couple of books a week myself depending on length, and I know others who read four or five. And lots of us have huge To Be Read piles made up of books we’ve heard about and bought and are now trying to find time to read. So where exactly is Mr. Serious Writer getting this idea that nobody likes to read anymore?

What he really means, I think, is that nobody likes to read the kind of fiction he and his fellow lit fic writers are putting out. Even that’s a gross exaggeration, of course, as the New York Times bestseller lists will attest. However, what really frosts me about all of this is that Mr. Serious Writer probably didn’t even think about romance readers and writers when he made that statement. To the serious literary world, we don’t exist. And the fact that we buy a lot of books, read a lot of books, and write a lot of books is irrelevant to their argument. Readers only count if they read a certain kind of literature. If they don’t, they’re not really reading.

So here’s what I’d like to say to Mr. Literary Fiction, if I had the chance. Okay, buddy, let’s get something straight. We do read. We like to read. Not only that, but we’re responsible for the popularity of a lot of innovations that are currently keeping you and your pals above water, including book trailers. Granted, our book trailers don’t star James Franco, the way yours does, but we’re the ones who made book trailers popular. Moreover, we’re among the ones who helped establish the popularity of ebooks and ebook readers. If you and your crew are smart, you’ll hop onto that bandwagon next, followed, I suspect, by self-pubbing. You and your friends will undoubtedly go on ignoring us and our contribution to the current revolution in publishing, but at least you need to acknowledge we’re out here.

Not that anything I say is likely to make much difference on this topic. No, if the number of readers of this guy’s books continues to decline, he’ll undoubtedly decide that books have simply ceased to matter to the general public. After all, nobody likes to read. Nora Robert? Who’s she?