Monday, February 20, 2006


I've been reading romances outside of my comfort zone lately (i.e. no gory suspense mixed in), and I'm feeling the need to go off on a minor rant. I don't want to trash any writer in particular--one person's yuck is another person's keeper book, after all--so I'm going to make a generic statement here: What is UP with fake sexual tension fillers?

Rest assured, I am aware that my own writing is faaaaaar from perfect. But I'm going to take off my writer hat and just speak as a reader for a moment. I just finished a book that was basically a litany of body parts from page one to page three-hundred-and-one, and I'm bitter, people. I don't have as much time to read with two kids under two as I used to, and I resent having my time--even just a fraction--taken up by a lazy book made up primarily of forced sexual tension fillers. An hour of reading, an hour closer to death, and where did it get me? Nowhere, that's where.

I'm not talking about love scenes, but rather, about those sentences that have Heroine A appreciating pieces of Hero B in the middle of day-to-day activities, and vice versa. For example, in one of the books-that-shall-remain-anonymous, we start off on page one with the hero noticing the heroine's "shapely legs." (Do guys use the word "shapely" in real life? Bleh.) Shortly thereafter, the heroine notices how the hero "fills out his shirt." A few sentences later, the hero notices how the heroine's "lovely bottom" moves when she walks. And then, even though we still haven't turned the page, the heroine notices the hero's ... uh, never mind. I just don't want to go there. But rest assured, the basic anatomy lesson continues, page by ponderous page, sentence by painfully dull sentence, all the way to the bitter end. (Or, at least to page 100, which is where I officially declared the book a wall-thrower and proceeded to bash it against the nearest wall. This is rather minor for me; I once got so spun up about a book--by a beloved author who apparently went insane and spoiled an AWESOME series--that I dropped it in my driveway in the hopes that I'd get the pleasure of running over it a few times before it biodegraded.) I actually loved the premise and the scraps of a plot threaded in between the body parts. But there just wasn't enough to sustain my interest--or my readerly goodwill toward that particular author.

To me, this appreciation of the parts over the whole is not sexy. It does not tell me a lot about the characters. It does not advance the plot--in fact, it brings the pacing to a screeching halt. It does not make me wish these two people will get together and wonder how they will do so. Basically, it's like playing a bloody game of Head, Shoulders, Knees, and Toes, adult-style. And really, I'd rather stick a pencil in my eye than read something like this, because at least that would be a little exciting.

This kind of lazy writing frustrates me to no end, because I spend a lot of time defending the romance genre (Yes, there are actual plots. No, it's not all sex scenes. Yes, there is actually some suspense in an Intrigue. No, I did not model the heroine after myself because I'm frustrated and bored with my life. Yes, I can string together a coherent sentence. No, there is not a formula that makes these things as easy as doing a paint-by-numbers. Yes, I do read the books and they are smart and interesting. Yes, I do have a master's in literature. No, I do not care that you are laughing at me.... ALL RIGHT, THAT'S IT. HAVE YOU EVER READ ONE? THEN BACK THE CRUNK OFF!), and books that are all body parts do not showcase the funny, suspenseful, well-written, intelligent books that are out there in the genre. They give weight to every smart-mouthed reporter or smug trade-paperback reader that says all romance novels are trashy or, at least, badly written.

As a reader, I don't care about the heroine's damn shapely legs (and I'll never use that word in conversation). I don't care about the veins in the hero's forearms. I don't care about the heroine's double-Ds. And I certainly don't care about how the hero fills out the front of his jeans. I just don't care. Sure, a little of that stuff is fine and perhaps necessary (I'm sure I've done some of it myself), but every page? Does it have to be on every page? Why are you doing this to me? Why? Why? (Maybe I know why.) I bought your book because I wanted an escape from work and diapers and my writer's block. Don't I deserve a little character development?

Here's what I want: I want three-dimensional characters that I care about, and a plot that keeps me turning pages. I want Grace Kelly climbing into a murder suspect's house while James Stewart sits immobilized in his apartment and realizes he loves her just as the killer catches her in the act. I want Sandra Bullock pretending to be a comatose guy's fiancee, only to find herself falling for his brother and trapped by her lies. I want Kelly McGillis chasing pre-mental-breakdown Tom Cruise down a busy highway and telling him he's the best damn pilot she's ever seen and she's falling for him. I want Moira Kelly telling D.B. Sweeney that they're doing the Pamchenko to win the figure skating pairs gold at the Olympics because he's just told her he loves her. (OK, that one is sappy, but I love it anyway.) And was there a dry eye in the house when Renee Zellweger told (pre-mental-breakdown) Tom Cruise he had her at hello? The best romance books in the genre have the same effect as these movies--it's about the people and their stories, not their heads, shoulders, knees, and toes.

Basically, every reader out there wants a story. We're all looking for that book that makes us forget the world and not want to sleep until we reach the end--that kind of book (Pride and Prejudice, The Eight, Ender's Game, O Pioneers) is rare and magical. And we're not going to give that to someone by churning out a saccharine and dull series of physical descriptions masquerading as character development. We're all better writers than that. Our work and our readers deserve more.

Just my opinion, of course. Done now.


The Queen-a Athena said...

Good points, Tracy. I agree - people get so focused on "sexual tension/appreciation + romance" that they often lose track of the rest of it, the heart and the emotion and the basic need that goes deeper than sexual. Heaven knows it's a lot harder to write it without constant body parts, but it's worth the work. (Though I admit, any heroine who gets fixated on the guy's voice will always be one I identify with.)

But - confession time? I NEVER understood the appeal of Tom Cruise, pre-or-after meltdown. Jerry Maguire left me cold. I mean, if the guy really wanted to make a difference, shouldn't he have stopeed being a frickin' SPORTS AGENT and, oh, maybe join the Peace Corps?

Tracy Montoya said...

Kris, the voice thing works for me, too. SOME of that can really work--but this particular book just went way overboard.

Tom Cruise totally leaves me cold now, but I loved Jerry Maguire. But you're right--maybe he should have joined the Peace Corps! Ha!

The Queen-a Athena said...

Here's a thought, Tracy - you should submit this rant to Romancing the Blog. I bet you'd get lots of interesting responses f it was posted there.

Tracy Montoya said...

They have an open blog night, Kris, but unfortunately they won't accept blog entries previously published on your own blog. Oh, well, someday I might have some traffic! Thanks for the thought!

MaryF said...

Tracy, I know JUST what you mean. I think it's just hard to get a grasp on what sexual and romantic tension mean (I couldn't tell you) so writers take that way out.

Kris, I'm with you on Jerry Maguire (in fact I just blogged about Cameron Crowe movies today). Didn't get it.

MaryF said...

Damn, I posted - where did it go?

Tracy, I think a lot of writers just don't know how to add sexual and romantic tension (I know I couldn't tell anyone how, and no one seems to be able to tell me how) so they take the easy way out.

Kris, I'm with you on Jerry Maguire. In fact, I just blogged about Cameron Crowe movies today.

MaryF said...

Blast, I just read the green notice at the top. Will stop double posting now.

Tracy Montoya said...

Yes, but Mary, you made me look popular! Hehehe.

Too funny that you blogged about Jerry Maguire, too. I'll go check it out....

Lynn M said...

I LOVED that moment with Moira Kelly and D.B. Sweeney, and then when their routine ended and he kissed her in front of all those people...sigh. Total sap but so great.

Wonderful post. Your rant mirrors my feelings about those books that use mental lusting as a form of sexual tension. Nearly every other paragraphs features a sentence or more of how the hero/heroine desires the heroine/hero unlike he/she's ever desired anyone before, and how much they'd (I'm killing the he/she) kill to get the other one horizontal. And even worse is when this mental lusting begins about 3.5 minutes after the two have met for the first time. Doesn't make me think so much of sexual tension and romance as a need to visit a doctor to get hormonal levels checked and possible medication.

Tracy Montoya said...

HA! Lynn, that was hilarious, and I agree with every bit of it. Nice use of he/she, btw! I too often resort to the grammatically incorrect "they," which is just tacky. : )

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Tracy Montoya writes romantic suspense for Harlequin Intrigue.

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