Tuesday, May 3, 2016

Professor Russo Was Right by Vonnie Davis

Most of you know I didn't start college until I was forty-four. I was in a deep depression over my divorce and dealing with an empty nest with my daughter married and living in another state and my two sons in college. Then my older son talked me into going to college. "Please, Mom, you've got to do something with yourself. Take a creative writing course or something!" Well, I've never been one to do things halfway, so I enrolled as a fulltime student, which meant I worked fulltime at night, attended classes during the day and slept whenever I could. It was marvelous!

I qualified for Honor's English and Professor Russo impressed upon us to "know our audience." She claimed we wouldn't know how to write if we didn't have a solid grasp of WHOM we were writing for. One writes differently for a data-hungry, scientific community, for example, than one would for fantasy enthusiasts where the author must do extensive world building.

As romance writers, we get that. Let's take description, for example. Any time we write outside the average reader's frame of reference in, say, historical or paranormal sub-genres, description becomes more important. Because we are removing our readers from their known world to another.

But there are other factors to consider in identifying our readers. An important one is AGE.

I recently saw on a show similar to "Sixty Minutes," if it wasn't that show itself, that the Millennials now command a larger market share Baby Boomers. Stores and businesses are now targeting the greenbacks these thirty to forty somethings hold in their young wrinkle-free hands. Well, that makes sense, doesn't it? Business is business.

Now, let me lead you farther on that same thought trail--

I've been concerned about my book sales. While better than they've ever been, they still aren't what I'd call fantastic. I did make the Amazon's Best Seller list for three whole hours, but that accomplishment like a butterfly quickly flitted away. So I emailed my editor at Random House and laid out my concerns. Were there any weaknesses in my writing she was seeing? How could I improve so I could up my sales rankings?  

She assured me it wasn't me. "It's the crazy market," she said. "We've been on this pleasing the Millennials trajectory for the past couple years. Our stories need to be more character driven and less plot driven." Then she told me something I thought I'd never hear an editor say. "Vonnie, you need to dumb down your writing."

WHAT?

"Why do you think I had you rewrite the final half of your last book? While there was technically nothing wrong with it, the plot was too heavy. The readers wouldn't have gotten it."

Okay, so maybe describing how a SEAL planted explosives so the building would implode instead of explode was a little too intricate...or how snipers scrambled onto roofs...or wound care was given to a SEAL while on a flying helicopter could be construed as heavy stuff. But had the reader seen it in a move, they'd have gotten it. I hadn't written rocket science. I'd written suspense.

My editor didn't stop there with her wounding. "You also take the reader into deep point of view which is fine for the older reader, the baby boomer generation. The millennials don't like it. They want you to tell them how to feel. It's okay for you to write I felt angry or I felt hurt."

I nearly toppled out of my chair!

My editor's remarks took me back to Professor Russo's class at Penn State. Know your audience. Silly me, I thought romance readers were alike everywhere. Granted we all have our preferences. Regency over paranormal, perhaps. Or sweet romances over erotic. I get that. It's a matter of personal taste. But to have writing rules change by an age group is ... Just. Too. Much.

I've worked extremely hard to learn point of view, to become familiar with all the powerful nuances of it to gloss over it now. My editor gave me the link to a book to read and study--the second book of The Cocky Bastards seriesSince it's the book all the pubs in NYC are raving about--dear Lord, what are they drinking up there???--she was sure my reading this book that was holding Amazon's top rankings would help me. She wanted me to understand what constituted a character driven story. Heck, I thought I already knew. *shakes head in shame*

The plot was mainly how could this billionaire, who yells at his employees so badly, he's had 74 secretaries in 4 years, wants to get into the heroine's pants. He never struck me as the "hero" type. It was character driven, I'll give it that. Their initial banter was fun; their comedic timing, perfect. But halfway through the book, the ballsy, comical heroine I liked turned into an insecure, whiny woman. The hero allowed his ex-fiancĂ© to run his life because of a secret child. He practically became the "ex's" slave. So, the character arc for both the heroine and hero was skewed in a different direction--instead of growing into better people, they'd morphed into two weakened unlikable souls. The book had two authors and it was quite evident where one stopped and the other writer took over. 

My editor is calling me this afternoon to discuss my next series. I have no clue what to write about. I've got nothing to propose. She claims she has some ideas for me. I'm asking her point blank who she's expecting me to write for--the ones who understand romance or the ones I have to tell how to feel. Because I'm not dummying down anything. Reading is supposed to help you learn. That's why we do meticulous research. With the thin plots I'm seeing, no one researches. There's simply no need.

Forgive my long rant, ladies. I'm provoked and shocked and, yes dammit, disheartened. I don't dummy down. It. Just. Ain't. Happening.

22 comments:

Jannine Gallant said...

Oh! My! God!!! Dumb down your writing? Are you freaking kidding me? First off, she's saying that an entire generation of readers is stupid? How insulting is that? What, you have to be old like us to have a brain and enjoy reading decent writing? I'd rather not make money if making money means writing crap. What ever happened to writing what you're passionate about? I'm mad on your behalf that they're suggesting what you should write because it's what they think "stupid" people want to read. I'll try to calm down now, but I just want to tell your editor to let you choose your own damn series concept and then let you do the excellent job you'll surely do to bring it to life!

My pub asked me for a proposal for a new series. I stopped writing and spent a week thinking about it then gave them a two page proposal that included an overall series concept plus three glorified blurbs. They told me they wanted a few chapters. I'm still working on the fourth book in my current series, which hasn't even started releasing yet, and I didn't want to switch my focus to something different. So, I told my editor they'd just have to wait until I was ready to write those chapter--in August. She said she'd tell them and she didn't see why they'd throw a fit since it wouldn't serve any useful purpose. Honestly, I felt good about standing up for what I wanted instead of caving in to pressure. I'll give them better chapters when I'm ready to focus on something new. By the same token, you'll write your best material when it's something you're passionate about. My advice, stand up for yourself and be proud of your writing and yourself. You're Vonnie Davis, and you rock!

Rolynn Anderson said...

Okay, you two are in a completely different realm than I am. I had three books accepted by Wild Rose, then took back one of those three. I have no agent and no publisher now, telling me what to do. Though I believe that someone out there understands what readers want, I'm not sure how we figure out who that person is. The more I learn about Amazon, the more I realize I can't guess what sells and to whom. I'll continue writing what moves my critique groups and my editor and me. In the end, that's the best I can do. Vonnie, you know more about people and humor and conflict than most women I know. Trust your gut...not theirs...and I think you'll do the right thing!

Leah St. James said...

I'm with Jannine in this one...outraged! My son has been telling me that "readers are stupid," but up until now, I didn't believe him! I think reading "I'm angry" is so, so boring! I'd rather write for myself than dumb it down. I'm not even sure I could! How did we get to this point?!

Vonnie Davis said...

Jannine, when my editor and I were having this back and forth email conversation, I kept thinking about book two of my series laying on desk waiting for her to read through for content. She does the content editing. Copy editing points out all grammatical errors, etc.

My wounded hero in the book waiting for the editor to read is a lover of Greek tragedies and poetry. When he has night terrors of his brief captivity where he was severely tortured, I had written this...A poem from Aeschylus, a Greek tragic dramatist, came to mind. “He who learns must suffer, and, even in our sleep, pain that cannot forget falls drop by drop upon the heart, and in our own despair, against our will, comes wisdom to us….”

So, knowing she has a Greek lit loving hero to read about even as she's telling me to dummy down my writing, I just smiled. I thought, oh lady, wait until you read this book. LOL Surprisingly, she loved it and asked I throw in a few more "F" bombs because soldiers do swear more and add on an epilogue. So, a day of editing and I was done. But I'm still seething over this "dummy down" business. I'm meticulous in my research. I love it almost as much as I love the writing process. No, Vonnie doesn't do dummy.

Margo Hoornstra said...

Yes, well, passionate topic anyone? I'd heard that dumb it down credo before. In fact, way back in the day when I tried writing stories for the romance magazines, honest to gosh, their guidelines specified to write to a third grade reading level. That being said, my father was a writer and when it became evident I wanted to go into the family business as it were, he always stressed the mantras of "write what you know" and "know your audience" or don't bother. Unless, of course, you want to write only for yourself, but then again, why bother? His take anyway. However, all is not lost. IMHO. This week end I went to a writers' retreat where there were a number of published authors, many successful, who wrote romance. We touched on the fact the millennials have outnumbered us baby boomers, but it was also noted by those in the know that there is a new market coming up that is seeking the (ahem) more mature protagonists. It will be interesting to see what happens. Oh, and, someone also mentioned those millennial kids require different teaching methods in order to learn, that could be where the 'dumb it down' concept comes from. Alllllll that being said, maybe this audience your editor talks about isn't your particular audience, Vonnie. Maybe there are other audiences out there for you. Or maybe I'm all wet. As a side note, I went back to college in my forties like you, and earned my degree the same year as my oldest daughter. Great minds as they say. Oh, and, keep us posted with the progress of your newest series, whatever that may be!

Liz Flaherty said...

I still don't think "readers are stupid," but I believe marketing thinks they are--and always have. That's not a new thing. I really don't see what being character- or plot-driven has to do with dumbing down, either--those differences have been there forever. (Of course, I write character-driven, so I see that differently.) But the very idea of an editor suggesting dumbing down is horrifying. Like everyone else, I have some auto-buys who have been around for quite some time and whose books still make the lists Every Single Time. As a baby boomer reader, I know full well those writers haven't dumbed down anything.

Keep us informed as to how this goes, Vonnie, and thanks for sharing that conversation.

Vonnie Davis said...

Thanks, Rolynn. I don't have an agent either. I fired her a year and a half ago. Gee, I sound like a bee-otch to work with, don't I? LOL Random House doesn't mind contracting with me personally since they know my writing. I've been able to have them add that, while I write exclusively for them, I can also self-publish what I chose. I'll be self-pubbing my first three books with TWRP that I got the rights back to a couple years ago. They are my focus for this year.

It's odd. Editors don't like cowboy romances. I love reading them and evidently so do plenty of others because authors who adore the sub-genre are self-publishing them and doing fairly well. Editors aren't always crazy about paranormals, yet readers of my bear shifters write to ask when I'm writing more of those stories. Editors don't know everything. They follow trends. Trends don't last for long. Something written with creativity and a splash of spirit holds its strength longer, don't you think?

Vonnie Davis said...

Leah, when I read something like..."I feel his eyes watching me and I know what he's thinking. He's thinking he wants me. He's thinking I'll be easy to take back to his love nest and have his way with. My skin hums as I think of all the obscene things he could do to me." ... well, I just want to yell, "Yeah, and I think you're an idiot."

I read many authors who write in first person. Younger readers like that. I can handle reading it. First person, present tense IMO works well with fantasy and paranormal where you want the action to fly around you like a 3-D movie. It takes me awhile to slip into a comfort zone with that style of writing, but I can if it's done well. I'm not sure I could do it. Although I have written several short stories--5 pages--for a writers group using that approach.

Vonnie Davis said...

Margo, I loved going to college as a non-traditional student. In fact, my oldest son transferred to my school for his final semester just so he could say he went to college with his mother. We'd meet at the library and have lunch together at the dining hall. I'll never forget his third or fourth day on campus, he stormed into the library, slammed his books onto the table where I was working, and huffed, "If I have one MORE professor tell me he or she hopes I'm half the student my mother is, I'm going to scream!" He was carrying a 4.0 at the time and his academia feathers were ruffled. LOL

I hope there is room for the more mature heroine, Margo. That I could get into.

Vonnie Davis said...

Liz, I felt like she was accusing me of writing snooty, high-brow, boring nonsense. How could an editor possibly suggest I write in a shallow pov? I'm still befuddled over that one.

Brenda Whiteside said...

Okay y'all, you may label me conspiracy theorist, but this dumbing down thing has been going on in our society long enough that it's finally hit the fiction market. At least, it sounds like it. It's true that I've always heard if you write for the masses (like newspaper I would guess) you have to write to a third grade level. I could understand that sad but true fact. Just a truth of the educational system. But you would think our "audience" wouldn't fall there. Unfortunately, I think our educational system combined with our high tech society has created people who do need to be told what they feel. Make it quick, make it easy, don't make me have to get too involved. But...I'll refuse, too. I still believe the written word can take us to a higher level. We should be able to get lost in fiction and learn, even from romance. I say we ban dumbing down!

Diane Burton said...

I agree with Jannine's first sentence--only I'd put it stronger, like with the F-bomb. Never, never dumb down your writing. Can you imagine how insulted the average reader would be? I'd be furious! I am furious that an editor would say such a thing. Yes, I know Millenials are different from us Baby Boomers, but they aren't stupid. They grew up with video games and sound bites. So what? Her comment reminds me of the teacher who told me to quit wasting my time reading. (She thought I should be doing homework, which was done.) I am so glad I work for myself. No agent, a freelance editor (Alicia), and I pub myself.

This is another example of how the publishing industry doesn't get the reading public. Shame.

Alison Henderson said...

I'm angry on your behalf, Vonnie. On those very rare occasions when I regret not pursuing a contract with a major publisher, I remind myself why--I'm in control, and I can write my stories the way I think they should be written. I think your editor and her colleagues are way off base, but maybe it's me.

My Millennial-aged daughter and her friends are brilliant (PhDs and DVMs), highly imaginative, and discerning readers. They grew up loving fantasy and science fiction, but THEY ALL READ ROMANCE. Any author who wrote down to them would be tossed out like yesterday's newspaper.

Alison Henderson said...

Vonnie, when I shared this with OG (who majored in English at Princeton), he said to tell you that Maxwell Perkins, the editor of F. Scott Fitzgerald, Ernest Hemingway, and Thomas Wolfe, never told his writers to add more sex or swearing. You have every reason to be outraged.

Leah St. James said...

I don't really believe all readers are stupid, like my son said. I mean...we're all readers, and we're not stupid! :-) And there are massive best-sellers (like the Outlander series) that are anything but dumbed-down. I think Brenda makes a good point though that there has been a trend toward delivering content in fast, easily digestible modules, bullet points. I knew that was the case in news -- thus the fact that so many younger people get their news from Facebook or other social media -- but I always thought the very nature of fiction (painting a moving picture, in essence, with words) would overcome that effect or tendency. I always figured with a really good book, even readers who like to skim bullet points in a news item would get drawn in. I'm going to believe that, in any event, even if I'm only writing to old folks like myself. :-)

Vonnie Davis said...

Yes, Brenda, I'm against dumbing down, too. I love learning as I read. I don't mind stopping to look up a word I don't know because I'm learning something. I have no issue with being pulled out of the story for 2 minutes while I increase my vocabulary. Teach me an unknown fact and I love it. I hope I'll always be a lifelong learner. It keeps the mind young.

Vonnie Davis said...

Diane, thanks for your comments. I don't enjoy having my intelligence insulted which is why my teeth grind when someone uses he/she asked after using a ? mark. A question mark only has one function. ONE. To indicate the previous string of words were spoken in a questioning manner, so why add the "asked tag?" It's as if the author thinks the reader is too stupid to know what that cute little curvaceous sign means. So, yeah, don't insult me as a reader. I won't forget it.

Vonnie Davis said...

Yes, Alison, Calvin and I often talk of Perkins. Calvin did his Masters thesis on Thomas Wolfe. Perkins would allow--and practically insist--that Wolfe bring his manuscript in to him in a trunk. He would painstakingly read and organize the myriad shapes of loose hand written papers. Imagine an editor doing that today?

My editor and I did talk on the phone for an hour this afternoon. I'd started book 3 of the series, writing the romance of the team's leader, ZQ, per contract. Now she wants me to make that a minor romance within a romance I don't feel the characters are ready for because the heroine is still recovering from horrific sexual abuse in the middle east. She needs more healing. I've been doing it in slow, believable degrees. In book one, she could barely talk on the phone. In book two, she's come to the ranch and hides her femininity by dressing and keeping her hair styled like a man. She and the proposed hero have shared glances, shy smiles, and one touch of hands before he goes off on a mission. To make book three about their romance is too soon in my opinion.

So my 3 chapters already written with the Commander as the hero are for naught. My great opening hook is useless. I'll need to start over and quickly write a first chapter to include in the back of book two that is ready to go onto the next step in the pipeline.

I am ticked. No matter how much she praised my writing. So, meanwhile I'm also to write a stand alone book in first person NOT dummied down that should reach out and grab the millennials by the throat because she knows I can do it. Little plot, just strong, relatable characters who lust first and fall in love later because the sex was sooooo fabulous.

Jannine Gallant said...

Vonnie, you need a new publisher. Just saying...

Mackenzie Crowne said...

I'm with Jannine. Just sayin'. The thing is, there are always going to be romance readers who just want the punch of sex. Likewise, there will be the readers who crave the story. I'm in the latter category. I want to experience the adventure you're showing me. If all I want is the sex, porn is everywhere. I firmly believe switching your writing style to someone else's idea of what sells is a sure fire way to destroy your beautiful, funny, rich voice.

Alicia Dean said...

Wow, I'm in shock too. I'm sorry you're having this experience. I can't believe any reader would want to be TOLD how to feel. To me, that's not even dumbing down your writing, it's lazy, telling, and not very engaging. As for dumbing down, I also like to learn things when I'm reading and if I don't understand a word, I can look it up too. However, usually, I get it based on context and I've learned something without being taken out of the story. On the other hand, I think that an author should avoid using unnecessarily lengthy, sophisticated words just to show off. It's better to let the story flow with natural, simple language (By simple, I don't mean language for dummies, I just mean concise and 'normal' language :)). Your writing is excellent, and you draw the readers in and when you are sharing your research, as a reader, I just feel like I'm experiencing it along with the character. I don't think you need to change a thing, but when an editor tells you to, it's a difficult situation. It's also not good to force characters into a relationship they aren't ready for...good luck with all of that!

Alicia Dean said...

One more thing...I have to wonder if there is SOME truth to the fact that 'dumb' writing appeals to the masses. Otherwise, a book that shall remain nameless, but is poorly written, filled with a lot of unbelievable and uninteresting over the top sex, and features annoying and unbelievable characters, would not have been so wildly popular. (As a book and movie).