What Women Like (To Read)

Over Sunday lunch with my parents, as we somehow ended up talking about the often vulgar way sex is portrayed on House of Cards (yes, really; and I have no idea how we got on that topic either), my mother declared nonchalantly:

Your father and I aren’t embarrassed to see sex on TV. We’ve had sex.

After we all stopped laughing at that inadvertent motherly masterpiece (my wife was reduced almost to tears), I found myself thinking again on the issue of sex and romance in novels. Which is no shock really. I think about aspects of my writing seemingly most of my waking hours.

Over the next couple of days, I considered the bigger picture. I also remembered a bit I’d written in Passports. I feel this is accidentally useful to illustrate this post:

Joanne realized someone was missing and asked Isabelle, “Where is my Foreign Service dreaming son anyway?”

“I think he is upstairs,” Isabelle replied.

“Oh, find something,” Joanne urged her husband as she walked around to the sofa to sit down next to him.

“I’m looking,” Jim replied. “Hey, what’s this?” He had stopped on a film channel.

“No idea,” Joanne answered. “What’s it called?”

The film was fading in.

“It’s French,” he observed. “Isabelle’s here tonight.”

Isabelle watched the screen with them, and what James’s father had chosen hit her as he began to read out the title. “Change it! Turn over the channel! Now!” she laughed.

Jim sat frozen momentarily. “What?”

James’s mother grasped quicker why Isabelle was demanding that. Joanne derided him. “You blind?”

At the sight of the increasingly explicit sex, [James’s grandmother] Lucy roared, “Mamma mia! That’s French alright!”

Jim jumped stations and ended up landing on a home shopping channel for a safe haven.

“I did not mean to sound rude, Joanne,” Isabelle giggled as she explained her adamancy. “That is a film that is, uh, it is a very French film. I don’t know if that is for us tonight.”

“I swear Pilgrim State’s next,” Joanne assailed her husband. “What would her mother think? I’m going to have you committed!”

I had recently also posted on my struggling to not write “cringeworthy” sex scenes. That brought forth this comment from Sandra Wheeler, who’s authoring the online, erotic novel Falling In Cascades:

I love this post, and I feel your pain. I cringe at myself all the time, but one needs to make start. I also tend to overtweak, and that usually makes it worse 😉

A few weeks ago, I also discussed with a (male) friend, who is writing what I would rate as a seriousguy book,” that I have by now become comfortable with writing novels which may by default, yes, appeal more to women than to men. Yet I’ve not given up on constructing them to appeal to men too. It is just extremely difficult to hit both audiences.

Free Stock Photo: A long stem red rose on a white background.
Free Stock Photo: A long stem red rose on a white background.

I admit as man that writing for women characters is a challenge. But we men are not without romance in our souls too. That latter contention is, of course, an assertion my wife never fails to (smilingly) remind me of every chance she gets:

You seem to know quite a bit about what certain French girls think…. and I know why.

Uh, and moving swiftly along, I don’t consider my tale “romance.” It is as much about culture, travel, life abroad, diverse relationships and companionship. But it naturally does have substantial romance woven into that, so “what women like” in that regard is absolutely vital to me.

I get a mishmash of answers to this query from every woman I ask, so I figured I would toss this out there into the WordPress world and see if any of you care to share your literary opinion too? 1) Do women steer away from “romance” when they know it’s written by a man? 2) And if they don’t, would they nevertheless still see “romance” composed by a man differently than that authored by a woman? 🙂

6 thoughts on “What Women Like (To Read)

  1. fallingincascades July 29, 2014 / 10:36 am

    Thanks for the mention, Robert.
    I guess my answer is much in line with the “mishmash” of answers you already mentioned in your post, and I honestly believe there is no formula. Maybe there is common ground, I don’t know. At the end of the day, we can only speak for ourselves, not for “women” or “men”.

    My stories are often cheesy, sometimes tropey and nearly always rather blunt and rude (eclectic mix, that ;)). I know some people hate it, and others like it. The reason that some told me they liked it encouraged me to finally, albeit still carefully, dip my toe in.

    Ultimately, we can’t write for everyone. I was never one to make a distinction between “good and bad” writing (obvious things like spelling etc. aside). If people like to read it, who am I to say they have bad taste? Maybe it’s me…

    More to the point: I tried to write with the audience in mind in the past, (and I know that’s what we’re all trying to do if we want to publish), but it stifles me. I am an extreme pantser, and if I think too much about whether people will like it or hate it, whether it’s clichéd, if the arc is okay, if I should dare to use all three C words or not, if men or women will be reading it, I get nothing done, and the white page is staring back at me for the rest of the day. Same applies to extreme plotting in advance by the way.
    My way of writing has its challenges. As mentioned in the quote: I get lost often, and I constantly cringe at myself. I usually cringe more if I begin to self-edit too heavily though.

    It is my ultimate belief that we should write in a way that we’re comfortable with. Whether this applies to the language we use, the stories we create, or even the way we write a love/sex-scene doesn’t matter. If we change this because we think too much about whom we are writing for, it starts to sound/read unnatural. At least that’s what it feels like to me, other people might see it differently. I would like to think though that the audience feels the same way, and is able to make that distinction, too.

    The question to ask is probably:
    Should we find our audience, or should the audience find us? And isn’t that ultimately the same thing (note: I am not talking about marketing now, that’s a whole different subject)?

    Long story short:
    1. I don’t steer away from romance just because it is written by a man. I like it, or I don’t. I’ve read romance and erotica written by women, and it didn’t click with me at all. And that’s totally fine. NEXT! 😉
    2. No, I wouldn’t see it differently. Again: I like it, or I don’t. I find the male perspective fascinating, and I get much inspiration from the most important man in my life. However, he’s a very sensitive soul, and not much of a “guy’s guy” (despite looking like one). I don’t have problems portraying men that way because it appeals to me, fully knowing that some men will think: “Oh, for crying out loud!”, and that some women will think: “Meh, that’s not very alpha, is it?”

    To sum it up: If I wouldn’t like to read it, I won’t write it, fully knowing that other people have different tastes.

    This was written in total fly-by-the-seat-of-my-pants-mode 😉

    Like

    • R. J. Nello July 29, 2014 / 5:16 pm

      Not bad for a fly-by-the-seat-of-your-pants response! Thanks for that very open and honest answer.

      I wouldn’t try to put any woman on the spot, take her by the shoulders and shake her, “Can’t you speak for all women!?” I suppose I am just looking for some feedback in terms of the question I’ve encountered about being a man writing “romantic” anything. 🙂

      I know men have written, and do write, successful “romances.” So there is nothing to stop us from doing that today. Although the current writing climate in that genre – as I see it – seems to be dominated by women, and women readers of it.

      I’ve written here that my writing inspiration comes from people I have known and places I’ve been. Sort of like autobiographical/biographical “fiction.” Or, as my wife likes to joke, from the former women in my life (who I knew long before I knew her, to be clear!), as well as other men and women I’ve known.

      When I decided to take up this project, the story I had in my head turned out rather more – as one reader called it – “gentle” when it landed on the page. Yet I was pleased to hear that from a woman. I write what I want to write, in the style I feel best-suited to using, for the story I want to tell. So, yes, there is romance. And yes, I’m a man. To borrow the immortal words of Barney Rubble, What can I do? Resign?

      As with you, I don’t pretend it’s “high art,” but “art” is in the opinion of the reader. I do know I put a huge amount of effort into creating a barrage of characters, happenings and relationships because I believe the real world functions like that – as a mess of people interacting unpredictably on a variety of levels. “Wheels within wheels,” so to speak. And maybe that’s “art?” In the end, that’s always for someone else to decide.

      I couldn’t try to write like someone else. I try to write – as silly as this sounds – as myself. (I’ve read a couple of your chapters and can only say, uh…. Wow!) Honesty is pivotal into what I put on a page. I believe readers can smell a phony from miles away. I want a reader to know when you read my books that I didn’t dash it off in five minutes, that I value you chose my book and I want you to feel it was worth a bit of your precious time on this earth sharing it. Above all, when they finish it, I want them to say, “I liked that.”

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      • fallingincascades July 29, 2014 / 8:28 pm

        I’ll latch on to your last paragraph straightaway. Doesn’t sound silly to me at all, so don’t resign just yet 😉

        I personally never really understood when people said they could distance themselves from their characters. How does that even work? Apart from the fact that each and every single one of them is my brain-child anyway, I also really, really care about them. It’s like being pregnant, giving birth, and seeing your child grow. Well, maybe a bit less physically painful, but I’m usually pregnant for longer than nine months with my novels, so that makes up for it 😉

        My characters are not me, but they have elements, or traits, of me and people I know. My characters’ language is similar to mine, but I guess that’s easier if one writes contemporary, as opposed to historical, romance. I swear like a trooper, and I’m a bit rough around the edges, but very soft inside (which makes for that slightly schizophrenic mix of cheesy and coarse I guess). I can’t write in a way that feels put on, so what you read in my novels is very likely something I would say in real life, and indeed, I do, or have done so in the past. There’s always something autobiographical in my stories, even if it’s just small details.

        So to get back to your post: Some women love gentle and subtle, but not all of us have problems with being direct. I’m sure that some of us even prefer it. For example, I rather use any of the C words than some of the flowery euphemisms that are in circulation (some real gems out there), or anatomical language. I mean, Ps and Vs? Poles and tunnels? Really?! It just sounds awkward when I try it, and I believe the reader can smell that awkwardness a mile off.
        Even direct can be sweet, and make you care for a character. IMHO, it doesn’t matter, as long as it comes across as genuine. Who needs gender stereotypes anyway? Men writing romance that’s gentle and subtle – awesome. And if it’s rough and ready – awesome, too.

        It might be a weakness to stay in that kind of personal comfort zone, but I personally can’t do it any other way, because I don’t care about characters with whom I share no common ground whatsoever. At the end of the day, whatever you do will be right for the right person. That’s at least what we all need to believe in 😉

        I guess what I’m trying to say is that I didn’t want to imply that I don’t care about my readers, because I do. I am happy about every person who gives me some of their time and appreciates what I do. I’m even happy about the ones who criticise, because that’s the only way to learn and improve, to see what works and what doesn’t. It will never go as far as changing the core of what I am about though.

        I want people to say they liked it, too. Who doesn’t? Alas, if they don’t, there’s sadly not much I can do about it. I’ve given my best, I care about my characters, I put a lot of heart and soul into making them human. Life is messy, tragic and funny, and we all come with a lot of baggage. That’s why I am personally more interested in relationship dynamics, not so much in a constant “Are they getting each other or not?” That’s why literally all my heroines and heroes hit it off pretty much straightaway and decide rather early on that they want to be together. The interesting bit, at least for me, follows from there, because that’s where the real “drama” starts. Seemingly mundane everyday problems are not so mundane the moment you experience them. I don’t constantly need to wonder if someone stays together or not. I want to write WHY people choose to stay together, and why they make that decision again every day, even when life occasionally gives them lemons. That’s pretty universal, no matter if we write about Joe Public or billionaires…

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        • R. J. Nello July 30, 2014 / 8:07 am

          Sandra, I love your take. We all approach this our own ways, for our own reasons, and write the stories we want for our own reasons. We put a great deal of ourselves into what we do.

          Since I started writing the first book late in 2012, I have developed a new respect for novelists. Everyone says they want to write a book. But actually doing so – from start to finish – is decidedly another matter.

          I’ve noted on here that my uncle (my writing name is a pen name) is a HarperCollins police/crime author. He has been writing for over 30 years. He’s written for TV and film too. Growing up I couldn’t understand him very well – his world was not mine at all. Frankly, until I was in my early 20s, I thought he was “odd.” Now, a couple of decades on, I “get” him much better. But I always admired what he produced, even though it wasn’t what I really liked to read.

          For years, we’ve been good friends. He told me recently that he believes I should have “a blog” and write about my experiences – traveling, living abroad, etc. When he wrote that (on Facebook) I had to control my laughter – especially because I fictionalize him in the books, and he has no idea my books exist.

          This is my secret – known only to very trusted friends, and certain (all English, no American) family, and that’s fine for now. But when my uncle does discover it, I suspect he’ll laugh; yet I’m not entirely sure that will be the reaction and don’t want to cross that minefield until I have to. I am uber-cautious in that regard because we had an ugly family experience some years ago when he wrote a biographical piece for an anthology in which he discussed my grandfather using my grandpa’s real name. My mother went absolutely ballistic when she read how he had described their late father.

          But thanks to this blog, I am better understanding my uncle’s friendships with other writers. When you are part of this “community,” you meet and chat with some incredibly interesting people who have their own unique stories! 🙂

          Like

  2. fallingincascades July 31, 2014 / 7:36 am

    Thanks for sharing your personal story, Robert.

    I am already so excited about the interesting people I “met” in just a week of having a blog, and the response is already so much more encouraging than I ever would have imagined. Writing can be a lonely business at times (thankfully, my “real” job is not ;)), so connecting with other writers this way is really priceless.

    There’s not much to add to your post, so I’ll just finish with the great Federico Fellini:
    “All art is autobiographical; the pearl is the oyster’s autobiography.”

    We’ll let the reader decide what they want to perceive as art, but the rest holds true – for me anyway…

    Liked by 1 person

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