Thoughts about novels, genre, writing and reading…

A writer I know and admire at Boldwood Books, (thank you, Jessica…), recently wrote a brilliant blog post about how, when people criticise romance novels by saying that they are ‘predictable,’ they are not seeing the bigger picture. Predictability in romance novels is perfectly natural: a happy ending will almost always be the case. That’s why people enjoy and root for the characters. The journey, as I always say, is the thing. It’s unfair to write off a love story as ‘predictable’. In fact, as we read, we hope the ending will be satisfactory for the main protagonist. I’ve read so many of Jessica’s books, and many other Boldwood authors, and although they are all brilliant, they are very different – the romance genre varies hugely. There are warm and empathic first-person stories about women and men of all ages who aren’t looking for a partner but find one while being independent and feisty, on journeys of self-discovery; there are hilarious romps and poignant third person stories set wonderful locations, where main protagonists are lovely individuals who care for children, animals or the community. The characters are different – what they all have in common is that readers invest emotionally in their story. There’s nothing predictable about that.

I love blues music. Reggae music. Rock. Opera. I know what to expect from each genre. But within the predictable is also uniqueness and discovery. It’s possible to have both.

The problem is that, in this context, the word ‘predictable’ is used as a negative comment. Romance novels being ‘predictable’ seems to suggest that the expected outcome where boy and girl, or partner and partner come together is something of lesser value. Remember my earlier blog post, about romance matters? Because the story’s about human emotion, that makes it somehow trivial and places the genre lower down the literary scale? That’s so untrue. The point is that the twists and turns, the ‘will they, won’t they,’ capture the readers’ imagination, culminating usually in a positive conclusion. I say ‘usually’ – here’s a funny story – I was talking to an agent once who said she was reading the perfect romance submission from a hopeful author and was on the verge of offering a contract when suddenly all the characters turned into vampires and started to eat each other. I suppose that wasn’t predictable… Just saying…

I read a lot of books, for pleasure and for research. At the moment, I’m reading Mona Chollet’s In Defence of Witches: Why women are still on trial. I’ll leave you to work out why…

When I was doing my masters, I read a book called The Seven Basic Plots by Christopher Booker. I recall the seven plots are versions of the following:-

  • Rags to Riches.
  • The Quest.
  • Voyage and Return.
  • Rebirth.
  • Comedy.
  • Tragedy.
  • Overcoming the Monster

You’ll find these themes in different forms in every novel, every genre, singly or in combination. So, given the paucity of plots, doesn’t that make every novel predictable? I think it makes an author some sort of magician, being able to weave something incredible from just seven plots. Try it out – read a Jessica Redland, a Portia Mackintosh, a Maddie Please, a Sarah Bennett, a Jennifer Bonet, a Beth Moran or a Fay Keenan. Fabulous books, all with good endings, but so different in style and content. Variety in the mix is the spice here, not the expected icing on top of the cake.

I’m very fortunate to be writing in three genres now. My ‘women’s fiction’ almost always features women in their golden years, an age group not always the centre of focus in many novels, that’s why I put them centre stage. The ‘second chance’ theme inevitably offers the chance of love – some of my protagonists take it, some don’t, some change their minds, some seek something completely different – remember Rose in Five French Hens who ended up playing piano as Rose-on-Wye in a Paris club? I try not to be too predictable. In the Elena Collins dual timelines, there will be a ghost and therefore there will be a character who has died in the past. That may be predictable, but it’s an inevitability of the genre…Sometimes, predictability is embedded and unavoidable.

I’m now writing in a third genre, cosy (cozy) crime. The first in the Morwenna Mutton series, Foul Play at Seal Bay  will be published in August. I have incredible colleagues at Boldwood who write cosy crime, so I began by reading everything I could by Mary Grand, Frances Evesham, TA Williams, Kelly Oliver and many more. I then re-read Agatha Christie and devoured Richard Osman and several Agatha Raisins. From there I researched cosy crime as a genre, the elements, the tropes, the structure, and I found that each novel had common factors: the main character is an amateur sleuth, the action centres around a small town, the narrative seeks to play down or avoid disturbing subject matter. Often there is a light touch, humour, animals, a hint of romance. It all sounds very predictable….

During my research, I looked at doing a PhD on cosy crime and wished I had the time to pursue it – it looked so interesting. It’s in my plans for one day, to dig a bit deeper into genre and look at influences of gender, age, social and cultural factors, but at the moment, I’m a bit busy writing. But what’s become really clear is that readers expect a level of predictability in the novels they read. It’s a form of structure and security. It keeps the reader in safe hands as the story progresses to a natural and satisfying conclusion. And as I keep saying and will continue to do so, in all aspects of life, the journey’s the thing, not the last page.

I wonder if people who suggest someone’s novel is ‘predictable’ realise how much a negative comment hurts? Why would someone say that? For my part, I tend to pay little attention to hurtful remarks but, on the days I feel low, tired or troubled, a cutting word hurts like a bruise. Once, I even found myself thinking, ‘Really? Should I be writing at all?’ And that’s not a good place to be. Thank goodness for all the positive people, editors and agents, readers and reviewers, without whom we’d just stop…

Yes, a huge, huge heartfelt thanks to them.

I believe that calling a novel ‘predictable’ doesn’t hit the mark unless it’s a compliment. So, here we go: I’ll use the word exactly as that.

I read a great romance book last week. It had a heroine, and a hero. They hated each other at first. But the attraction was unavoidable. He was fairly handsome, a professional, difficult. She was feisty, trying to make changes to her life, moving forward. They met in a fab location and eventually they ended up together after so many breathtaking twists and turns. The ending was predictable, thank goodness, and I loved it.

And guess what? I can’t wait for the next one.


6 thoughts on “Thoughts about novels, genre, writing and reading…

  1. This would be a wonderful post to read on the next radio show, if you want (content is always down to the contributor), it is very enlightening as well as thought provoking. Personally, I am terrible for picking an author and reading absolutely everything they write, then waiting impatiently for their next book. My current favourite combines in each novel two of the genres I find most intriguing-criminal detection and the supernatural. It’s the perfect fictional playground to visit at the end of a long day! Great post, Judy!

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Thanks Peter. It’s in response to some authors I know being called ‘predictable’ in reviews. Not a fair assessment of the joy they bring to so many. It is a good idea to read one of these… glad to!


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