Last week my good friend and contemporary romance author, Ruthie Knox, rediscovered the first romance novel she’d ever read thanks to an interview promoting her debut novel, RIDE WITH ME (release date Feb 2012).
Via Twitter, Ruthie regaled us with snippets of the cheesy eighties dialogue and summarized the diabolically complex conflict (hero was vaguely a ladies’ man in the past and the heroine has a flawless moral compass which keeps her life firmly on the correct and inexplicably boring path of goodness, hence the implied severe sarcasm with the adjective “complex”). From her tweets, Ruthie, our friend Cara McKenna, and I created a drinking game (every time heroine gets “warm, fuzzy feeling” DRINK) and made plans to send it to each other through the mail at major turning points in our lives, creating our very own Sisterhood of the Traveling Eighties Romance Novel. And although we won’t follow through on either of those fun ideas, it was a riot of a tweet thread.
Ironically enough, when I went home for the Thanksgiving week, my mom pulled out a box of books from my youth. It was so fun to go through them all with my kids and reminisce about the plots and characters that started my love of reading (and eventually writing). I didn’t find any of my romance novels in there–those would come a few years later I think–but I had a ton of Christopher Pike books, a good chunk of R.L. Stine books, and a smattering of random YA paperbacks, including a few Choose Your Own Adventures which I eagerly gave to my ten-year-old son hoping to convince him to hop on the “reading is fun bandwagon” his young Xbox brain is resisting so vehemently. (“Look! It’s just like your video games where you get to choose what you’re going to say and where you go next…except it’s in your head! How awesome is that?” Seriously, why don’t they make the CYOA books anymore? If we have to bring back the oh-so-wrong neon wardrobe of the eighties, why not those books? It only seems fair.) Also in that box? The only Stephen King book I’ve ever read, THE DARK HALF.
At any rate, my twelve-year-old daughter chose a small stack that interested her and I picked out a select few that I remember really loving (SIX MONTHS TO LIVE and I WANT TO LIVE by Lurlene McDaniel) and a couple that I didn’t so much as remember but wanted to read again out of curiosity.
The first book I read was in the latter category, a YA called MOVING TOO FAST. It’s a relatively small paperback which would probably be considered a novella by today’s standards. Like Ruthie found with her book, this story had very minimal conflict. The plot went something like this:
- Girl meets boy and has lust-at-first-sight moment but doesn’t get his name or where he’s from
- Boy manages to track her down via letter sent to her school and asks her to meet him for dinner at specified time and place if she agrees
- Girl meets boy in parking lot and without even learning his name first, they share a kiss
- Girl actually knows she loves boy before their appetizer even arrives, despite learning he’s a military cadet (she comes from a very hippie, anti-military, passifist family) and her high school’s biggest rival
- Couple alternates between arguing their different views/opinions and brushing them under the rug to make time for passionate and not-at-all-awkward kissing
- Boy declares his love for her at the end of date, she reciprocates
- Couple continue emotional whiplash of “I love you’s” and “How can you be so narrow-minded?” for the next two weeks until finally their differences erupt in a huge argument for the Black Moment
Now, besides the ridiculousness of knowing they love each other on the first date without any real basis (cue appropriate title), the extreme differences between the two characters are a viable conflict, albeit a rather diluted one in comparison with what we use today.
There were small things that I didn’t really love about the book. Like the fact that although it was written in third person, you never get the male main character’s POV. You do, however, get POV turns with four or five other minor characters that seem to be setting up plots for future books. I’m not a fan of that. I hate being taken away from the main characters and cringe when I write a scene in a villain’s POV for my own books, even knowing it’s a necessary evil. I think the other things I felt nit-picky about were just signs of the times: cheesy actions and dialogue, overuse of character names in dialogue, that sort of thing. Not to mention horrendous wardrobes. *snort*
But, even with all of that, I’d still held out hope for the book…until I got to the so-called resolution.
After the big blowup between the main characters due to their immense differences on everything from the government and its military to the roles of men and women in the kitchen, they break up. And rightfully so, the reader feels. But the next day, the boy comes to her house, asking if they can try again and this time go slowly. They both agree to learn to like each other before they love each other this time around, and start it off by shaking on the new agreement.
What will going slowly solve? It wasn’t the speed in which they met, or dated, or even fell in love that was the problem. The problem was their extreme outlooks on life and their inability to be more open-minded to the other’s views. I could have been at least somewhat forgiving if they’d added, “and we do so solemnly swear to listen to each other’s opinions and find a common ground.” But none of that was even mentioned. Just the speed in which everything happened. It was very “deux ex machina” in an elemental way. Not once in the entire book had they ever resolved anything, or even attempted to do so, instead preferring to use the “agree to disagree” motto so they no longer had to fight.
I don’t mean for this post to sound like I’m bashing the books of my youth. This is only one book, after all, and at the ripe old age of ten or eleven in the late eighties, I’m sure I didn’t find it lacking in the least. I’m simply sharing my thoughts of it now, after reading it at the age of thirty-four, in the year 2011 (ooh, that sounds so space-agey compared to 1985, doesn’t it?), and comparing it to what our books must contain in today’s market to even be considered for publication.
YA and romance books alike must have three-dimensional characters. They all need inner conflicts like tragic pasts or damned futures and, in most cases, also need external conflicts to overcome like prejudice or an imminent apocolypse. Whether it’s because we’ve evolved as readers or because our spoiled imaginations require more stimulation in the age of blockbuster movies and elaborate video games, our stories and characters require more depth than what is considered very normal in real life.
In reality, most of us are fairly “normal” and we have everyday problems in our relationships like the couple in MOVING TOO FAST where we disagree with our significant other on something political or the unfair ratio split of housework. But can you imagine what an agent or publisher would say if we pitched that as a story today? If we got any response at all, I wouldn’t be surprised if it was “LOL,” further illustrating another huge difference between today and twenty-five years ago.
I wonder what books will be like in another twenty-five years and whether authors will be expected to write even more complex characters and conflicts than we do now… Oy.