No, no, it’s not Monday. You haven’t mislaid the weekend. It is Wednesday, usually the day for Wench Susan/Sarah. But she and her entire family have been leveled by the flu, and so I’m filling in for her instead. Hope you’re feeling better SOON, Susan!
Anyone who’s considered sending a book to a publisher for consideration knows about submission guidelines. No matter how this sounds, they have nothing to do with S&M; instead they’re a quick outline of what works and what doesn’t for that particular publisher. Some are obvious: how long a manuscript should be, or the preferred font for legibility, of course a publisher specializing in Inspirational Romance won’t have much interest in vampires. But other guidelines are harder to understand. This publisher only wants settings limited to the English middle ages and Regency. Another wants no American westerns, while a third specifically rules out sheiks as heroes.
But there are other taboos, too, that aren’t written down. Some editors will freely admit that they don’t like, say, red-haired heroes or those with beards. Others won’t tell a writer outright, but she’ll find out when she gets the cover, and her hero has miraculously become clean-shaven and dark-haired because “marketing says that works better.”
In fact, marketing or the sale reps are almost always either the fall-guys or the voices of reason, depending on your point of view. They’re the ones that decree that your modest, fine-boned heroine ends up looking like Pamela Anderson on the cover. They’re the reason that writers are warned away from heroes who are actors, gymnasts, or criminals, and encouraged instead to make them doctors, lords (anyone in the peerage goes to the head of the character class), firemen, and military officers. As has been discussed on this blog earlier this week, older heroines and virgin heroes are uncommon. English country houses are always in favor, while ancient civilizations, Asia, and Africa are as off-limits as the recent historical past of the twentieth century.
This is not to say that a talented author with a good sales record won’t be permitted to push the envelope into brave new worlds. Even a rat-catcher makes a great hero in the right hands. It does happen, and it’s a great thing for writers and readers alike when it leads to a fresh, unforgettable book.
Yet most writers have an unwritten story or two that they either have been told not to write just yet (like never), or perhaps haven’t even dared to propose. It’s a favorite late-night topic in the bar at writers’ conferences, kind of like fishermen with the ones who got away. I’ve heard of writers who wished they could write a book from the point of view of the characters’ pet animals, or one set among the bull-dancers in ancient Knossos, or a love story between prisoners in a Nazi concentration camp.
Then there’s another whole crop of unwritten stories that readers maintain they’d love to see, but never find on shelves. Sometimes it’s an unusual setting, or a sequel that will tie up the loose ends left in another book. Other readers clamor to read more of a kind of book that’s fallen out of fashion –– Westerns, say, or antebellum stories of the old plantation South.
And sometimes, too, the “forbidden” breaks through to become a new trend. A generation ago, there were no books with heroes and heroines of color, and now there are books specifically written for African-American and Latina audiences. The paranormal elements that are so popular in romance today would have been relegated to fantasy and nowhere else.
Or, for that matter, which ones would you rather never see written again? Would you banish the current crop of novels piggy-backing on Jane Austen’s characters, or strike from the shelves forever the bare-chested, time-travelling Scottish lairds with impenetrable, unreadable dialects and too-short kilts?