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Not Making The Usual Mistakes

Thank you, internet! You’ve been most helpful, both on the travel-to-France front and the recommend-a-paranormal-romance front.

On that last note, let me take a moment to put some fears to rest—I am enormously flattered that so many of you say that you’d want to read the book I’d write, and not to worry about the genre. That is very kind of you, and I can assure you that I’d be hard pressed to write a book that wasn’t the sort of book I’d write. The writer is stuck being themselves. If I attempted to write Moby Dick, Ishmael would wind up as a were-squid, Queequeg would be a smart-ass shaman, and the driving plot would be to kill Ahab, who’s been driven mad by mermaid-syphilis and is killing innocent whales. (Presumably the White Whale is a spirit whale of vengeance…or a hired whale assassin….hmmm…) Also there would be lemurs living the rigging.

….What were we talking about?

Right, right.

Here’s the thing, though. In fiction—most particularly genre fiction—there are plots that Nobody Ever Wants To See Again. This is not to say that you couldn’t do something new and exciting with them (just to forestall anyone about to say that a good author can make any plot new again, which is true, if, y’know, you happen to write like an angel) but for the most part, when your reader figures out where it’s going, they’re going to roll their eyes and go play video games.

I mean things like “It was all a computer game!” “And the computer game turned out not to be a computer game at all!” “Genetically modified super-soldier learns that love is the most powerful thing in the universe!” “And those two people were Adam and Eve!” “And the computer with ghost-writing the whole thing!” “And the computer was GOD!” “And that planet was EARTH!” Pick your genre, really. “And it was all a dream!” “The butler did it!” “The were-squid wears Prada!” “Alien Jesus Anything!”

Feel free to fill in your own, but there’s a good dozen twist-endings-that-aren’t, and you wouldn’t know unless you knew the genre. Some of them may have been great once. Now…not so much. When I figured out where the meta-plotline in Assassin’s Creed II was headed, I about threw a controller through a wall, and only my love of jumping off buildings and stabbing guards in the neck during Carnivale kept me playing.

And that’s just plot. Straight up cliches of writing abound. No one’s eyes are ever limpid pools anymore, in a just universe, and the list of things that we can compare erections to with a straight face dwindles by the hour. If you are going to insist on a wise-cracking waitress, you have your work cut out for you, and much, much smarter people than I am will flay the skin off your bones if, god help you, the magical negro puts on an appearance. Super-enlightened beings of pure energy who have transcended their physical forms had better knock my damn socks off, because it has been done. (You can also do this to yourself. Charles de Lint should be barred from having another homeless person who turns out to be a shaman. I am fine with other people doing it, but the minute somebody living in a cardboard box shows up in his books, I assume they’ve got a condo in Faerie. That’s not actually relevant to my point, I just wanted to complain about it.)

On a related note—and my buddy Deb waxes angry about this on a regular basis—romance novels get no love as a genre. They are held in broad contempt by much of the rest of the writing world, never mind that they’re also the ones holding up an insanely large portion of book sales.

As a result, there’s a thing where non-romance writers, often professors and what not, will say something like “Pfff, romance! I should dash off a couple of those for money. It’s not like it’s real work.”

What they discover, if they actually try it and don’t just lounge around being assholes about it, is that either A) it’s a helluva lot harder than it looks, B) their manuscript is being rejected all over the place because it’s a compendium of all the bad cliches about the genre (in essence, they wrote “The butler did her.”) or C) what they’ve written isn’t a romance, at the end of the day, it’s literary fiction with some swooning.

(Also, D) the money in romance is not easy money, but that’s another story.)

I could not write a standard romance. I know myself and it would not go well. There would be ninjas or night-gaunts or I would get tired of the heroine and he’d run off with her elderly cook who knows that love is temporary but a good shepherd’s pie recipe is eternal. This does not make me better than a professional romance writer, it just makes me different, and (if anything) somewhat less disciplined.

Sofawolf Press, who is awesome and publishes Digger and Black Dogs and other stuff of mine, has said once or twice that submissions from mainstream science fiction writers are often just not suitable for their work, because “furry,” like any other sub-genre, has it’s own tropes and butler-did-its, and not knowing the genre, you tend to get stuff that just isn’t quite in the genre, or runs through the usual cliches. (If I remember correctly, I think one of those is “furry under-class genetically modified for labor/servitude/whatever.” But much of this conversation is remembered from dinners that had lots of bottles of wine at the table, so I might be wrong.)

The point that I am circling obliquely, like a whale assassin closing in on its peg-legged prey, is that if you’re going to write in something resembling a genre, you shouldn’t stifle your voice into what you think the genre requires. Write the book that only you can write. It may be of interest to no one, but at least you wrote it. (Mind you, you have to make a living, so if this is your day job, amend as needed to pay rent. You can only afford to be starry-eyed about this when you have another source of income.)

But, that said, you owe it to any genre that you respect enough to write in—and, if to no one else, to your poor long-suffering editor who deals with enough crap already—to make sure that you know enough about what you’re writing to know what cliches not to commit. And as there may not be handy lists floating around, you need to read around the genre so that you learn that it’s never lupus and the butler didn’t do it.

I don’t think night-gaunts are done to death yet. I have not heard any rumors that they are. But if I don’t at least glance over some books in the genre, I run the risk of creating what-I-as-outsider-think-is-brilliant crap on a stick. And nobody wants that.

Originally published at Tea with the Squash God. You can comment here or there.

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This is where I recomend you do not Google the term "Lovecraft Romance"
It gets very silly before it turns downright weird....

Anything involving Lovecraft tends to get very weird. (O.O)

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So when are you going to write 'Moby Dick according to Ursula'? ;) I for one would love to read it.

Yes! Please write Moby Dick immediately!

Thirded!!! (Anonymous) Expand
The only book featuring a night gaunt as a character that I have read was in Kate Forsyth's The Witches of Eileanan series - Cait Anna I think was the head of the night gaunt clan

I think there is lots of potential in the night gaunt field :)

Seanan McGuire has them in her October Daye books. They eat fae dead and replace the bodies with ones that rot.

oh god the "furries as genetically modified slaves" ugghhhhhhhh

Also I am a VERY BAD PERSON who is actively playing with the "It was all a computer game!" thing in her current major work. Except I'm never coming out and saying it, just dropping hints - and dropping hints that everything is real. IMHO, once you have seen one of Those Clichés done to death, you are allowed to consider the cliché masterclass of using it and subverting it. Terry Pratchett has made a pretty fine career out of this.

(Of course, one also has to keep abreast of how many other people are doing this, and hop off the train once it starts getting too full and everyone knows going in that "oh god this is gonna be subverted exactly the way it always is".)

TVTropes probably has a snappy name for this, and fifty zillion examples in Japanese cartoons I've never heard of.

TVTropes probably has a snappy name for this,

If you're talking about the over-used idea, I'd suggest Discredited Trope or Dead Horse Trope.

Or, to use another author's explanation, "Make sure you're reading as much as you can of the genres where you're writing or planning to write. The line between 'new and hot' and 'played-out and cliche' is a thin one, and while I'm not saying 'throw away your baby because somebody else got there first,' you need to know where that line is at any given moment, because you need to be able to defend your work from an informed perspective."

compare erections to with a straight face

(Crosses "faces" off the list)

Love-anything should also get removed. Sword/snake/spear/s-words in general.

oh also if you want to do research into a Lovecraft romance you might want to see if you can dig up scans of the late lamented "Cthulhu Sex" magazine.

TVtropes.com is a good start. Most of my favourite books are unclassifiable. I don't care about genre, I want a good story.

The world needs more rigging lemurs...

Somewhere out there in the deeps of the internet exists an illustration of the Disney Snow White as a Dark Lord of the Sith, holding the poisoned apple balanced above her hand with a mass of force-lightning. Her facial expression does not bode well for anybody.

If that can catch people on the brain -- and it pretty obviously can -- there's a relative deficit of practical romance out there, the kind where female agency is an axiomatic assumption of the universe, and a relative surfeit of swooning and princesses and living-for-others.

So, yeah, genre, but remember romance is more a wide country than the much more specific genres like "noir detective fiction"; it's a lot closer to being "fiction marketed to women" than an actual single specific genre. The parts of fiction-marketed-to-women with the axiomatic female agency are new, or at least newish, and not as well-traveled. Room there to stake out a substantial claim on the landscape.

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Sofawolf Press, who is awesome and publishes Digger and Black Dogs and other stuff of mine, has said once or twice that submissions from mainstream science fiction writers are often just not suitable for their work, because “furry,” like any other sub-genre, has it’s own tropes and butler-did-its, and not knowing the genre, you tend to get stuff that just isn’t quite in the genre, or runs through the usual cliches. (If I remember correctly, I think one of those is “furry under-class genetically modified for labor/servitude/whatever.” But much of this conversation is remembered from dinners that had lots of bottles of wine at the table, so I might be wrong.)

So, lots of Cordwainer Smith imitators? (Love Cordwainer Smith's Underpeople, but I think he invented the concept, or at least grabbed it from H.G. Wells and modernized it).

[Jeff] Yeah Cordwainer Smith is to that sort of plot what Tolkein is to high fantasy... We definitely get a lot of that one, sure. Also the "clever cat story" in which when the owners are away, the cat(s) _____________ (solve crimes, commit crimes, trip the light fantastic, etc...) unbeknownst to their poor, thick, human providers. Yes, yes... It HAS been done well. Nothing is impossible -- just bloody unlikely. There is the "animal runs for President" one, a whole variety of "alien world full of lascivious _________ whose behavior offends your cultured mores", etc...

More often than not, it is more subtle, and often heartbreaking. The story might be a very tight well structured analysis of something like what happens to a human relationship when one of them somehow turns into an animal-person. Or, magically your beloved pet becomes sentient and occasionally bipedal and starts putting the moves on you (or your partner, or whatever). Told well and told honestly there are acres of deep philosophical and xenobiological depths to plumb there... At least for folks where the readership has not already thought this through 100 times, maybe built an RPG or Sim based on it, and/or regularly attempts to LARP it (with mixed results).

I fear I am not doing our beloved genre much justice in my choice of analogies, sadly. I'll blame the wine... :)

Sofawolf Press, who is awesome and publishes Digger and Black Dogs and other stuff of mine, has said once or twice that submissions from mainstream science fiction writers are often just not suitable for their work

Oh, god, I had never considered that such things happened, and now I can't stop. (Though I am a very naive reader as far as furry-stuff goes, so I'm sure it's more horrifying than I can possibly imagine.)

This comes very close to describing how I feel when people perform the music styles I play without being aware of the community and tradition. It doesn't make as much sense when applied to music, but the nagging feeling that someone is being a bit snobbish or self-important (and missing out thereby) by not bothering to learn more about the genre they're supposedly contributing to is there.

If I attempted to write Moby Dick, Ishmael would wind up as a were-squid, Queequeg would be a smart-ass shaman, and the driving plot would be to kill Ahab, who’s been driven mad by mermaid-syphilis and is killing innocent whales. (Presumably the White Whale is a spirit whale of vengeance…or a hired whale assassin….hmmm…) Also there would be lemurs living the rigging.

Please inform your agent that you should be plied with mind-altering substances until you re-write Moby Dick.

(Seriously. Your agent should Kickstarter you or something, just to see how many people would throw money at you for a chance at being Tuckerized as a rigging-lemur. I bid $20 right here.)


The only night-gaunts I can think of are in one of Laurell K. Hamilton's Queen of the Porn Elves (...I'm actually kind of fond of her pr0n, but I know exactly what I'm picking up here and "installment in the soap opera of smut" would be about right...) books, and possibly in Seanan McGuire's Toby Daye books (and they are not even romantic interests there). I cannot promise they are not in many other places -- some time back, I picked up the second in a romance series where the protagonist was the half-mermaid, half-angel daughter of the prior book's pairing -- but they do not jump out at me like the bazillion were-somethings in paranormal romance. (The big ones: wolves, lions, and dragons.)

I'm in. Suggest higher tier rewards include collectible trading cards/ACEO style of the various characters. Kraken rum should be involved somehow...

Firstly I would love that version of Moby Dick.

Secondly, the romance thing.

As with everything it is not what you write but the way that you write it.

Heyer's novels are much better written than Cartland's, even when she stole a Heyer plot. Why? Because she can write characters so much better.

Yes the romance genre has boy meets girl They fall in love. Course of true love never runs smooth. That is the basic plot of any romance novel with only twiddly bits in between.

It's not the plot that is as important as the dialogue and how the characters interact. Do it well and the reader is glued to the page. Do it badly and the book hits the wall.

Some romance writers can't write sex at all. Stephanie Laurens for one.Her earlier romances that usually only involved a kiss or two, are much better than the more explicit ones.

Romance writing isn't about the sex. It doesn't have to be a bodice ripper. The romance is more important than the erotica.

Oh, Stephanie... She used to be an automatic buy for me, and now she's a "get from the library eventually. maybe." especially once she went for the villainous half-brothers incest subplot.

I really miss being able to walk into a bookstore/library, grab anything that said "Signet" or "Zebra" and be guaranteed a Regency romp with snappy dialogue and anything beyond a few kisses happening very off-screen, if at all. Emma Jensen's series regencies were *perfect* third-rate Jane Austen.

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