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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.


So I guess my idea of a genetically engineered ex-foxmorph slave falling in love with a handsome Greek billionaire is a no go then? ;p

And it turns out that they're Adam and Eve, founders of the human race!

You could probably get some mileage out of a deliberate twenty-cliché pileup.

Speaking as someone who was once forced to listen to the unabridged audio version of Moby Dick (all 27 cassettes of it -- this was about thirty years ago), I would so much rather have listened to your version. Really. You have no idea.

And lets face it, Spike Milligan is the only reason i got through my final school exams thanks to HIS version of Wuthering Heights!!!

Umm rule #34 applies to books as well it seems


Brain bleach anyone?

Just don't let the mysterious villain turn out to be the envious ghost of the protagonist's unborn twin. There's a glut of envious unborn twins.

...Including in one of my favourite manga! But that was one of the "cliche done really, REALLY well" ones. ;)

Anything with lemurs in it is automatically at least 20% better than it would be without them. Just saying.

After reading this entire post is it awful of me that I really want to see a were-squid wearing Prada? Or that I would love to read Moby Dick ala Ursula?


Oh good!

Edited at 2012-07-17 02:41 am (UTC)

nono. That had me screaming: "Liar! everyone wants to see the 'The were-squid wears Prada!' plot again!"

Love can exist without fabulous wealth! If you say a character is not conventionally beautiful, make her actually not be conventionally beautiful and make the rest of the world react to her as though she is not! Please don't do the plot where a couple gets married and *then* admits they love each other after many adventures!

...unless they're Norwegian, in which case it's entirely appropriate as long as they don't go on about it.

Wait, are there Ole and Lena romance novels? A quick googling suggests not. This is sad. Sort of.

Moby Squid, the graphic novel, will be eagerly awaited!

Yes. I also recall night gaunts appearing in both the Toby Daye and the Merry Gentry novels. The latter, I kind of like for their portrayal of far culture and the pretty-not-equal-to-good-or-safe undercurrent. Difficult as it may be to find those elements between showdowns in stillettos and many-page sex scenes.

Well, if we're reading for study purposes and cliché-avoiding purposes... There is this series of books (47 of them...) called The Legend of the Ice People (sagan om isfolket, http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/The_Legend_of_the_Ice_People) by Margit Sandemo. It's, I think, a bit like paranormal harlequin. I mean, I've read the ice people books, just not a lot of harlequin romance :o)

It basically follows a certain line of people through generations, and has a lot of getting seduced by demons, discovering magic and so on. Very well known guilty pleasure books in scandinavia.

I"m Scandinavian and I've never heard of these books. This, however, appears to be a terrible oversight, and I must investigate further! How can I have missed these? *moves away rock*

I've long been tempted to write a story using "and those two people were Adam and Steve", but even paridies of that one have gotten too damn overused.

I like to think of my writing *as* my guilty pleasure, and thus never show it to anyone who really cares, but I have to agree with you on the reading as Research for What Not to Do.

I also have to agree that what you read colors what you write. I won't say it changes it or that you write in anyone else's voice, but it does color things.

As far as YA Sci-Fi Romance.... I'm clueless. I've read a lot of YA books, a lot of Sci-fi and a lot of romance, but I don't think I ever read them at the same times. Or if I did, not in the same books. The only thing that really comes to mind, and is a dear friend close to my heart, is Piers Anthony's and Mercedes Lackey's 'If I Pay Thee Not In Gold'.

It is not a great book. Looking back on it, I can't even tell if it had good writing, but, to me as a teenager it was a *compelling* book because it dealt with prostitution as an everyday occurrence (not frowned upon either), the limitations of magic in a society where all people have it, polygamous marriage and marriage *without* sex. And the unfairness of taxes.

I guess my point here is that even great writers don't always write great books, but if you write the story you want to write, you can always go back to your day job and be happy that you did your best. And *someone* will read what you wrote and be amazed. Possibly do a book report on it and scandalize everyone in class and end up having the teacher call their parents for a meeting about what the school board thinks is appropriate for someone that age and there will be discussions of teachers being total prats.

And *someone* will read what you wrote and be amazed. Possibly do a book report on it and scandalize everyone in class and end up having the teacher call their parents for a meeting about what the school board thinks is appropriate for someone that age and there will be discussions of teachers being total prats.

I think I love you. :)

“And that planet was EARTH!”

I don't read (or create) in quite the same realms as you, but you have hit a nail right square on its flat little head, there. I find two tropes increasingly tiring and off-putting when I encounter them in an otherwise-good bit of fantasy storytelling... the "our modern Earth is this setting's super-distant mythical past" one drives me nuts-est, fastest. It's like, "Yes, that was clever the FIRST COUPLE OF TIMES, but I am mightily tired of it now!"

The other one? I call it Our Hero Meets God though sometimes it's Our Hero Becomes God. Either way, as a certain kind of series progresses, the author feels a need to keep cranking up the power levels all around. Eventually, Our Hero breaks through to learn the Total Wonders of All Creation. Bonus points if said Hero then finds out that, oh, sorry, this is merely the next level up. What you thought of as "all powerful beings" are really just a jumped-up bunch of regular Joes, and now you find that there's a WHOLE NEW LEVEL of divinity-or-whatever to deal with, and ARGH THROWING BOOK AT WALL NOW.

What's the problem, you ask? By revealing what's behind the theological curtain, you've just explained everything that powers your entire world (thus taking a big chunk of the fun out of it) while simultaneously shoving your lead character straight into Mary Sue/Gary Stu territory. "Oh, they're prettier and better and faster and smarter AND NOW THEY'RE A GOD, fine, whatever."

Writers: Don't make your progression of adversaries increasingly buff. Make them increasingly clever. Please.

(This rant brought to you buy One Too Many Run-Ins With Certain Tropes coupled with Not Nearly Enough Frelling Sleep Thank You.)

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Technically I have a bosom-ripper in the book I'm currently finishing up- quite literally (wasn't fatal, mind you).

Regrettably, it is not a Gothic romance, but My Little Pony clopfic, so the bosoms are relocated.

(not making this up. When Ursula says 'write the book that only you can write', I doubt she intended this, but it's actually been a hell of a lot more successful for my reputation w.r.t. writing craft than any furry book I'd previously written, and I'd finished four...)