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.

7 thoughts on “Not Making The Usual Mistakes

  1. Tom West says:

    I always thought that narrow range of what’s acceptable in romance novels made writing one *harder*, not easier. Any thirty thousand words of plot gets you a novel, but only a very specific thirty thousand gets you romance (or other genre).
    Robert Heinlein, god of science fiction writing that he was, tried his hand at other genres and failed (by his own admission) for precisely the reasons you state.

  2. Dave T. says:

    Ah, thank you for this fantastic article. It’s helpful to me right now, if you can believe it. I’m writing for a friend at the moment, a short story to go into an anthology called “The Ships We Sail.” It’s romance on long-term voyages, and bog help me, It’s the most challenging thing I’ve written.

    I’m days past my deadline. Wish me luck. They haven’t even developed engine-trouble yet.

  3. Katherine says:

    For many years I was a judge for the young adult division of a literary award. Every four years after a hit book, we would suddenly be hit with stacks of imitators. I remember when everything was Harry Potter, when everything was Lemony Snickett, and more recently everything is Twilight.

    The one that had everyone’s eyes rolling after awhile were books based on Campbell’s Hero’s Journey. If I found myself wondering when Princess Leia was turning up, the book was a sure fire loser. And yet many “how to” books slavishly insist it’s the formula for success. Lucas beat you to it people.

  4. Fiona says: That’s all I’m going to say.

    When your browser is groaning under the weight of opened tabs, DON’T BLAME ME. :)

  5. Marc-Antoine says:

    Hello, Ursula! Your rant was a fun read as usual; the next day I read this, and thought you would appreciate the counterpoint:

    Those idioms are only cliches to those who have read a lot. Anybody encountering them for the first time is liable to find them extremely effective. After all, there is a reason why they became popular in the first place.

    Some of what is called bad writing … uses cliched storytelling wrapped in over-exposed idioms, which means that it’s probably going to be fantastic to a new reader unfamiliar to the cliches and idioms.
    Not just fantastic, mind-blowing. Imagine experiencing all of those ideas and concepts for the first time, all packed together in one book?

  6. Kaitlin says:

    I love this article: it’s so true, and I’ve seen the points about romance in a few places lately, mostly because I’ve suddenly found myself about to be published in the romance genre. And you’re right. It’s *not* easy ‘dash it off for some money’ books. But part of the problem is that the really popular books these days are not helping that idea at all: Twilight, 50 Shades… both hugely popular, both…ehhh… writing.

    Anyway, great post :)

  7. Owlor says:

    I do wonder if this isn’t sort of a rite-of-passage thing tough, like some chlichés are just things every writer needs to get out of their system somehow. I espescially suspect this is the case with Mary Sues, cus even if you try NOT to crate a Mary Sue, you usually end up doing so anyway, just of a more insidious kind than the archetypical Mary Sue with purple eyes and an overlong name. My Marty Stu character from back in the day was a small gnome who lived in a backpack and threw books at people.

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