Friday, August 9, 2013

Don't Want Your Bad, Bad Romance: Five Writing Don'ts with Apologies to Lady Gaga

Writers read a lot. And we read differently from when we were “civilian” readers, even when we’re reading for pleasure. No, we don’t sit there with red pens and mark every typo or infelicitous word choice (though as a writing instructor at a New England college, I often have to fight the urge to do that. It’s an occupational hazard, even though I don’t enjoy doing that with my students’ papers, and don’t know any instructor who does. And for the record, I don’t use a red pen.)

I wouldn’t say we’re necessarily harder on the books we read either, though maybe now and then we read something that seems less than polished to us and remember our bazillion rejection letters and think “THIS got published? Someone chose THIS over my magnum opus?” Maybe the difference is that when I was a “reader”, if I didn’t like a book - if, for whatever reason, it wasn’t working for me - I’d move on to the next one. Now, as a writer, I try to figure out why I don’t like it. I keep going and do a post mortem as I’m reading, trying to discover what went wrong.

Call it the CSI Approach to Disappointing Novels.

Because there’s a lot to learn, I’ve discovered, from what you don’t like, to learn what doesn't work for you as a writer by examining what doesn’t work for you as a reader. I’ll slip into teacher mode for a second again and ask you: How much did you learn from the good essays you wrote in school that earned you an A or a check-plus or a vague “Very good!”? I have to admit I tended to learn more from the ones that didn’t get such high marks because I didn’t always know why the essays that did earned those marks. And when I couldn’t tell what worked, I was always afraid that I had succeeded by accident and that the next thing I handed in would make the teacher/reader cringe in horror and reassess my worth as a writer and a human being.

I had issues.

And still do, I’m sure, but this post is about learning to write a better romance novel from reading ones that don’t quite work. I’m going to give you a list of what I’ve learned that doesn’t work and, in some cases, provide tips to avoid these pitfalls. In other cases, I will beg you to send in some suggestions on how you avoid them, so I can, too (and share them with you, my lovely readers, without whom I am not a writer, after all).

So, here goes

(But first, I’m going to sneak one in here without a number because everyone has heard of it but it bears mentioning.) No INSTALOVE, a misstep so heinous it has its own name. Readers do not want to be told that somehow, magically, your two characters have fallen in love somewhere between the pages they’ve turned while waiting to see it happen. Because that’s the point of a romance novel: We know these two are going to get together but we don’t know how and we want to see it happen. The pleasure is in the happening, not in having had it happen. )

On to the list.

1.     If your characters fall in love with each other in part because of their witty repartee, then there had better be some witty repartee on those pages. This is hard to do. Witty dialogue is the Holy Grail for me, I’ll admit it, and you never know if what amuses you is going to amuse anyone else. It takes time and lots of revisions to hone it right. (But the advantage to writing over speaking is you get lots and lots of tries to make the stinging comeback or hilarious offhand remark that most of us drive home IRL wishing we had made). Please don’t end every line of dialogue with “she giggled” to show me that your heroine finds the hero amusing. Make me giggle. Which is hard. Believe me, I know. All through Snark I knew I was walking a fine line between making Georgia and Michael clever, teasing combatants and a pair of angry malcontents, and I am not sure I succeeded in all scenes.

2.     Misunderstandings between would-be lovers are the lynch pin of most romance plots, but they have to be motivated and believable. If your heroine simply sees the man she’s growing to love talking to another woman and instantly assumes, based solely on this incident, that he is either wildly in love with this woman, sleeping with her, or both, I am going to think that your heroine has some trust issues, and not interesting ones. But give her a reason to be suspicious and I will be right in her corner. A man talking to a woman is not a smoking gun. Now, if he’s talking to her and laughing and she’s sitting in his lap, you’ve aroused my suspicions too, especially if there is a history between these two. (Though I don’t know if I would recommend using this particular scenario. I wrote this into the sequel to Snark that I am working on and it took me quite awhile to invent a plausible reason for the girl in question to be in the boy’s lap in public.) Your misunderstanding  has to be believable or it announces itself for what it is: A plot device. An obstacle to keep the two apart for a few more pages. And we should never be able to identify a plot device too easily.

3.     Weave in hints of a character’s troubled or tragic past throughout the story. Backstory is hard. I think everyone struggles with this, so if you have any suggestions to make this easier, please leave a comment, or better yet, email and share it just with me and together we will rule the publishing world.  This is where, again, revision comes in, finding the right moment to mention, plausibly, a little something about the past. All I know is that it is jarring and unpleasant to be a hundred pages into a book and hear one character say to another, “But oh! After all you have been through!” and I have no idea what they mean. Obviously you don’t want to dump it all right out there on the first page. I heard Vince Gilligan, the show runner for Breaking Bad, speak the other day about how plot points (especially endings) have to seem both surprising and inevitable. He’s right. And if we all figure out how to do that then we can retire to the south of France with Vince Gilligan.
4.     Backstory is hard. So is providing physical descriptions of your first-person narrator. Personally, I am perfectly okay without knowing exactly what your character looks like. I am going to invent her in my own head anyway, and when I see an actor in a movie who does not resemble either the author’s or my conception of a character, I’m okay with that, too. Shalene Woodley, for example, does not look like Tris in Divergent to me, but I have no doubt she will be awesome in the role. (The "whitening" of all mixed-race characters in other films is, however, problematic for me, but I won’t get into that here). Suffice to say I do not enjoy reading passages like “I brushed my long brown hair and gazed in the mirror at my rounded, exuberantly lashed wide blue eyes.” I have never found myself brushing my hair and looking in a mirror and thinking, “Oh, I am brushing my chin-length brown bob.” Such descriptions are as jarring to me as a misplaced bit of backstory and pull me out of the narrative that I want to remain wrapped up in like a blanket on a cold night. Please don’t do that to me.

5.     Help me come up with new, relatable, scintillating words for passionate physical contact. Please. How do you describe really great kisses without using words like “electric”, “heat”, “mind-blowing”, “earth-shaking”, fill in your own cliché? I am really bad at this, a deficiency that may keep me squarely in the “sweet” romance category because I think any attempt I make to describe full-blown lovemaking will either sound as absurd as 1980s romance descriptions of  penises as “pulsing pillars” and “throbbing manhoods”,  or as freakishly clinical as an old medical text.  How do you avoid purple prose or the Kinsey Report? Revision, revision, inspiration, revision?


And there you have my top five fails.  How do you remedy them? What are your own readerly-writerly romance pet peeves? Share and I’ll send you a coy of my Swoon Romance Snark and Circumstance enovella series so far so you can see how many of these pitfalls I avoided (and how many of them swallowed me whole).

Stephanie Wardrop is the author of the Snark and Circumstance series of enovellas from Swoon Romance, based on Jane Austen's Pride and Prejudice and available on and She's also a proud member of Indie Ignites!

1 comment:

  1. Love this! Especially the plot device one! There's nothing worse than a paranoid heroine that I just can't support! Give her a real reason to be suspicious, and then I can root for her. I think the worst thing that can happen when you pick up a romance is not being able to support the heroine!