Don't ask me why, but I've been in the mood to read romance novels lately. Okay, I kind of know why; reading them shows me how much love is pure fantasy and illusion, which reinforces my commitment phobia. A good lesson there is readers will almost always get out of your stories what they want, so try never to get that hung up on your message, or you'll end up as crazy as Alan Moore.

This is not the face of sanity


Something I lament as a reader is due to my education, my writing, and teaching writing, it's hard to lose myself in a story. I've become a picky reader, a snotty bookworm. Several of my friends have randomly given me a dozen vampire books to read and oh, gods, I am fighting a migraine. Why can't anyone write a horror story about classic creatures that doesn't suck? Sorry for the pun.

Romance novels are particularly tough to get through. I've said it before and I'll say it again: romance novels are the mimes of the fiction world. Strange as they are so popular, I know, but it means they are considered pretty damn low in the pecking order. It's generally felt any idiot can write them, which frustrates me. Any idiot can write anything, it's writing it well that takes talent and training.

In reading a few over the past few days while running around town (Chicago is huge and public transit takes forever, especially when transformers keep blowing up and commuter train bridges collapse and kill people) so I've gotten lots of reading done. I've compiled a good list of things to avoid doing in any genre of fiction, coming from classic hallmarks of bad romance writing. Bear these things in mind:

Here's ol' W ghost writing Snooki's book. Told you any idiot could do this


Always show your reader the evidence characters use to make judgments. If you read a character as being whiny and emo, yet another calls them "sparkling" fucking show us their joie de vivre!

Keep reasoning in reality. Men are sexually attracted to vulnerability, not low self confidence. Predators are attracted to low self confidence, real men are attracted to good girls fighting the urge to be bad. Women are attracted to confidence, not arrogance. Learn the difference.

Beware multi-clause sentences. "Sighing with aching need, she wanted more, more than just his hands in her hair" reads to me like the woman wants his dick in her hair. Startling outside a fetish erotica story.

Give your female protagonist believable faults. The old standby was to make them clumsy so they had a fault but were still pure and good, but Stephanie Meyer turned that into a character arc and plot point and ruined it for the rest of the class. 

Give the right balance of details. If you tell me a male character has broad shoulders and a square jaw, I can surmise he's attractive. If you start talking about the dimensions of the cleft in his chin (particularly if you call it a dimple) personally I am so turned off I stop reading. Keep it general.

Don't rely on Daeus es Machina. Letting providence save your protagonists all the time is lazy writing. Katniss slept in a tree all night without noticing the hornet's nest and the people below forgot how to shoot arrows. Suuuuure. Go watch some movies from the pre-code days (1930-1934) to see how real women never rely on fate to help them.

Fuck fate. If a character must learn a lesson, or two must fall in love, quit making it so fate hammers them over the head until they give in and accept it. Whatever happened to morals, ethics, desire, and gumption?

Think outside the box for no reason. Have you written a gay character? Chances are they were gay for a reason. Why aren't they just people? Also, if they are gay and it's not a plot point, why bring it up? Do you always introduce a character as straight? And why do bisexual people not exist in fiction? We're real, and a lot more fun than unicorns.

Balance exposition and conflict. In writing for movies or TV there's a formula: first 1/6 presents conflict, middle 2/3 plays it out, and last 1/6 resolves it. Exposition fills around. This can't work for pacing fiction, but extrapolate the lesson: present the main conflict in the first chapter because you have to hook your audience. At the end it can't drag out past conflict being settled. Internal counts, but when the last conflict reaches resolution, so should your story. Don't get overly caught up in snappy dialogue and atmosphere, we want a fucking plot.

Question everything you wrote when editing. Really truly think it all over and try to do it as a reader, not as the writer. If you can't do this, that's what critique readers are for. Pick good ones who question everything so you can avoid the above mistakes.

Keep logic consistent. If you have a character who can tell a dead baby joke then flinches at a rape, not happening. Either all tasteless jokes about someone suffering bother you or they don't. People who pick and choose their ethics have baseless morals, and that only belongs in an antagonist who's got mental problems. See the DSM for further details, specifically personality disorders.

Here we see Histrionic personality disorder personified.


This is my little rant about problems I see constantly in romance novels, but often appear in other fiction. Even one of these mistakes will piss someone like me off. More than a few and it gets most people. Riddle your work with it and people will demand their money back.

On the reading side, think about these things when you read. What are your pet peeves? Be honest with yourself, do you do any of them while writing? Yeah? Well, STOP!