Romance Bro

You know what I hate about writing a novel in twenty days? There’s no time for voices. Sixty thousand words, that’s a few. And you’ve got your main characters, and a cast of several, and they’ve all got to sound different—and they do. From each other. But you know who they’re not different from? The guys from the last book, and the one before that.

I’ve got my sci-fi protagonist. That one’s unisex. Then, there’s Romance Bro and Bra, and there’s Villain (Manipulative). That’s my go-to bad guy, but there’s also Villain (Violent), and sometimes Villain (Pathetic). We’ve got, let me see—Educated Side-Character (me, feeling comfortable), Uneducated Side-Character (also me, feeling nervous). There’s Annoying Guy: he’s my mother. (Sorry, Mother.) Sci-fi Bro gets recycled for urban fantasy. I’ve never done regular fantasy. Not sure what I’d do, there.

It’s not that they’re all the same characters. I swear, I’m not that lazy. Just, they all talk the same. And they have to, because I’m not good enough to write a publishable draft in twenty days, and do eight to ten new, unique voices. Especially when I’ve got to de-Scottify them for the American set. That’s a whole readthrough, right there.

I used to get ambitious. I’d start out—I’d write a chapter or two, and they would be new people. But that’s harder. It takes longer. It takes practice and editing, and I don’t always get a second draft. Still, I’ve got to do something. I don’t like to hand in bland novels, ones with that recycled feel. Mass-market fiction doesn’t have to be bad fiction. It should still be…it should all be the best I can do.

Another thing I hate: describing people’s feelings. That sort of thing ought to be implied, not just out there, all splat. That’s undignified. I feel embarrassed (and double-embarrassed, from saying I’m embarrassed).

Finally, I hate having to eat while I’m working. My keyboard’s disgusting.

PS – this voice? Petulant Office Drone.

21 thoughts on “Romance Bro

  1. Sometimes the best we can do is recycled mass market fiction/literary mulch (mulching is an important process too)

    I’m not implying you should give up, I just wanted to say a pessimistically “inspirational” thing along the lines of “god, give me the equanimity to accept things I can’t change” (they always make me want to go and do the exact opposite).


    1. Very true. I tend to fall into the trap of expecting the best I could POSSIBLY do, even when the terms of the assignment won’t accommodate that. Maybe I’m capable of producing riveting fiction…but probably not on a 3-week deadline, when the topic is…well, I mean, a typical subject is a short list of keywords from Amazon, like “werewolves,” “reality TV,” and “outer space.” I’m sure SOMEONE could get great literature from that, maybe even in 20 days, but I cannot.

      I’ll keep trying anyway, of course. I think, once I start telling myself “well, it’s only sci-fi/romance, and it has someone else’s name on it,” it’ll be a slippery slope to irredeemable trash.


      1. It’s also one of these situations where awareness of the problem is half the way to solution. Once you know you have a limited bag if tricks you either know where to look for new ones or at least have the incentive to do the ones you know really well (… actually, that IS* unhealthy).

        *I really miss italics.

        By the way, I totally forgot to say when you mentioned it some time ago, but a mug/t-shirt with a rat/shrew/bird doodle would be a great idea. I’d get one.


        1. You know, I’m finishing that other novel today, in fact, the one I was working on at the same time, so I’m going to have a few days off (I think). I could use that time to check into having mugs and stuff done. I’d completely forgotten about those, after the initial lightbulb moment.

          As for my voices, there’s got to be some sort of trick, some sort of, ah, mental shorthand I could use, to get myself to slip more readily into a new, untried set of speech patterns, and stick to it. For now, I’m going to expand my repertoire of set voices, at least—and then, next time I get a more leisurely project, one with at least 90 days to finish, I’ll see if I can’t start from scratch and see what works well.


          1. One thing from real life re voices is that your own speech patterns depend to a large degree on who you’re with, so there’s probably a degree of method acting to the whole thing. I wish I could offer a good idea (all I can think of at the moment are obvious and cliched things like “write a villain who talks in Shakespearean cadences but with modern vocabulary” and so on).


            1. That’s very true. I don’t talk the same way to everyone. I don’t think anyone does. Getting that kind of complexity into dime-store fiction seems an impossible task. (Even getting it into regular old fiction would take some real thought.)

              Ah, well. If I get a bit better at it every time, eventually, I’ll be good.


              1. You could leave one character scotified (or would that cause trouble with the editor?).

                I also wouldn’t worry about describing feelings. At least not if you’re writing the “comfort food” kind of genre fiction. People go for melodrama because it’s direct and unambiguous (and really, it’s not always a bad thing).


                1. Depends on the editor and the project. I work for a couple of different publishers. One markets more or less exclusively to an American audience, and has a strong preference for American characters. The other doesn’t much care, as long as the books sell. But they sell better if the characters sound American.

                  I realise people enjoy comfort food reading, and that includes melodrama. I’m just uncomfortable writing it so directly. Us Scots don’t talk about our feelings. It simply wasn’t done, in my family. I cringe a bit, getting into all that. I mean, obviously I’ll do it—it’s my job. But I still have trouble.


  2. Nor in mine, although for me it led more to a sense of relief when I find someone with whom I can discuss feelings. Actually, my father’s side of the family is much more extroverted and is the one I feel more comfortable with.

    Thinking of reserved writers, I think someone like Dostoyevsky or Kafka actually channelled a lot of their feelings into their work. Although, obviously, not exactly genre fiction role models.


    1. They did, which is why one feels so much, reading their books. But they didn’t just splort it all out like toothpaste from a tube. It was the people, the situations they wrote about—that’s what was interesting.

      With genre fiction, especially romance, you’ve got to be quite, quite blatant. I’m always getting pulled up on that, on not going far enough, when I think I’m going too far.


      1. Come to think of it, romance does make it especially difficult. Having to write characters committing grand gestures, making impassioned declarations and all that… Easy to slide into parody. Especially if you’re habitually a rather low key person when it comes to emotional stuff.

        By the way, I just saw the Redbubble link by the side. Looks pretty good… And the titles are appropriately descriptive. 😀


        1. Ha, ha–thanks! I figured nobody would really want that stuff, besides readers of this blog, so I decided I’d just have fun with the titles, rather than trying to make them search-friendly.

          I mean, when it comes to romance, I wouldn’t know how to respond to a grand gesture or an impassioned declaration, in real life. I think I’d find it irritating at best, mortifying at worst. Really, I’d just want someone to remember what I like at the grocery store, once in a while, or ask me interesting questions. That’s romantic. Not, y’know, whisking someone away in a private jet. That’s just disruptive. People have jobs. F. off with your 1% transportation.


          1. I like the dreaded antennabird. It doesn’t look very dread inducing, but few dreadful things are. It’s also the only one that was flagged as “mature content” for some reason. The only doodle that’s missing that could do well is the haloed snail, it’s like the personification/guardian saint of all the snails you inadvertently step on when out. Guilt tripping people is a good way to sell them things.

            Something romantic for me is going for a walk together and sharing observations about people and things. And creating an atmosphere in which things like grocery shopping don’t feel like a chore. Maybe making tea for each other (the pensioner’s version of romance). I am very boring.

            Hope sleep did what Mozart and Tylenol couldn’t (the cute people (and dog) doodle offsets the bleakness).


            1. The antennabird got flagged mature? Ha, ha, ha…I probably flagged it myself, by accident. I’d better unflag it. I didn’t think anyone would care for the snail, as that’s one of the goofier ones, but no harm in sticking it up there. You’re right. Guilt CAN be an effective marketing tool.

              Walking WOULD have been romantic, in my eyes, when I could still enjoy the wider world, but now it would just be an exercise in slow-motion terror. Sitting just on the stoop, watching the world go by, on the other hand, could be a companionable sort of thing. And the tea one. I like that.

              Sleep does seem to have cured my headache, thanks. No thanks to Mozart or Tylenol. Also, I was saving that doodle for a story about childhood, but I thought I’d better deploy it for exactly the reason you said. The doom of humanity is otherwise just too bleak.


              1. Just sitting together watching the world go by can be like that too. There’s a sense of wistfulness to it, but, then, on the other hand, that’s probably how growing old together should be. Choosing a spot, making it as cozy as possible and letting the tumult of everything else rush by. Maybe that is the way to making old age tolerable (I really have no clear idea about how to go about the whole growing old thing, in a way, it’s scarier than the dying bit, the inevitable slow decline)

                Sorry, I think I have succumbed to the bleakness. Heard a story, just today, about a friend’s mother getting attacked by mynas just as she was hanging out clothes to dry. She’s fine, and there were no details forthcoming beyond “…she has no idea why”;* but this just goes to show that we have bird mayhem/drama too. Also, the wild boar situation in Haifa has got so bad that they’re now spreading “please don’t feed the wild boars” leaflets (with an illustration of an adorable sunglasses wearing wild boar family crossing the road). I’m there right now helping my grandparents with a flat they letting. Haven’t seen any wild boars myself though.

                *I used a semicolon because you like them, I hope I used it correctly.

                I am looking forward to the childhood story now.


                1. I’m not sure anything could make death’s encroachment TOLERABLE, as such, but yes. Having company could certainly ease the pain. Having memories, as well, of the good variety. Anything that’d keep your mind off it. (Is that what romance is, at the root of it? A defence against a solitary decline?)

                  Attacked by mynas? Blimey. I’ve heard of crows mobbing people who got too close to their nests, but mynas? I didn’t know those were violent. I suppose anything can be, if you get too close. Though, I must say, I’d rather be attacked by just about ANY bird than a wild boar, with possible exceptions for ostriches and cassowaries.

                  Semicolons are supposed to be used to link two related independent clauses. You should’ve used a comma, or not used a conjunction. (And now, you’ve made me be pedantic. Damn it!)


                  1. You know, thinking about it, making anything into a means to avoid facing death or loneliness is a certain way to ruin it, especially if it’s a relationship. If romance were merely a defence against solitary decline, it would mean that the person you’re with is only with you because they’re afraid of being alone, and that’s a pretty shitty (even if understandable) reason.

                    In a better world, people wouldn’t grow more lonely and estranged as they age because mutual empathy would be the default. As for romance, it’s more like the fireworks on top of the cake, the thing that exists for its own sake… Things like growing old together shouldn’t be used as a bandaid to try and cover some existential wound. The people you really want to have in your life, you’d want them there even if you were feeling utterly awful and their presence wouldn’t have made a iota of difference in how you feel, you’d still rather be with them than not. So there’s definitely more to our emotional lives, and romance in general, than some dumb defence mechanisms.

                    Your zombie story sounds like one where the important parts are the beginning and the end and the sense of freedom and renewal that the apocalypse brings (the opportunity to wander around in a world where no one cares about stopping you, and to carve your own little niche out on the ruins that’s roomier and airier than the one you had before), while the minutiae of the journey could really be anything. So the whole thing is actually a mood piece, and tropes and expectations really are not the important thing (I suspect that if you know what you want your book to feel like, you could forget worrying about tropes entirely, and the ones that should be there would crystallize all by themselves).

                    Have you read “The Mouse and His Child” by Russell Hoban? There are no zombies in it, but the overarching thing of gathering a makeshift family in an unstable world is there. And it’s a pretty good book.

                    I rather like pedantism. It implies willingness to appear odd or uncool in order to do the right thing; which paradoxically turns out to be about the coolest thing one could do. Pedantism is a secret rebellion against conventions (for conventions’ sake). 😶


                    1. Hmm…that was meant to be funnier than it was–the tropes thing, I mean. I was poking fun of myself, implying that I’ve been writing supermarket checkout aisle fiction so long I no longer know the difference between a good book and a bestseller. (Maybe it wasn’t funny because it’s actually true, and I’m the only one who hasn’t realised it. Ha, ha, ha!)

                      You’re right about the zombie story, though. It really is all about freedom and optimism, and leaving behind what felt like an inescapable prison, in order to enjoy a new lease on life. What actually happens matters far less than the viewpoint. Maybe I’m stuck on the story because I’d like to do that, myself—walk out through a hole in my life, and try something different.

                      I have not read “The Mouse and His Child.” I’ll look for it, though.

                      Also, you’re right: I’m really being a bit of a nit about romance. Far too cynical, especially considering I’m not nearly so bitter. I don’t think affection is something we slap on to avoid considering our own mortality. I think the genuine article exists. (Indeed, I care for everyone I get that close to, even if it doesn’t last. That wasn’t always the case, but since my judgment’s got better, I haven’t been out with anyone who wasn’t worthy of affection.)

                      In truth, I value friends over romantic partners, as I find my friendships last far longer than those sorts of dalliances. I lose interest in romance pretty quickly, but there are people I’ve spoken to almost every day for years or decades, without tiring of their company.


                    2. I think the real frustration of having to deal with trope fiction all the time may have leaked through and coloured the joke, at least, that’s how I’ve read it.

                      I remember you mentioning the idea of faking your own death and starting over under a new name, ages and ages ago. And this is a very similar kind of story. It’s a good dream though… I’ve recently read the biography of the mathematician Paul Erdos, he used to live by travelling between the homes of his mathematician friends and collaborating with them on theorems (his motto was “Another Roof – Another Proof”*), partly because he was completely incapable of maintaining even the simplest practical life skills (like tying his own shoes or using the shower) but utterly brilliant when it came to mathematics. It made me realise that I painfully wish I were brilliant enough at something to have that kind of wide ranging collaborative network, that’s another kind of freedom (maybe not at the cost of utter helplessness in the mundane world and perpetual couch surfing, but it almost feels like a fair price to pay for that level of involvement).

                      *He also had what is probably the best view on god.

                      “The Mouse and his Child” is one of those children’s books that may be only fully appreciated by adults. Another book of his I’ve read and loved is “Riddley Walker” (he has more books but is one of those writers who are as good as they are obscure, and thus dreadfully difficult to find anywhere… I have the same problem with writers like T. H. White and Mervyn Peake, “The Once and Future King” and “Gormenghast” are relatively easily obtainable but they have other books that appear as tantalisingly interesting as they are tantalisingly out of print/reach… It does add excitement to the occasional second hand bookshop outing though).

                      I was being a bit of a nit myself, by building up a maudlin picture of a relationship that reads more like an ode to codependence. A dose of healthy cynicism is good. Here’s the thing though, I haven’t had much luck in making relationships last either. No thunderous and dramatic breakups, but the sort of quiet erosion because life rearranges the scene, someone has to move away, everyone has prior commitments to parents/work/study… You keep in touch with everyone, but there’s that part of you that wishes for something more lasting, so you get that little unconscious “happily ever after” fantasy lingering at the back of your mind (how healthy or realistic…? Who knows…).

                      That does prove you right about friendship though, it’s the one thing that lasts (the ideal relationship, if such exists, is probably just a deep and lasting friendship with sex and physical affection thrown in because it’s something our little mammalian brains crave, but which it would also survive perfectly well without).

                      Scrapbooks of odd notes are fun to keep. I have the current one on my phone but there are also several tiny notebooks written in even tinier handwriting. Part of me hopes that someone who knows me will one day stumble upon them and conclude that I am a far more interesting, puzzling, and possibly deranged person than I appear to be (which is unlikely because most of it is dumb pun names like “Rita-Lynne” (ritalin) and unfinished doggerel). I like “squish mitten” the most, by the way. Squish. Mitten. Just saying it makes you feel like squeezing one of those stress relief balls or popping plastic bubble wrap.

                      Here’s to a quick passing of headaches.


                    3. Don’t say it in public, though–“squish mitten,” that is. It means “vagina.” Not one of the more common words for it, but that IS what it means. Ha, ha, ha. Perhaps I should’ve made that clear.

                      I used to write things on every available surface—on my desk, on my monitor, around the edges of my iPad—but Mother frowned quite sternly on that, and complained every time she visited. So I confined my note-taking to electronic media. Sadly, I tend to lose my notes in my computer, then come back to them years later, when I’ve completely forgotten what they meant.

                      Maybe I’m just old, but I wouldn’t even mind a romantic relationship without sex, as long as there was some sort of physical affection. Human beings do seem to need that, some chance to touch one another. That’s probably why I keep inviting people into my life, even if I’d otherwise be quite content, without. Most of my relationships, lately, seem to end as yours do—either life gets in the way, or they just peter out. There was one, a few years ago, that ended with a slap in the face, hard enough to crack a tooth. But that was the exception, and now I stand at a respectable distance, when saying “I don’t think we should see each other any more.” (Really, I prefer to be the dumpee—far less awkward—but it doesn’t always shake out that way.)

                      Speaking of “Gormenghast,” I’ve recently learned that Peake’s wife wrote a fourth volume, based on his very limited notes. I’ve been hesitating to read it, because some of the reviews say it’s quite a lovely tribute, if you don’t expect it to read like Mervyn Peake, while others say it’s dreadful and boring, and an unfit ending to the story. I should probably just read it and find out.

                      I wouldn’t really fake my own death, by the way. But, like, if I got in a plane crash anyway, and not many people seemed to have survived, there’s a CHANCE I might creep away from the scene and neglect to inform anyone I was alive. I’d only do it if my parents were already dead, as I wouldn’t want them to mourn me. But if they were gone, why not?


                    4. Oh, I imagined a mitten that you squish by putting your fingers around it*. Now I’m duly warned (at least it’s an affectionate slang term for a vagina that doesn’t sound completely awful).

                      *Which can also sound kind of suspect.

                      I like the idea of using written notes as decor, but much prefer having everything concentrated in a small book, or the phone. On the phone they’re actually all in the notepad application right on the screen. It may also help remember what they’re for, at least I never forget (although when it’s one word it’s always just because I happen to like that word, or it’s distinctive enough to bring a whole associative chain with it).

                      I don’t think you’re being old, you can be in a relationship where there’s lots of sex and little emotional connection and you’ll always be looking for something more. In fact, my most intimate memory is that of a hug, although technically, it shouldn’t be. Emotional intensity wins over hormones, although the further along you go, the harder it is to find. That bit, probably, IS about getting old. I think I’m afraid of overcomitting and getting dumped, that’s why I never let people get too close to begin with. On the plus side, you avoid emotional scars, on the minus side, you’re never quite as happy as you should be. Avoidance and cowardice are probably my greatest sins.

                      Speaking of which, I know about the “Gormenghast” sequel but hesitate to read it precisely because it can prove to be both a heartfelft and loving farewell and a disappointing literary experience. Also I would suppose that it was written as a personal thing and not intended for publication, although I wouldn’t know.


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