Ten Things Not to Say To Romance Authors

Or, at least, ten things not to say to me, but that’s insufficiently clickbaity.

Every profession has its own list of remarks they don’t want to hear. Vets cringe at the 94th hand-up-animal’s-bottom joke; doctors refuse to tell people what they do at parties for fear of, “Ah, you’ll want to hear about my knee.” This is my personal and idiosyncratic list, put together in anticipation of the approaching festive season’s conversation-making. Some of them are genuinely well meaning, few of them are answerable, all make me wince.

Have I read any of your books?

People ask this all the time. I have no idea in what way I could possibly be qualified to answer.

Romance? Isn’t that all–

If you stop right there, I won’t have to hurt you. Don’t say mommy porn, hearts and flowers, Barbara Cartland, Fabiohousewife. Don’t say anything. Just finish your drink and back away slowly, and we’ll all be fiiiine.

What’s your book about? What’s the story?

Don’t get me wrong: If someone has read my work and actually wants to know what I’m working on, that’s a massive compliment. However, if this is an out of the blue question, it’s painful for everyone, because I am appalling at elevator pitches.

This is fine:

What’s your book about?

– It’s a historical romance.

Cool.

What’s bad is when the conversation instead goes…

But what’s it about? What’s the story?

– Well, it’s a romance. It’s about people falling in love.

But what’s it abooooout? What happens?

– Fine, well, there’s a radical printer—do you know about the radical movement in the Regency? No, well, it’s in the book, and anyway he’s having an anonymous relationship with this guy who turns out to be Home Office—no, well, Regency politics again, it’s in the book—and it’s complicated because they are both linked to…people in other books, and…they sort of have to work out their political, personal and social relationships only there’s this conspiracy… [tails off in the face of uncomprehending stare]

Seriously, it took me 75,000 words, a ton of research, three rounds of edits and a companion book on either side to achieve what I wanted with A Seditious Affair. I cannot convey it in two sentences at a party while trying to balance a warm glass of wine and a sausage roll. Can we just stick to “it’s a historical romance”?

How do you find the time to write?

This one sounds innocuous, but I have a feeling, if you looked into it, you’d find female writers get asked this a lot more than men. Before I quit my job, I got a lot of people asking me how I “juggled” having a job and kids and writing. Nobody ever asks my husband, a keen triathlete, how he “juggles” his family obligations to make time for his training. And, come to that, when people talk about, say, TV, they will compare notes on their rewatch of all 144 episodes of Buffy and their plans to watch three of the new HBO dramas and nobody ever comments on long that will take. But if you’re writing a novel, people want to know where the time comes from. Call me Virginia Woolf, but it’s almost as though there’s something self-indulgent about a woman writing books when she must have other things to do.

The Carlsberg Gambit

Carlsberg had a slogan, “Probably the best lager in the world”, which they have extended to an ad campaign that goes, “Carlsberg don’t do [hairdressing / Friday nights in / whatever], but if they did, it would probably be the best [X] in the world.” This is, inexplicably, something people do to writers.

Oh, yes, I’ve often thought of writing a book, but I’d need to do so much on it. I have so much to say and I’d want to do the story real justice. I’d have to spend so long crafting it, it would be a labour of love, I couldn’t just rush something out. [NEON FLASHING SUBTEXT: Unlike you.]

Or to put it another way: “I haven’t written a book, but if I did…”

Why do you write [X]?

There are two answers to this. One of them is a massive sprawling analysis of my personal history, my political and social convictions, my nightmares and desires and obsessions, my way of seeing the world, the ever-fermenting brain chutney of all the things I’ve read and learned and seen. The other is, “Because.”

When are you going to write…

When are you going to write a proper book (not romance!), a grown-up book, a literary novel, a real book. The author equivalent of “When are you going to find yourself a husband?”

(From a random partygoer or relative): I’ll read it if you give me a free copy.

…thanks?

How do you do your research for sex scenes hurr hurr

/fakes laugh, changes subject/

Oh, you write romance. Is that like Fif—

No.

___________________________

Feel free to add your own cringe-inducers in the comments!

KJ Charles tweets @kj_charles and writes for Loveswept and Samhain. The Ruin of Gabriel Ashleigh short story is out this month.

KJ is an organiser for Queer Romance Month, an amazing collection of blog posts, flash fiction and essays on the theme of We All Need Stories, which you should go check out right now.

48 replies
  1. Sandra Schwab
    Sandra Schwab says:

    What one dude said to me when he found out on our first date that I write historical romance: “Romance, eh? Well, when you go to bed with ME, you won’t need to write that escapist stuff.”

    Whereupon the date (and our budding relationship) came to an abrupt end.

    Reply
  2. Kara Jorgensen
    Kara Jorgensen says:

    Oh, the cringy things people say. The sad part is even in a room full of writers this happens. “Why don’t you publish traditionally? You’re too good for indie. You’re ruining your career.” or as you mentioned, “Why don’t you write lit fic instead?”
    “Because I don’t want to write a boring-ass story, that’s why.”

    Reply
      • Kara Jorgensen
        Kara Jorgensen says:

        I was shocked by how few copies some lit fic authors actually sell. I think the article I saw was about Booker Prize winners, and while I know the data may not be accurate, it was *much* lower than what I expected.

        Reply
  3. Selina Kray
    Selina Kray says:

    I’ve often thought the ‘When do you find the time to write’ is an unconscious expression of their own unfulfilled hopes and dreams (and jealousy). Like, “You managed to fulfill your dream and you’re a busy person. How come I can’t get around to doing mine?” As if you have some kind of magical formula that will give them discipline and drive. It’s like when people go to interviews with famous authors and want them to read their MS. They want you to somehow do the work for them.

    Reply
  4. Beverley Jansen
    Beverley Jansen says:

    I wonder if I can just transfer your answers to a recording device and play them at parties…If I had a penny for every – ‘I often say I should write a book, with my life it would be a best seller’ lol…or, ‘It would take an age to write a book I’d be pleased with…’ I only have one book published, and two in the ‘process’ – and yet I have had all of these questions asked of me.

    I would like to add, my personal favourite… ‘Have you sold any?’ Usually, at the end of the conversation where I have explained the whys and wherefores 🙁

    Reply
    • KJ Charles
      KJ Charles says:

      Or ‘How many have you sold?’, from someone who wouldn’t have a clue if 500 was a triumph or 20K a disaster. Followed, inevitably, with, “Is that good?”

      Reply
  5. Evaine
    Evaine says:

    Hmm…. for the “Have I read any of your books?” question, in this day and age of multiple pen names, I would not have thought it an unfortunate question. Is “What name do you publish under?” better? Mind you, I’d be very interested, not just making cocktail talk. *LOL*

    I totally get all the others though!

    Reply
    • KJ Charles
      KJ Charles says:

      It’s not the principle I object to, it’s just my literal-mindedness at work. 🙂 Lawrence Block apparently replies, “I don’t know, I’m an author, not a mentalist.”

      Reply
    • KJ Charles
      KJ Charles says:

      Quite right. Those joys are in my future as yet (although I do have a relative who insists on saying I self-pub because my books are all e first…)

      Reply
  6. Dane
    Dane says:

    Speaking personally – and having just read another of your exquisite novels – I can honestly report that I don’t identify you as a “romance writer.” Next time someone asks you what you do, you might simply reply “I am a novelist.” And then if they ask what type of fiction you write, you can report, “I write a lot about relationships, because – let’s face it – that’s what matters most in life.”

    Reply
    • Jude Knight
      Jude Knight says:

      Um. Dane? Did you notice what you did there?

      My own personal romantic hero, bless his dear cotton socks, has struggled with this one. He began by telling people that my first novel wasn’t really a romance. It was more of a suspense/thriller. Well, it’s that, too. But it is also a romance. Like Jane Eyre. And most of Dickens’ novels. Idyll of the King. Lady Chatterley’s Lover and The Horse Whisperer and The English Patient and Gone With The Wind and North and South and Love in a Time of Cholera.

      Because, yes, relationships matter. A well-written romance is about character and how character changes because of the demands and rewards of an intimate relationship. As you say, what could be more important?

      KJ Charles doesn’t apologise for writing romance, and neither do I. And while I appreciate that my PRH is motivated by love, I don’t need him to apologise for me.

      Reply
      • Suzette
        Suzette says:

        The reader may simply be saying that K.J. Charles writes something between literary fiction and romance, this is entirely an assignment of genre, not an insult to either genre. There is a depth and poetic quality to Charles’ writing which is consistent with literary fiction. I think his suggestion that she label herself a “novelist” to those who would condemn a romance writer is both sensitive and accurate. I personally write historical mystery with romantic elements, it is truly popular fiction, and nor do I apologize for writing to entertain.

        Reply
      • KJ Charles
        KJ Charles says:

        I think there’s a … general failure to overlap, you might say. People put ‘romance’ in one box and ‘well-written book’ in another, as with all those you mention, without seeing that those aren’t mutually opposing categories. I can absolutely legitimately define myself as a novelist, and I hope some people define me as a good one, but that’s within the Venn diagram circle thing of romance as well. Equally, there’s undeniably a cultural difficulty for men reading romance (insert massive rant about the patriarchy denying validity of male emotions and belittling anything typed as female). Far more men read romance than are prepared to admit it, basically.

        Reply
    • KJ Charles
      KJ Charles says:

      Thank you for the compliment! I used to just say novelist, in fact (I edited for Mills & Boon for years and was sick of the romance party conversation well before I started writing) but the follow up is always ‘what kind of books’. Plus I found myself uncomfortable with not saying, ‘Romance’, because it is romance, and there’s nothing wrong with that. If romance was good enough for Georgette Heyer, it’s good enough for me. So I say romance, and about 70% of the time I roll my eyes at the comments, and about 30% the interlocutor gets an earful of how romance is the most feminist genre and the powerhouse of publishing. And then they’re sorry.

      Reply
  7. AJ Rose
    AJ Rose says:

    At the gala dinner at the UK Meet, one of the half naked waiters asked our table what kind of books we write, and when he said, “Oh, like Fifty Shades of Grey,” we booted him from the table. No, dude. Just no.

    Reply
  8. Tam
    Tam says:

    I believe the correct answer to the last one is “Oh god yes, only I’d say it’s about 4 times smuttier. Like I’m talking absolutely filthy. But romantic.” You might be surprised at your sales figures over the next short while. 🙂

    Reply
  9. Lex Chase
    Lex Chase says:

    The these make my hair stand on end when it comes to M/M: “Oh! So your characters bedazzle and sprinkle glitter!” or “I love gay smut.”

    The ones that are subtly offensive without knowing they’re offensive at all are the absolute worst.

    Reply
  10. Hilde
    Hilde says:

    Ok, I’m not a writer, I’m a make-up artist. but I can imagine anyone with a artistic / creative job probably heard something along the lines of “Oh, that’s nice. and what do you do for a living?” way too many times.

    Reply
  11. Ki Brightly
    Ki Brightly says:

    Oh, this is fun…my favorite is:
    “So, how well does that pay?” Would you ask anyone else how well their job pays without it being an uncomfortable question? Also, this is either coming from one of two places-judgemental because they assume no one could possibly make a living that way-or wildly optimistic because they think you’re rolling in it now that you’re published.

    Also, I have to say, the whole “what’s your story about” is the absolute least favorite question.

    My next least favorite is because I write m/m people frequently ask me detailed, highly personal questions about my sex life to try to get to the heart of why I write “that kind of romance”, as if it is lesser than any other type I could be writing. Nothing sets my blood boiling faster. …if I choose to share stories about my sexuality that’s one thing, but I think this question is disproportionately frequently asked of romance and especially gay romance authors.

    Reply
    • KJ Charles
      KJ Charles says:

      Yes! Why is it okay to ask authors how much money they make/how well they sell? Can I ask how big your bonus was this year, accountant dude? Thankfully I live in Britain, so nobody asks about my actual sex life in case we all die of embarrassment.

      Reply
  12. Jillian MacLeod
    Jillian MacLeod says:

    How do you do your research for sex scenes hurr hurr

    I am not a nice person, so I’d answer them, in exquisite and loving detail. I mean, if they lack a sense of the appropriate—as evidenced by asking the question in the first place—surely they won’t mind, right? *koff*

    Reply
  13. VJ Summers
    VJ Summers says:

    When I was still teaching the Uber catholic teacher next door to me (who knew that I write romance, but no clue what *kind*) often lamented that I didn’t write something meaningful…

    Reply
  14. Becky Black
    Becky Black says:

    The “What’s it about?” question is the worst. It doesn’t matter how good a book is, trying to describe it to a “civilian” in a couple of sentences guarantees it will sound either really stupid or just unspeakably lame. For some reason I’m picturing Peter Benchley at a party back in the early 70’s…
    “What’s your book about, Peter?”
    “A giant shark terrorizing an island community.”
    “Oh. Why don’t they just kill it?”
    “Well they do in the end.”
    “So how do you get a whole book out of that?”
    “There’s… other stuff… It’s not really about the shark as such…”
    “So, what is it about?”

    Reply
    • KJ Charles
      KJ Charles says:

      Bwahahaha. The Toast could run with this.

      – So, Sam, what’s the play about?
      – Well, there are these two tramps, waiting.
      – Who for?
      – Well…

      Reply
  15. Sharon Stogner
    Sharon Stogner says:

    Lol, Ran across this in my FB feed. I’m not a writer, but I run a review site and I kind of get the same type of questions because romances are one of the genres we review. I usually get:
    “Read any good books lately?”
    O_o that depends…do you like horror, PNR, science fiction, urban fantasy, fantasy or m/m? Do you also read graphic novels?
    “You read romance…Did you read Fi—”
    NO.

    You are a new author to me! 🙂

    Reply
    • KJ Charles
      KJ Charles says:

      Nice to meet you! Yes, romance fans get it in the neck a lot. Readers, editors, writers. You’d honestly think people would have something better to do.

      Reply
  16. Sharon Johnson
    Sharon Johnson says:

    One of my favorites is, “Oh you write? That’s a fun hobby to make money from home.” That was the guy trying to sell me a laptop at best buy.

    Reply
      • Cait Miller
        Cait Miller says:

        I actually broke up with someone once because he said, in reference to me writing instead of spending my every spare moment with him, “I don’t mind you having a hobby.”
        Oh REALLY. I didn’t even know where to start with all the things wrong there so, buh bye 🙂

        Reply
  17. Steph from fangswandsandfairydust.com
    Steph from fangswandsandfairydust.com says:

    I think people asking how you find time isn’t a slur but a recognition that in our “sexual equality” society women still bear the brunt of housework and child-rearing and continuing a full-time job. That may not be the case in your house but,…
    If you don’t write full time for whatever reason and you have a home, kids, pets, and a husband, it’s hard to imagine how you find time and privacy to pee.
    Hell, I review books and still have a hard time finding time for that and I have no kids nor a FT job.

    People are idiots in social situations, but usually aren’t trying to be hurtful. But I see a lot of writers with these “What not to say to a writer” pieces. As a reader it feels a little off-putting.

    Have an elevator speech prepared as a response to each of these and move on from there. Or, answer their question with a question.
    How do you find time to write?
    “How does anyone find time for anything? If it is important to you, you will find the time.”
    What’s it about?
    “Well. it’s about the most important thing in the world, love and the obstacles people overcome for it. What is your work about? You’re a dentist? Aren’t you sick of sticking your hands into other people’s mouths everyday?” Raise your eyebrow and then excuse yourself to get another drink.

    Reply
    • KJ Charles
      KJ Charles says:

      I don’t think most writers struggle to distinguish between well meaning/interested comments, even if clumsy, and putdowns, unconscious or otherwise. I mean, I stopped telling people I edited for Mills & Boon and forbade my boyfriend to mention it because it was literally stalk-away-in-fury intolerable to have my job belittled by people who apparently thought it was okay to express open contempt and mockery. I think most people involved in romance have had that sort of bull (up to *here*) and can tell when it’s coming from a dismissive place (which it wouldn’t be from readers). If it’s actually well meaning, hell yes, I’m happy to talk about my work or books or anything else.

      Reply
  18. Cait Miller
    Cait Miller says:

    Ohhh! All of these PLUS “Where do you get your ideas?” (sometimes followed by the old nudge-nudge-wink-wink) And (usually following ‘Where do you find the time?’) the guilt inducing “So how many words do you write a day?”
    Um…well…some days… it kinda… NOT AS MANY AS I SHOULD DAMMIT! Okay?

    Reply
    • KJ Charles
      KJ Charles says:

      But if you ask how much time at work *they* spend mucking about on Twitter and playing solitaire, apparently *you’re* the rude one… 😉

      Reply
  19. Jenny Holiday
    Jenny Holiday says:

    I LOVE THIS! I did my own version once: http://imperfectwomen.com/what-not-to-say-to-a-romance-novelist/

    The TV thing is so true. I once read something where Garrison Keillor was giving advice to an aspiring writer who was wondering if he should quit his job so he’d had time to write. Keillor instructed him to keep the job but stop watching TV. He said, “If you don’t watch TV, you get 20% of your life back.” Twenty-five years later, that advice still sticks with me.

    Reply
    • KJ Charles
      KJ Charles says:

      Yeah. I barely watch TV and I don’t game. I know I’ve missed a million amazing things, but…yeah, the time’s got to come from somewhere.

      Reply

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