Confessions of an Irritable Romance Novelist

Someone wrote an article (‘Confessions of a Failed Romance Novelist’) for the National Post on how she tried to knock out a romance novel to make lots of money. If you are a romance reader/writer, you can save time by screaming and throwing something at the wall now, rather than reading it.

Edited highlights follow. Get your bingo cards out.

Comes from a position of ignorance and contempt:

“From what I gather the [typical romance novel] plots are simple and the characters’ emotional lives not terribly complex. Also, the sex or some sex act needs to happen way before the 100 page mark,” [my agent] wrote me.

[Note to author of article: Your agent is terrible. Get a new agent.]

Does no research before writing:

I attempted to revive [romance career after publishing the book] by borrowing some Harlequins. I wanted to surprise myself; maybe I would actually like the real thing. Maybe I would be able to imitate it.

Is better and more intellectual than dumbo romance readers:

I decided the world was ready for a book about love with many subplots, dealing in experiences more complicated than a sudden, early outburst of butterflies. …

[used to read Harlequin as a tween but] I read Lolita for the first time and my literary tastes were irrevocably ruined.

Feels compelled to make gratuitous ‘romance writers are fat and ugly’ snipe:

I put on my ugliest glasses, squished my face into my hand to affect a triple chin, and took a picture of myself [for the fake author persona].

Disdains the lively and committed community of readers, reviewers and writers:

I started befriending people like some crazy creep, initially by joining groups that dealt with romance writing and reviewing. In three weeks, I racked up more than 1,000 friends … I didn’t have the time to engage with other fake people. What I learned from my friend and from Facebook, the romance-novel writing community required a sense of mutuality: you review them and they review you.

[For the record, I am aware backscratching reviews happen. I have never been approached by anyone to request this. Maybe nobody likes me.]

So anyway, this book, written with contempt for and ignorance of the genre, didn’t sell. Shocker.

I used to edit at Harlequin Mills & Boon. Every editor had a teetering pile of romance slush submissions two or three feet high by her desk, not to mention the unclaimed five-foot mounds surrounding the photocopier. On Friday afternoons, when I felt too lazy to edit, I’d sit there and power through two feet of people’s hopes and dreams at a time. Now, with slush, what you most want is a brilliant, perfect book that you can carry in triumph to an editorial meeting. Second is a flawed yet excitingly redeemable MS. Third preference is something you can reject on sight, without further ado. Seriously, there is a reason we don’t send everyone a personal letter. The piles are big.

(‘Reject on sight’ may sound unfair, but you develop a knack. An agent was famously asked if he could really judge a MS based on just three chapters. He replied that you can tell if a MS is no good based on three chapters, often one chapter, sometimes the first page, occasionally the covering letter, and, in extreme cases, the envelope. This is 100% true, as any experienced slush pile reader will testify.)

I saw so many ‘knock it out for the money’ submissions in the slush pile. So many clichéd, spark-free, lifeless, lazy, dull, grating, cranked-out MSS that someone had the unmitigated gall to think ‘would do for Mills & Boon’, without knowing the trade, or the market, or the readership. With the very natural desire to make money by writing, but completely lacking the bit where the author wanted to write the book, or had any gift/inclination for doing so.

I loved those submissions. Adored them. I could drop in the preprinted rejection slip after reading one single paragraph, and that was another slush knocked off!

And that’s what I see when I read these ‘I tried to write a romance’ pieces. Authors who wouldn’t get a single full page of a MS read by a work-dodging editor on a Friday afternoon. I mean, seriously, if you’re going to be shallow and money-grubbing, at least do it well.

There is a mildly insightful line in this article:

But the work of creative writing is something else, it seems. I have to believe in it, non-cynically, otherwise who is possibly going to believe me?

This is true, if obvious. Romance is a genre powered by emotion. Authors can and should treat writing as a business. But the business of romance is to get endorphins flowing, hearts pounding, tears starting, pages turning. A romance author who can’t do that is as much use as a thriller writer who can’t kick off the adrenalin response, or a horror novelist who can’t pry into your limbic system and set off the shudders. And you cannot write real, convincing emotions if you’re knocking out a cynical exercise by numbers in a spirit of uninterested contempt.

So if you intend to sit down and write a bad book in a spirit of greed and ignorance, make it a hard SF or conspiracy techno-thriller, okay? It won’t be any easier or better, but I won’t ever know about it because I don’t read them, and that will save me a lot of irritation.


KJ Charles is a romance writer and freelance editor. Jackdaw is out on 17 February.

If you stop running, you fall.jackdaw small

Jonah Pastern is a magician, a liar, a windwalker, a professional thief…and for six months, he was the love of police constable Ben Spenser’s life. Until his betrayal left Ben jailed, ruined, alone, and looking for revenge.

Ben is determined to make Jonah pay. But he can’t seem to forget what they once shared, and Jonah refuses to let him. Soon Ben is entangled in Jonah’s chaotic existence all over again, and they’re running together—from the police, the justiciary, and some dangerous people with a lethal grudge against them.

Threatened on all sides by betrayals, secrets, and the laws of the land, can they find a way to live and love before the past catches up with them?

This story is set in the world of the Charm of Magpies series.

28 replies
  1. Becky Black
    Becky Black says:

    That article wouldn’t have been nearly so bad if by the end she’d learned something. If she’d admitted that actually writing romance takes skills and talent and requires respect for the genre and that she’s not cut out for it. It’s okay that writing or reading romance isn’t her thing. It’s not compulsory. If she’d maybe gained some respect for the friend who did do well, then I’d have had respect for her. But by the end of the article she’s learned nothing meaningful. Her takeaway from the experience seems to be “my brain is simply too refined to write this sort of trash.”

    I know several people who write for Mills and Boon and Herlequin, online or in person in my local RNA chapter and it’s hard! I couldn’t do it. At least not without a lot of work and time spent on learning how to do it.

    And did anyone else balk instantly at the description of her book as being a romance between a student and a professor? I was straight away going “Ugh, no. Problematic!” The rest of it sounded just as awful.

  2. livrancourt
    livrancourt says:

    I’m a bit disappointed there wasn’t a place to leave comments at the end of her article, because I’m sure some of us might have a thing or two to say to her.

  3. Alex Gabriel
    Alex Gabriel says:

    I’m trying to cultivate the attitude that people who hold these opinions aren’t worth getting angry over, but… gah. The stereotype of romances as inferior, formulaic tripe that is produced and read by uneducated, stupid people who don’t know any better than to like that kind of tripe is SO DAMN ENRAGING.

    I studied literature. I wrote a paper on Lolita (and btw, mentioning Lolita in the same breath as romances is a travesty, considering the history of that work’s reception). I love romance. I bet these people love Jane Austen and the Brontes, never guessing that hey, guess what? ROMANCE.

    The ignorance is just staggering.

    On another note, I’m also surprised that people think three chapters isn’t enough to judge a manuscript by.

    But as someone who’s had the luxury of never having had to wade through slushpiles, I’m no curious! What are the typical characteristics of a paragraph so bad you immediately know it’s not worth reading on?

    • KJ Charles
      KJ Charles says:

      It’s very hard to pin down or to say exactly what. You really just get a feel after a while, you just *know* where this is going.

      Put it this way, the envelope thing is true. I really upset a new editorial assistant by picking up an unopened envelope and saying ‘Terrible slush.’ She was like ‘You can’t say that!’ We opened it; I was very right. Gah, this is vague, sorry!

  4. elfahearn
    elfahearn says:

    Love your work, KJ. I just wrote your blurb for a M/M that will be published by Random House and, though M/M is not my scene, I’m really looking forward to reading the whole MS. You are a phenomenal writer and your research is awe inspiring! And to think, someone as talented as you are writes romance… 😉

  5. Marian Perera
    Marian Perera says:

    You know, way back in the 80’s, I used to think most romances were trash. They just seemed to be churned out in their garish covers, without the worldbuilding and concepts and epic scope I enjoyed in speculative fiction.

    Then in the early 2000s, I started reading reviews of romances because I enjoyed the snarky D and F ones. But once I finished those I’d check out the As and Bs. And that was when I realized there was more to romance than, I dunno, Sweet Savage Love. The genre was vast, and it was evolving. I started picking up the occasional romance, and before I knew it, I was reading more and more of them. Enjoying them. And then I tried my hand at writing my own.

    O, how the mighty are fallen.

    But at least I didn’t sneer at romance writers. I think even when I disliked the genre, I could see that they worked damn hard, sold well and satisfied their readers, which was the most important thing. Competing with Asimov and Tolkien… was not.

  6. Irene Preston (@IrenePreston)
    Irene Preston (@IrenePreston) says:

    I don’t understand people who don’t understand that editors can tell if they like a book in three chapters. When you’re browsing for a book to buy, how far do you read before you know it’s not for you? Less than three chapters I bet. Sometimes just the blurb or the first sentence.

    And, HI ELF {waves} – I didn’t know you wrote blurbs!

    As for the other “confessions” article, just one more troll link-baiting with a little snub at romance. {yawns} Mildly amusing. Otherwise not worth my getting worked up about.

  7. David Earle (@davidearle)
    David Earle (@davidearle) says:

    I’ll just note that on top of everything else, she didn’t promote her book, didn’t try to get positive reviews for it (or any other kind), and basically left it shivering and cold in the Amazon storefront. “How Not To Self-Publish for Dummies” wouldn’t have been a bad title.

    Never mind the insane amount of catfishing and the assumption that the other self-publishing romance authors were also fake.

    I mean. GAH.

  8. Jayne
    Jayne says:

    Yup – never doubt an editor’s ability to judge the contents by the envelope as far as slush goes. Ditto mad people who think they wrote The Big Thing/are destined to marry The Big Thing’s Author/just want to send someone 250 pages of poems about teeth. The crazy comes off those in waves.

  9. A.J. Goode
    A.J. Goode says:

    Thank you for this! I get so frustrated when I hear people say “Maybe I should write a romance novel. It can’t be THAT hard.” I want to ask them why they haven’t done it yet if it’s so easy.

    I’m proud to be a romance writer, and I agree with Vanessa North that it’s incredibly irritating to hear people use the word “Harlequin” as an insult. It’s my dream to someday be good enough for Harlequin!


Trackbacks & Pingbacks

  1. […] Confessions of an Irritable Romance Novelist – I didn’t want to link to the original article in a Canadian newspaper by a woman who tried, and failed, to write a romance for a quick buck, but this reaction from author and former editor KJ Charles is worth a read. […]

  2. […] Confessions of an Irritable Romance Novelist KJ Charles replies to yet another article from someone who thinks anyone can dash off a Romance novel, unless they are just too discerning and refined like her. […]

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