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.

Yes, I Write Romance.

One of the minor irritants of writing, editing or reading romance is that people who aren’t romance readers make jokes. Well, I say jokes. Usually jokes are defined as ‘things that are funny’, so we may need another word.

I can’t tell you the tedium of the unimaginative rote remark. I probably don’t have to. If you’re very tall, think of ‘How’s the weather up there?’ If you’re carrying a double bass on public transport, it’s doubtless ‘I bet you wish you played the flute!’ If you have a surname that lends itself to tiresome weak jokes and puns, you know the score all too well. (My real surname lends itself to puns and I write romance. This is why I need anger management classes.)

I edited for one of the most famous romance publishers in the world for five years. It got to the point where I refused to tell people my job at parties because the inevitable conversations were so deeply, profoundly, irritatingly, predictably dull.

Dull person: Romance novels?

Me: Yes, that’s right.

Dull person: Like Mills & Boon?

Me: Yes, that’s right.

Dull person: [bodice-ripper; ‘don’t they just give authors a plot and tell them to write it?’; all the same; ‘my granny reads them!’; Barbara Cartland; ‘don’t you want to write real books?’; 50 Shades of Grey; hahaha sex!]

I mean, I get it. Really. Romance is this totally silly genre which is about love and sex, something that no normal person is interested in at all. It’s completely trivial too – why would anyone take a genre seriously when it only makes up 17% of the entire US publishing market? Obviously any genre dominated by women as readers and writers is inherently laughable, because women. And I for one have never understood why you should be expected to look at good examples of something before dismissing it with contempt. I think it’s much better to look at something terrible published in 1974 and base all your theories on that.

Me: You make films?

Film person: Yes…

Me: I saw The Swarm! It was awful! Hahaha, you make films! It’s all hallucinatory giant bee sequences, dreadful dialogue, and random jump-cut nuclear explosions caused by bees, right?!*

* If you haven’t seen The Swarm, take a long weekend and stockpile beer.

I’ve had a lot of these conversations and have every expectation of more, so let’s just get some of it out of the way, shall we?

— Yes, I write romance. In which genres are your books published?

— Yes, I write romance. Yes, it has sex. I’m sorry you find sex so painful and unpleasant to think about. I understand there are some very good creams these days.

— Yes, I write romance. Yes, many romance books are crap. Sturgeon’s Law states that 90% of everything is crap. I think Sturgeon was an optimist.

— Yes, I write romance. Yes, they’re real books. You know what else is real? My royalty cheques.

— Yes, I write romance. Yes, I think I can do something creative that I love and am really pretty good at, and make a living from it. I’m sorry, were you expecting a punchline?

— Yes, I write romance. No, you don’t have to respect that or be courteous about it. Then again, I don’t have to be courteous to you either. Your call.

And no, you don’t have to read my books. But – new rule – if you want to make snide remarks about them with impunity, you have to buy them. Show me a receipt and you can go to town on the hilarious subject of romance novels. As long as you’re aware that you have to pay me to listen to it.


Fed up of it? Join me in the comments!


Think of England is out from Samhain right now. The Magpie Lord is a Romantic Times Top Pick for September! (“The dialogue between the heroes is fun and intense… The building steam combusts into heat that sizzles right off the pages.”)