The 99 Problems of Contemporary Romance

In addition to historicals, I have been reading a lot of contemporary romance these past weeks. I have never been hugely fond of co-ro, mostly reading it now as a break from historicals, with which I am saturated. While most of the contemporary stuff I’ve picked up has been enjoyable enough, I am seeing many of the same structural flaws pop up over and over again in the genre – not just what I select but also the chaff I sort through.

Foremost among the issues are: how inconsequential most of the conflicts are. How trivial the barriers to being together. And how goddamned repetitive the tropes are.

Historical fiction is pretty easy to run on external conflicts, either as barriers or facilitators to love – family pressure to marry one person and not another…the need of one party to marry money…class differences…racial or religious differences…social pressure and expectation…scandal…the list goes on.

But what are the impediments to any two people making a relationship work in a modern context? Basically…each other. In any sort of real life scenario, the only thing that will keep apart two people is one or the other of them. Sure, geographic situations can happen, but if the relationship is the priority that can be overcome with sacrifice of a job or property. So the conflicts that hinge on the characters living in different places seem forced, and those that hinge on emotional baggage (I got dumped once/my parents divorced, so I don’t do relationships!) are just juvenile and silly.

What remains, after an author has come to those same conclusions, are outlandish situations – lying about a relationship so you need a fake partner because you are too embarrassed to admit the truth…having crazy terms of inheritance that require a marriage of convenience dictated by a relative…needing social cache to break into a good ole boy business network…knocking up a one-night stand despite using condoms…having a ridiculous, bullying family that thinks a hasty marriage is necessary when their (adult) little girl gets caught having sex. Or taking thing to the same realm as historicals in terms of wealth – rich girl getting death threats needs bodyguard, business empire merger requires marriage so it stays “in the family,” bored trust fund brat surprised by love, celebrity goes incognito for a break and lies about their identity to The One, etc.

It’s not realistic. I mean, I get that romance isn’t meant to reflect reality, but at the same time, situationally speaking, can’t it at least be plausible?

I have found myself picking up more small town series than anything else, even if the conflicts are petty. But they have their own issues in addition. For instance, how many people do you know who are really happily paired off, in a true love sense? Two other couples? Three? To have every bachelorette in a small town find the one and only begins to stretch credulity after a few books. Even if you can get past the slim odds of that, is it likely to happen one right after another? Doubtful. If the books in a small town series were spaced out more than 3 months between them I might find all those love matches more believable than when 6 happen in a year. Also, how big are these small towns supposed to be if every person featured is totally good-looking? Where are the average schleppy-looking folks that, you know, comprise 2/3 of the population? Especially out in the middle of nowhere. Now, if you have a town of say 30,000, I can believe the numbers of foxy mates…but then the whole small-town charm, everybody knows everybody claim disintegrates.

Also, what the hell is up with the “I used to be in love with him” trope?! Why must every case of falling in love with a sibling’s friend or old acquaintance hinge on a case of puppy love/hero worship?! Why? Why can’t it simply be a case of adult onset attraction? Gah!!!!!

What I think most of this boils down to is that a contemporary love story has the story for a novella and has to be forcibly extended to reach even short novel length, and every added wrinkle stretches the mooring ropes tethering the piece to reality a little more. I would rather see shorter, more straightforward stories with more interpersonal dynamics and less pointless drama. But, then, no one has ever accused me of liking conflict for its own sake…

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13 Comments

Filed under Rants and Storms, Reflections on Romance

13 responses to “The 99 Problems of Contemporary Romance

  1. Until this post, I hadn’t thought of marketing Pride’s Children as ‘contemporary romance’ – now I think I will. At least part of the time. It is SO different from what you’re complaining about, but it is a love story (eventually) in a contemporary (2005-2006) time setting.

    Do you have a good definition of what else is required? And how many words I’m allowed if I finally get to a HEA?

    At least it has absolutely no fake identities.

  2. I agree with you on this.

    However, there are blogs about co-ro that make me think that the average co-ro reader WANTS these tropes, over and over again. Or maybe they are such voracious readers they will tolerate the same tropes. I’m not sure, because I get bored easily and genre jump like a grasshopper with a hen after it.

    Still, Harlequin has made millions by publishing a dozen lines of “trope romance” so someone out there is reading their books as fast as they get published.

    Every genre has the same ‘cookie cutter clutter in it. It’s sad because I used to read a couple books a week, now I read maybe one or two a month.

    • No, you are right that a lot of genre readers DO want more of the same. My post the other week about big 5 romance is a different way of making the same complaint: it’s all too damned similar and not to my taste. (hmph! Get off my lawn!) The question is, are you better off catering to the core readers or foregoing the comfortable tropes to attract other readers? There is a niche for both, i think…but one appears to be a long tail (appealing outside the group). But is it really? Or is it a false core readership that looks like an unbeatable percentage only because the oy feedback you get as a pubkisher (self or traditional) is poaitive; that is, books purchased…not books unpurchased.

      • The only thing I can tell you is: I’m not selling very many books. I can give them away by the thousands, but that never translates into a increase in sales.

        So from my point of view the answer is ‘write a lot of junk’ and don’t worry about it. Not that I will write junk – I certainly won’t READ junk.

        I just tried reading a sample of ‘Game of Thrones’ and my first impression was ‘yuck – Wheel of Time all over again.’

      • I suppose the question of what readership to write for depends on the goal. Selling as much as possible probably does point toward writing more of the same. Certainly the publishers have built genres on that, and they’re still in business (and still hitting lists with such books). But then every time a genre flings in a new direction because of some “unexpected” bestseller that is basically a sharp change from what was there before, it proves the power of fresh and new. Amusing to me that you call GOT another WOT, when to me it’s an undermining of the WOT model of heroic heroes and clear good and evil. But they do have a lot of similarities besides mood. ๐Ÿ™‚

        Basically I stick to writing what my aesthetic demands. For now it’s still a hobby and my day job pays the bills. If and when I am making enough to quit, I can examine whether I ought to obey the tyrrany of the market.

  3. Do it!!! Doooo iiitttttt

    I can see where PC is outside the typical mood and mode of romance genre, but at the same time it seems (so far at least) to be satisfying the requirements, which are (1) HEA and (2) a story where the romance IS the story. Which is not to say other things can’t be there or happen, plot/subplot wise, but ultimately the point is love. And if other things are going on then the love is key to resolving them.

    Your book reminds me of KKR’s The Death of Davy Moss, which I think I blogged about enjoying. (And hilariously that one had a fake identity! LOL. But it worked in that case.) Character driven and intriguing. Even if you didnt set it up by giving away the ending (or at least a future state of affairs) but were marketing it as a romance, the audience would know what’s coming – so the entire drama is how it gets there. And because it’s character driven, watching the how unfold is fascinating.

    Hm. This is making me rethink my conclusion. Perhaps the issue is not that contemporary stories don’t have enough meat to fill novels, but that for my taste they need to be focused on the characters which leaves less room for a plot driven by actions such as the tropes described.

    Anyway, as far as your question about length – as many words as the story needs. I think most romances these days hover near the “category romance” length: 50-70k. But older romances routinely ran 120k or more, and books like twilight and fifty shades of grey prove (whatever you think of them) that books that long are still pleasing to modern romance readers. Hell, if you take those stories by series word count you have 400k to work with. And the beauty of self-publishing is you don’t have to fit you story to any damned arbitrary word limit, in either direction (stretching or trimming). So…you have as many words as the story needs, and not one more ๐Ÿ™‚

  4. I actually think of Gone With the Wind as a romance – and wish Margaret Mitchell had had a second 1468 pages (in paperback) to finish the story she set up with Scarlett and Rhett in the very beginning. I won’t read Alexandra Ripley’s Scarlett because I’m picky about sticking with the original author, but the story would have allowed us another huge tome – and another wild ride.

    I am probably going to use all the 400k before I finish Book 3 – I work very hard to make things as short as possible, but my brain wants to tell the story properly.

    If you notice places where I could cut things, PLEASE feel free to point them out (ie, the places you skip when reading).

    And now, off I go to write more of them. Thanks for the encouragement.

    • GWTW isn’t a book I would consider as romance genre per se (not without pages 1467-2932, at least) but I don’t really know what else to call it. Certainly it’s a romance in the older sense, of drama (melodrama?) and big sweeping stories. A romance the way Robinson Crusoe could be called a romance.

      I will let you know if I hit places that seem flabby but i haven’t found any so far. That is also a sort of comment that works better when you have the whole story to work with – when a reader can say “oh THAT’S why that one scene was there”…or be able to say, “no that one scene is still kind of pointless.” If i spot things like typos or continuity stuff, should i email you or leave a comment on the post? So far i think you have bottetop for bottletop in one place and when the second daughter mentions june instead of august it’s a surprise, when a couple chapters earlier she had already talked about the visit being june. Otherwise nothing, which to me is damned impressive since you’re showing the work as you write it vs. finishing, revising to ensure continuity, and then showing (which is what I do…no matter how much of a plotter I think I am, I bow to your method!).

      • Thanks Lily – I will check that mention of the timing of the visit – because it is supposed to suddenly shorten that time line from ‘he left’ to ‘OMG he’s still going to be here when they come.’ I put it in my (lengthy) list of ‘Put in BOOK’ items – things I know I have to check before I’m actually finished.

        I just located ‘bottetop’ (in 13.5), and changed the source file and published file – AND started a blog post labeled: ‘The War on Typos’ where careful readers like you will be pointed out as essential.

        I don’t care how and when you mention a problem – I’m just extremely appreciative that you do. Comments – right on the spot – are fine (I promise I will read them before anything goes to press). Possibly an email to me would get attention faster (just because once I throw the current scene up there I’m deep in the next one I’m writing – which is a couple of chapters ahead).

        The chapter after that (14) has a LOT of bottles in it – but no bottletops! I’ll have to check out my word frequencies. It is a party, and people are consuming liquor, liqueurs, and beer, but I hadn’t noticed I could have started a chorus of ’99 bottles of beer on the wall.’

        Typos creep in – it is inevitable. But I like that the main source file, in Scrivener, is the one place I make the main correction, and that nothing after that should introduce new ones. No typesetter’s hands, no one touching the files except me (I’m joking, I assume – I’ll find out what happens as soon as I start being my own publisher).

        Thank you, thank you, thank you – for the kind words, as well as the dead typos. Note carefully I have no more small babies to distract me.

      • I will leave notes on the posts, then. Since I assume you would be addressing typos behind the scenes in that source file and dealing with continuity issues later, it seems easiest to me to just mark it as i see it. ๐Ÿ™‚ And it’s absolutely my pleasure to do! Truly. I had meant to read up on it ages ago and just never did, so I glommed everything last week. Now i’m like, damn it, i have to WAIT for more?! Noooooooooooooooo

        So just keep it up. No pressure of adoring fans or anything.

        As to typo’s – ugh, they are inevitable and pesky little buggers. I found like 5 more on a re-read of Christmastide a few weeks ago. I thought I had them all. But to answer your iimplicit question…the file won’t necessarily have anyone else’s hands on it before it goes to press. It would just depend on whether you considered it worth your while to learn the formatting processes vs. hiring them out. Even so a competent formatter isn’t touching anything but the code…

      • I’m going DIY all the way this first time – while I still have the scheduling firmly in my grip. I bought Scriverner, learned to use it. Asked Gwen Hernandez to do a course just on the formatting/Compile part; took course.

        Learned to do covers – sketchy, now a bit better, but in need of a solid go around before actually getting it out there.

        Plotting/Dramatica took years – it’s my best friend now. I honestly don’t see how you can plot really long works without something that keeps track for you. And helps make it fit together.

        I’m going for broke – learning to do self-editing takes far longer than getting editors, but works better for educating me. I got some help offered as a reward on a Kickstarter – I’m still waiting for her to get back to me: I asked her, a professional editor, to give me my four (!) hours in the form of a critique of as long as she could go – to identify systematic problems I haven’t figured out yet.

        Am I crazy? Probably – but everything I do is to get around my limitations (many) – and will make me involved and savvy if/when I have to farm it out. I have the gift of time – can’t even publish before Sep. without getting into financial trouble.

        My ego is boundless – and tiny and shivering in a corner in panic: so I must be a writer.

        Sorry! Didn’t mean to hijack your kind advice and thread! Don’t feed the stray dogs! They will lap up everything you offer. It is lovely to be accepted and corresponded with from writers with so much experience.

        I’m glad you liked what you read – and your feedback on anything, at any time, is manna.

        If you prefer, I can do off-track things via email – I promise not to bother a woman with a newborn. You have plenty – plus your own writing – in your lap.

      • LOL NEVER worry about hijacking comment threads! in the first place, organic conversations that start with a post and grow from there are sort of the point of allowing comments (or the hope, maybe?). And it’s just as easy for me to reply here as it would be via email. i would just ignore it if i didn’t have time to comment ๐Ÿ™‚

        Anyway, i certainly don’t think you are crazy to want to do everything yourself and to have taken the time to learn how. i did. if nothing else, if i get to a point where i need to pay people for those services i damn well want to know what i am paying them FOR. how can one run an accurate cost/benefit analysis if one doesn’t know what the cost truly encompasses?

      • “how can one run an accurate cost/benefit analysis if one doesnโ€™t know what the cost truly encompasses?” Exactly.

        There are many, many offers out there for all kinds of ‘help.’ I am not necessarily cheap, but I HATE to be taken. At the same time, I have set a price on my time of $1000.00 an hour to remind me of how limited it is (that’s the price to people who want some of it).

        Fortunately, there ARE things I can do with my non-prime waking hours that will contribute to the final product. And there is all that feeding oneself, bathing, and child-managing stuff that HAS to be done by someone (I’m waiting for DH to get over the shock of retiring). I hope to be launching the last chick post-college (she will do it herself) on about the same time schedule, and the main benefit of an inherited chinchilla as a ‘pet’ is that she doesn’t take much time.

        And now I go to work on 16.3 – my brain has been shockingly disobedient today, but is finally showing signs of cooperating.

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