Tag Archives: Writing

Novel Romances

RomanceNovelDo you read romance novels? If you said no, are you lying? If you said no again, are you lying about lying? Chances are pretty good that you are.

According to Nielsen statistics reported by the Romance Writers of America (see here), 13% of all adult fiction consumed are romance novels. That’s a lot of romance totaling up to over $1 billion in sales in 2013. A whopping 84% of this market are females, mostly between 34 and 55 years of age.

Now I’ll be the first to admit that men’s notions about romance are pretty juvenile. But men don’t need to snuggle under a quilt and sip wine over a romance novel to experience their romantic fantasies. Men can pretty much just go see any mainstream movie for some vicarious romantic fiction.

Male romantic fantasies are pretty simple. Whether the hero of the movie is James Bond, or a flawed hero like Wade Wilson in Deadpool, or just an extraordinarily ordinary guy like Robbie Hart in The Wedding Singer, the man is lucky enough to meet an extraordinary woman who “gets” him. She accepts his profession, she finds his jokes funny, she cares about what he cares about, she accepts him exactly as he is, flaws and all, and she adores him just like he is. Oh yea, and of course she’s incredibly sexy.

While quite similar, female fantasies differ in some essential respects. If you read any number of romance novels, you find that almost all follow the exact same formula. The woman portrayed in the story is utterly amazing but no one appreciates just how amazing she is – until that one guy comes along. He recognizes that she is one in a billion and immediately becomes so smitten that he will do anything to have her.

This guy is never just any ordinary guy. He is invariably a bad boy, a super alpha male who can have any woman on the planet he wants, who has unlimited resources and power, who is so incredibly alluring that every woman wants him, and so bad ass that every man fears him. But despite all that he only desires the heroine and is helplessly devoted to her.

She however, invariably plays hard to get – very hard to get. Whether the guy is a secret agent, a Pirate Captain, a Persian King, or an ethically compromised billionaire, the hero must overthrow civilizations, vanquish armies, forsake his fortune, suffer torture and agonies that would kill most men, even cheat death itself, before she will finally give herself to him. And most importantly, since he is a bad boy, one essential way he must prove himself to her is by giving up his bad-boy ways for her.

As one example, I recently read the Hidden Fire series by Elizabeth Hunter (see here). I was looking for a good vampire novel and didn’t realize that this was as much romance novel as gothic adventure. The central figure Beatrice was working as a bookish librarian when a dark and mysterious stranger named Giovanni enters her life. He of course turns out to be a powerful ancient vampire who immediately recognizes that Beatrice is the one woman who he must have. He then sets about battling against every incredibly hopeless adversity in order to claim her and convince her of his undying loyalty and devotion. Honesty is almost always a key obstacle in these plot lines. In this story, Gio almost loses Beatrice when he lies to her to save her life.

Don’t get me wrong, the Hidden Fire books are  well-written and I enjoyed them, but they follow the same tried and true recipe for appealing to female readers. As a guy I found myself groaning with every other paragraph reading corny lines like “Gio couldn’t keep his eyes from straying toward her ample breasts” or “the ancient vampire trembled with desire as her hair brushed past his cheek.” It all seemed just as ridiculous as gorgeous women jumping into bed with James Bond (especially since they are usually just trying to kill him anyway).

But beyond the differences in style, the key difference between guys romantic fantasies and those of women seems to be that men dream that some alluring woman will love them immediately and unconditionally or at least want them sexually. Women want the powerful bad boy to find them, to be obsessed with her, to feel that they are the most amazing woman on the planet (or the galaxy and/or of all time), to overcome insurmountable adversities to win her, to prove his honesty, and to forsake all his bad-boy ways to eventually win her over.

What these romance novels seem to echo is the reality that while both men and women desire an attractive and capable romance partner, men want a woman who will accept them as they are while women want a guy who not only accepts her as she is but is willing to fundamentally change for her. The old adage that “men want the woman they love to never change and women want to change their man into the guy they love” seems to be a universal truth in romance fiction at least.

In the final analysis, there is one element of truth from romantic fantasy that transcends gender boundaries. Men and women alike both dream of being found by someone who will love them exactly as they are. Both James Bond and Beatrice agree on this. But Beatrice would expect James to prove his love by giving up exactly the behaviors that attracted her to him.

Love has no obligation to make sense, especially in romantic fiction.


Addendum: I received this comment via email. It’s so good I had to add it.

Women have been changing themselves to be attractive to men for centuries.  They starve themselves, squeeze their bodies into all kinds of unnatural shapes, suppress their ambition to become equal members of society…  Maybe the reason that men don’t want their women to change is that they don’t need to – the women have already done the changing.  Maybe the men in these romance novels are attracted to those women who have already become what the men want.  And maybe the men should consider the fact that in any relationship, both parties have to make accommodations, including them.


Synonyms and Morality

moralwebThe purpose of a thesaurus is to help us to find synonyms; that is, words that have exactly or nearly the same meaning as another. But in truth, there are very few exact synonyms. The vast majority of synonyms, while generally related, each have very distinct and important nuances of meaning. A thesaurus alone doesn’t help us to appreciate those critical distinctions. In fact, it tends to minimize and obscure those differences by creating the impression that all of the synonyms are interchangeable.

The proper use of a thesaurus is to help us think of the right word, the better word, the exactly perfect word to precisely convey a particular meaning. The harmful and more common use of a thesaurus is to simply pick a different synonym so that we don’t repeat the same word twice in a paragraph. The good use of a thesaurus expands the richness of the language. The bad use of a thesaurus compresses the language, destroying its richness and subtlety of meaning.

So a thesaurus should be used with tremendous caution. For example, when a young author looks up the word “supple” in a thesaurus, they may conclude that they can freely substitute it with agile or limber or lithe or flexible or spry. But each of these words has its own uniquely distinct and important meaning. To ignore these differences and misuse a synonym is frankly a terrible waste and diminishes the language tangibly.

One book that I’ve held on to for decades is “Choose the Right Word” by S.I. Hayakawa (found here). This is an essential reference for anyone who cares about language and writing. In this book the authors compare and contrast groups of synonyms to help you understand how they are different and therefore how and when to best use them. It is one reference book that you really can just pick up and read cover to cover for fun.

In fact, “Choose the Right Word” is not only mandatory for writers, but for readers as well. If the richness of meaning is lost on the reader, it is like listening to music through crappy speakers. The reader misses out on much of the brilliant nuance that makes the writing worth reading.

This morning I was thinking of a possible blog article on morals and ethics. So as soon as I got out of the shower I naturally consulted “Choose the Right Word.” According to Hayakawa, the words moral and ethical were once nearly synonymous but have recently diverged in meaning.  Moral is now generally used in a religious context while ethical is usually used in a more secular context. We talk about the morals of a priest or saint but the ethics of a lawyer or legislator. Moreover, morals has come to mean “personal conduct as set by an external code or standard” while ethics refers to “just and fair dealings with other people, not by the application of an external standard but by a pragmatic consideration of all aspects of a situation in light of experience.

Or to put it more succinctly, “moral can often be taken to mean private, codified, rigid and a priori; ethical to mean public, improvisatory, flexible, and a posteriori.” As the authors point out we can “agree despite differing moral values on ethical ways to work together.

The discussion then contrasts some related words. Upright suggests moral conviction while decent suggests an ethical concern for others. Virtuous suggests a personal life free from moral blemish while honorable suggests someone who deals with others in a decent and ethical manner.

These distinctions, like all such distinctions, are critical to gaining a nuanced understanding of the world. Even though these words are often thought of as synonymous, there are good reasons why conservatives and religious people are quite comfortable talking about morals but are wary of ethics. And there are likewise good reasons why liberals and nones are frightened by the word moral but are very happy to talk about ethics. Whether we are talking about morals and ethics or anything else, we must first understand the powerful nuances inherent in the language we employ. That is the only way to ensure that we are speaking to, and not talking past, each other to gain real understanding.

Ideas cannot be simplified into a few generic synonyms compressed down into a convenient thesaurus and a rich language is all we have to express them.

On Grammar, Punctuation, and Serial Commas


Dear Editor

Yes, you personally! Stop messing with my Serial commas, or my Oxford commas, or my Harvard commas, or my Series commas or however else you wish to refer to that punctuation mark I placed before the “and” at the end of a series. I do know quite well that you are philosophically opposed to them, but there are good reasons why I keep putting them in anyway – I mean apart from my sadistic compulsion to make your job miserable or to cleverly distract you from focusing on actual flaws in my manuscript.

Believe me I do sympathize with the visceral pain of abandoning a proofreading rule that was drilled into you back in Editing 101. After all, the AP Stylebook banned it for all eternity. But that journalism convention is now an archaic remnant of the olden days when every character had to be manually typeset on the printed page and every “excess” character that could be eliminated meant less typesetting effort, faster time to print, and greater profits. But that is no longer a concern today, and there is no longer any need to continue to sacrifice clarity and precision in order to avoid the manual placement of another comma.

And make no mistake; any writing that abandons the correct use of the serial comma is far less precise. For example, if I craft the following sentence…

We received shipments of produce, livestock, tea, and spice.

I intend this to clearly communicate that four separate shipments were received. If you automatically remove my serial comma as follows…

We received shipments of produce, livestock, tea and spice.

You have materially undermined my intent. Does this sentence now communicate clearly that four shipments were received or might it have been only three? The reader can no longer be sure. By automatically removing all of my serial commas, you have reduced the richness of information, lowered precision, created ambiguity, and even introduced an error.

And depending on the context and purpose of the statement, it might really, really matter whether four shipments were received instead of only three. You would not willy-nilly delete “unnecessary” parentheses from a mathematics equation, so why would you effectively do the same with my precisely punctuated prose?

Deletion of the serial comma is especially egregious to anyone with a math, science, legal, or computer programming background. We are trained to be as clear and unambiguous in our writing as possible. But when you are editing any work, let alone a scientific paper or technical manual, you probably do not have the subject matter expertise to determine if and how you might be changing the precise meaning that the author has communicated by including or omitting a serial comma.

Even in fiction and non-technical writing, a smart author uses the serial comma in a smart manner. Not only to indicate non-grouping of the final items in the series, but to establish style. I read all my writing out loud, especially dialog, to get just the right, natural-sounding cadence from the character’s unique voice. Sometimes that calls for a comma to make it sound or read the way I intend. When you remove that carefully crafted comma, you undermine not only the meaning, but also the artistic voice of the author. That frankly violates what should be your most sacred prime directive as an editor – do no harm.

Editors: Get over what you were taught about serial commas. Even the AP Stylebook endorses its use when it enhances clarity. But more importantly, trust the author to appropriately express subtleties of meaning and style through their careful use of the serial comma. Unless they obviously misuse it, like if they include it when they really intended the final two items to be grouped, or vice versa, don’t presume that you fully understand how the comma might alter the intent and meaning of the text.

Authors: Don’t be bullied into following some archaic rule of grammar here, but do be consistent. Use the serial comma if the final two items are ungrouped; exclude it if they are grouped. And if it makes no difference, use it artistically to express nuances of cadence or style.

And to both of you, take heart. You are not out on a limb here. If your literary competency is questioned, you can simply refer your critic to the Chicago Manual of Style, MLA Style Guide, and many other institutions who all endorse consistent use of the serial comma. Proof by authority is all some people will accept.

But if that isn’t enough to sufficiently pacify the stubborn stickler regarding the serial commas included by you, cite starting conjunctions, split infinitives, passive verbs, and ending prepositions as other outmoded grammatical proscriptions that should no longer be mindlessly adhered to.

Sincerely, Author

P.S. Further reading can be found in this post on Tin House.