tropes

No Holiday Romance

[I am posting this on behalf of Jean Roberta, who is having computer problems. You can contact her at jean2551englishlit [at] yahoo [dot] ca ~ Lisabet]

By Jean Roberta

This is the season when I sometimes wish I had written more winter-holiday romances: stories about a man and a woman finding love in picturesque snowy landscapes (on a ski trip, lost in the woods, or under the city lights surrounded by decorated Yule trees) with little or no explicit sex. Stories like this get posted, published, and reposted a lot during this season. I was invited to send any of my holiday romance stories to be reprinted. Alas, none of my stories fit.

There is “Amanda and the Elf” (under 2K), a raunchy little piece in which Amanda, an exhausted divorced mother of two children, is visited on Christmas Eve by a studly elf she hasn’t seen since she was a horny teenager. (Hint: he is really a masturbation fantasy, small enough not to be threatening, but with superhuman ability to satisfy any woman who wants him.) Although the elf is likely to show up in Amanda’s life again, their relationship doesn’t exactly have a quality of “happily ever after.”

This story first appeared in Merry XXXmas, a holiday anthology edited by Alison Tyler (Cleis Press, 2005).

Then there is my historical story of clandestine lesbian love, “A Visit from the Man in Red.” One of the women has a child by an abusive ex-husband, as well as a set of parents who expect her to find and marry a better man as soon as possible. The year in 1968, when a sweeping Omnibus Bill modernized Canadian culture by legalizing sex between men and making divorce easier to get. The two women arrange their own secret Christmas celebration, and when the ex-husband threatens to ruin it, the day is saved by a man in a red uniform: a closeted gay “brother” in the Royal Canadian Mounted Police. Again, this is not really a romance.

The story was first published in Naughty or Nice? – another holiday anthology from Cleis, edited by Alison Tyler (2007). Then it appeared in my single-author collection of women’s erotica, The Princess and the Outlaw: Tales of the Torrid Past from Lethe Press in 2013.

Then there is “The Feast of the Epiphany,” a story with no explicit sex in which two women and two men go out for supper on “Ukrainian Christmas,” as it is called on the Canadian prairies:  January 6 or 7, when Christmas is celebrated in the Eastern Orthodox Catholic Church. The narrator, a divorced woman who is trying to find her way into the lesbian community, has a crush on the other woman, who seems strong, capable, and comfortable with her identity as a dyke.  The men are also mutually attracted, but one believes that monogamy is part of heteronormative oppression, and he has had a “friendship with benefits” with the supposed dyke. The other man feels strongly about the need for commitment; he was disowned from his Orthodox Jewish family for being gay, and doesn’t want to waste his love on someone who can’t be loyal. During a lively discussion, the waiter (who is also gay, of course) jumps in as a mediator. There is a fairly happy ending for all the characters, but is this “romance?” Maybe, but it’s not highly seasonal.

This story was accepted (somewhat to my surprise) for Coming Together: Into the Light, a more-or-less erotic anthology of stories about revelations, edited by Alessia Brio, published by Phaze Publications in 2010 as part of an erotic series that raises money for worthy causes. This volume won an EPPIE (Electronically Published Internet Connection) award.

When one mushy movie after another with “Christmas” in the title shows up on my TV screen, I sometimes wonder why I haven’t written a narrative like these. They look easy to write, and I seem to be capable of throwing characters together.

However, as I was told by one of my English profs many years ago, you can’t write a convincing plot about something you don’t believe in. This was his warning to those of us who might have the hubris to think we could make lots of money writing traditional romances for Harlequin in the U.S. or Mills and Boone in the U.K.

I have written about sexual relationships between men and women, and in some cases, I’m very fond of my characters and want them to be happy together. (My “bawdy novella, The Flight of the Black Swan, is set in the1860s, and features an official marriage which serves as cover for two same-gender love affairs.  This book is sexually classified as “bisexual.”)

In general, however, I don’t believe that the social, legal, and economic inequality between men and women which prevailed in Western society for centuries leads to True Love. I suppose I’m a feminist killjoy.  There have always been loopholes in the patriarchy, and women have made great strides in the last fifty years, but if you think male violence against females is fading into history, you are out of the loop. Every step forward made by women seems to be met by enormous resentment from men.

To throw a hero and a heroine together, I need them both to be exceptional, and I need their circumstances to be unusual. A sprig of mistletoe isn’t enough to persuade me that two people who have serious objections to each other (the “Dearest Enemy” romance trope that I’ve written about elsewhere) can suddenly fall in love, or recognize that love was there all along. The magic of the season doesn’t seem like an adequate reason why two people would want to spend their lives together. If it wouldn’t work in March or September, it wouldn’t work better in December.

I could refer you to several recent posts in social media about the unpaid “emotional labour” largely done by women, especially during the winter holidays, when gifts must be bought, feasts cooked, houses decorated, and social events planned. In real life, all this work doesn’t usually lead to melting glances between an exhausted woman and a typically clueless man who has no idea what she wants him to do.

In my own real life, I am living happily with my spouse, the woman I have been with since 1989. (Next summer, we plan to put on some sort of celebration for the thirtieth anniversary of our first overnight date.) We love this time of year because the break from paid work gives us a chance to become couch potatoes watching mushy movies together. Maybe I should write about that.

Common Tropes Editors Wish Would Curl Up And Die

Elizabeth Black writes in a wide variety of genres including erotica,
erotic romance, and dark fiction. She lives on the Massachusetts coast with her
husband, son, and three cats. Visit her web
site
, her Facebook page, and her Amazon
Author Page
.

—–

Let’s play a game. You’ve written what you think is The Most Unique And
Exciting Story In The World, and you want to send it to a magazine or an
anthology submission call. You do exactly that and wait eager – and anxiously –
for over a month to get either an acceptance or a rejection. An acceptance will
be met with many congratulations and toasts with champagne – and pinches to
make sure you’re really awake.

A rejection, which deep in the back of your mind you may actually suspect
you will get because you are a writer and you may thrive on disappointment, will
leave you devastated. Or you’ll shrug it off and send your magnum opus
elsewhere. It’s a toss-up.

Rinse and repeat.

While you play the “hurry up and wait” game, you may wonder
how unique your story really is? Chances are, its theme has been seen before in
many different incarnations. Editors run into the same old stories all the
time. They often talk of common tropes that leave them guessing the plot and
ending before they even finish reading your submission. There are some tropes
many editors wish would never cross their desks. Those tropes should be buried
and the ground sown with salt.

Here are some examples of those kinds of common and tired tropes. First
up, here is a list of subjects Bartleby
Snopes Literary Magazine managing editor Nathaniel Tower is tired of seeing in
lit magazine submissions
:

Death Endings – For the love of everything
that is sacred about literature, stop killing off characters in violent or
sentimental fashion in order to achieve an ending. Characters die in
approximately 12% of the submissions we receive. 99% of these deaths are
pointless and make the story worse. Character death is not a substitute for a
satisfactory conclusion.

Opening with sex or masturbation – Nothing
turns me off faster than a story that opens with a masturbation or sex scene.
I’m all about being thrown directly into a scene, but sometimes there needs to
be some literary foreplay. If there’s an erect penis in the opening line of the
story, I probably don’t want to read it. Interestingly enough, these stories
are almost never sexy.

Sentimental cancer stories – Yes, nearly
everyone has been affected in some way by cancer. I’ve had family members die
of cancer. It’s been at least five years since anyone said anything new with a
cancer story.

Stories that open with light streaming
through the window – How many stories can begin with some type of light
bursting forth through a hunk of glass? Apparently there is no limit. At least
15% of stories contain some type of light coming through something in the
opening paragraph. There are often dust motes thrown in there for good measure.
Please, no more dust motes.

Stories that begin with someone coming out of
a dream or end with someone realizing it was all a dream – You’d
think that all dream stories would have been banned from the universe by
now. It seems as if many writers haven’t gotten the memo. I’ll personally kill
the next character that wakes up from a dream at the beginning of a story. And
ending with a dream? Well, that’s even worse. You might as well just call the
story “Nothing Happened At All” and leave the rest of the document blank.

Alzheimer’s stories – Like cancer stories,
only worse. These writers all pretend they understand exactly what it’s like to
have Alzheimer’s. The worst offenders are those stories told in first person
from the point of view of the Alzheimer’s patient. If I could forget one thing,
it would be Alzheimer’s stories.

Cheating significant other stories – Whether
the cheater is a man or a woman, these stories generally pack as much punch as
an empty bottle of sugar-free Hawaiian Punch. There’s almost always a scene
where someone is packing a suitcase, as if we’re supposed to feel some sort of
relief at this newfound freedom from the tormented relationship. The only
relief is when the story ends.

Machinegun bonus – Here’s a quick list of
other things I’ve seen way too much of:

Devil/God stories

Bar/diner stories

References to Nietzsche

Abuse stories

Stories of thwarted creative genius

Bad things happening to trust fund kids

This is a portion of a list of stories seen too often by Strange
Horizons, an online speculative fiction
magazine
. It is helpful in that it can steer you away from what
you may not suspect are common tropes. Please visit this web page often since
the list is updated and changed on occasion. Also visit the page now anyway,
since this is a very long list. The examples below are only a small part of it.

Creative person is having trouble creating.

Weird things happen, but it turns out they’re
not real, like in a dream. (There’s that dream thing again.)

Technology and/or modern life turn out to be
soulless.

A place is described, with no plot or
characters.

A “surprise” twist ending occurs.
The “surprise” is often predictable, hence no longer a
“surprise”.

A princess has been raped or molested by her
father (or stepfather), the king.

The narrator and/or male characters in the
story are bewildered about women, believing them to conform to any of the
standard stereotypes about women: that they’re mysterious, wacky, confusing,
unpredictable, changeable, temptresses, etc.

Teen’s family doesn’t understand them.

Twee little fairies with wings fly around
being twee.

Christine Morgan has written horror, fantasy, erotica, and thrillers.
She has also edited numerous anthologies, including “Fossil Lake”,
“Teeming Terrors” and “Grimm Black”, “Grimm Red”,
and “Grimm White”. Her list includes some other common tropes:

Child characters that do not behave/sound
like kids! I’ve seen too many otherwise good authors present a child character
as if they’ve never even been around children in their lives.

The above can also apply to animals, or any
other different/differing perspective. In fantasy or sci fi, urban fantasy,
horror, whatever; if you’re going to give me a non-human race, then that’s what
I want to see played up, the differences, the exoticness; don’t just make ’em
humans with special effects makeup.

Any of the overdone sexism tropes: fridging,
smurfette syndrome, automatic love interest, passive prize women, etc. That
should go without saying but the fact it still so often needs to be said is
almost more annoying.

Fridging (I
think the term came from crime dramas and thrillers, where the body was found
in a fridge or freezer or something) is what they call it when someone, usually
a female character, is killed to motivate the male character … most recent
example that pissed me off was when I watched Thor: Dark World, when the easiest way to get Thor and Loki to work
together was to kill Frigga.

Smurfette
Syndrome is what I’ve heard it when you’ve got your group of characters, each
of whom is characterized by some trope or type … the jock, the nerd, the
weirdo … and the girl … because that alone is enough of an identifying
quality, right?

Automatic
love interest is when a female character is added to the cast or in the story
and the main focus is only to be which guy gets her. My own beloved Gargoyles did some of that with Angela,
when, the moment she appeared, all that mattered was who she’d end up with. It’s
related to the passive prize woman thing, where the primary purpose of having a
female character at all is so the hero has something to win or gets the girl at
the end, whether anything else in the story had led up to it or not.

Radclyffe is an American author of lesbian romance, paranormal romance,
erotica, and mystery. She has authored multiple short stories, fan fiction, and
edited numerous anthologies. Here are a few themes/character notes/plot-lines
that seem overused in submissions she has seen:

Protagonists
who are relationship-phobic because they were cheated on. While this may be
crushing at the time, most people do not swear off love and/or sex forever
because of an unfaithful gf/bf/spouse etc. 

Protagonists
who are unavailable because they are mourning a dead spouse (while tragic in
real life, and I’ve used this storyline myself :), it’s getting to be
common-place)

YA’s – along
those lines: dying teens as main characters

Unlikeable
main characters (snarky, petty, narcissistic) – not the same as
arrogant, confident, alpha

International settings no one
would want to visit on a good day

Fantasy/sci-fi characters with
incomprehensible names

Thinly-
veiled morality tales (or social/political polemics). Write an essay or op ed
instead.

Twilight/The
Fault in Our Stars clones

“Romances”
where one character dies (might be a great story, but it’s not a
romance)

BDSM novels
with no BDSM scenes (seen the movie?)

Intrigues
where the villain is declared insane and justice is NOT served

So there you have
it. Now you are armed with examples of what to not submit. Expand your mind,
avoid those kinds of tropes, and create something that may truly be The Most
Unique And Exciting Story In The World.

—–

Author’s Note: My
story Infection appears in the
aforementioned TeemingTerrors. My story Black As Ebony,
White As Snow
shall soon appear in Grimm
White
. Both books are edited by Christine Morgan. My short erotic story Like A Breath Of Ocean Blue shall soon
appear in Best Lesbian Romance 2015,
edited by Radclyffe.

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