Genre Jazz II: Worldbuilding and popular Romance

In the last post I was talking about parody and mash-ups in fiction as a form of new fictional world creation out of existing fabric. Worldbuilding doesn’t end at sci-fi, fantasy and steampunk though.

Reading popular romances lately is a bit like entering a Bridget Jones theme park. Perky secondary characters, unlikely-sounding tycoons who don’t wear high-waisted Simon Cowell trousers or drive Bugattis, or work in real-world industries like Bill Gates – and everything has so much emotional ‘significance’ – from the town or city it’s set in, to the memories inspired in the heroine by the ancient family coffee-pot being utilised to pour a non-significant cup of Java.

Now, I’ve done my share of chick-lit, five years ago with ‘Death & The City’ in 2008. It’s ‘psycho-chick-lit’, and the reason that the lead character notices everything, looks for significance in everything, and analyses everything, is that she’s a self-monitoring, OCD, psychotic-psychopath. I was aiming for a genre mash-up of Bridget Jones meets American Psycho. There’s a reason it’s over-written and contains too much TMI, and that’s because, in my personal experience, learning to filter reality from psychosis takes a lot of self-monitoring, and the best way to portray it realistically was not to filter or edit. Unfortunately, a psychotic can’t go back and edit their thoughts, or their nightmares, so they’re stuck with them, like a demon-possessed mental train set whizzing from one illusion to the next, reinforced by pattern-matching at every station stop.

I did eventually do a cut-down version that readers could skip through, (the Cut to the Chase edition) but more out of experimenting with ebook formatting than out of pity for readers. It’s my own book, basically I wrote it to remind myself to focus on reality and not head off down the path of antidepressants and antipsychotics. So I pick it up once in a while to remind myself of what it used to be like, and how to avoid going down that route again.

I don’t think the eventual sequels will turn out the same – like the lead character Lara was trying to do, I’m running on a different personality now to the one I was escaping at the time. One that doesn’t get out that much, but definitely a saner and less scary one 🙂

Writing it was my own personal journey of self-help, as well as a fictional outlet for a lot of ‘what ifs?’ regarding my job at the time in nightclub security. Ten years previously I was also a bar tender, with another personality. And the kind of preconceptions the public had about that kind of person working in the industry. I could do the real job at night, dealing only with what was in front of me and quoting the licensing laws at people, and during the day I wrote all the delusions up (my own, and of the occasional drunk customers) in the form of fiction. My main relationship was with my car, in which I did up to 300 miles a week, all at night on empty roads, so that was a major feature and place to happily delude myself with new stuff to write down when I got home. And my holiday-romance daughter, who has since turned out to be equally interested in fantasy things, writing about undead carnage, Youtube, heavy metal, and dreaming about what it would be like to have a split personality. Luckily, I can tell her that’s all completely normal, because I went through the real thing.

So as you might guess, seeing a lot of TMI and mental ramblings, delusional thought-patterns, anthropomorphic significance of inanimate places and objects (i.e. scene-setting red herrings), stalking behaviour, and denial of real-world issues glossed over in romance fiction is a bit weird to me. If I was back on the other side of events in my life, it would all act as reinforcement – telling me Sure, be a stalker, or encourage creepy guys, there’ll be a happy ever after before you know it. Funny how that never happens in real life. Which is why I left Death & The City: Book Two somewhat open-ended to be continued later after the two protagonists agreed on a deal. I haven’t even reached that stage yet emotionally myself to know if there will ever be a significant other with whom to do that sort of, er, research…

Lots of writers debate about the problems of writing sex scenes. I don’t even know if I should be writing love scenes. I don’t have the experience. So writing to me is all just ‘what ifs’ – not based on reality. There’s no such person in my life to base it on, and never has been.

In a way it’s good, because I don’t have to worry that anyone would ever recognise themselves in a male lead in one of my books. Background characters for sure, I get inspiration for those everywhere – but even those better know I made most of their character traits up, because I was too busy listening to the voices in my head most of the time to hear their chatter 😉

Anyway, after Death & The City, subs, waiting around, and then discovering broadband, writer sites, the social networking of the internet, and self-publishing – and after a couple of career changes, then becoming a full-time writer and editor – I started looking back into an old teenage ambition to write category romance, without the psychoses (or zombies, real or imaginary). But since picking up a number of the trad published rom-coms and chick-lits to read through over the last couple of years, it appears that the world of trad romance has also lost the plot (while I was away really losing it and getting it back again) so to speak. Lost it in favour of first-person ramblings and red-herring significance attached to everything, combined with a designer label shopping channel, Oddbins wine-list, men with no latex or stalker allergies, and cars that have blown themselves up on Top Gear.

So out of the shock of that, came this year’s parody (of many books and movies) The Zombie Adventures of Sarah Bellum – a more readable, reader-friendly epic about a love-struck idiot who’d take any man at any time of day, dead or alive, given the opportunity…

But it is curious, as to how every romance I’ve picked up in the last eighteen months breaks every rule in the book (the book in question being my fave How Not to Write a Novel by Mittelmark and Newman), as well as indicating that the romantic aspirations of young women today are being influenced more by the need for mental health intervention than for wedding lists and family planning advice. Some women who have been through the real thing (mental heath issues, not romance) don’t relish the portrayal of behaviour which leads to restraining orders in real life, suggesting that it should be deployed to achieve happiness. Or that happiness is a man. Happiness is not a man. Happiness is knowing who you are when you look in the mirror – and I don’t mean that metaphorically. I mean it literally.

In proper romances, as I recall, the *sane* lead character does not find themselves fascinating to the detriment of all other storyline, action and dialogue. They engage with other characters, their family, work and the world, yes – but mainly, they engage with the Plot. They do not engage with the socks their Great Auntie knitted every time they wear them. They do not gush over the French chandeliers. They do not drool over technology which will be redundant by the time the book is published. They put on regular socks (if they must, but the wearing of clothes generally is usually accepted as a given), they walk into rooms in which the reader assumes the lights are on unless told otherwise, and they do not show themselves up as gold-diggers by doing an inventory of the hero’s apartment and all his gadgets.

There’s another good reason for this. Like wandering around inside the mind of a psychopath, which leaves you wanting a cuddle and a Paracetamol, wandering around inside the mind of any verbose woman for too long leaves you wanting a bit of mystery back in your life. Fuck the Great Auntie’s socks and Mister Tiggles the cat. If all you can picture while reading is the author’s fantasy man, fantasy wank, fantasy shopping trip, fantasy best friends/sidekicks, how much she hates her day job and her boss, and the number of Nigella Bites cooking shows she watched while detailing every meal she wishes she was eating instead of writing and attempting to diet, it’s like spending too long in the company of someone addicted to personal revelations and co-counselling. Which should really be left to people with actual problems and issues that they need help with. Not the kind of thing you can get the answers to by pulling the petals off a daisy instead 🙂

In other words, chatty is fine. Self-absorbed (in silence) is fine. Self-absorbed chattiness, no. Ouch. Bad author. That’s not romantic escapism at all. That’s a recipe for insomnia and psychotic episode flashbacks. If your character is not going to come out as a psychotic who has been (or will be by the end of the book) prescribed everything on the a la carte trolley from Mellerill and Largactyl to Olanzepine and Citalopram, tone it down. One in four of us would like to have a bit of escapism into what it’s like to think straight. Not what it’s like to live in a world where the heroine thinks exactly like us and gets away with it, without turning purple by the end and fatally believing she can fly.

So that’s the internal world of the heroine, being done to death everywhere I look. But what about the external world? The theme park version of every trendy setting on the planet?

If you must name a specific town or place, please go there first. People live there, who will see a theme-park candy-coating a mile off. There is a certain beach I would not want a moonlit romantic tryst on, for fear of stepping on a hypodermic needle or getting deafened by the noise of the regular doggers under the pier. You are allowed to create unnamed fantasy places where people live by simply not referring to them by name, or inventing one if you must. People use the phrase ‘going into town’ when they go out, or ‘going to the beach’. If your town or village is a character and also a real place, why is it a character? Is it historically significant to the plot, or was frequented by a relevant historical figure? Is it haunted or paranormal in some way? Are you marketing it as tourist material to the residents? Remember, that giving an existing location a characterisation not yet known to the residents in real life will raise eyebrows – even more so if you give the general public themselves a new and improved reputation of any sort.

As a writer, I have my reasons for going psycho. But as a reader and consumer, I would like to read things once again which make me experience what it’s like to be romantically sane for a while. Interesting, but normal. And not in a comparative, unresearched, patronizing, I’m normal because the girl next door is sectioned kind of way…

Indulge me 🙂 xxx

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