Sadistic Romance Writers
Volume 1: Backstory
You have to make the cute ones suffer or their egos get out of hand. Tall, dark and handsome is hard to manipulate unless he’s convinced he’s unlovable. If you’re not bothered by clichés, give him an adoring mother who died when he was six, a sharp slice of memory in the fog of his formative years: her death grip on his little hand, her whispered words, “It’s not your fault.” You can’t skip it or he’s lost to you. He’ll be just another hottie, uninterested in ordinary girls, girls who hang back and read books and think of clever things to say six hours too late. Without the wound, he won’t be needy. And readers like to be needed. It’s all well that ends well for us. Give us a handsome hero with a hole in his heart, and we’ll take true love for 148 pages.
The clouds disperse when he arrives. Why re-invent the wheel? Disperse is a big word these days. Fall back on what’s reliable. The sun peeked out from behind the clouds. She never felt this way before. Honestly, just get to the sex. But know that it will grow dull soon after. No matter how handsome he is or how many obstacles you scatter on the path to love, after they consummate and try everything once, it’s a yawn. Conclude it quickly. Move on to the next love.
Extrication can be tricky. We’ve seen so many endings. Why not bend the genre and have the orphaned cutie discover his origin story on page 142? He’s out in the garden being handsome in the moonlight when he spies the door to your office. It’s in a basement or a back shed that you “forgot” to lock that morning when boredom reached a climax. What’s this? He’s sensed a change in his beloved lately — she/you/I don’t gaze upon him like we used to — and he dreads what he may find. He turns the knob but pauses on the threshold. Slow it down for the big finale. Let the moonlight enter ahead of him. What’s that on the wall?
He stares in confusion at your character photo gallery, your colour-coded plot points, your timeline of his life. It’s not possible. But there it is, in ridiculous detail. He has a project binder and a Pinterest mood board. He has a secret shame and a favourite ice cream flavour. It can’t be true. All the things that haunt him are things you invented. You drilled the hole in his heart. You killed his mom.
A gut-wrenching scene ensues. He rips your corkboard from the wall, wailing, “No. No! NO!” His image, his habits, his funeral flashback scatter on the floor at his feet. Teardrops splash on them, why not? He has never felt okay. How could you wound him just so you’d be the one to heal him? Why couldn’t you let him be happy? The anguish will get to you, even though you’re prepared for it and it is the day’s work.
He stumbles away and dies in grief. TO BE CONTINUED, page 148 states. The reader reels.
You could put him in a mental institution instead of a grave — his broad shoulders straight-jacketed, his piercing eyes vacated — and visit him occasionally to probe the depths of lost love. But know that you’d be crossing a line there, a line between controlling and pure fucking evil. Even if it’s not real, it’s a line. Who would do that to someone, even someone fictional? Pretty much any writer who wants a decent book deal, that’s who. So don’t feel too bad about it. They might even allow a conjugal visit.
If you’d rather be kind, then kill him quickly. Let him become a tender memory that aches with the first snowfall or the smell of espresso or whatever’s coming in the continuation. Don’t run him over by a bus or anything messy, but maybe gun him down with a shot through the heart — symbolic and still handsome.
One way or another, our heroine is left grieving. She/you/I will never find another like him. We’ll carry a heavy sadness forever, without having to actually live with the guy and recycle his beer cans and wipe his fucking beard trimmings off the bathroom counter every Sunday. None of that, because he’s dead, alas, and we are so torn up inside, we don’t know how we’ll manage. But we’ll manage.
Volume 2: Wayward
Boredom is not a defence that will get you out of jail, but no one’s getting arrested here, so let’s be honest: We need a bit of wayward after the big handsome love.
Before she/you/I can heal — let’s call her “she” for this bit — she’ll debase herself with some cad. (Like people use that word anymore. I’m old, obvi, and this fact could change your relationship to my love stories because I have no libido anymore, so what do I know?) She’ll plant chrysanthemums and weep in moonlit gardens while dating a player — he’s not even that handsome; she can’t say why she’s so attracted to him — who abuses her — not publicly, such as would get you 1000 comments on Instagram, but privately, in the bedroom, where all the commenters have debased themselves and phoned their friends about it as if the ability to take abuse is a character strength.
There’ll be edgy sex and twisted psychologies — noose play, voyeurism, she’ll go down on a stranger in an alley while her cad-BF watches from the shadows, whatever. (Like that’s edgy. Where have you been for all of literary history?) The reader will cringe and wonder, “Why does she put up with this? It must be her guilt. She is so broken-hearted. She has truly lost her way.”
(I’ve deleted the degrading sex excerpt. Add your own. That time you did that thing. So gross now, but in the moment it felt daring.)
There’ll be enough depravity to please the most educated reader, and when that gets dull — so soon, so soon — she’ll flee her abuser and have an epiphany that makes her question the very nature of love, natch. The cad will either die during some rebound sexscapade or he’ll skyrocket to fame with his sex addiction TED Talk. Either fate will leave the heroine/reader/writer alone in a café, all her naughty memories tucked away, composing a journal/blog/opening scene, and knowing she is exactly where she needs to be. Natch.
Volume 3: True love
Clichés within clichés! Zoom out from the woman in the café and see that she’s not alone. She’s at a table with her husband. They write in silence for an hour every Sunday and call it a WISH. Time’s up, and they exchange their work.
She reads his story of an amateur golfer who goes pro in his fifties. “Wouldn’t that be nice?”
He reads the latest breakup scene in her young heroine’s romance. “Why can’t you let her find love?”
She rests a hand on her journal. A film of cookie dough envelops her wedding ring. There’s your objective correlative, she/you/I think(s). “Because we all know how that turns out,” she says. She softens this blow with a giggle, as if mental instability makes everything better, and she pats her husband’s hand. Their rings clatter and she takes it for applause. “Fiction is dull without problems. Love is dull without them. In stories, I mean. Not in real life.” She’s lying; she’s bored out of her skull, obvi — just peek inside that journal.
“You don’t like problems,” her husband says. “You just want control.”
She smiles, but you know her next story will be about a widow whose heart opens at last, epiphanies and regrets galore. (We never walked in the rain! I should have learned to golf!) She’ll have a lusty affair with a grief counsellor half her age and he’ll surely end an addict, ruined by all-consuming love of her. But that’s not till page 147. There’s desire and admiration to fill the blank space until then.
Her husband orders a second coffee. He watches the waitress walk away.
All around them, keyboards click and pens scribble.
Catherine Austen lives in Gatineau, Quebec, where she writes books and stories for readers of all ages. She’s currently working on her first novel in verse, thanks to the support of the Canada Council for the Arts. More: catherineausten.com