Tuesday, 5 February 2013


Happy Tuesday, Dear Readers! I hope your weekend and Monday were good, because today I have something to confess.

Here goes. There is a love story in THE NAME OF THE BLADE TRILOGY.  There is a love story in THE NIGHT ITSELF.

So far, so not-very-surprising. What kind of a confession is this, you ask yourselves?

Patience, my muffins; there is more. For the romance I depict in this trilogy is a kind which is often disrespected and dismissed. This love is a love that few will approve. Many find its very existence shameful. Even the kindest, most open-minded of you, especially the ones who like to review books and are therefore immersed in popular reviewing language, are going to take ONE LOOK at this love story and - in your shock and disgust - put a certain label on it.

You will call it insta-love.

Quelle Surprise! Quelle Horreur!

Guess what else? I did it on purpose.

While you're still reeling from that one, here's another confession. I'm known (where I'm known at all) for my loathing of the term Mary-Sue. It is a term which is infinitely worthy of my loathing for many fine reasons. But over the last couple of years I have grown to hate the term 'insta-love' even more.

Accusations of insta-love are the last thing any author wants. It makes you cringe instinctively. The very term is dismissive and insulting. To have a relationship in a book labelled as insta-love implies all kind of nasty cr*p - not just about the quality of your book but also you, as a writer. It implies that you're using cheap and dirty tricks, that you have resorted to stereotypes, that your characters are ciphers with no real connection to each other. If you've written insta-love you're either a talentless hack who only put a romance in there to pander to commercial demand, or a talentless hack who can't write a 'proper' love story.

Bad author. No cookie. No cookie for you or your cr*ppy insta-love book.

And you know what? I really effing hate that. Maybe I'm just a cranky, contrary madam, but the moment that people start coming out in droves to condemn anything - any literary device that resides in my toolbox as a writer, any narrative choice that a storyteller ought to have the right to select if they feel it works for their story - and saying how terrible, awful, no good and downright WRONG it is? That is the moment that I fling up my skirts, click my heels together and gleefully cackle:


Established wisdom condemns lengthy descriptions? I'll describe the *ss off this book. No epilogues, says the writing forum guru? Have one and a prologue too! Dream sequences are bad juju! Guess I'll make them a main feature of my story, thanks very much! If you tell me I can't have that writer's tool it 'cos it's naughty and unfashionable and bad for me and my book? Even if I never had any desire to use it before, I will literally come up with a story idea specifically to allow me to write that very thing. All the tools in my writer's toolbox are mine to select or reject and if you attempt to smack my hand when I reach for one of them I will BITE YOUR FINGERS OFF.

Ahem. Well, I admitted to cranky, and contrary, right? What did you expect?

I've talked about insta-love on this blog before, with the very able co-conspirator R.J. Anderson. However, the main focus of that piece was the way that many instances of unconventional or slow-burning love were being *mis-labelled* insta-love because readers weren't picking up on the subtle cues throughout the earlier parts of the book that Ze Romance, She Is In Ze Air!

My point today - and really, in the way I developed the relationships in THE NAME OF THE BLADE (yes, 's' - brownie points for noticing! I'm not just talking about one) - is that insta-love isn't necessarily a bad thing. 

I mean, the term iself certainly is, what with the aforementioned sneering dismissiveness and all that. In fact, I'd like to take the phrase insta-love by the hand, gently lead it out the back door, and kindly - even tenderly - blow it to smithereens with a sawn-off shotgun. Which is to say that, personally, I prefer to use: love at first sight. 

See how, straight away, that makes such a huge difference? The words 'love at first sight' simply describe the literary device in question without implying a value judgement.

This is the thing. You and I and everyone else has the right to feel whatever way we like about whatever tropes we like or don't. We all have the bullet-proof kinks and, on the other hand, the hot-button tropes that make us want to chuck a book straight across the room the moment they rear their heads.

However, in critiquing books which contain these hot-button tropes I have to bear in mind that if my dislike of the entire book boils down to 'The writer chose THIS TROPE, this PARTICULAR TROPE which I DON'T LIKE, why, why, OH GOD I HATE THE TROPE SO MUCH', then I'm not actually judging the book based on how good it was, how well it executed the goals it set out to achieve. I'm only judging it based on how well it specifically met my specific needs, and I'm treating any way in which it did not do so as a failure.

Its kind of like going me going into a Chinese restaurant, picking up the menu, and crying, 'Why is there rice on this menu? And noodles? I don't like rice and noodles! Where is the pizza? I wanted pepperoni or maybe a stuffed crust!' After realising no garlic bread is forthcoming, I grudgingly eat some noodles and rice, muttering and grumbling, and finally storm out convinced that this is a terrible restaurant because they have nothing edible on their menu, and what is wrong with THEM with their disgusting unnatural RICE and NOODLES, ughgh!

It's possible the food the restaurant offered me was great quality and delicious. It's also possible that it was awful. But because I have an indelible enmity against rice and noodles, I am completely incapable of judging the quality of any rice and nooldes, let alone the rice and noodles I ate there. When I complain that I didn't like them, it is not a value judgement of how good those specific noodles and rice were, it is a rejection of all rice and noodles, ever, everywhere. And it assumes that every other right thinking person has the same deep-seated - possibly pathological - hatred of noodles and rice that plague me.

(Psst, I really love rice and noodles, please don't take them from me Food Gods! Also pizza. Don't take that either!)

This is what the term 'insta-love' does. It assumes that this development - love at first sight - is a bad thing regardless of the context or the characters involved. It assumes that regardless of how well it's done, love at first sight is a lapse in the author's skill and judgement, or a lapse in their integrity. It assumes that the last thing any author would ever deliberately do was set out to write a romance which others would recognise as love at first sight - regardless of whether the author did in fact set out to write love at first sight because they happen to like that trope or simply wanted to explore its implications.

How on earth did this literary device - formerly a perfectly respectable if somewhat challenging storytelling choice, used by such luminaries as Shakespeare, Homer, Chaucer and Hugo - become the ugly red-headed stepchild of YA in general and paranormal romances or urban fantasies in particular? How did 'love at first sight', a neutral descriptive term, become 'insta-love' with all its implications of 'just add water!'?

The general idea is that love at first sight has been horribly overused in YA fiction, so we're all sick of it. But when I actually came to examine my reads over the last few years, even if I *just* think about the paranormal romance, I really can't think of all that many 'imprinting' type romances. I can think of a bunch with passive heroines who let jerky heroes walk all over them, sure - and that's problematic. But it's not the same thing. And I can think of a lot of books that had reviews *saying* they were insta-love and scorning them appropriately, but often when I read them I found myself thinking (as mentioned in the blog with R.J. Anderson) "Huh. Clearly we have different definitions of what 'insta-love' means, because for me this reads as a classic enemies-to-lovers/slow-burn/friends-to-lovers/fill-the-blank-here type romance."

I don't read All The Books. So it's entirely possibly I'm wrong here. Maybe there ARE scads of books where the hero and heroine fall in love at first sight and instantly declare their feelings and spend the whole book in unwavering devotion to each other without ever finding out anymore about each other than mutual hotness. But just because those authors did a bad job of using love at first sight, does that mean love at first sight itself should be forever exiled to a desert island to fight for its life against feral adverbs and raging advectives? Seems a tad unfair.

So then maybe the problem isn't over-USE of this device, but over-popularity and exposure. Maybe it's all Twilight's fault! Only... no. I'm not going to blame Twilight. You may gasp - but the story of Bella and Edward isn't a story of love at first sight in any way that seems reasonable to define it.

Yes, there's a chapter called 'First Sight' in the first book. But Bella's first sight of Edward only tells her that he's whoa-hawt-hubba-hubba-touseled-bronze-hair-mmmm-gimme-some. Her next sight of him (which is when he's, you know, trying awfully hard not to snap her neck and eat her in the biology lab) confuses, frightens and insults her.

In fact the romance between these two is a fairly clear-cut slow-burning type, progressing through initial hostility and misunderstandings to eventual blissful acceptance. I think people call it insta-love because Smeyer, bless her heart, cocks the execution of this up rather badly and so Edward comes off, alternately, as a threatening psycho, and a smug, arrogant jerk, and Bella appears as a relentlessly negative null-character, which makes their mutual attachment seem completely inexplicable. Yes: it's less than brilliant writing. No: it's not love at first sight.

And most people ALSO agree that the baby vampire-teenage werewolf imprinting romance is gross and doesn't count as love either, so that can't be the source, surely?

I'm just going to throw my hands up here and say Heck If I Know. But what I do know is that love at first sight is getting maligned left right and centre. Even when you write a completely different kind of romance people will often signal their disapproval of it by calling it insta-love, because that's just about the nastiest thing anyone can think of to say about any kind of fictional relationship (borderline abusive stalking? A-OK. Insta-love? NO WAY).

So I wanted to try to take 'insta-love' and strip some of those unfair implications away. I wanted to show that the device of love at first sight itself is neutral, neither good nor evil, although it can of course be used for either.

It will be up to readers to say if I've succeeded or failed; whether they personally can learn to love this trope, or at least the way I've chosen to relate it. But whenever I see insta-love used as a pejorative, I shall mentally replace the phrase with 'love at first sight' and feel much better about it.

Because that's what I set out to write. On purpose. And there's nothing wrong with it.


Laura Mary said...

I'm with you Zoe - Feel free to use any tropes you like, break all the rules and have fun doing it!

For every person that hates love at first sight, there will be someone who adores it.

I'm more a fan of the slow burning relationships, but the only thing that really turns me off is lazy writing. Life's too short to read bad books (never made it beyond ch 3 of Twilight!) but write a believable relationship and I'm with you all the way.

PS Rules, smules! I have a prologue, epilogue, and interludes inbetween! Oh! and dreams...


Zoë Marriott said...

Laura: I have personally always been a massive fan of slow-burning love stories. All the anti-love-at-first-sight stuff has *made* me a fan of that out of pure contrariness. Because you're exactly right - rules, schmules!

Jenni said...

I really love this post, and I think it's mainly because you've managed to put into words what I've been thinking about insta-love - particularly re-framing it as love at first sight. I come from a family where love at first sight happens, my mom and dad experienced it and her mom and dad before them - my parents will have been married 32 years this year and my grandparents reached 58 years before my granny died. I also have friends who've experienced it - one married her husband within 6 weeks of meeting him.

I also agree so much with what you say about people critiquing books based on one particular feature. I know I try really hard to look at the whole book rather than one particular feature or trope that doesn't work for me and I get really frustrated when I read reviews where people focus solely on the thing they dislike and judge the book only on that feature. So it's very nice to hear someone else talking sense on the subject!

AE Rought said...

BLESS YOU!! That is all. <3

Zoë Marriott said...

Jenni: That it - next time someone moans to me about 'insta-love' and how horribly unrealistic it is, I am using YOUR FAMILY to crush and humilate them. I hope that's OK with you?

AE: Heh heh - you're very welcome.

serendipity_viv said...

I will hold my hands up to occasionally being dismissive of insta - love. I will also admit that I actually fell in love with my husband within a week of meeting him, so really I will shut up on the subject!

Zoë Marriott said...

Vivienne: Another one! Lots of real life people seem to be married to people that they fell in love with this way! The thing is that love at first sight can be done HORRIBLY in fiction - I admit that. I mean, it can be totally unconvincing and then maybe it does deserve to be called insta-love, just add water. But I don't think all love at first sight is insta-love, and I don't think all insta-love is love at first sight either! So I think we need to reframe our discussions a bit and talk about why THIS instance of love at first sight was insta-love instead of just calling ALL love at first sight that, as if there was no good way to write it.

Jenni said...

Absolutely you can, use them as you wish :D

Anne M Leone said...

Yeah, I think for me the biggest stumbling block to buying romance in novels isn't that it happens quickly, but that it's inexplicable what the characters see in each other--other than extreme hotness.

Very interested now to see the romance in this book!

Zoë Marriott said...

Anne: Eeep. I hope I haven't raised expectations too high now...

Celine said...

For me insta-love is what the words says. It's instant love. Some like it, some don't. I personally don't, and I don't mind pointing out in a review that the characters fall in love from the first moment, because I know other readers like me won't enjoy such a theme in a book either. People that do believe in instant attraction are free to read the book and love it to bits, my review and calling it "insta-love" doesn't change it.

Zoë Marriott said...

Celine: And of course you have a perfect right to do so. But the thing is that language has power. Insta-love has negative connotations and implies not only that the development is badly written but also inherently bad, and it perpetuates the idea that any book which has a love at first sight romance within it is flawed *by definition*. YOU yourself may not feel that way about the term. But that is generally what the term is held to mean. Therefore, that is what the majority of readers will assume your meaning to be. I, personally, do not enjoy insta-love romances. But I do enjoy a well-written love at first sight story. Your readers may feel the same. The question is, how are they to know the difference based on your review if you use the term insta-love interchangeably with love at first sight?

Celine said...

Zoë, they will know because a good reviewer always explains why they make a statement. Saying "this book is great" isn't a review, just like saying "this book is bad, there is insta-love" isn't a review.

I guess I don't see the controversy that much because there are so many book bashers out there that judge a book by just one tiny element that I take every review with a grain of salt. Just as they should be.

Zoë Marriott said...

Celine: It's not so much a controversy as it's me saying 'Stuff everyone, I'm going to write love at first sight no matter how unfashionable it is and you can't stop me, nyer nyer'. Because I'm contrary like that. But the thing is (again) words are power. If you chose to use the phrase insta-love, even if you clarify that in THIS case it was fine and you liked it, you are still implying a value judgement of the trope itself. Just like if you were to say 'I liked all the info-dumps' or 'this character is a great Mary-Sue'. The choice of description itself undermines any other comment you might make. Just MO, of course.

Cicely said...

I'm definitely guilty of having begrudged and mislabeled insta-love in a lot of books, but I realise looking back that a lot of those books weren't actually love at first sight rather than having a passive heroine and jerky boy, but in the past year it really hasn't bothered me as much. I'm still working on becoming more of an open minder reader, though, when it comes to tropes like this because I personally have a slight problem with love at first sight (not because I don't think it exists, as Jenni has proved) but just because it's not something I've not personally experienced. I completely agree that it's a neutral trope and that it has been unfairly condemned in YA and genre fiction recently, and I think would like to see it more in different capacities. I think that it makes a big difference for me, though, to actually read about the trope as a whole and your reason for using it - it's made me a lot more open minded about it. So, yeah, thanks for that! Great post :)

Zoë Marriott said...

Cicely: Why thank you for that ideal response to my post, blogger-friend! And it's not even my birthday or anything :)

Jessica said...

When I met the guy with whom I shared my longest relationship, I knew within a couple of days of meeting him that there was something special going on. We didn't start declaring love there and then, but there was a connection very fast and both of us felt it. I'm not sure if I believe in love at first site, but I'm perfectly happy to believe that a powerful emotional connection can form within a couple of meetings.

That's what I've done in my upcoming book Omega Rising [/shameless plug]. No one uses the word love, but Jenny gets excited about spending time with Ethan within a couple of days of meeting him - so much so that another character describes her as glowing.

I actually use love at first sight in Shadows of Tomorrow, but that's under unusual circumstances because the character in question remembers the future as well as the past. He loves someone at first sight because he remembers loving her in the future. In the context of his character, it makes sense.

I think it all comes down to context. Anything can be great or terrible depending on the surrounding story.

I look forward to reading The Night Itself and promise not to dismiss it offhand as insta-love. :)

Zoë Marriott said...

Jessica: Chemistry, that strange, intangible/tangible attraction between people when they first meet, is such a TOUGH thing to describe with words. There are no words, really. So it's not surprising, I suppose, that even when writers do attempt it, it's subject to a lot of interpretation and subjectiveness from the readers. Incidentally, Shades of Tomorrow sounds brilliant. Remembering the future? Oh yes, please!

linda said...

Hm, your Chinese restaurant analogy is a bit faulty, I feel. People generally know what kind of food Chinese restaurants serve, so yeah, it'd be unreasonable to expect non-Chinese food. Here's an analogy I think would be more apt: say I order something listed on the menu as "Spaghetti and Meatballs." But when it arrives, I discover that in addition to the expected spaghetti and meatballs, it has mushrooms! And I HATE mushrooms! So if someone asked me what I thought of the dish, I don't think it's unreasonable to say "I hated it because it had mushrooms! Ew, I hate mushrooms!"

I think it's perfectly acceptable to judge a book/dish/whatever based on how you personally felt about it, and not its overall quality, so long as you don't confuse the two. If I had a friend who loves mushrooms, or doesn't hate them as much as I do, I'd recommend the spaghetti dish to them (if I thought the other elements were good). And I am perfectly fine rejecting mushrooms everywhere for myself, and always grateful to reviewers who mention whether a dish has mushrooms (regardless of whether they like them or not). That doesn't mean I think all dishes with mushrooms are badly prepared or poor in quality, or that all people who like mushrooms are terrible people.

So yeah, I agree with you that it would make no sense to equate something you dislike with something that's bad for everyone, but I don't think everyone who hates insta-love is guilty of that. Some people actually recognize how subjective their personal tastes are and don't feel the need to enforce it as The Ultimate Standard of What is Good and Crappy. I have absolutely no problem with someone scorning a book because of some little thing they didn't like, rather than objectively evaluating the overall quality.

I am totally a love-at-first-sight trope hater, and even though there have been times it annoyed me less than usual, I am never going to love it. Doesn't mean I think it's evil or that people should stop using it or that there's anything wrong with people who enjoy reading or writing it! Just means I'll try to avoid those myself.

So yeah, if you want to support love at first sight and use it in your stories, go for it. I think we're in agreement that personal taste is not objective quality, which means that we can be complete opposites in our opinion of a trope, and neither of us is wrong. :)

Zoë Marriott said...

Linda: I think you're right actually - my analogy probably goes too far. Yours is closer, but I think it's still a bit flawed. Mushrooms aren't a standard ingredient in that dish and probably the restaurant should have listed them, not just because of preference, but also because you might be allergic or something. Plus, the mushrooms could have been easily omitted if they'd just told you beforehand so you could say 'Do you make that without...?'

Whereas the sort of love story a writer choses to tell is not something you would expect to be warned about in advance, really. Not explicitly, anyway, although the back copy may hint at it, and you might chose to ignore that if other elements mentioned are intriguing to you. It's also something that's going to be completely integral to the characters and story the writer has developed, not something 'unusual' that they've tossed in there for the heck of it (although I think readers sometimes *feel* that way about romances, especially love at first sight ones). It's more like the spaghetti itself than the mushrooms, if that makes sense.

I'm tempted to try and come up with a third metaphor that bridges the gap between the two here, except... well, this is probably enough about noodles and pasta of all kinds. And I also think you're right that people have NO obligation to be objective in reviews. You say what YOU think and feel about a book and the value of it IS that it's how you think and feel, a reaction and a perspective that is unique to you.

But I also feel that the term 'insta-love' implies a value judgement regardless of how it's used, and it's just easier and more productive to discuss things that work and don't work when we (I include myself here!) resist that urge to use those clever buzz words. And I want that not just as a writer but as someone who LOVES to discuss books and deconstruct them at agonising length and pick them into itty-bitty pieces. 'This is a love at first sight story and it failed for me on a number of levels...' gives me something interesting to get into. 'ARGH, insta-love, why?' doesn't, really. I want to open discussions on the topic up, not see them closed down.

Thank you for commenting, Linda!

linda said...

I see the dish as category/genre, and the ingredients as specific tropes. There are some tropes that are typical to certain genres but people "cook" their books with different ingredients, and they don't list all the tropes on the back of the book. But I guess you, unlike me, see the tropes as inseparable from the story itself -- so it makes sense our sense of the "right" analogy would be different.

I can see why the term "insta-love" could be seen as a value judgment, and I don't think that's a bad thing. The entire review is a subjective judgment of the book according to the values of the reviewer, so why not? Just because someone thinks love at first sight is crappy doesn't mean it's a judgment on people who DO like love at first sight. Why aren't people allowed to think all love-at-first-sight books are crappy if they want to? It's not unfair if that's how they really feel, and no one is obligated to feel the same way as those people.

I think the bigger issue is that, as you said, people use and define insta-love differently, which means the term is not very useful for clear communication. I guess I agree with Celine's line of thought - the term used isn't as significant as the elaboration afterwards, and people are free to make their own value judgments without implying that it must apply to everyone else as well.

But thanks for the post and discussion -- even if I disagree, it was interesting to think about. :P

Zoë Marriott said...

Linda: Well, the thing is (and obviously this is just me - I can't speak for other authors) the plot and characters grow organically together. And what happens to them as individuals and how their relationships with each other develop is all part of that same process. So tropes don't get tossed in at the last minute like seasoning or some leftover mushrooms you had in the fridge. They're part of the process that GROWS the characters and everything else.

F'rinstance, when I thought to myself 'I'm seeing love at first sight get a lot of bad press, Imma take that on...' I started thinking about the kind of characters who would both challenge/subvert love at first sight cliches and the kind of story that would make a love at first sight romance plausible and possible. At the same time I'm also thinking about all the other things I want in the story and all the other things I need the characters to be and do, and it becomes like a big fractal of all those desired elements intersecting. Does this clarify what I mean? Probably not... Oh, well.

Aaaaanyway. Thank you too! I do agree with your points, but I simultaneously still agree with mine as well, so that's probably a good outcome?

Ashley said...

I honestly don't care what we call it: insta-love or love at first sight. Either way, it's still two characters falling in love immediately. And I don't like it. I don't believe in it. Attraction at first sight? Sure. But love at first sight? Nope.

And even if it was something that happened, it doesn't mean I want to read about it. For me the biggest problem with these romances is that the READER isn't involved in this love if it isn't properly developed over a long period of time. If a romance develops over 300 pages and then turns to love, then I as the reader feel like I went through the "falling in love" process. I have time to love the characters and the romance.

But if the characters take two looks at each other and fall in love after a few pages, I as the reader am not on board. I'm just not at that point yet and it will probably turn me off the romance all together. As the reader I can't see a few paragraphs about a character and immediately love them. I need time to warm up to them. But if I'm forced to sit through all these "I love yous" and "You're the love of my lifes" before I'm ready to hear them, it puts me off the book.

And for the record, I don't like the love at first sight in any of the "famous" works either (Romeo and Juliet).

Zoë Marriott said...

Ashley: Well, like I said above - "You and I and everyone else has the right to feel whatever way we like about whatever tropes we like or don't. We all have the bullet-proof kinks and, on the other hand, the hot-button tropes that make us want to chuck a book straight across the room the moment they rear their heads."

You personally hate love at first sight, and you're never going to enjoy it. That's absolutely A-OK. But that doesn't mean no writers should ever write it ever again - 'specially since you do acknowledge that it happens in real life. And it also doesn't mean that love at first sight is bad by definition. I mean, just because you personally don't enjoy it. I don't enjoy bell peppers, but I don't call anyone a bad chef for using them. That was kind of the point I was trying to make. If you need 300 pages of slow burning relationship stuff to get into a romance, that's fine. But it doesn't mean that any book with a romance which DOESN'T include 300 pages of slow burning relationship stuff is necessarily a book with a badly written (or even a love at first sight) romance.

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