Avoid Montony

Expect this post to be all over the place, and probably to make less sense than usual (an achievement I grant) because I’m dealing with a probably terminally ill and much loved old dog. I’m trying to avoid him having any more discomfort than necessary in treatment, and that’s meant very little sleep for the last four nights. We do what we must, and he trusts me absolutely, and I can only do my best to live up to that trust. It will mean opening the door into summer, when he is in anything more than temporary, curable pain. It’s not something any decent man finds easy.

Anyway: to entertain, and possibly make my fellow writers think and improve their sales.

‘May you live in interesting times’ – an ancient Chinese curse (well, possibly merely invented by Eric Frank Russell – but true none-the-less. EFR saw human psychology too clearly… but is monotony so great?  I mean…

From things that kids write in their school-books –‘When a man and woman get married that is called monotony.’

Heh. Speaking as 35 year veteran… that probably isn’t all that accurate if you’re still married thirty-five years, or at least you know to keep your yap shut, before it becomes rapidly less monotonous. No, seriously, humans are strange, but mating for life isn’t actually that strange. Trust me. I’m a biologist. Humans are kind of fixated about sex. This is, in purely biological terms, a good thing… unless you consider extinction of the human a good thing. Because that ‘monotony’ seems to have worked pretty well at producing a comfortable civilization, albeit with things like New York. (Which the dolphins (according to Douglas Adams, who would know) consider to be signs of lack thereof.)

Look, biology has a whole sub-branch entirely dedicated to sex and sexual strategies. So do most book-shops. It’s labelled ‘fiction’, in case you’re looking. Because biologists can escape political correctness to some extent they can be quite realistic and pragmatic about sex, about things ordinary people just don’t talk about because we like to pretend it just isn’t so.

Biology can talk cheerfully about sizes and physique of males and females, and what effect that has, and what male territory means to females and why social display exists and what it does. They can talk about cheating – of both sexes, and how their strategies differ, and numerically how common it is… And very little of it is politically correct. Take size difference between the sexes. In strongly polyandrous species like the anglerfish for example – the female is large, and males small. In polygamous cichlids like the appropriately named Pseudocrenilabrus philander – the male is substantively larger than the females in his harem. And females are attracted to the fish with the biggest and best territory, as well as the highest level of aggressive braggadocio. Humans – had anyone the courage to talk about it without someone shrieking and throwing tantrum — would probably classify as ‘weakly polygamous’ as the size difference between males and females isn’t particularly large. So monogamy is actually quite close to normal for us, and as we’re still surviving, works, at least well enough to increase our numbers. For various good biological reasons (see cheating and the cuckoo syndrome) both sexes are biased to think it a good idea… especially in the other sex.

Oh. What’s the long words about parrots? I’m sorry. I should have explained. Pollygamy: That’s what a psittaciphage finds the flavor of his food to be. Moan-a-gamy is the complaint uttered as a result. I hope that is clearer now? And Polly-am-are-us is someone who self-identifies as a parrot. Polly-and-rye is a drink you probably should avoid. Isn’t biology wonderful? And don’t ask me why Polly wants a cracker, because that’s got me… What is she going to do with a cracker? Ahem, to continue more seriously about books and writing.

Now, we’re in the business of selling books. And for most of us that means to as many people as possible (although there is a niche for targeted books for small groups. To put it simply 100% of 0.1% of the population may make you a better living than competing with a lot of other authors and ending up with 0.00001% of the 20% of the population who like that broader category. Typical here is the local interest book. CHANGELING’S ISLAND is a runaway bestseller here – having sold to more than 10% of the population. If we had the population of Melbourne I’d be rich. And I couldn’t have written that book.) Sex interests many of us  (and obviously most in the same way, or we’d be extinct. We’re selected to the same attractants. Generation after generation: Those who aren’t, have failed to breed). The US elections are none of my business, but it’s pretty obvious to a disinterested observer that candidates genitalia and sexual issues are things that are getting a lot more traction in the media than healthcare and jobs. Therefore I presume people must care, or at least some of them do.

So to entirely ignore sex in your books, or to entirely ignore sex the way biology and evolution shaped us to respond well to, is probably going to limit your market. Unfortunately, despite the evidence that someone 4 foot tall and five wide with a face like a bulldog and breath to match, and all the grace, charm and humor of an enema… and several million dollars (or casting choice for a movie, or a publishing contract), being incredibly attractive to a surprising number of mates whose physical appearance suggests prime breeding stock, this just doesn’t sell.

A mystery… well, not really. Books are fiction and to some extent wish-fulfilment exercises. Happy fantasies – by and large most of us are neither wealthy nor powerful nor famous. Nor, frankly, are most of us the epitome of fertile pulchritude (yes, actually, once again the biologist – a fair number of the chosen features of handsomeness or beauty translate as sign of a healthy mate, good genes. Although, it is fair to say fashion screws around with that a lot.) So: depending on the target market, the sex that sells is probably a far cry from the unpleasant reality of wealth and power. Remember: we are in the game of selling illusions, dreams and hopes. Like the super-attractors that catch fish (things that look like the prey, but are just about 10% bigger) what many of us are looking for a rose tint – not bright crimson glasses.

This of course is where target can change the nature of the book. Jane Average may love a book where someone not too far from Jane Average gets her fantasy (I gather that’s some of the appeal of Fifty Shades). And likewise Joe Average’s fantasy is probably not taking out the garbage for Mz. Dominant who thinks he’s a doormat. I suppose one of my weaknesses is the daydream that neither Joe nor Jane are that average (despite appearances) and when the crunch of the story comes find this out. But then, I’m a hopeless romantic. Men have been dying for those ideals for millennia. I’m not sure what the biology, genetics or sense of that is!

But whatever you do avoid monotony. Even monogamy needs to be interesting.


  1. Monogamy has to be well done to work. Or maybe that’s just in TV series. Once the boy gets the girl (she’s quite certain it’s the other way around) one of the major subthreads is resolved, and there’s merely the End of the World to prevent.

    Probably best handled in the wrap up. Or left dangling if you’re planning a series. Not that I follow my own advice . . .

    1. A lot of TV series fail after the will-they-or-won’t-they resolves to they-will. And then there’s a kid. And then the writers–who live in a Hollywood culture that’s not quite like most of the rest of the US–seem to lose the ability to keep them interesting. Moonlighting had trouble with this, Mad About You died of it, Castle managed it for a couple of years and then fell victim to let’s-artificially-separate-them which killed the series.

      Book series which are generational epics have a related problem. They tend to skip ahead to the next generation after achieving they-will. And then the hero and heroine from the previous book(s) somehow turn into old fogies despite being only 30somethings.

      The Incredibles is one of the few good examples of monogamy and having two generations being more than cardboard characters.

      1. That is lack of skill on the screenwriters’ collective part – and likely exacerbated by executive interference.

        . . . And perhaps also by lack of experience when it comes to happy, stable couples.

      2. The second “Fargo” series had really strong pro-family message. Lou, the protagonist, is a devoted and loving husband and father. His wife Betsy is a great example of how to make a strong woman character that is still a woman.

      3. If the driving question of the story is will-they-or-won’t-they — of course it will fail. You have to shift to an entirely new story, which is both difficult and derailing.

    2. I love monogamy in stories. Couples who can work together well to prevent that end of the world, with no romantic tensions of will or won’t or does he/she really love left but instead trust and well practiced co-operation is something I like even more than the initial romance with it’s sexual tensions (which I do like when there is hea. It’s not romance unless there is hea as far as I am concerned. But I don’t much like the torture of will/won’t etc you usually find in the actual romance genre even with hea, there has to be some other problems for the couple to occupy themselves with besides their mutual feelings and they need to spend at least as much time, preferably quite a bit more of it, solving those other problems. But least I like emotional torture that leads to nothing but disappointment and maybe more torture).

      But that seems to be something that either is not a common preference or is not easy to write well, considering how rare those stories seem to be.

      Okay, when it comes to established couples kids can be bit of a problem that can prevent them going adventuring or at least make that far more complicated, considering how many years bringing them up takes out of your average lifespan. Which kind of either leaves not that many years of pulchritude left to do it before getting them, or means the couple is no longer so nice to look at when they start doing it again, and since it’s usually nicer when the heroes are nice to look at… Not to mention more believable doing stuff demanding good physical condition when they are still young or at least -ish. Unless you leave them childless which can be one sort of disappointing too. But if it is fantasy or science fiction, come on, there are ways around that problem, expanded youth or lifetimes in general and so on.

      Anyway… admittedly I do have some trust issue problems which is perhaps why I prefer stories where that trust both already exists and IS proven to be something reliable.

  2. We are pretty well determined to drag out the wary and mutual attraction between the main character in the Luna City Chronicles and the local reporter for as long as possible – because the constant dance of will-they-won’t-they is a major part of that ongoing plot. If the main character ever decides to move ahead and dig himself down into the good old Gonzalez family trench with Miss Kate Heisel … well, that would resolve a good many plot threads. Which would be satisfactory for readers, I suppose, but deprive us of stuff to write…

      1. Oh, we are juggling at least two other will-they-won’t-they romances, plus having resolved two in the last book – and there are also three long-established married couples with … interesting relationships to explore. With a whole town to play with … lots of scope.

      1. I printed out a copy of Dinah and had it cremated with her.

        When we went to pick up the box with her ashes, for some reason we stopped at Sam’s and got my wife a hot dog. She dropped the last bite for some reason…. and it disappeared. We looked at each other and said “Those are definitely Fuzzy’s ashes, because no food ever hit the floor when she was there.” 😎

        1. Pet stories like those keep your memories of your furry friend and family member fresh.

          We have to. Even with the gerbils and other small pets, we had a ceremony and honored their being with us. And I’m not a pet person.

          My son’s girlfriend before the current one and he left me the chinchilla who will be my last pet – silly little thing that doesn’t even know how to be a pet, but we’re fond of her. And none of us have a choice about these things.

          My condolences.

    1. Oh. That was good. And now I’m crying again.

      Mr. Freer, we’ve been taking turns these past six month sleeping with Jasper the one-legged cancer dog. You’re headed down a road with no real happy ending this side of Heaven. You have our sympathies.

  3. “despite the evidence that someone 4 foot tall and five wide with a face like a bulldog and breath to match, and all the grace, charm and humor of an enema… ”

  4. Hmm . . . I think I prefer a shorter “will they or won’t they” period and more of an “us against the world, and it’s going to be a struggle” period.

    And a solid relationship opens up all the fun of a solid relationship – banter to amuse the audience being one obvious example, as per the Thin Man movie series – that doesn’t work when the relationship itself is always threatened.

    1. I’m a fan of both, and in one of my books “will they/won’t they” will evolve into “us against the world” in a sequel.

      1. Oh, will they/won’t they is fun, but it gets dragged out endlessly _far_ too often. (TV especially.)

        The question needs to be answered, and if it’s supposed to be ‘yes’ it needs to be answered sooner.

        Not only will it be a breath of fresh air, the entertainment that can come from a happy, stable pairing isn’t nearly as mined out.

  5. I was recommended Dr Tatiana’s Sex Advice To All Creation: Definitive Guide to the Evolutionary Biology of Sex by Olivia Judson
    by Another Author (LMB I think)

    “You think we made all this up” Janet Kagan

  6. Ah, heck. Sorry to hear the furball in the family is going through that, and you as well. It’s only difficult and sad in proportion to how much you care, something folks around here know full as well as ye. We’ll be raising a glass, and a prayer, to the four footed this eve, so I’ll add one to the list.

    For the rest, count me an Odd that likes couples that defy the odds
    (those other odds the next patch over, not the good, proud Odds that is) and somehow manage to get themselves sorted and *still* have adventures and lives despite it. Who is to say that life *can’t* have interesting times while pregnancy, squalling littles, gamboling kidlets, and sulky teens abound?

    Given my own godson we’ve seen fire, flood, wanted criminals, a shooting in the barn next field over, a mysterious vandal (as yet uncaught), and of course intrigue in the Next Town Over where they live. I don’t watch soap operas or even feel the need for television when real-life drama happens on a daily basis. *chuckle*

    There’s still plenty of room for character development there, too. People do *not* automagically become perfect once they marry. *grin* I’m willing to put up with just a bit of suspension of disbelief where parenthood is concerned- and even healthy relationships have their strains. Showing a solid couple in that healthy, committed relationship while also dealing with their own World Ending Problems, well… That’s rather an underserved market, too, I think.

    Might be worth exploring for some hack author or two to poke it with a stick, maybe see if that market has money in it. You never know…

  7. Well, on top of the benefit of conflict before “they do” — there is the aspect that married couples are assets to each other. You have to set the situation up carefully to make the plot a problem even with that.

    And this warning I give even when one of my two published novels — Madeleine and the Mists — revolves about a wife and mother. Her husband is even on stage a fair amount of the time. But the problem had to be built so that it was a challenge.

    Even trickier on the short side. I managed to put the husband onstage in “Sword and Shadow,” but the plot required the onus be on the wife. And in “Never Comment On A Likeness,” “One Name,” and “Witch-Prince Ways”, the husband had to be ushered off, firmly — partly because in all three, the story’s chiefly about the heroine as a mother, and too many relationships clutter up a short story.

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