When Do You Write?

I’ve noticed something in my query inbox lately that I find interesting. In the past two or three weeks, my request rate has dropped dramatically. Or, I should say, it’s dropped back down to normal. I didn’t even realize I had been requesting fewer manuscripts until I saw that from June 9 to June 21, I received 0 material due to lack to requests. This lag between requests isn’t uncommon, especially after I compared it to other months. The reason it felt so wrong to me, though, is because for the entire month of May, and the first week in June, I had requested at least one manuscript (sometimes more) almost every single day.

This means that a) my reading pile for May was massive – yes, I am still getting through it; and b) the quality of the queries, and the writing, that month was noticeably higher. Most of what I received were from people who clearly did their homework, knew what I was looking for, what I might like, and delivered. I can only assume they spent an entire winter researching only me; that’s how well-matched many of these queries were to my personal tastes.

The bulk of June hasn’t been like that, and I’m starting to wonder if it’s a summer slump. (Note: There were, of course, some gems, regardless of whether I had requested or passed on them.) Does the slowness of June mean writers are taking a break from querying? Was that request-rush in May just a fluke that may or may not happen again?

Or, have writers toiled away all winter to finish their masterpieces so that queries could be good and sent by the time summer hit? Alternatively, have they all left for an exotic writer’s retreat on the beach, where they will spend every day of the summer simultaneously working on tans and new novels to query by winter?

I’m not sure, and the reason is more likely that this was simply a slow month that will pick up again by July. But, it’s made me wonder when writers write. Are there better times than others? Are certain seasons more inspiring, depending on the project? Or is it a less exciting matter of simply when you find the time?

You tell me, writers. When do you get your best work done? And when do you decide it’s time to query that work?

(Blogger’s note: Speaking of summer, I’ll be on vacation beginning mid-week, so there won’t a publication this Wednesday, and no regular posts until July 6. Enjoy your 4th of July weekend, everyone!)

Innocent Pleasures

There was quite a stir yesterday in the YA community over yet another “article” completely degrading YA writers, books, and anyone who reads them. I won’t link to the article because it’s getting enough traffic as it is, and I won’t further respond to it (after my Twitter rant) because, well, Damn The Man.

Like the YA community, I’m tired of people saying things like “I really liked The Hunger Games even though it’s YA” or “It’s for teens, but it’s still good.” Sigh. Why can’t good just be good, regardless of the stereotypes surrounding a certain demographic? I hear this all the time about Battlestar Galactica. “It’s sci-fi, but like… it’s not sci-fi because it’s good.” Yes, I have friends who have used that exact quote. Yes, I explain to them why that’s a ridiculous statement. Yes, it’s usually in vain.

When we have to qualify why we like something, it usually means we have something to defend. Good is good, even if others don’t always agree with you. We’ve all admitted to guilty pleasures, and I’ve come to realize that this term is actually sort of offensive. There’s merit in everything. Even in check-out lines or $1 bins, where even the authors know they aren’t creating high art, there are gems within the genres. Who are we to judge? And who are we to feel guilty, or make others feel guilty, for enjoying them?

I might not like everything, or even understand why people like a certain book, but I don’t see value in making people who disagree with me feel like they’ve done something wrong. Going into the weekend, after a week of YA taking yet another hit, think about what you love to read that others don’t always “get.” Then read the hell out of it and make no apologies.

What I Talk About When I Talk About Revisions

Like many agents, I will ask for a revision of a manuscript before I make an offer of representation. I don’t do this with every manuscript I request. Sometimes I know that a particular novel either isn’t working plot-wise, the writer’s style differs from what I’m looking for, or the main character isn’t engaging enough to me. In these cases, it’s obvious that I’m just not the agent for them. I would never request a revision based on something that came down to personal preference. There are other agents, after all.

Sometimes, though, there are manuscripts that scream potential. I can’t speak for all agents, but the first things I look for in a manuscript are plot development and the main character – if those two things are done well, then we’re in business. Well, almost in business. Even if you have the idea, the writing ability, and the awesome main character that readers of all ages will fall in love with, there are still other factors to consider. These other factors are what I take into consideration when I ask for revisions.

What are these other factors, you ask? More often than not, in my request pile anyway, it comes down to supporting characters, pacing, and general marketability. Other agents may come across different factors. A writer can nail the larger issues at hand, but the rest of the novel, when not written with the same quality, can make the entire project suffer – no matter how amazing everything else was by itself.

If you’re a writer who’s been in this situation, I’m sure this is frustrating. (Even after you have an agent, you will still hear this from editors too. Then it’s frustrating for both of us!) When an agent comes back to you after weeks (if not months) of making you wait for a response, only to tell you they want you to go through it all over again, you probably think (after cursing a bit), But if you love the project so much, why not offer representation and then we can work on revisions together??? Sorry, but it’s not that easy.

Agents aren’t just taking on your project; they’re taking on you. When I ask for a revision, it means I’m incredibly interested in offering representation (I would not be willing to read the same manuscript over again otherwise). But, in my own way, I’m also testing writers. Most writers are willing to revise, so that’s rarely an issue. What I need to know is are they able to revise. Before I take on a new client, I have to ask myself, Can they effectively revise? Do they understand what I’m asking? Is this going to be a pleasant working relationship?

I’m thinking about revisions lately because I’ve had not one, but three, heartbreaking experiences this past month, and each were over those “other factors” I mentioned above:

1. Supporting Characters.
I surprised myself by loving a particular manuscript as much as I did. I requested it based on the premise, and it ended up having everything else I was looking for. I couldn’t stop reading – until! I was taken out of the narrative completely for about 50 pages. That’s a lot of pages to lose interest in a manuscript, but I had faith in it, so I pushed through. As I suspected, it picked up where it left off and I loved it again, but I couldn’t stop thinking about that chunk where I didn’t love it and how it effected other areas of the novel. I isolated the problem and realized it was one character’s fault. If only he was introduced later instead of earlier, then the problem could have been avoided and the novel as a whole would have become that much stronger. Something that seems minor never really is. Every piece of a novel matters, and sometimes that one thing is enough to make an agent wary of its ability to sell. If I was taken out of the story, an editor probably will be too. And they are usually less forgiving in terms of asking for revisions.

2. Pacing.
Sometimes I fear my clients think I nitpick about minor issues – sentence structure, wordy language, rearranging of paragraphs. Sure, compared to character development and the actual plot, these things seem less important. But they all contribute to the pacing of the novel. Does your writing style hold the reader’s interest? Are you being slowed down by unnecessary dialogue? Where does the action begin and how are you sustaining that tension while advancing the plot? Will an overuse of adjectives and adverbs make editors’ heads explode? (Yes.) Again, everything matters. Pacing was the issue with Heartbreaking Manuscript #2. Sometimes when a novel moves too slowly, it makes the characters themselves appear boring. I knew that this was not the case with this particular manuscript, yet I kept wondering why they were doing certain things or when they would do certain things. There was a lot of leg shaking. When pacing is the only thing preventing the novel from being truly great, and I see potential in the writer’s ability to improve it, I absolutely ask for a revision.

3. Marketability.
I think this is the concept that most writers dread, so if it makes any of you feel any better, I never request anything unless I think it has market potential. I mean, none of us are reading in our leisure time here. This is our job. However, sometimes – as in the case of Heartbreaking Manuscript #3 – the writing just doesn’t match the idea. When I received the query, I practically jumped up and did a fist pump (but I didn’t, I swear!). It was literary while still appreciating genre. It combined different styles that I am particularly fond of. It had an amazing hook. The query itself was well-written, clear, and professional. Basically I wanted to hug it. I requested the full and perhaps I had gotten my hopes up a bit, but when I sat down to read it, my heart sank. As imaginative as the story was, the writing fell flat in comparison. Don’t get me wrong, the writing was good. It just wasn’t especially clever or vivid, and the characters, while possessing a few redeeming qualities, didn’t jump off the page. In other words, it just wasn’t good enough. And that’s what I mean by marketability. Many writers have ideas that the market supports, but if the writing doesn’t make that idea stand out in the crowd, the novel won’t sell. Which means editors can’t buy. Which means I can’t offer representation. Sadly, it’s a lot harder to ask for a revision in this case because someone either has exceptional talent or they don’t. Usually I won’t ask for a revision in this case. But in the rare instances where I’ll continue to think about the initial query and see its potential, the best I can offer is a few examples of what direction I’d like the writing to take, and hope the writer sees a larger picture.

In the same way you want an agent who understands your work, agents want a client who understands their needs. The power of revision is strong. We don’t just request them for fun or “to be nice.” We request them because we see potential in your work that’s not being realized yet. In fact, the majority of my client list is the result of spot-on resubmissions. In their cases, I had no doubt about their writing ability and loved their ideas. When I went back and suggested how to fix areas that were holding them back, they came back to me with a complete understanding of the task, and went well beyond a standard quick fix. That’s how I knew we’d live happily ever after as Agent and Author, but I wouldn’t have had that confidence if they didn’t send me their revision. Likewise, they wouldn’t have chosen me as their agent if they didn’t agree with my suggestions, or understand that I had their projects’ best interests in mind.

I understand that some writers are not going to agree with my revision suggestions, and this is always sad for me because I wouldn’t have taken the time to make those suggestions unless I was serious about the project. But, agents get rejected all the time – just like writers. Rejection is the largest part of this business, and I hope that just because I’ve shown interest in a project doesn’t mean the writer feels compelled to do whatever I say. They have every right to reject me. Plus, I wouldn’t want a client who sends me work knowing I’ll just tell them how to “fix” it. To me, that just means they didn’t write what they’re passionate about in the first place. Yes, I’m an editorially hands-on agent, but I have no interest in being someone’s beta reader. I want someone to send me something they are proud of, something they think is finished, but who is also willing to see a larger “business side” of the project when that time comes, and revise with that in mind.

Writers shouldn’t be dismayed over revision requests. They can either do them or not do them, but it’s usually in their best interest to consider the agent’s perspective. Revision requests aren’t our sadistic way of giving writers the runaround. Revisions are a part of writing, and requests should be viewed as extensions of the query process. We all want the same thing, and that’s to see your book published.

Will They/Won’t They

Last Friday, I wrote about love triangles, and how more often than not, your novel will need one. Love triangles represent conflict and choice, even when they’re not about romance, so I deem them necessary. But, this made me consider another often-used romantic element – sexual tension. Maybe I’ve been watching too much X-Files lately, but I wonder where sexual tension falls on the Necessary scale in literature.

We’ve certainly seen sexual tension in books. All romance novels have it, for example, and it’s used within love triangles themselves in pretty much every genre. The question isn’t whether it exists, or even why it exists. In fact, the only question ever associated with sexual tension is – Will they or won’t they? The “why” never matters.

The Will They/Won’t They question intrigues me for two reasons:
1) It implies that the fate of an entire story arc rests on one question.
2) Rarely do we consider what, exactly, we want to happen (or not happen). Will they or won’t they kiss? Have sex? End up in a relationship? Fall in love?

On this second point, some might argue that there is no clear difference between these things when it comes to fiction, or that it doesn’t really matter. I argue against that.

If I may quote a show I quote all the time, Cordelia Chase says of one Xander Harris: “Okay, it isn’t even like I was that attracted to Xander, it was more just that we kept being put in these life or death situations and that’s always all sexy and stuff.”

It sure is, Cordy. Which is why I don’t understand why, in this post-Mulder and Scully, post-Sam and Diane, post-Moonlighting world, we are still bombarded with Will They/Won’t They plot lines.

Literary mystery writer, Tana French, features male and female police partners in her novel In the Wood. In my opinion, there wasn’t a whole lot of chemistry between the two, at least not an overwhelming amount, but they still (spoiler alert) end up in bed together. Do they fall in love after? No. Do they even really explore the possibility of a relationship? Not so much. Basically sex just made sense at that moment in the novel, so they had it. Just like Xander and Cordy (who didn’t have sex, but rather “groped in broom closets” but you get the idea).

I think this is a realistic view of sexual tension, albeit an anti-climactic one. There’s far less at stake if you kill the tension too soon, or don’t have tension at all. Charlaine Harris does this well with Sookie and Eric in the southern vampire mystery series. If you haven’t read them, True Blood handles their relationship similarly to the books. Sookie is mostly with Bill, but there’s just something about Eric that Sookie sees beneath his “evil.” They flirt, but nothing really happens between them… for a couple books anyway. The tension lasted enough to spark interest, but wasn’t drawn out so long that the reader got bored.

Even so, the more I watch the X-Files, the more I think of Cordelia’s original hypothesis. If you’re with the same person every single day, and you are clearly attracted to each other, and you are more-often-than-not in adrenaline-pumping situations, chances are you’re probably going to at least make out with that person. Even if it’s just out of “Yay! We weren’t killed by aliens!” relief.

I understand that “realistic” isn’t always the most fun option, and who doesn’t love good banter and flirting? Still, as much as I love the anticipation and frustration and the edge-of-my-seat-oh-my-god-just-kiss-already!, I developed a bit of a complex about sexual tension after the ungodly disappointment of casually seeing Josh and Donna literally laying in a bed together on The West Wing, as if it were an afterthought. We waited seven years and we don’t even get to watch them go at it? Sorry, but kissing while a door shuts on them was not enough. Ugh. 

There’s a fear, I think, that once the couple in question kiss, the series loses it’s momentum, which is why we had to wait until the bitter end for Josh and Donna to kiss. It’s also why we’re still waiting for Castle and Beckett to admit their feelings for each other, and for Booth and Brennen to just admit that David Boreanaz was hotter as Angel. (Wait, what? I got sidetracked… anyway!)

The only real answer to the Will They/Won’t They question I care about is whether the characters will fall in love. Flirting, kissing, sex… those all have their place and are important, but falling in love takes a much greater risk. Likewise, the risk is just as great for the writer who chooses not to make their characters fall in love. (Note: This does not apply to YA in the same way. The kiss or the sex likely is the defining moment, as it should be, so the characters are free to flirt their way to “the big moment” all they want.)

Even after characters “get together” (in whatever way the writer wants it to mean), I’d still keep watching/reading in anticipation of something more to happen between the two characters. Where else are they going to take this relationship, and what conflicts will ensue while they wrestle with their feelings, and not just their hormones? Characters are allowed to still be interesting after they kiss. And personally, I prefer living in a world – both real and imagined – where a greater emphasis is placed on love rather than sex. (Except for Sookie and Eric, which, uh… well, read the books!)

This is one of my blog posts that have no real conclusion. It’s just something I’ve been thinking about. What do you all think? Do you write sexual tension in your fiction? What do you think its role is in terms of creating a strong romance? Is it necessary?

I know I focused more on TV here, but let me know if there are any other good examples in literature I should check out. (Not Elizabeth and Darcy, please!)

The Beta & the Omega

There is a new editorial force in publishing, and they are not just your friendly neighborhood editors, agents, or even freelancers. They are the beta readers. Also known as critique partners or, more affectionately, “writer friends.”

Some of you may even have beta readers, and this is a good thing. To quote my former MFA adviser (whose wisdom I still find myself agreeing with years after the fact, even if I didn’t at the time) – all writers need writer friends. They aren’t necessarily your actual friends, but they are just as important to your life if you are serious about being a writer. Basically, your real, non-writer friends just don’t understand.

Beta readers seem to be very, very important, and while I’m sure they’ve always been around (See: Algonquin Round Table), the advent of online forums and blogs and Twitter have made finding beta readers that much easier and that much more common. And most times you never even meet them in person.

Whether they’re your first line of defense against sending a poorly executed query letter or offer a thorough critique of a draft before sending to your agent, these beta readers have become as much a part of the querying process as having an actual, solid project. 

However, beta readers are only as helpful as you make them. You are the ones picking them, after all. So while beta readers, first round readers, critique partners – whatever you call them – can be many wonderful assets, there are some things they should definitely NOT be:

The Casual Reader:
Now, I’m not saying this in a snobby, only-Proust-scholars-need-apply, way. I just mean that your beta readers should know a thing or two about a thing or two. We all enjoy reading, but when choosing a beta reader, make sure they come away from a book appreciating how it was written just as much as what was written. They should have an eye for pacing, tension, plot, and character analysis. If your beta reader tells you they love your story and think your main character is “good,” but don’t offer any constructive feedback (positive or negative), then you should re-think your decision to make that person your beta.

This one should be obvious, but as we all know, writers can be fragile, delicate flowers. The temptation of keeping beta readers around who simply love, love, love your work can be too great to pass up. We all need a little self-esteem boost sometimes. But is this actually good for your writing? Of course not. There does, however, need to be a balance. You don’t want someone who will only tell you what’s horrible about your writing either. That just does as much damage, and isn’t ever helpful. As anyone who’s been through a particularly brutal workshop can tell you, all you want to do after is burst into tears and quit writing forever. Nobody wins.

If your family is anything like my family, chances are they love every single thing that you do, while simultaneously mocking that very thing to “keep you grounded.” I love for family for this, but when it comes to writing, you want someone whose judgment won’t be clouded by the fact they changed your diaper or remember when you had braces. Some of you may be thinking, oh, but my family is always honest with me; I can trust them. No, you can’t. Whether they like it or dislike it, they likely lack the necessary critical eye or knowledge of the industry to offer anything of real value. If there are others of you who are thinking, But my aunt Sheila is a writer too, so she understands, consider the following: Is Aunt Sheila a New York Times bestselling author or studied in writing programs throughout the country for her literary accomplishments? If not, then she is still just your aunt, and even if she is a published author, she just wants to support you, so she falls under “family.” Sorry, Sheila.

Friends are trickier. Like I mentioned before, beta readers are also called “writer friends,” and sometimes this does mean actual friends. However, in my opinion, there’s a clear difference between “writer friends” and “friends who write.” We all have that friend who’s working on a novel, or trying to get her poetry published, or has a great idea. (I know I certainly have those friends whenever someone from my past finds out I’m a literary agent.) These are friends who write. And writing is great, so good for them. Less often do they overlap with “writer friends,” who are friends who write with the intent to get published, who know the market, know how to query, know that they need to query, and maybe even have a viable marketing plan if they decide to self-publish.

First Draft Readers:
Several writers use their beta readers to test out their first drafts of new projects. In my opinion, this is a waste of everyone’s time. It’s an arduous process to write a novel, so I can understand the eagerness to immediately send it to your readers the second you type out the final word. Resist this urge, writers. Think of how drastic the changes can be from Draft 1 to Draft 2. Sometimes they are so great that Draft 2 might as well be your first official draft. Once you finish your novel (yay!), be your own beta reader. Did that idea you had from novel’s inception end up tying into that idea you had weeks later when you were writing a different scene? Are all of the characters where they’re supposed to be? Comb over your draft before you send to your betas. Sometimes through the combing, you find that something is so completely off that the whole novel needs a vast restructuring. Even minor mistakes can effect the entire novel (i.e. But if that character is here, and the murderer is there, how can he get there in time??) It’s much better for everyone involved if you’re the one who finds that glitch, rather than your reader, who will have spent hours on your manuscript only to send it back to you mid-way through. Again, nobody wins.

Your Clone:
We all have flaws. No writer is perfect. If you’re the type of writer who knows you suffer from a pacing deficiency, do not pick a beta reader who suffer from the same affliction. If you’re both super amazing at creating ideas, but neither of you are particularly skilled at executing those ideas, neither of you will benefit from having the other as your beta reader. Choose someone whose writing style compliments your own, but who is different enough to bring other strengths or weaknesses to the table.

Go forth, writers, and choose wisely! Have a lovely weekend.

Explaining Your Art to Warren

Barry Lyga had a brilliant response to the horrific Wall Street Journal article that was talked about all weekend. Granted there have been many, many responses to this article, and my own opinion is no different than anyone else’s. It was disgusting and offensive, and the WSJ’s sad attempt at salvaging what they printed was patronizing and unconvincing.

I didn’t want to read the WSJ article because I knew what my response would be. I’m sparing you that full response here because everything I want to say has already been said, and frankly I’d prefer to put this trash to rest. But Barry Lyga’s post reminded me of a simple quote from the underrated movie, Empire Records, after a kid named Warren asks why someone would glue quarters to the floor. Response: “I don’t feel that I need to explain my art to you, Warren.”

If you’ve never seen the movie, you do not need to know who Warren is to see the relevance this line has. Yes, it’s a silly little ’90s slacker movie, but this quote seems especially apropos. As Mr. Lyga says, he refuses to justify his art. And really, why should anyone?

Yes there was the #YAsaves hashtag on Twitter this weekend and the many, many blog responses about how clueless the author of the article is. And clearly she is. While I don’t know her, I can picture her. She’s Tipper Gore senselessly fighting to ban 2 Live Crew. She’s the librarian in Small Town, USA who refuses to stock Laurie Halse Anderson. She’s the news anchor who asks whether Marilyn Manson was responsible for Columbine. She’s Reverend Lovejoy’s wife on The Simpsons who screams, what about the children??

She’s Warren.

She sees something she doesn’t understand, and when she doesn’t get a satisfying response, jumps to her own conclusions. Her opinions, though wrong, are forgiven. She, after all, did not publish that article in a national newspaper by herself.

While that’s all true, I have to remain on the side of Barry Lyga. Why bother? There will always be people like her, and there will always be people who get upset by people like her. Nobody needs to explain their art. No one needs to defend themselves. If you are a writer, all you need to do is write.

Yes, it is always difficult when someone – OK, a lot of people – demoralizes you, claims your work is inferior, refuses to see the good you do, and doesn’t understand your importance. The stigma that YA literature is somehow “less than” is hurtful and wrong and should stop immediately. But it won’t stop immediately. We need to show people the power of YA and its credibility as a genre. Books are powerful enough to do this, but it will take time.

If YA gets taken seriously, then maybe teenagers finally will too, and then maybe people won’t be as concerned about their precious virgin eyes and ears that need to be protected. But until then, all we can do as writers, and workers in the publishing industry, is produce stories that need to be told, hope the right people read them, and not let anyone else tell us we don’t belong.

To borrow another relevant quote from Empire Records, “Damn The Man.”

Triangles of Love

If you’re writing a novel, and one of your characters becomes romantically involved with another character, chances are you’re writing a love triangle. I’m not just talking about young Bella choosing between two monsters who want to murder her in different ways. While it’s true that more often than not, love triangles involve a choice between two people, they should also put your main character as a crossroads for reasons other than romance. Because it’s called a love triangle, by definition love needs to play a role in whatever scenario you create, but more than simply asking “Whom do I want to be with?,” a good love triangle should force your main character to ask, “Who do I want to be?”

(Note: This is more commonly written with women having to choose between two men. Presumably, this is because it’s more socially acceptable to portray women as “conflicted” or, alternatively, “in control of their own destinies” Sadly, men are rarely the chooser in a love triangle because they are still given the unfortunate stereotypes of not really caring about relationships or needing to make a choice. Men are never praised for being “independent,” or even labeled as such, because it’s implied by society that they already are.)

If there is romance in your novel, you will likely need to employ a love triangle of sorts to add conflict to your relationship, or would-be relationship. The typical set-up is this: There’s the good guy and then there’s the bad guy… but is he really that bad, or just misunderstood and Mr. Darcy-esque? What’s a girl to do??

In most romantic love triangles, the choice is almost always between two guys – one is sickeningly perfect and the other is sort of a dick, and both are hot. The choice here should be simple, but in the best love triangles nothing is as it seems.

Take my favorite incestuous love triangle at the moment – Stefan/Elena/Damon from The Vampire Diaries. With vampires, you can usually tell which one the “good guy” is by their willingness to kill animals instead of humans. This is apparently more acceptable. Stefan only feeds on animals. And he loves Elena and is nice to people and isn’t so damn sarcastic. Hence, “good guy.” Then there’s Damon, the shirtless wonder who thinks nothing of (literally) tearing someone’s heart out just for fun. He also loves Elena, but in a creepy “you will be mine” way. Hence “bad guy.”

But if things were that cut and dry, the show wouldn’t be nearly as successful and their love triangle wouldn’t be remotely fun to watch. All signs would point to Stefan. But then we learn that Damon didn’t actually want to be a vampire and his lack of emotion actually stems from bitterness toward Stefan, who turned him in the first place. We also get glimpses of real feelings that Damon has for Elena, as poorly executed as they may be sometimes. Then there’s Stefan, who also becomes more than just “the good guy.” We learn he’s a recovering addict who, when he falls off the wagon, falls murderously hard. Plus his history of having strictly platonic, meaningful friendships with other women adds some swoon-worthy depth.

By creating a balance between the characters and making them more ambiguous than their designated roles suggest, Elena has an actual choice on her hands. Unlike another one of my favorite teen-centric shows, Veronica Mars. Season 2’s Duncan/Veronica/Logan love triangle was a perfect example of how not to write a love triangle.

Enter Logan Echolls: rich, privileged, snarky, huge temper, and prone to screwing up basically everything in his life. But then there’s the boyish smile, the charm, the humor, the fact that he wants to change, and his overwhelming affection for Veronica.

Now enter Duncan Kane: Rich, popular, and attractive in a mundane way. He’s also puppy dog-esque, “good” in the sense that he doesn’t beat up everybody like Logan, passive in that he never tells Logan to stop, and his affection for Veronica seems to be based more on “hey you’re not my sister after all!” than actual attraction, appreciation, or even mutual interests.

Basically there is no contest.

If you’re writing a male character having to choose between two women (congratulations!), then this “good vs. evil” dilemma usually comes in the ever-flattering form of “vixen vs. nun.” You have the hooker-with-a-heart-of-gold character, someone who’s from the wrong side of the tracks who would clearly never, ever be good enough to win the love of any man. She does lewd things like not use the correct utensil at dinner and enjoys sports. Then there’s the well-to-do, maybe a little rigid, but certainly very beautiful “good girl.” The one who comes form the good family, has a good job, and looks good on paper.

Again, when are things ever that easy? John Cusack’s character, Lane, in Better Off Dead loves pretty, blond, popular Beth to the point where he’d rather die than live without her. Then some French girl who wears trenchcoats and can fix cars comes along and… conflict ensues. Monique might not be as hot as Beth, and she’s certainly not the typical girl Lane saw himself being with, but the two have much more in common than he did with Beth. This doesn’t make Beth purely evil though. She seems shallow by comparison, but when we get flashbacks of their relationship, we see they actually shared the same sense of humor and had fun together. She wasn’t all bad; she just wasn’t for him.

When your main character is faced with a choice, make sure he or she has a hard decision ahead of them. If one person was purely good, and the other is purely a disaster, then why are we reading? The reader needs to know why both options are viable. What does the main character see in either of them? Why should we, in turn, like both of them too?

Also consider the fact that in real life no one is ever so one-dimensional. Real people, even good people, have issues. The “bad” people also usually have more under the surface than just anger. Yes there is a Mr. Darcy fantasy involved that all jerks are just good guys at heart. Call me an optimist (or a masochist), but I believe that most people are good people. People just have different ways of showing it, and some (yes) have an inability to show it. But, falling in love with someone isn’t typically easy, and there is usually more than one side to look at before choosing your soul mate. A good love triangle explores all of those sides.

Love triangles are important in fiction for non-romantic goals too. As I mentioned above, there is a question of who the main character becomes based on his or her choice. That choice doesn’t necessarily need to have a purely romantic outcome though. If you’re writing a novel with romance in it, but aren’t planning on making another man or woman the source of conflict, you still need to add the third element. If your main character chooses against love, what are they choosing instead?

If your main character’s goal in life is to become a ballet dancer or rock star or move to Europe, and they spend most of the novel trying to reach that goal, will they throw it away for the love interest they meet along the way? Think of what your character needs and how the events of your novel brought them to this decision. Sometimes love wins, sometimes the life that can’t include love wins. Either way, there is sacrifice. But what is important to remember as a writer is to present both options equally so that no matter what your character chooses, the reader understands their decision, and chooses right along with them.