Too Wonky for Primetime

So a couple of weeks ago I clambered up the maintenance stairwell and onto the roof of Wonkomance Tower, the eighty-six-story skyscraper that houses the many departments comprising Wonkomance’s North American headquarters. It was a dark and stormy night, but braving the gusts and the dive-bombing hawks, I battled my way to the Wonk Signal and fired that bad boy up, illuminating the gunmetal thunderheads with our heraldic symbol of a blogger in distress—the starkly dramatic silhouette of a half-eaten Jammie Dodger.


That, or I sent an email to the group that said this:

“I want to put together a wonkopost about first books—or rather, first manuscripts. I remember reading about Janet Evanovich’s in her writing memoir, and it was hilarious. To quote her bio, ‘The first story was about the pornographic adventures of a fairy who lived in a second rate fairy forest in Pennsylvania.’ The takeaway was, the first book teaches you how to write. It’ll suck. That’s fine, it’s supposed to.”

The Sisterhood of Wonk immediately rose to the challenge, sending me snapshots of their ugly-ass babies. And so I present to you, admiring readers, aspiring authors, assorted practitioners of schadenfreude, this collection of romance blurbs for books that never saw the light of day. And with good reason.

When soliciting embarrassing stories, it’s only fair that the curator go first, so…

Cara: “My first romance manuscript was a survival story—no shock there. I love wilderness / isolation plots. It stemmed from the premise that the heroine was addicted to sleeping pills, and fell asleep in a canoe while on vacation and was carried like, 200 miles downriver (through whitewater rapids, though she miraculously only scraped her thigh) so she could be rescued by the survivalist hero. Who was inexplicably British, even though the book was set in Canada. The sleeping-pill canoe mishap was only misfortune number one, and after each misfortune—Ambien withdrawal, stitches, leeches, cougar attack, mudslide, poison oak, lightning storm, a violent dietary bowel crisis, rattlesnake bite, a monumentally ham-fisted subplot in which the heroine’s jilted ex tries to murder her with rat poison so he can inherit her late father’s company, a Big Misunderstanding, unprotected sex, visa issues—there ensued a fresh, shrill tantrum, often defused when the hero (for wang reasons, I guess) was driven to tongue-kiss the heroine out of sheer lusty exasperation. This book seriously had it all—including the folksiest big-bosomed grandmotherish archetype ever crowbarred into a romance! And with a minimum of five florid adverbs per paragraph.”

omg-teeCharlotte: “I don’t even know if I could find my first attempt at a novel. I wrote it at age thirteen, and I could probably make you all guess what it was about and you’d get it right. Two vampire brothers fall in love with the same girl, and one of them is EVOL. And he has bracelets that keep him alive and in the end the heroine RIPS THEM OFF AIIIEEE! And then she lives eternally with her moody vampire love in a cave in a cliff face for no apparent reason. I imagine quotes from it would read, ‘And then all of a sudden he bit her omg.’”

Is it just me, or would this one actually hit the Times list and spawn an empire of adaptations and Team Vampire Brother #2 merch?

Shelley: “I have an abandoned YA fantasy novel. Before I realized I wanted to write romance. And basically, it is full of the dirtiest subtexts that ever dirtied. There’s a seven-page kissing scene. With a guy who is—SHOCKER—a guitarist. There’s a scene that veers super, super close to the main character having sex with her (female) best friend. There’s magic embroidery, a character who is being kept purposefully addicted to opium, and pack llamas.”

Serena: “Through my teens…I was writing these epic 150-page love scenes and inventing ever-weirder scenarios to justify my smutty behavior. I remember an early one about a deaf hero and a blind heroine living in prehistoric times, exiled from their respective tribes for their disabilities (though I’m sure they were referred to as ‘curses’ or something in those non-PC times). They were forced to spell words into each others’ hands in their own invented language (I must have just read Helen Keller) and grope each others’ faces a lot. In those days, I never finished anything. I just wrote sex scene after sex scene with absolutely no character or plot development. None.”

Mary Ann: “I’ve written a lot of manuscripts—my first novel I wrote when I was eight and featured humanoid elephants that exhibited behavior so concerning to my third grade teacher, she talked to the school about it. I wrote horror and romance novels as a teenager, and I did get an MFA, but wrote poetry manuscripts, mainly, at that time. My first romance manuscript featured a large-scale textile artist heroine, who was actually very cool, I really loved her, and a virgin classics professor. There were a few problems. First, I detailed my classics professor’s work so lovingly, it was nearly a dissertation. Second, he met a letterpress biker at a party at the very end of the book and had such crazy explosive chemistry with her, this biker who was not the heroine, that I wrote the last chapter with a heavy heart and promptly shoved the book into the recesses of my hard drive. The HEA is that I am bringing back the prof and his biker in a book planned for next year. Of course, Jesus, the poor textile artist. I stole her boyfriend, gave him to another woman, and she’s still living in a studio apartment trying to get commissions.”

Del: “I recall that it was set in Scotland, and the American heroine had traveled there to an old castle (Manor house? Anyway, it was on the moors. Yes, the moors. Shut up) to research…something. Some set of correspondence between two famous writers, I think? The house’s current resident, the ancestor of one of the writers, wouldn’t sell the letters to whatever college museum the heroine was working for, and I was writing this before the era of everyone having scanners. So in order to do her research she had to travel there to read the letters in person.

“When she arrived, the recluse hero (who was secretly a billionaire entrepreneur, but he’d just gone through some unspecified trauma I don’t think I ever got around to figuring out, so he was being a recluse for awhile at the family estate while his emotional wounds healed), turned out to be…well, Heathcliff / Rochester / Darcy, only extra-dour because he was Scottish. You know, that sorta dude. There was a lot of brooding. There was a lot of feisty-heroine righteous indignation. There may have been an utterly gratuitous scene with a killer thunderstorm, the lights out in the house, and a frantic hallway kiss that both of them were for some reason incensed about after the fact (as if anyone couldn’t have seen it coming). And although that sort of scene can be fantastic, the one I’m remembering was almost certainly not fantastic.

“The heroine didn’t recognize him as a billionaire playboy because of course, being an academic, she was hopelessly out of touch with popular culture; he found this charming about her, naturally. At some point in all this mess, there was also the suggestion that the house was haunted, and the stronger implication that it wasn’t really haunted but somebody was trying to gaslight them both, for reasons I can’t remotely recall. And then maybe something about some sort of clue or hallucinogenic compound, found in a set of old dolls, that then explains some legend and/or mystery surrounding the famous letters? Or I may just be projecting some A.S. Byatt onto the memory in an effort to block it all out with something better.”

Ruthie: “My first manuscript wasn’t publishable, but more in boring ways rather than such cracktastically awful ones. I wrote a couple poems in high school and then no fiction at all until 2010, when I sat down and penned Rebound, a Hawaii-vacation romance with a hot tour guide and, somewhat inexplicably, basketball. (The basketball bits are quite good.) There’s instalust, some unconvincing ‘Nah, I shouldn’t,’ protesting, a serious fail-kiss on the first attempt (what is it with my undying love for the fail-kiss?), sad shower crying, a limbo contest? I think?, a whole lot of sex, and then an unconvincing last-minute hail-Mary thing where I think the hero had a secret kid, and the heroine somehow repaired his relationship with his secret kid by being…awesome? Someone to look up to? I actually have no idea. I rewrote it from scratch and dropped the kid, but it’s still got what is essentially the conflict equivalent of cheese sauce and a heroine who is me at age twenty-one. With a hot tour guide! Because tour guides.”

There you go, then—vampire brothers, face-groping, leech mishaps followed by wang-reasoned Frenching, unfaithful he-virgin ballroom dancing professors, bi-curious magic embroidery, inexplicable basketball, hallucinogenic doll tinctures. We showed you ours. Now, fellow writers, show us yours.

About Cara McKenna

Cara McKenna writes smart erotica—sexy stories with depth. Read more >
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47 Responses to Too Wonky for Primetime

  1. Cara McKenna says:

    Re-reading this when it went live, I couldn’t help but notice how often the words “for some reason” came up. God bless us, everyone.

    I also noticed that my own story description enumerates about fifteen concrete external plot points. Whereas now, my main issue as a writer is that in most of my published and contracted books, the biggest non-sex thing that happens involves someone cooking eggs for someone else, and maybe somebody’s car breaking down. Or both, in the case of at least two of my books. I may need to build a time machine and steal some plotting tips from my 2008 writer self.

  2. Serena Bell says:

    I somehow didn’t totally absorb Shelley’s before now: “There’s magic embroidery, a character who is being kept purposefully addicted to opium, and pack llamas.” I’m rolling on the floor. And wishing I had the manuscript to read RIGHT NOW.

    • Shelley says:

      Trust me when I say, if you ever need to learn about the logistics of using a llama as a pack animal, I am your GAL. The llama who accompanied my protagonist on her journey was named Daisy.

  3. Shelley, magical embroidery=best ever

    Ruthie, I think Hawaiians like basketball. It’s genetic! Oh wait, maybe that’s Indians.

    I was going to begin this comment with “please don’t let my first manuscript be horrific,” but if we are counting childhood and teenage manuscripts, then I hope the horrific is already in my past.

    6th grade: boy finds a rock. That’s the whole plot.

    12th grade: POV of a wolf. No plot. I know nothing whatsoever about wolves.

    12th grade: actual plot. Boy working at nursing home plants rare pansies for elderly resident. Note: pansies are NOT rare.

    That’s enough terrible, right?

  4. My first finished story as an adult began with a young woman making pesto in a blender. The pesto theme was as an analogy for the mess that was my protagonist’s life. I kept trying to get her to the “finished pesto” great life but kept being derailed by her inability to get her boyfriend back.

  5. Shari Slade says:

    My first “finished” romance ms involved a hero who was a landscaper-bar tender-pizza delivery driver and a heroine who had just started working as an accountant when her father suddenly passed away leaving her with the responsibility of running the family pizza joint. It was mostly…guilt, fraternization, secret sex, public sex…then I blew up the restaurant thanks to a faulty oven…sooty shower sex, and they all lived HEA.

    *hangs head*

    One day I’ll write my pizza delivery driver hero…one day.

  6. Doren Cassale says:

    My first manuscript was a Regency historical that read like a how-to guide on ironworking peppered with “insert rabbling bar here” innuendos. There was also a surprise villain (Surprise! I’m the only doddering fool in this entire book of otherwise heavily-muscled, highly-educated, aristocratic men, so clearly it’s NOT me, wink wink.), a Jewish best girl friend because, hey, that would totally fly in the early 19th century ton, and servants who adored their completely self-sufficient, breeches-wearing, effortlessly-beautiful, sexually-curious-but-still-virginal mistress. And horses. And spies. Really, just a hot mess.

  7. You guys. I am laughing so hard over here that I am weeping.

    I wrote some stuff in my teens, but my first completed novel was about a rock star and a photographer. She has oh-so-many issues, as does he, but apparently not quite enough to fill the 55k words I needed to submit it to Harlequin, so there’s a completely random extra subplot thrown in at the three-quarter mark where his step-brother assaults her. Oh noes!

    Since I’d completed the damned thing, I sent it off to Harlequin, sure they would adore it. Ten months later, I received a lovely rejection stating, in part, that the characters had too much baggage.

    And thank goodness all that was in the days before there were computers with hard drives to store all your old work forever and ever so I never have to see it again!

  8. Ros says:

    My first finished novel-length project was *whispers* Harry Potter fanfic. I still kind of love it, to be honest. I had twin brothers – one magical and one not. There was a kidnap, and Italian magical mafia Quidditch players, and things being smuggled in from Moldova.

  9. rube says:

    I’m just relieved that when my great grandchild asks me about the juvenilia of the Wonkomance group (you know, when she’s writing her undergrad thesis at Space University), I’m going to be able to point her to a specific post.

  10. Kailynn Jones says:

    Those totally made my day.

    My first book I wrote when I was twelve with my best friend. In the book, five girls formed a band. They were called Technical Difficulties, and their first album was “Please Stand By.” They ended up being the opening act for Duran Duran and having torrid love affairs with all the members. Really it was just a vehicle for my rampant love of Duran Duran and all things John Taylor. I wish I knew where it was. My best friend and I hand wrote the chapters and would mail it back and forth. Neither of us know where it is today. /weep

    • Ruthie says:

      Oh my god. This one is my favorite. I love how you segued to Duran Duran fanfic via awesome band name and album title. I hope there were lots of sexy synthesizer solos.

      • Laurie Evans says:

        Ha! One of my best friends and I used to write soap-opera-like episodes where female characters (us) had sexy adventures with various members of Duran Duran…and sometimes Motley Crue. (It was the 80s!) We’d trade off and take turns writing episodes.

        Apparently, my friend still HAS some of these pages…I’ve told her I will disown her if they ever see the light of day!

  11. Emma says:

    My first manuscript was a romance between a post-doc and the first-year professor who took “her” job. It was basically a primal scream about academics wrapped in a romance novel. Every non-academic who saw it was like, “She’s so bitter” and every academic said, “I can’t believe she’d consider going out with him.”

  12. I’m starting to see this whole thread as a metaphor for my life.

    All of you have these books FULL OF STUFF–wild combos of interesting people doing wild stuff.

    I have one whole thing going on in my early drafts, which was certainly more than I could handle. This is still true. Of my life and my work.

  13. Sarah Wynde says:

    Oh, I love these!

    My first novel is a fun Cinderella story: the heroine is working under false pretenses at a company in San Francisco that her birth father owns, hoping to meet him someday, when she gets tangled up in a case of corporate espionage. The hero suspects her, of course. Wow, I really want to go read it now, because honestly, as I remember the plot details — Halloween in San Francisco, roller-blading in Golden Gate Park, a hostage situation that the heroine talks her way out of by being reasonable to a bad guy who’s just in over his head, a grandmother character who completely took over every scene she was in — I think it might be pretty amusing. And not just because of the adverbs that I’m sure filled every page!

  14. Jackie Horne says:

    Between freshman and sophomore year of college, I had the most boring summer job, working in a hotel gift shop which nobody, I mean NOBODY, ever came into. I tried to write a traditional Harlequin while I “worked,” about a young woman working in a law office for the traditional domineering older man, who treated her like crap because he thought she chose to live (out of wedlock!) with an alcoholic. The “lover” was her younger brother, of course, whom the girl was bravely trying to help recover, but who kept slipping off the wagon. Lots of insults flying when the brother’s problems interfered with the heroine getting to work on time and such, as well as jealousy-inspired punishing kissing, before the truth was revealed and marriage ensued.

    Unfortunately, I had mono that summer, so I don’t think I ever got much past the first chapter…

  15. Cara McKenna says:

    I’m loving how so many of our first manuscripts seem to have been driven by infatuation—for a historical period, a band, a thesis topic, a profession, some celebrity we wanted a passably legitimate excuse to fantasize about boning in 100,000 words’ worth of filthy detail. Infatuated perhaps with the idea of novel-writing itself. We really were in love-lust, when we started writing romance. Which I think is sort of beautiful…despite how awkward some of our initial fumblings may have proven.

  16. These were hilarious! My first stabs at a novel are so boring in comparison–though I suppose my romance set in Roman times with a soldier hero and Christian-martyr (not-quite, because she can’t die!) heroine would be epic if I’d gotten past the first chapter. The BIG MOMENT when the hero comes to his senses about the heretical heroine was to happen at (a href=””>the Battle of Milvian Bridge . She was going to save him by diverting an arrow. Or shoot an arrow and kill the person who was trying to kill him. Can’t remember which.

  17. Anne V says:

    Oh, heck.

    My very first piece of writing was about a young girl who falls in love with Alexander Calder’s circus and through wishing and beleaguring her crafty magical grandma is somehow transmigrated into a unicorn tapestry that hangs across from the circus, where she is kidnapped by a hunter and made to live in a palace, in the Middle Ages, without plumbing, where she becomes an herbalist. And then the hunter comes to ask her to marry him and he has the trapeze artist from the circus for her as a betrothal gift and lo! it is love and they are whisked back through time to modern NYC, where he becomes a bossy investment banker and she goes to medical school. I was very very young.

    My next effort involved: an entomologist (heroine), a rodeo, a raffle, a buffalo, a Swedish architect (hero), the salmon river, mist nets, button quail, fossil fish, hoods in the woods and strange metal structures. Also a flood. I was less young, and basically it is a lot of smut precipitated by/interspersed with random combinations of the above. It is very very funny, and I will never show it to anyone who doesn’t already love me.

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