Category Archives: Guest

my love for you is deathless

ANNA

This one is really quite simple: I want to be Meredith Duran, when I grow up.

Julia Quinn got me hooked on historical romance. Loretta Chase’s Lord of Scoundrels was the first romance to just blow me away. But when I read Meredith’s books I realised what romance had the potential to be, and it thrilled me. It inspired me to push myself as hard and as far as I could in my own writing.

Her worlds are dark and complex. Her characters have wine-stained teeth and opium habits. They’re sometimes vain. They’re always wonderful. Her writing edges onto the literary end of the romance scale, and is a joy to read.

It is, needless to say, a huge privilege to have her on the blog. This is the last post in what has been an amazing series.

***

MEREDITH

For five nights in autumn 1990, along with a good portion of the rest of America, I became obsessed with the American Civil War. The Ken Burns documentary that aired that month has left a lasting impression on a lot of people, not least through the haunting strains of the song “Ashokan Farewell.” Indeed, a mountain dulcimer instructor once told me that this is the most requested song amongst her students. It has the power to raise goose bumps even if you’ve never seen the documentary.

Yet while the song itself is haunting, I suspect that it has such a powerful effect on so many of us because of a single moment (among many) in which it appeared in the film: as the background score to the reading (by a gifted actor named Paul Roebling) of a letter that was written by a husband to his wife on the eve of battle in 1861.

I copy the letter below, with the original punctuation. But I strongly urge you to listen to Roebling’s reading here.

July 14, 1861

Camp Clark, Washington

My very dear Sarah:

The indications are very strong that we shall move in a few days—perhaps tomorrow. Lest I should not be able to write again, I feel impelled to write a few lines that may fall under your eye when I shall be no more . . .

I have no misgivings about, or lack of confidence in the cause in which I am engaged, and my courage does not halt or falter. I know how strongly American Civilization now leans on the triumph of the Government and how great a debt we owe to those who went before us through the blood and sufferings of the Revolution. And I am willing—perfectly willing—to lay down all my joys in this life, to help maintain this Government, and to pay that debt . . .

Sarah my love for you is deathless, it seems to bind me with mighty cables that nothing but Omnipotence could break; and yet my love of Country comes over me like a strong wind and bears me unresistibly on with all these chains to the battle field.

The memories of the blissful moments I have spent with you come creeping over me, and I feel most gratified to God and to you that I have enjoyed them for so long. And hard it is for me to give them up and burn to ashes the hopes of future years, when, God willing, we might still have lived and loved together, and seen our sons grown up to honorable manhood, around us. I have, I know, but few and small claims upon Divine Providence, but something whispers to me—perhaps it is the wafted prayer of my little Edgar, that I shall return to my loved ones unharmed. If I do not my dear Sarah, never forget how much I love you, and when my last breath escapes me on the battle field, it will whisper your name. Forgive my many faults and the many pains I have caused you. How thoughtless and foolish I have often times been! How gladly would I wash out with my tears every little spot upon your happiness . . .

But, O Sarah! If the dead can come back to this earth and flit unseen around those they loved, I shall always be near you; in the gladdest days and in the darkest nights . . . always, always, and if there be a soft breeze upon your cheek, it shall be my breath, as the cool air fans your throbbing temple, it shall be my spirit passing by. Sarah do not mourn me dead; think I am gone and wait for thee, for we shall meet again . . .

As noted in the documentary, Ballou died a week later, killed in battle at Bull Run. But as Solomon sang so many centuries ago, love is, indeed, strong as death. Through this letter, Ballou’s love for his wife remains powerfully alive, bringing tears to my eyes more than a century after he penned his words…more than a century since this letter was first read, by a woman whose heart no doubt was breaking.

When we talk about heroes, we often mean people whose actions were shaped by choices like Ballou’s—choices that pitted love against honor, ideals against safety. We are horrified by the tragedies that precipitated those choices, and humbled by the sacrifice of those who rose to answer the challenge. And we recognize that love is often the wellspring from which their unthinkable courage arose.

What is the romance genre if not a celebration of such courage? We dream of happy endings, yes; in our books, love not only survives the unthinkable choices that our heroes and heroines must make, it also becomes the means by which they triumph. Certainly we all would like to dream up a happier ending for Sullivan Ballou and his wife.

But in pausing here to reflect on his letter, we, romance readers and writers alike, also do what we, of all people, do best. We are witnesses to their love. In the act of witnessing that love, we deny time and forgetfulness their vitiating power. And by witnessing, we also take strength and inspiration from the love that created this letter—a love made eternal through the words that expressed it.

Love and the written word: two of our most powerful hopes for immortality.

This holiday season, I wish you love and peace. And a very good book or two.

Meredith

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one powerful motif

ANNA

Sherry Thomas appears on all my recommendation lists, and the one word I come back to again and again to describe her writing is “charming”. It’s woefully inadequate. There’s an ineffable quality to Sherry’s writing – it’s unlike anyone else, utterly unique. Beginning one of her novels is always, for me, like being told a fairytale as a child. A magical set of characters who draw you into a world that is lit up from the inside.

Her stories are pure emotion. Her heroes feel deeply, sympathetically human, even when they are supernaturally gorgeous, titled, clever, what-have-you. Her heroines are often not as young as they used to be (which is true of everyone of course *g*) and are suffused with a kind of nostalgia for all that has passed in exchange for hard-won wisdom and maturity.

It’s incredibly exciting for me to have Sherry on the blog – and I feel like her post makes a chip in understanding what gives her writing that quality I simply cannot name.

***

SHERRY

When I received Anna’s invitation to participate in the celebration of her blog’s face-lift by contributing an article, I asked her if there is anything she’d like me to write about. And this was her reply:

There is something specific I keep coming back to when I think about your writing, and I hope it’s something you feel you can easily write about. Even though Ravishing the Heiress was an emotional read in all sorts of ways, what stuck with me was Alice [the dormouse]. It was very straightforward imagery – Alice stood in for Fitz’s first love. But that didn’t make it any less powerful, or wonderful to read. I think its charm and power was probably IN its simplicity – and in how deeply you followed through on it, down to the taxidermied mouse representing Fitz’s mistaken feelings. (I would never have thought a boy soliloquising to his dead mouse could make me cry, but it did!) 

So I’d love to hear you talk about how that part of the story came about – did you plan it that way, or did it happen of its own accord? How does imagery enrich a story, and how do you pull forward parts of your story to represent the larger, deeper and altogether more complex emotional story?

It is something of a two-part subject. But as it so happens, last month I wrote about the first half of it, the deployment of strong details to evoke strong emotions, at Writers in the Storm.

If you have time, I recommend you read that post first. But if you don’t, here is the short takeaway: You can pick just about anything and make it a striking detail that evokes emotions. It’s not the detail themselves that matter, but the world, the history, the characters you build around it. And you enter that state of emotions via the exactitude and specificity of details.

For example, Anna, in her request, had mentioned Alice the dormouse, from my book Ravishing the Heiress. Why was there a dormouse in the story? Well, when I started writing Ravishing the Heiress, I’d just finished the first full draft of The Burning Sky, my young adult fantasy, a reverse-Harry Potter story about adolescent mages plotting to overthrow the dark lord from a muggle school. The muggle school in question happens to be Eton College—yes, of course there is a girl passing herself off as a boy—and so I’d read quite a bit about the school and the life of the students during the 1880s.

And one of the things I’d learned was that there were hawkers who catered specifically to the student population at Eton, and at least one of whom sold dormice as pets. So why not have the hero’s beloved—the one he doesn’t get to marry—give him a dormouse as a present, and as a symbol of their passionate feelings for each other?

It’s not a bad detail. And it’s certainly an emotional one. But just as I never bother with a detail unless I can connect it to the larger emotions of the story, once I have such a detail, I’m never content with using it only once.

Years ago, when the great Judith Ivory was still actively writing, I went to Dallas to listen to her speak at a conference. During her workshop, she mentioned a story. When the hero and the heroine first meet, she is wearing the scarf. They would be separated for much of the book, so whenever the author wants to remind the readers that the hero is still very much in love with the heroine, she’d have him either have his eyes caught by a flash of something red while he’s walking down the street and whip around to see who is the wearer or have him take out the scarf from where it is stored to look at it.

I very rarely remember specific writing advice, but the way Ms. Ivory explained the scarf just made so much sense. You pick your meaningful detail—anything will do. Now you work consciously at it, weaving it into the fabric of the story and repeating it at crucial moments. And voila, suddenly you have a lovely emotional refrain that runs through your narrative.

For example, in Skyfall, [beginning possible spoiler] the latest Bond flick, the first time Bond and M meet face to face, he notices an ugly dog figurine on her desk. In the middle of the movie, the dog appears again, the only thing to survive her office after an attack. With these meaningful repetitions, the ugly dog figurine comes to stand for M. So that by the end of the movie, when the dog figurine is given to Bond, he understands the significance of the gesture and so do we the moviegoers. [End possible spoiler.]

Another example. In my book His at Night, the heroine is a young lady who lives under a tyrannical uncle. On the third round of revisions, still largely dissatisfied with the book, I decided the story needed far deeper emotions. And lo, I see that in the beginning of the book, my heroine is reading a travelogue about Capri, dreaming of being there and being free.

Why Capri? Because for a different book, I’d looked up Capri and had some research material lying around.

So in itself, Capri doesn’t have any significance. But I decided to make it significant to my character. Every time she is particularly lonely or upset, she reaches for the guidebook and imagines herself upon the island’s rocky shores. Capri, in other words, comes to stand for all her hopes and dreams.

When the hero has a nightmare, she cradles him and tells him about her Capri, about what keeps her nightmares at bay. And eventually, when the hero messes up—don’t they always—and needs to beg for her forgiveness, he finds that book on Capri she loves so much, memorizes the entire section, and recites it back to her, to let her know that he might have acted like a jackass, but he does understand her hopes and dreams and they are infinitely important to him.

So just to recap, pick something, anything that is significant to one or both of your lead characters. What makes it important to readers is the iteration.

(A slight corollary: We all know that the amount of real estate a character or an event receives in a book more or less correlates to their importance. What is sometimes left unsaid is that if any element is important to a story, it should be introduced early on. That is particularly true when you are trying to create a motif. Whatever details/symbols you plan to use, introduce them early. So that you have time to develop them, to make your readers understand their significance.)

And of course, my hearty congratulations to Anna, for the fabulous new look of this blog.

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musical notes and brush strokes

ANNA

Another teacher who contributed a huge amount to me while I was studying Professional Writing is Toni Jordan.

I was the only romance writer in my first year, and I had a very literary teacher. She didn’t understand what I was doing. I learned a huge amount from her, because she critiqued my writing like a piece of literary writing, but the experience almost snuffed out my voice completely.

Over the summer I went right back to why I write romance, and let myself be passionate and verbose. I also won a mentorship with Valerie Parv and started a complete rewrite of My Lady Untamed. Then I started second year, and Toni was my teacher. She got it. She understood romance convention. She was hugely encouraging, and it made all the difference in the world to have that support.

She is a wonderful teacher. She has made it her business to understand any genre a student might write in. She also doesn’t pull her punches. I remember one note on a chapter I’d workshopped that just said, This line is appalling! (And to be fair, it had a metaphor about a deep, subterranean cave of unshed tears.)

I am delighted to have her on the blog.

***

TONI

Some days, when I head off to take my class, teaching seems like the worst idea in the world. I’m always rushing, always late. My dog gives me a foul look. God knows what you do outside all day, and who you’re sniffing. And, worst of all, my own work sits there on the screen, curser flashing, characters sitting around moping and waiting for me to come back and tell them what to do.

Five minutes into the class, however, that’s all forgotten. It’s not just because of the students, most of whom are wonderful (but few of whom are as wonderful as Anna). It’s because I believe in teaching creative writing.

Creative writing classes sometimes get bad press, I know. Teachers and students are characterised as overprivileged dilettantes oversharing their thinly veiled memoirs while they bang on about why the publishing world is blind to their genius. That’s just not been my experience. Mostly I feel blessed to be surrounded by a roomful of people of varying ages and backgrounds and cultures, all of whom are united by a simple love of words and stories. And I love watching their writing improve over the year.

I believe that there are two distinct skills involved in fiction writing: the ‘art’, and the ‘craft’. Let me be clear: I have no idea where the ‘art’ part comes from, or how to control it, or how to make it better. If I did, I would be better able to control my own process and I’d be a much better novelist. I would have won the Miles Franklin by now. I have no idea how to teach where characters come from or how to make readers care about them or where ideas come from or what makes a novel change someone’s world or how does someone come up with the idea to put the duke in a frock. The ‘art’ in a symphony or in a painting–in my view, this can’t be taught.

What can be taught is musical notes and brush strokes. This is the ‘craft’ part. What I can teach is how good dialogue works, why some plots are more fulfilling than others. I can try to teach someone why one sentence is beautiful and another isn’t (although a surprising number of people can’t feel this) and why one sentence is good while another is bad, and how a sentence should function. I can introduce emerging writers to wonderful authors they’ve never read before. This is terribly important, because it’s only when you read something you deeply admire, something that moves you and makes you almost gasp, and then compare your own work beside it, that you can begin to understand how you need to improve. (The students I feel most sorry for are, in fact, the few who are haughtily dismissive of the genius examples I bring to class. They can’t see real beauty, and that’s why they are so overconfident in their own ability. This is classic Dunning–Kruger effect.)

Mostly, though, I love teaching creative writing because I know it improves the writing of students. I met Anna when I taught her in a class called Novel 2, in RMIT’s Diploma of Professional Writing and Editing. Just a few years earlier, in 2005, I was a student in that same class. The manuscript I was working on started its life with the working title of The Woman Who Loved Numbers. I knew nothing about writing fiction when I enrolled in that course. My first degree was in science and I’d worked for seven years as a protein chemist before drifting into regularly affairs, and then sales and marketing. I’d enrolled with the intention of starting my own technical writing business, writing drug dossiers and new chemical entity search documents for pharmaceutical and biotechnology firms. I chose the novel subject as a bit of fun, a nod to my decades of voracious fiction reading.

The Woman Who Loved Numbers was published in Australia in 2008, under its new title, Addition. Since then, it’s been published in 16 countries and 12 languages, and the film script is at final draft stage (adapted by a clever and funny screenwriter in New York).

I’ve since written two other novels, and each one has been a thrill, but equally as exciting is when a student’s manuscript is published. When a student of mine has a book published–well, I feel fantastic. I ring my husband and meet him after work for a celebratory G&T. I imagine it’s a feeling not unlike parental pride. I can’t wait to raise a quiet glass to My Lady Untamed.

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it takes me the longest time to get to the heartbreak and kissing

ANNA

When I was doing my Professional Writing diploma, I had the utter privilege of being taught by Cath Crowley. On the simplest level it was a privilege because she’s generous and engaged. I mean really generous. Like, How do you have time to write? generous. But she’s also – in love with words. I don’t know how else to put it, even though that makes me pause and think, Well aren’t all writers? But she is besotted, enthralled, inquisitive, patient. In love, in love.

Her YA novel Graffiti Moon won the Prime Minister’s Literary Award and the New South Wales Premier’s Literary Award, and was short listed for just about every other award. It’s about a girl, Lucy, who’s just finished school and rides around the city trying to find the graffiti artist, Shadow, who paints his heartache on walls. And the boy, Ed, who she doesn’t like, who says he knows where to find Shadow. It is a gorgeous romance, and it has the best (re-)meet-cute ever.

***

CATH

It takes me the longest time to get to the heartbreak and kissing because at first there’s nothing in the new world but shadows and space.

I keep hoping that one day I’ll find a shortcut, a door that takes me from one novel into the next. Takes me straight from Ed and Lucy’s kiss, through a small gap in the air, onto the street where Giselle and Charlie are waiting. Or even better, couldn’t I just walk a little way down the road, and have them existing on different streets in the same world?

But for me there’s no door or small walk. I go the long way around.

I leave the dark parks of Graffiti Moon and arrive on a highway. I’m in a car at night, and there’s not even a sling of moon. The only light comes from the car. Every now and then the driver flicks the headlights to high beam and makes a ghost of the world. There are two people, three if you include me, and we’re heaving all over the road. It seems as if the driver’s heart is hooked to the breaks. The two people in the front are eating Fruit Loops from a snap lock bag and for some reason one of them is wearing pajamas. There’s a flickering light in the car and it takes me a while to see that it’s their conversation.

I write it down.

I write down all their conversations. The book is nothing but talk and driving through the dark. The world outside is shadow. Other people appear in the car and I write what they say too.

I write stream of consciousness. I talk to other writers about it. I plan, I plot, I re plan. I make character maps.

I confide in one good friend that I can’t get them out of the car. They’re in the front seat talking, and thinking about kissing, driving on a ghost highway and tossing Fruit Loops to the air and they won’t get out. Maybe the setting is the car? I can’t write a whole novel in a car.

I write a page without stopping and the characters’ words are sweet lights that they roll around their tongues and swap when they kiss. They’re in lust, driving towards love, maybe. Why would you get out of the car?

They have all the expectation and none of the risk. You can’t get physically close in a moving car; you don’t have to stop at any of the points in the landscape that you don’t want to look at. You don’t have to face up to the howling that’s going on outside the window.

What is that howling? I ask.

I think it’s a boy, Giselle says. She’s not getting out of the car to investigate.

I take away their Fruit Loops and give them a flat tyre. We’re getting out of the car.

I force them into a world they don’t want to be in, out of the safe place.

And slowly, putting together all my notebooks of conversations and thoughts and fears, the plot of the story comes.

I know what happens between Charlie and Giselle. I know them so well now. We’ve been on a very long road trip together. I know how they kiss and I know their heartbreak because I’ve been with them so long.

I know they arrive, two characters on the corner of a dark highway. Waiting for the lights of something beautiful.

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frosty bitches and sunshiney sweethearts

ANNA

I sort of jumped the gun with my praise of Cara McKenna when I posted recently about writing characters who are conscious of their own constructed desires. It’s a huge part of what makes her writing so thrilling to me. But there’s also a quality of unrestrained fantasy to her stories – like she doesn’t, ever, shy away. It means the ones that work for me really, really work for me; and the ones that don’t, don’t. There’s no middle ground, because she hasn’t ever gone, Meh, that’ll do.

The writing itself always sucks me right in. It’s like a warm invitation. Like going into a relationship with the book. Her stories are sexy as hell and full of the kind of angst you feel physically, in your chest and stomach. She’s also hilarious. (I immediately think of Shane in her Shivaree series – this tough, cynical, straight mechanic who’s in his flat with a man he’s crazy attracted to. He goes to get wine glasses for them to drink from, then thinks, “Too romantic,” and they drink from the bottle instead.)

Cara’s post made my brain kick into gear. There’s this line in my novel when my hero is unsettling my heroine so she’s short with him and she thinks, There. She was curt and spare, like the countryside where she had carved herself a home.

But I’m getting ahead of myself.

***

CARA

When Anna invited me to post, she suggested I might write on “selfish heroines.” I mulled it over, but couldn’t decide how I felt about the topic. I won’t deny that my heroines are likely a self-serving bunch—it may be a reflection of who I am, at this point in my life. I’ve always been someone who requires a healthy sense of autonomy, and given that I don’t have kids yet, I admit that I can frequently be found at the center of my own universe. I won’t be shocked if my heroines soften after I become a mother, once my stint as the naive star of The Cara Show is over.

But the more I thought about this topic, the more it began to feel like a regional issue, rather than some autobiographical bias.

The majority of my heroines are like me—their default lens is somewhat skeptical. Nearly all are also New Englanders, as I am. I was born in Vermont, grew up in Maine, and have been living in and around Boston since I was nineteen, and I think I have a decent read on my fellow Northeasterners; I also married an Oregonian, and he is not stingy in sharing his PNW opinions about what miserable, me-first bastards we can sometimes be. I’m going to generalize wildly and say that, overall, New Englanders are a bit of a slow thaw. We like to take the temperature of a new acquaintance before we get too cozy. It’s not distrust—not quite. It’s just a short period we require to determine whether or not you’re a time-waster or a drama queen or a salesman or a conservative or a Giants fan. It’s just how we are. It’s cold up here, and we walk quickly. We shiver and curse as we scrape the ice from our salt-rusted cars for three months straight, yet we can’t comprehend why anyone would choose to live in Los Angeles.

All of my heroines from New England are prickly (except maybe Robin from Ruin Me—she’s morally spurious but generally kind, but then again she’s from Vermont and they’re the sanest and nicest of all New Englanders.) In addition, probably my two most selfish heroines, Natalie from the Shivaree books and Sarah from Trespass*  are both from extra-frosty Upstate New York—Rochester and Buffalo, respectively. Michigan heroine—uptight. Montreal heroine—downright cold. There are likely half a dozen deeply skeptical Bostonian heroines. The more snow, the more callous or cagey the woman, my subconscious seems to have decided.

On the flip-side, my few non-icy-climate heroines are rather sweet (by my standards.) The sweetest by far (despite her rather dark kinks) is Emily from Don’t Call Her Angel, who’s from Georgia. Also sweet, Leigh from my Blaze The Wedding Fling*, a San Francisco native. Mac from Skin Game is competitive but also exceedingly kind, and she’s from New Mexico. Margie in Dirty Thirtys from the Pacific Northwest and she’s sweeter than most, ditto Caitlin from my next Samhain release, Thank You for Riding*. The warmer the weather, the warmer the heroine. Without exception. I tried to think of a single truly sweet and selfless heroine I’ve written who’s from New England, but there just hasn’t been one.

As I said, these are wild generalizations—people are nice and mean and selfish and giving and open and distrustful all over. One of the kindest and most welcoming people I’ve ever known is my good friend from snowy, icy Minnesota, and one of my cagiest friends is from sultry Louisiana. I know a deeply cynical Texan, and just about all my relatives in blizzardy Rochester are sweet as pie. But in my books, looking at my heroines… Yeah, not so much.

Is this some kind of cultural shorthand, or a personal, deeply ingrained bias? And am I alone in this typecasting, or has anyone else noticed such trends—in books or films, in life, in their own fictional characters?

It makes me wonder, chicken or egg? Do I determine the heroine’s personality then choose her region to reflect that? Or do I decide where she’s from and then subconsciously let her evolve to reflect that upbringing? I’m honestly not sure, but I suspect it’s the former. And it’s not something I’d ever noticed—not until I started analyzing my crotchety-ass heroines for this post. But now that I have, I can’t stop thinking about it. What percentage of our disposition is informed by our native region or climate? Or are these perceptions about what people-from-X are like simply widespread cultural myths?

It makes me want to write a widely smiling Bostonian heroine with a heart of gold. Or a real turbo-bitch out of Peachtree, Georgia.

*By my conjoined romance-writing twin Meg Maguire.

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writing an ordinary world

ANNA

Nelika McDonald is another friend from my writing school days who has given me endless support and inspiration as a writer. We first became friends when she showed her brand-new engagement ring off to me, because she “knew I would understand”. (I was never shy about my romantic soul.)

In our second and final year a couple of us were asked to show our writing to an editor at Pan Macmillan. Nelika was not only brave enough to actually do so – she sold her young adult novel on a couple of chapters. When you read her post you will begin to understand why her editor became addicted to her voice in such a short space of time.

The novel will be published next year.

When I read her most recent draft, I couldn’t help thinking of her writing like a cloth she had woven, detail by detail. This cloth is an exceptionally beautiful, rich thing, that perhaps needs to be trimmed a little here, taken in a little there, but is complete in itself. (This feels to me like quite a daggy, writerly description, but I can’t think of it any other way.)

She is, without hesitation, a writer to watch out for.

***

NELIKA

When I read, I want to feel like I am being given an access-all-areas pass to another world.

I want immersion, chin-deep. And for this to happen, I need to be able to believe in the world written on the pages. Not believe in the literal sense, but in the sense of buying into the world I am reading about. I want to have a teenage crush on the world I’m reading; I want to find every aspect of it fascinating. I want the worlds I read to be compositions for whole orchestras, with a scope and magnitude and richness and fullness that astound me. I’m talking about suspension of disbelief, but of that particular variety when the world you are reading about is based in your own, but is not your own. For the purposes of this post, I’m talking about writing in general contemporary fiction and not writing that is intentionally set in a different world, time period or dimension. I think a whole other set of rules comes into play for world-building in genre fiction, and I don’t really feel like I have the qualifications to discuss that particular talent. However, if you want an example, read anything Anna has ever written. The lady is a pro. Probably some of what I’m going to talk about applies along the whole fiction spectrum, but I only really write and read contemporary fiction set in this ordinary world, so that’s my frame of reference.

I think this is about why we read what we do.

For me, (and I think this is a truly individual thing) reading is about trying to comprehend my world. In everything I read, I’m looking for some sort of lesson to take away about human behaviour, or the way the world works. Even if the story I am reading is set in a world vastly different from the one I inhabit, I am still looking for something that holds true across them both. I think this is usually subconscious. What I’m seeking is not an overt lesson, because I don’t want to be preached to or patronised, but I do want to learn something, and feel enriched somehow. But not enriched like that milk with extra calcium, where they write about it in bold caps on the label with exclamation marks. I want to not know what I’ve learnt until later, if at all. I also want to be entertained, and delight in the prose, and marvel at the construction of the story and be surprised and freaking awed at the same time, by the way. I’m pretty demanding. But, so I should be. Getting prosaic for a minute, books exist in a marketplace like anything else, and healthy competition can foster a higher standard of product, if the demand is there for it.

Anyway, lately I’ve been thinking about how it is that writers create believable worlds, worlds that are multi-dimensional, complex and layered, but still entirely ordinary, and not fantastical or farcical. What do they need to give us to make us buy into these worlds, and how much should they tell us to establish the parameters of it without dictating its every boundary? Are there specific tricks or techniques that they use to do this?

As a reader, I’m a voyeur. I want to look through a window and spy on something. But this is just a peep show- it’s more exciting if I can’t see it all. I told you I was demanding! So, say I’m looking into a room. It’s a good view, and I can see the whole room. But that isn’t enough. I want to believe that if I went through the doorway in that room, I would find myself in a hallway, from which other rooms branched off. I want to be able to imagine what’s in those rooms too. Maybe one has a door that you need to lift up as you open it, and inside there is a small bed made of pine with stickers all over the headboard, and in the wardrobe there is a green tin of treasures with a scarecrow on it. Behind the chest of drawers, a rock shaped like a crescent moon with a face drawn on it in crayon is gathering dust, a little coat of grey snowballed around it. Down the hall there is another room with another small bed, but this one is stripped bare, and the wardrobe stands empty, doors ajar. There is a coin and the lid of a pen on the bedside table. The only decoration is a homemade dream-catcher hanging from the windowsill, with a cobweb made of matchsticks and bits of foil and cut up plastic straws dangling down from it.

In the best writing I’ve read, the author hasn’t given too many details, but the ones they have given are important. They allowed me to extrapolate and fill in the blanks myself. For instance, maybe they told me that in one bedroom in this house, the mother’s room, there is a photo of a little girl with a candle beside it and some rosary beads. Then, having deduced that a little girl has died, I could decide what was in her room by myself. This is where writing a believable world intersects with writing a believable character. The details given about a character can inform the reader’s view of their world, and vice-versa. Maybe, from what I know of the mother, I can decide if she would keep her little girl’s room as a shrine, preserved exactly how it was on the day her daughter died, or pack it up and lock the door. That’s a whole other post, though. The important thing is that, as a reader, I think there are other rooms at all.

One way to talk about this idea of a believable written world is with the idea of verisimilitude. This is probably the fanciest word I know. And, in my bastardised, simplified comprehension of it, all it means is narrative authority. And that is how I prefer to think of it. For me, the word authority conveys an aspect that I think is important- confidence. I think the writer needs to feel like he or she has the ability to write the world that they do, but also that they are qualified to write it, maybe even have some sort of imperative to write it. And this confidence makes the reader believe in it. In the book I’m currently working on/being strangled by, the setting is a fictional town called Banville. Banville is loosely based on a mash-up of a few places I have visited, in a few different countries. But when I write Banville, I try and write it like I’ve lived there my whole life. Partly, this is because I can’t expect readers to believe in the plausibility of Banville if I don’t. But more so, it is because I want them to believe in my characters, as they exist in Banville, and be captivated by and invest in my whole plot and book, accordingly. I feel like these things are a long, linked chain, and if one link is broken the chain becomes weak. Really weak. Like, if it was holding up a swing, you would look at how rusty and fragile it seemed and decide to force your child to pretend to enjoy drawing in the dirt with a stick instead.

For an example of confidence in writing, I nominate Rose Tremain. I read The Road Home a little while ago, and there was something so incredibly assured about it that I got really depressed and complained to Anna that I felt like that sort of assurance can only come with writing for years and years and I would just have to slog on for another twenty years before I got there and even then there was no guarantee I could attain that level of masterful skill, so what was the point? And then we had excellent sandwiches and I felt better again.

Another way I have noticed a writer build a believable, ordinary world is by writing as though the reader is viewing this world at a certain point in time, but it has actually existed for much longer. This sounds obvious, but it was kind of a revelation to me. I think it was Barbara Kingsolver’s Flight Behaviour, and I can’t remember the exact passage, but it was something about how someone had moved a shovel and it had been there for so long that there was a patch of dead grass underneath it. Or if we return to the house I talked about earlier, this might involve talking about the people who had lived there before the current characters. About how one old man who lived there painted the pantry such a vile acidic green that you can still see it on the skirting boards underneath the white that’s there now, if you look closely.

An extension of this technique is through language use. Once I thought about the passage in which the shovel was moved, I noticed that Barbara Kingsolver often used this technique, to great effect- a character’s coat was slung over the back of a chair instead of on a hook where it ‘usually’ hung, or she found a single earring that had been missing ‘for a long time’. For so long, in fact, that she had bought similar earrings to try and replace them, but they were ‘never’ quite the right size/shape/length. The use of terms like ‘used to’ or ‘usually’ imply that there is a before and after in this world. It has existed, and will continue to exist, beyond the point in time you are reading about.

Another technique she uses (still with Ms Kingsolver here, fangirl much?) is to anchor the world she writes about to biology. Barbara Kingsolver is a scientist, so it makes sense that this informs her work, but the way she applies science to her narratives are awesome.  Sometimes science is central and sometimes more peripheral to the story, but she always reminds the reader that the world she writes is tethered to the universe by the laws of science- everything is in a cycle. Plants grow, blossom and die, seasons change, the weather is terrible or wonderful or strange. Animals and people grow, blossom and die, too. Her characters exist in and engage with the natural world, because the natural world exists in their world. They are just a microcosm. Like babushka dolls- her worlds are nestled inside greater ones.

There are so many other techniques that fit into this discussion, like self-referential writing and wanky postmodern stuff about breaking the fourth wall and so on, but I don’t want to sully Anna’s beautiful new blog with all of that, much as I secretly love it. So that will do for now. This has been a pretty great exercise in clarifying my thoughts and learning from the masters, and it’s an absolute honour to be featured alongside so many crazy-talented writers. Thanks Anna! x

and still, we will fall in love

ANNA

Cecilia Grant is another author I first discovered through AnimeJune’s excellent (hilarious) review. And then I realised it was kind of hard to move on the internet for glowing reviews of her debut novel A Lady AwakenedSo naturally I read it immediately. Highlighted in my Kindle:

Her hands fell at random places on his back and stayed there, passively riding his rhythm like a pair of dead fish tossed by the sea. Or rather, one dead fish. The other still curled tight, like a brittle seashell with its soft sensate creature shrunk all the way inside.

I’ve tried to describe why I love that passage so much a couple of times, and deleted every attempt. It speaks most clearly for itself. Also, sex and dead fish.

Since then Cecilia and I have struck up many conversations, and come to realise we share ideas about sexuality and gender – and even more so, the passionate desire to embody those ideas through romance.

Her second book, A Gentleman Undonewas a tough, uncompromising, incredibly romantic book. Cecilia’s post gives a glimpse into why it touched me like a hand around my bones. And it makes me want to read everything she hasn’t yet written.

***

CECILIA

Warning: I’m usually a perfectionist, and fiddle with things I’ve written until I’m reasonably sure they won’t embarrass me. But one of the things I love about Anna’s blog is the risks she takes in her topics and her opinions. So I promised myself I’d write something truthful here, and not try to file away the sharp edges. You’ve been warned.

*

“I asked most of my guests some specific questions,” Anna said when inviting me to write a post in this series, “but I’m curious to see what you might come up with on your own.”

I’m guessing this is the last time she makes that mistake.

Because I’d like to start by saying a few words about the dull horror of the human condition.

Or rather, by calling on Tennessee Williams to say those words.

Asked once for his definition of happiness, the playwright thought it over for a few seconds and then said, “Insensitivity, I guess.”

I love that quote. It’s really kind of appalling, isn’t it? It’s glib, it’s indicative of a piss-poor attitude, and it’s insulting to people who consider themselves happy.

And it resonates with me, from the back of my skull right down to the metatarsal bones in my feet.

Back in the days when I had vague thoughts of writing, but didn’t yet know I wanted to write romance, I kept a clipping of that quote thumbtacked to my bulletin board, for inspiration. Alongside other, equally inspiring quotes. The “Out, out, brief candle!” speech from Macbeth. The Holocaust survivor in the documentary Shoah who sums up his state of existence with, “If you could lick my heart, it would poison you.” (God help my shallow, missing-the-point soul; the incisive brilliance of that image gives me chills.)

And for variety, the passage in William Faulkner’s 1950 Nobel Prize acceptance speech, where he names -

“…the old universal truths lacking which any story is ephemeral and doomed – love and honor and pity and pride and compassion and sacrifice.”

So now that I’m writing escapist genre fiction, I’ve retired all those quotes and the thoughts that go with them, right?

No. Not anywhere near right. I keep those quotes closer than ever. Because genre fiction, in my opinion, is the most faithful keeper of those virtues Faulkner championed. And because hopelessness, meaninglessness, and human suffering are not only the backdrop against which romance exists; they’re the very compost out of which our genre grows.

I often see people defining romance’s worth in terms of its “escape” value. “Life is hard; I get enough exposure to sadness by reading the daily news; I want a book that can transport me away from that.” And I do think that’s a useful function for literature to perform. I’ve gone through difficult times myself when I was deeply grateful for the power of a book or movie to give me respite.

But respite reading suggests a kind of turning-away, or temporary retreat, from conditions and realities that are too painful to steadily face. And I find it more interesting, more rewarding, to think of romance as an unbowed answer to those conditions and realities. A confrontation. A tiny defiant candle held up against the dark; a middle finger brandished in the face of existential despair.

“Yes,” says the person falling in love, “We know. All our yesterdays have lighted fools the way to dusty death. Life is a tale told by an idiot, full of sound and fury, signifying nothing. Yep. Got it. No further questions.

“And still, we will fall in love. We will find meaning in one another. We will bring further generations into this world, with full unblinking awareness of how painful life can be. We will take stock of all the evidence that suggests hopelessness as the most reasonable attitude, and we will hope anyway.”

And some of us… some of us will read and write books that celebrate all the poignant quixotic bravery of the human attachment to romantic love.

That’s what writing and reading romance means to me. I’m cringing already with the certainty that it sounds pretentious, but I’m not going to go back and tinker. This is the truthful thing I wanted to write. Thanks, Anna, for giving me the opportunity.

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men & death

ANNA

When I was thinking about who I wanted to invite to post as part of my blog launch, I immediately thought of three classmates from my writing school days. One reason is that they write in completely different genres to me, but still contributed so much to me during those two formative years. The other reason is that I believe they will all be super-stars of the literary world, and I wanted their voices to be part of this conversation.

Scott Pearse writes the opposite of what I do, in the sense that one side of a coin is the opposite of the other. He’s consumed by the question of what it means to be a man in an age when the traditional signs of male competence are no longer valued, or even necessary. He asks this question with humour and wisdom and heart-wrenching clarity – as well as being a bit of a smart-arse sometimes.

I talk a lot about Female Stuff. (*gasp*) That’s cool, I write for a predominantly female audience, and I am female. (I know, right?) I’m so excited to have Scott’s post, which asks questions about masculinity in a way I couldn’t.

Scott and his wife Jo-Roxy recently cycled across the US and documented their trip in all its gorgeous, awful, honest detail on their blog Bike Gang (also, photos of weird tan lines). My favourite post is Scott’s letter to Jo-Roxy on their second wedding anniversary, because we all know I’m a big romantic softy.

***

SCOTT

 I’m truly elated to be asked to contribute to this fancy-looking new blog. Anna and I were novel classmates for two years in the RMIT Professional Writing and Editing program. I entered the program as a confident middle-twenties know-it-all and was paired with Anna in our first class. I can’t recall the exact nature of our task, but it was writing a reaction to something that our instructor had written on the board. Of course, my response was mostly forced comedy and attempted insight and I thought I’d done some pretty creative and zany stuff. I’m grateful still that I chose to read my piece to Anna before she read hers because that was the first time, of many, during the two years that it became evident Anna is an exceptional writer. I doubt I would I have had the courage to read my flippant musing after hearing her competent and honest prose. Our Novel instructor told the class at the beginning of our course that only one of us would have our book published, and I’m glad that it is Anna’s work that has beaten the odds.

*

My father was the first person at the scene of a cycling fatality. The man who died was near to my father’s age, had small children and was struck by a bus on the straight highway that runs between Geelong and my hometown, Drysdale. An investigation, or perhaps local conjecture, suggested the cyclist had been holding a straight line along the narrow shoulder of the highway during his usual Friday morning training ride, when his wheel must have struck a rock or debris which caused him to veer unexpectedly into the road. It was awful luck that a bus happened to be passing at highway speed at the same time.

My father was returning from night shift, it was 7:30am. The highway leaving Geelong was mostly empty; the other side was only beginning to see the daily stream of commuters headed for the city. My father was distantly following the bus when he saw the cloud of smoke caused by the pointless locking of brakes and tires. When the bus came to an askew stop on the side of the highway, he knew something was wrong. My father was driving an awful car at the time, an Orange Datsun 120Y, a car so bad only my father, who has always had a fondness for vehicles others believed ugly or undesirable, could love. When he pulled over he saw the outline of the bicycle in the knee length grass beside the road, a mangled wheel pointing skyward. My father took a towel from the boot of the Datsun, walked over to the cyclist’s body, saw there was nothing he could do and placed the towel over the man’s face. My father waited with him until the ambulance arrived.

I was probably ten when this happened; I remember it being a school day. It wasn’t unusual for my father to be returning from work as the rest of us would be beginning our day. I spent much of my childhood sneaking around the house being careful to not wake my father who slept until 3pm after a night shift–the sneaking was mostly pointless, my father could have slept through a tsunami.

Even after a night shift my father is affable nearly to a fault. Shift work was never a crutch he leant on, he would never complain, he was always excited to see us and besides being a little absent-minded, you would hardly know he had been awake all night. My father is as constant and dependable a man as I have ever known. He grew up on a large farm in rural north-west Victoria, leaving almost as soon as he could to move to Melbourne where he became a 16-year-old apprentice mechanic. He spent time in the Army reserve eventually becoming a commando and earning his wings for completing fourteen airbourne training insertions, including six in one day (not that I’m boasting or anything, but my Dad might be tougher than yours). Luckily for me, my mother and sisters, he was enlisted in a time of peace and was never deployed overseas, although I’m sure he would have found a way out of going anyway. My mother, who was in the reserve at same time, recollected, ‘every time my group passed Andy’s, he would be on the ground doing push-ups with a sergeant standing over him berating him for his insolence.’ My father still benefits from oversized shoulders to this day.

On the day of the accident my father came home and looked as blank and white as a bleached towel. This was before the days of mobile telecommunication and my mother had no idea what had happened, but it was obvious something was wrong. Without saying a word my father ran into the toilet and started vomiting, my mother followed him and when he was done took him into the bedroom from where he didn’t emerge. My mother and father stayed in their room a long time, dealing with the complexities of marriage as they always did, behind the curtain of their closed bedroom door. Being ten, I was sure my father had discovered one of my many innocent wrongdoings and it had made him violently ill. I racked my brain for all the bad things I had done, wishing I could undo them. My mother came out and told me Dad had seen an accident, someone had died and Dad didn’t feel too good about it.

It is sad that most of us these days seem to have had some experience with a road fatality and whenever such a story is recounted the incident of my father and the cyclist comes flooding back to me. I recall my own ten-year-old reaction quite vividly. I suppose I was beginning to understand what is required or expected of men, and this was the first time I had seen my father react to anything so viscerally. I would never call him emotionally reticent but he does have an awkward matter-of-fact way of doing things. He was always strong in every situation; he is our family’s rock. My reaction was to be equally confused and amazed that my father could show how deeply affected he was by trauma. He broke down, and thus, as my reasoning went, all men could break down. This experience was completely outside my emotional vocabulary.

Coming to understand the expectations placed on men has been an interest in my writing from the beginning. My simple realisation is that mostly the individual is responsible for the expectations placed upon themselves; without doubt, societal pressures dictate certain behaviours, but mostly it is personal choice to be the man I want to be. My own father is as complex a role-model as any, because people change, things happen, and we live on the edge of control attempting to preserve the facade that we know what we’re doing. This is as true of men as it is of women.

In hindsight my ten-year-old reaction was naive. This incident stands out in my memories as every small change in my perception of what I was supposed to grow up to be was monumental, and death is the one awful thing parents cannot shield their children from. My father was grieving: even though he had no connection to the cyclist, his connection to his death caused him grief. Now as an adult I know death is shared equally among both men and women, while grief is as varied within each sex as it is different between them. My father wasn’t exposing an aspect of masculinity, he was exposing something human. I simply wasn’t old enough to distinguish between the two.

Note: every comment puts your name in the hat for an accidental housewife e-reader cover.

tension

ANNA

Those of you who’ve been reading my blog for a while will have noticed I talk about Cat a lot. (It’s usually when I’m struggling though an idea and she’s said something illuminating.) She is my writing buddy and crit partner extraordinaire, and I’m pretty sure I wouldn’t be where I am today without her.

We met in a poetry class at uni. Cat thought much more of my poems than I did, and her terse, hilarious, clever poetry wasn’t what I’d expected this very friendly woman to write. We both gave up poetry, which is likely a good thing.

She was the first person to read the first draft of My Lady Untamed, back when it was called The Three Loves of Miss Beatrice Sutherland and Miss Beatrice Sutherland was kind of a snivelling doormat. She encouraged me, even then. And then she introduced me to Lymond.

These days we write together three days a week, 10-5. We know each other’s work inside-out, and have gotten pretty damn good at feeling out when our brainstorming is sparking something and when the other person’s just drawing a blank. Our coffee breaks are full of writing conversation; our particular loves are Dunnett and Vampire Diaries.

Cat published the first two books of Captive Prince as an online serial (it’s still live), and she’s been working the past couple of months on getting them ready for self-publication as e- and paper books. The amount of work and self will that has gone into the process is incredible and very inspiring.

I would tell you about why I love her books, but her post is going to do it for me. It’s a master class in tension. It’s the kind of insight I get every week. And no, you can’t have her.

***

CAT

I love tension. I love long scenes between characters in which the tension rises and rises. My favourite author is Dorothy Dunnett, and she is the master of tension, especially in her later books, with scenes that run for twenty pages or more, in which the tension is not only sustained, it is also continually escalated–the holy grail of tension.

“How do you create tension in your writing?” is a question I am continually investigating. I’m not certain there is a simple formula, but there is certainly a single, unavoidable truth:

If you want tension in your story you have to 1) create it and 2) sustain it.

Creating it is easier than sustaining it. Sustaining tension for me becomes exponentially more difficult the longer I try to sustain it, and the stronger the tension that I am trying to sustain. I am often wrestling with a variety of techniques in order to try to push my tension higher or sustain tension through a longer scene.

I feel like I’m only at the beginning of my understanding of tension, and I still have many secrets to unlock. But for what it’s worth, here’s my take on how tension works, and some of the ways to create it and sustain it in writing.

Creating tension

Tension is something that exists between, usually between two forces, usually between two forces that are in opposition. I think of tension as either ‘push’ tension, like the tension in two bodies that are straining against one another until one of them gives ground, or ‘pull’ tension, like the tension in a rope that is being pulled at each end in a tug of war.

These forces might be two characters with opposing goals (external tension), they might be two opposing desires within one character (internal tension), they might be a character’s desire for a goal and the barrier to that goal. There are multiple possible forces, multiple forms of tension. The goodie versus baddie fight is tense because the force of survival is pitted against the force of annihilation. Sexual tension exists when the force of sexual desire pushes against the force of restraint and/or the obstacle to that desire: we want to but we can’t, or won’t, or musn’t, yet, for some reason. The stronger those forces, the more powerful the tension.

Because tension requires two forces to exist, creating tension means constructing and establishing those forces, then clearly expressing them to the reader. Once the forces are constructed, and the stakes made plain, tension will result. The more clearly the forces are drawn, and the higher the stakes are for the characters, the higher the tension.

One of the ways that I often see this done is by embedding the opposing forces into the characters themselves. That is probably one reason why opposites work so well in fiction: the rule follower and the loose canon, the fighter and the scholar, the Machiavel and the Alexander slicing through the Gordian knot. The hero and the villain. The character who sees things in black and white versus the character who sees things in shades of grey. Opposing archetypes are immediately in tension and have the potential to push or pull forever. One or the other must give way, and yet neither will give way, resulting in tension.

Another way I often see tension created is via the drawing of a boundary (as one force) and an opposing force that can then push against it. I’m going to use a big overblown example from a story that I read recently–

“If you touch me, I’ll kill you,” the character says. *  Tension is created because a clear boundary has been set, as well as clear stakes–life and death, but also pride, if the character backs down.

This is the same technique at work when Elizabeth Bennett says, “You are the last man on earth I would ever marry.” The boundary is clear, and the nature of the force pushing against the boundary, and the stakes–again pride, which is in tension with personal desire and happiness.

Another iteration of the boundary technique, used in an adventure setting, is one Anna discussed with me:  Haymitch telling Katniss never, ever to go to the cornucopia, because she’ll be slaughtered if she does. As soon as necessity forces Katniss to go to the cornucopia, the scene is tense, because she is pushing against a well-defined boundary, with clear stakes. Goal and threat are in tension.

Tension can also be created by the writing itself. That is, the writing can act as a force on the emotions of the scene, holding it back. “I’ll kill you,” he said steadily is more tense than, “I’ll kill you,” he screamed wildly, because the word choice restrains the (obviously) strident emotional content. Calm, strapped-down language acts as a force restraining the force of the emotion, creating tension.

Sustaining tension

There are lots of things that will cause tension to break or drop out, but for my money the three biggest tension-killers are 1) collapsing one of the opposing forces 2) catharsis, and 3) repetition.

Collapsing one of the forces is easy to understand: it’s capitulation, one of the forces giving in to the other. I think it can also happen by accident if one of the forces becomes less clear, less well drawn than the other, so that maintaining forces over time is important for sustaining tension.

Catharsis is the release of strong emotions, which also releases tension. Cathartic acts, such as violence or sex, will let all the tension out of the scene–or even the story–unless you manage to hold the emotion back, somehow, during those scenes. It’s hard, although not impossible, to have your character punch someone in the face in a tense way. The tension exists in the moment before the punch, and rises as the punch is delayed, but is released in the cathartic act, the punch itself. The reason why delaying catharsis increases tension is because the force of emotional release is set against the force of restraint, and those forces increase as the cathartic moment approaches.

Romance writers will know that it is equally hard, though not impossible, to have your characters have sex in a tense way–or, I should say, in a way that maintains sexual tension throughout and after the scene–unless something is held back, some type of catharsis avoided. In both sexual and dramatic contexts, sometimes even cathartic words will let out tension–screamed, wailed, flailed, sobbed, exploded, screeched–any words in which emotional release is implied will release tension from the scene.

Finally, repetition kills tension. “If you touch me I’ll kill you,” is tense, but the second time the character says it, whether to the same person or someone else, it’s a fizzle. In romance parlance, a first kiss has more tension in it than a second kiss, unless there is something new about the second kiss.

Romance provides a good case study here because readers are familiar with the way that the romantic narrative is often written as a series of firsts: first touch, first kiss, first oral sex, first penetrative sex, first whichever act remains that we haven’t got around to yet. The acts can occur in any order, but repetition will cause a drop in tension, unless there is some other tension in play, some emotional first to substitute for the physical first.

Emotional repetition is an easier trap to fall into than physical repetition, but even deadlier to tension. The second time the emotional note is played it will lack the tension of the first, a reheated dinner. This is the reason why love triangles fall flat when the character oscillates between suitors one too many times, “it’s him, no it’s him, no it’s him, no it’s him.” It’s the reason why unresolved sexual tension goes stale if characters repeat the same moves in the forwards-backwards dance, or rehash an objection when it has already played out the first time.

Because books are usually structured around a character arc or progression from ‘beginning self’ to ‘end self’, to hold tension the writer must order every step in the evolution, a series of notes played one after the other, in the correct sequence, with nothing repeated.

In my own writing, I often ask myself: Can I play this moment later? If the answer is yes, then I reserve the moment for later. If the answer is no, then I know that I’ve found the right moment to play the note. I have a Shakespeare quote inappropriately in my head, If it be now, ’tis not to come; if it be not to come, it will be now. Sorry Hamlet.

Because repetition kills tension, one unexpected side-effect is that tense scenes burn through material, fast. A tense face off between characters will burn through backstory like nothing else.  And once the material is burned, it can never be used again. So sustaining tension also means creating enough material to sustain that tension.

Probably the best example that I can think of is one that only 0.001% of people reading this will be familiar with, nevertheless: the “salt pans” scene in book five of Dunnett’s Niccolo series, in which the books’ primary antagonists face off for the first time. Because it is the first time, the antagonists have five books worth of material to burn through and can hurl increasingly tense verbal exchanges at one another for unbelievable lengths of time. The scene incredibly sustains at defcon one tension levels for three chapters, a tour-de-force that I have never seen another author replicate. It was only because Dunnett saved all her material for that one scene that it was even possible.

I remember setting myself the “Dunnett challenge” of extending my tense face off as long as possible towards the end of book two of Captive Prince. In that scene, my hero faces down a traitor, and the two have a verbal drag-down match that I wanted to run for pages and pages, and be as tense as possible. I made it to eight pages, at which point I had burned through all the usable material that I had, including a twist I had reserved just for that scene, and some huge chunks of backstory. In the end, I just didn’t have enough to sustain any more than that, and I was done.

In this way, it’s much easier to write, say, fan fiction, where if Harry and Draco have a stand off, you have seven books worth of Rowling’s material to burn, everything from, “You imprisoned my family” to “You didn’t shake my hand on the train.” In original fiction, you have to build before you burn.

I think this also shows one of the ways in which tension requires an effort of imagination—the stronger the tension, the stronger the effort of imagination required. It’s not only thinking up burnable material, but also what I think of as “pathfinding”.  Pathfinding works something like this:

Once tension is created, there are three choices: break it, sustain it, or escalate it. Breaking it is easy. Sustaining it is harder. Escalating it is harder still. To use an earlier example, the escalating move on hearing, “If you touch me I’ll kill you,” is to have the other character calmly reach out to touch. ** But once that is done, what happens next? It’s imaginatively very hard work to think of something that doesn’t involve catharsis by violence, collapsing one of the forces by backing down, or repetition.

Escalating in this example might be a dead end, something that you can’t think your way out of as the author, in which case better to go sideways and choose a path that instead sustains the tension at its current level.  “Will you?” is one tension-sustaining rejoinder that springs randomly to mind and so on, picking a path carefully through the dead ends and tension drops.

So, these are my thoughts on tension. I’m curious to hear from other writers about techniques that they use, and from readers, about which books or authors they find do tension well. Or which books are tensionless! Recommendations for books with stellar unresolved sexual tension are always welcome.

* This line did not occur in a sexual context, just FYI—although even as I type this I realise that “If you touch me, I’ll kill you” is embedded into one of my characters (Laurent) as a fundamental romantic character premise, despite him never saying the words aloud

** LOL what even is this example

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reading while academic: or id, ego, superego

ANNA

I can’t remember how exactly Liz McCausland and I came to be in touch, but she’s one of the people I most enjoy talking with on twitter. She also writes a fantastic blog, My Extensive Reading (“to all this she must yet add something more substantial, in the improvement of her mind by extensive reading.”). On its face it’s a review blog, but Liz talks more about how she reads than what she reads, which is what I love about it.

I was trying to pin down why exactly I knew I wanted Liz to write a post. Then I realised there’s something in the way she reads I recognise: She approaches reading with a cynical, critical attitude, while at the same time filled with this fierce, desperate desire to love what she reads. Like she wants to applaud this genre she loves, but is unflinchingly honest about what she sees.

***

LIZ

Thinking about Anna’s wonderful post on “id writing,” I realized that most of the books I’d put on the top of my personal Greatest Books Ever list are “super-ego” books.

Take Jane Austen, for instance. She’s deeply suspicious of the impulses of the id. Her characters are punished for impulsive, id-driven acts, whether it’s Emma’s verbal aggression towards Miss Bates at Box Hill or Lydia’s elopement with Wickham. Id-driven men, however initially appealing, are not  heroes but the men her heroines learn to reject. There are emotional gut-punches in her books, but perhaps their strongest emotions are shame and mortification, the penalties of transgressing the Law.

Mystery, my first genre fiction love, is a super-ego genre: outbreaks of murderous aggression are safely re-contained within the Law, evil-doers brought to justice. Romance, which I discovered more recently, I think of as an “ego” genre: while the disruptive desires of hero and heroine are safely contained within marriage (at least in the traditional version), readers are assured that in the happy-ever-after the lovers will go on indulging them. Like the ego, romance mediates between the demands of id (lust) and super-ego (Law), offering the promise that both can be satisfied; in the happy ending that reconciles these conflicting demands, readers too find satisfaction.

When Anna asked if I wanted to write a post about the connection between literary criticism and romance, I thought of this id/ego/super-ego paradigm, because one of the questions she asked was “Can we just not help reading critically, even when it’s such pleasure reading?” There’s an implicit opposition in this question between academic reading and pleasure.

Many people firmly believe critical reading and pleasure reading are opposed (though Anna is clearly not one of them). They talk about how studying a book in English class ruined it for them or say others are reading too much into a book or taking it too seriously. For these readers, critical reading is super-ego reading, reading according to rules, reading where you can get it wrong and be shamed for your errors, reading that inhibits emotional pleasure.

I used to believe that these people just had bad English teachers, but now I recognize that readers simply have different tastes in pleasure. When I want an “id” experience, an unthinking emotional reaction, I turn to music. When I read, even when I’m reading for pleasure, I want pleasures of the head as well as those of the heart and the gut. I enjoy thinking about how a book works, about the choice of language, the use of tropes, the way the story is structured. But not everyone does.

And that’s why I can only answer Anna’s question, “Can we just not help reading critically?” for myself. My answer is no. Whether because of temperament or professional training, I analyze, ask questions, make mental notes as I read. This has its costs: for example, the Law in engrained enough in me that I can’t see past mechanical errors and sloppy sentence structure; there are some books others love for the pure emotional impact that I can’t enjoy. But my way of reading has rewards, too, those lightbulb moments when I think, “I see what you did there, author!” Reflective reading has its own emotional highs.

The best romances allow me to be an “ego reader.” They combine literally visceral thrills (the swoon, the suffering, the heat of love) with writing that repays careful attention. Some recent favorite “ego” books are Ruthie Knox’s Ride With Me and Cecilia Grant’s A Lady Awakened.

In the online romance community, I’ve found a world of  “ego reading.” It’s a place where scholars and fans come together to talk about books—and where the scholar and the fan can come together in one person. The conversations are smart, informed, and impassioned. They move from “OMG that hero is so hot, swoon” to “I thought the author reversed gender roles to interesting effect” in a heartbeat.

I think these conversations have made me a better academic. Part of my job is to help my students move from personal, emotional responses to their assigned reading to more critical ones. I can do that better if I model it for them. Maybe “Mrs. Bennet is a crazy bitch” or “Darcy is so hot” can’t be the thesis for your paper, but it’s a place to start.

As a fledgling scholar, I was very much a super-ego reader: determined to follow the Law, prove I was good enough, please my teachers. As a newly minted college instructor, I tended to focus on teaching students the Laws of academic reading and writing. But readers and writers who are too rule-bound, afraid to take risks or be wrong, can’t achieve real insight. So I try to mediate my legalistic super-ego impulses and ensure there’s space for emotional engagement and gut responses—my own and my students’—in my classroom.

I hope my classroom is a place for ego reading, a place where my students and I can experience all the pleasures books have to offer, both the emotional gut-punch of an instinct explored and the intellectual thrill of critical attention to language, structure, and themes. It’s in the space where those two come together that the deepest insights into books emerge. And this is the way I read romance. It’s the only way I can.

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