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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It’s still sunday. technically.

This was a special week on the accidental housewife. We had Scott’s meditation on masculinity, and how a man faces death; I thought about the subversive elements of Milan’s The Duchess War; Cecilia Grant talked about the dull horror of human condition – and the small, defiant candle that is romance; and Nelika thought about how details give a narrative authority.

Next week is the final week of this series of posts – culminating in posts by Sherry Thomas and Meredith Duran. I can’t wait!

I’ve been buying more material for the e-reader covers, and I’m pretty sure I’ve gone overboard. I’m also feeling pretty confident they’re gonna be gorgeous. Before special k draws the winner:

Interesting things around the internet this week included:

These pictures of the first same-sex couples to be married in Seattle. I always love these kinds of photo series, but the commentary on this is also great fun.

The Shallow Reader thinking about her illiterate grandmother and her highly literate father, and thinking about how we value literacy in our culture.

And this woman (I think? Edan?) who talks about literary fiction as a genre and lovingly lists the tropes. I had a lot of fun with this article, because I get frustrated with the literary world not acknowledging it is a genre. But this wasn’t a genre writer like me being frustrated – it’s a LitFic writer seeing their own genre clearly.

And now, the prize draw!

Congratulations Alyssa! And, ahem, obviously I am sending you an e-reader cover, not an e-reader. Much more exciting.

Remember you can keep up with the conversation by subscribing.

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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reader reader writer reader

There was a post on Romance Novels for Feminists recently about the way we read “feisty heroine” as “feminist heroine”, even though this is often not true. In the comments, Jackie and I talked specifically about the feisty heroine who sees some “wrong” and runs about fixing it as she sees fit. She either makes this pig-headed mess that the hero has to clean up afterwards, or comes to realise her strongly held beliefs were wrong and wouldn’t be strongly held by anyone with more sense than a worm.

Doesn’t exactly scream intelligent, competent woman.

So it was a joy to read Courtney Milan’s The Duchess War the next day and see her tackle this heroine trope head-on. Her heroine, Minnie, has declared war on her hero, Robert, when he refuses to give up the dangerous activity he’s involved in. She tells him she’s going to find proof of his involvement and turn him in to the authorities. Robert proceeds to think this:

In reality, he suspected that he was about to be subjected to a barrage of amateur sleuthing. Bad disguises, ham-handed questions, attempts to go through his rubbish in search of clues… Miss Pursling was undoubtedly the sort of hotheaded young lady who would throw herself into the chase with abandon.

Instead, she ignores him. And then they have this conversation:

He swallowed and cleared his throat. “This isn’t what I expected when you said you’d go to war with me.”

“Let me guess.” She fingered her glove carefully, and he noticed that she was worrying at a tiny hole in the tip. “You thought I would simper if you smiled at me. You supposed that when I said I would prove what you were doing to everyone, that I planned to engage in a bumbling, graceless investigation into your surface activities.”

“I–no, of course not.” But Robert felt his cheeks heat. Because that was precisely what he had thought.

She bit her lip, the picture of shyness. But her words were the opposite of shy. “Now,” she whispered, “you’re surprised to find that I overmatch you.”

Reading it again gives me tingles. She’s quiet, composed and confident. And she does outmatch him, and it surprises him. It worked for me as a kind of romance-trope satire because what Robert – and the reader – expect of her contrasts powerfully with what she really is. It’s creating character on the deepest level. However, it is still satire, in a sense. Robert doesn’t have any reason to expect silly sleuthing from her. He doesn’t think, “That’s how women are,” or even, “That’s how they are in silly romantic novels.” The expectation comes entirely from the genre itself, so it’s playing against the reader’s own expectations in a meta fashion.

Milan tackled quite a few romance tropes in The Duchess War. Some of them worked less well for me – they were less character-driven and more satirical, and so asked me to be conscious of myself as the reader and pulled me out of the story. This conversation between Minnie and Robert’s mother in particular (**CONTAINS SPOILERS**):

“Second,” she said, “you might consider not consummating the marriage.”

“What? Why? So it can be annulled?”

The duchess rolled her eyes. “That is a horrid myth. You cannot annul a marriage for simple lack of consummation. Trust me; I have consulted every lawyer in London as to the ways in which one might end a marriage. I know the law to an inch. … “

Perhaps women did hold the misconception back then that an unconsummated marriage could be annulled, and Minnie’s reaction is accurate. But it’s been one of the most pervasive, old-school misconceptions of historical romance, and I can’t help but feel that this exchange is a tongue-in-cheek jab at that, more than at any notions Minnie had or didn’t have.

The sex scene also challenged common romance tropes, though in this case it was absolutely wonderful, and served their characters before it served anything else. But it did make me think about social reading, and how it affects what and how we read.

There was a rash of Wish List posts recently, asking for more of certain romance trends. Unsurprisingly, there was a lot of sex stuff in the comments: mostly requests for more bad sex and more virgin hero sex.

I’m not saying Milan is responding directly to what readers are asking for, it’s not as simple as that. For one thing, she would have started writing this book ages ago. For another, she’s an author who writes consistently ahead of the curve. Also, she’s as engaged with the genre as any reader and would be as frustrated with certain tropes.

But her innovation isn’t read in a black hole. It immediately becomes part of the conversation.

I enjoyed the book a lot, but to me it felt one draft away from ready; some scenes felt as though they’d been changed from one POV to another and not entirely cleaned up, and there was one conversational exchange that should clearly have happened after, not before, an event. I particularly would have wished for Robert to depend on Minnie and her superior tactics for his end-game. She may not have been an unfeminist feisty heroine, but she was still not allowed to act in the crucial moment.

Maybe it’s because it felt unfinished that I could see more clearly than normal where Milan’s taking up the romance conversation, and what her book is doing to generate more of that conversation. The critical conversations around romance online is one of my favourite parts of the genre. There is so much intelligent, fascinating, engaged discussion going on, and I suspect we will see it affect what is written and published more in the next few years, just as what’s published feeds back into the discussion.

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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.

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another not so so-so sunday

How cool was this week?

Jodi introduced us to the early (female) novelists; Jo talked about writing personal experience into historical fiction – as well as Just Making Stuff Up; Liz described the process of reading and reading for pleasure; I asked why sex always hurts the first time in romance; and Cat gave a master-class in creating and sustaining tension.

Also the accidental housewife was referred to as both a salon and an orgy on twitter. Success!

Next week we have three future super-stars stepping up to the plate, and a post by Cecilia Grant (fangirl moment!).

Interesting things around the internet this week are all on Radish Review’s Linkspam. Is that internet-cannibalism, if my only link is a link to another links page? This is how information works! Information is a cannibal!

Although I will pull one out as a definite highlight:

This post in which Kristin Cashore bares her book-writing process to the world. She writes by hand, so you can see every painful step, as well as the helpful little notes she writes herself, like, Don’t freak out and Terrible, horrible, no good, very bad. It’s terrifying but also inspiring. I was especially glad I’d seen it today when I realised I have to rewrite my whole teen romance.

And now to prizes! Also, fun things have arrived in the mail. Let me show you:

UPDATE: Isobel requested that I redraw in favour of a reader, and I picked Willaful’s name out of the hat. Congratulations Willaful! An accidental housewife e-reader cover will be winging its way to you in the new year.

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