be bold, be uncompromising

I’ve just finished the second book in Dunnett’s House of Niccolo series, which means – and I should be getting used to this by now – my heart is broken. Actually, the sensation’s a little bit more like having someone slam the heel of their hand into your sternum hard enough to shatter it.

This quality of Dunnett that is heartbreak but feels less of the heart and more like shock comes from the fact that she’s 100% uncompromising. She’s such a hardass she doesn’t even give the pain anywhere to land.

Last weekend the Melbourne Romance Writers Guild was lucky enough to have Anne Gracie give us a workshop on how to get your book noticed in the slush pile. She talked about really books. You know, really funny, really dark, really passionate. It’s the only way to describe what makes an editor read a well-written manuscript with a plot and competent characterisation and go, “Meh.” Probably wasn’t really anything.

This is something Cat and I talk about a lot. Going fully into an idea and pushing it to its furthest, deepest end. Not being scared of the places your id wants to go. Actually, we’ve refined that one to the point where if one of us is blushing and reluctant and freaked out in response to an idea, we know we have to go there.

As Anne Gracie put it: Don’t flinch away. Be bold.

Then there’s Dunnett.

We’re told to put our characters in a tree then throw rocks at them, but while Dunnett’s characters are busy fending off the rocks she’s razing the land underneath them, so that they have no home to come back to when they find their way down.

She simply does not flinch away. And she pulls it off by having these uncompromising moments happen within a gripping, breathless, joyful, gambolling narrative. It’s not all bleak doom. But when those moments come – she gives no quarter.

I can’t give any specific examples, because they’d all be massive spoilers, but try on something like this:

Think of the one person who gives meaning to why your character does what they do. Who is the sun in your character’s universe? Now kill that person. Now take away every outlet for grief your character might have. Now surround them with people who will take them apart if they are vulnerable for a second. Now make your character clearly, deeply aware of the impact of this death. Now make every one of their best qualities useless in the face of it.

The woman has nerves of steel. There’s no way I can do, yet, what she does.

Comments 21 Responses

    1. anna cowan Post author

      Heh- she’s certainly not for the fainthearted! I find ambiguous or tragic books almost impossible to read, because the emotions won’t resolve inside me and just keep on going and going. Dunnett’s books DO resolve, though – and with a satisfying ending. The heartbreak is part of the journey.

      The exact thing I described doesn’t happen, but worse things do. However, the amazing moments are also more gasp-out-loud-and-cheer than anyone else’s, so it goes both ways.

    1. anna cowan Post author

      Do you mean aspiring to write like her? Absolutely. My style is different – I like to wallow in emotion, whereas her emotion happens all between the lines (and is no less powerful for that – just less comfortable) – so I don’t think being so uncompromising necessarily fits my style. But if I can acquire it as a tool in my kit, absolutely. It physically takes my breath away when I read it, and those are the kinds of reactions I want to get from readers. Also, I’m fascinated by it 🙂

  1. princessfiona01

    She certainly sounds like a writer we can all learn from. I was referring in particular to your description of yourself as an aspiring romance novelist. Being published and all that suggests not just aspiring. 🙂

    1. anna cowan Post author

      oh- oops! 😀 Right, I hadn’t even thought about that! Feels a bit confronting to change it, but as per this post, feeling confronted is a pretty good sign it should be done.

    1. anna cowan Post author

      She’s probably not for everyone, but I do find her writing to be of a level I’ve not encountered anywhere else. It’s not a style that would suit every genre or every book – it’s its own particular thing. Her plotting is so meticulous that any descriptive detail or minor incident could become integral to events. My CP came up with this term The Spiral. Unlike other writers, her separate plot threads don’t just converge, you suddenly find yourself in the middle of a spiral of story when they all come together. It’s totally masterful! (You can see I’m a complete fangirl, right? :-D)

        1. anna cowan Post author

          oooh, goody! Start with her Lymond series, which she wrote first. (Chronologically it actually comes after Niccolo, but they’re a couple of generations apart and the only connection is that she wanted to explain the “genetic lottery” that could give rise to Lymond.)

          Lymond himself is the more captivating character I think, though her writing is sometimes less masterful (you can SEE her being clever, whereas in Niccolo it’s invisible). The first book is Game of Kings.

          I had to persevere past the first 30 pages, because you really have to learn how to read her. Takes a lot of brain! But it’s so, so worth it.

          1. Cynthia R

            I say don’t quit until after the first 100 pages, then you won’t be able to.

            Yes, takes a lot of brain, but let’s not forget the heart.

    1. anna cowan Post author

      The bad part is that because Lymond’s a six-book series, you have to wait six books for the happy ending. The good part is that the sixth book is dedicated entirely to the happy ending! (Okay, so a lot of it is dark as well…but in a good, romancy sort of way.)

      Plus, she’s just *really* everything!

  2. mo

    Okay, that’s it, I am going to start on the Lymond series. I have heard so many good things about it and I do love dark books. But to be perfectly honest, the six-book thing is kind of daunting. I read Outlander (loved it) and didn’t get further because the size of the books. GRR Martin is the same. I have all the books in the GOT series and haven’t started yet.

    Now I’m off to the trove website.

    1. anna cowan Post author

      That sounds like something I’d definitely be interested in checking out! Will have to wait till I’ve finished Niccolo so’s to avoid spoilers – but can you post me some links? Thanks!

    1. anna cowan Post author

      I glimpsed the title of that post on your blog and made myself navigate away immediately, LOL. It feels quite masochistic really – avoiding spoilers so that my heart can be broken even more completely. There really is no softness in her at all! It’s mesmerising and tough.

  3. Prue Batten

    Dunnett is the most perfect author I’ve read. Uncompromising, cruel, afraid of nothing. She is my desert island author and if I never had another book to read on my shelves but The House of Niccolo and The Lymond Saga, then I would be happy.
    If I take anything from her style, it is that lack of fear that I would like to emulate. As you say, the way she builds her characters into giants and then strips them stark naked so that one almost weeps for their frailties. It’s the stuff of magic – seriously.
    The Niccolos are my favourite series although Lymond has the most excruciatingly emotional chess game I have ever read in my life. Wonderful post!

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