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13 November 2009

Love Stories: An Anniversary Post


My original intent in this post was to write about the thrilling week I've just spent discovering what for me might be the best book ever on writing and being a writer: About Writing: Seven Essays,Four Letters, and Five Interviews, by the noted science fiction and literary writer, critic, and teacher, Samuel R. Delany.

But it seems I'm going to be taking a leisurely, personal, even sentimental route to get to it. Because as a romance writer who's recently celebrated my fortieth wedding anniversary, I figure I'm entitled to say it by way of a little love story.

And as a romance writer who's also a literary theory groupie, I'm gonna begin that story with some thoughts about the romance genre, my best understanding of which comes from my mother, a fiercely energetic reader of mostly midlist literary fiction and mysteries.

A stalwart fan of my writing, Mom wasn't thrilled when I was about to be published in romance. (While as for my erotic, Molly Weatherfield books -- take it from me, there are certain things most of us will not want to share with close family members.) But in a brilliant flash of female and readerly intuition, she nonetheless gave me the most helpful overview of the field I was entering that I'd ever heard (and have yet to hear better, after years of podium speeches at rubber chicken romance writer luncheons).

"Well," she said, "I can understand the appeal of it. Because, after all, the most important story in my life has to have been the love story of how I met and married your dad."

Most important story in her life. What does it mean to have a story in your life? We might have many, but my guess is that for lots of us the love story might be the most important -- or at least the one most easily understood and valued as a story.

Because courtship (at least when it's successful) always seems to fall into narrative form, with irony, complications, surprises, artful turns, missed connections, and near total disasters before it all gets worked out (or before it becomes the work of having a life together).

I've heard romance writers say our genre is so popular because life is so difficult without stories. And while this might be true, to me it comes awfully close to saying that many women's lives are so awful that they need romance to compensate.

I'd put it differently. I think that part of being a woman at this time in human history is having that romance story at your core even if you don't read the romance novels. And even if (even better perhaps, if) you have a richness of other resources and activities in your life.

Because so much of adult life isn't -- nor should be -- story. Romance fiction, I think, is written in counterpoint to the tough, necessary, workaday, not-so-awful but awfully routine, redundant, and non-narrative parts of life. To remind us of how it feels to be at the center, to be heroine of an honest-to-God thrilling story. Thereby bringing us closer to the story we each carry around at our center.

The question is, I suppose, how you like your stories. Me being a nerdy sort, I like them slightly off center (and thanks again, Dear Author bloggers, for noticing).

Some of my favorite stories -- and favorite love stories -- are the edgy, marginal ones, hidden in plain sight like the lady's intriguing missive in Poe's "The Purloined Letter." It's one of the ways that the romance and mystery genres share... well, a genealogy, if you like. And it's why one of my favorite romances in fiction -- between Jane Fairfax and Frank Churchill in Jane Austen's Emma -- is one that's hidden in plain sight among the workings of the main protagonists' romance plot (and why Emma reads rather like an ancestor of a country house detective novel).

Bringing me at last to how I found what I think is the best how-to-write book ever.

Or at least to the romantically hidden-in-plain-sight way it was recommended to me, some years ago, by my husband Michael, at a reading at the bookstore he and I were part-owners of for many years.

The reader was -- to get back to the original subject of this post -- Samuel Delany, the brilliant and (as Michael aptly put it in his introduction), "the nicest titan of contemporary letters you will ever meet." It was certainly the nicest bookstore event in my memory -- a long, generous, intimate-feeling reading, q&a, and discussion -- and the hundred or so fans and friends who'd gathered seemed to think so too.

But the most important part of the evening for me, though I didn't know it at the time, was another part of Michael's introduction, where he said that if anyone needed one short piece of writing instruction, one couldn't do better than the essay "Of Doubts and Dreams," reprinted as an afterward to the book we'd come together to celebrate, Aye, and Gomorrah, a collection of Delany's short fiction.

I was very busy at the time -- working fulltime at my then day job as a computer programmer after waking up at 4 to make my deadline for rewrites on my first contracted romance novels. And so I didn't even consider checking out the essay until sometime after I submitted the rewritten version to my publisher, when I picked up the copy of Aye, and Gomorrah that was still floating around our bookshelves. (I love the physicality of books, how sometimes they to fall into your hands when you need them most. Someday I suppose I'll get an e-reader. Someday.)

Anyway, I opened to "Of Doubts and Dreams," read it through with profit and delight and... a dawning suspicion.

"You were addressing that comment to me, weren't you?" I asked Michael. "About what a terrific resource that Delany essay is?"

He nodded. "You were so busy," he said. "I didn't want to pressure you. But I knew you'd be able to use it."

Perhaps it's not one of those scenes in a Regency where the host suddenly raises his glass of champagne to declare his love, transforming a shy mouse of a girl into the toast of Mayfair with all the ton in attendance and applauding.

But it worked for me and still does. A little love story, hidden in plain view amid the everyday crush of working life.

While as for the "Of Doubts and Dreams" itself, more recently collected in the (for me) indispensible About Writing, let me, in the time and space I have left, introduce you to two of its points.

The first ought to be familiar to writers of historical fiction, though it's not surprising to hear it from a science fiction writer. Delany says he "filched" it from another science fiction writer, Theodore Sturgeon (and I'm not sure which of the words are Sturgeon's and which are Delany's). But for me it's news that stays news and maybe it'll help someone else out there as well:

To write an immediate and vivid scene... visualize everything about it as thoroughly as you can, from the dime-sized price sticker still on the brass switch plate, to the thumbprint on the clear pane in the unpainted wooden frame, to the trowel marks sweeping the ceiling's white, white plaster, and all in between. Then, do not describe it. Rather, mention only those aspects that impinge on your character's consciousness.... The scene the reader envisions... will not be the same as yours -- but it will be as vivid, detailed, coherent, and important for the reader as yours was for you.

Modestly, Delany sums this up as "don't overwrite." But perhaps from the bit I quoted you can imagine much he subsumes under each of the simple points that constitute this essay: don't overwrite, avoid thinness, and don't indulge cliche.

And perhaps you can see what an important thing his points add up to. Which is that there's a moment of writerly doubt that's the right moment of doubt, when you sense clutter or thinness or cliche. That writing happens at that moment when you make a choice to work to correct the clutter or thinness or cliche -- because it's those things that steer you away from the story you're really telling.

Which would be a terrible thing to do to the story at the center of a reader's life.

Your turn. Writers, tell me about what books or what advice has helped in your writing. (I notice it's National Novel Writing Month, where we're advised to put aside our doubts and hesitations -- does that approach work for any of you?)

And anybody who wants to share the shape of a love story -- please feel free.

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19 Comments:

Blogger Leslie Carroll said...

As always, Pam, you give a girl a lot to chew on with her morning coffee; not only that, it's substantial, yet calorie-free!

I love the quote you shared from Delany's book. What he's suggesting authors do is write "indirect narrative" and when an author does it well, it's golden. Michael Faber in "The Crimson Petal and the White" remains my touchstone for incandescently brilliant indirect narrative. It's also a great, not to mention elegant (in terms of writer's craft), way to layer historical detail with a fine, subtle brush.

From a purely technical craft aspect I've noticed two types of historical fiction novels: those that seem as though the author is in a museum gallery staring at a diorama of her book's
s world and describing everything she sees, too often with somewhat clunky wordsmithing and an overabundance of adjectives. The other technique puts the reader inside that diorama and lets her discover the details of the world along with the author and her characters. The latter has always felt infinitely more organic (and elegant!) to me, and I've always strived to achieve that myself.

Pam, I agree that we all have a love story inside us: our own -- of how we met someone, wooed (or was wooed by), won (or lost) (or lost and won again). It gives me an idea: if I was exver tapped to teach a creative writing class, that's probably the first assignment I'd give. Because apart from our survival instinct, our most basic need is to love and be loved -- or so one of my advanced acting teachers at Cornell told his class when we were dissecting characters.

5:27 AM  
Blogger Pam Rosenthal said...

Thanks, Leslie, for the kind words. And what a good idea for a creative writing exercise. I was also taken with your professor's comments about loving and being loved (it always seems to me that the alternating h&h narrative that most romance novels do these days is exactly directed in creating the development of that double dynamic).

While as for The Crimson Petal and the White: I felt the same way for the first, say 250 pages. After which, I have to confess, I felt exhausted, and even a bit abused by it all. Other responses?

6:39 AM  
Blogger Kalen Hughes said...

You got further than I did, Pam. I gave up on The Crimson Petal and the White before I reached page 50. I somehow utterly missed the incandescently brilliant indirect narrative and was overwhelmed by the series of random POV drifts and the deluge of detail. My main memory of that book was a deep feeling of oppression, followed by a mild aftertaste of failure (mine, since I wasn’t able to grasp why so many people I know were raving about that book; same response I had to Outlander).

7:23 AM  
Blogger Kalen Hughes said...

BTW, Pam. I had dinner with my new agent last night and she was RAVING about you. *grin* We were talking about books and authors that we love and you were the first author she mentioned!

9:30 AM  
Blogger Tracy Grant said...

What a wonderful, thought provoking post, Pam! Like Leslie, I've always striven to write the sort of historical fiction which makes the reader feel they are inside the word of the book and to bring the historical world alive as the characters interact with it.

I too love indirect narrative. Has anyone read The Quincunx? A sprawling Dickensian novel set in the Regency with fabulous historical detail and a page turning mystery about the hero's origins. The answer to the mystery of the hero's birth is revealed, indirectly, in the last sentence of the book, which changes everything that has gone before. Brilliant.

On a different note, happy anniversary to you and Michael! I was at a party recently where it was the couple's 30th anniversary. The husband sang "Some Enchanted Evening" to the wife. He'd sung it to her 30 years ago on one of their first dates.

10:05 AM  
Blogger Diane Whiteside said...

Happy anniversary, Pam!

My mother is writing her autobiography now. Actually, she's taking an autobiography-writing class so she can jot down the story of how a small town girl fell in love at first sight with a glamorous Air Force vet. (You should hear her talk about his blue eyes!) And how they worked in the theater, traveled all over the world, had three children - and much fun together.

As you say, there's a story inside all of us, even if we don't realize it.

2:05 PM  
Blogger Pam Rosenthal said...

Thanks for the anniversary wishes, folks.

Kalen -- I don't remember pov drifts in Petal, but I do think that the business of selectivity of detail does has something to do with choice of pov. (And thank your new agent for me: from her lips to the buying public's ears)

Tracy, I haven't read The Quincunx. But predictably, my mom has -- and liked it a lot.

2:26 PM  
Blogger Tracy Grant said...

Crimson Petal and the White opens in the pov of a minor character and then, as I recall, shifts several times as characters cross in the street, very cinematic, like a camera moving from one character to another.

Pam, I realize I didn't comment on this interesting question you raised. "I notice it's National Novel Writing Month, where we're advised to put aside our doubts and hesitations -- does that approach work for any of you?"

Actually it does. I'm much more productive now that I've learned to put **** or xyz when I'm stuck on something and make myself move forward. I used to spend minutes or hours staring at the screen, usually because I was stuck on something silly like how to get a character through the door and across the room. I'm also much more productive now I write my scenes in layers. Usually the first pass is mostly dialogue with bits of description (not necessarily organized). And then I add in inner monologue and organize the descriptive detail on subsequent passes. And that's all as part of my first draft of the whole book (I usually do about 3 complete drafts before I turn a book in).

4:20 PM  
Blogger Pam Rosenthal said...

And sometimes it works for me too, Tracy -- sometimes I write out of fluent, fluid places when I say "okay, I'm just gonna get as much of it down as I can."

But sometimes I find whole other places if I say, "no, wait a minute, I'm not telling it right." Because I have to remember what it is.

3:32 PM  
Blogger Tracy Grant said...

I don't think it would work for me if I didn't go back and edit the scene after I got it down. That let's me fix the places where "I'm not telling it right." If I just kept going I might get too far off track.

4:08 PM  
Blogger Joansz said...

This is a very interesting an instructive post about the romance genre--a genre I tend to avoid. However, I have enjoyed the occasional romance novel, and now that you've pointed it out, they are typically those who are "off-center".

I tried NaNo a couple of years ago, and discovered that it's not for me. I can't shut off my internal editor and I'm nerdy about getting my facts straight. Although I didn't meet the 50K word goal, I did get the bones down for a story that is currently on my back burner.

8:40 AM  
Blogger Louisa Cornell said...

Great post, Pam, and I definitely need to snap up a copy of the book. What a succinct way to describe what a scene needs and more important what it doesn't.

Stephen King's On Writing has always served me well when I begin to believe I can't do this writing thing. He reminds me of a scary version of Yoda - don't think, just do.

I am a true believer in the romance and power of the written word.

In 1956 a young Airman from Pennsylvania was stationed in Germany with two brothers from Alabama. He saw a photo of a girl on one of the brothers' desks.

He said "Who's that beautiful girl?"

The brothers said " That's no girl. That's our sister."

He said "Can't be. You two knuckleheads could never have a sister that gorgeous."

It was the 50's and girls often wrote to soldiers overseas as pen pals. The Airman asked if he could write to the Bama boys' sister. They said sure, but that he shouldn't get his hopes up. Their sister was kind of picky when it came to men.

So he wrote. She wrote back. They wrote letters to each other - sometimes once a day - for a whole year. At the end of that year the Airman was shipped home. He got home to Pennsylvania on May 3rd. Told his family he couldn't stay to celebrate his birthday on May 4th. He told them he was going to Alabama to marry a girl he'd never met. He hadn't even proposed to her yet! He bought a fabulous engagement ring and wedding band in Germany. When he stopped in England he bought a set of silverware and had them engraved with what the girl's initials would be WHEN she married him. They met on May 4th. They had one date. One of her brothers was a minister. He married them on May 11th. They were married for 40 years before the Airman's romantic heart finally gave out.

In 40 years my brothers and I never heard them argue. I'm sure they did, but they never did it in front of us. What we did hear was lots of laughter and a lot of "I love you's."

No wonder I believe in the power of the written word. Those letters from the Airman to the Alabama belle are the whole reason I'm here.

9:42 AM  
Blogger Pam Rosenthal said...

Quite a story, Louisa. And definitely to the point of this post.

I like King's writing book a lot too -- both for the tips and the revelations about his own life. And I'm looking forward to reading his latest novel.

And Joan -- one of my minor missions (after avoiding clutter, thinness, and cliche) is to help make romance safe and friendly for us off-center types.

3:32 PM  
Blogger Louisa Cornell said...

Thanks, Pam and CONGRATULATIONS on your 40th Wedding Anniversary! I understand now where the passion and wonder comes from in your stories!

4:04 PM  
Blogger Leslie Carroll said...

1) Oy -- I didn't actually wish you a happy anniversary, Pam. So ... a belated mazel tov to you and Michael!

2) Louisa, your anecdote made me tear up. Not only is it a wonderful story in its own right, but it's similiar to how my husband and I met. He was overseas; I was in NYC. We had never met, but began corresponding, though e-mail doesn't quite have the romance of the handwritten letter. Within 3 weeks (maybe less -- and he still hadn't met me) he knew he wanted to marry me and even began talking about it in his letters. He returned to the U.S. for a few days about 6 weeks after our correspondence began and was even surer that I was the one, suggesting that I pick out an engagement ring and start looking for a wedding gown. Two months later, he was in NY for good, and the day after he returned he got down (on both knees) and proposed. We were married in the spring of 2007 and it's been laughter and "I love you's" ever since. I hope we have as many years together as your parents did, Louisa.

I saved all our letters, printing out his emails and mine. There are literally hundreds of them -- the story of our courtship.

5:29 AM  
Blogger Pam Rosenthal said...

Thanks for the anniversary wishes, Leslie. And for the wonderful love story!

6:37 AM  
Blogger Louisa Cornell said...

Leslie how wonderful for you! Treasure those e-mails and bind them up for your children. My mother won't let us read their letters until she is gone, but I am comforted to know they are there.

I wish you years and years of happiness!

4:33 PM  
Blogger Pam Rosenthal said...

my mother won't let us read their letters

Ah, Louisa, you're a more dutiful daugher than I -- or at least than I was when I was a teenager and found my parents' wartime letters -- which became the inspiration for the erotic letters in The Bookseller's Daughter.

I love including letters in a novel. I always thought I was just going back to the epistolary roots of the genre -- but then there's also the whiff of erotic intrigue in Poe's eponymous letter.

6:09 AM  
Blogger Pam Rosenthal said...

And I also find something subtly erotic in the notion that letters are fixed and therefore "evidence" while speech and action are fluid and constantly reinterpretable. Eroticism, to me, always blurs the lines between subject and object, person and thing. It gets close to notions, I think, of fetishism -- one the most important elements in erotic writing, at least for me -- and one that I've never been able to account for completely: I've learned what little I know about it by using it.

9:47 AM  

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