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.