The Role of Romance

When Ravna had worked for Vrinimi Org, she’d noticed customer interest in romance literature. It was probably the most idiosyncratic of all written art forms. No surprise there; when it was intelligible, romance lit gave more insight into an alien culture and psyche than anything this side of Transcendence.

– Vernor Vinge, The Children of the Sky

I had a cousin who was a published romance author. When she first wandered into the field – multiple pseudonyms and all – we teased her about it. My dad once expressed frustration, observing that somewhere behind all of the love-misunderstanding-hate-reconciliation stuff was a great spy story just dying to get out. He had a point; the stories were, in many ways, formulaic, and the most intriguing bits of action were often relegated to the background in favor of relationship angst.

I don’t remember how many books she published. I do remember, at one point, hearing they’d been translated into 54 languages. Formulaic or not – that’s a career to be proud of.

I don’t read all genres of romance. Mostly I stay with Regency, although occasionally I wander (usually with less satisfaction) into more modern settings. When I read Vinge’s passing remark, it occurred to me that the romances I read are saying something distinctly modern, despite the historical setting. There is a real wistfulness in the Regencies I read – the heroine is often dealing with a poor set of very limited options; but the hero, too, is hamstrung. Neither can really just let go and do what they want with their lives, although for different reasons. What they find in each other is not Mars/Venus Doris Day/Rock Hudson nonsense – but a kindred spirit, someone who intuitively understands, despite the superficial differences in circumstance.

This is a modern view of love, and I think it resonates particularly with modern women. (There’s a chicken-egg thing going on here. My cousin used to receive monthly newsletters telling her which types of stories were currently selling: strong heroines, dark heroes, kidnappings, etc. – the industry apparently spends a lot of time understanding its audience.) It’s not that nobody in Regency times ever felt understanding and equality in a marriage; but it wasn’t expected, and it wasn’t part of the cultural mythos around the institution.

These days many of us marry primarily for companionship. Marriage isn’t just about housekeeping and children anymore. Many people are looking for someone they can talk to – a best friend, really, and not just someone to cook or to shovel the driveway. They want True Love and Understanding. They want romance, unending, for the rest of their lives. They want a soul mate.

This is the kind of romance the Regencies I read are about.

(As an aside: I’ve been married for almost 10 years, and I would say I chose well; but what strikes me, even now, is how much the business side of the relationship is critical to happiness. My husband is my best friend, and he is very romantic; but one of the reasons we work so well together is that we agree on issues like money and future planning. Such issues are not romantic, and don’t often appear in romance novels – in Regencies, by the end at least, money is no object – but I don’t think any two people remain soul mates for long if they argue a lot over the day-to-day management of the home.)

I don’t write romance, at least not purely. My stuff tends to fall roughly into the category of “romantic suspense.” In truth, though, I only reject the “romance” label because I sometimes violate the standard tenet of most romance genres: The central couple ends up together. (Ignore Wuthering Heights – It may have officially been the first Gothic romance, but I didn’t find it the slightest bit romantic.) The other standard – that the central couple are both decent people, with similar ethics – I tend to follow. (One issue I’ve realized is that I often don’t have enough villains in my stories. I’m working on that, but my main people are always, always, always good.)

But, yeah, there is always a love story in there, even when I’m writing a murder mystery (which is what I’m doing for NaNoWriMo). And I tend to write love stories that reflect not our society as it is, but as I wish it were. That is the beauty of fiction: we can make the world just what we want it to be.

Vinge’s remark highlights the way in which contemporary fiction reflects both accepted social norms, and the ways in which social norms are evolving. Romance fiction focuses on the most fundamental of social norms: how we form relationships, and how we sustain them. Regardless of the setting of the story, the relationships reflect the society experienced by the author – the Regency I read is not about 18th British aristocracy; it’s about 21st century people (often very American, in specific ways) with 18th century trappings. All of these books are about today.

I’ve tried writing straight romance. I can’t do it. It’s given me tremendous respect for people like Nora Roberts. People tend to think romance is easy to write, in part because of the standard tenets I mentioned earlier. If there’s a guaranteed happily-ever-after at the end, how hard can it be to string together a plot behind it?

The answer: Pretty damn hard. Keeping the stories interesting, unusual, and eventful when you’ve already got a big chunk of your conclusion preordained is not easy.¬†And don’t get me started on writing love scenes. I’ve become better at this – but it’s really, really difficult saying enough without getting so wordy you break the mood.

People make a career of this. My cousin did. She wrote a cookbook, and a trio of mysteries, and romance after romance after romance. She was successful because she worked incredibly hard with the ability she had. I was too young at the time to appreciate what she was doing – I would buy her books when I saw them, but I was always embarrassed – but now, as I look at my own work, perpetually unfinished, I can’t help but wish I had felt differently.

Although I suspect, had she given me advice, it would have been something along the lines of: Finish. Any fool can write; it’s finishing that makes a book.

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The Twitter Deal

or, as I like to think of it: Voluntary Public Embarrassment.

Starting Wednesday, November 2, I am going to tweet daily one sentence from the night before’s NaNoWriMo work. I’ll tag the tweet #NaNoWriMo #SoD (sentence of the day), which will actually restrict me to 124 characters. (I am thinking in some cases this will be a blessing.)

Rules I’ll use for my choices:

  • No smut
  • No profanity worse than PG-level

I’ll preserve typos, as long as it doesn’t render the sentence completely unintelligible. Since I’m NaNo-ing on my iPad, I imagine typos will be plentiful.

I’ll keep this up through December 1, unless I am too exhausted from frantically pushing my word count past 49,999 the night before.

My Twitter ID is @liz_monster, but the feed is followed here as well.

Share and Enjoy!

On Editing

(Warning: I’m sick, therefore this will be long-winded.)

I have been reading a really good technical book.

Those of you who read technical books know what a rarity this is. So many technical books are impenetrable, for one reason or another: they explain too little, they explain too much, they are poorly (or completely un-) indexed. Sometimes they are written with so much jargon you need a translator just to get through the first paragraph.

The book I’m reading¬†is a real pleasure. It’s well-organized and well-indexed, meaning I can easily skip over the things I know without losing the deeper concepts in the book. The examples given are clear and clearly explained. Concepts are presented in a logical order, allowing me to absorb and build on what I’m learning, without feeling like I’m grasping for little twigs while being tossed on an incomprehensible ocean. In short: It’s a good book.

But.

In more places than I can count, there are basic editing errors. They’re not glaring, or overly distracting – they are things like misplaced commas, or missing prepositions – but I tend to be a bit of a pedant on this stuff. And as expensive as technical books are (I have both a print and an electronic version of this one) I don’t know that it’s unrealistic to expect that someone, somewhere in the publishing food chain should have caught these errors before the thing went to press.

My plan, should I actually ever finish a novel, is to self-publish. This is not due to any particular animosity toward the publishing field. I’m aware that the marketing engines available to the larger publishing houses are unparalleled, and if you are looking to publish a best-seller – or, alternatively, something with a very specific niche – it makes sense to become part of the machine. But I’m not writing to become rich and famous; I’m writing because I must, and because sometimes I like my stories and I want to share them.

Also, being a geek, I’ve discovered it’s pretty easy to format your own ebook. I’ve got a template in InDesign all set up; I can take a Pages document from my iPad and turn it into an ePub file in about three minutes. I am not sure I can express how cool it is to see my words – even my lousy, rough-draft, unedited words – looking like a For-Real Book on my iPad.

So: Given that I don’t expect a huge audience under the best of circumstances, and I’m certainly not in this to make any money, self-publishing electronically seems the obvious choice.

But truth be told? I will need a professional editor.

I’ve read a lot of self-published fiction (some free, much of it purchased – there is actually quite a lot available from both Amazon and iBooks, and it’s generally reasonably priced). Although I am sure there are exceptions, I have yet to run across a single self-published book that wasn’t in need of a good, brutal editor. There is little I find more frustrating than reading a book that is one or two revisions away from being brilliant. When I’m reading a well-written, well-edited book (I’m currently in the middle of this one, which is flat-out gorgeous, and I want to be him when I grow up), I forget that I’m reading at all. I forget the words were created by (for example) a little balding guy at a keyboard. I am immersed in the universe of the story.

In an almost-perfect book, I’ll start falling into the story…and then I’ll get yanked out by a bit of sloppy prose, or a piece of dialogue that doesn’t fit, or an awkward sentence. Or, yes, flat-out incorrect grammar.

Mainstream published works aren’t free of these problems, of course. I see it quite often, and although I have no hard numbers, it seems to occur more in books that have been delayed. My guess is that somewhere, behind the scenes, somebody was rushing, and that last editing pass was either abbreviated or completely eliminated.

But my point is this: in many self-published works, the editing pass does not happen at all.

I should qualify that. I suspect most self-published authors use family and friends, at the very least, as editors. For example, if I asked my husband, I’m sure he’d happily take a crack at editing my book. And then he’d have to deal with me for three days while I sobbed into my pillow. (On second thought, I take that back. I’m certain he’d smile, and say “What, have I become stupid? I’m not going near that thing.”) Writing is an awfully emotional thing for many of us, and criticism can seem like someone’s picking on our favorite child. Family and friends are generally kind, ineffective editors – and even if they are not, they are unlikely to be completely truthful.

It’s become clear to me, though, that brutal, honest editing is part of what separates someone’s summer writing project (however interesting) from the New York Times bestseller list. And before I subject my favorite child to the cold, outside world – yes, I am going to subject her to a brutal, honest editor. I may never hit the bestseller list, but I want to be proud of what I publish, even years from now when I (theoretically) will have acquired some objectivity.

This is not to say that I won’t use my family and friends for a little motivation and ego-boosting. But I want to make clear to them – and to myself – what I expect to get from their participation. I don’t want to put them in the position of having to pick on my child. I don’t want lies; but if they can point out what’s good, it’ll be nice to have that to fall back on when I hand it off to a stranger who I will be paying to tell me what’s bad.

I truly believe a good editor will help me publish a better book. And if I have to cry into my pillow for three days, my paid stranger never, ever has to know.

(I would like to say that all editing errors in this post were deliberately inserted for ironic effect, but I would be lying.)

Less Is More

Sometimes I think Twitter is going to ruin my writing. Everything comes out now in 140 characters or less. I tweet more than I write on Facebook – although sometimes I think that’s because the people who’ve friended me on Facebook expect real, profound thoughts when I post there – or at least some bit of real personal news they can pretend is interesting to them.

Twitter can be garbage. It can be brilliant, but it can also be inane and pointless. It’s all of the Internet – all of humanity – in nice, non-time-consuming chunks.

So I’m writing a book in November, just like I did last year, and it occurred to me that, to keep myself honest, I should commit to publishing some of it. What better venue for a hastily-penned first draft than Twitter?

Every day, I plan to tweet either the best or the worst sentence from my writing of the day before. I’m not going to say which it is, which I figure will protect my ego (if I get any feedback). No smut, and no cussing (well, not much, anyway), and nothing over 140 characters (with tags).

It feels different this year. This year, I am watching #nanowrimo on Twitter, and noticing all the people who have entire books outlined already. I am so much more intimidated than I was last year. Last year, all I had to know was that I could run off at the keyboard.

Surprise! I can. And all those words don’t make a book.

This year, I know what I’m getting into. I also have something to write that I care more about. In a way, that will be easier. In a way…it matters to me much more. I know what I’m doing now – or at least I know what I’m trying. I want to do it properly. I want to write something I can work with and revise and finish. For-real finish, not just NaNoWriMo-first-draft finish.

I think what I really need to remember to do is have fun.