Friday, July 17, 2009

Not At Nationals - Common Romance Writing Mistakes Pt 5.

Missed Part Four of this Mini-Workshop? You can find it here.

  • Lecturing The Reader:

This goes back to the subject of not being a smart aleck. Say you’re well into your story and all of a sudden you bring up something like a medical procedure or stock market shares or a wonderful meal one of your characters is preparing. You’ll have done your research if you’re not an expert on the subject already. You may have pages and pages of notes and have spent hours Googling the subject to make sure you get it right. So when the moment comes in your story, you feel the need to explain it all to the reader. In a romance novel this brings us back to the subject of READER EXPECTATION. If they can learn something they didn’t know or are tempted to look up a place on the internet or they would love to know how to cook that spectacular meal - then that's great, absolutely it is - it’s added an extra dimension to the story. Have a look at many of the romance authors websites these days and you’ll find behind the scenes sections for their books covering the area the story is set in or a medical subject or where even the recipes from the book are all featured. Why are they there? They’re there so readers can find the extra information if they want to. But they’re also there because there wasn’t room for them in the book. The book the reader came to for the ROMANCE.

The 38 Most Common Fiction Writing Mistakes says there are two reasons why you should never lecture your reader; “First, lectures by the author violate every principle of viewpoint, as just discussed in the two preceding chapters: second, such lectures completely stop the forward movement of the story, and so distract the reader from the plot, where he should be focussed.”

Just as you’re not there to show the reader how incredibly clever you are, neither are you there to educate her or force your opinion on her. She is reading a romance novel to be entertained, the way all people do when they read fiction. It’s ESCAPISM. And part of the escapism in a romance novel is the FANTASY. By providing a long explanation or ‘lecture’ on a subject you’ve pulled the reader out of the fantasy world they entered the minute they opened the cover of a romance novel. You’ve distracted her from the story. If you have a particular opinion of what love should be or what’s right or wrong in a relationship or a particular standard of morals when it comes to things like sex, then certainly you’re entitled to them. But you can’t lecture the reader on them. What you can do is have your characters share those opinions. In their thoughts, reactions and dialogue, you can put that opinion across and then it’s not a lecture. It’s simply part of the things that make up your characters personalities. But even then there has to be a reason why they think that way. It has to make sense. It can’t be randomly thrown in to make a point.

The book says; “As yourself such questions as:

• What can happen in the story to make my viewpoint character remember this?

• What can happen to make my viewpoint character seek out and get this information in the story ‘now’?

• What other character might come in to tell this information to my viewpoint character – and why?

• What other source can my viewpoint character come upon to bring out this desire information? (A newspaper story, for example, or TV news bulletin).”

Task Eleven: Have a look in that romance novel from the line/category you’re aiming for and see how the author dealt with this kind of thing. Did they resort to a narrative to get the information on a particular subject across or did they convey it through a character? Did they devote a lot of time to a particular subject or sprinkle it into the text the same way they would with surroundings or the five senses or background information? How did they handle a difficult subject? Did they devote a lot of time to debating it or lecturing the reader or did the characters debate it between themselves? Take the list of points the book made (above) and ask the same questions of your finished manuscript at the editing stage. Then look at the information you have in your story on a particular given subject. Does it add to the story? If it doesn’t then why is it there? If it does then does it add to the emotional journey in some way? Could it be cut back – i.e.: edited – and treated as icing rather than a key ingredient?

  • Characters Lecturing The Reader:

In the same way it’s not okay to dump information on your reader as an author, it’s not okay for your characters to do it either. A writer who understands the former, may feel that the latter is the way to do it, and let’s face facts – that's pretty much what I’ve just said too, isn't it? Well... almost...

The 38 Most Common Fiction Writing Mistakes says; “Usually dialogue is not a good vehicle for working in research information. Characters tend to make dumb speeches for the author’s convenience rather than talking like real people do. While dialogue does convey useful information in a story – and a lot of it – dialogues primary function is not to give the author a thinly disguised way of dumping his lecture notes.”

It then goes on to give an exaggerated example of what it means by that; “Charlie walked up and said, “Why, hi there, Molly McBride, who was born in Albany in 1972, of poor but hardworking parents, your father was a store clerk! How nice you look today, wearing that red blouse that goes so nicely with your shoulder-length blond hair! My goodness, as I recall, you must still be married to Brad, the world champion tennis player, whose last tournament appearance saw him reach the semi-finals at Flushing Meadow, where-“

I thought this was hilarious. But take a look at it and think how much of that paragraph of dialogue could have been sprinkled throughout the story. Read it out loud. Does it sound like normal conversation? Because that's what dialogue is; conversation. And if you read it aloud it should sound that way.

Task Twelve: Re-write the above passage in a way that conveys the same information in a more readable way using dialogue, narrative and inner POV with the usual sprinkling of movement and description of the characters surroundings. (If you’re feeling brave, you can post your re-write in the comments here so we can all see how you handled it…)

As the book says; A large percentage of the information you think must get into your story will find its way into the characters lives and actions without your much worrying about it if it is truly relevant.”

The part I’ve bolded is the bottom line. This is where you’ll be harsh in the editing process, and one of the many reasons I don’t think people should try and self-edit during the creative process. Only when the story is told can you look at it with the critical eye of an educated writer. But there’s more about the reasons for that later. The harsh truth is that something in the region of 75 to 80% of the research you do for a romance novel prior to starting the story will never make it on to the page. Why bother you may ask. We bother because the more we know about the world we’re entering before we begin the creative process, the more convincing a picture we can paint. We have to know the characters as if they are real people and that includes knowing as much about what they do for a living as we would a best-friends job – we might not know every little detail well enough to be able to do that job but we’ll know the day to day routine of it, how much training was involved, what their working environment is like, how many people they might see and interact with during the day. But it will be sprinkled throughout the story, not given as a long lecture by the author or the characters.

  • Characters Who Become 'Wind-Bags':

This is different from lecturing to get information into the story. This is exactly what it says it is – it’s people who talk and talk and talk some more - dominating the conversation. Just as it’s a common mistake to have too much back-story or descriptive passages or technical information interrupting the flow of the story, it’s bad to have someone who goes on and on and on and on in long, long, long passages of dialogue. Imagine spending time with this person, barely able to get a word in edgeways while they talk and talk and talk some more. Are you nodding off yet? Yup, and guess what? So is your reader. Because like all those other evils, too much dialogue with little or no inner POV, movement, use of the five senses and the vital action and reaction we need, stalls the story.

On this subject The 38 Most Common Fiction Writing Mistakes says; “You can’t afford to portray wind-bag characters all the time, because if you do, your characters will be boring, your dialogue will look more like rampant soliloquies than real people talk, and your story will go right down the tubes.”

From a romance novel point of view there is the simple matter of word-count. The characters can’t be long winded. Not when you have so much story to tell. Remember in a line/category that has graphic love scenes, you’re working with an even more restricted word count. And some of the lines in Harlequin that had 60k have dropped to the 50k mark in the last year to enable the books to have greater chances of being picked up in foreign markets. Modern Heat for instance, started out at 60k. So now a Modern Heat has to fit inside the restricted word-count and still fit in at least a couple of graphic love scenes, so there’s no room for the superfluous. The book has a few suggestions for general fiction that you can look for in your finished romance manuscript at the editing stage. It says;

“You must not:

• Fill pages with endless, rambling talk.

• Try to substitute speeches for dialogue.

• Allow characters to beat every subject to death.

• Let one character totally ignore what the other is saying.

• Fill your story with talk where nobody wants anything.

• Be literary or classic.

• Produce pages of dull, over-long paragraphs of speechifying.”

So how do we avoid it? Well, as we’ve already pointed out several times up till now, we follow the action and reaction rule. Dialogue ( what the characters say to each other and reveal about themselves) is a direct reaction to what is happening in the action. Just the same as in real life, there is that to and fro. That’s what conversation is after all. Someone says something, you respond. Then they respond to what you said. Action and reaction. There is no side stage for one of the characters to step over and give the reader that long soliloquy a-la-Shakespeare. If they have something to ‘say’ that only the reader should hear then it’s done in inner POV. We limit the conversation. This one is fairly straight-forward, because the vast majority of conversation in a romance novel will be between the hero and heroine. By having both of them on the page at the same time we open up that to-and-fro of a conversation – the ACTION and REACTION. The book then talks about something that was new to me, but makes complete sense. I’ve been wracking my brain trying to come up with a romance writing term for it, and the closest I can get is that it falls into the territory of GOAL and MOTIVATION.

It talks about the viewpoint character having a conversational goal, saying; “A viewpoint with a goal – information to be sought, or an opinion to be sold – will tend to keep things moving in a straight line even when the other character is being obstreperous. The strongly goal-motivated talker will not allow pages to fill with rambling talk. He will stick to the point, or keep dragging the conversation back to it. And he won’t allow long speeches from anybody; he’ll keep insisting on a return to the issues at hand.”

In a romance novel, there may be an external goal, but the point of any dialogue is to get one of the characters to reveal something about themselves to the other. They are learning about each other as well as taking an emotional journey of their own. Think about the kind of conversations you have with someone when you start dating. The goal of your conversation is to get to know each other. Are you likely to tell your entire life story in one sitting? Are you likely to open up and share past heartbreak with someone you hardly know and are interested in romantically? So how do you find out these things? How do you get someone to open up to you? You ask questions (ACTION) and they choose how to respond (REACTION). Chances are they will then do the same in return. The to-and-fro of action and reaction with a conversational goal then carries the dialogue forwards. With that in mind, think about how the dialogue will sound. During the conversation one character may talk more than the other, especially if one of them is defensive or distrustful or wary or even nervous. But without a to-an-fro there will either be the equivalent of ‘dead air’ on a radio – what might be described as a tense silence. One of the characters will may be ‘lecturing’ – talking down to the other character. Or one of them may be dominating the conversation – in other words, being long-winded. Do any of these move the story forwards? If they don’t should they be there? In order to move the story forwards the dialogue in a romance tends to be succinct, with short sentences and the to-and-fro/action and reaction needed to move the story forwards.

Task Thirteen: Have a look at the romance novel from the line/category you’re aiming for. Look at how long each character talks for – the length of the sentences – how the dialogue is broken up by inner POV (thoughts and feelings), physical movement, or the five senses. Was there a goal in the conversation? Was the goal achieved? If the goal wasn’t achieved what does the character with the goal do to get closer to that goal in the next scene they have together?

The difference between a romance novel and real life dating is that in real life when we’re dating we tend to be more forthcoming during the ‘getting to know you’ stage. It’s not that we don’t have the same doubts and fears as the fictional characters, or that there aren’t emotional obstacles in real life (internal conflict). But in a romance novel they’re exaggerated. Because they’re there to get in the way of our Happily Ever After (HEA). Make the dialogue the equivalent of two nice people sitting down and having a nice conversation over a nice cup of coffee as they get to each other and we lose pacing, there’s nothing to encourage us to turn the page - we stall the story. Summing it up, the book says; “Simplicity…directness…goal orientation…brevity. These are the hallmarks of modern story dialogue. Nothing else will suffice.”

And it gives us a wonderful test to do on our manuscripts; “One of the simplest tests may be visual, and can warn of a possible problem. Look at several pages of your story that contain dialogue. Is the right hand margin grossly irregular, many of the character statements going only halfway across the page, and others filling only perhaps a line and a half? In newspaper terms, do your dialogue pages show a lot of white space?

If they do, good. If they don’t, it may mean that your characters are being too long-winded.”

Task Fourteen: Try this with a few pages of your own manuscript at the editing stage.

Why do I keep mentioning the fact you should do the majority of these things at the editing stage? Ahhh... well if you stick with me, all will be revealed...

  • CHECK BACK LATER for more of this 'mini-workshop' and remember to LET ME KNOW if you're Blogging something for those of us Not At Nationals so I can add a link to the sidebar list! Got questions about anything in the Blog then just ask in the comments and I'll do my best to answer them ;)
(You can now Move on to Part Six of this Mini-Workshop here.)


Ever wondered about the percentages of rejections when it comes to Agent queries? Janet Reid, Literary Agent has an interesting Blog on the topic here.


Demonstrating how sometimes at the creative stage we can worry about things that shouldn't concern us as writers is the lovely Liz Fielding on her Blog here. And you could WIN A BOOK if you comment!


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