Saturday, August 16, 2014

On Writing Romance

Leigh Michaels’ book On Writing Romance: How to Craft a Novel That Sells is a good starting-point for someone interested in writing in this genre, but it also has a few problems that make it a book I can’t recommend.

The book begins with a description of the various sub-genres of romance—and includes gay and erotic romance, which I liked. Michaels goes into detail how to research romances, especially those which depend on a background authors might not be familiar with, and I enjoyed reading this.

The chapter on characterization didn’t offer anything new, though I didn’t disagree with it until I read the list of questions at the end, intended to help writers “get to know” their characters.

What astrological sign was he born under? What kind of music does he enjoy?

Maybe it’s just me, but I’ve never found this kind of “what’s her favorite color” list useful, unless the story will involve colors in some way.

The chapter on conflict was great; I especially liked how Michaels differentiated between the short-term problem which brings the hero and heroine together, and the larger picture which keeps them apart. Not to mention the ways a writer can (inadvertently) sabotage the relationship.

What sank the book for me, though, was the section on dialogue, titled “The Battle of the Sexes”. Well, at least it gives fair warning. This is how you’re supposed to “make your heroine’s dialogue more realistic if you’re a male writer”, because us female writers have that down pat, so we get the section on how to write the hero’s man-talk instead :

Check for aggressiveness (bolding in the text—Marian). Women tend to be indirect and manipulative; even an assertive woman usually considers the effect her statement is likely to have before she makes it. Can you add questions to her dialogue, or add approval-seeking comments and suggestions that masquerade as questions?

When I read this, I turned to the start of the book to check if it was published in 1980. Nope, 2007.

Can I push my assertive, direct heroines into some shy, mealy-mouthed mold? I’m trying to imagine Captain Lera Vanze in my novel The Highest Tide (out from Samhain next year, yay!) saying, “If Seawatch finds out you coerced a seventeen-year-old operative of theirs into a dangerous mission where he was captured and murdered, no one in Dagran waters will be safe. So if you don’t mind, would it be all right if I tried to rescue him?”

Maybe if she was being sarcastic. Lera doesn’t need anyone’s approval. Nor do Yerena, Miri, Alex or any other heroines of mine.

But apparently, what’s self-confidence and competence in a man is aggressiveness (such an unattractive quality!) in a woman.

Check for emotions. Women tend to bubble over with emotion, with the exception that they’re generally hesitant to express anger and tend to do so in a passive or euphemistic manner. If you need your heroine to be angry, can you give her a really good reason for yelling?

My heroines don’t yell. They draw their blades, summon a great white shark out of the ocean, learn to use magic, or figure out other people’s secrets and exploit those ruthlessly.

Just finding these sections to quote annoyed me all over again. Which was a pity, because the last chapter, on revising a manuscript, is helpful and I didn’t notice anything too sexist there. So if you can ignore the part on dialogue, or if it doesn’t bother you, this book could be useful. For my part, though, On Writing Romance won’t be joining my keeper shelf.

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