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Art and Soul

Chris Szego
Posted September 29, 2010

bittyhearts.JPGThere are lots of people out there who have excellent memories for things they read, provided that reading isn’t purely instructional.  At least, I hope so:  I’d hate to be the only one. It’s kind of embarrassing — I can remember the plots of books I read when I was eight, but the second I put a recipe down, I forget if it called for three tablespoons of sugar or three cups*.  And I won’t go into my ability to absorb technical instructions, because it’s skill I possess only in negative amounts.

But thankfully, that block is limited to instructional writing; I have much better retention of informational writing.  I read a great deal of non-fiction, on all sorts of subjects.  In and amongst this past week’s fiction, I read a book on brain imaging, one on gender and marketing, and another about recent buying trends.  Then I came across Heart & Craft, aimed at teaching readers how to write and sell Romance novels.  ‘Uh oh,’ I thought, ‘Instructions’. But it was eminently suited to this column, so I thought I’d give it a try.

Edited by best-selling author Valerie Parv, Heart & Craft is a collection of essays by successful Romance writers.  All the contributors are either from Australia or New Zealand   (among other things, this means they all spell ‘colour’ correctly).  And despite my particular limitations when it comes to ‘How-To’ manuals, I enjoyed the book quite a bit.

Part of that has to do with how Parv set up the book. Each writer elaborated on two different fronts:  the general story of how she came to do what she does, and the specific tricks or techniques she uses in her own writing.  But as Parv makes it very clear in her introduction, “there’s no one way to write a romance novel, no ‘secret’ that can be applied to every writer and every story.”

Unsurprisingly, I vastly preferred the general information sections.  In fact, I bounced squarely off any part of any essay containing detailed strategies or explicit directions.  The character creation list was lost on me, as was the program on how to edit.  But Parv planned for that, too.  Readers are encouraged to skip around between contributors and topics, to read whatever appeals to them most.  The point is not instruction, but insight.

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Some of the essays spoke to me more profoundly than others.  Robyn Donald’s career began on a manual typewriter, when a letter from her editor could take six weeks to arrive. Today her entire submission and correction process takes place online. She writes movingly of the difference in her own writing when she stopped creating stories simply for fun and turned it into a career.  It seems the line between what you love and what you do for a living can be a tricky one to walk.

Elizabeth Rolls’ piece is on the importance of historical research.  Her own specialty is the Regency, but her suggestions apply to any era.  Her main point is that research informs voice, and voice is what makes a book work.  No fan of the infodump, Rolls believes that there’s a difference in what the author needs to know and what the reader needs to know, a view I can heartily endorse.  Sometimes the goal is to research enough to know what you don’t know, and then avoid it.

What I liked best about Kelly Ethan’s essay on melding the Romance and Fantasy genres was the subsection at the end in which she enumerates a number of the subgenres in the Fantasy field.  Fantasy is my day job, and I found her explanations and examples quite satisfying.  Equally enjoyable was the essay on eroticism in Romance, written by Alexis Fleming (who is Ethan’s mother).  It was straight-forward and charming, not an easy concept when it comes to writing about sex.

“Writing romance is a feminist act” is the first sentence of Daphne Clair’s essay about the appeal of the Romance genre as a whole.  Now that’s statement I can get behind.  Her thesis is that a Romance heroine is — by the end of the novel if not the beginning — fully aware of her worth as a person, and is active about making her wants and needs a reality.  Frankly, I would have like to read more on this subject.  Her examples, spanning decades of character development throughout the genre, make for an entertaining read.

The last several chapters of the book are not essays, but collected comments and suggestions from each writer on a variety of topics.  Sound-bites, if you will, on subjects ranging from character building and point-of-view, to marketing and the ins and outs of a writer’s life.  But whatever the writers choose to discuss, they do it with a practical aim in mind.  Reading about writing is all very well, but the contributors of Heart & Craft know that actually writing is far more important.  Parv uses a quote by Jennifer Crusie to open the book, but it works just as well to close it:

“I don’t think anybody can absorb all of craft at once; you have to learn by doing, and I think that goes on forever.”
*True story.  Now that’s a rice pudding I won’t forget in a hurry.  Think rice brittle.
According to Heart and Craft, Chris Szego is a pantser.


2 Responses to “Art and Soul”

  1. Carol Borden
    October 3rd, 2010 @ 2:59 pm

    I always suspected you were a pantser, Chris.

  2. Chris Szego
    October 5th, 2010 @ 11:05 am

    It sounds mysteriously salacious… but mostly, it means I’m disorganized.

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