‘You never have to change anything you got up in the middle of the night to write.’ So said Nobel Prize-winning writer Saul Bellow. I was reminded of this quotation recently while reading an interview with author Stephenie Meyer in the Telegraph, in which she touches on how she came to write Twilight.
I never decided to become a writer. I started writing because my memory – damaged by years of sleep deprivation with three colicky babies – began to fail.
I’d had an interesting dream and I didn’t want to forget it, but I knew I would. So as soon as my sons were fed and dressed, I sat down at the family computer to type it out. It was the most exhilarating experience. Once I started, I quickly became addicted. Three months later I’d completed that first draft of Twilight.
This genesis of the ever-popular Twilight contributes to its dreamlike stature, but what inspiration can fellow writers who really do want to write take from the story? The answer lies in a single word: expectation. Mrs Meyer explains:
I felt no pressure when I was writing Twilight because no one was supposed to read it but me. Even after I showed it to my sister – because she wanted to know why I was always busy – it was still an expectation-free zone. Pressure and expectations were added soon but by then I knew I wasn’t going to stop writing.
Mrs Meyer is not alone; another high-profile romance author has been open about the ‘accidental’ genesis of her very popular series. Diana Gabaldon writes:
The OUTLANDER series started by accident in the late 1980s when I decided to write a novel for practice. My goals were:
To learn what it took to write a novel, and
To decide whether I really wanted to do that for real.
I did, and I did—and here we all are, still trying to figure out what the heck you call books that nobody can describe, but that fortunately most people seem to enjoy.
Both of these authors – and many others working on their debut novels – were writing in a bubble, with no expectation in themselves of being read and no assumed or real expectations of others. But once their debut works proved popular, they then had to find a way to write despite the expectations, and clearly they have done so very successfully; both have recently published new books.
I have published five novels to date, and have several more in the pipeline, so I know well how easy it is to feel visible as you write – like your publisher and readers are looking over your shoulder and critiquing every word. My debut novel, Burning Embers, was by far the easiest to write in the sense that I wrote it for myself, to test my skills and purely for fun. But once that novel was published, writing became more loaded with meaning; would my readers enjoy The Echoes of Love, and then the Andalucían Nights series?
I have developed a very simple approach to managing expectations: I have none, other than those I impose on myself. I expect to write the best that I can, to write the story that is in my heart to write. I expect to write just as I would were no one to ever see the manuscript.
When I write, I am not an ‘authorpreneur’ as the role of author is increasingly defined: I do not think about publishing and marketing; I do not think about what readers will think of my book and try to second-guess how to please them; I do not write to impress or belong or sell.
One of my favourite writers, the French-born novelist Anaïs Nin, said, ‘If you do not breathe through writing, if you do not cry out in writing, or sing in writing, then don’t write, because our culture has no use for it.’ That is how I believe one must approach writing: with complete, naked honesty, with the soul laid bare. Only when you arrive at your writing desk in the right place does the muse sit beside you, and together you flow onto the page words that are authentic. Only when you write without expectation will you be gifted writing of which you are proud.
‘You never have to change anything you got up in the middle of the night to write.’ Why is that? Quite simply, because in the middle of the night there are no expectation. You, your imagination and the muse are alone in the darkness, and what you create together… that is why you live to be a writer.
Amazon.com has recently released a list of the top twenty bestselling books published in 2016, based on both print and Kindle sales. Here it is:
- Harry Potter and the Cursed Child, Parts 1 & 2, Special Rehearsal Edition Scriptby J.K. Rowling, Jack Thorne and John Tiffany
- When Breath Becomes Air by Paul Kalanithi
- The Whistlerby John Grisham
- The Last Mile (Amos Decker series)by David Baldacci
- Killing the Rising Sun: How America Vanquished World War II Japanby Bill O’Reilly and Martin Dugard
- Hillbilly Elegy: A Memoir of a Family and Culture in Crisisby J.D. Vance
- Truly Madly Guiltyby Liane Moriarty
- Night School: A Jack Reacher Novelby Lee Child
- The Black Widow: Book 16 of Gabriel Allon Seriesby Daniel Silva
- Diary of a Wimpy Kid # 11: Double Down by Jeff Kinney
- 15th Affair (Women’s Murder Club)by James Patterson and Maxine Paetro
- Before the Fallby Noah Hawley
- Fool Me Onceby Harlan Coben
- Crisis of Character: A White House Secret Service Officer Discloses His Firsthand Experience with Hillary, Bill, and How They Operateby Gary J. Byrne
- The Wrong Side of Goodbye: A Harry Bosch Novel by Michael Connelly
- The Magnolia Storyby Chip Gaines and Joanna Gaines
- The Nestby Cynthia D’Aprix Sweeney
- One with You: Book 5 of A Crossfire Seriesby Sylvia Day
- The Obsessionby Nora Roberts
- Everything We Keepby Kerry Lonsdale
I was not surprised to see books relating to society and politics featuring on the list, given the circumstances of the year, but I was surprised by the prevalence of dark, suspenseful thrillers and the marked absence of my favourite genre: romance.
Of these twenty bestselling titles, only three contain romance: Everything We Keep, The Obsession and One with You. Two are not exclusively romance novels; Nora Roberts’ and Kerry Londsale’s books straddle the women’s fiction and suspense genres. Sylvia Day’s novel is a romance, and it is interesting that her brand of seduction mingled with poignancy has made her the only romance writer to make this chart.
Overall, statistics indicate that romance is best-selling genre in fiction (source: the BBC). So if Amazon’s 2016 bestselling books list encompassed all books purchased this year (but not necessarily published this year) then we could expect to see more romance books in the list. But of the books published in 2016, clearly the romance genre was eclipsed by thrillers.
I wonder why this is the case. Are we in dark times, and seeking answers in dark books? Is it easier to read a ‘quick-grab’ thriller than a romance novel? Have romance readers read more thrillers than romances this year? Is romance somewhat out of vogue?
According to the Romance Writers of America, the subgenres of the romance genre break down as follows in terms of share of sales:
Print: romantic suspense (53%); contemporary romance (41%); historical romance (34%); erotic romance (33%); New Adult (26%); paranormal romance (19%); Young Adult romance (18%); and Christian romance (17%).
E-book: romantic suspense (48%); contemporary romance (44%); erotic romance (42%); historical romance (33%); paranormal romance (30%); New Adult (26%); Young Adult romance (18%); and Christian romance (14%).
It’s interesting that in both print and ebook formats romantic suspense dominates. Romantic suspense is effectively a blend of the thriller genre that’s dominating the charts and traditional romance. Clearly, readers enjoy excitement, twists and turns and a certain degree of darkness in their fiction.
What does all this mean for a writer like myself, who writes beautiful, evocative, epic romance ‘like Hollywood used to make’? Will my next book be a romantic suspense novel instead? Absolutely not, is the answer! Because, as I shall discuss in a post later this week, a writer must write entirely for him- or herself, not to chase a trend or please a market; you have to write the book that demands to be written, the book that touches your heart and soul. Only then can you genuinely connect with readers.
In recent years, the term ‘damsel in distress’ has come to have negative connotations, with an inference that the damsel in question is weak and in need of rescue by a man (often, the knight in shining armour). Heroines in movies and books are increasingly ‘anti-damsels’; much has been made, for example, of Emma Watson’s ‘feminist’ interpretation in the role of Belle in the upcoming Beauty and the Beast adaption (for more, see my recent post ‘Live-action Disney – making fantasy reality’ at http://hannahfielding.net/live-action-disney/).
Today, I want to unpick the assumption that the ‘damsel in distress’ is a theme that should be scorned and abandoned, and situate it where it has always belonged, at the heart of the romance genre.
Did you know that the demoiselle en détresse (from which our modern term derives) emerged as an archetype in medieval times, when it was noble and honourable for a man (a chivalrous knight) to protect a woman? Around the damsel character all kinds of folklore was created, from European fairy tales like Snow White and Sleeping Beauty, to romantic rescues in the Arabian Nights, to legends that continue to define to this day, such as that of George, patron saint of England, slaying the dragon to save a princess.
In these days, the damsel in distress was taken very seriously. Even in the nineteenth century, when melodramas were en vogue, the audience was enthralled: the poor heroine; would she be saved in time?
Then came the twentieth century, and an explosion of mediums through which to tell stories. The damsel in distress character endured across all kinds of genres, from soap operas to comic books. People flocked to see this moment on the big screen:
But a discomfort with the damsel in distress trope was emerging, for two reasons:
- Women’s rights: Women don’t need rescuing by a man! cried impassioned females of the West. We can, and must, rescue ourselves.
- Cynicism: All that is associated with emotionality and romance was dissonant in the prevailing mood of cynicism. How many people have scorned romance novels as fluffy, silly, trashy nonsense?
The result has been a schism in fantasy, whether in literature or on the stage/screen: on the one side, old-fashioned, romantic damsel in distress stories; on the other, stories in which the female character is astonishingly strong and independent (and perhaps rescues the male). Between the two extremes lie myriad attempts to navigate this treacherous territory, to balance what is honourable, romantic and realistic with what is idealised.
Why do I say ‘idealised’? Because the heroine who is never in distress is not real. ‘In distress’ in modern times is not restricted to being in mortal peril; it means exactly that: being distressed – hurting, in need. What relationship can be based on one party never being in need, never feeling pain and allowing the other to recognise, share and attempt to ease that pain? What heroine can truly never be in distress? Certainly not one a reader can empathise with and root for.
In my most recent novel, Legacy, the heroine Luna is a very strong, independent woman. She has travelled from her home in the United States for her work, fearlessly thrusting herself into a new, alien culture and engaging in the difficult task of secretly investigating her boss, Ruy. Luna would absolutely join the cry: Women don’t need rescuing by a man! We can, and must, rescue ourselves.
No, Luna does not need rescuing; she does not need Ruy. But when she is in distress – which invariably happens, because all stories of people include distress – she can choose to be helped by Ruy. She can, and she must, if she is to really connect with him.
Falling in love, giving your heart to another, requires naked, raw vulnerability, the exposure of your soul. It requires being that age-old damsel in distress and letting the knight gallop up and rescue you – and, crucially, it requires being his knight and rescuing him from his own distress; guiding him through his own pain. A damsel need not only be a damsel; she can be a knight too.
So, we have established that emotional distress is essential in the modern heroine. But what of the traditional physical rescue? Is there any place for that in modern stories? Take a look at this excerpt from Legacy:
He said nothing more, but trailed one warm finger down her cheek and gently turned her face towards him. ‘It’s all right now, querida. You’re safe now. I’m here and I’ll look after you. Come, let me take you home. You’re hurt and those cuts need to be seen to. I’ll sort out the car tomorrow.’
Luna pushed back her tears. She didn’t care about the cuts on her body, it was her aching heart she needed him to heal, futile as that seemed. As she tilted her chin up to him, she struggled to control the chaos of conflicting emotions he engendered in her.
‘Let’s get you to the car.’
Ignoring her small sound of protest, in one strong movement he scooped her up, one arm under her legs and the other around her shoulders, holding her tightly against him. Treacherous feelings flooded her. Oh, the warmth and tautness of his wonderful body! Despite her fatigue and confusion, Luna couldn’t help but enjoy those ephemeral few seconds of contact. His breath on the side of her face heated her cold, wet skin and her heart was pounding as she fought a compulsive urge to touch those generous chiselled lips, just inches from hers.
What do you think? I would love to hear your thoughts.
‘Choose an author as you would a friend.’ So wrote English poet Wentworth Dillon, 4th Earl of Roscommon (circa 1633–1685), in his ‘Essay on Translated Verse’:
Examine how your Humour is inclin’d,
And which the Ruling Passion of your Mind;
Then, seek a Poet who your way does bend,
and choose an Author as you choose a Friend.
(Spellings adapted from medieval English.)
This quotation sprang to mind recently when I was discussing with a friend who loves reading what makes her choose to read a book. Together we came up with this list:
1. Recommendation from a trusted source, whether someone you know or a review on Goodreads
2. The appeal of the ‘package’ – the cover, the strapline, the blurb
We discussed other factors, like pricing and discovering the book through a news story or advert, but ultimately we agreed that our list should be this short.
It struck me that what we are really looking for as readers is to find affinity with the writer of the work – their style, outlook and subject matter; we want to connect with the writer, so that we know that we will enjoy this book, and possibly their other titles too. The package conveys crucial information that the reader uses to judge – often quickly – whether they will ‘get on’ with this writer. And the recommendations? They help the reader get a clear sense of who this writer is, and whether the author’s work is a good fit for their tastes.
In seeking a new book to read, the reader has something very valuable to consider: trust. When they begin a new book, they need to be able to trust that the promise of the package will be delivered; that the writer will take them on an interesting and engaging journey and leave them satisfied when they read the final words. It is very difficult for a reader to give that trust, to try a new author, because too often their trust has been broken: a book has not delivered and has been disappointing. (I am reminded of a novel I read recently that was packaged as beautiful romance, but ended with the death of the hero – I was heartbroken!)
How much easier it is to read the new book from an author whose work you know and love than to try a book from an undiscovered writer. And yet if you only ever stick with tried-and-tested authors, reading becomes boring – you miss the thrill of discovering a new book that you just adore. It is necessary then, sometimes at least, to be brave and try new authors, and then you’ll do well to follow Wentworth Dillon’s advice: Choose an author as you would a friend.
So far I have considered the reader’s point of view. But of course I am not only a reader; I am a writer, which means it is my job to be a friend to my readers.
Surely the most fundamental quality one looks for in a friend is that they are trustworthy. That, then, in essence is what an author must be, I believe. An author must give the reader what they except to read based on the package and the genre conventions. That is not to say we writers may not employ plot twists – we must; but there is a strong need to keep the reader secure as they read. Reading is an escape within safe confines.
Publishing my novel, Burning Embers, was a wonderful adventure. But because it was my debut novel, every reader had to take something of a leap of faith with me as the author. Now, with each book I publish, I am so happy to be building a little library of my own. With each additional book I release, new readers can more easily get a feel for who I am as a writer and whether they may find a friend in me; but also, I am giving those readers who have already found affinity with me more pleasure, I hope.
My little library, pictured below, is five-strong, and will continue to grow as I take the readers who trust in me on new adventures in beautiful settings. I hope, if you have not already chosen me as an author, you may have found some reason to do so through this blog post. As the 13th-centry Dominican friar Thomas Aquinas put it, ‘There is nothing on this earth more to be prized than true friendship.’
One of the many aspects of being an author is cover creation. I am fortunate to have a publisher that allows me to have input into my covers, and it is a part of the publishing process that I very much enjoy. That said, I do not always find it easy to decide how I want the cover to look. Cover design is far more difficult than it may appear at a glance, for one simple reason: the cover is really important to capture a reader’s interest, and to convey the mood and style and subject of a book.
How much do you judge a book by its cover? Do you have to ‘connect’ with cover art before you will pick up a book and read the synopsis? What do you look for in a cover? Is it important to have covers that look beautiful on your shelf (or do you perhaps read ebook versions when you don’t love the cover so much)? I would love to hear your thoughts.
In order to better understand how readers judge covers, I thought I would try a poll this week. Have a look at these covers, which are all for the literary classic Tender Is the Night by F. Scott Fitzgerald.
Which do you like best? Please vote using the form below. Let’s see which style of cover is the most appealing.