Monday, 12 September 2011

Shameful little secrets

I don't think I'm the only writer who admits only under extreme duress that she writes... [looks around furtively] ...romance. The few times I foolishly admitted to the fact that, yeah, I do a bit of scribbling, I was bombarded with 'Oprah' comments, and talk about 'the great West Indian novel'. Romance was nowhere to be spotted amid the thronging expectations of literary outpourings.

In my circle, few admit to even reading romance; writing it is beyond the pale. Those who read it don't do so openly, and if caught in the act mumble some shame-faced excuse about having 'confiscated' the book from a student. (Borrowed, more likely!) I've seen that scenario played out countless times.

And what about the overwhelming response to romance novels from the male half of the population? Dismissal, snickers, 'girl porn' comments, and the general opinion that no woman with half a brain would read (or write) the stuff. According to the popular mythology, romance novels are the preserve of:
  • The girl behind the counter at the drugstore, twirling a lock of purple hair and snapping her chewing gum, maybe.
  • Gauche schoolgirls, definitely.
  • The old spinster librarian with parchment skin and wattles, glaring over her glasses at the boys and girls flirting instead of doing their research, and hiding a lurid bodice-ripper under her copy of Dostoevsky.
  • The downtrodden wife trapped in a miserable marriage.
  • The anti-feminists.
But mature, smart, professional women? Never. They - we - don't stoop to such lows.

Well, surprise, surprise. We do. And after decades, or centuries rather, of being treated with scorn and ridicule by the literary establishment, the romance genre seems to finally, finally be coming into its own. It's becoming so respectable, in fact, that men are jostling to join the ranks of romance writers and many popular authors, formerly hidden behind their pseudonyms, are coming forward and revealing that they're smart, professional women. Some are young. Some are happily married, and feminist to the core. Some are college professors. Some are all of the above. They read romance - and they write it too.

You don't believe me, do you. Well, take a gander at this USA Today article: Scholarly writers empower the romance genre. It's all about college professors working undercover as romance authors and attending Princeton University conferences on the genre. Smart women have always read and written great stories, including romances. The difference now is that, more and more, they're not ashamed to admit it.

Liane Spicer

Monday, 5 September 2011

What I learned from books on writing

I sometimes miss that blissful time when I wrote my first novel, unaware that there were dozens of books out there presenting countless rules and recommendations for what I was attempting to do. I've picked up a few things since then, and the advice that has resonated often had little to do with the actual writing and everything to do with the attitudes that might make the difference between being a productive writer or a frustrated one.

On Writing by Stephen King:
I learned from King's recounting of his years spent collecting rejection slips that those little forms are not symbols for "Failed Writer". You place the slip in the appropriate file and move on.

The War of Art by Steven Pressfield:
Mr. Pressfield wrote this book for me. He turns a spotlight on writers' block in all its manifestations: fear, resistance, procrastination, obsessiveness, self-dramatization, self-medication, victimhood, self-doubt, toxic relationships, support (yes, you read that right), and rationalization. Then he tells you how to combat it all, and his recommendation is simple: You turn pro. How does a professional approach his work? Apply the same principles to your writing and see the difference.

"A professional shows up every day."
"A professional demystifies."
"A professional acts in the face of fear."
"A professional does not show off."
"A professional self-validates."

There's lots more, and it's all written with the authority that comes only from first-hand experience, aka the school of hard knocks.

Page After Page by Heather Sellers:
Here's another writer who demystifies. She knows that declarations like 'waiting for my muse' are nothing but lame excuses. "It's a matter of sitting down, conjuring a state of complete dedication and complete openness, and writing. Putting pen to paper." No hocus-pocus there.

What else did she teach me? To talk less about writing, and write more. That except for a very few lucky souls, being published (finally!) does not change your life. You won't be rich and famous, loved and admired by everyone, rail-thin and immune to chocolate binges. You'll still have to deal with all your bumps and warts; those don't disappear once you get published.

The Elements of Style by William Strunk Jr. & E.B. White:
This book gives great advice on the fine points of usage, common errors, and style. There was little in there I didn't already know after having taught the language for 22 years, but that slim book clarified something vital I had hitherto understood only superficially: the US version of my mother tongue is a very different beast from the UK version I was taught.

I've got two more books on writing lined up: Zen in the Art of Writing by Ray Bradbury, the title of which has just the sort of new-agey tone I'm a sucker for. (Did someone mention the word demystify?) Next to it on my bedhead bookshelf is The Artist's Way by Julia Cameron. I'll be sure to let you know what I learn from those in a later post.

Liane Spicer