Wednesday, June 10, 2009

Milk The Moment

An agent visited our RWA last year. It was my first agent talk and I soaked up everything she said, then promptly forgot about 75% of it. That's the way my brain works. One of the things that stuck though was the notion of letting your reader suffer along with your character.

Now, as romance readers, most of us don't like too much nasty graphic violence, but we love our angst. Sure we want to revel in the love felt between our H&H, but, as readers, we really don't like it when we get too much happy. No one wants to read perfect and no one wants to read happy. We want to read angst. That's what keeps us turning the pages.

For those of us struggling to get published, there's a worry about overwriting. A worry about repeating yourself. And sometimes this manifests in writing such "spare & precise" prose that the reader doesn't get the chance to truly sink into the depths of the feeling with the characters. Instead the author hits on the moment, shows the action and reaction and then moves straight into the next bit of plot that officially "advances the story."

Now I'm definitely not the one to sit here and advocate boring your reader, not by any stretch of the imagination, but I read three books recently that took my emotions and wrung them dry by hovering on the edge of hyperawareness without repeating themselves. Lucky you, I'm gonna tell you about them.

*WARNING - to talk about these moments I will have to reveal spoilers. Sorry.*

1. The first one, the one that inspired this post, was Morning Glory by LaVyrle Spencer.
In this book the hero gets called off to war - WWII to be specific. He does his duty, heads off to Marine bootcamp and then writes his heroine about what life is like there.

Ms Spencer spends eight (hardback) pages writing letters back and forth between our hero and heroine while he's in boot camp. They had just discovered their love for each other before he left, and we already ache that they've been pulled apart at this delicate stage of their relationship. So the letters start. The real brilliance in these letters is how self-sacrificing each is in regards to the others' feelings. They both pretend to be happy and adjusting to their separation. And as a reader, we see right through it and know they're suffering.

He ends almost every letter to her with some variation of don't worry about me at all, I'm doing just fine. A sure sign of how much he's missing her, and how bad it is there.

Then, Ms Spencer gets them together for a full chapter. And the reader rejoices along with them. But he's changed because he's a Marine now, and they have to readjust to each other all over again for the minute they have. Then it's back to the letters. Another ten pages, but this time he's headed off to war.

The reader is on a precipice. There's no male or female POV. It's just their fear and hesitation and hope and awkwardness laid out on the page in their falsely happy letters to one another. Brilliant.

2. The second one was C is For Corpse by Sue Grafton. This was so well done, I could barely stand to read it. But it's also something that maybe only works with a Dead Tree (as opposed to e) book.

In this instance, the book was nearing the end. There physically weren't many pages left to turn. But we don't know who the murderer is yet. And our heroine is going about life and exploration at the same pace as she always does, the same pace she's kept throughout the rest of the book. There's no hurrying up to the big finish.
Instead she checks something out, explores it, explains it to herself... spends some time wandering around, figuring things out... and this whole time the reader is on tenterhooks because we KNOW the Bad Guy is gonna get her.

She doesn't know. There's barely a hint of foreshadowing, but the book is ending, and he's gonna get her, and she's not paying attention. For pages and pages she did her thing, and as a reader it was the most mundane, tension-filled writing I've ever killed myself over. (I had a teacher once call this Dramatic Irony, but that was a screenwriting class and I don't know if it applies to novels.) By the time the Bad Guy attacked, it was a relief, but I can't fault the author for even a sentence of that mundane moseying the heroine did. I've never been so riveted to a scene.

3. The third book to milk the moment was Fire & Ice by Anne Stuart.
In this book, the heroine kills a bad guy, violently. She's never killed before, she sees the aftermath of her actions and shuts down. But the trick is, she doesn't just shut down for a paragraph or two.

We're taken into the hero's POV and we watch her walking catatonia as he experiences it. She becomes completely docile, does everything she's told without question or argument. But she doesn't connect and she doesn't speak. She goes inside herself to a place the hero can't reach and stays there all day. A day that we spend with her.

We see him go through sympathy, and worry and fear on her behalf. We watch him take care of her, protect her, feed her and finally get angry with her until the end of the day when things come to a head in an explosive love scene.

The love scene wouldn't have had nearly the same effect if she had killed, gone silent for a paragraph or two, then cried, and accepted it. Instead we had to suffer through it along with her and as a result rejoiced with her when it ended.

There are so many ways to let your reader experience it, and sometimes we edit ourselves right out of the good stuff. We can't be afraid to dig deep, and then maybe a bit deeper. Rushing the story is NOT the same as advancing the story.

I can only hope when I hit the emotional lows in my writing that I spend enough time wallowing in the mud.

Currently reading: The Watson Brothers
Just finished: Rescued by the Sheik

Just finished: Fire & Ice

[ETA, I felt free to name names in this post, because all the comments were complimentary. I would not have done so if I were structurally criticizing an author's work.]


Erika said...

Great post. You're right. As fledgling author I try to get the right amount of "milking" the moment but always worry that it's too much. Thank goodness for a critique group.

Good post.

Tumperkin said...

Great post. I'm always giving my characters the easy way out. Luckily my CP usually forces me to go back and put them through the mill a bit more.

Venus Vaughn said...

Good for your CPs!
And you know, sometimes the easy way out is okay, so long as the readers suffer in real time with the character until the easy way reveals itself. You know what I mean?