Tuesday, February 10, 2009

How Much Is Too Much?

And no, I’m not talking about sex.

I recently read a blog post by Connie Brockway talking about her new release, So Enchanting, over at Romance Novel TV. The hero and heroine of her story go at each other in such a way as to really make the chemistry smoke. It’s a fantastic book, their battles so much fun to read, you can’t put it down till you turn the last page. So I was officially on a Brockway high, just having finished it, until she threw out this pearl of wisdom in the comments section:

Alpha male and alpha females spend a lot of time snarling at each other—the trick is to make the reader see the attraction beneath the snarling and make sure nothing they say sounds too petty or mean-spirited at the same time as it’s direct and incisive.

My heart fell as I read this. You see, I’m hip deep in the middle of my own alpha male/female story. My characters are pit against each other to compete for his inheritance and tend to thunder away in most conversations. He loathes the fact that she’s doing everything she can to bring him to his knees; she’s infuriated every time she looks at his wispy golden locks (the cobbled muscles of his stomach)—because he once humiliated her. So they fight at every turn, but how much is too much?

My story is an historical romance. Historicals, by nature, require a little restraint, but so too am I writing for a modern audience. I doubt very much (and you may debate me on this later) modern audiences would buy a Jane Austen-esque romance were it to debut in 2009. Not if it was marketed as a romance novel. We read her as a classic, a classic romance, yes, but as straight romance? Nuh uh. There are too many “affables”, “rathers”, and “upon my words” in every single sentence to mow through her in one afternoon. As modern readers, we tend to be an impatient lot, I think. If this weren’t true, then why do I keep hearing editors say, “I give a manuscript 1-3 pages to hook me.”

1-3 pages? Oy.

I pick up Austen and since I know it’s Austen I give it, well, the whole book to hook me. But it’s Austen. Who of us doesn’t adore Austen (and please don’t say if you don’t love her as I doubt I could stomach such blasphemy this early in the morning)?

I, however, am not Austen. But it does take a dose of restraint to make the verbal skirmishes between a strong hero and heroine work in today’s historical romance. A hint of moderation, if you will. A little subtlety. Brockway achieves this in spades with her latest, her characters’ snarling wildly entertaining while never crossing over into the annoying. As for me, I’m worried. I’m not Connie Brockway (wish I were). I don’t ever wear subtlety. Moderation is not in my vocabulary and I never inherited restraint as it doesn’t exist in any of the branches of my family tree.

So what do I do? Brockway says be sure nothing sounds too petty and mean-spirited, but what does a writer, who is rather bulldozerish in spirit, do when she may not be able to detect the difference between mean-spirited jousting and just, say, passionate sparring? Is there a difference? What is it?

Help me.

(And can someone please pass me my tranquillizers now?)


Debbie Kaufman said...

What that writer does is get a really sharp critique partner, enter contests for feedback, beg pubbed authors for critiques, and keep reading other authors who do it well!

J Perry Stone said...

Check, too scared, don't have enough chutzpah yet, and check.

So what you're saying, Debbie, is I'll never be touched by some writerly miracle and it'll somehow appear in my mind one day??

Tammy Schubert said...

That's a tough one. I have to agree with Debbie Kaufman. The first step is to find that sharp critique partner. Look within your writing group, Georgia Romance Writers (GRW), to find a critique partner. There are a lot of talented, sharp writers there.

Debbie Kaufman said...

Oh Julia, if there were just some fountain to drink from or icon to pray to for us :))

Cinthia Hamer said...

I wouldn't call you a bulldozer...you're much too thin. Ditch Witch, maybe??? Just kidding! You know I love you.

But to answer your question...and we discussed this yesterday...Unless you actually write it, you won't know if you've crossed the line between that passionate sparring and meanspiriteness.

Then, you can go back and reread. Or if you're like me and blind as a bat when it comes to your own writing flaws, you can ask a kind and gently-honest critique partner to advise, and if necessary, rein you back in.

J Perry Stone said...

Tammy, we must have posted at the same time. I got me a doozy of a CP, who calmly nudges me through my hysteria on a daily basis.

Hi Cinthia!

But the unspoken message I'm getting here is that I have to rely on other people to find that restraint.

Oh well. I suppose I should just accept and deal.

Debbie. Move over. I need to kneel at that same alter.

Cindy! My friend and partner! You're absolutely right. Just get it down first. It always comes back to that, doesn't it?

Sandy Elzie said...

Great blog. Enjoyed it thoroughly since I saw myself in several places. Yes, I've written "disagreements" that sounded more like "divorce court here we come", but either my Critique Partner shakes her head, or occasionally I realize my character is being a ditch-witch (now what would we call the alpha-male person here?) and I tone myself down.

OR hubby reads it and tells me that he'd have a hard time staying around someone with a tongue like a dragon...and then I tone it down...a little. More often, I tend to have less arguing, verbally, and have my characters DO something...like one of my alpha guys pushes my heroine into a pool at her sister's wedding...in all her gussied up hair and never-to-be-worn-again bridesmaid dress.
By-the-way, revenge was sweet.


Constance said...

A stupid author trick that sometimes works for me...

I have a dragon voice powered text to speech piece of software. I just highlight the dialogue , close my eyes and sit back and listen. If things sound "mean spirited" in Millie's pretty much inflectionless voice, I can pretty much assume they need toning down.

The other plus for the speech is that I pickup echo words and extraneous asides more easily

I like bulldozers

J Perry Stone said...

Sandy and Constance, if you both rely on the outside than I'm going to stop kvetching.

Thing is, I can sense it when I hear it; I just can't do so when I hear it within my own head.

And C, using that software is genius, but then again ... you tend to be genius in my estimation!

Manda said...

J, I am the worst for finding the flaws in my own writing so I can feel your pain. Like the others I think you should write first and ask questions later. Unless you're a plotter and then all bets are off;) But seriously, you can't know what needs fixing until you're got something that's broken.

That is my wisdom for today...use it wisely, grasshopper.

J Perry Stone said...

Your nuggets of wisdom fill me for the ages, Master.

Truly. Top-notch advice.

I really need to chill out, I think.

Julie said...

First of all, Have some faith in your Writer Instincts.
I think that the best thing to do is to Write the scene down. Let it sit for a day or two. Then go back and have someone or some thing ( like Constance’s computer program ) read your words out loud. Just listen. What do you hear? Do your words sound consistent with the characters personality? Are they “sparring” words or are they unforgivable cruel ones?
Writing is like cooking. You put “the ingredients” in a pot. You let them simmer for a while … THEN you adjust the seasoning.

Doesn’t matter Whether you are Creating a fine piece of Writing or a Pièce de Résistance. What is the Worse Thing that could happen?
You toss it out and start again.

Julie said...

Excellent advice, Manda!

Tami Brothers said...

I know I keep saying this, but WOW!!! I could totally see myself in your post, J... AND I was taking notes when I read the comments. You guys rock and I am so glad for resources like this.

I too have this problem BUT in the reverse. My characters are too nice. I can go for about half the book, then BAMMMM, nothing. There is not conflict and nothing I could add that would work for the characters and their personalities that I created.

I agree with Cynthia, though. You have to write it before you can fix it. Great comments, everyone. I'll definitely be coming back to read the others that will follow....

(and, I loved the dialogue on how this post ended up getting posted... You guys are hilarious.... loose jar lids....hehehe)

Anna Steffl said...

Everyone always loves what they aren't.

The writer of subtle dialog is wringing her hands, worried that she can't compose the fiery exchanges of J. Perry Stone.

julie said...

The “fiery exchanges of J. Perry Stone”? Ooohhhh… That explains why My cell phone is smoking. And here I thought that the battery was shorting out!

Julie said...

Breathhhhh deeply JP. Remember. You are A Public Figure.
And don't forget dear… You did ask for my presence!

J Perry Stone said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
J Perry Stone said...

Jules, that's great advice actually (can I borrow your pen, Tami?).

What you're suggesting is a little distance and a little time to let the flavors marinate.

Great analogy and one I'll take to heart.

Tami, I panicked. I kept pushing "publish", "PUBLISH" and then Debbie saunters in and the thing's up. WTH?

Anna! For some odd reason, whenever I see you/your name/your posts, I feel a wave of hilarity wash over me and I wanna start messing with you. What IS that?

For the sake of focus, I'll try and behave though.

I think you are dead on. What other writers seem to come by naturally--those same qualities that make me wanna rip my hair out when *I* attempt them--stick in my mind more than the stuff I can do as well.

I mean, "also" not "as well as."

I read passages brimming with subtle characterization that make my heart ache and truly want to cry sometimes, both because I'm so moved and also because I don't think I can pull it off.

Cyrano said...

Jeez Loise,
I was shopping all morning, didn't have a chance to visit PFHT until now and I'm suddenly tossed into a full on comment fest! Yippy!
Julia, Julia, Julia,
Bull Dozers are beautiful. They are strong, reliable and they get the job done. And, yes, I'll say it, They are damn sexy!!!
I happen to like a good hearty argument between hero and heroine. I don't even mind if they yell and scream, throw things, growl, as long as when they're through they can't wait to jump in the sack! Make up sex rocks!!
Boy I'm in a good mood. I just got a pair of platform sandals on sale baby!
Sorry, back to you.
The passionate sparring you weave into your story might be just what some readers are looking for. I myself like a good verbal joust when the plot calls for it as opposed to a soft spoken, nervous conversation.
Write the story that you want to write, that you feel passionate about and let a critique partner look at it (if you don't have a partner, I'll look at it for ya) You might just find that all your worries are for naught. Thought I'd throw in a Jane Austen word for ya. Who the heck says naught anymore?
Have a lovely afternoon!

Janga said...

J, I'm with Manda, Cinthia, and the rest who say you have to get it on the page first. As La Nora says, you can't fix a blank page.

Once it's on the page, I'm a great believer in the ear picking up on things the eye misses, so read it aloud.

And finally, as a fellow clinging-to-the-safety-of-the-shore type, I have to say a word for contests. Feedback from four experienced writers who were not friends, who didn't even know me, recently gave me the push I needed to finish revising and start querying. And you know what a push that took. :)

Linsey Lanier said...

I love to watch the Jane Austen adaptations on PBS, but I don't think I could get through a book.

J, I think you've expressed the angst we all go through as writers when we try to see our work as a reader would. But I wouldn't worry about too much "thundering," as long as you can "see the attraction beneath the snarling," as you quote. You can do this through description and inner monolog. The contrast will make for good inner conflict.

I've heard forever that strong, alpha-heroines are what readers want, so it's much better to err on the too heavy side than on the meek and milky side. Many of us have the other problem. So I'd do what CJ Lyons suggested and write the first draft for yourself – be as nasty as you want. And like the others have said, just get something on the page. And remember, this is a very subjective area. You might not be writing your characters as vicious as you think. A critique partner may well say, "That part didn't bother me at all."

Great post.


Linsey Lanier said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
J Perry Stone said...

Based on what you just posted, Tamara, I get the strangest sensation that you might prefer the word, "KNOT" to "NAUGHT."

Dirty. I like it.

Janga, but your ear doesn't lie to you like mine does to me. Mine tells me something different EVERY time I reread a section. It can't be trusted. And I know I really need to enter contests. I'm just terrified of getting into the water without my floaties.

BTW, Janga. The Virginia Ellis Critique WKSHP deadline is coming up for GRW. For some reason that doesn't feel too scary to me (and did you get it that I was hinting for you to partake, as well?)

J Perry Stone said...

That's a great point, Linsey. As I've said, I really don't trust my own ear or my inner editor.

I trust my CP, however.

And I trust all you hot tamales.

Santa said...

Great blog, my dear. It's certainly timely. My stories tend to center around dialog and it's quite a struggle at times to keep the hero and heroine restrained. I like to incorporate a physical sense of the exchange while they are taking each other's measure.

I don't think it's such a big deal for secondary characters. I think that's one of the ones you can set them up for their own stories later on.

And I'll second the advice given here so far. You have a kickin' CP. Keep getting your stuff on the page and let the rest of the world see it. Contests is where it's at on that note. And if you have the ear of published authors like some of your membership - take up their offers to see your work. It's been my experience that none of them would offer unless they meant it.

Having said all that I feel I need to add a disclaimer that I do none of the above. I share hardly anything with anyone and I keep all my cards to my chest.

I need to take care of that in short order.

Ciao for now,

Pamela-reader said...

As a reader, I *do* love strong heros & heroines, especially the "fiesty" ones. Something that many of the books I've enjoyed the most do is have a way during the conclusion where they both recognize their own bulldozerness (new word!) and work out the constant bickering while keeping the spice and strength. From what I've read in books, it can be tricky to do, but oh, so satisfying to the reader when it is accomplished. After all, no reader wants to imagine them living "happily ever after" on the constant edge of battle (which is what the first contests necessarily are!) The best results of this do *not* make their characters tone their personalities down, but instead they give them a caring ability to temper their initial reactions due to their love for each other.

On another note, as a reader, I know a author has crossed the line if I find myself getting "snippy" over little things with my husband... not! the result I enjoy from the better written "spirited" scenes. (grin)

eaflagg said...

The contest suggestion sounds very interesting, a growth opportunity? What we're afraid of, dare I say, often turns out to be less awful once we've faced it. I believe in you, my friend.

So Enchanting finally came in today and I plan to start it tonight. I love Connie Brockway's work and am thankful for your suggestion last week. It will tide me over -- for 5 hours! ;) -- until the new Mary Balogh and Lisa Kleypas books come out. Can you imagine having to order it at the BU bookstore? It was fun...

I'm curious about what your floaties might look like? Let's talk.

PJ said...

Great blog, J! Thanks for the RNTV shout-out.

You've gotten some terrific advice here. I know the day will come when your name will be on a published story. You're too determined for that not to happen. In the meantime, keep writing, keep entering contests and keep getting that all-important feedback. And, keep telling yourself you will succeed because you will.

Nicki Salcedo said...

J, I think you just know in your heart when it story is falling into place. You have to trust yourself (and your critique partners) to recognize the mean-spirited jousting from the passionate sparring.

Is there a difference? Passionate sparring (words) can punctuated with subtle, but tender actions (lovey stuff) that hero and heroine struggle to reconcile.

By the way, you are my favorite alpha heroine.

eaflagg said...

Been thinkin' while riding my infernal magnetic bike trainer (which I really love but am heartily sick of) and reading So Enchanting.

Seriously, do you have to give Jane Austen the whole book to hook you? Good writing and good use of language is timeless, which is why I think Austen is still read and loved and why good romance writers are such a joy to read -- your work included. Honestly, the language and the development of the relationship are what draw me like a moth to the flame... The only difference -- okay, besides the intimate parts (which I'm prudish enough to skip in some books)-- is the amount of time it takes to read the different genres. Perhaps these days readers are more inclined to want a quickie... ;)

Jessica said...

Oh, too timely -- with my last draft the feedback I got was that the hero was too perfect (and that was off the pitch, not the manuscript!). So I made him crankier. And now hero and heroine have been yelling at each other far more than thinking lusty thoughts. It's less the "she-dragon" problem Sandy talked about and more the risk of the two of them showing their vulnerabilities by acting like hurt, foul-mouthed children.

(Yes, I probably do need a critique partner...)

Mary Marvella said...

Tons of good advice here. I love good sparing as long as I can see a reason
for it other than that she's a harpy who assumes the wost and he's an ass who thinks all women are wrong. Otherwise, I like clever dialogue with smart retorts.