Monday, June 25, 2012

Never Say Never--and What I Learned from the Author I'd Never Read


Ladies and Gentlemen, I have crossed to the dark side. If it could happen to me, it could happen to you. Alas, I cannot believe I am writing these words: I have read a Nora Roberts novel.

No, no, don’t bother to check your screen or run your virus check—or even send the police to verify if I’ve been body snatched. It’s me, and I read THE WITNESS.

Let me give a brief summary of my experience in reading a Nora Roberts novel. Usually I don’t make it very far—I’m definitely a person you typically need to hook, either by content, voice, or premise within the first five pages. It’s why I don’t usually go for NR’s books usually. I’m not hooked by her content or voice within five pages; and her premise usually wasn’t that compelling for me either. However, this was different. The heroine was sheltered, very smart, a bit of a computer hacker, and accidentally tangled up with the Russian mafia. These are things that interest me, so I proceeded past my five pages and got hooked by the content of the story.

Then things got more insidious.

We meet the hero, who I was glad we did not meet first because I didn’t like him. It wasn’t that he wasn’t likeable. He was very likeable, I suppose, if you like small town heroes who are “easy-going” and “happy.” I’m not a fan. And I found him very annoying where the heroine was concerned, especially when he was all up in her business and he had absolutely no right to be. And he wouldn’t take back-off as an answer. He kept showing up with pie and insisting in coming in the house. He was an annoying persistent pain-in-the-ass.

But then…suddenly I did like him. He said or did the right thing. I mean, he went back to being a PITA, but he’d do something and I’d swoon. It baffled me. I wasn’t sure I liked it—which incidentally was exactly what the heroine was feeling. And that is when I caught on. OMG, Nora Roberts is totally owning me through this story. I feel whatever the characters feel, I believe whatever the characters believe, I want what they want—and I don’t even realize it. I just want to read it as fast I can. The reason I like the hero when I do is because the heroine does; and when he’s being a PITA, it’s because she’s thinking it too. She’s totally putting me in the moment and showing me the scene in the heroine’s POV without being obvious about it, and I’m hooked. It’s totally storytelling at its finest. The kind of thing we all want to do.

So I was staring at the book, stopped, trying to figure out what was it about this scene that worked. What is it I like about the hero? And what is it that I find annoying? How does she balance it?

Magic, I finally decided.

Okay, not really. I think it was one part mixing opposite personalities. She’s a bit socially awkward and majorly introverted—and because she’s on the run and trying to remain invisible, majorly quiet, private, and constantly trying to protect herself. He comes from a family—a big one—and each is more extraverted than the last. He’s gregarious, curious, and polite to a fault. You hate to say no to him, though she tries. They’re both determined, persistent, full of integrity, and want justice. It’s the natural storyteller’s blend of taking characters who have dissimilar personalities but similar values, then pairing them with backstories that make them both empathetic and full-bodied. Then sticking them in a situation where everything is larger than life since real people who are actually being gunned by the Russian mafia don’t have time to read Nora Roberts’ novels no matter how much they might like to.

Still, you don’t have to have the Russian mafia to make your story compelling. I’m now waist deep in the Lisa Kleypas novel, Rainshadow Road. Kleypas spends more time showing the reader how the characters are alike rather than different. They’re both artists, of a sort. She works with glass; he works a vineyard and makes wine. They’re both extremely passionate and well-read about their life’s work; and they’re both capable of magic with their work. It’s as if they were drawn to their careers in childhood and have a magical affinity for it that they can’t explain, it just is.

Possibly their real difference is that she is a woman who wants a long-term relationship (and thought she had it before her boyfriend dumped her for her sister) and he is a man who goes from woman to woman—and loves them in general, but not on a singular committed basis. Though he has a nice backstory to explain such rather crappy behavior. He comes from a family that isn’t worth anything; it’d be dangerous to have a relationship, et al. Again, it’s all about the characters and backstories—but no Russian mafia, so the circumstances seem much further in reach. The heroine would definitely have time for a Nora Roberts’ novel and I’m sure has read more than I have.

So we’re back to that old standby we’ve discussed many, many times: characters, backstories, and larger than life drama. I have the characters—Nellie and Brody are definitely characters and very vocal about certain things. I have some larger than life drama for them and some scenes planned ahead that I hope turn out like I’m picturing them. It’s the backstories I haven’t fleshed out as totally. I think it’s part of the problem why I have stop and go writing so much—and you know what they say about “stop and go writing”—it can tear up the engine of your WIP if you don’t keep a close watch on it and change the oil more often.

It’s midnight here. I’m sorry.

Do you figure out backstories as you go? Or do you have backstories already figured out before you start writing? Or is it both? You have a backstory, but then you get to the end and realize it wasn’t the backstory at all. I think it’s both, myself. Stories are like life. You spend your whole life trying to figure out the meaning of it, and it’s only after the end you figure out what it was the whole time. You can’t rush it, you can’t assume—you just have to wait till the end like everyone else.

I figure Nora probably figures stuff out in the end. What with her famous line about she can revise anything but a blank page. So that’s what I learned from her—she makes it look effortless, but I imagine there is a lot of effort to it. A lot of things running behind the scenes, like a duck’s feet beneath the water as the duck is gliding along the top.

It’s Monday. Let’s take it a little easy today. What book or author have you ever read that you’d never thought you’d read? (You can even admit to 50 Shades of Grey, if you want, I don’t have a problem with it.) Were you able to learn anything from it? Anything you admired specifically about it? What have you been reading lately?

31 comments:

Marnee Bailey said...

I remember I kept hearing all about Lisa Kleypas's Sugar Daddy and Blue-Eyed Devil. I put off reading them I don't know why. But then I loved them. I'm not sure I read the last one though. Dunno why. I go through reading phases. I read a lot of one subgenre then move to another.

I just read Anna Dressed in Blood and I loved it. It's YA and I thought it sounded interested. The main heroine is a ghost that has killed oodles of people. I had no idea how the author was going to redeem her. But I thought she did. :) That's good writing.

Since I liked that, I got Hourglass. Thought it sounded good. And when I was researching for that one, I think I decided to read Clare's Mortal Instruments. Just because I've been interested by those covers. So, that's my plan.

PS, Fran, I might be out of the loop but I didn't realize you were writing something new until just this weekend when I saw your collage on FB. I know I've been a bit of a spaz lately, but sorry I'm so late to the party! Good luck with it!! :) I love cowboys. Is it historical or contemp?

Marnee Bailey said...

By the way, I haven't read NR in a long time. But I feel like I should. I used to love her stuff.

TerriOsburn said...

Ahem. I'm reviewing the Kleypas book tomorrow. Thanks for getting that started. *droll look*

I have to know the backstory before anything else. Not that I know every detail ahead of time, but I need to know as much as the character will share. In my first MS, my heroine waited until after the book was started to reveal she had a sister. Would have been nice to know a little sooner, but it still worked out.

I can't find or create a plot until I know the characters.

Maureen said...

Every time I pick up a western I amaze myself. The one genre I find too predictable. Yet! I keep being lured on by tricks. Oh! This is a mystery! I'm driving thru this area. And wham! I'm reading a western series and driving Terri crazy by sending bits of prose that are fabulous!

MsHellion said...

Marn, I kinda do that too. I'll read all YA novels for a while, then I'll read only romance for a while. Or I'll read three or four memoirs or "non-fiction" in a row. But I do this with food too.

I love how YA is able to do just about anything and get away with it. *LOL* I think that's awesome.

The current WIP is a historical, though as anachronistic as I usually don't like. I'm ready for someone to say "Dude" and really push me over the edge. Going to have to work on that.

MsHellion said...

Terri, it was midnight! I wasn't thinking! There's oodles of stuff left to talk about. If you want to quote whole passages, you totally could. *LOL*

Hmm. I feel like I know my characters, but not enough...I don't know. My inner Virgo I guess. Have to know every detail before taking a step. *LOL*

MsHellion said...

Mo, I'm glad you found a series that you didn't mind the "predictability" *LOL*. All genres are predictable on some level because there are certain aspects that have to be met, that readers expect.

Marnee Bailey said...

Awesome! I love new projects. Good luck, keep us posted. :)

And I do that with food too. Gorge myself on one thing. I wonder what that means about my personality?

Marnee Bailey said...

My inner Virgo I guess. Have to know every detail before taking a step.

HEY! I resemble that remark!!

MsHellion said...

I think it means we're passionate, Marn. *LOL* There are worse things. *LOL*

And don't worry, I resemble the remark too. My moon sign is virgo, which is funny since my sun is in pisces--which are polar opposites. No wonder I'm bipolar acting.

Janga said...

You know I'm a big Nora fan, Hellie. She's one of a handful of authors whose books I consider the best writing textbooks available. The Witness was an A read for me too. And that she's writing a spectacularly good book when it's her 200th is truly mind-boggling.

I'll save my Kleypas enthusiasm for Ter's blog tomorrow, :)

Did I understand correctly? You're writing a historical? How grand!I'm eager to hear more.

TerriOsburn said...

Now would be a good time to talk about your new WIP. LOL! You've teased everyone, now pay up!

And I can still fall back on the ONE vampire novel I've ever read. The next one in that series is available. I should make time to read it.

MsHellion said...

Janga, I think I might be willing to try her next book, even if I'm not willing to glom her older stuff. *LOL* I think there is much to learn from her.

Yes, I am. Such as it is.

It's set in 1898. Montana. The heroine is named Nellie Travers, and she's a suffragette whose ambition in life is to convince her father she is as capable as any man and doesn't need to marry the man he prefers to leave his ranch to. The hero is an Easterner named Broderick Thornton, a scholar who is researching the West, and not exactly a man's man. He and Nellie end up working out a bargain that she will help him with his research if he poses as her fiance. And there's a cattle drive...and a badly behaved horse...and stuff like that. I don't know. I haven't written that far.

MsHellion said...

Terri, I see that, but not sure how to tell the story in a compelling way. Hence the story of my life.

TerriOsburn said...

Actually, I love how you just explained it to Janga. That right there could be a back cover blurb.

haleigh said...

I'm with Ter - that's a great blurb for your historical! I love the idea of a non-man's man being in Montana!

I struggle with the backstory side of things as well. It tends to come to me at the end. Or after the first draft. Not at key times when I need it, like BEFORE I start.

I've heard that when Nora drafts a new book, she does the entire first draft start-to-finish as fast as possible, and then goes back and starts flushing out characters and the story and the back-story and such.

I find this fascinating. I don't think it's a process that would work for me, but it obviously works well for her. From this interview:

How many drafts does it take you before the book is just right?
In general I do a first draft fairly quickly. Just to get the story down without looking back – I don’t worry about fixing or fiddling. Once I have that initial draft, I know my characters more intimately, know the plot line more cohesively, so I can go back to page one and go through it all again, fleshing out, fixing little problems, finding where I went wrong and adjusting it, or where I went right and expanding it. Adding texture, sharpening the prose. Then I go back to page one again, for the third draft, polishing, making sure I hit the right notes. If it feels right after that, I send it to my agent and editor. If it doesn’t, I go back and try to find what’s not working. No book is perfect. I try to send in the best book I can write at that time. And I trust my editor to tell me if it can be made better.

Janga said...

Oh, Hellie, I love the sound of that!Keep writing! I'd love to read this.

MsHellion said...

Hal, that doesn't sound like a way I could do it either--I prefer the Anne Gracie sort of writing; however, you can't argue that NR doesn't have a rhythm to her madness. *LOL* And I keep fiddling with stuff now and frustrating myself--maybe I should keep plodding forward since there is going to much more to revise than I'll possible be able to fix...

Thanks! It's sorta like City Slickers in the Old West...which dates me, but I always thought it'd be kinda fun.

MsHellion said...

Janga, I think you'd like him, but he has a tendency to think in his time period. He and the heroine keep arguing about the right to vote. But I plan to make him come around.

Sabrina Shields (Scapegoat) said...

Have to admit I thought I would never read Tom Clancy - too much detail about the weapons, etc. even though I loved the movies.

Boy, when I did read him and enjoy the books I was very surprised. Without Remorse has scenes and plot twists that have stuck with me over 10+ years.

Sabrina Shields (Scapegoat) said...

Hellie - I'm so excited about your new WIP!

TerriOsburn said...

Hellie - You have been preaching the "Write the first draft AS IF it's all good" and "Just keep writing" for years. You need to take your own advice! LOL!

I read Pat Conroy and loved him. It's called Beach Music and has a very subtle love story. Kind of 2 actually. Since I can't even watch the movie for Prince of Tides, I wasn't about to try reading it.

MsHellion said...

Sabrina, I'm horrible--I tend to avoid books written by men because they tend to focus on detail (like guns, et al) that I couldn't care less about. But glad you were able to read him and find his ability for suspense and tension was spot on!!

P. Kirby said...

I figure Nora probably figures stuff out in the end. What with her famous line about she can revise anything but a blank page.

I can totally relate to NR's process. The blank page is terribly intimidating. Even with a drawing, I start by noodling around on the page, laying down lines, looking for the basic gesture and form. At some point, I start to "see" what I'm drawing, and put down definitive lines. Pull out the eraser after the lines are inked; get rid of all the scribbles.

Same diff with writing. I need that draft and the process of writing to reveal story and character backstory.

Currently reading A Dance with Dragon's, G.R.R. Martin's mighty tome.

What book or author have you ever read that you’d never thought you’d read?

Uh, recently...the only thing I can think of is Nicholas Sparks's The Choice which is now on my list of worst books in the history of reading. What a crapfest! I learned that I will never-ever read another Sparks book; I'd rather have another root canal. 'Least root canals come with anesthesia.

MsHellion said...

Terri, you mention the Pat Conroy a lot. :) He must have made an impression.

I'm more of a "do as I say and not as I do" sort of lecturer. Don't throw rocks.

MsHellion said...

Pat, I love the imagery of sketching out your art--and then in the end, erasing all the parts that aren't a part of the final product. It's writing exactly...

And I'm with you on Nicholas Sparks, but only tried to struggle through The Notebook, which I didn't like near as well as the movie. And since he has to kill someone in every book, I don't care for him.

MsHellion said...

I would also rather have the root canal.

Janga said...

I'm reading The Book of Madness and Cures by Regina O'Melveny. It's about a 16th-century female doctor and her travels through Germany, Holland, Scotland, and France, sharing medical knowledge with other medical practioners as she goes. It's fascinating.

I'm not a big fan of time-travel, and so when I read Beatriz Williams's Overseas to review it, I expected find it meh at best. To my surprise, I loved it, pareticularly the WWI parts.

Maureen said...

I'm getting over my prejudice about westerns. Really! Driving through this part of the country I enjoy mostly the modern westerns. That line between the old west and the present is pretty enticing.

MsHellion said...

Janga, I've seen the title of the Book of Madness--and love the cover. I'm glad it's fascinating. I thought it would be like that "history" of dracula that came out some years ago for some reason, which I couldn't get into, so I steered away from it. The Overseas sounds fascinating though. I think WWI is such a tragic war--even more so than Vietnam--that reading about it just so bittersweet.

MsHellion said...

Mo, I usually prefer the historical Westerns to the present day ones. Bigger spot for women to be more ambitious. :)