Torturing Your Darlings
Oh, no, you’ll say, Sarah has been reading regency romances again. You wouldn’t be wrong, though Sarah has moved from this to “Biographies of founding fathers” following a line from an article she read for the current (historical) project.
I hit the regency romances whenever I’m under crunch, which I am right now. Now there are levels in regency romance. I’d compare Madeleine Hunter to any writer of any genre (even if I flip past the sex scenes.)
Most of the regencies aren’t like that, though. Most of them are fairly light fare, and therefore something good to read while I’m trying to finish a book. Because the worst part of being mid book is when you get caught by a novel (someone else’s novel) and lose a day of work. When you’re under crunch deadline, that can kill you.
Sometimes I read cozy mysteries for the same purpose. But this time what I got caught by was regencies. Mostly because most of the cozies I start recently have characters that annoy me, not entertain me. (And yep, a lot of it is political. It’s fine to call your cat Chairman Meow, but when you explain it’s because you admire the mass murderer on whom the name is based, the book is going to take flying lessons against the nearest wall. (Used, paper book, thank heavens.) And I’m not going to believe you want to solve a murder, because you clearly have NO moral compass.)
So I’ve been reading regencies and most of them are from KULL (Kindle Unlimited Lending Library.) This is not as terrible as the “tsunami of crap” prophets believed it would be (and romance is the closest you get to their prediction.) As with most books, I find I reject about half of them. 90% if you count reading blurb as rejecting. It gets to “Oh, yawn, that, really?” And the book goes back, or never gets loaned.
However what KULL has more of than other venues is it has a higher proportions of very “new” novelists. Which means I run into ONE problem that traditional publishers guarded against. (NO, not spelling or punctuation. Have you read traditional books lately?)
Every one of us starts at a place our books have virtually no plot. We think they do, but they don’t. They don’t even rise to Mary Sue levels.
In Mary Sue/Marty Stu, the character is wonderful and whatever he/she touches is solved/improved/etc.
But in most beginner novels, nothing happens. At least nothing of consequence.
In most regencies with this problem, for instance, I find myself looking in on the life of a perfect, well behaved miss, who floats through the days going to balls and talking to one or two very well behaved suitors. If it’s two we’re supposed to care passionately about whom she’ll choose.
Only we don’t. Mostly it feels like I’m listening to incredibly boring gossip. I mean, my life is more interesting than theirs. At least there’s something at stake.
But Sarah, you’ll say, what about escapism? We thought you were for escapism and ludic enjoyment of stories.
I am, but here’s the thing: books are different. I’ve told you before, at least if you took a workshop with me, that the problem with a character opening the book with crying and telling you everything that is wrong with their lives, is that the characters are like strangers who just rang your doorbell. If a stranger rings your doorbell and dissolves into tears and tells you he lost his job, his girlfriend left him, and his pet aardvark died, you’re going to slam the door in his face, hide behind the sofa, and shout that you’re not home.
Trust me, it’s not any better if your character is telling them about an incredibly complex, non-fraught routine. I know this experience because grandma to her dying month kept up correspondence with family all over the world. As in, she wrote to them every week, and they wrote back. Invaluable while it lasted, since both she and grandad quite literally had family all over the world. The problem was many of these people had emigrated in HER MOTHER’S generation. Grandma had an attachment to them because she remembered them from when she was young, and of course their kids and grandkids interested her because she remembered cousin so and so and the brother in law of aunt so and so. (And the family has bizarre nicknames. Really Potato Bug?)
To me on the other hand, these were names I couldn’t remember and events I had no interest in, poured at me EVERY week when I came to have tea with grandma. I endured it because I loved grandma, but my eyes acquired a fixed expression and sometimes I was doing homework at the back of my mind, just to escape.
These books are a lot like that. These people might be good people and relatively interesting if I KNEW them. Only I don’t know them. I just hear about them going to balls and parties, and…. And you know the writer is having so much fun with her (usually) imaginary friends, that she (usually. There are males who write regencies, but they’re few) doesn’t realize she’s boring the reader out of his/her/its/aardvark’s mind.
So how to solve that? Easy. Torture your characters.
No, I don’t mean physically. While you’ll acquire a bespoke audience, if your round of balls and parties develops sessions with gags and whip– Never mind. Considering fifty shades of grey, go for it. Torture your characters that way if you can stomach it. I just have no more interest in it than in parties. So moving right along–
What I mean is your characters have to have problems. You have to put them in a situation where they so much want or need something that they have to bestir themselves to get it. And it’s not easy to get!
But Sarah, you say, what about escapism? Fun?
Well, Pride and Prejudice is arguably Austen’s best loved book, (please, not the movie, and not the fifties mini-series in which it’s set in the Victorian era, and where it’s all about the slapstick and hats) and it is escapism, in the sense that it created a dream-regency many women imagine themselves in. Also, you know it’s going to end well. I mean, that’s a great advantage of romances.
But good Lord, when it starts out, no one there is in a good place. If you don’t understand the problem five daughters with virtually no dowry (the estate being entailed away from them) presented, you need to brush up on your regency. The girls were too high-born to be maids or other low female employment, too uneducated to be governesses. Their mother is herself too low born (and silly) to know how to creditably present them in ANY society. Their father, even should he save and give them a London season in which to find husbands, knows that due to their mother’s origins in trade, they’re unlikely to be invited to the best balls or get vouchers for Almacks. This in turn means they will not find the best husbands. In fact, the most LIKELY outcome for the five girls is ending up spinsters living in extremely reduced circumstances, with perhaps some help from kindly relations. In fact, the dream outcome is that one of them marries someone on the fringes of “respectable” — say a business man or a minor parson — and can help her other four sisters, a little, so they don’t starve as poor spinsters.
This is what lends interest to everything. You understand why their mother has been throwing Jane at junior businessmen since the girl was 15. You understand why Mr. Bingley is such a dream catch, and also why it feels like aiming at the moon. You understand how much Lizzie must have despised Mr. Collins to turn him down. You even understand Lydia, the youngest and most impetuous sister, risking it all to escape the horrible future that seems inevitable.
This makes it interesting to read about their balls and dinners. And you can dream that you too, with no connections or fortune, could have captured Mr. Darcy.
But the danger and the need MUST be there, to keep the reader interested in the good stuff.
Remember that. In every genre remember that. Start with your character in trouble.
Now I’ve told you before, and it’s true, that the “problem” in the first chapter need not be the problem that carries the book. Mostly because I want to avoid the “too many problems, I can’t read this” but also because some problems are too complex to put all in the first chapter.
Take Pride and Prejudice again. (I recommend the A & E series, if you just want to watch it.) The “Problem” in the first chapter is that rich men have come to town and Mr. Bennet refuses to visit them. (Probably a combination of introversion and not wanting to see what his wife will do to get their attention for his daughters.) We only realize the bind they’re in gradually, though we understand it fully by the time the courting is underway. And certainly by the time of major setbacks.
Go through it, either book (It’s a short book) and tally how problems are revealed, from their money issues to their mother’s disposition.
Yes, I know it’s a regency romance. It’s also a superbly plotted book. And you can think of your own twists that match those but fit things like… science fiction, or fantasy, and have nothing to do with romance (unless you want to.) Different problems, different solutions, but the way the problems are introduced is important.
Go do it because nothing irks me more than a good writer, with good word and scene sense who fails to have anything INTERESTING happen in her/his/its/dragon’s book.
Yes, character based books are based on the characters. But the characters never show their range unless they have real problems and something interesting happens to them. And just having them go to parties, or, in present day, have breakfast and drive around shopping, does not show us their range, their abilities or their CHARACTER.
Plot, which of necessity is the solving of problems (and the problem needs to be big enough to support a long story, when it comes to novels) is the honing stone against which the character is sharpened. And plot is necessarily the RESULT of the character’s circumstances, hopes, fears and range. A Sherlock Holmes novel will look quite different if you drop Miss Marple in it. Pride and Prejudice would be a different beast if all the sisters were as silly as Lydia.
Now go think about how to torture your characters and put their behind in a vise grip metaphorically speaking (Literally it’s that fifty shades thing again.) And make it good.