Read enough of a genre of storytelling and eventually you’ll be tempted to write one, or so was the case with me. After binge reading my favourite romances from my salad days I began a catch up on what I’ve been missing. It was so much fun! I had to give writing one a go.
The thing with romance is that it’s a prescribed genre – readers have expectations and the genre complies. The genre is intended to be predictable- a happy ending is imperative. There are many tropes and guess what, they are all predictable.
Predictability is not a dirty word with this genre – it is the scaffold on which the story is built. The skill of the writer is taking the tropes and shaping a story to fit them that not only flows with an imperceptible compulsion but touches the reader – lifts them, reassures them and quite possibly takes them on a roller coaster ride that docks in a nirvana made by a respectful, sexy, amusing and positive relationship
It takes skill and imagination to get it right. A good read makes the work of the writer seem effortless- but it’s not.
Losing Everything, Finding Loveis a light holiday romance and coming of age story set in Greece. It’s about an American college student who goes to Athens to complete her postgraduate qualifications in Archaeology. She barely lands before she gets tangled up in a human trafficking scheme.
Luckily for Constance she gets abducted from her kidnapper by a caffeine addicted taxi-driving Adonis – and all before he’s had his morning coffee.
Kidnapping an American tourist never crossed Mihali’s mind but that’s what his neighbour was up to. With his cab! When he saw the sleeping beauty in the back seat, he had to save her. His neighbour had already filched her luggage, passport, credit cards and left her an inoperable phone.
Problem was, she didn’t want to be saved. Not by him, anyway.
Now he has to convince her that that he is not part of a kidnapping scheme, otherwise, how will he be able to hide her from the underworld and prevent her from going to the police, the cab company, and the embassy?
Before I read this book, I knew what my Goodreads review would be – 5 stars with the comment, “It’s by Flanagan, what more is there to say?” Having read it, I now know there is a lot more to say…
So if you haven’t realized over the course of the last two posts where I discuss this book, I’ll tell you now, Flanagan’s book was a tease. It’s a literary, historic fiction that won the Man Booker Prize in 2014 and was lauded by the chair of judges, A.C. Grayling with the following words:
“Some years very good books win the Man Booker Prize, but this year a masterpiece has won it.”
Hmmm….my quandary – 4 stars on Goodreads or 5? Four – he built my expectations for a romance with a HEA and didn’t deliver – or Five – surely one of the most acclaimed texts of the 21st Century, studied in schools etc, how dare I even consider less than 5 stars?
The thing is, when he went there, he out-romanced romance novels. He gives us romantic melodrama and its mores – the love interest’s husband is blown up in an explosion freeing her to be with him – the jilted fiancé lies about her rival’s death – the young POW he befriends, admires, and ultimately fails to heal is revealed as his long-lost nephew – at the eleventh hour, a mere 40 pages or so before the ending, a whim of fate presents a situation to both lovers whereby they can alter their life path with a touch, but through a lack of communication, with a reliance on presumption, they don’t.
And then there is THAT moment in the bookstore where Doriego and Amy meet. It’s a rare moment in literature these days- even romance genre fiction. You see, that moment doesn’t depend on a physical attraction. The love interest isn’t sparked by fame, or talent or individual preferences for boobs or brawn. It’s sparked by a chemistry that’s almost other worldly and that moment is teased out over paragraphs.
You know the chemistry I mean: when the orchestra comes in just before the closing credits of a movie, when the hero and heroine finally kiss, when you’re made to feel what they feel? When love hits. That moment when you realise the space between you and him/her as an electrified field of resistance, highly agitated yet ineluctable and debilitating in its yearning need for equilibrium. Just a sound, a look, a touch, may send you into frenzy or dissipate the emotion in a folly of fantasy incapable of fulfilment and you rue the fatality of an attraction you cannot contain.
Find me a romance novel where the attraction isn’t about physical appearance. There are a few, but not many. You may find it in fantasy romance but in a novel featuring mere humans it’s a little rare.
Besides THAT moment that anticipates romance early-ish in the novel there is that stretch walking across the Sydney Harbour Bridge at the close of the novel – the antithesis of THAT moment and the antithesis of the romance ride. Flanagan inverts an expected, tried-and-tested romance technique in another Brechtian lesson served complete with broken expectations and denied complacency.
In a romance novel it would be at this point in the plot where the couple have reconciled and begin their life-journey together and while the reader awaits the finality of hearing either one proclaim aloud their love. It is at this point that one or other will be physically and/or emotionally taken away e.g., the heroine is kidnapped by a rival for her love. It’s the final hurdle to the HEA. Instead of giving us a hurdle to leap, in a strange coincidence Flanagan brings these lovers into close contact. They pass each other on the bridge. Silently. They recognise each other after decades. A word, a brush of a gently swinging hand, a stall in their tread, could bring them together. We watch in slow motion, incapable of prodding them out of the trajectory of their hollow lives.
Finally, there is no HEA. Not even for a war hero. Not even for a woman alone again and childless after decades presumably grieving that short lived wartime fling.
Does Flanagan convince that love existing between a couple can uplift each individual – make each person good – and make life fulfilling?
Interview with Eileen Stephensen, author of Imperial Passions:Porta Aurea
Imperial Passions: Porta Aurea will be a Featured Deal on BookBub from Thurs 8th April, 2021
Imperial Passions: Porta Aurea is a wonderful historical fiction resurrecting the life of a powerful woman –matriarch – empress – of 11th Century Byzantium, Anna Dalassena. The novel accomplishes the seeming impossible – making a society with foreign and incomprehensible mechanisms that have been long deposed – accessible and engaging on a personal level.
Delivering a novel with panache and no apologies, author Eileen Stephensen, has drawn on her own in-depth research utilising contemporary and early voices to portray an 11th century woman’s perspective on pre-crusader Byzantium. And this 1000 years later when the voices most often heard on the subject remain male about males.
I’m thrilled that author, Eileen Stephensen has allowed me to interview her for Craftytheatre.
Your bio on Goodreads tells us you have attained a couple of degrees, neither of which involve Byzantium, what were they? Why Byzantium?
My undergraduate degree was in Asian studies. I lived in Taiwan for six months in my Junior year and was briefly fluent in Chinese. However, the opportunities to make a living with that degree were limited so I went to graduate school for an MBA in finance.
I had -0- interest in Byzantine history until about fifteen years ago when I happened upon an audio version John Julius Norwich’s book, “A Short History of Byzantium”. I borrowed audio books from the library all the time because of my long commute; on one visit nothing else appealed to me, so I picked up A Short History thinking it might possibly be interesting. That little book changed my life.
I have always enjoyed history and historical fiction, and I like my history to be old – the US Civil War is far too recent for my taste. Byzantine history is old, but the civilization was highly literate and many of their books, letters, and other writings have survived to give us a good understanding of them. Many other civilizations left too faint a trace, either because they were not literate, or because of the destructive traumas of history such as war, famines, epidemics, or geological destruction.
Why Anna Dalassena? Why not Theodora, Antonina, Irene, Zoe or Anna Comnena?
There are so many reasons to find Anna Dalassena’s story compelling. First, no one had ever written about her aside from a few historians, so I had a clean slate. Second, I was intrigued by the fact that any woman in the 11th century would have engineered her son’s seizing the throne and then that he gave her the same authority he had himself. Very few medieval women had that kind of drive and agency in their world. Third, there was a lot of information about her available, more than there is about many other Byzantine women, enabling me to have a pretty good idea about her life. Fourth, you can’t tell the story of Alexios Comnenus without starting with his mother, and I do plan to tell his story too!
Theodora and Antonina, Irene, Zoe and even Anna Comnena are all worthy subjects. In fact, one of the short stories in my book, Tales of Byzantium, is about Anna Comnena. But one day I was surfing the net, reading up on various Byzantines and I came across a long article about her. I finished the article and I felt like someone tapped me on the shoulder and said “This is who you need to write about.”
Byzantine scholarship and fandom is dominated by male voices – we need a stethoscope to hear a female one- did you face any obstacles in writing and publishing this book?
Unfortunately, Byzantine books in general do not get a wide readership. If the Byzantines are in a novel, it’s generally involving the Crusades and the Byzantines are sneaky cardboard characters. I did pitch my novel to a few publishing agents but was flat out told they aren’t interested in Byzantine historical fiction. My sense is that the few Byzantine centered novels that were traditionally published in the last 20 years did not sell well. Fortunately, we are in a golden age for independent publishing and so that’s what I did.
I was also faced with the fact that the people most interested in Byzantine history are usually male and most men aren’t that interested in stories that start with a teenaged girl. A couple of ways I tried to compensate for that was with my cover that includes an image of the hippodrome in Constantinople, and with a title that I thought might appeal to both men and women. So far I think about half my reviews are from men and half from women.
A lot of Byzantine history was whitewashed as it was occurring; much has been lost to time; a substantial is obscured by language, how difficult was it to come by sources and histories in English?
I’ve been so fortunate in the diligent efforts of historians over the past 30 years who have translated many of the primary sources I used. For the years covering Anna’s life I have three historians I can refer to – Michael Attaleiates, Michael Psellus, and John Skylitzes. They each have their own point of view and so the whitewash one painted on, comes off with another writer.
Also, today we have many historians studying and writing about Byzantine history. They do remarkably impressive work that I cannot speak highly enough about.
Anna is a teenager when the novel opens, did you ever conceive it as a YA novel?
No, and I wasn’t entirely comfortable with starting her story as a teenager, but I felt I needed to so as to paint a complete picture. Plus there were too many interesting figures in her younger years that I didn’t want to lose the chance to include them (Harald Hardrada, for example!). The Germans have a term that might apply with this first novel – bildungsroman: a novel dealing with a person’s formative years.
Anna’s lifetime saw a progress of Emperors and Empresses on the throne, did you think that you would be writing a saga when you began? How many novels will it take to tell the tale?
When I started I thought it would be all one book, but a writer I know looked at my material and advised me to make it at least two books. I am finishing up the next novel about Anna’s life that will take her to 1081 when her son Alexios takes the throne. It should be ready later this year. After that, I plan to write about Alexios over several novels, but Anna, while present, will not be the point of view character then; Alexios will.
In the Porta Aurea you gloss over the minutiae of the political mechanism, will the sequel, Imperial Passions: The Great Palace, bring us closer to the intrigue?
I do try to include as much as I can about the political environment, but that is difficult. Even in our own day, political machinations are largely behind the scenes, so I can’t expect the Byzantines to be any more forthright in what they wrote. Also, the titles and styles of government are, so far as I can tell, so different from our own that I’m afraid most readers would be so confused they would stop reading. So I’ll do my best. Let me know what you think!
Anna is a very sympathetic character in your interpretation- she could easily have gone the other way, how important is it to the story that she is likeable?
I made Anna a sympathetic character because that’s how I found her, but I could definitely see other people having a different opinion. I know her daughter-in-law, Irene Ducaena, definitely did not like her! Margaret Beaufort, mother of the English king Henry VII Tudor, had some similarities to Anna and there are mixed opinions about her. Reading the sources about Anna Dalassena, though, really made me admire her strength and the large but quiet impact she made on history.
Constantine Doukas – Dick Dastardly by necessity for an interesting plot, or was he darker than just an inept emperor in reality?
One item that kept coming up over and over when I was reading Anna’s history was her ardent hatred of Constantine Doukas. It seemed to me that a hatred that deep that it was remarked on a thousand years later could not just have been about politics. It had to be more visceral. Then I happened upon a little note that said Doukas’s first wife was a Dalassena, and so a relation of Anna’s. I have no idea what Doukas’s marriage to this woman was like, but as a writer I saw something that would explain the depths of Anna’s hatred and took it.
There were a number of inept/bad emperors during Anna’s life, and Doukas was not the worst of them, but he’s definitely in that category!
Do you have a favourite character other than Anna?
It would have to be Eudokia Makrembolitissa, Constantine Doukas’s second wife. There’s nothing in the historical record about her being friends with Anna, but it seemed at least a possibility and it worked well for telling the events of this period. She has an even greater role in the next novel.
When can we expect Imperial Passions: The Great Palace?
I hope to have it out by the fall, if not sooner.
Where can we purchase your novels, short stories and histories?
Imperial Passions: The Porta Aurea, is available through Amazon, Barnes & Noble, Kobo, Apple Books, etc.
Tales of Byzantium and Byzantine History in the 11th Century are only available from Amazon.
I’m really excited to have been interviewed by Liz Hale of the Antipodean Odyssey about Karagiozis and the Golden Fleecing. The Antipodean Odyssey is a blog about the way classical myths are used today in children’s literature. Classical myths are still doing their job, entertaining, amusing, inspiring and educating us and our children. Pop over to read the rest of this interview. Take your time and peruse what’s on offer – graphic novels, kid’s novels, Disney…
I think puppetry is the most exciting way to interpret and present mythology and fairy tales. There is inherent magic in the way mythology can teach …
In coming up with the Karagiozis and the Golden Fleecing project I set myself quite a task. I wanted to teach school children the magic of shadow puppetry by immersing them in a world that was beyond the lifetime of even their great-grandparents. I wanted them to experience life removed from the 21st century as a participant (with the help of empathy and imagination) and an observer and critic of a world view that they could create, observe and satirise.
Complicating my task was the fact that the Shadow Puppet tradition I chose is not Western and had no English play text that I could use. I had to write my own, which, truth be told, was one of the greatest attractions of the project. The other attraction was marrying my love of craft, drama and history.
I wanted to provide drama classes with lots of opportunities to be creative in designing and making the puppets and the shadow screen (the perde), rehearsing simple musical arrangements with live instruments, and moving and voicing the roles of the puppets.
Having watched many performances on YouTube, CD- ROM and listening to CDs I became acquainted with the stock characters and their mores. Each one was a caricature of a human foible or a stereotype based on their geographic area of origin within the 19th Century CE Greek world. A big part of the realisation of the characters were their accents and dialects. How could I convey these to a multicultural student population that wouldn’t recognise the inherent humour of the mimicry?
Then there was the issue of translation of slang and colloquialisms that just don’t work as direct translations. In these instances I tried to be true to the spirit of the comedic shadow puppet theatre.
As I was addressing these concerns other considerations of reception had to be tackled, especially since I was aiming to present the form to school children; namely, depictions of violence for humourous effect; the objectification of women as prizes and secondary support characters; and name-calling and swearing to raise laughs. Were these the most imposing obstacles to a 21st Century performance?
I had to make allowances for the perceived reception and backlash from parents, teachers and the students themselves. I minimised the slapstick and tried to write into the skeleton of the relationship between Nionio and the Vizier’s daughter a hint of romance and the idea that Nionio’s attraction goes a little beyond her wealth and position.
As a lover of romance, I couldn’t stick to the prescription 100%.
Whitewashing – yes. Straying too far from the original oeuvre? You be the judge.
Karagiozis’ comedies showcased the dexterity of the puppeteer’s voice, hands and nimble brain as he, in the guise of Karagiozis, commented on current affairs with his witty sidecracks and outwitted all others with his tongue. During my initial research for this project, internet sites ignored or downplayed the potentially violent usage of that arm. Sites said that as he was such a glib talker, he had to have a hand that kept up with his mouth – gesturing to get his point across. I wanted to make as much varied use of that arm as I possibly could. The filmed performances that I had seen had sanitised the arm. I leaned on Abbott and Costello, the Marx Bros, the Three Stooges and Jerry Lewis movies to guide me.
Is it too Western?
Karagiozis’ poverty and concern for those around him is never forgotten. As each story unfolds he embroils himself in different situations and bends others, including authority figures to his will. However, he never rises above his poverty. Regardless that he may have turned the Seray upside down, he always returns to his hovel. For the rest of the cast of characters, their lot in life never changes either. They return to enter the perde on the next performance from exactly where they started in the previous one.
How would today’s western audiences react to that?
Back in the 19th century and before, story tellers in Northern and Western Europe were telling tales with definite endings – happy endings and dire warnings – think of Grimm and Hans Christian Andersen. Like Karagiozis their stories were oral tales but they were not performed by puppets.
The puppets themselves were nuanced and easily recognisable as types. In trying to bring to the fore the spirit of the plays I was carried away in translating the look of Aglaia, Karagiozis’ wife. The couple have three sons, the Kolitiria, and they perpetually live in poverty – in a house with a leaky roof that is barely a shelter. The Western term, barefoot, pregnant and in the kitchen kept coming to mind.
There I know I took it too far.
Luckily, that’s not the Aglaia that you will see when the Ergastirio_Skiwn_Kouzaros present my text, Karagiozis and the Golden Fleecing. Their’s is a sympathetic lady in Karagiozi-green and patched fabric. She and all of their figures are technicoloured and gorgeous with bold black contouring and defining expressions.
In fact their beautiful and authentic designs are available to purchase in their E-Shop together with a range of other Karagiozis memoriblia.
A 19th Century audience would recognize the figures but would they get the humour of a 21st Century script written by a woman in Australia?
Besides the plot of your story how many other considerations guide your fingers’ flight over the keyboard?
A developing character arc?
An uplifting ending?
A moral to tell?
A journey that makes your reader reconsider the world?
An inspiring a call to action?
Fully rounded characters?
Sexual innuendo and lewdness?
Avoiding derogatory representations and stereotypes particularly of cultural minorities?
Presenting women in strong feminist affirming depictions?
Breaking away from traditional roles ascribed to the sexes?
Do you consider all of these and more?
Throw it all out the window!
You’re wasting your time!
LOL! (Evil laugh with a pass, or two, of fingers sliding over fingers.)
Of course, that’s only if you hope to write a 19th century script for a traditional performance in the Karagiozis Puppet Theatre for a 19th century audience.
Breaking the Rules (as in 21st Century Rules)
Storylines were well known. Not only was the ending predictable but every stage of the action was, as the puppeteer used known stories that he seasoned with current political or social satire in the form of snarky asides, banter and innuendo. In fact, the puppeteer memorized an entire repertoire of storylines that he would recall at will, and was able to perform each character with his or her distinctive voice and role.
Throughout theatre history the use of stereotyping has been imperative to storytelling. Think of the Commedia Dell’arte with its stock characters or the English Pantomime. Not only did having characters with set traits help the puppeteer to keep the oeuvre of the Karagiozis world intact, it helped keep the storylines in memory with their predictable mores. Puppets’ behaviour was predictable, clearly defined and exaggerated – caricatures that were recognizable and so, funny. Offensive today, you bet.
Its stereotyping had a strong racial flavour when Karagiozis was performed in the young Modern Greek nation of the 19th Century. There was the Turkish Vizier; Velighekas the Albanian Guard, Solomon the Jewish moneylender etc. As Greeks poured into urban centres and the new nation left behind the Ottoman yoke, that focus on cultural differences and recognizable traits turned inward e.g., Barba-Yiorgo the quintessential honourable Greek Shepherd from Roumeli; Sior Dionysios, the fallen aristocrat with his Italianate manners from Zakynthos; Stavrakas, the urban cowboy from the port of Pireaus.
Karagiozis, the trickster, uses their foibles and rigidity to manipulate them for his own gain. Their rigid characteristics are essential to the comedy. The lone puppeteer voicing all of these characters is aided in their performance and getting those laughs by the mimicry of their accents.
Objectification of Women
There are few female characters in the traditional repertoire, probable because the puppeteers were male and the form flourished in the patriarchies of Turkey and Greece. The most recognizable female in the repertoire was the Vizier’s daughter, the Vizieropoula. Sometimes she is called Fatima or Fatme, however, often she is referred to by her title. Fatme or Fatima aren’t as funny as Vizieropoula. Vizieropoula is a pun as well as a title – it means the big breasted woman.
As both meanings of her name suggest, she was a prize symbolic of wealth, status and sexual gratification. As the form developed other female characters have taken to the fore e.g., Karagiozis long-suffering wife, Aglaia.
Punning and Cliché
19th Century humour relies a lot on word play and punning and cliché’s. These tools of laughter are characteristic of a theatre form aimed at the masses that is beloved by all.
Lewd, Crude & Vulgar jokes and Biff
Shadow Puppetry was aimed at adults who would appreciate its humour in all of its manifestations. This included sexual innuendo and slapstick – or in Karagiozis case, slap-arm. Think of the humour of the Three Stooges, the Marx Brothers and Punch and Judy.
To write Karagiozis and the Golden Fleecing I had to break 21st Century conventions and then pull it all back to be suitable for children’s theatre. I had to translate a Greek theatre form that relied heavily on punnng and sterotypical voice characterizations into English for 21st century school students who would not be aware of the satire just in the use of voice. It was quite a challenge.
Seven years ago I wrote a manuscript to bring to students in Australia the magic of the Karagiozis Shadow Puppet Theatre. The manuscript included a script that I had written for an English performance, instructions and designs for the puppets and the perde – the shadow screen – a history of the Greek shadow theatre, and comprehension questions and exercises that had to do with learning and understanding cultural differences, the use of language and the realisation of this performance. Never having been published I had to do something to help sell my work.
So, seven years ago I began this blog not really knowing what I was doing or if I had enough to say. I knew I had to have a blog and have an internet presence with social media if I was going to be a writer. I had a manuscript to peddle and a potential audience I had to reach, so with the help of my inspirational mentor I set up my WordPress site.
Then I stopped short. What was I going to say? What could I possibly write that would garner the right kind of attention? Did I blog out the information that I had researched for my book, repackaging it somehow? Or would that render the purpose of my book redundant? What if I didn’t blog the information I knew to be fact and instead discussed questions that were raised in my head around my research? I had a fair few.
While my manuscript bounced around publishers, I began posing those questions and building the world in which my questions were sparked in the following blogposts:
It’s a pattern of posting that I have followed ever since. But not the only pattern. When my kids were involved in productions or history days at school, I would make their costumes or and discuss the history behind the nemes crown, armour, turban etc..
Making the costumes gave me something to post on the various social media I engaged with. I had opened a Pinterest account with great delight, a Twitter account with some trepidation and a Facebook page with the guilt of knowing that I would never be able to post once a week.
Twitter, Facebook and Pinterest – were the platforms that you had to have 7 years ago. Since then there has been a shift. Instagram has popped up, video has reigned supreme (YouTube, TikTok and now Instagram Reels) and they’re looking to be toppled by the humble and abiding podcast.
I have struggled to keep up with it all. I did manage to open a Craftytheatre Instagram account. It was where I found the Ergasitrio Skiwn Kouzaros (@ergastirio_skiwn_kouzaros)
Here was a Karagiozis Shadow Puppetry studio in Athens promoting this wonderful form of Greek theatre to the world. And they are not just any company. The Ergastirio Skiwn Kouzaros has a long-standing tradition dating back to 1934 with its founder Spyros Kouzaros. Anastasios Kouzis, Spyros Kouzaros’ son, graciously accepted my English script to read over.
He liked it!
His company are preparing to stage it on their YouTube channel, very soon.
There is so much to say that I couldn’t possibly say it all in one post. So, of course, I’ll be posting a lot more about the Ergastirio Skiwn Kouzaros and Karagiozis and the Golden Fleecing over the coming weeks.
Way back in March I began blogging about romance with the question, “Who Reads Romance?” My question was sparked by a disparity in opinions on the quality of romance genre books when those written in the 70s and 80s were compared with the ones written today. Old school readers assured me that books written today weren’t as “strong”.
At the time, I started listening to various romance podcasts – maybe 5 – and consulted Goodreads to find a good book or a few. I learnt that those old school romances -the ones I cut my teeth on – were deemed problematic at best and fodder for mockery at worst.
I tracked romance bookstagrammers and listened to podcasters for authors and books that were current that I could gush over as much as the reader recommending it. No book recommended was unenjoyable, but could I gush over it as it was being gushed over the airways?
The more I listened, the more I came to suspect that we readers are hooked not only by our favourite tropes but by the style of writing employed by the genre when we were first introduced and the way those books translated the restraints and insecurities we place on ourselves into the social milieu of the novel – this particularly resonated with me when I read historical romance.
Possibly this hooking, “blooding” – to borrow a term from the wonderful Fated Mates podcast– in romance occurred when we first started dating or were ready for it – as teens and twenty-somethings.
I suspect that if you are one of so many voices gushing over Lisa Kleypas’ Devil in Winter, then you were in your teens or twenties in 2006 and dreaming of romance. I liked it too, very much, but I can’t gush over it like sooooooooooo many others. For me, that kind of gushing was back in the 80s and 90s – particularly over Judith McNaught’s Kingdom of Dreams, published in 1989, the year I started uni.
The romance genre’s writers and critics talk a lot about what kind of stories should be written, who should write them, the ethics upheld in the plot, the careguarding of consent, whether there should be content warnings/ spoiler alerts, how distressing the story may be and for whom, and generally the impact of the story on the reader – is it politically correct? feminism affirming? uplifting? What sort of emotional work is it doing for the reader? With all of these questions and more, I wonder how difficult it is to tick all of the boxes and still deliver a good story.
It’s interesting that E. L. James, 50 Shades of Grey, began as fan fiction. To say that its universal appeal was just due to the sex may be an oversimplification. The main character, Ana, is interesting yet she is not a self-possessed, confident, go-getter who states what she wants and pursues it. Not in the first book, anyway. Against the current trend / desire for such a heroine she is shy and malleable throughout the first novel until she finally finds her own strength and uses it.
The desire for strong, self-possessed/ driven heroines in literature brings an old Donohue episode to mind. Aired perhaps as part of his last season, the conversation was around shyness. It was perceived in a negative light. I found it disturbing at the time and decades later I still remember it. It went unchallenged that to succeed a person had to be assertive.
Now I must ask, can a shy heroine be interesting? Can a woman who is malleable or accommodating be considered a fitful heroine? Does a woman need to be assertive to have her worth acknowledged? Must she be an alpha? Would a wallflower still be interesting if she didn’t reach off the wall? Could a wallflower remain a wallflower even after a romantic adventure?
Lots of questions. Luckily romance moves quickly. It will evolve with its readers and I will be enjoying its journey onwards.
This has been the last of my romance blogposts. It’s been fun – especially exploring so many new authors and rediscovering a genre that lifts me, makes me laugh, reduces my anxiety, puts me in the mood and replenishes the romance in my own relationship.
What’s next? Exciting news about a project that is coming full circle.
Ahhh, procrastination is a freezer hobby – play it too long and your creative juices become popsicles. Off with frigidity and get down to it.
So, I opened a new doc. Can’t profane the entire mss with a premature insertion half realised and tentative – they’d be no recourse for more. And I typed. Common phrases, I’ve used a myriad of times suddenly became loaded. Clichés took on literal meaning – he knocked her socks off when he dropped his drawers – and had to be rethought.
I wrote and rewrote. I cut and pasted into the mss and read the flow and rewrote around it. I spoke about heat to my romance reading buddies and compared heat levels according to country of publication. They differed. What to do, what to do, what to do?
The first Outlander novel has a lot of sex scenes and is a product of the time it was written. Something is left to the imagination without hiding behind euphemism. Scenes by Lisa Kleypas are far more literal but ensconced in a strong storyline. Tessa Bailey is a younger voice and calls on forthright indulgence. What to do? Again I was facing the question: who reads romance?
Could euphemism save me? Or should euphemism be relegated to the place of comedy where its best served these days? Shakespeare indulged in it – Shakespeare, my goto would save me. Just be poetic, right? Use floridly lyrical phrases that are evocative and build sensation through their poetry. Exhale. I had my answer.
I got down to it and after a couple of weeks of muddling around with words, I finally had my first sex scene. Time for celebration. All smiles, I sat down to coffee with the principle male in my life preening with confidence.
“I did it!”
“My first sex scene. What I’ve been working on these past couple of weeks.”
“Oh, okay. How was it?”
“It’s just here. Wanna look?”
“Here and here.”
“Those two paragraphs?”
“A paragraph per week.” My principle-male-other can be very analytical.
“Yep, kind of. That’s not exactly how it happened.”
“All that stress for two paragraphs.”
“Well, er, yes.”
“Is that how long they’re supposed to be?”
“How long are they in the books you read?”
“Judith McNaught, back in the day, did a chapter.”
“That’s what they’re writing now?”
“Um, not exactly. That was 30 years ago.”
“What are they doing today?”
“Sarah Maclean over the chapter, Sophie Jordan, maybe every 2 chapters, Dani Collins simmers while she writes, Susan Mallery about a chapter…”
“And you have?”
“Hmm, what? Where are you going?”
“Yes, two paragraphs!”
“Hmph! Is that all I’m good for?”
“Where’re the kids?”
“Close the door.”
Now armed with quite a few more paragraphs I sent it to my mentor as I was still unsure. My mentor is not a romance reader but is an awarded author.
“Was I clear enough with what’s going on?”
I hadn’t drawn the details of the sexual encounter but led the mind to the point where the imagination could fill in the particulars. At least I hoped I had.
Yes, I had. The issue was with the pacing. It was all a bit Wham-bam-thank-you-Maam! Despite the characters’ urgency the sex had to be enjoyable for the reader – it had to flow. I had to slow it down and give it a seductive rhythm.
And while I’m editing I should think about a little conversation during the action.
Conversation? Sex conversation? Doesn’t pillow talk happen to move the action to a mattress? Surely she doesn’t mean a running commentary – not one for watching the horse races, I wouldn’t know how to work it. Hmmm. I had to think that one through. So much for the old songA Little Less Conversation.
Play with it, get humorous, she advised.
Edit, edit, edit and, lo and behold, it was time to hand my mss to two devoted romance readers.
First, a member of the old book club.
“What the f@*k is this S=!t?”
Agape, I looked at her nonplussed.
“Have you read this?”
“Of course, “I squeaked.
“I mean have you read this out loud?”
Very still, I didn’t know what to say.
“Read it now. Read it now, right here, out loud.”
“Does it have to be out loud?”
“Give it to me, “she snatched the mss from me and began.
“Where is it going? What’s it saying? I’m lost. Finish the sentence. Why’s it hanging? If you’re too squeamish to write what’s going on, then why are you even bothering?”
“It’s supposed to be evocative. You fill in the rest.”
“Ha. I don’t want to think. I want to be entertained. Making me work is not entertaining me.”
“Thanks for the feedback.”
I took the mss and went to see my other reader – not a member of the old club.
“Who are you aiming it at?”
“The novel, the sex scenes, what do you mean?”
“The whole lot? What are you aiming for?”
“A love story. A beautiful falling in love experience with engaging love scenes.”
“They’re tepid. Pedestrian. I’ve read much hotter.”
“Good or bad?”
“Okay but not hot.”
“Thanks for the feedback.”
I went home and opened a new document. It seemed I had to write specifics – details – make it real – make it hot. How much real details did I include – toe curling? The canary climax of the sing-song pseudo-soprano? The shaky leg thing – Elvis’ sex appeal extended past his pelvis, didn’t you know? I took on board all of the criticism and tried again.
Re-write, re-write, re-write. Send it to another reader from the old book club
“It’s good. At times I can’t put it down. But…”
“But it could be stronger?”
“The two of them – the chemistry.”
“Thanks for the feedback.”
Revise, revise, revise.
Off it goes to another reader.
“It’s good but it’s missing something?”
“A sex scene.”
I thought I had written …a couple of them – fully fleshed out! Plus another separate paragraph glossing over the last sex scene.
Did I send her the latest version? Yep, I did.
Maybe my focus was too much on trying to be funny. I had to flesh out that glossed over extra and keep it clean. I mean dirty. I mean cleanly dirty. As in good, clean, clear, focused, sharp and hopefully astoundingly, filthily dirty in its orgasm.
I sent back the scene. She read it over her lunch break. She choked on her lunch.