December 19, 2007

Reaching Up

During the previous quarter of graduate school, in an assigned chapter of “Literature: An Introduction to Fiction, Poetry, and Drama,” I found the following distinction between genre fiction and literary fiction:

Reading literary fiction (as distinguished from fiction as a commercial product–the formula kind of spy, detective, Western, romance, or science fiction story), we are not necessarily led on by the promise of thrills; we do not keep reading mainly to find out what happens next…Reading literary fiction is no merely passive activity, but one that demands both attention and insight-lending participation.

I’m an unapologetic reader and writer of romance, and I’m not going to defend the genre here because I think others have done it eloquently enough (Eloisa James in particular). But lately I’ve been thinking about what elements make a romance transcend genre parameters.

I read Laura Kinsale’s Flowers from the Storm or Pam Rosenthal’s The Bookseller’s Daughter and they bowl me over every time. How do they do it? Every day I search for the elusive qualities that will make my WIP extraordinary. The perfect metaphor, the rich historical detail that will bring it alive, the most precise adjective.

George Orwell wrote that stale phrases choke writing like “tea leaves blocking a sink.” I want this novel to be clog-free.

Sherry Thomas, author of the upcoming Private Arrangements, wrote a post on her blog about authors who choose to do the extra work to craft beautiful writing. I loved her acknowledgment of the difficulty involved in rising above the quotidian.

It is hard work constantly searching for fresh images, ruthlessly eliminating cliches, spending hours researching historical detail for one sentence. Sometimes I feel like I’m lashing words together like bamboo scaffolding to support the weight of my ambition. The bamboo bends and bows and feels like it may break, but each day I climb higher.