Friday, June 17, 2011

Date With Kate: A Question of Balance – Why Too Much Even of A Good Thing Can be Just Too Much

We’ve had some extremes of weather around here lately.  First there was the unexpected and unseasonably warm Spring. Long hot days that were much warmer than the normal average temperature, dry  Bank Holidays – a thing usually unheard of for any UK Bank Holiday, let alone the early May one . . . and the late May one.   For a start everyone loved it. It was warm, it was dry, it was great.
And then it went on and on . . .and on. It was too dry. Too warm. It was wearing, worrying. The gardens needed water, the farmers were concerned about their fields and the crops in them.  All that everyone could talk about was how much we needed rain.   After what seemed like a long, long time, the rain came – buckets of it, deluges. Too much, too heavy – in places it was dangerous.  Plants were battered down, floods threatened.  In both cases, the weather that had seemed welcome became too much to appreciate, value, let alone enjoy.

It’s the same with that all important ‘emotional intensity’ that editors are looking for in a story and that seems, from so many discussions I’ve had at courses and workshops I’ve taught, to give so many would-be writers – and some published ones – so much trouble to deliver. Editors constantly say they are looking for emotional punch and it’s up to the author to deliver it. But so often the author thinks she has delivered it – because she has piled on that emotion, there’s lots of heartache, an unhappy childhood, perhaps some family cruelty, poverty, misery and desolation . . . . But all this doesn’t actually equal that ‘punch’.

Remember the ‘misery memoirs’ that were - strangely, to me – so very popular last year? It seemed that every second person was bringing out a book about the way they were beaten abused, used, derided . . . It got so that I almost felt that I had failed my son, who wants to be a writer and has a lot of talent, by giving him a happy family background with lots of enjoyable days and no abuse. What would he find to write about? Anyway, those books dragged on and on about the unhappy lives these people had lived – and some of them inspired emotions and sympathy, but then as more and more of them appeared, the emotions became numbed, the impact of the feelings that were written about stopped hitting home. Or think of a horror film where the first appearence of a monster is scary, the next has less impact, the next . . . .
I remember once, a long time ago, when I had written  a particularly emotional scene in a story.   I was worried that I had gone over the top, so I asked my editor what she thought.   She wasn’t worried at all – ‘Go on till I tell you to stop,’ she said.  In fact I think she could have taken more of the heightened emotions.  But my point is that this scene was one of emotion, response and reaction between the hero and the heroine. And it was  a scene, not a long series of them. The emotions I was creating had time to build up to them, and enough time to have the impact they needed.

So many  writers  now seem to think that backgrounds like those misery memoirs, or descriptions of the grinding poverty or stress in which, say the heroine lives, are filling the book with emotions.  The bedsit where she lives has cracked and filthy floor covering, there is a hole in the window,  she drinks out of a cracked and chipped cup . . . .   They think that this is building that emotional intensity, giving the story emotional punch, when in fact they are having the effect of too much sun – or rain – you just end up wishing it was over. Emotional  tension comes from the interaction of the hero and heroine. It is about their thoughts and feelings, the way they react to each other as a result.

It’s the same with sex. Sexual passion is a wonderful thing – to experience and to write about. It’s totally natural,  absolutely necessary that our heroes and heroines should fancy the pants off each other.  They wouldn’t be made for each other if they didn’t. And sex used in a story, at a vital and natural point, to express, confuse, complicate, add to the feelings they already have for each other is another great way to add to that emotional conflict, up the tension. No – wait a  minute – what I really mean is that sexual tension is a great way to do that.  Too many sex scenes where your  characters are in bed together, having sex – sex that doesn’t change anything -  brings on that numbed brain syndrome again.   Because, to be honest, we all know what happens in sex -  fit part A into slot B,  tweak, thrust, gasp, arch a back . . . reach the stars (this is romance we’re writing here) And repeat? Well maybe – maybe not. Which  brings the most emotion, adds to the tension? More or less? Isn’t it much more likely to create tension – in all sorts of ways – if they don’t actually have sex?

One thing that I see too little of in books these days is the  space for ‘down time’, time when things seem to ease off between your hero and heroine, when there is a sort of peace – a chance to breathe. Those moments don’t diffuse the tension, they increase it, because the reader knows what’s coming. It’s not time for the Happy Ever After –so what is just around the corner, what is lurking out of sight?  It’s almost like cueing the sinister music. Think of the moment in a film, or on a ‘soap’ where someone says they’ve never been so happy – or that at last things are going right . . It's like waiting for the shark in Jaws .  ..dum de dum de dum . . .

I’m about to launch into my annual set of reading for the  Romantic Novelists’ Association’s New Writers’ Scheme – and if I could  create a wish list of what I’d love to see in the submissions I receive, up there on the list, along with  fewer stereotype ‘ Harlequin/Mills & Boon characters’ , less arguments about everything in the name of ‘conflict’,  more believable reasons for each characters being suspicious of the other, would be more balance – more characters without ‘misery memoir’ lives behind them, more reasons for doing things other than just because they are so desperately poor,  more feelings and questions and ways of dealing with things  - and more reasons for falling in love with each other – than just overwhelming sexual enslavement.

None of the things I’ve been talking about is actually bad or wrong to see in a romance – I’ve used every one of them and will probably do so again. But after a time too many impoverished heroines, too many heroes with terrible  relationships with their parents, all end up looking like cookie cutter shapes.  Add in that overwhelming sexual passion that hits from nowhere, takes up scenes where emotions and feelings could be expressed in words, actions. . . what used to be called the  ‘getting to know you’  part of the story – and you end up with something so predictable and similar to all the other submissions that it has the opposite effect from what you’re aiming for. The ‘emotional tension’ is lost under the impact of that  brain numbing sense of too much.

The buzzword that is coming out from Mills and Boon latelyis ‘unpredictability’ . Last year at the RNA Conference, the line the editors quoted  was ‘Innovate, don’t imitate.’ What I’m suggesting is that one of the ways of being  less predictable, appearing less imitative is  by remembering that ‘less is more’. Certainly, piling more and more – background, details of poverty, events, cruel stepmothers . . . into the mix doesn’t create more emotion which is where the tension and the punch really lies. The place where you find that is in the interaction between your hero and heroine. The feelings they have for each other and the tension that creates between them.  That’s where the emotional punch of your story lies.
Kate is delighted and honoured to learn that her  most recent title - The Proud Wife is the Pink Heart's  Book Club Pick for June 30th. This book was out in the UK in March and in Presents Extra in April.  
Coming up is the 'Wuthering Heights' book - The Return of the Stranger and as she's hust been sent a copy of the great cover, she can't resist sharing it here.
You can find out more about this book, and all of Kate's other novels on her web site   and all the most up to date news  is posted on her blog


  1. Thanks Kate - wise, wise words as always. Love the new cover! He is dreamy! Can't wait to read it. Caroline x p.s congrats on your Pick of the Month - much deserved.

  2. Great post Kate. Thank you for sharing. I love the new cover. I'm so looking forward to reading about the dark tortured hero. :o))

  3. Thank you Caroline. I'm glad the blog worked for you. And yes, I'm so pleased with that cover that I keep wanting to post it up at any opportunity

    Kate - I keep trying to post as myself, but blogger is having none of it!

  4. Hello Kiru -and thank you too. I'm so pleased you like the cover - it's great isn't it? And I hope you ejoy reading about my dark tortured hero when you get your hands on him! ;o)

    Kate again - still not able to register!

  5. Great post Kate. I don't suppose it's necessary to have had an abused life in order to write good stories..sometimes, listening to and reading about the problems other people have faced can help. Writers have to be listeners before they're anything else really, so that they can get into the skin of how someone else is feeling. At least, that's what I think.