Wednesday, June 13, 2012

The words that touch the heart

One of the essentials to a successful resurrection of my writing career -- as distinguished from my publishing career -- is reading.  I do not lack for reading material, and I seem to be acquiring more and more every day.  That Amazon one-click buying button combined with ereaderiq's daily listing of freebies has swollen my Kindle library to almost 600 volumes.

But I also have an extensive library of print material, not only popular fiction but non-fiction and research and, well, you name it, I've probably got a bunch of it.

The problem I have is finding time to read, and then secondarily choosing what to read.  Most, but not all, of my print library of romance fiction is from pre-2000, and I know that I need to read more current material.  But I also need to read the old stuff.

Anyway, the point I'm trying to reach is that a few days ago I selected a book to read, something I could take outside with me if I had a little time to relax on the patio when it's not too terribly hot or for a few minutes in bed before I turn out the light.  The book is Lady of Spirit by Edith Layton, a traditional Regency romance published by Signet in 1986.  The link is the Amazon listing with a quartet of reader reviews that will give you some idea of the plot and style.

First of all, I'm not offering a review here.  I'm not well enough versed in the Regency sub-category of romance and don't want to make a fool of myself.  I've also only read about one-third of it so far.

Second, one of the reasons I chose this book was because I knew the late Edith Layton.  Not well, but I could say I had met her a couple of times at various RWA functions, chatted with her, and engaged in many online exchanges with her.  So I admit I was predisposed to like the book, and that kind of bias is not good in a reviewer.

Third, the book's age mitigates against it being instructional, informational, or even inspirational in terms of my writing for today's market.  It becomes, therefore, much more pump-priming, which is okay.  And please notice that I did not say "just" pump-priming, because I consider that function of my reading to be very important.

So my comments here are not about the plot structure, the Regency conventions, or even Ms. Layton's writing style.  Instead I want to bring up one particular element:  The power of a novel to evoke a strong emotional response in the reader.

The scene and details aren't important, but there was a passage in the early part of the novel that brought me to tears because I was able to identify with the emotions the character experiences in connection with events similar to ones from my own personal real-life history.

And I realized that this has been missing from several of the newer "romance" novels I've read recently, whether self-published digital fare from Amazon or newer digital works from established authors or the print works from the past decade or so. 

Is it just that I'm old and set in the ways developed over so many years reading romance novels?  Is it that I can't seem to connect when the characters are vampires or werewolves or angels or zombies or faeries or whatever?  Is it that I'm too liberal in my politics to be able to dismiss the whole invisible realm of poverty that lies under the facade of all the dukes and duchesses, kings and billionnaires?  I can probably answer "yes" to all of those.  And maybe that's why Lady of Spirit resonates with me, at least today.

A few weeks ago, I downloaded a new self-published historical romance from a first-time author.  I knew when I acquired it -- free -- that it was the author's first published work because she said so in the front matter.  How many other novels she wrote before deciding this would be the one she put out for public consumption, I have no way of knowing.  I looked at the free sample before I downloaded the whole thing, and so I knew the book was full of typos and formatting errors.  Not knowing the author at all, I was not disposed to like the book or make allowances for her the way I might have been for Edith Layton.

In the end, though I tried mightily, I could get through no more than I think two or three chapters of the free Kindle book.  It was a textbook example of virtually everything an author could do wrong, from boring "fashion show" description of her characters on the first pages to inaccurate history to anachronistic names to horrible grammar and spelling errors to inconsistent backstory details.  But as I read it, what struck me most was that I couldn't connect with the characters.

One of the criticisms leveled at Lady of Spirit in the reviews at Amazon is that it was too introspective.  A lot of emphasis was placed on the characters' backgrounds and how their experiences shaped them.  Because I don't read a lot of Regencies and had never read any of Ms. Layton's works before, I had nothing for comparison, but even so, I was very much aware of the depth of backstory detail in this.  And while I myself might have written it differently, and since I don't know what went into Ms. Layton's personal motivation for writing this book the way she did, all of that emotional backstory made sense.  It was in keeping with the atmosphere of the story.  And it made me care about the characters.

Romance novels are all about emotion, and the good ones reach out to the reader's emotions, engage the reader's emotions, reflect the reader's emotions.   Edith Layton reminded me of that today.

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