Monday, November 9, 2009

"Get Past the Notes to the Poetry"

By Elizabeth Palladino

Writing romance reminds me of practicing a musical instrument. There’s a lot of slogging and drudgery, and fatigue is always a big factor. Think of piano practice. Working on Bach’s Inventions, or even something fizzy like Mozart’s Fantasy in D Minor is more laborious than you’d think. I used to feel peppier after shoveling my horse field all morning.

Anyway, two weeks ago I listened to a free piano recital, given by a very youthful church music director. For forty minutes as he played Debussy, Mozart, Haydn, and Mendelssohn-Bartholdy, I floated in a musical trance. It was like getting a massage: soothing and invigorating at the same time.

He said something that stayed with me long after the performance. When he introduced himself, he spoke of how difficult it was to “get past the notes to the poetry.”

He meant musical notes, of course, and writers work in a different context. Still, what he said was profound and wise. It applies very well to writing romance.

We “inkies,” as Georgette Heyer would have called us, try so hard to learn the basic techniques that will draw an agent or editor to our work, and make readers follow us in the street. We all strive to develop a product that stands out against the competition. We try to market it in a businesslike way. We’re forever strengthening our hooks and making sure we’re consistently in deep third. We’re poring over our commas, making sure we’re not sprinkling them around like oregano and that the CMS would approve. Sometimes I think the enjoyment of taking ourselves to Neverland (or Wonderland or La-la Land) in our story just shrivels up like an old, dry, split pea when the process kills the art.

It isn’t that I think we should neglect our craft. The spelling must be right, the plotting must be tight, and the dark moment must curl our straight hair and make us shiver under the covers--afraid to go to sleep in case we awaken bricked up behind the dungeon walls with the heroine.

Writing techniques can and should be studied. We all have to do that. Sometimes though, I think we all need to take a cleansing breath, shake the “shoulds” out of our hair, and remember why we write. For most of us, it probably started simply. Maybe we flopped on the living room floor with a school notebook and a ballpoint pen. We were probably relaxed, having fun, and losing ourselves in our stories. We weren’t thinking of mechanics or meetings, conferences, contests, tweets or blogs, book videos, or any other author-world minutiae. We were simply creating.

We need to recapture that ease and flow. We can make magic, word-music, fantasy, and rapt wonder for ourselves and those who read our books. Think of a canter across a moonlit field, piping and dancing in the castle hall, the soft touch of our hero’s hand as he removes his huge cabochon emerald ring and places it on our finger. Think of the candlelight that catches the sheen of our lover’s acorn-brown hair, and casts his cheekbones into high relief as he sets his sword down on the solar’s window seat and steps toward us. You can almost reach out and touch the love; it is so strong in that enchanted place.

We all know that romance isn’t always romantic. We have to come home from our day jobs, wash the supper dishes, put on our fleecy warm-ups and some regenerative cream, and try to stay awake at the computer. Hands up, all of you who’ve been so groggy from sleep deprivation that you fell off your chair sideways onto the floor. (I can’t be the only one.)

We have to remember somehow that it’s moonbeams and stardust—yes, poetry—that our exhausted, crabby, virus-ridden selves are creating. Get through the notes and reach for the poetry. Do it for yourselves, and do it as a gift for your readers.♥

Bio:    Elizabeth Palladino writes under her maiden name, Elizabeth Knowles. She lives in Kingston, New York. A full- length manuscript and a couple of partials are archived in a shoe-storage box under her bed. They are available by subpoena only. She is currently revising a 60,000-word medieval set in North Wales, 1068.


  1. Elizabeth - what a beautiful post, and how stunningly you sum up the writer's conundrum! That we can create magic for our readers, enthrall them with our stories, despite the mundane requirements of life, is due to exactly what you describe. Remembering how important it is to conjure up the magic and the beauty and the poetry of story - and then wrap it in the sleek binding of polished technique. Thank you for sharing such wonderful images and inspiring thoughts.

  2. A lovely post, Elizabeth! Thank you for reminding us of our inspiration to write in the first place -- the sheer pleasure of it and the impulse to tell our story and bring our characters to life. It is so true that both our daily lives and the worries over "selling" often get in the way of the creative process. It can become a "job" instead of a "joy". I think you've hit the nail on the head, and by the way, your writing is beautiful and I look forward to reading your book!

  3. So true, so true. We often get so worried about the "business" of writing that we forget the "magic" of writing. Heck, sometimes we even forget we LOVE writing. That's why I like the NaNoWriMo challenge. Yes, it's like a mad, frantic race. But you do it for the fun of it. I'm not thinking about making the sale this month, or what the agent or editor may think. No, I'm thinking about my characters and how they are going to stop fighting and fall in love, and oh yeah, catch a killer. No, this month it's all about the fun, it's all about the writing in its rawest (is that a word?) form. Thank you, Elizabeth. ---Maria Ferrer

  4. Wonderful post Elizabeth and great words to remember. It's so easy to forget and lose the joy. Thanks.

  5. This is so right. When I worked at an agency, briefly, I found that I could hardly write at all. I was so wrapped up in technique that I couldn't let go of my conscious thinking and let my subconscious do the work. I'm much better at it now, thank goodness!

    I love how you compare writing to music as well. Just fantastic.


    Lisa Dale