Thursday, 1 August 2013

Margaret Atwood is Myth-taken

Original post: May 29, 2013

Last night, the fabulous Margaret Atwood dredged it up, towards the very end of an otherwise enlightening interview with Australia's Jennifer Byrne.

Here's the whole transcript of the show:

Here's the bit that has myself, and my writer friends, many of whom have written for Harlequin Mills & Boon for decades, scratching their heads and furrowing their alabaster brows: (My emphasis in bold)

MARGARET ATWOOD: Unless it's on some level deeply involving and enjoyable, why would you do it? And I know we have a lot of 'I suffer so much', and that's true too. But, overall, it has to be something that's involving you and holding your attention at a very deep level, or else why would you do it? Unless you just are churning it out. For instance, Winston Smith's job in 1984 is in the cheap fiction machine of that world. And they're just churning them out, they're a product. So if all you want to do is write a product, you can get a handbook about how to do that. 'First kiss on page 62,' etc. But even that, I think you have to have a feel for it, or you're not gonna be very good at it - at writing Harlequins Mills & Boons. Those are the ones with the handbook.

*It was author Christine Wells who alerted me to this a little earlier today. An otherwise superb interview marred by a last minute immmmm . . . shall we call it a brain fart?

Please. I have huge respect for Margaret Atwood, but in this she's mistaken. I have never seen this 'handbook' that people keep referring to. I tried many times to get a manuscript published with Harlequin Mills & Boon (HMB). I got fabulous rejections, but they were all rejections.

They said my writing was good, but the stories lacked emotional punch.

If my writing was so good, why didn't they send me the handbook?
was it a) because it doesn't exist.
b) because I was writing utter dross and they were letting me down gently?

In which case, why don't any of my friends who write HMB have this handbook. Some have been writing for decades. They've never seen a handbook. Other writer friends have recently received publishing contracts. No sign of a handbook for them either.

There is "a" book, written by Leslie Wainger, Executive Editor at Harlequin Books, called Writing a Romance Novel for Dummies. I've read the whole thing through. Twice. It's full of what they're looking for (strong emotional conflict that drives the narrative) and what they're not looking for (hackneyed shite, to put it mildly). There wasn't anything about making sure the first kiss happens on page 62. Which must come as a huge relief to my author friends who have crazy smexy times in the first chapter.

There are dozens and dozens of books on writing and many of them are aimed at the romance market. Again, not one of them contains the sort of formula that requires no more skills than filling out some kind of 50,000-word insert-adjective-here mad-lib.

It. Does. Not. Exist.

But gee, it's a handy way to put down everyone who busts their chops writing romances, isn't it?

Having said that, I do agree with Ms Atwood in the first part of the paragraph. Unless you write because you really love it, why do it?

I too write because I love it. This is something we can agree on.


Louise Reynolds said...

Oh that hoary old chestnut. Why don't some of these writers stop looking down their nose and go and have a chat with a Mills and Boon author and get the facts. There are 'line promises' so one needs to meet the promise of that line when you write for them but that's it people. That is IT!

Ebony McKenna. said...

I hear you Louise.
It's so pervasive. Yes, there are tropes, there are styles, there is structure. But every genre has reader/viewer expectations, or, as you put it, a Line Promise.

Romance is the expectation that it will end happily ever after.
Mysteries demand the riddle be solved.
Murders require the culprit to get caught.
Science Fiction asks us to suspend disbelief, then blow our minds.
Westerns need cowboys.
Comedies call for laughs.
Game of Thrones wants a good wax.

It's all there. It's called giving the readers what they want.