Quick! What’s your favorite Steven Spielberg movie?
Jurassic Park? Schindler’s List? Saving Private Ryan? Jaws?
Maybe you’re more a fan of the movies he’s produced. Maybe you’re heavily into DreamWorks. Shrek? Penguins of Madagascar? Kung Fu Panda? How to Train Your Dragon?
Quick! Which one was better? Which one was cleaner? Better written? Better acted? Had the most exciting subject matter? Choose your favorite right now!
Bet you can’t.
I know I can’t.
Because they’re so different, right? I mean, Jurassic Park and Jaws had some similarities, but the differences—wow! And even though Schindler’s List and Saving Private Ryan were both about WWII, they were both such different parts of it, right? I mean, all of those movies have his signature on them, right? The everyman heroes, the sense that the conflict—be it war, Mother Nature, or human folly—is so great that the everyman is the only one who can survive, but that he’ll never really triumph… the list goes on. Spielberg makes great movies. He makes great movies with a personal stamp. But he makes different movies. So much of which movie is his “greatest” goes into the perspective of the person viewing the movie—but his artisanship is present in every frame. (Or, if you hate Spielberg’s movies, you can declare it his lack of artisanship and argue about which one is his worst movie—but the same idea applies.)
I talk about craft and craftsmanship a lot because so much of what we do is subjective. Some people will loftily tell you that first person storytelling is easy and irritating, and so they will mark it down because really, how good could a story told in first person be? Some people will tell you that angst is cheap and stupid, and that real writing doesn’t rely on such emotional tripe to be meaningful. Some people will sneer at romantic comedies because they’re vapid and meaningless, and the conflict is so trite.
Honestly, as important as all of that criticism is to the reader, it is nothing that the writer can control. Trying to predict how two thousand (or twenty thousand or two-hundred thousand) readers are going to react to the same piece of work is like trying to predict whether the cats are going to love the new puppy or hate the new puppy. It all depends on the cats, the puppy, and the day. All a writer can rely on—all a writer can ever rely on—is the thoroughness of his or her own craft.
Writing romance is literally like putting together the box of chocolates. You never know what you’re going to get. Except you know there will be chocolate. And sweet. And possibly some nuts. And sometimes some cherries and sometimes not. And maybe nougat or toffee or caramel. Bugs if you’re kinky, pretzels if you’re lucky, but definitely chocolate.
Definitely the fucking chocolate. Because no matter how many times people say they want different or new or exciting, the fact is, if they have picked up a romance of any sort, they want at least two people working shit out.
Period the end. That’s the fucking chocolate. Every romance has it. It is inescapable.
When people get that box of chocolate, we don’t know if they’re going to like the nuts, the cherries (or lack thereof), the nougat, the toffee, the crickets, the pretzels, or the caramel. All we can control is that the chocolate is the smoothest, most quality chocolate we can possibly produce, that the nuts are fresh, the cherries sufficiently pickled (or lubed), the nougat chewy, the toffee completely cooked, the pretzels crisp, the caramel smooth and the crickets… well, I’m not sure what you want in a chocolate covered cricket, but someone research that and make sure their crickets are as kinky as kinky gets.
The point is, some people are going to spit that cricket out, and some people are going to think it’s a delicacy. Some morons are going to stick their fingers in the bottoms of all the chocolates and only eat the crèmes. Some people are going to take little nibbles of a few of them and declare the whole box bad, and some people are going to eat the entire two-pound gift box and lick the corners.
All of that--all of that—is completely beyond our control.
I bring this up because I am writing happy.
Yes—I am the queen of angst, and I am writing a happy book. Now, I do this regularly when I write my Christmas stories, and sometimes I get really edgy and write a full-length story like Shiny! Or Gambling Men. The point is, instead of “Angst and Pain, Amy Lane!” the reader is getting happy. No toffee, nougat, caramel, pretzels or crickets—just chocolate.
The reviewer reaction to this is usually surprisingly depressing. “Well, if it was another storyteller, I’d think it was good, but it’s Amy Lane, and she can do better.” (I shit you not—look under any of my “happy titles” from It’s Not Shakespeare to Going Up! to Shiny! And you will find at least four reviews that say that. Excuse me while I ice my nads. Ouch.)
However, the sales reaction to this is usually very very… cheerful! People love to buy happy. They just feel really guilty about enjoying it. “Well, it was fun, but it was only romantic comedy, so my enjoyment is tainted somehow with the lack of feeling my insides twisted into a double knot and punctured with pins.” I don’t get it myself—I love myself a good happy—but I’ve learned not to question the things I cannot change.
And I’ve learned not to feel bad about writing happy.
I am putting craftsmanship into every word. I am thinking painstakingly about every character reaction. I am trying hard to fill my story with as many details that give readers a place to grasp the story emotionally as I do with my more serious, pain-laden stories. I don’t want to write the same story every time. Writing The Locker Room or Beneath the Stain 365 days a year would kill me. If I am going to fill my box of chocolates with variety, some of those chocolates are going to have to be garden-variety chocolate crèmes. As long as they’re as carefully crafted as the chocolate covered crickets, I have done my job.
Of course, saying this out loud takes a great deal of cheering from my long-suffering beta reader—it’s hard to buck public opinion with the knowledge that I’m doing my best.
“It’s good,” my beta reader assures. “I love it. If you give this character an incurable disease or kill off a parent, I’ll fly 3,000 miles and smack you.”
“Are you sure? I mean, it’s really a very simple romance, very immediate and character driven. Not… you know. Bells, or Stain, or Keeping Promise Rock. Not… epic.”
Well, my beta reader has put up with a lot, recently. She gets cranky when I say things like this.
“Listen, you. The last year has been a horror. Dead boyfriends, WWII, Alzheimer’s, mental illness, children leaping from parapets, rape, murder, and HEA after life. I love you, but I love this book too. If you hurt these people, I will hate you. Yes, your reviews might be great if suddenly the fucking dog dies or somebody’s parent takes a turn for the worse, but right now this is rich, simple romance. This is two guys working shit out. Just leave it.”
Uhm, my beta reader writes pretty much exactly what I love to read. If I don’t trust her on matters like this, I am wasting the precious time she needs to be spending writing me some more goddamned happy.
I need to read the happy—not just hers, I can read anybody’s happy, but she’s the one whose time I’m stealing right now. So I need the happy. And the action. And the violence. It fills something in my soul. It is something I don’t write all the time, and it makes me shiver with impossible hope. If I am going to be using the time she should be using writing, I had better listen to what she has to say.
So I am writing me some happy. Rich, smooth, creamy milk chocolate and nothing else. I will not add bite or crickets or chocolate covered cherries. (Heh heh, cherries!) There may be nuts—it is after all, gay romance—but for the most part?
My box of chocolate needs some of these confections. I shall craft them the best I can, wrap them in the shiniest ruffled foil, make the ribbon on the box big and red and exciting, and I shall ignore the people who think I can do better.
I am writing something I love with all of the skill I possess. There is nothing better than this.