Monday, June 26, 2006

The Spare and the Lush

I just finished a marathon reading session (for me) in which I read something like five romantic suspense novels over the course of a week. During this mini-marathon I was struck by the contrast between the Spare and the Lush.

I started thinking about this when I read Catherine Asaro's The Misted Cliffs. This Luna fantasy novel used extremely simple language and sentence structure to tell its story of a very wounded hero and the woman he married in order to keep peace in his world. When I say "simple," I mean simple as in Hemingway-simple. The language was spare and gorgeous and didn't distract me except when I had to stop and admire it.

So when I picked up my very first Erica Spindler novel, See Jane Die, and discovered the simplicity of her language, I inevitably made comparisons. See Jane Die is one of those romantic suspense novels that sucks you in on pure premise alone -- and the spareness of the writing seemed to help with that. I enjoyed the novel very much, but something felt a little lacking to my reader's brain, and I can't quite put my finger on it. Was it too spare? Too thinly sketched on the page? Too...masculine, maybe? I dunno.

And on the other end of the spectrum was Colleen Thompson's The Deadliest Denial. Colleen's writing can be lyrical at times and she has moments, like those in The Misted Cliffs, where I just had to sigh contentedly because the image was so spot-on. If I have any complaint whatsoever with The Deadliest Denial, it's that -- hold onto your hats -- it was too perfect. (Is that even possible?) Had the language itself lulled me into a place where I was a little too content? I think it's possible. When I know I'm in the hands of a writer who knows what she's doing, I can indeed let go of the urgency.

Another lush novel was Olga Bicos's Deadly Impulse, which didn't bring anything really new to the table plot-wise, but which taught me a lot about a lot of things. The lushness didn't come from the language, but from the way information gets paid out to the reader, creating layer upon layer of motivation, character development, and plot complications. It was a nice read, though there were no real surprises in store for the reader.

Sure, we all want a gripping story well-told, but the gripping really is in the telling, whether we're aware of it or not. A suspense novel whose primary sentence structure is that of light comedy will likely fall flat, because the story's trying to tell us one thing while the language itself is telling us something different.

So which style do you prefer for romantic suspense? Or do you even care? What makes a romantic suspense novel work for you?


Milady Insanity said...

I'm going to go with whatever works for the story.

But I do have a preference for spare. Like Asaro's. Lushness...doesn't often work for me.

Cheryl Bolen said...

I'm jealous of you, Sandra K. (I really wanted to write Sandra-Kay so people will get the point you do use that K!) A whole week to catch up on reading.

I loved what you said about Colleen Thompson's writing. Her "perfectness" is why she was a RITA finalist.

When I read Olga Becos (I hope I'm spelling that right), I thought her writing had a mainstream, somewhat literary bent. My only fault with what I read of hers was the lack of believability.

Spare writing always seems to me somewhat masculine. I admire it, but I can't seem to do it -- except in my non-fiction. My husband and youngest son are very good writers, and it would be impossible to tell their writing from one another's. Both write very spare. I was very glad to discover No. 2 Son writes like his father because that's the first trait of his father's he's ever displayed! I was beginning to worry my hubby might think I'd played him false all those years ago! (Never.)

Now, spare and an economy of words are two different things. I absolutely hate it when an author uses 25 words for what she could have been said in 10. Even when I read others' works, I keep wanting to chop off extraneous words. For example, "She thought he was unfriendly to her." The "to her" is completely unnecessary. That's just a baby example. Books are full of them. Unfortunately. Why say "the month of June" when you can just say "June"? Etcetra, etcetra, etcetra, as the King of Siam said.

So Sandra K, who write dynamic romantic suspense herself, read five RS books. I was surprised in this month's Romance Writers Report to read that Lori Foster, who writes sassy, sexy contemps, like to read historicals. (Yeah, historicals!)

What about the rest of you? Do you only read in the field you write?

Nancy Herkness said...

Cheryl, I write contemps and romantic suspense and love to read historicals. Go figure!

Milady, you're absolutely right! You have to go with what works for the story. However, as a writer, I know I have a particular style and while I can lighten or darken it a bit depending on the needs of the plot, I can't change it drastically. Wish I could!

As for what I like as a reader in a suspense novel:
1) A firm sense of place, as in setting. If I feel adrift in space I have a hard time feeling the suspense.
2) Really well-drawn secondary characters. Harlan Coben taught me a valuable lesson when he said to always surprise the reader with the secondary characters--don't get lazy and fall into stereotypes.
3) Good writing of any sort, keeping in mind what Milday said: different styles for different stories although in every case, the plot needs to move right along.

I'm going to add a pet peeve to Cheryl's about using too many words. I hate it when authors substitute fancy words for plain ones for no good reason. Sometimes a highfalutin' word really works but I've read several authors whose writing sounds as though they went through their manuscript with a thesaurus and substituted five-dollar words for twenty-five cent ones without any real justification. I generally stop reading those pretty quickly.

Colleen Thompson said...

Thanks so much for the kind words on The Deadliest Denial, Sandra!

As for spare and lush language, I think the decision depends both on the story and the author's voice. For me, it also depends on the setting. For The Deadliest Denial, Fatal Error, and Dangerous Attractions (a historical I wrote as Colleen Easton), the settings served almost as characters. The Hill Country, the Big Bend desert, and the Florida Keys (respectively) were all integral to the story's mood, plot, and characters. I find that my urban books, including Fade the Heat and the upcoming Heat Lightning (both set in Houston) use sparer language more in keeping with the city's faster pace.

It's easy to get carried away with "word painting" and allow it to become what my critique group calls "beautiful writing to absolutely no effect." The trick is to prune it as much as possible to make the desired impact -- and store all the rest in the out-takes file.

Interesting post, Sandra!