Tuesday, June 08, 2010

That elusive ingredient - MAGIC

Working on: Chapter Seven of TRRMF
Reading: Wedding at Leopard Tree Lodge, Liz Fielding

Last night as I was cooking dinner, my daughter was re-watching the ice dance competition from the Olympics (yes, we bought the dvd collector set.  Go Canada.).  Figure Skating was generally on past my bedtime (there is a four hour time diff between here and Vancouver) so I hadn't actually seen much beyond highlights.  But last night I watched Tessa Virtue and Scott Moir skate their short program and free dance and it was so amazing.

It got me thinking about WHY.  And it got me thinking about why some books are good but others just blow you away or touch you in some way you don't expect.  What makes a standout performance?  What makes a bestseller?  Can we bottle it and sell it?

I watched the Russian pair who were world champions skate as well.  There really was no comparison. It wasn't that their skating was bad, but it just didn't have the spark that Virtue and Moir did.  I think there are several reasons for this and I can parallel them ALL to writing romantic fiction.

CHEMISTRY.  Chemistry doesn't have to mean sex, as we all know.  Chemistry is about a connection. As I watched the Canadians skate, I realized there were times it seemed there was no separation between his body and hers.  I don't mean touching.  I mean intuitively moving as a single unit.  Hand movements, the way they would change into a new position or do footwork.  They showed up and were in the moment. And you could FEEL it.  Can you quantify it?  Nope.  But you can feel the chemistry between them.

Chemistry is important in romantic fiction too.  I know that sounds like a no brainer but you wouldn't believe the writing I've read that is devoid of this crucial ingredient.  Your characters don't just need desire.  They don't just need love.  They need chemistry.  A connection strong enough that a touch on the hand can be a reason for living. 

Years ago I watched Sale and Pelletier skate to The Blower's Daughter by Damien Rice.  I was blown away.  This is skating. Body parts are covered.  There are no lewd movements.  But the chemistry was so wow that it was incredibly intimate and powerful.  Watch this and look at their eye contact (It doesn't hurt that the lyrics say "I can't take my eyes off of you").  We need that for our characters, too. This performance impacted me so strongly that this song was what I imagined playing when Noah and Lily danced in his living room in HER LONE COWBOY.

PACE.  Here's another thing that struck me about Virtue and Moir - in both their performances.  They were wonderful the whole way through, but in the last 1/3 to 1ast 1/4 of their programs, things suddenly open up even more and the energy shifts (in a positive way). We're left breathless to the finish.  I like my books that way too.  Books that keep me turning pages the whole way through, but as we reach the climax and end it's IMPOSSIBLE to put the book down.  That pace definitely contributed to the "magic" of their performance.  You can tell because the energy of the audience shifts and even the announcer says WOW at one point. (Not on this clip, I watched from the official dvd set).

Isn't that what you want your readers to experience?

KEEP IT SIMPLE.  I've read far too many books that try to be too many things.  And I don't mean mixing genres, though that can be true too - generally I think a good rule of thumb is to mix two genres or subgenres but not three or four - not just for placement but for "grounding" your novel.  Anyway, I'm going to pick on the Russians for a moment or two.  In the free dance, their music shifted several times.  I never quite felt connected to the dance because I never got a sense of story.  I think their program was ambitious and tried to do too many things.  And it didn't work.  I just felt jolted from section to section without anything to make it smooth. 

Too many conflicts, too many characters, too many storylines, not enough depth - they can all contribute to your novel feeling episodic.  Keep it simple.  Tell a story - and make us part of it. Jolting from place to place isn't the way to do that.

FOCUS.  This goes hand in hand with the keep it simple thing (and I'm going to pick on the Russians again).  What the heck was up with those costumes?  What were they supposed to represent?  Yes, they were flowy and stuff, and the belt was maybe an innovative way to incorporate the function of the clothing into the routine. But all in all it felt like window dressing, trying to fancy up something that was lacking in...yeah, Chemistry and Focus.  It was distracting.  All flash and gimmick when the skating could have just spoken for itself (and man, I just sounded like Len Goodman for a moment). 

And the problem with trying to do something different and innovative is that sometimes it can work incredibly and other times it can flop, big time.  I would much rather have seen a tighter focus on a solid program than something attempting to be cutting edge and failing.  Same applies to writing.  Taking risks is important.  But it's in HOW you take that risk.  Perhaps break out with one risky element at once.  Tackle subject matter but leave form alone.  Or change your form but use it to tell a familiar story.  It is wonderful to find a fresh way of telling a story.  But trying to be too different all at once can backfire.  Which leads me to:

THERE ARE REASONS THEY ARE CALLED CONVENTIONS.  Moir and Virtue skated in fairly conventional costumes to fairly conventional music.  (Aren't their short program costumes GORGEOUS?) They worked within that form to make it extraordinary.  They also skated to something their audience could relate to and be comfortable with.  Know your audience. Never forget your reader and your promise to them. 

Finally, I'm going to talk about TECHNIQUE.  Technically both these couples were solid. Neither would be at the Olympic level if their technique wasn't there.  If you watch Moir and Virtue's clip above, look at their side by side spins and footwork.  They are in complete sync.  You need technique too.  You need to know how to write romantic fiction.  You need to practice - a lot.  You need to study and improve and put in the hours.  Window dressing, chemistry - these don't matter if you haven't got the technique to back them up.  But once you have that technical expertise, you're in a position to make that magic happen.

It's like I always say - success happens when preparation meets opportunity. And you can calculate and try to make the most solid performance ever and still fall short.  That is why you can't bottle it, or sell it.  It almost seems like there needs to be a perfect storm of conditions that culminate in that magic performance.  It is why I feel frustrated when some books have it and some don't.  Why some are sprinkled with fairy dust, as I like to say.

But... and this is a big but:

If you have the technique, and if you pay attention to what works, the chance of making that magic is a lot greater, and you'll do it with more frequency.


  1. OMG what a great blog and great visual. I loved how you pieced the writing craft with ice skating - I think I hear a book in the works.

  2. Great post, Donna. Skating is the perfect metaphor for that elusive 'something special'that makes a great book. Remember Torville and Dean? They had magic in every skate, for all the reasons you mentioned.

  3. Donna,
    What a wonderful piece! It was a very emotional read for me as I love figure skating, the mood, the movement, the climax, all attributes of a good story as well.
    Thank you for this.

  4. Beautifully said, Donna! And thanks for the clips - definitely magic.

    But it's so very, very true - the magic likely will show up once the hours of hard work have been put in.

  5. Fabulous piece, Donna. Perfect metaphor. Bravo - straight sixes!

  6. What a fantastic piece, Donna. You are so right on every level. When it works, it feels like magic. Thanks for pulling this apart!

  7. Excellent post, Donna. I always know when I'm watching a great performance--I just can't look away from the tv. Just like a book that's impossible to put down.

  8. Great topice, good chemistry is AMAZING! And everyone around you can sense it :)

  9. Fantastic! It is absolutely wonderful. It all makes so much sense and i loved how you have drawn it in with the iceskating, Incredible.

  10. I missed the ice dancing too :( Such a wonderful, wonderful post!

  11. Great blog, Donna! I love a good metaphor and you really hit all the right ones to illustrate some very important lessons.

  12. It's a 6.6.6. from me for this blog post. Great stuff! Caroline x