The Element of Style—Blades of Glory

My friend Janine wrote a heartfelt entreaty a few weeks ago at Dear Author, wondering why we don’t see more breathtaking writing from genre fiction in general, and the romance genre in particular. Her opening example was a bit unfair, being that it was only from the greatest American novel ever penned. But Janine’s lament on the dearth of style and gorgeous word-smithing has long been my own.

As I read the elegant examples she gave, my mind turned, not to words, but to something that has occupied a special place in my heart since I first saw it fifteen years ago.

This program, skated to Franz Listz’s Liebestraum (Dream of Love), was and remains one of the most beautiful things I’ve ever seen in my life. From the choreography, to the execution, to the individual qualities the skaters bring to the ice—his strength, presence, and flair, her loveliness, fragility, and seemingly inborn sadness, their unusual chemistry of both intimacy and distance—I lose myself in it every time.

It is a dance of poignant longing and stunning intensity. And yet it is more than a dance, it is a sports program that had won world championships and an Olympic gold medal in its time. The skaters—the great and, alas, no-long-together team of Natalia Mishkutienok and Artur Dmitriev—performed all the risky elements required of elite pairs skaters in their era: side-by-side triple toe loop, side-by-side double axels, one triple twist and two triple throws.

Because mere beauty is not enough to make a competitive program work. You have to deliver the elements too. Falls on the jumps and breaks in unison make the audience groan and ruin the overall effect. In this, I feel, an Olympic-eligible figure skating program is very much like a work of genre fiction.

People read genre fiction with some rather specific expectations. SF is about saving the world. Fantasy is about the quest. Mysteries need to bring the murderer to justice. And romance, in my understanding, has to deliver hope and fulfillment.

Ergo, since most genre fiction is driven by factors other than beauty of prose, cadence of language, and powers of imagery and metaphors—as if a figure skating program required only the elements—most genre fiction isn’t known for stylish writing. And what stylish writing we get is from writers who, though they choose to work within the boundaries of the genre and compete on its terms, can’t imagine sending their stories out of the door without having polished their prose until it gleams like the Taj Mahal at dawn.

Meaning, they are doing extra work. Work that may or may not be appreciated by readers who pick up a book mainly for the story—not for splendor of the writing itself. Work that would demand extra time and effort on the writer’s part when s/he already has to contend with the major elements of plot, character, dialogue, pacing, and, if you write romance, character growth and chemistry. Work that doesn’t have a market mandate, given that a breakneck pace or a pair of hotly interacting lovers can sell quite well even when depicted in pedestrian language.

I choose to do that work. Because the stories that touch me most are not only beautiful, but beautifully written. Because I find that lovely writing, when married to an expertly crafted story, adds immeasurably to my enjoyment. Because I want to build the Taj Mahal.

One day.

15 thoughts on “The Element of Style—Blades of Glory”

  1. I agree with you; that’s an absolutely gorgeous program. I’m equally inspired by Sasha Cohen and Evgeni Plushenko. Just stunning examples of artistry!

  2. Sherry Thomas is a debut author whose book has me salivating. Ever since I read the excerpt posted on her website, I’ve been dying to know both what happens next and what came before. Her writing–or at least, what I’ve seen of it–is clear and evocative. It hits me right in the solar plexus.

    She posted on her blog about beauty in writing. Part of this reminded me, shockingly, of something I’ve never quite been able to forget.

    One of the most vivid memories I have is of Ekaterina Gordeeva & Sergei Grinkov’s 1988 skating program. I was 11 at the time, and the performance still blazes in my memory. It was so vivid that I remembered the names to this date–and I’m the girl who never remembers anyone’s name.

    I adore beautiful things. I love beautiful prose. Janine mentioned people who write brilliantly, and I love every single one of those authors. I especially second the Julie Anne Long mention.

    I sincerely doubt there are many authors who think, “well, today I shall pen some truly dreadful prose.” I also doubt there are many writers who even think, “well, my writing sucks but at least I get sold. Why mess with success?” I suspect that everyone thinks they are an excellent writer. The real problem, I think, is that the admonition to “write beautifully” is too often taken as an admonition to write painfully unnatural prose.
    It would be impolitic of me to call out offending authors, but I think we’ve all read them. The truly abysmal writing that I see (not just in genre romance) may well result from people attempting to write beautifully and failing. These are the books where the author consistently uses “brilliant orbs” instead of “eyes” and where overblown description haunts every paragraph. These are the books where dull, lifeless description plods on interminably while you wait impatiently for the story to start again.

    In both figure skating and prose, true beauty appears effortless to the observer. It’s only the amateurs who think that panting and blowing, showing the world how hard they’ve labored over a sentence, shows real beauty. This is not to say that artists don’t labor; the five-minute program we see is the culmination of years and years of practice and conditioning. To the observer, it seems as natural and unstudied as a bird’s flight.

    In Legalese, I wrote what I thought was an absolutely brilliant, evocative sentence. “His perpetually sweaty palm trailed a streak of slime down her cheek, like a snail crossing a garden path.” Both my critique partners read it and commented something along these lines: “Ewww!” Which was precisely the reaction I was looking for. So why did I delete the line? Because they both commented on it. They didn’t say it, but the line pulled them out of the story. It made them pay attention to the writing. It panted and puffed, shouting for attention. And so away it went.


    And let’s see if it’ll let me do a link: here.

  3. cm,

    My snail-crossing-a-garden-path is “He was a burning pyre of concupiscence in a sarcophagus of despair”.

    I know of no one who doesn’t despair when reading that. 🙂

    Thanks for the post.


  4. Thanks for mentioning my entreaty. You’re right that quoting Fitzgerald was unfair (I think I said so in the body of the piece, too). Still, once you’ve tasted ambrosia it’s impossible not to compare other foods to it.

    I love your figure skating metaphor for genre fiction. It is so apt, because as you say, a great romance needs elements as well as artistry. I wish I could get the You Tube clip to play on my monitor, because I love figure skating, too.

  5. Hi Sherry, I followed CM’s link to get here. What a beautiful and impassioned post. I loved your point about the extra work needed to make a book gleam. I appreciate the lyricism of romance authors like Pam Rosenthal, and I can’t wait to savor your books.

    I am a worshipper at the altar of splendid genre fiction, as well as an aspiring architect thereof. And when I buy a Taj Mahal, I recognize it, and fall to my knees.

  6. Yeah…I wanna build the Taj Mahal, too. Your writing is so beautiful, I KNOW you can do it. 🙂

    I’m reading another Judith Ivory right now–The Proposition. Talk about building Taj Mahal after Taj Mahal. She’s my new absolute fave.

    I hope school is finishing up well for you!

  7. Thanks Adrian Swift and Helen Ginger for the thinking blog award. I will probably get to do my tagging only after I graduate.

    And even then it might not be thinking blogs. Because I like to turn off my brain as often as I can. 🙂

  8. I know this post is kind-of late, but I just found your blog, after reading your excerpt (which WAS beautiful writing) after seeing mention of your book on Kristen Nelson’s blog… and I’m another kindred spirit! I am soooo picky in which books I really enjoy, and THIS is what so many authors miss! The words just don’t FLOW! The sentences are full of beautiful words, but they’re just not put together beautifully.

    And I, too, thought of skaing… G&G’s performance, too… abosolute poetry on ice, so perfect and so beautiful.

    As for myself… now I have to see if I can write beatifully and get published some day, like you! Thanks for speaking up on this issue!


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