Nora Roberts knows how to have fun writing a fast-paced story; describing detailed sexual intercourse without turning us into a kibitzer; giving relevant and succinct background; mentioning clothes that are not an inventory list and realistic setting that’s weightless along the plot-line. However, the two things that Nora Roberts does best are POV and DIALOGUE.
She’s one of the best examples of how rules don’t apply to published authors – especially when she’s been creating bestsellers for more than 15 consecutive years and writing for 31. (BTW: she started writing the same month I was born, February of 1979.)
Maybe her style is so surprising because it goes against all creative writing rules and she still manages to get away with it. Such rules are bend the most when she changes point-of-view within the same scene. Although I had to go back a few lines and read it again, it may have been because I’m an enthusiast of the craft – AKA think about these bits-and-pieces too much – and not as much for lack in readability. Or maybe I’m just making excuses for her, but let’s face it, who am I to talk about readability? Roberts is a superstar by New York Times standards…
Am I still the reader, here? The one and only who matters?
Honestly, a few times the bouncing POV became confusing, but it made the style different, daring and challenging to read. I think the best way to describe the feeling is: it sped up the pace. In one line we’re in a character’s head, the next we’re inside the villain’s. When done sparingly and elegantly – which is very hard and daring for a newbie – it’s similar to a cinematographic experience/ action movie.
This POV style is achieved with an omniscient narrator: sees all, knows all. This technique is difficult and the fact that Nora Roberts does it so smoothly follows along the fact that this author is one of the fastest, active writers I know of, with at least 190 full-length novels published so far – translation? She had a lot of practice!
In her website, Nora claims to write 8 hours a-day
Now, after almost 200 books and countless bestsellers, she writes eight hours a day — every day.
and in a public interview at The Washington Post she says she writes 5 to 6 hours a day. Either way, the point is she claims to have a lot of discipline because she spent some time in a Catholic School being educated by nuns and therefore she deals with her writing as a full-time, guilt-related, everyday job, even now.
In How Not To Write a Novel, Sandra Newman and Howard Mittelmark advise that ‘Generally, any point of view that lasts for less than a page should be cut.’
Nora Roberts is, again, the exception to the rule because in ‘High Noon’ the villain’s point of view lasts only for few, short paragraphs along the story-line. They work perfectly as they give us only little glimpses inside a psychopath’s mind, making us curious and aiming at the number one job of any good writer: a page-turning novel.
Here’s an example from ‘High Noon’ where the POV changes within the same scene with a very slight transition. So slight that I missed it and thought for a moment that the main character’s lover was pondering on killing our dear protagonist.
After a romantic dinner on his boat, Swift kissed Phoebe, she praised the knack, he joked around saying he’d been practicing kissing since he was twelve and has developed a few variations so far…
He stepped off, onto the pier, held out a hand for hers. “Variation Seven’s been known to cause temporary unconsciousness.”
“That’s a straight dare.” She stepped from boat to dock. “And I haven’t taken a dare since I was seven. We’re walking, Mr. Swift.”
“Can’t blame a guy for trying.”
As they walked, she angled her head to study his face. “Variation Seven?”
“I’m required by law to give the previous warning before use. Now that you’ve been warned, I’m in the clear.”
“I’ll keep that in mind.”
Her laugh floated over the water. And her face, bright with it, filled the field glasses.
He dug into the takeout bag for his fries as he watched her, watched her, watched them. And he considered how quick and easy it would be if he had that face of hers in the crosshairs of a rifle scope.
Too quick, too easy.
But before much longer, she wouldn’t be laughing.
High Noon, by Nora Roberts
Concerning what is for me her second best skill – dialogue – Nora Roberts writes with a sparing use of speech tags (he said/asked/shouted). That’s possible when the author knows how to convey a different voice for each character so we know exactly who’s speaking just by the ‘sound’ of his/her voice. This is harder than it looks and she does it so well that I have to study deeply to understand the differences in structure given to each character.
Usually writers do this by giving a set of words that a character is always using here and there along his speech lines. Or by limiting a voice to very short speech lines and another to elaborated sentences. Another example is to give an idiomatic touch to a foreign character and an intellectual grade to a professor or snob character.
The point is, there are some ways to differentiate speech, but every other line we all need a speech tag or we’ll lose track of who’s saying what. But when we master voice and know a character so well that he comes alive in our head, we can convey that cadence onto the page and speech tags can be deleted more often.
And that’s when Roberts breaks another rule and good, fast-pace writing follows:
“I spoke with the attorney you hired on Joe’s behalf. He seems very competent.”
“And then some. So… I wanted to ask you if I should visit Suicide Joe –“
“Excuse me? Suicide Joe?”
“Sorry, we got to calling him that last night. It stuck in my head. Should I visit him, or is it better for him if I step back?”
“What do you want to do?”
“I don’t know. It’s not like we were pals or anything. But yesterday’s loop keeps running through my head.”
“It’s more to the point what’s running through his.”
“Yeah. Yeah. I had this dream.”
“I was the one sitting out on the ledge in my underwear.”
“Boxers or briefs?”
High Noon, by Nora Roberts
I have to finish this post with a full circle and go back to the feelings I had when reading Nora Roberts for the first time. To be honest, she’s a great technical writer and she even knows how to convey emotions up to a certain degree, but it’s easy to understand that such a fast-paced cinematographic style would get some down side.
In Nora Roberts’ writing we know how everyone feels because those feelings are conveyed to the reader through action – and don’t get me wrong, that’s the well known rule of ‘show, don’t tell’ – but the magical touch of intimacy and empathy when we are connecting with the main character’s feelings is not there.
This is very hard to explain. I believe the basic formula is there; all characters have a backstory, a reason for each action, glee and sorrow, qualities and faults, but they don’t have enough depth to mesmerise us and shift our thoughts in ways we never thought before.
Nora Roberts’ ‘High Noon’ does the job if the job is pure entertainment (and that’s why it’s been so appealing to turn her novels into a movie, I guess, as they’ve made with so many), but it doesn’t make you think outside the box. That’s probably why she’s a ‘writing-machine’, because it’s easier to apply the same formula if you have nothing more to convey than action, one scene after another.
After reading it in detail, I’d recommend ‘High Noon’ to aspiring writers because it’s a great way to study all facets of the craft. It’s a very well written book. POV, Dialogue, Action, Backstory, Setting, Clothing, Phisicality, Pace – it’s all in there, done to perfection.
After you master and understand the basics, try and take away that robotic, industrialized feeling where there’s the good guy and the villain. I guess it all boils down to who you are as a writer and what do you want to convey in your novels.
It’s not easy to write every chapter with some moral underline, or to fill your manuscript with original metaphors and similes, and it may take you more than a year to achieve that inner depth. I personally believe I couldn’t do it before I was 25 or even 30, because I was still learning about my own thoughts; I had little more than a chick’s novel inside me.
It took Tifanny Murray 5 years to finish ‘Diamond Star Halo’. Maybe because she was working 8 hours a day in her other full-time job; maybe because she lost track of the story at some point (I’m wondering here, as it happens to published authors as well) or maybe because her goal wasn’t just another book to fill in shelves with her name, but a memorable story we keep to read again in years to come.