Writer's Rehab #5: Madam Bovary


Rehab continues. And this is powerful stuff, and borders on heresy to romance writers - in a fashion.

Can dreams become your undoing? Not just having dreams, but the act of chasing them? This notion doubles down as a counter-point to both the 'romance writer fantasy' but also the 'romance reader fantasy' as well.

Not only is there realism in the book in how it is written, the book provides a bit of an unwanted and harsh counter-point to the idealistic romance novel fantasy of the 'happily ever after.'

As the article mentions, is realism an offense against art and decency?

Well, if by realism meaning you don't write happily ever afters, and by 'art and decency' you mean book sales, then I shall say sarcastically that signs point to yes. There is this notion that romance readers punish book reviews if there isn't a warm and fuzzy ending, you know, where you affirm the fantasy - but a cost is paid - and true love wins in the end.

I don't think I have ever written a book with a happily ever after yet. I've written bittersweet endings, but not anything traditionally 'fall into his arms' and roll credits.

No wonder.

That aside, when I read this book I am struck by how Tolkien-like this book feels. We get these little asides and wandering moments that frustrate some readers, but to me the wandering moments are absolutely needed. I feel you can't speed write through a novel, and you shouldn't streamline everything. Pacing matters. If you are entering a new room, naturally your senses shall be heightened and the writer is going to take a little more time setting the scene. Even if that is minutiae that seems to take us off track a little.

Pacing matters. If you are doing a chase scene, then no, you won't do that. You won't stop to talk at length about the paper-box that was just turned over, how the paperboy filled that up this morning, and how his oatmeal was cold. That is pointless and frankly meaningless, and distracts from what is going on. But, if this were a detail that is a bit tangential but needed to set the scene, then I say go ahead. As long as you don't twaddle, do it too much, or drag things out to an extent where the reader is skimming to see what the main character does next.

There is a point.

We also float in time at moments in this book, almost enjoyably so, like a lazy raft ride on a gentle river with the rustling of the leaves around us. There is a point here with the lack of temporal structure, where Flaubert sets a scene through summary, dotting in and out of time, choosing details carefully, and creating a picture from a choice few moments. It is as close to drawing in negative space with words as I have experienced, and also worth noting.

You don't need to say everything or write everything to draw a picture in words.

Just the most insightful and striking moments. The essential few words. The insignificant could become the most significant, depending on how you write the words and where they are placed.

It is the shapely curve in a sea of darkness that tells us we are looking at a nude woman's hip. It can be nothing else, and we need no more to tell us this.

It could be a vase, yes, but in our minds it isn't because of the framing in the story and the trust we have in the writer.

A precious few details paint the scene, and they do not need to be the most important.

I practiced this in my Paris Diamond series a lot, where I had to write of an alternate world, one much different than our own, and then make it come alive with the fewest dives into the nerd-like sci-fi world building that can become a fetish all its own. The world was familiar enough for the reader to fill in a lot of the blanks, yet different enough the challenge was to provide only the most striking and contrasting details I could to paint the world.

Notice I used contrasting here, not most important. I feel the contrast is in the detail you choose the helps you paint the picture you need to bring forth. If I had to write a book about an era, you may fixate on some event or fact which feels like it was the most important to the era, such as the moon landing or a major war - but that fact in the context of your story may not be important at all.

You may choose the fact there was a time when milk was delivered to the door each day. Where streets were covered in crisp fall leaves. Or a steam locomotive passed by the house each morning on the elevated tracks covered with coal. Where one family on the block had a television. Where kids played in the street each day. Where the housewives gathered around fences and gossiped in their colorful layered dresses, perfectly done hair, and polished shoes.

Little things. Maybe not the most important ones. But they help paint that picture in the reader's mind. You probably have a great idea of the above place in your mind already, more so than if I laid out the most momentous events of the century, what cars people drove, and mentioned the fact 'everyone was optimistic and well-to-do' in a bland timeline and said 'that is my world.'

With Madam Bovary it is not the what happens, but the how it is told. And in its French like way, it asks the question, "Was it all worth it?"

Fantasies as her downfall. To live that dream and fail, is that better than to have never lived it at all? And in that French-like way, all the book needs to do is ask the question and let you think. To plant the seeds of rational and civilized discussion in the millions of minds later, spread out throughout time and in coffee shops and classrooms for generations to come. The life, yes it is important, but the question this life creates may even be more so.

And in the way it is told lies not the secret, but the manner in which this question is asked.

Tragedy? Yes. Happily ever after? No.

But happy in her singular moments? Yes, I would say so. and in that moment, where life happens in the gasps of breath between passionate kisses and furtive meetings, we find our truth. It is so very brief, but important and momentous, like the truth always is.

There is no ever after. There is only the now. Live for this moment.

Find your truths in the love of what you do right now, for there is no forever. Not with love. Not with life. But there is truth in our feelings right now.

But relax. We don't need to worry about that day or those worries, because we have this moment together.

So let me paint you a picture.