The Importance of Being Mean: 2013 365 Challenge #125

Mean Mummy put me in a basket

Mean Mummy put me in a basket

I read a comment today on a blog post by the talented Matt Haig that made me realise something significant about my writing. The post itself was about Matt having thin skin and how that can be good for a writer but not for a published author. Understanding feelings and hurt and pain are what raise the okay storyteller to the breath-taking master of craft, but it comes at a cost.

I related to much of the post in terms of the thin skin, the depression, feeling awe at how amazing the world really is. But it was one of the comments below the post that really resonated.

Suzanne Korb

I think you just switched on a lightbulb in my head. I have a thin skin – but I pretend to be thick-skinned. That prevents me from putting more feeling into my writing. I think I protect the words I write, I defend my characters and keep them from feeling anguish and fear and pain. No wonder my writing isn’t always working

I’m terrible at writing conflict. If I love a character the last thing I want to do his hurt him or her. I don’t even like reading books where awful things happen to good people. But conflict, disaster, overcoming adversity, these are all essential elements in good story and believable character growth.

You did What to your characters??

You did What to your characters??

When I edited Dragon Wraiths the first time I realised Leah escaped disaster time and again through a series of lucky coincidences or through her own skill. The car in the flood, the unexpected dragon sentry, they were easily evaded or survived with no harm done. I love Leah, and Luke, and I want them to be happy. As I want my kids to be happy. But just as you have to be Mean Mom occasionally you have to be a mean author too.

I have to confess I didn’t make Leah’s life too much harder. She’d had a tough childhood already and deserved a break. And life is also full of near misses and lucky escapes. But I do know my inability to make characters suffer is going to have to change for my writing to go to the next level (oh that’s a horrible phrase but you know what I mean). Maybe what I have to do is make my characters more annoying to me, like my kids can be, and then mean will just happen without effort.

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Below is the next installment in my novel Two-Hundred Steps Home: written in daily posts since 1st January as part of my 2013 365 Challenge. Read about the challenge here.You can catch up by downloading the free ebook volumes on the right hand side of the blog:

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“Have you booked a date for the wedding? I’m guessing it will have to be soon, not that you’re showing.” Claire leaned back in the sand and looked over at her friend.

Kim laughed, patting her flat stomach. “I am: I just breathe in! I have to hope the baby doesn’t get too big before the show’s finished. Our Director will have a fit. We’ll be a laughing stock if the audience notices Puck is pregnant.”

“That doesn’t seem right: Aren’t there rules about discrimination these days? Surely he or she will be applauded for their political correctness.”

“There isn’t much political correctness in the acting world, my dear. I’ll be considered too old for many roles in a year or two. I’m lucky I’m petite and slim, it hides my age. Not that I’ll be slim for long.” She frowned and stared down the beach, where Jeff and Sky were engaged in a sandcastle competition. Sky was cheating, flattening Jeff’s castles every time he went to collect water or shells.

“You make it sound like we’re ancient.” Claire shielded her eyes from the afternoon sun. “Actually I feel pretty ancient, although at least Sky hasn’t had nightmares for a day or two. I think I actually got six hours sleep last night.”

“Is it really so bad?” Kim’s voice suggested she didn’t really want to know the answer. “Being a parent, I mean.”

“I’m the wrong person to ask. What do I know about parenting?” Claire gave a dry laugh, picturing some of Sky’s more spectacular tantrums.

“Well, you know more than me.”

“I thought you attended antenatal classes or something?” Sky tried to remember what pregnant women in the office had wittered on about in the past. She mostly tuned out their chatter, but some of it had obviously gone in.

“Oh yes, there are classes, but they seem to be about getting through labour and keeping the kid alive for the first few months. What about after that? There don’t seem to be any lessons on how to deal with it when they flirt with your friend’s boyfriend…”

Claire drew breath but Kim jumped in, “I’m joking! Seriously, though. Who teaches you about discipline and what games to play, how to deal with bullying or if your child is the bully.”

Claire could see Kim getting emotional but wasn’t sure what to say. “I guess you just figure it out. Or you ask your friends, or your Mum.” She thought about trying to have that conversation with her mother, and whether she would choose to raise children the way she was raised. “Maybe not the last one. I think we all want a different childhood to the one we had.”

“Not me, I had a great childhood. It was when I had to grow up it got hard.” The girls laughed.

“Well, let me ask you, how did you learn to be an actress?”

“I went to drama school.”

“So maybe kids learn all they need to know at school. And there are books and the internet. There are all sorts of parenting blogs following mine since I started writing about travelling with Sky. You’ll be fine. Concentrate on the wedding instead. Are you going to have a big white frock?”

“I might need it to hide the bump!”

They settled into the sand and swapped ideas about food and music. Claire felt herself relaxing, as the sun warmed her skin and Sky’s laughter floated on the sea breeze. The phone rang and she considered ignoring it. It’s probably Michael. Now’s not the time to talk to him, with my head full of babies and weddings. The ringing stopped then immediately began again. Damn it, just go away, I’m trying to relax.

People began looking around to see who wasn’t answering their phone. She reached in her bag and put the phone to her ear, unable to see the caller name in the bright sunshine.

“Hello.”

“Claire, it’s Dad.”

She sat up, her skin suddenly cold and her stomach churning. Her father never called.

“Your mother told me to ring. She’s at the hospital. You need to come home love, you and Sky. Ruth’s had a turn for the worse.” His voice shook and that, more than his words, cut through and left her shaking. Claire dropped the phone, her mouth dry and her mind blank.

***

12 thoughts on “The Importance of Being Mean: 2013 365 Challenge #125

  1. I don’t think anyone could accuse you of making Leah’s life too easy! It seemed to be one disaster after another to me. I almost cried when her mother died, it was such a touching and well written scene!

    I know what you mean though, my characters seem to evade disaster far too much too, and I find it really hard to make anything really bad happen to them. I think it’s a fine line. We want to see our favourite characters come out on top, but yes, you do need some conflict for there to be a story to tell.

    • I just realised that I didn’t reply to this comment. How rude! I suppose it’s hard (as a naughty pantser, oo er) to stand back and see all the conflict. I think I need to start writing scene cards (after writing the scene, not before, oh no) so I can easily assess the elements in the novel without having to re-read it!

  2. The more mean you are to them now, the more good things you can bring to them later. Your kids and characters may not like it now, but they will later, when they are older and wiser.

    • Hehe I understand that in theory, I just find it hard. I actually have a huge capacity to imagine the worst that can happen, especially since having children, I just don’t like to write about it. I need to make a character of mine have a miscarriage and I don’t know if I can, having witnessed first hand what it can do to a person.

      • Then, look at yourself. Sometimes it isn’t that we are being mean to our characters, than that we are reliving and remember things that are important and painful to us.

        At the same time, you can take it too far. I HATED William Golding’s Lord of the Flies. It had truth in it, the good people are always the first to die. The good people are what holds this world from the brink of chaos. These are the important parts that I took from the book. But I don’t believe people are innately evil, and I don’t want to read about a world of kids that are cruel to each other.

  3. This is such an insightful comment, thank you! Most of my Chick Lit protagonists are mostly me, in one form or another. My YA novel, on the other hand, had a lead protagonist that was nothing like me (not intentionally, anyway!) and it was easier to have bad things happen, particularly the kind of things that a 16 year old might think bad (boyfriends, parents and stuff). I really want to try my hand at Middle Grade Fantasy fiction – I love reading it precisely because the bad things that happen are more external than internal. Oh to write like my favourite authors in that age group though, I don’t think I have the imagination!

    • Back in middle school, when I checked out three books a week (WOW! I can’t seem to get one book read a month anymore), my favorites were the box car children and The Black Cauldron.

      Doubt. I’m sure at several points you’ve thought you wouldn’t finish a novel. You did didn’t you? I know I think that sometimes, but I know that I will. Can’t say anyone will like it, but I’ll finish it. I’ve also agreed to refine it until, one day, I like it. Sometimes all it takes to do that thing you think you can’t do is to take that first step out of your comfort zone.

      Oh, and I’m taking a peak at Two-Hundred Steps. I know I’m an Idiot but, what is a PA? Other than that, it is interesting. The character is vivid. Still feel a greater pull to read Dragon Wraith, though. Since Anne McCaffrey and Tolkien and definitely R.A. Salvatore, I’m kind of a fantasy addict.

      • A PA is a personal assistant, and thank you for the pep talk! You’re right, five years ago I would never have believed I could finish one novel, never mind two or three. I’m sure you will finish and, from the chapter I read, I don’t think you’ll have to work for years to get it right. Getting distance is sometimes all that’s needed to enjoy your own prose (that said, I can’t bring myself to read Dragon Wraiths again! It is my first novel after all! Lol)

      • Chapter… 3, I hope my site wasn’t so confusing as to point reader to start at my last posted chapter!

        I sometimes feel this ugly little opinion growing, complaining about why anyone would want to read it. But, when I read it, I don’t feel that hostility toward it. Weird.

      • Gah! As bad as my wife! The other day she was going to ask me a question and stopped half way through. I finally pressed her enough to get the question. She was going to ask if I had worked 10 hours today. It was Saturday…

        I’ve had my fair share of them as well!

  4. Lol no, not at all. When you visited my site I got an email listing posts I might like to visit and your Chapter 3 was one of them (I think). I was reading when I was meant to be parenting so I didn’t have time to head back to Ch1. I will, though, when I have a chance.

    It’s normal to hate your WIP, I wouldn’t worry. Matt Haig says The Humans is the first of his books he doesn’t hate, and he’s written plenty of great books!

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