I had a great discussion with a fellow author recently. We discussed, among other things, my inability to be mean to my characters. In response to my saying, “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.”
“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.”
This was a lightbulb moment for me. This was my (slightly edited) response – Most of my Chick Lit protagonists are a version of me, in one form or another. My YA novel, on the other hand, has a lead protagonist that is 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.
He also gave me a great pep talk: “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.”
I’m back where I was five years ago when I thought I’d never write a novel, and yet now I’ve completed two. I can learn to plot, and structure, and be mean. I maybe need to stop using me, and people from my own life, as base templates. Or maybe I do need to stick to YA and MG. I’ve just had to leave the lounge because the programme hubbie is watching got too violent, and still the images linger in my brain. Since having children my (already minimal) stomach for anything violent, mean or nasty is non-existent. Becoming a writer has in some ways made it worse: I can write different endings, people in the real world can’t.
I think, the more fertile the imagination – the more acute the empathy – the harder it is to live in reality! The world can be a tough place to live, I want to make it better, not worse! Perhaps I should learn how to write endearing children’s picture books instead…
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:
Claire stared at the email until the words blurred. Blinking fast, she checked it again. If this number isn’t set in stone, it means there could be even more on offer. The figure in Carl’s email was twice her current salary, with a bonus to make her eyes water, as and when she completed her tour of all the YHA hostels.
Speculation sprinted through Claire’s mind. This can’t be just because of writing a few blog posts. There must be something else going on.
With a few taps of the screen, Claire loaded up her blog stats. She hadn’t looked in a while, because the paltry figures were demoralising. The graph bore no resemblance to the one she had last viewed. The little bars built exponentially. The viewing figures for that day alone were in the thousands.
Scrolling back, Claire tried to see which post had sparked the increase. It was impossible to make sense of the numbers on her tiny phone screen. Her heart fluttered like a new-born child, fast and shallow. Trying to jump down from the wall, the trembling in her legs gave a pre-warning before she collapsed into the sand. Sitting in a tangle of legs, Claire laughed until the tears ran down her cheeks.
What a mess. Why didn’t I check my stats before I resigned? She thought about it, as the chill of the sand seeped through her jeans. Would l have done it? Her eyes widened in horror. Does Carl think I only resigned to force his hand; to get more money?
She thought back to their conversation, when he had asked her why she was leaving, intimating that the lure of a fancy car had precipitated her resignation. All the mirth drained away, and she shuffled across the sand to lean her shoulders against the wall.
Her words came back to her, barely audible through the tinny sound of the amusement arcade music still playing behind her, only partially muffled by the wall. No man, no money, no shiny car or bigger office. Just an opportunity to make a difference; to be me. To live a little in the real world.
Claire shivered and pulled herself up, walking along the beach to the steps. This isn’t just a bigger car. This is a chance to save a significant amount of money, to fund my future. That amount of cash going into my account, while I live in hostels on expenses; that’s life changing. I could help Ruth, I could fulfil any dream, if I only stick it out for a year.
With a jolt Claire realised she didn’t have a dream. Aside from a vague interest in travel writing and an impulsive urge to visit the other side of the world, there was nothing in her future to pull her forward.
Walking blindly, Claire didn’t realise she was lost until the change in sound alerted her. The noise filling her ears was no longer the grating tone of the amusement arcade, but the mellow tones of a man singing, with the twang of an electric guitar.
Dragged from her reverie, Claire looked up and saw she was outside a pub. The sight reminded her of her intention to call Josh; that she’d only gone for a walk to kill time and to get something to eat. Carl’s phone call had driven the thought from her mind, and her gurgling tummy reminded her that she still hadn’t eaten.
Without hesitating to wonder whether going into a local pub alone was a good idea, Claire pushed through the door and found herself in a dim, cosy interior that smelt of sweat and beer. The low-ceilinged room felt crowded, but she was able to get to the bar without making eye contact with any of the punters. The entertainment was set up in a corner, and most eyes were focussed on the singer.
Shouting over the music, Claire asked if the pub served food. With a shake of his head, the barman indicated that crisps and pork scratchings were all he could offer. Cursing her stupidity, Claire ordered a gin & tonic and two bags of crisps. While the barman prepared her drink, she looked around to find an empty table. Her heart rose when she spied one in the corner, shielded from the live music.
Claire wove her way to the secluded corner, praying no one accosted her. When she reached her destination unmolested, her overwhelming sensation was surprise. Are people really polite in Swanage, or are they ignoring me because I’m not a local?
Glad of the anonymity and the loud music drowning out her troubled thoughts, Claire ate her meagre dinner and tried to formulate a plan. Was a dream essential, to enjoy life? She was pretty certain no-one she knew had a burning ambition to do anything more than pay the bills and buy the things that made working bearable. Now she thought about it, the fact struck her as sad. Aside from Ruth, who at least had Sky to focus on, the only person she knew with a dream was Kim, with her ambition to become a famous actress. As unlikely as it was, at least it was a tangible goal.
Thinking about Kim increased Claire’s sadness. She would see her friend in two days, but what kind of greeting would she get? Kim hadn’t answered any of her calls or messages since the wedding. She couldn’t believe their friendship was irrevocably broken, but it was starting to look that way.
If Josh’s wife forgave him for running away to the other side of the world, surely Kim can forgive me for revealing her secret to Michael? It wasn’t my fault he blurted it out to everyone.
All the elation from earlier seeped away, as Claire drained the last of her gin. She was still contemplating whether to drink another and drown her sorrows completely, when a familiar voice hailed her from near the door. With a start she looked up, unable at first to see who had recognised her in this backwater place.
Her searching gaze met a smiling pair of glass-green eyes, and her heart gave a lurch. Conor, that’s all I need. As if I haven’t got enough to think about. She was tempted to drop her head and ignore his hail, but knew it was too soon to burn any bridges. Tempting as Carl’s offer was, it wouldn’t hurt to keep the options open.
She raised her hand in greeting, and Conor threaded his way through the crowd to her table.
“Enjoying yourself? I told you Swanage was a great place.” He leant close, to allow his words to be heard over the music.
Claire inhaled the overpowering scent of his aftershave and leaned back slightly as the man filled her personal space.
“Can I get you another drink?” Conor nodded at her empty glass.
Claire didn’t want to stay; her mind was jumbled enough without being on friendly terms with the man who wanted to be her boss. Unable to think of an excuse without appearing rude, Claire nodded her head.
As she watched him take her glass back to the bar, Claire fought an overwhelming urge to cry.