Sunday, 25 May 2014

Why Writers Shouldn't Overshare

When I was teaching English several years ago many of my students struggled with creative writing.  They’d write one or two sentences and then call me over to read them, expecting praise and feedback for the tiny bit of work they’d done. 

I blame this partly on the over-sharing, instant-gratification culture we live in where every fleeting thought and emotion is often considered Facebook or Tweet-worthy. People not only expect but need to be acknowledged and getting ‘liked’ or retweeted releases feel-good chemicals in the brain that cause us to become addicted to constant feedback.

Writers are not immune to this and when there are so many forums to publish our work and get read, it takes a lot of self-control to hold things back and not hit the publish button too soon. I shouldn’t include all writers in this because there are many who thrive on feedback and interaction, using it to produce better work, but I’m not one of them.

As soon as I put something out there in the public domain, that’s it, it’s over for me. I never want to revisit that piece of writing again. I don’t have a folder of drafts that I can go back and work on when the creative well runs dry because I've put nearly everything I've written on Amazon or on my blog. I really wish I did have some pieces to fall back on that I'd kept to myself.

I’ve come to believe that putting something aside and letting it sit there, untouched, for a few weeks or months is one of the most important things writers can do to improve their writing. With this in mind I’m going to focus on writing a few first drafts and then just leave them alone for a while.  Not only will this hopefully help me to improve my writing but it will also free up the creative juices when there’s no self-imposed pressure to produce a finished piece of work. 

Time is not only a great healer but it is also helps remove the blinkers from our eyes so we can see more clearly where our strengths and weaknesses lie. 

Friday, 16 May 2014

Sister Wives, Miserable Lives

Until last night I’d only ever seen a few minutes of Sister Wives as I was flicking through channels looking for something else to watch. In the minutes before I moved on the husband was consoling one of his crying wives and I thought he seemed reasonably kind and attentive. I've never been able to understand what attracts women to polygamous relationships but each to their own, I thought. If it works for them then that’s their business.

Last night there was absolutely nothing else on TV so I decided to give Sisters Wives another go. The first thing that struck me was how utterly miserable three of the wives seemed and how lacking in warmth their relationships were with each other. Meri looks like she’s permanently on the verge of tears, Janelle is clearly over the whole thing and can’t stand Kody (with a K. Maybe he should take one of the Kardashian’s as a sister wife, or all 3) while Christine just faded into the background. The only one that seemed content was Robyn, the most recent and considerably younger trophy wife. All of them, apart from Robyn, seemed bitter and starved for affection, and how could they not be when they only get one quarter of a husband? The rest of the time they’re on their own knowing that Kody’s shacked up with another woman.

The only women this kind of relationship could possibly work for are those that can’t stand their spouse and want to spend as little time with him as possible. I can imagine that if your husband is an abusive jerk  then not having to cook his dinner and perform your wifely duties each night would be a very nice arrangement. For those who actually want an equal, mutually satisfying relationship with a man who is committed to fulfilling their emotional needs it is a recipe for disaster.  I can also imagine that if you are popping out a baby each year it might be nice to have a support system of other women in place to share the burden and help with the child-rearing. This utopian ideal is clearly what the Brown family believed would change peoples’ perceptions about polygamous relationships when the show first aired. In reality the opposite is true.

The wives' hideously ugly McMansions with their dusty, barren yards are perfect symbols for this emotionally dysfunctional family who, as one of them acknowledged in a recent episode, are not much closer to each other than ordinary neighbours. The kids are clearly devoted to each other and provide the only real warmth in the show. I can’t imagine what it would be like to grown up in a household with a father who is parenting 17 children in four separate homes. I question how strong the relationship could be with even the most devoted father in these circumstances, let alone a self-absorbed, narcissistic patriarch like Kody. There’s just no way that he is able to spend the quality time with all of his children and wives that they need and to think that he can is pure arrogance. His emotional distance from his offspring is quite evident in the fact that he refers to them as “Janelle’s eldest” etc. I strongly suspect that he doesn’t really care much about anyone beyond himself. You can see the glazed look in his eyes whenever he has to deal with his wives’ problems. His arm might be around them and he might be saying all the right things but mentally and emotionally he’s nowhere in sight.
The empathy is overwhelming
Despite my strong dislike of Kody I even feel an inkling of sympathy for him. It must be completely exhausting having to move between four needy and insecure women. He doesn’t even have a place to call home as the houses belong to his wives. It’s not humanly possible to love four women equally and there has to be one woman he’d prefer to be with above the others, but instead of being able to admit this and release them all from this torturous situation he has to carry on with the farce that they are one “big happy family.” The whole situation makes me surprisingly angry and my advice to all of them is to stop pretending and face reality.

Meri: You are struggling with where you belong in the family now that your daughter has left for college. Do you really think this situation is going to change? It’s not, it’s only going to get much worse. You face many years of unhappiness unless you get out of this “marriage” and find a man who can give you the undivided love and attention you deserve.

Janelle: You are a very smart woman and you have already shown that you can make it on your own. Your weight problems are directly linked to your unhappiness in this five-way relationship. You’re supressing your emotions through food and the only way this is going to change is to deal with the situation that is causing you pain and misery. Get out of his sham marriage, shake the blinkers from your eyes and show your children what you’re made of.

Christine: Kody started courting another woman when you were pregnant and took off on his honeymoon shortly after the baby was born. He then made it clear that you had been replaced by a newer model. This man is not deserving of you. You don’t need to feel “grateful” for the meagre scraps of affection he throws your way. Kick him to the curb where he belongs and find out what a real relationship is all about.

Robyn: You might feel secure now but remember, what goes around comes around.

Kody: For God’s sakes, grow up and man up. 

Disclaimer: After watching another episode of Sister Wives I think I was a bit harsh on the Browns who seem to be a lot closer and happier than I thought. Sorry Browns, but you did provide a focus for my PMS.

Tuesday, 6 May 2014

What's Your Story?


In her book This is the Secret of a Happy Marriage, Ann Patchett says that all writers have one basic storyline that they repeat in every book. The characters, locations and problems might change, but the basic storyline is there, underpinning the whole thing. At first I didn’t believe this, but it got me thinking about my books and I started to see that there is some truth to it.

A storyline that I’ve repeated several times already has been that of a woman alone in a strange place, having to find her inner resilience. I used this storyline in Shadows of Yesterday, Hunger of the Wolf and Colton Manor. Pleasure Island also follows this storyline in some ways but in this case two characters are thrown together on a deserted island for a reality TV show.  In Eternal Hunger Lucia leaves her old life behind when she joins the vampires.

Is this a sign that I need to expand my horizons and find something else to write about?  Possibly, but taking characters out of the familiar environment is a common strategy for writers because it means we get to start with a blank canvas. It’s easier to write about new relationships than it is about ones with a long history. Putting characters in an unfamiliar place and confronting them with all the challenges this entails also brings out their strengths and weaknesses.

These are all good reasons why many writers use this storyline and if you think about it, so many books and movies are based on this premise. For me it’s also a psychological thing. Being an introvert I crave solitude and I don’t think it’s a coincidence that I put my characters in the position of being alone. It’s also no accident that my characters are often involved in creative careers and that they frequently escape somewhere beautiful to focus on their work because this is something I’d love to do. Who wouldn’t want to write in a cabin in the woods or look out at an empty windswept beach from the window of their study in an historic mansion? There’s definitely an element of wish-fulfilment involved. I’ve moved quite a few times throughout my life and had to start again in a new place so this definitely comes into play in my writing.

We write about what we know, and even when we think we’re writing about something completely separate from our experience, the emotional struggles and heartbreaks are often our own. I find this both comforting and disconcerting. The upshot of this knowledge about the single storyline is that I’m probably going to make a conscious effort NOT to use it in the future. It's handy though to recognise what drives you and what to avoid if you don’t want to become stale.

What’s your basic storyline and what does it say about you?