Last Saturday, Beta Sigma Phi, the international women’s social, cultural and service organization, invited me to speak at their regional meeting. We had a great time together and I met very impressive women. Here is part of the talk I gave:
1. People need to connect emotionally. A writer, to be successful, needs to connect with her readers through the emotions she creates on the page. We, as women, are usually much more aware of the need to interact emotionally with people, than many men who sadly have been taught to focus on productivity rather than relationships.
2. Everyone needs some creativity in their lives. For me writing is therapeutic. For others it might be painting or singing, drama or woodwork. We adults need to play! By trying our hand at creativity, we discover that we can keep learning and improving as we go. Without play we can become dull and mechanical. And we won’t have the imagination to see what we could be, if we try something new.
3. You can’t make someone like you, or what you write, or even make them read what you write. My oldest daughter can’t bring herself to read my novels because she’s afraid there will be sex in them. No one wants to connect their mother and sex in the same thought. I may have been a little devious lately when my husband drove our daughter and me to Seattle. I read novel # 3 aloud and she was forced to listen the whole way. I have to admit, she could have put on her headphones and listened to music, but she didn’t. She says she tried the door but the child safety locks were on.
4. We all hate to leave our comfort zones. Novels often open with a glimpse of the ordinary life and its challenges. Then some event or person disrupts that life or causes the hero or heroine to have to leave it behind. Our current life starts looking pretty good to us when it is proposed to us we need to change it in order to accomplish some good.
In my first novel, Hope and a Future, poor Colm, who is terrified of flying, must leave Ireland for a temporary teaching position in Portland. Otherwise he would never meet Marjorie!
We all hate to leave our comfort zones. But if no one did, even when it becomes very uncomfortable, we wouldn’t make this world a better place.
5. We are all on a quest. Our life story is written day-by-day as we work toward becoming the best version of ourselves. So is everyone else’s, so it makes sense to sometimes be the subplot friend who helps accomplish someone else’s goal. You never know, you might even be making progress on your goal at the same time. But despite setbacks and detours, we need to keep making progress toward our goal.
6. We need friends to help us along the way. Think of Star Wars, Lord of the Rings, or Harry Potter. Or any 70s sitcom, for that matter. Think of your friends. Without friends, the mission would be doomed.
7. We all have flaws that keep us from being the hero we’d like to be, or doing the deeds that we’d like to accomplish. I struggle with introversion and so I don’t reach out to others as much as I wish I did. Some main characters are proud, or distrustful, or lack self-confidence, or courage. They must overcome their flaws to achieve their goals.
In Hope and a Future, my heroine Marjorie lost her husband of 25 years in a car accident. Her guilt over the failings in her marriage keep her from being open to any new love in her life. Her Irish hero-to-be, Colm, has so many phobias that he lives a very limited life, at least until he starts facing his fears one at a time.
Our weaknesses often are what bring us to growth, when we face them and steadily overcome them, or … at least beat them into submission for a time.
Our flaws, on their flip sides, can be also our gifts. One stubborn daughter is also tenacious and has persevered her way into being a successful engineer. One overly quiet, watchful child grew up and turned her deep thoughts into great academic success, and avoided many common pitfalls by observing and avoiding her friends’ mistakes. One daughter as a teen declared she wasn’t going to work too hard for A’s anymore because she was tired of being a Goody Two Shoes. Now as a school counselor, she has a special connection with the type of students who tend to fall through the cracks.
8. Sometimes going home is extremely challenging. Remember fearful Colm from book 1? He is terrified of horses, and grew up on a horse ranch. In the sequel book 2, Where Hope Leads, his father wants him to come home and take over the business. The poor guy must fly back to Ireland but suffers a panic attack, missing his plane. Going home can be an ordeal.
In book 3, When the Vow Breaks, Kay left an abusive father behind when she fled Montana and moved to Spokane. Now her mother and father need her to return to take care of them. She really doesn’t want to go.
But going home can teach us a lot about ourselves. We all need to look back on our childhood with the eyes of an adult, with the advantage of some time and distance between us and what happened in our families. Sometimes, we can mend hearts that were broken and reconnect to people we truly love deep down.
9. Conflict is good. Our struggles help us to grow so we can overcome that main character flaw that keeps us from succeeding. We fight, we fail, we learn from our mistakes and the next time we get closer before we fail again. But each struggle brings us more information and calls out a better self than we were before. Each attempt, whether a success or failure, leads us closer to our goal.
You might say, “That’s fine for a character in fiction. A good story has to have conflict. In fact, one of the most common errors of new writers is being too easy on their characters. As a mom, I spent 25 years of my life trying to limit, solve, resolve or forbid conflict. I’m not sure I’m done yet. My poor characters, on the other hand, are subject to me increasing, enhancing, and in general bringing all sorts of unpleasant conflict into their lives.
Looking back as a mom, I see how the struggles my children had in their young lives taught them lessons that continue to serve them well in life. One daughter has Tourette Syndrome and had to learn interdependence to make it through. She is just as willing to help as to ask for help and, after working as a special education teacher for several years, is now a mother of two and is back at school working toward a Physical Therapy doctorate. Her personal experience with special needs has made her tender heart want to reach out to help those who struggle to meet goals that are easy for others. Conflict is good.
10. We are often drawn to our opposites. In romance writing, the hero and heroine can be so different that they are at first repelled by each other like opposing magnets. In fact, you can predict the end of a romantic comedy by seeing which man and woman dislike each other the most at the beginning. Consider Mary and Matthew in Downton Abbey. Or Pride and Prejudice’s Elizabeth Bennett and Mr. Darcy. Somewhere along the way in most romances, the magnetic field flips and the attraction becomes powerful.
Like good romance heroes and heroines, in real life, we are often drawn to our opposites. I think this is because we are meant to learn from our “soul mates” so that their strengths teach us to overcome our weaknesses. We are meant to learn from each other, but we tend instead to polarize and become more extreme in our strengths and weaknesses. The emotional spouse takes over all feeling while the rational spouse takes care of business. Or the introvert becomes overwhelmed by the extrovert, and rather than learn to enjoy a little more socializing, becomes even more protective of privacy. Perhaps the responsible person watches the fun-loving date become an irresponsible spouse and resents him, rather than learning to lighten up a bit and helping the other grow.
In When the Vow Breaks, independent Kay eloped with compliant Wade on graduation night. When they returned home, peace loving Wade agreed to an annulment to appease his mother, thinking it was only temporary. Heart-broken and angry, Kay fled home planning to never return … but then later found out she was pregnant… with twins. (That’s the cruel writer heaping conflict on her poor characters.) But if Wade had learned some independence from Kay, or Kay some peace keeping from Wade, well… it would have been a much shorter, duller novel. As it is, the novel actually starts 18 years later when their twins have just left home.
11. We need to use what we’ve gained to help others. At the end of any great quest, the heroine should bring back what she learned, or accomplished, or attained, in order to improve the lives of the people she left behind. In The Lord of the Rings the quest brings peace back to the Hobbit’s Shire. Harry Potter, in every book of the series, makes the world a safer place for wizards and muggles alike. In my sequel to the first novel, Where Hope Leads, Marjorie and Colm both want the other to relocate to their homeland. Marjorie hopes Colm will stay in Portland, and he hopes she will fall in love with Ireland. I won’t tell you who wins, but I can assure you that by the end of the book they’ve grown enough to consider the needs of others as important as their own. When they are willing to be open to God’s leading, they find a way to help their version of the Shire.
12. We want satisfying endings, and usually in books, though not always, that means happy ones. Daughter 3 once was so upset when a favorite character died, she threw her book in the freezer to punish it. I think we’ve all gotten to the end of a book or a movie and thought, “No, that’s not the right ending!” We feel like we’ve been cheated. We invested hours in reading or $15 at the theater, and we aren’t satisfied. Sometimes I wonder what God thinks as we move away from the direction he wanted us to head. I imagine he might like to throw us into the freezer for a while. Which might explain me growing up through Montana winters!
I suspect that when our time on this earth is over, we will look back and be satisfied with our lives if we’ve done something meaningful, if we’ve improved this world, either by making it more beautiful, or helping others, or by the wonderful children we’ve raised.
So, to sum up, the truths I’ve learned while writing fiction:
- Relationships are deepened through sharing emotion. Don’t be afraid to love, laugh, enjoy, but also to cry, grieve, and let anger inspire you to positive action.
- Expressing creativity sets us apart as human and is necessary for happiness.
- We can’t make people like us. That’s ok. It’s more important to like ourselves.
- No one wants to leave their comfort zone, but wombs get tight, and we can’t grow unless we do.
- Friends make the road seem easier and help us make it through our journey.
- We will all have challenges. They make life interesting, and as difficult and even devastating as they can be, they help us grow.
- We are meant to learn from our loved ones how to grow stronger in our weak spots, not how to avoid growing. If both people continue to grow throughout their journey, the travel is sweet indeed.
- We each have a quest that only we can achieve. To succeed we need to face our flaws and fears and grow through them.
- Then we need to bring back what we learned for the good of others—
- So that we can have a satisfying ending.
Wishing you all successful quests and meaningful lives.