Rob Parsons has beguiled,moved,and doubled me up in laughter several times on this subject, both in person as an inspirational speaker, and in writing. Now he has again written on a topic that should be closely studied by policy-makers. If you’re a parent, and you’d sooner your child achieved their critical acclaim and professional success in a couple of decades time by some other means than publishing their misery memoir, Rob Parsons sets it out in very simple,clear terms in “The Sixty Minute Family” (pub.Lion).
One of his answers is as simple as a father spending ordinary time with his child – just “being there”. And beyond that is a truth: “relationships matter more than money”. I expect many more books will be written in more complex terms, saying the same thing.
Within classic story structure, what is the one most familiar trope a writer can always rely on? It’s the Dysfunctional Parent/Child relationship. The Disney story writers trade on it, the psychiatrists and counsellors make their living from it; the radio interviewers and TV chat show hosts recognise it as their most fruitful area of analysis.
Reading what Parsons has to say now (the book was published in 2010)I feel his stance has toughened since I first heard him on this subject. This book gives strong clues to the powerful influence of physically and emotionally absent parents upon the society we live in. But to end on an uplifting note, it may be, as Parsons says, that “most of us are doing a much better job of parenting than we think – and it normally turns out better than we dared hope”.
Several years ago, I nearly signed on for Robert McKee’s “Story Structure” workshop in London – tempted by the testimonial from John Cleese, who attributed his success in creating the Fawlty Towers scripts to what he learned from this workshop. But I saw it was essentially for screenwriters, and chose to pass on it. I have since recognised that story structure is universal, and applies not only to screenwriters, but also novelists. When I recently found this book in Waterstones Piccadilly, the inner voice said “Buy it!” And I obeyed. Now I’ve absorbed all that McKee has to say about story, it will transform the way I work on the second draft of my new novel.
Story saturates our lives, through books, plays, the theatre, TV and radio drama, and movies; and we all respond to story instinctively. And yet if we were asked to explain why we respond as we do, and why something works or not, many of us would fall silent. But Robert McKee does explain. One thing that has long mystified me is: “How is it that we are satisfied by a story where the protagonist does not achieve his desire?” McKee replies that “the flood of insight that pours from the gap delivers the hoped-for emotion, but in a way we could never have foreseen.” He illustrates his points with many references to famous movies. “Story” is a huge challenge; dense and even overwhelming, its author acknowledges this at the end: “You have pursued “Story” to its final chapter and, with this step, taken your career in a direction many writers fear… I know that when confronted with a rush of insights even the most experienced writer can be knocked off stride.” I hope that, having studied thoughtfully, as I “follow the quest for stories told with meaning and beauty,” I too may “write boldly” and produce stories that “will dazzle the world.”
Honesty and truthfulness – these are the outstanding virtues of a great artist. And as a creative writer I have in recent times found inspiration from two contemporary artists, Grayson Perry and Tracy Emin.
Who else finds writing Christmas cards the cause not just of gladness but pain and sorrow? I put off “doing” my Christmas list until I’m in the mood – and light a candle and have a glass of sherry or wine to help create that mood. Why? Because each year I have to engage with the major change in people’s lives; the gap of a year between communications throws those changes – for good and for bad – into sharp relief.
There are those who must now be addressed The … Family, because a new baby has been born. You remember the mother as a tiny blonde cherub herself. Then there are the divorces, where you refer back to the previous year’s Christmas newsletter and gaze at the photo of the mother with her two tall sons, and remember when you rejoiced at her marriage, at the news of the arrival of their first baby… and now “he” has disappeared from their lives, and is no longer referred to. Then there’s the lady whose previous husband beat her up – a fact she communicated to you in a Christmas newsletter 5 years ago – and who sent you the news 3 years ago that she was marrying someone else she only referred to by his first name – and hasn’t been in touch since. You’d like to try and restore the lines of communication, but you only have the surname of the ex-husband. You presume she’s now living with the new man – unless that relationship too has broken up – but you’re not quite sure, and you have to address her in such a way that takes account of different possible scenarios.
And there are the couples whose children have now grown up and left home and started their own families, so you can now revert to sending cards to the couple alone, without their children’s names… and that feels sad too, despite the fact that this has been in many ways a happy change.
Then there are the people who have died, and whose names have to be crossed off your Christmas list and out of your address book – a task that always feels callous to me, every time I do it. And the people you’re going to send a card to who may well have died, but nobody has told you, so you won’t know, unless your card is returned to you by some helpful relative in the New Year.
So much change for good or bad. Then it occurs to me that at least my own family unit is “the same as last year” and perhaps that fact alone is a cause for at least one small flare of gladness and relief in the hearts of those who receive our greetings.
But should it be? For those on our Christmas list often only communicate the stark facts that will affect the way we address our envelopes to them next year. Behind it all lies the complex reality of their lives. As a novelist I know what is in my characters’ hearts; but not in the hearts of everyone on my Christmas list – the new parents, the newly-bereaved, the freshly-betrayed, the lonely, the divorced, even those who superficially appear to have everything in order, even those who claim success and triumph all round for every member of the family… their lives are far more complex than can ever be conveyed in the artificial confines of the Christmas card or newsletter.
Perhaps the candle flame is there to remind me of that.
An effective fictional villain has, to my mind, one essential characteristic. The villain should build up in the reader a passionate desire for his or her comeuppance.
Creative writing starts with passion. Therefore, if you want to be a creative writer, the first thing to do is identify your passion.
Why is it that we sometimes fail to express the person on the inside, on the outside? We can often be held back by self-limiting negative beliefs.
As a novelist I enjoy writing about relationships. I’ve spent years observing people’s behaviour in all sorts of situations – within romantic relationships, family relationships, within groups both informal and structured, at dinner parties or self-help therapy groups or in other group situations such as writing workshops. In my mystery romance novel “Mystical Circles”, I create a hothouse atmosphere within a closed community, where relationships and liaisons flare and flourish or fizzle out quickly. Much depends on the undercurrents of motive behind the behaviour and interactions of the characters.
Here is an extract showing the interpersonal tensions that may be found in the hothouse atmosphere of “The Wheel of Love”.
“Life is but a dream,” Rory said.
“You really believe that?”
“Of course. Who’d have harsh reality when they can live here?” he replied.
Oleg moved within range. “Life’s no different from what it was outside. Still goes badly for me most of the time.”
She glanced at him, bemused. “I noticed you last night in the barn with Beth, Oleg. Didn’t you two sort things out at all?”
He glared at her. “What d’you mean by that? Sort things out? How? And why were you watching us?”
She took a deep breath. “I can’t help noticing how much you care for her.”
“She doesn’t care for me,” he snapped.
Silence fell. She sought words. “Perhaps you’ve misunderstood her true feelings, Oleg. Perhaps you think too little of yourself. Be encouraged by Craig. He says you’re in tune with your higher self.”
“That depends upon what he actually chose to tell Craig.” Rory spoke in a snide tone of voice.
“Rory’s jealous,” said Oleg.
Rory moved as if he was about to strike him.
Juliet, alarmed, quickly stepped between them. “What’s up between you two?” she asked.
Rory looked surprised. “Nothing,” he replied, and sauntered on.
Then she turned back to Oleg. “What have you done to upset Rory?”
“Other way round.” His voice filled with self-pity. “It’s him who upset me.”
“Oh?” She ducked under a low branch. “What did he do?”
He looked dejected. “He asked me if I could possibly love him.”
Juliet took the risk of flippancy. “Didn’t you say ‘yes, as a friend? But I love Beth more’? This is, after all, a wheel of love.”
“No, I’d never tell him that,” he retorted, in a fierce undertone. “It doesn’t work that way. Not with Rory. He gets violent.”
“Oh?” She started. Her heart missed a beat. “Violent? D’you mean he beats you up?”
But Oleg was clearly unwilling to say more.
Juliet now felt a frisson of fear when she looked at Rory. She knew she shouldn’t judge anyone here simply on the basis of what someone else said about them. Even so… She would treat Rory with just a little extra caution until she knew him better.
But what she really wanted to know right now was: how did Craig mean to deal with all these conflicting desires? Was he really equipped to handle them? Or was this, for him, a dream he never intended to wake up from?
At a recent Writers Workshop which I attended in London, one of the delegates asked this question of all of us who sat at my table: “Is there anybody here who wants to become rich and famous?”
A silence followed, of about three seconds in duration, when it seemed that no writer present dared to admit to this hubris.
Then I spoke up, “Well, from the age of seven, I have wanted to become a successful published author and live by my writing.”
Nine pairs of eyes swivelled in my direction. Surely, by now, life had taught me otherwise? For what does it actually mean to “live by” your writing? It means a significant amount of reliable money, which flows persistently into the writer’s bank account over the course of many years.
And there is of course a universe of difference between living for your writing, and living by your writing. It is a popularly-held belief that that the word ‘novelist’ is synonymous with ‘huge advance and three-book deal’, and ‘bestselling author living in a mansion on an island with panoramic views of the ocean from his or her writing room in the tower.”
Nevertheless, you do need money to live. And if companies are prepared to pay a liveable amount of money, year in year out, to, say junior clerks and secretaries and post-boys, why should not the world also accord that privilege to creative writers? And of course it does, to a happy few.
What are your thoughts on this? Do you buy books secondhand, are you delighted when you pick up a book for a bargain? How do you believe the world should reward those who write books?
A couple of days ago the words ‘dream home’ sprang into my mind. I don’t know why. Perhaps it was a bit like J.K. Rowling on that train journey when she was gazing out of the window day-dreaming and she thought ‘Boy wizard – doesn’t know he’s a wizard – gets invited to wizard school.’ Anyway, these words ‘dream home’ came into my mind as I was driving along in my car. And then I thought, Whoever first came up with the idea that any of us might, or indeed should, aspire to one day living in a ‘dream home’? And what gives some of us the right and the privilege to live in a ‘dream home’, whereas thousands of others are constrained by money, location, convenience and so on, and end up in a home which is OK for them to live in but in no way constitutes a dream home and never will?
Of course there are those in this world for whom ‘home’ is an improvised shack in a slum or on a rubbish dump. But who says such people don’t also have ‘dream homes?’ Or is the very concept ‘dream home’ one that our consumer society has invented so they can attach dream lifestyles to it and then attempt to sell us the products that will somehow propel us into those dream lifestyles?
In my mystery romance novel “Mystical Circles” you will find a house that qualifies to be my own personal dream home. Ever since I was a young child, my dream home has involved flagstone floors, whitewashed walls, secret staircases within the thickness of a wall, exposed beams, inglenook fireplaces and diamond-paned windows. Perhaps I was first influenced by a lovely English country pub which somehow got associated in my mind with warmth, happiness, belonging…
So why on earth do I think that a fifteenth century English timbered cottage (beautifully restored and renovated of course) or farmhouse or indeed an Elizabethan hall-house qualify to be my dream home? Because they remind me of things from childhood, because such houses contain idiosyncratic corners and minstrels’ galleries and sloping ceilings and uneven walls, and probably because these things are the stuff of children’s stories, (or the sort I read anyway). Houses that may provide entrances to other worlds… perhaps this in itself provides the definition of my dream home.
C.S.Lewis was first inspired for “The Lion,the Witch and the Wardrobe” by the house he and his brother explored when they were young children. An unused room with a mysterious wardrobe… This was a concept that turned out to be powerful and fertile, as did that of the boy wizard dreamed up on the train journey. There is a rich tradition in children’s literature of houses that somehow become portals to another dimension – consider the world Lewis Carroll projects Alice into through the looking glass in her house, wait for the clock to strike thirteen and see what follows in “Tom’s Midnight Garden” by Philippa Pearce, or step with Neil Gaiman’s “Coraline” into the chilling parallel world of the Other Mother and the Other Father.
Having written this, I have now convinced myself that the only qualification dream homes need is portals to other worlds. What do you think? What is your idea of a dream home? Have you too been inspired and influenced by the stories you read as a child?