New York Times  Bestselling Author

How My Writing's Changed

I finished reading SECRET LIVES about one am this morning. As I mentioned a few posts ago, SECRET LIVES was my third book and the first where I felt I was truly hitting my stride. It’s been more than fifteen years since I read that book and it was full of surprises for me–not in the story itself, of course, but in terms of how I’ve changed as a novelist. . . and how I’ve stayed the same.
What’s changed?

  • There is a very strong romantic thread (actually two of them) throughout this book. For many years, I believed you couldn’t have a terrific story without a romantic thread. My mistake was in equating “romance” with “relationship.” Now I believe you can’t have a terrific story without a strong relationship. At least one character needs to care deeply about another, whether it be a lover, a mother, a brother, a child. The relationship doesn’t need to be a romance for the story to soar.
  • In exploring that romance, I fell into the formulaic trap of: attraction and joy, followed by conflict and misery, followed by joy forever. Not that there’s anything inherently wrong with  unfolding a romance in that way; it often happens that way in real life (and the second romantic thread in SL does not end with joy forever. . . ). What bothered me as a reader was that it felt too transparent. Or maybe the thirty-something characters simply feel too young to me now. Perhaps I’ve grown jaded over the years.
  • Speaking of which: this was one juicy book! There are several love scenes and every one of them is graphic to the max. I rarely write a graphic love scene anymore. I try to write only what is necessary to move the plot forward and/or develop character. I leave the rest behind the bedroom door. Is that change because of my development as a writer or my aging as a woman? LOL. Maybe a bit of both.
  • My writing is more spare now. As I read SECRET LIVES, I picked out many unnecessary sentences–and some unnecessary paragraphs. I really clobbered the reader over the head a few times to drive home a point. I tend to trust my reader more these days.
  • Oodles of four letter words! Even though I believe they fit the characters who spoke them, I am more cautious in using them these days.

What hasn’t changed?

  • Characterization. It’s always been my strong suit and the characters in SECRET LIVES are, in my humble opinion, very much alive. My favorite review of SECRET LIVES was from The Washington Post, in which the reviewer called the characters “decent, complex and believable.” I still like to write about people who, like those characters, have integrity.
  • Themes of forgiveness, loss, and redemption, which I seem to revisit in nearly every book.
  • Emotional power. I cried at one am when I hit the chapter in which . . . well, I’ll simply say that I cried when I wrote it and fifteen years later, it still worked for me.
  • Secrets. I loved them then and I love them now. They have the power to both devastate and–once revealed–to heal. 
  • Complicated storyline. Complex tales are murder to write, but what a joy they are to read!
  • The past informs the present. Sometimes my stories move back and forth between the past and the present, as happens in SECRET LIVES through Kate’s journal. We’re all the product of our past, and I love figuring out how my characters came to be the people they are.
  • Phobias and other psychological conditions. As a former agoraphobic and former therapist, I often write about people who struggle with their fears. I like to believe that Kate would have overcome hers in SECRET LIVES . . . if it hadn’t been for that chapter that made me cry. 🙁
  • Settings that are evocative. I’ll never be able to duplicate the power of the setting in SECRET LIVES: a limestone cavern in the Shenandoah Valley. Still, I look at my settings from an emotional perspective. They are always a little dark around the edges, no matter how brightly the sun is shining.
  • Love, and lots of it. I want it flowing in every direction from nearly every character. It may sometimes be hard for them to express or hidden beneath layers of hurt, but it’s still there.
  • A satisfying ending. I don’t need happy-ever-after, but if I ask my readers to give me hours of their time, I want them to have a reward at the end.

I guess it’s a bit strange that I’ve spent so much time discussing a book that is unavailable! (Check your libraries if you’re interested). Still, it’s been enlightening to me as a writer to look back at how much I’ve changed. . . and how much I’ve stayed the same. If you’re a writer, I hope some of the discussion helped you. And if you’re one of my beloved readers, thank you for taking this journery with me. 

18 Comments

  1. Margo on August 17, 2007 at 8:34 am

    And what a wonderful journey it is to revisit SECRET LIVES. I know exactly which part your talking about where you cried Diane. SECRET LIVES was 1 of the most original novels I’ve ever read and I felt very, very close to the characters, particularly Katherine…her intense fears just made me want to take her hand and try to help her. I’m fortunate to own a hardbound copy of this book and reading your blog this a.m. just helped me choose the next book I’m going to read…I’m going to reread SECRET LIVES and recapture those memorable characters and Katherine’s unforgettable moments spent in the cave.

  2. Brenda on August 17, 2007 at 12:49 pm

    I am UPSET. I can’t find this book. Margo-you are lucky. I will keep looking for it.

  3. Brenda on August 17, 2007 at 12:53 pm

    There is another “famous” author who used to use more sex scenes and bad language. The latest ones are “tamer”. However, and not because of less sex and less language, the stories have also changed-I don’t find the emotion in the books-the stories…I don’t think one has to do with the other-but I have to wonder if this same author is writing the books. Instead of characters growing…they are stagnant, and the places in the books are the SAME areas over the country. I can tell you where they will go on vacation and where they will eat their meals…that gets old. The stories do not have the same characters because in the books by Sue Grafton, one expects the same…by the author of which I am speaking-one should not. I can remember when the time came for one of her books to be released, I was so excited. Now-I don’t care if I read them or not, and I hate that feeling. I have read reviews on book clubs, Amazon, etc., and I am not alone.
    Diane-I think the fact that you are taking so much time to put out a book-and not trying to do two or more a year-will help in the long run.

  4. Diane Chamberlain on August 17, 2007 at 1:12 pm

    Brenda, well actually I AM doing two this year, but doubt I’ll be able to keep that up. And one is a sequel to the other, which leaves the setting and characters in place and will make the writing easier (I hope). You did worry me a bit when you said that author’s settings are “the same areas over the country,” since I’m focusing more and more on North Carolina. But it’s a big state with plenty of settings to explore.
    Check Amazon or ebay for SECRET LIVES. I see some used copies there at good prices.

  5. Margo on August 17, 2007 at 1:24 pm

    Brenda, I just checked Amazon and you can purchase SECRET LIVES from them (used copy)…Diane, your novels are all completely different from each other so even if the setting is in the same spot (love those taking place in NC!…especially the Outer Banks area) it doesn’t make a difference….they are all very unique stories. I also loved CYPRESS POINT because of the setting being in the Big Sur and Carmel area.(-:

  6. Trina Allen on August 18, 2007 at 3:05 pm

    Yes, as a writer this discussion helped, Diane. Thanks for such detailed insights into your writing, then and now. I agree with all of what you wrote about your work that is consistent including what I enjoy most about your work: strong characterization, complicated story lines, powerful secrets, and especially “flawed characters” who have phobias. I like that you consistently write satisfying endings. It has always discouraged me to follow a character for 300+ pages to be disappointed with the ending. It leaves a bad taste in the mouth. Not to be a spoiler, but this is why I do NOT recommend the movie PREMONITION.
    I am going to try to find a copy of SECRET LIVES. You’ve gotten me excited to read it. I wonder how it will compare to THE SECRET LIFE OF CEECEE WILKES. In term of secrets, I loved BAY AT MIDNIGHT, most, of your work that I’ve read. You kept me reading after the first page because I wanted to find out what mistake a child could never forget.
    Trina

  7. Brenda on August 18, 2007 at 7:30 pm

    Diane-I do not mean the same area…I mean that the people go to the same City/town/country for a vacation and eat at the same places.
    I love books that take place in North and South Carolina and New England…keep it up…after I wrote that, I worried about it, but I had so many meetings I couldn’t get back and do a P.S.
    I don’t want to be more specific or the others will guess the author-esp. Margo…so it has nothing to do with your settings.

  8. Anonymous on August 21, 2007 at 1:26 pm

    Speaking of secret lives i just found it at a 2nd hand book store ill start it when i finish the 1 im readin now. They have 23 more copies if anyone is imterested.

  9. Krysia on August 21, 2007 at 1:34 pm

    Sorry did that from my phone

  10. Brenda on August 21, 2007 at 3:12 pm

    Krysia-I am interested. Send me the phone number of the book store, and I will order it by phone with a credit card. Thanks
    Brenda
    [email protected]

  11. Diane Chamberlain on August 21, 2007 at 3:44 pm

    Wow, 23 copies! Cool.

  12. Krysia on August 21, 2007 at 4:39 pm

    That’s the first time I’ve ever been able to post from my phone. I now also notice my poor grammer and spelling. haha
    He said he only had one title of yours and then I saw that one and counted all the copies, I was amazed. I thought that was a lot for a book out of print. It looks brand new, no creases. It’s even first edition paperback. I won’t tell you how much I paid though.

  13. Brenda on August 22, 2007 at 4:28 pm

    In class last night (AT UNIVERSITY –SMALL ONE–we talked about authors-I rec. you to my students. Some of them stayed after class to get titles.
    Today at meeting for high school teachers-one of the girls I ate with-is going to read the trilogy. Tomorrow night-college-I will do the same. I think your books are some of the best out there-and they can learn a lot from them.

  14. Diane Chamberlain on August 22, 2007 at 4:50 pm

    Thanks so much, Brenda! I always appreciate the promotion.

  15. Brenda on August 22, 2007 at 7:11 pm

    One comment from a student (adults)…”I have never liked English. Are you going to worry about commas?”
    I said this, “I’ll tell you what I tell my high school students.”
    WHEN YOU ARE DIANE CHAMBERLAIN OR STEPHEN KING, you can punctuate the way you choose…begin sentences with AND or BUT…do paragraphs anyway you want. Until you graduate and go to college-I want you to write the way we MAKE you…” 🙂 🙂 I followed with, “That is not to say that Chamberlain and King do not write correctly…”
    I must add, Diane, that one of the good things (not the most important) about reading your books is that I am not worried with errors…You know as English teachers that is a biggy with us…I get into the stories SO MUCH that if there are errors, I must ignore them…(That’s what editors are for?????RIGHT????)

  16. Diane Chamberlain on August 22, 2007 at 10:01 pm

    >>WHEN YOU ARE DIANE CHAMBERLAIN OR STEPHEN KING, you can punctuate the way you choose…begin sentences with AND or BUT…

  17. Kathy Holmes on August 23, 2007 at 12:15 pm

    Great point about “romance vs. relationship.” And, yes, characterization is definitely your strong suit – same for me, if I may say so. 🙂 It’s encouraging to know that you can be good at characterization and plot equally well – something I continue to work on and wonder if I’ll ever get – there.

  18. Diane Chamberlain on August 23, 2007 at 1:32 pm

    You will get there, Kathy! You have the dedication it takes.

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