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.
- 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.