Finding A Sense of Place with Jane Lythell

13 Oct 2014 Author picOur guest on the blog today is the lovely Jane Lythell. Jane lives in Brighton and is a sea-lover, star-gazer, film and football fan. She was formerly a Producer at TV-am and Commissioning Editor of Features at Westcountry Television. Jane left to become Deputy Director of the British Film Institute and later Chief Executive of BAFTA before joining the Foreign and Commonwealth Office for seven years. She now writes full time and her second novel has just been published by Head of Zeus. Write Romantic Jo was lucky enough to meet Jane at a writers’ lunch organised by the equally wonderful Kerry Fisher. It was a day filled with laughter, fun and some brilliant advice for new writers, so we are really lucky that Jane has agreed to write a guest post for us, to tell us all about the inspiration for the setting of her second novel, her experiences with the first and to share her top writing tips. Here’s Jane to tell us more…

I’ve been a bookworm since primary school and wanted to write all my life, but I was a single parent with a small daughter and a large mortgage. For years I worked in the kind of jobs that didn’t end at six pm. There would be calls and emails deep into the evening and very little thinking and writing time. My great treat was to go on Arvon residential writing weeks. Arvon is a terrific organisation and those courses certainly helped keep my writing flame alive. In May 2011 I finally got into a financial position where I could give myself two full years to write. At last I had the time to do the one thing I’d wanted to do for years.

I’m interested in the dark side of people and what makes them do extreme things. My first novel ‘The Lie of You’ explores jealousy that deepens into full blown obsession. My second novel ‘After The Storm’ also has one character in the grip of psychological trauma.

‘After The Storm’ opens in Belize City and then moves to an island in the Caribbean called Roatan. An English couple,FINAL After the Storm_JANE Rob and Anna, have just met an American couple Owen and Kim who have a handsome old wooden boat. Owen suggests they charter his boat and he will take them to Roatan, where the diving is sensational. Anna does not want to go at all, but Rob is really keen and he persuades her. Unknown to them Kim is desperate to go home to Florida. It is Owen who is determined to continue their life on the boat. So straightaway we have conflict of wishes between the four characters and a boat can be a very claustrophobic place when tensions start to build.

They set off. With only the four of them on board it should be paradise: lazy afternoons spent snorkelling; long nights enjoying the silence and solitude of the sea. But why does Owen never sleep? Why is he so secretive about his past? And why does Kim keep a knife zipped into her money-belt? Anna, who is a speech therapist, can usually get people to talk… but this time does she want to?

I wanted ‘After The Storm’ to have a strong sense of place. I’ve been to Belize and to Roatan and I always felt they would make a great setting for a novel. Roatan is beautiful but it also has a kind of frontier feeling to it where the normal rules don’t seem to apply. I kept a journal when I was there and took lots of photos and I used these to help me create the atmosphere of the island. I try to write character driven stories rather than plot driven stories. My aim is to let the plot develop from how a particular character reacts to circumstances given their history and their psychology.

The shoutline on the cover is ‘Some Secrets Destroy You…’ It took us a while to get to this but I think it’s a very apt one because there are all kinds of secrets in the novel – some are trivial, some are serious and some are deadly.

LOY Paperback Cover‘The Lie of You’ has had over a hundred reviews and I can’t thank readers enough for taking the time to write down their reactions. These reviews are pure gold for a debut writer. And yes a few of them are negative but you learn from these ones too. One of the points that emerged was a difference of opinion about whether or not to sympathise with Heja by the end of the book. This definitely divided people. In ‘After The Storm’ there are four main characters and I’m so looking forward to hearing what readers make of them all because you do become attached to your characters.

Quite a few readers said they found ‘The Lie of You’ very ‘filmic’ and I hope ‘After The Storm’ has this same quality. This could be because I worked in film and television for fifteen years. I do see the scenes in my novel unspooling as film sequences as I’m writing them.

My top writing tips
For me it’s all about creating characters that readers will believe in. I try to think about what food they would eat, what flat they would live in and what single thing they fear most in life. You don’t have to put this in but it will help make them real to you as you write them.

Don’t worry if your characters are flawed or have some nasty sides to them. Flawed people are interesting. It doesn’t matter if your readers dislike them or adore them. But it does matter if they don’t believe in them.

Show your drafts to people you respect. I asked two close friends and my partner, who is a TV writer, to give me some frank and honest feedback. You can only learn from that and their comments helped me so much.
Take the time to edit your writing again and again. Your first draft is just that – a first draft. You only get one chance with a publisher so you need to get your book into as perfect a form as possible. Never submit too early.

And finally, I find it helps me to write standing up! I’ve rigged up my laptop to be the right height and it certainly makes me feel more alert.

Jane Lythell

Find out more about more about the Avron Foundation and Jane’s books at the links below:

ARVON FOUNDATION http://www.arvon.org/

AFTER THE STORM – on Kindle from 1 December and in bookshops from 7 January is available here.

THE LIE OF YOU is available here.

Wednesday Wondering – The Write Romantics go Right Romantic

73604_10151973538894073_399844746_nIt’s my wedding anniversary this month. I’ll be celebrating nine years with my husband Mark on 24th September. Can’t believe that long has passed already. One of the things that couples do in the approach to their wedding is pick a song for their first dance. For Mark and me, this was quite a challenge because (a) he’s not into music like me and (b) he doesn’t dance so was adamant we weren’t going to even have a first dance. I decided to let it go because it was “our” day and not just my day but I think he got pressure from both sides of the family and caved. So we were back to the dilemma of choosing a song. I had a couple of songs in mind: Amazed by Lonestar and From This Moment On by Shania Twain. He didn’t really like either of them. He does like Shania Twain and there was another song of hers he suggested (can’t remember what it was now) but it didn’t do it for me. So we were back to the start again.

I have no idea where it came from but we eventually settled on Savage Garden. We both really like the song “Truly, Madly, Deeply” but felt that the words for I Knew I Loved You were so much more appropriate. Mark always says it was love at first sight for him. It took me until our second date. We were both in our 30s when we met and felt like we’d been waiting for each other all this time. But we were greedy because we didn’t settle there; we introduced a second one that was a bit more up-beat and would get the guests into the mood for the disco, so we also had the wonderful late Freddie Mercury with I Was Born To Love You. Gosh, I love that song. It’s very much the same sentiment of Savage Garden’s track but in a slightly more up-beat delivery.

My question to the Write Romantics this month was:

What is your favourite love song and why?

I then asked them to think about:

Was it the lyrics, the tune, the singer/group or a combination of any/all of those that drew you in? Perhaps this was the song you chose for the first dance on your wedding or something that helped you get through a break-up. Pretty much any angle you want to come at it, talk to us about love songs. You’re welcome to give more than one.

I’ve loved reading the responses and hope you’ll enjoy them too. In case you aren’t familiar with any of the tunes, we’ve provided You Tube links to them by clicking on the song titles.

Jessica xx

 

Picture 483 Jay says …

My favourite love song is Van Morrison’s Have I Told You Lately? It just has a beautiful sentiment – ‘Fill my heart with gladness, take away my sadness, ease my troubles that’s what you do.’  He’s got such a great voice too, gravelly and real, meaning that it doesn’t come across as the least bit cheesy.   I didn’t have it for my wedding song, as we didn’t actually have one because we travelled to and from the Archbishops Palace by boat with all our guests and then had a slap-up lunch by the river before heading off on honeymoon.  However, we are now at ten years and thinking about having a blessing with just us and the four children and I would definitely have the song included in there somewhere.  It even gets a mention in my first novel – so look out for it there if my editor doesn’t cut it!  If you aren’t familiar with it, watch the video from 1989 on You Tube, I highly recommend it.

 

Harriet says …

When I began to think about the songs that have meant something special to me, one sprang to mind immediately. It has nothing to do with weddings or anything like that but rather it’s to do with growing up and becoming aware for the very first time of the feelings a song can evoke. I was ten when Perry Como hit the charts in 1957 with Catch a Falling Star. It was on the ‘wireless’ all the time and all the girls in my class at primary school thought it was wonderful. We spent every play-time waltzing around the playground, arm in arm, singing the song and going all dreamy over Perry. He was 46 at the time, hardly a teen idol, but we only had a vague idea of what he looked like anyway so we didn’t care. It was his butter-smooth voice we fell for, not the man himself. I only have to hear the first line and I’m back in that playground, and all the sights and sounds of that stage of my life come flooding back. Happy days!

A year later, the Everly Brothers released All I Have to Do is Dream, another song that made a great impression on me.  t accompanied me everywhere I went and gave me that indefinable sensation of being happy and sad at the same time. ‘Cathy’s Clown’ followed, the Everlys again. Hearing it now triggers another vivid memory. My cousin was down from London for the summer holiday and we were at a beach café just along the coast from Brighton. It had a jukebox and we played ‘Cathy’s Clown’ over and over until our money ran out. We wore paper nylon petticoats under our dresses and they crackled as we swayed in time to the music. We felt very grown-up, and very serious about the whole business of love and pop songs. The You Tube clip shows them singing both songs.

 

Alys says …

My favourite love song is quite a sad one but then as I like folk music that’s probably not a great surprise. When I started thinking about it I realised I couldn’t think of many happy love songs in folk.  My favourite is She Moved Through The Fair which is beautifully sung here by Cara Dillon.

My friend, Jane Stockdale, does a stunning version of this song.  I’ve heard her sing it more times than I can remember but it’s always moving and beautiful.  In my new book, Lughnasa, the heroine sings in folk sessions and plays the fiddle which is giving me a lovely chance to use songs to explore how she’s feeling.  In chapter two she sings She Moved Through The Fair because she was feeling very sad and it’s lyrics really fit her emotional state.

 

signingregisterHelen R says …

My favourite love song is a little different…it’s a classic piece, Pachelbel’s Canon. There is a youtube clip of a string quartet playing the tune…obviously not the same string quartet as we had though! I really wanted the tune at our wedding and I’d heard it in a movie that I’d watched. I had to attempt to hum the tune on the phone to my mum who is quite musical and after several attempts she said, “Ah, I know exactly what that is!”

I’d always loved the piece, I think particularly because it sounds so beautiful on string instruments. (I don’t think the cello ever sounded that beautiful when I played it back in Primary School!) A string quartet played Pachelbel’s Canon whilst we signed the wedding register. Unfortunately I didn’t really get to enjoy listening to it as I think I was still a bit dazed by the whole ceremony but whenever I hear the music now – in fact, as I write this post I’ve got the You-Tube clip playing in the background – it makes me smile as I remember our special day 🙂

I have attached a photo too, of myself and my husband signing the register 🙂

Jackie says …

Sweet Little Mystery by Wet Wet Wet. It was a good phase of my life. I had my own flat, my job was fun and friends were popping in and out all of the time. We’d laugh the night away, flirt, go to pubs and clubs drink rather more than was good for us and stay up far into the night- too long for a five thirty shift start. But we didn’t care, we were young enough to cope.

The Joshua tree by U2 And Everything but the Girl was always on my hi fi too, as I ironed my clothes for the night ahead, dancing to the music as I smoked far too many cigarettes and drank too much wine. But I was happy in my little world (although permanently broke) until my heart was broken and it all suddenly seemed very shallow and trite. But that story doesn’t belong in this little bubble of happy memories. I shall eradicate those memories or save them for a short story, where one day, I will make the rotter sees the error of his ways and beg me to take him back, which I will naturally refuse- won’t I- maybe, no- I’m sure I will…) Anyway, Marty Pellow was the singer of my dreams and will ever remain in my bank of happy memories and for that I thank him. ( and he was on one of my flights once too- jolly nice chap, although he took a handful of complimentary sweets instead of just one!)

 

Lynne says …

I’m gonna tell you about my fave romantic song, which is romantic in the sense of old Camelot and knights in shining armour. If it had a visual to go with it I’d choose something by the Pre-Raphaelites, who also loved that kind of thing. It’s is The Battle of Evermore by Led Zeppelin. Its all about the Queen of Light waiting in Avalon for a tyrant whose face is red. She’s waiting for the ‘beads of time…’ to pass, (I love that imagery,) and the apples turn from brown to black. The drums do in time shake the castle wall but eventually we ‘raise our bows and shoot straighter than before’

It works out fine in the end, cos the magic runes bring the balance back and the sun is shining.

It’s not just the music but Robert Plant’s crisp & clear vocals which are fab. They have something that sounds like madrigals and give it a really ancient yet also modern sound, and a story that is haunting and magical. It manages to combine intimacy with technical excellence, give it a whirl now, it’s groovy, as we used to say in the 70s!

I’ve never really understood why Lez Zepplin are classed as heavy metal when a lot of their work is tuneful and melodic. I’ve added a link to a live version. It’s only when I watched that that I realise that the ancient sound is partly created by an amazing guitar which looks like 3 different guitars all piled together! The live version is not quite the same as the studio version though, its faster for a start but do give both a listen.

 

Rachael says …

I really can’t name one favourite song, but I love listening to the lyrics of songs and the ones that stand out, do so because of their words. They evoke memories, sometimes sad, sometimes happy. The one song which takes me back, twenty one years to my wedding day, is Unchained Melody, which was having a revival after the film Ghost at that time.

I also love how songs can fill you with courage, so that you imagine all sorts of things are possible. This of one such song. What do you think?

 

We’d love to hear from you. Do our song choices evoke some wonderful memories for you? What are your favourite romantic songs, for whatever reason. There’s a comments button at the end of the tags below. Thank you xx

The Wednesday Wondering – Moon Landings and Being Alone

This Saturday (July 20th) will see the 45th anniversary since man landed on the moon. I was born in 1972 so this is something that I personally didn’t experience but I completely appreciate the huge impact this historic event had.

But did it really happen?

First_man_on_the_moon

Ooh, controversial! My dad is quite fascinated by science and space and recalls watching the event unfold on a black and white TV like so many other people around the world and he’d have never, ever questioned that it happened. Then he saw a documentary about it and it made him seriously question something he’d accepted for most of his life.

According to Stanley Kubrik’s widow, the late great film director himself directed the moonlandings from a studio in Borehamwood, London! Conspiracy theories site both rationale for the landings (winning the Space Race in the Cold War, distraction from the Vietnam War and funding issues) and reasons to doubt it (far too many to list here) and, to be honest, these have been demonstrated extremely compellingly in various documentaries on the subject. If you’re unfamiliar with these conspiracy theories, Google it! There’s a mass of information there.

Do I believe man landed on the moon? Honestly? I’m not sure. I’d like to think they did but the conspiracy theory information and this documentary I watched were so unbelievably convincing. I guess that’s the point, though.

This week I’ve asked a two-part question. The first part is:

Did man really land on the moon or was it a huge hoax in the studio?

My second part of the question sticks with the space theme and is:

Are we alone? Have you ever had a close encounter or know anyone who has? Do you think there are other beings out there? Are they amongst us today?

When I was younger, I went to Girl Guides. My mum would drop me off and pick me up. One day she was late and I started to worry as she was never late (these were the days way before mobiles, of course). She finally pulled up all flustered and the reason for being late was that she’d just been coming out of the house to get in the car when something caught her eye; a UFO hovering over the field opposite our house. It then shot off at speed. My mum doesn’t believe in stuff like that. Well, she didn’t until that day.

I personally believe that, in a universe of our size (much of which is still unexplored), we cannot possibly be alone. I don’t think there are little green men out there but I do think there are other beings; perhaps like us, perhaps different. I believe they’ve been to earth. They may even be among us still. Don’t get me wrong, I’m no expert on this and haven’t researched it all but there’s a logical side of me that says that some of the things that have happened in the past e.g. the building of the pyramids to name an obvious one, have had intervention from more advanced beings. I think time travel has happened and is possibly still happening. But then my head hurts when I think of what this means so I’ll stop thinking and hand over to the other Write Romantics:

 

P1050370Alys says …

I like to think the moon landings actually happened. I’ve heard Buzz Aldrin talk about it in interviews and he sounds absolutely genuine. But I’ve not seen the documentary so I’ve not got that to compare it to. If it was a huge hoax then they’ve done a great job with Buzz because he sounds completely convincing. As to whether I believe in aliens, I’m not sure. I wouldn’t rule it out. The universe is larger than I can possibly imagine so I guess it’s not impossible that other life forms evolved on other planets. I have met someone who believed passionately in aliens but I have to say I didn’t find his theories particularly convincing.

 

Deirdre says …

I remember it well and it was such an exciting time. We marvelled at it and at the same time we were perhaps a little frightened by it, as we were by the earlier missions that were part of the ‘space race’ between the USA and Russia to land a man on the moon, one of which was the fated Apollo 1 expedition in which three astronauts died.

I don’t recall exactly which expedition it was but some time before the moon landing, I remember my mother waking me up in the early hours to tell me that a particular astronaut had returned safely to earth. I hadn’t known she was that interested but she seemed so moved by it and I realised then what an impact space exploration could have on ordinary people.

The moon landing was phenomenal and no, I never doubted it happened for a minute, and I wasn’t aware that anyone else did either. In the aftermath the names Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin were on everyone’s lips. At the time I used to go to a Friday night disco at the polytechnic and the film of the moon landing was played on a big screen throughout the evening.

Is there anybody out there? I don’t think so. I believe Earth is unique in that respect, but I also believe that there’s a lot more to life and the universe than ordinary humans will ever know, and that’s probably how it should be.

 

P1050377Helen P says …

I’d like to think that there was a man on the moon and that back then they did something amazing. Altogether there have been twelve men who have supposedly walked on the moon but none since 1972, which with all the advances in technology makes me ask why haven’t they sent a team up lately?

I haven’t had any close encounters of the third kind but I know a couple of people who swear that they have. I’m not sure about this, I don’t think we’re alone and my favourite all time film is Aliens so if there is something out there I just hope they don’t have acid for blood and a penchant for killing everything in sight.

 

Helen R says …

I think that man did land on the moon, yes … but then again, I believed my husband was attacked by a shark when he showed me the scar on  his arm (caused by a machine, not some ocean adventure!)

As for aliens, I am a down to earth person and don’t tend to question what’s going on around us, just accept it as it is. I think that classes me as a realist, but I’m sure lots of people think differently 🙂

 

P1050374Jay says …

Yes, I think man did land on the moon and what’s more I have always been jealous that this was the event that marked the year of my sister’s birth, whilst I got decimalisation… She got the looks too, some things in life just aren’t fair!

I think there must be life out there, although I haven’t had any personal experience of anything alien-related. I’m not sure I believe in little green men who pop down and abduct us for experimentation, but when I think about the universe and the fact that no-one knows where it ends, it hurts my head. So we can’t be the only ones, can we?

 

Lynne says …

Close encounters are a bit of a thing with me; see my Hallowe’en post last year. I could talk for England on ghosts but that’s not quite what’s meant here. I watched the moon walkers land on the moon so yes, I believe it. I don’t know that there are alien species walking amongst us but I’m pretty sure there are ghosts so I guess expect the unexpected!

 

P1050375Rachael says …

I have never questioned if man did land on the moon, but you’ve set doubts in my mind now. It does seem so improbable, so completely impossible. As for are we alone, I’m going to sit on the fence here, having never had any kind of close encounter. I don’t especially want one either!

 

Over to you. We’d love to hear your thoughts and, even better, any alien encounters you may have had! …

Telling Tales

Stromness Harbour

Stromness Harbour

Last month I went to Orkney for a week’s holiday/research for my new book. While I was there I went to a storytelling evening. We heard tales of selkies, the Fin Folk, strange amphibious beings who lived beneath the seas in Finfolkaheem and trows (or fairies) that lived on the seashore. The storyteller wove the tales not only with words but with the tone of her voice, her hands, her whole body. She acted the parts and the audience were held tight in the grip of these ancient tales.
A couple of days later I went on a walking tour of Stromness which is the second largest town in Orkney (with a massive population of about 2,000 people) and historically was a major seaport. It was the home of Orkney poet and novelist, George Mackay Brown whose books first made me want to visit these islands. During the tour, I heard more stories about people who’d lived in Stromness. Some of them seemed like slightly tall tales, like the one about the sailor who lived with the cannibals on Easter Island and returned with a necklace of human teeth.
Others were more poignant, like the story of Dr John Rae, the Victorian artic explorer. He discovered the last link in the North West passage and the fate of the Franklin expedition that had set out a few years before to make that discovery. After reporting that the members of the Franklin expedition had resorted to cannibalism he was branded a liar by Franklin’s widow and didn’t receive the recognition that he deserved for his achievements. The people of Stromness are justly proud of Dr John Rae. To mark the bicentenary of his birth there was a display of art in shop and house windows around the town with the pictures and sculptures each telling part of his life story.
Later that same day I went to a concert of folk music in Kirkwall. One of the reasons I love folk music is that it’s full of stories. Sometimes the songs tell the stories and sometimes the musicians tell you tales about why they’re singing these songs. This concert had more of the latter and one man played a hymn that he’d learned from listening to the wireless as he grew up. He’d heard his hymn on the trawler band of the radio sung by fishermen from the east coast of Scotland as they made their way home in bad weather.

Stromness

Stromness

I think all of this made me realised how much people love stories. Some people like them to be true and will read biography or history books. Others are happy with fiction. It doesn’t seem to matter how a story is told whether it’s oral or written, sung or told in pictures. What matters is the story.
As an aspiring novelist I think it’s important to be reminded of this. I think I’ve spent so much time worrying about finding my voice and getting my technique right that I can forget that what the reader wants is a good story. At a writer’s lunch that I went to earlier this year I heard an experienced novelist say that readers will forgive bad writing if the stories good but that good writing can’t rescue a poor story. I’m not advocating that we set out to write badly but I am suggesting that we remember that in the end it’s the story that matters.
As a post script I just wanted to let you know that I’ve finally received my NWS report and its good news. The Reader said that they very much enjoyed Beltane, that the plot was excellent (phew!) and that it’s very impressive for a first novel. I’ve got some changes to make (apparently my characters swear too much for one thing) but none of them are major and then I can start the very scary process of submitting!
Alex xx

A Sense of Place

Deirdre’s post last week got me thinking about places and I realised that for me it works the other way round. I don’t choose a setting for a story. The setting comes first and the story comes out of it.
DSC01337
Beltane which I’ve just finished (and is off being NWS reviewed as we speak) is set in Glastonbury. The original spark of an idea came from a rather odd bed and breakfast near Glastonbury Tor that I stayed in with a friend almost ten years ago. It was very alternative. People had conversations about angels over the breakfast table. Daily group meditation was pretty much compulsory. The woman who ran it was a very strong character and to be honest, my friend and I found her a little bit scary. Years later I started wondering what if someone who ran a New Age retreat didn’t have good intentions towards their guests. And from that I had my antagonist, Maeve.
Because of that there was never any question as to where I should set the book and the practical considerations of writing a book set 250 miles from home didn’t really cross my mind at the beginning. About a year in I realised that even with the help of Google Streetview I had too many unanswered questions so I planned a holiday/research trip. It was fantastic to spend a week in the place that I spent so much time writing about and huge number of new ideas came out of being there.
One of the amazing things about Glastonbury is that you never know who you’ll meet. At the Chalice Well I started a conversation about the weather and within minutes the guy I was talking to told me he was a druid and that after buying his house he’d grown a tall hedge around it because he practised druidic rituals in the garden. My imagination was obviously working over-time as to what exactly these rituals involved but the conversation sparked another idea and I knew this was all going to have to go in the book.
Once I’d decided I wanted to write a series with the same characters, I had to figure out where I would set the next one. I felt like I’d done Glastonbury. I needed somewhere else with a connection to history and myth. There are plenty of lovely locations I could have chosen but three years ago I went to Orkney and fell head over heels for the place.
As it takes me a long time to write a book (three years for Beltane) I want to write about somewhere I’m really interested in. So Orkney it is.
Orkney Aug 2010 009 (2)
However, there’s a problem and it’s not just geographical. For this book I want one of my characters to have been born and brought up on the islands, another to have grandparents from Orkney. They’re both embedded in the community with a history and a knowledge of it that I, a person who’s visited once and who lives 500 miles away, don’t have.
This week I wrote a first draft of chapter 1. There’s already a dozen things that I don’t know and some of them I don’t even know how to find out. I like doing research but getting to grips with this will involve a lot more than the internet can provide.
Over recent months I’ve been reading the Shetland books by Ann Cleeves and at the beginning of Raven Black, the first in the series, she says that it was overambitious to try to write a book set in Shetland while living in Yorkshire. She’s a highly experienced novelist. If she struggled then what on earth do I, a total newcomer, think I’m doing?
I’m going to Orkney for a week at the beginning of September. After that I’ll make a decision as to whether this is absolute insanity or if I can maybe, somehow, make it work.
So I’m wondering if any of you have experienced something similar. And if you have, can you give me any advice? I’d love to hear about the places that inspire your stories and the ways you bring them to life.
Alex
x

A Good End?

For the past week I’ve been working on the final chapter of my novel.  Following the advice of bestselling author and expert creative writing tutor Sharon Kendrick I wrote the end months ago.  But when I read it again it wasn’t right.  My character had hijacked the love story part of the book since then and it didn’t work anymore.   And that got me thinking about what makes a good ending. 

It’s pretty clear that readers want the hero and heroine to be together at the end of a romance novel.  Publishers, more cryptically, say they’re looking for an ‘emotionally satisfying ending’. 

When I started looking into it a bit more I found this pretty illuminating quote from one of my writing heroines, Jennifer Crusie: “I think romance novels, like any genre stories, must provide a reader with catharsis at the end, and that catharsis is usually found in a ‘just’ ending; that is, characters get what they deserve. The bad guy gets punished, and the good guys get the happiness they’ve been striving for because they’ve suffered and grown and struggled.”   Jennifer knows what she’s talking about.  Not only has she written half a dozen best sellers but she teaches creative writing at Ohio State University.

By Jennifer’s definition to have a happy ending both characters need to grow during the book.   If one of them doesn’t then you can’t have a happy ending.  I think Gone With the Wind would be a classic example of that.  Scarlett was, in my opinion, a spoilt brat from start to finish.  I’d have felt a bit let down if Rhett had stayed with her at the end. 

The other twist on the happy ever after is the ‘duty’ or ‘noble sacrifice’ ending as in Roman Holiday.  It’s one of my all-time favourite films and it makes me cry every time when Princess Audrey choses her duty to her country over her love for Gregory Peck.  Another film classic would be Casablanca.  If Ingrid Bergman hadn’t got on the plane would that have made a better movie?  I don’t think so.  Somehow it’s enough to know ‘they’ll always have Paris’.

But there are romances where the ending seems anything but ‘just’.  For anyone who hasn’t seen or read One Day by David Nicholls I suggest you stop reading now because there will be spoilers.  The book charts the friendship of Emma and Dexter who meet on the night of their graduation in 1988.  Following their lives for just one day each year we see how that friendship progresses and eventually turns to love.

I saw the film before I read the book.  About three quarters of the way through when Dexter and Emma were happily married I thought ‘this isn’t going to end well’.  I was absolutely right.  Five minutes later Emma gets knocked off her bike and dies.  Yes, dies!  How could this heroine, who we’d come to love, die?  It just wasn’t right.  And no amount of quality father/daughter time four years later was going to make me feel any different. 

I felt cheated.  I’d gone to see a romance.  I didn’t want to come out crying.  And Emma deserved her happy ending.  She was good.  Dexter was a bit of an idiot but she loved him and together they’d suffered and grown.  They should have been together.   

However (and there’s more spoilers coming up) even if the hero and heroine don’t both live to see the final scene the ending can still have that required emotional quality.  Me Before You by JoJo Moyes has an incredibly moving ending.  I don’t think I’ve ever cried so much at the end of a book.  It was heart breaking but I understood.

It seems to me that books with endings that aren’t emotionally satisfying are seen as more serious.  They take the book out of the romance genre and lift it to something more literary.  That’s the author’s choice but it’s not a route I want to go down.

I want an ending that makes my characters and my readers happy.  My characters have definitely suffered (by the way does anyone else find themselves apologising to their characters for what they’re going through or is that just me?) and I’m pretty sure they’ve grown.  They deserve a bit of happiness.   And my readers have stuck with us.  I want them to close the book feeling happy too. 

So now I know what I’m aiming for.  Only time will tell if I can actually pull it off!

I’d love to hear what you think.  What do you want from the end of a romance novel?  What are your all-time favourite endings?  And what makes them so good?

Alex

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