Monday, November 26, 2012

When we wish we'd written differently

Recently, members of CWD have been discussing all things Lucy Maud Montgomery related on our Face Book page. Some have been able to visit Prince Edward Island, in Canada's far east, and shared photographs. I mentioned that I paid a virtual visit or two via Google Earth. We talked about what we enjoyed most about her wonderful books. Photos and quotes from the Anne of Green Gables movies were being commented on and shared.

It all reminded me of something sad I'd read once. L.M. Montgomery once told an interviewer that her biggest regret was 'killing off' a favourite character, Matthew Cuthbert, way too early. At the time of writing, she'd thought it would make a dramatic impact and stick in the minds of readers to have the shy old man die when he did. Anne fans would, of course, remember that it happened at the very end of the first book. He'd been alarmed by an article he read in the newspaper about the closure of his bank and suffered a fatal heart-attack (or was it a stroke?) Down the track, LMM thought of other ways she could have dramatised the end of the novel and wished she had, as she could have used Matthew at other points in her series. However, it was too late. She found out firsthand that writers aren't as powerful as we like to think we are. We can't resurrect characters back from the dead. Well, not in a series like Anne anyway.

I was wondering whether any of us have experienced similar regrets about which we could do nothing. I have. In an early novel, Picking up the Pieces, I had a main character, Claire Parker, go through an abortion. I was in my twenties when I wrote the first draft of that book. Swept along with the plot, it didn't occur to me that I could write it any other way. Her overbearing father's attitude was strong in my mind and I just wrote what happened. Later, when I was working on Along for the Ride, its sequel, I wished I'd let Claire keep that baby. I could've figured out some way to do it, and had an interesting extra character, the child who resulted from a date rape. Too late now though.

I like to think that fiction authors really do get to share and partner in God's creative process. Just as we create plots for our characters, He is busy making plots of our own lives. I have treasured memories of words of knowledge I received from people about the birth of my daughter, Emma, before she was even conceived. God knows what's going to happen in our personal stories but unlike LMM, me and several other authors, He doesn't make mistakes. He doesn't slap His forehead with the back of His hand and say, "I didn't think it through enough! It would've been better if the opposite thing had happened after all!" And as Romans 28:8 tells us clearly, He's powerful enough to make allowances for our free choices and personal mistakes and still weave them in to the story so it ends perfectly, where He intended. I'm so thankful for that.

When you think about it, maybe He's done that in the lives and plots of authors anyway, in spite of story regrets. Even though LMM's Matthew was beloved by many, his death opened up many other story possibilites from Anne of Avonlea onward, such as his sister, Marilla's, adoption of twins. I'm not sure she would have considered taking on a loud and active boy like Davy Keith if her quiet, reserved brother was still alive. And in Picking up the Pieces, I like to think of feedback I've received from young women who have experienced abortions, and written to tell me that Claire's experience impacted them powerfully and helped them process and forgive themselves for their own actions. If my book can be a tool that helps that to happen, maybe it is good for me to have written it just as I did.

Paula Vince is an award-winning author of Christian contemporary fiction, mostly set in the lovely Adelaide Hills where she lives. She is also a homeschooling mother of three children. She likes to fill her plots with romance, drama and some suspense and mystery. Her most recent book, The Greenfield Legacy, is a collaboration with 3 other Australian fiction authors. 

20 comments:

  1. Great post Paula. What power an author wields over those characters. Yes we are very unlike God. Well I am! Even though my book is based on fact my writing didn't always reflect the person well. I returned several times to adjust characteristics and responses. I'm sure God gets it right the first time :)

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    1. Hi Jo,
      Yes, I'm glad we have the option to keep going back and straightening out our stories over and over again. And as you've shared, the books end up totally different at the end.

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  2. Hi Paula - Interesting food for thought. It's interesting to think what would have happened if different novels had taken a different turn at different points. If it was "Days of Our Lives", there'd be no problem. The "dead" character could just pop up years later as a different actor, with an amnesia and plastic surgery plot thrown in. I guess one good thing about fiction though, is that even if a favourite character is killed off, their memory can still on (e.g., back stories, anecdotes) or they can even turn up in a prequel. If we later regret the turn in a storyline, there's always another book than can take a different turn. As Anne would say, "Tomorrow's another day with no mistakes in it". Thanks for sharing.

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    1. Hi Nola,
      I've read some really interesting prequels. Your comment makes me think about all the weird twists and turns of soap operas. When an actor decides to move on to greener pastures, their characters are killed off in a flash, and turn up later with different faces and personalities. And the public just sit back and accept it all. Crazy :)

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    2. Hi Paula, speaking of prequels, have you read "March" by Geraldine Brooks? It's about the father of the March girls from Little Women who was working as a chaplain in the civil war. We only know little snippets of him from Little Women, but Geraldine Brooks has imagined a whole story including how he met Marmie and what happened to him during the war. It has a strong abolitionist theme. Not a light read, but really thought-provoking. Well worth a look.

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    3. P.S. By the way, Geraldine Brooks actually won the Pulitzer Prize for March :)

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    4. No, I'd never ever of "March." I'm going to look it up for sure. Sounds like Louisa May Alcott would have been pleased.

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    5. Geraldine Brooks drew on the letters and journals of Louisa May Alcott's father for some of her characterisation of March. I'll be interested to hear what you think.

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  3. What a great post, Paula. I love the way you weave everything together. God makes 'all things work together for good' for sure.

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    1. Hi Elaine,
      Yes, it's great to look back in retrospect and see that this is what has happened :)

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  4. Oh I was so sad when Matthew died! I am thankful that I don't write fiction - no character storylines to 'regret' - but in my life there are certainly things I have said/done that I would love to be able to change; a word spoken in anger to a friend that changed the relationship for ever, a phone call never made to encourage another. I, too, love that you remind us that God is always working in our lives, bringing everything together in the end to work for good! What a blessing it is to be a Christian!

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    1. Hi Helen,
      Me too, to everything you've said. Matthew's death was such a shocking event at the end of a lovely book. He was such a great character. It's so easy to commit or omit things we'd later regret, isn't it?

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  5. Ahh - the power we hold as writers. (That's said in an evil tone, with me wringing my hands in gleeful anticipation.) But there is also a more sober side - and a responsibility.
    But I'd also question whether we do have the power - or, if we are true to our characters as characters (not props for plots we wish to develop) then we need to allow them to be who they are. I've never questioned Matthew Cuthbert's death, not Clare's sad decision to abort her baby. Both seemed authentic in their telling and, I thin, add an authenticity to the voice of the storyteller.

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    1. Penny,
      I agree. As I was writing PUP, having her keep that baby was the last thing I felt would have happened in reality. The characters do have their way and direct what we write. I can imagine you saying that first sentence with the evil laugh :)

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  6. I suspect that if you had 'allowed' Claire to keep her baby, then Picking up the Pieces might have been too similar to The Atonement Child, by Francine Rivers, where she did keep the baby. But Claire, at the beginning, wasn't a strong enough character to stand up to her family, whereas Francine's character had completed three years of Bible college, and had very definite beliefs.

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  7. Hi Iola,
    The Atonement Child was written about the same time as Picking up the Pieces too. I remember trying to recommend my book to anyone I heard raving about Francine Rivers' latest. I'd finished writing PUP before I read TAC, which I was glad of, because I wouldn't have wanted to be influenced by it. Yes, the more I think about it, the more I think the Parker family's influence and Claire's decision was inevitable.

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  8. It's amazing how a whole story could change based on one 'what if'. I was even thinking just this morning 'what if' the disciples didn't desert Jesus when he was arrested. What if they stayed and defended him, stood up for him. Would it have changed the course of history? Would Jesus have even gone to the cross? But, things happened the way they had to happen for salvation to become possible.

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  9. Hi Amanda,
    It's almost enough to do our heads in, wondering about all this. They must have wondered that same question so many times themselves. I can imagine their feelings as they were led by the Spirit to understand that his sacrifice had to happen.

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  10. I do wonder if I should kill someone off (it does simplify things). Then I wonder if he/she could have brought more interest in the story. In my current WIP I didn't want Rachel's rapist influence this story, but then his cousin turned up. It would have been easier if Kyle hadn't died, but in Rosewood it is mentioned so...
    The what ifs make our story interesting.

    MEL

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  11. Yes, I too was so sad when Mathew died. He was such a gentle, lovely person. I haven't too much fiction as yet but perhaps I might enjoy killing off a few characters when I do. Or perhaps not! :)

    Thanks for a great post Paula.

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