03 August 2018

Writing female friendships: ‘the best relationships in fiction are hard won’

Jo Jakeman, author
by Jo Jakeman From Our Students

Jo Jakeman studied on our six-month online novel-writing course in the spring of 2016, taught by CBC veteran Lisa O’Donnell. Her debut novel Stick and Stones was snapped up at auction by Harvill Secker in a high-profile deal, and came out in hardback on July 12th. Sticks and Stones is a thriller centered on three very different women all of whom had the misfortune of being romantically involved with the same abusive man. In this blog Jo discusses the strong female relationships from literature and film that molded her when she was growing up and ultimately influenced her decision to center her novel around three unlikely female friends.

When I began writing Sticks and Stones I wasn’t planning a story about strong female relationships. I began with a woman who was at the end of her tether with nowhere to turn. I purposely wrote three very different characters (Imogen, Ruby and Naomi) who had every reason to hate each other and, in ordinary circumstances, would never have become friends. I was looking forward to writing about the tensions between them and their reluctance to help each other. I rubbed my hands with glee at all the fights they could get into. But the result was three women who bonded over a common cause, and women who would ultimately do anything for each other.

Female relationships are at the centre of many of my favourite books from my childhood. I’m an only child who was brought up on a diet of large literary families and wanted to be part of them. The cousins in The Famous Five, the Walker children in Swallows and Amazons, The Durrells in Corfu… But the one that really stood out for me was the March family in Little Women by Louisa May Alcott. I related to Jo March in many ways (um, hello? A tomboy wannabe-writer called Jo?). I wanted sisters to play with, to bicker with, and to confide in. I loved reading about the dynamics between the sisters, not just their love and affection for each other, but their spite and the cruelty too. I remember feeling sick when Amy burned Jo’s manuscript, and it still gives me shivers today!

As I got older I discovered films like Thelma and Louise, and books like The Divine Secrets of the ya-ya sisterhood. I loved the bond between the women as much as I loved the stories themselves. So perhaps when it came to writing a novel it should come as no surprise that the three women who were enemies at the beginning of Sticks and Stones would come together to form such a strong bond.

For most of us, a strong female relationship is the first one we ever have. The bond with our mothers is the one that sets us on our path. In Sticks and Stones, Imogen has a fractured relationship with her Mother, Naomi never knew hers, and Ruby’s died when she was young. None of the women have fathers and, thanks to their relationship with Phillip, they’ve found it difficult to make friends. They have nowhere to go and no-one to talk to. They’ve been afraid to speak out. Until, that is, they find they aren’t alone in what they’ve experienced at the hands of Phillip.

Even if the characters hate each other in the beginning of a story they can still bond over a common goal – in Sticks and Stones it’s the destruction of Phillip Rochester. Good friends who’ve had a smooth ride, never fallen out, not had any obstacles… well, that’s nice but it doesn’t make for a scintillating read. I like to think that the best relationships in fiction are hard won. They’ve been through the mill and come out the other side stronger. They’re unlikely allies, had the wrong impression of each other, have opposite personalities or are brought together through emotional highs and lows.

I rarely re-read books I’ve discovered as an adult but books I read when I was younger, that fulfilled that yearning in me for unbreakable friendships, are at the top of the pile when I’m in need of a ‘book hug’. We all want friends like that – if we’re lucky we already have them – and we love to find friends like that in books too. And that’s why I’ll keep being drawn to stories with strong female relationships.

Here you can order Stick and Stones.

Are you currently working on a novel? Why not apply to study with us on one of our selective entry novel-writing courses, like Jo did, our three-month November starting courses are currently open for applications: Three-Month Online Novel-Writing Course with Nikita Lalwani or Three-Month Novel-Writing Course in London with Charlotte Mendelson.

We also run three short online courses designed to help writers at different stages of their novel-writing journey: Starting to Write Your NovelWrite to the End of Your Novel and Edit & Pitch Your Novel.

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