Amber Light By Virginia McCullough

Monday, September 15, 2014

Second Chances? You Bet

But oh, how our characters earn them.

Several years ago, I came across the following quote from Emily Dickenson: Luck is not chance, it’s toil; fortune’s expensive smile is earned.

In that simple statement, I saw a perfect summation of Sarah Whitmore’s journey in Amber Light, my most recent novel. Sarah, naïve as she may be, believes in lucky breaks; and even at age eighteen, and pregnant as a result of an assault, she’s pretty good at spotting opportunities. Each time she accepts an offer of something that could be valuable or advantageous in her life, she’s acting on a second chance. Put another way, she’s taking a risk to believe in herself or resolving to go after something she wanted anyway.

Sarah instinctively acts to rescue a woman she believes is drowning, but then is fired over her actions. In her young mind, she’s failed, because she’s lost the job that came by way of a lucky break in the first place. Other characters see what happened differently, though, and Sarah’s willingness to help a person in danger has long-term consequences. Her “toil” in this case plays a critical role in an important lucky break—really, a second chance—that resets the course of her life.

HEA, happily-ever-after endings, are certainly second chances. In romance and much of mainstream and women’s fiction, the characters are challenged with all kinds of crises, usually related to marriage and family, triumphs and disappointments, health and illness, justice and righting wrongs, and perhaps faith and community. Sometimes there’s a clear HEA: a marriage survives a crisis and the couple gets its second chance, or the illness is conquered and the character has another shot at life, or the grief of loss is overcome and new love has blossomed.

As readers, we sigh and feel good about what the characters have earned. The harder they toiled, the more satisfying the happy ending is. The struggle, the pain, the sacrifices have been worth it, and now we get the equivalent of the wedding celebration at end of a fairytale. Readers don’t have think about new conflicts or crises down the road.
In some stories, though, the HEA isn’t so clear. That’s when we encounter the more ambiguous “satisfying ending.” Although the second chances in the stories I write often come in the form of happy endings, I don’t insist that every novel I read provide a HEA wrap-up. Remember the indomitable Scarlett O’Hara in Gone With the Wind. She’s lost Rhett Bulter, she’s been through the war, her family’s land and legacy are forever threatened, and every day she struggles and schemes just to survive. But just when it seems like all is lost, the wheels in her head start turning and soon she resolves to figure out how to get Rhett back, plus deal with everything else in front of her. She dries her eyes, so to speak, and says, “After all, tomorrow is another day.”

Love Scarlett, or tire of her easily (I’m in the latter category, actually), she’s declared her second chance, and she earned it. It’s not a happy ending, but it satisfies us. Nowadays, we’d see it as a setup for a sequel, but since Mitchell didn’t write one, the satisfying ending will do.

I’ve described the themes in my novels as “hope, healing, and plenty of second chances,” and I see them as related. In fiction as in life, change can be driven by fear, but just as often, we hold onto hope. A serious diagnosis is seldom met with a collapse of resolve; fear erupts, sure, but then the spirit brings in hope. Maybe we lose a job, but we hope to find another one. A friend of mine once said that a second—or third—marriage is nothing if not an homage to hope. Action—toil—follows hope, of course. Detectives don’t sit around hoping to solve a crime, and all through life we take actions to prepare for and find a job, make a stew, publish a book, hem a skirt, apply for college, and so forth.

Healing follows hope, and fictional characters must heal their wounds (or make peace with them, a type of healing) before they earn their second chances, the “expensive smile.” In Greta’s Grace, Lindsey and her daughter, Greta, experience a crisis that offers an opportunity to deepen their relationship, but first they need to repair it. That means forgiving past hurts. Lindsey’s hope drives the healing, but Greta must mature in ways, too, and her life-threatening illness fuels her growth.

Perhaps more than anything, readers know second chances, like luck, generally aren’t random events. Yes, we’re sometimes given gifts of opportunity, but usually in order to take advantage of them, we’ve prepared ourselves. Grasping to hope in the face of fear and being willing to go through the painful steps of healing, comprise the very toil that Dickenson refers to. And that’s how our heroines and heroes earn the expensive smiles that celebrate their second chances.

One lucky reader who comments on my blog will be randomly selected to win a digital copy of my latest release Amber Light. Good luck!

Virginia McCullough began her career by writing articles for a variety of publications. She broke into book publishing with her first coauthored books,TMJ Syndrome: The Overlooked Diagnosis, with A. Richard Goldman, DDS and Touch: A Personal Workbook (Open Arms Press), with Greg Risberg, M.S.W. Over the last three decades Virginia has written or "rewritten" well over 125 books and edited many more. Virginia recently expanded her writing portfolio to include fiction. Her award-winning titles include Island Healing, Book 1 of the St. Anne's Island Series, The Chapels on the Hill, Greta's Grace, an Amazon bestseller, and her most recent release, Amber Light. Virginia is a long-time member of the Authors Guild, as well as Romance Writers of America (RWA) and several affiliate chapters, Virginia has held numerous service positions. She also cofounded The Book Catalysts, a book writing coaching service. Virginia is an experienced speaker and webinar/workshop presenter. For more information, visit