Theme: what it is and how to use it to make your writing sparkle

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This morning I started redrafting a story I wrote towards the beginning of last year and abandoned for reasons I can’t quite remember! I’ve read through it and had the ‘oh, actually it’s quite good’ thought, which is always pleasant – and far more likely after a long break from the work itself when your head’s not so buried in it.

In amongst the small ideas, it’s missing something broader – it’s lacking a central spine or theme, to unify it and really take the reader through the entire piece. It got me thinking about what really ‘theme’ is, and why it matters.

I’d define theme as what the story is about – not the plot or the characters, but the big moral or philosophical ideas about life, the universe and everything. Thinking about theme, you can see it in every novel and they’re always the stronger for having something more wide-reaching to say:

  • Harry Potter (J K Rowling) – the importance of friendship, of bravery and the courage to always do the right thing
  • Emma (Jane Austen) – being honest with yourself; allowing others to make their own decisions; realising you don’t always know best
  • The Lord of the Flies (William Golding) – how thin a veneer of civilisation we have, and how quickly it can be destroyed
  • The Fault in Our Stars (John  Green) – coping with illness, making the most of life

Not insignificant, then!! So, I went on a search to find what some others thought about theme and how to incorporate it into your writing.

I quite like this definition from Writer’s Digest:

Theme is the relevance of your story to life. To reality, as reflected in your fiction. Theme is love and hate, the folly of youth, the treachery of commerce, the minefield of marriage, the veracity of religion, heaven and hell, past and future, science versus nature, betrayal, friendship, loyalty, Machiavellian agenda, wealth and poverty, mercy and courage and wisdom and greed and lust and laughter.

Romance novelist Helen Fairfax has this interesting post – http://helenafairfax.com/2013/07/19/writing-tips-using-theme-to-deepen-your-writing/

where she discusses a workshop she went on to explore the idea of theme further and had this to say:

There can be several themes running through a novel, of course, but there should be one strong theme which is the emotional core of your book, and the main idea you’re exploring.

She suggests Pride and Prejudice’s opening lines give away the theme – searching for love – as well as the title – beware both pride and prejudice when judging people.

Useful points from her post include introducing the theme early – the title, first line or paragraph should give suggestions. Use the theme to help sub-plots or propel the main plot. In a longer novel, the sub-plots could circle around the major themes, developing it in different ways to the main plotline. Use the theme as metaphor or symbolism – in the names, setting or in the descriptive language you employ. In Susan Hill’s The Woman in Black, the theme of isolation echoes throughout, from the abandoned old house on the marsh, cut off by the causeway when the tide comes in, to the character’s desire to be alone leading him on a cycle ride to clear his head.

I’ve also gone back to Rachel Aaron’s 2k to 10k, which I find enormously helpful, to go over the structuring and hooks involved in building a story, which she calls story Velcro.

The current draft is around 11,000 words, and I expect it’ll probably end up around the 16-17k mark when I’m done. Next task is to take this reading, and return to my original text to develop the themes further and firmly embed those hooks!

Revamp or move on?

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I’ve just gone through a little computer-filing tidy up, trying to get my stuff in order, especially writing things. I still have a stack of paper ideas to get into a notebook – I’m aiming to have all ideas either in one digital scrivener file, or in a notebook.

I’m astounded by how many words I have written and discarded.

I’m not talking about drafts which eventually led to something finished, either, but something started where I’ve sometimes written upwards of 50,000 words, and abandoned without finishing. There’s three half-written novels and over a dozen short stories. The ‘ideas fragments’ files includes many many more, which haven’t been really developed at all.

So the question I’m now left to ponder is what to do with all of that? I’ve signed up for an Arvon course in the summer which I’m excited about, but I also want to be meaningful – it’s a great opportunity, part funded by a teacher’s grant, and it’s both expensive (even with the grant) and a week of holiday time. So I want to come out of it with something useful. I was thinking about redrafting something that’s been in my head for a long time – the only problem is, I don’t know how to get it out. It’s one of the 50k monsters. I’ve changed viewpoint, voice, tone, location, time period. I can’t figure out quite who this elusive character IS that I have in my mind, other than she seems to fit into everything, and nothing, all at the same time. She pops in and out of my head, but never brings her story with her. I quite dislike the airy-fairy idea of characters really existing – I’ve never really found that idea sits right with me, but at the same time she really does seem to be hiding from me.
I have a few ideas what to do with her – but nothing concrete. And while I don’t, I’m wary of starting yet another version of her story and ending up with thousands of words to discard with all the others.

Do I keep thinking about her, and trying to figure out where she comes from? Or do I move on, either to something brand new or another story that I have but have not finished? I don’t know. I do know that I’m ready to write, and I feel like I’m stumbling over her pushing herself into my brain.

Five ways to beat procrastination and just get writing

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writers-writeOver the past year, my written output has roughly tripled compared to last year, and it’s only August. I’ve written and released short stories, entered more competitions and – probably more importantly – really felt happy with what I was doing, that I was making progress as a writer. To me that’s more valuable than anything.

What stopped me before? It wasn’t lack of ideas or time – so below are some of the ways that I’ve been overcoming the ‘inability’ to sit down and write. I don’t think it is an inability. Lee Child said something similar recently:

“I don’t believe in writer’s block. Writing is a job. Do nurses get nurse’s block? Truck drivers? You just have to show up and do the work.”

Part of what held me back was fear (am I any good? What if I write a load of rubbish?) and lack of planning (what am I writing next? how does this story work?). I think most writers would agree that it’s not genuinely lack of time that stops them writing, nor is it the ‘inability’ to get off Facebook or out of the Youtube vortex. Browsing meaningless stuff on the internet is a symptom of the fact that you don’t know what to do or are afraid to put it onto paper. It’s not the cause of your lack of writing.

1. Schedule a time to write
I write from 6.30-7.30pm every day. Everything I do in that hour has to be do to do with writing. Currently, that involves research, editing and so on but my goal is that by the end of the year I will be using that time just to produce new writing.

You have to be able to stick to it. It’s no good setting yourself up to fail – it’ll just make you feel terrible, and you’ll have a harder time motivating yourself in future because the voice in your head will remind you how you didn’t do it last time. So if you need to, start small – get up twenty minutes earlier and write. Stay at your desk from 5-5.30pm and write (added bonus – rush hour might start to die down giving you a shorter commute!) There’s research that says it takes 66 days to form a habit – how brilliant is that? Just two months, and you’ll have a habit which means you’ll actually feel a little odd if you DON’T sit down to write at your scheduled time!!

2. Set yourself goals
I wanted to release a novella onto kindle, and to enter six writing competitions through the year. I’ve achieved the first one, and have entered four so far.

Start with the big goals, then break it down into smaller steps. Every goal needs to have a deadline to give it some more weight but again, don’t beat yourself up if you don’t achieve it. A common thing with writers is to set a word count goal, say 1000 words a day. That’s great, but if you’re anything like me you need to have those words edited and polished as well! If your initial goal is over ambitious, you’ll either miss it when doing the editing or not edit and therefore not feel like it’s polished enough to send out. Goals also need deadlines and numbers – too vague, and you’re left not knowing how to achieve them. Write a novel is on most people’s lists – the ones who say ‘Write an 80,000 word novel by the end of the year by writing 600 words a day and editing the previous day’s 600 before I start on the new stuff’ are more likely to achieve it, because they have a plan as well as a dream.

3. Know what you’re writing next
I started planning each scene before I wrote it – there’s a lot more detail on Rachel Aaron’s site and I used her book From 2k to 10k as the model for this.

Essentially, when you sit down to write – fiction, non-fiction, whatever – there’s two different decisions to be made. The first is what happens. The second is how it’s written. Rachel’s argument is that by trying to do those at the same time, you’re making life a lot more difficult for yourself. It works on both a whole-novel and scene basis. Planning a novel, knowing what scenes happen when and who’s involved, means that you can fix any problems with pacing and action before you even start to write. Powerful stuff. Then, when I got to a scene, I would do what she recommended and write a description of it before starting. It took usually about ten minutes, and was simply as if I was describing it to someone. “A character goes across the room and opens the door, where she finds an unexpected parcel. She brings it inside and opens it (curious). Inside is a teddy bear with a letter.” By knowing when the character goes across the room and why, you can then start to focus on how to get that across to the reader using language. The two-step process made my writing of Balancing Act not only quicker and more interesting, but far less frustrating and difficult because any problems were solved at that earlier stage.

4. Timed writing
Set a timer – while it’s running you absolutely cannot do anything else, but must write continuously.

If you’re really having trouble with focusing, then do timed writing. It’s a great kick starter, and I often do it just to start a session or when I’m struggling with the ‘don’t know how to phrase it’ stage. With the insistence on writing continuously, it’s often enough to just edge you into the writing frame of mind, and when the timer goes I’m usually in full flow. If not, set another one and move on.

Start with ten minutes – every adult is capable of focusing on one task for ten minutes!! – and do nothing but write. If you’re addicted to the internet, then write on paper. You can always transfer it later during the editing process. Or – shock horror – turn off your laptop’s wireless for ten minutes and put word into full screen mode. As you get more used to single-tasking, increase the timer by increments of three or five minutes.

5. Enjoy what you’re writing.

This should be self-evident, but I think a lot of writers get caught up in expectation or trying to anticipate a market. Writers should write what they love. They’ll enjoy writing it more, and therefore they’ll write more, and what they write will be better. You can’t write for someone else. It takes time and confidence to come to that conclusion – after my MA in Creative Writing I barely wrote for over two years because my confidence in what I wanted to write was shot, but when I started writing what I genuinely was interested in rather than what someone had said I should be writing, my writing improved. I had more fun, I loved doing it, and isn’t that the point?

What other techniques or tactics do you have for increasing your productivity as a writer?

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Writing: rewriting when you’re finished

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I posted a few days ago that I was on the last 10% of my current story, about the Chronology Protection agents Ruaina and Jefferson.

It may actually be the last 20%…..

Re-reading is always tough, always the bit I struggle with the most. Reading something as a reader is difficult but essential when you’re aiming to get them the best reader experience that you possibly can. A nice trick I’ve been using is to read on my kindle – getting away from the laptop screen makes it that little bit easier to see it as a story, rather than your story.

Reading it through again, I’ve decided that I need to add a couple of scenes to make someone’s story come through a little more strongly, a little more rounded so that the reader really cares about what happens to them.

It’s all part of editing, keeping going and the end-goal in sight. I think it’s really important to have a positive attitude as well, to think that there’s no rush – the goal has always been to release in August – and this will, is, making the book a stronger story, as well as more valuable to readers. It would be easy to get depressed, to think I should have planned better or should have done this sooner, or that it’s ripping up and starting again, which will accomplish nothing but making you feel miserable bout lack of progress. Writing is a long process, especially when you’re writing something that’s much bigger and more complex than everything you’ve written before, which is what I’m doing now. So writing an extra scene here and there? It’s nothing. It’s a few days’ work. And the rewards will be write it, both for my satisfaction with the story and the reading experience.

So, if when you reach that home stretch, you find yourself thinking ‘oh god, I have to fix this’ – then sit back. Think: does my book need it? And if the answer is yes, then grit your teeth, get back in the chair, and write it. It’ll make your book a better story.

The last 10%

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I don’t remember where I first heard that the last 10% of any project is the hardest, but I have absolutely come to believe it is the most important.

The first 90% of a project might feel difficult, but that’s the creation section. It’s when you sit down to write and edit your story, it’s when you develop an iOS game, it’s when you build a piece of furniture, it’s when you write the draft of your essay or learn how to play a piece of music. Get the 90% right and you’ll have done a decent job.

The last 10% is making those things fly. Think about playing a piece of music. For ages, depending on skill level and the complexity of the music, you’re learning how to play it. You’re practicing notes, phrases, maybe even a few whole lines, and then you start playing it all the way through competently. You don’t hit any bum notes, you’re playing at about the right tempo/pace and volume. In short, you’re playing the piece and pretty well too. It’s so easy to stop there and call that the accomplishment. Or, you could keep practicing. You vary the tone of the piece, play around with the tempo/volume and bring your own style to it. You develop muscle memory on the tricky passages so that you don’t have to think about the technicalities of it, you can focus on the artistry and how to create that magical moment of audience silence as your last note dies away, the seconds when they’re too stunned to applaud.

Everyone’s stopped before they could have – whether because we’re time-limited, bored, or happy with ‘good enough’. That’s the 90%. It’s good enough, it’s competent, it’ll get done whatever you need doing. But unless you’ve put in the last 10% it’s not likely to have that zing, or flair, or excitement that something genuinely accomplished, polished and finished will have.

Writing my novella has reached its last 10%. It was written and redrafted, so I was done, right?

No. 90% was done – it was good enough, I could have slapped it on Amazon and been done with it. But I want this to be as great in its polish as I think it is in its story, so it needs that extra 10%. It needed the beginnings and endings of chapters tightening to make them as page turning as possible, it needed the first few pages revised because they weren’t as great as what came later, it needed a scene rewriting in a different location so we could hear from another character whose voice is important. It needed proof-reading for typos and odd word clashes or repetition, and my propensity to over-use semi-colons. But for all this, the fundamentals of the story – the 90% – remains unchanged. And then there’s the formatting to provide a good reading experience, making sure the fonts and chapter heading images work well on the device, getting a cover that does it justice and makes people want to buy it, writing a blurb powerful enough that people are inspired to click on the cover and read the first pages. I need to market it, because I need to get them to that page to read the blurb and see the cover, and click on them to read the sample. It’s like the novelist’s version of the house that Jack built, and it starts with ‘hey, have you heard of this?’

So the last 10% takes a lot of hard work, but it’s worth it, because I really believe that this is the best thing that I’ve written yet.

Introducing the Chronology Protection Agency…

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For a couple of months I’ve been working on a novella introducing characters and a world that I’m really excited about. The Chronology Protection Agency is inspired by Stephen Hawking’s metaphor suggesting that there is an organisation which keeps time safe:

It seems that there is a Chronology Protection Agency which prevents the appearance of closed timelike curves and so makes the universe safe for historians.

The CPA series is set in a version of our world in which time travel is possible, has been discovered and widespread but international agreements have regulated travel, for the good of humanity.

Jefferson Murphy is bright, ambitious and, between him and his ex-commanding officer, more than a little bit arrogant. Joining the Chronology Protection Agency, he is confident that he can handle whatever his first day throws at him. Since coming back onto active duty after a personal tragedy, Ruaina Laing just wants to get on with the job that she’s always wanted to do and prove that she’s still up to the challenge. She emphatically does not want a new partner, and Jefferson is definitely not a contender, fresh out of training with an act-first-think-later approach disdaining the analytical skills on which she has built her career.

When the two are put together to investigate the case of a lawyer unaware of his time-stream disturbance, neither thinks it will be a complex case but it quickly becomes clear there’s a new player in town determined to manipulate time for his own profit. Soon, the pair are forced to rely on one another to keep time protected and keep themselves in the right time.

I’m really excited about this novella! I’ve been working on it for  a while and have loved pulling the characters together for their first outing, and really getting into the swing of the voice I want for the book. I’m currently revising and editing, and look forward to releasing it as an e-book in August.

Review: On Writing (Stephen King)

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Cover of "On Writing:  A Memoir of the Cr...

Cover of On Writing: A Memoir of the Craft

You must not come lightly to the blank page.

Stephen King‘s book about writing – On Writing: A Memoir of the Craft – is part autobiography and part advice manual. It’s a great read for anyone interested in the nuts and bolts of writing and looking for some practical, down-to-earth suggestions.

The first section is the autobiography – what got King into writing the books he does, his long love of horror films and horror novels, his first attempts at submitting stories to magazines in his teens, gathering a large collection of rejection slips on a nail in his bedroom, through submitting stories successfully, and finally to having Carrie accepted by Doubleday for an advance that would mean he could leave his job and write full-time. I think it was probably harder than it sounds, although that might be wishful thinking for someone starting out over a decade later than he did!

The second section is where we get some interesting ideas about how to be a good writer.

* Write everyday – if you don’t have this desire, then maybe writing isn’t for you after all. But, acknowledging that it’s hard with family and full-time work, he suggests starting with small goals, maybe a hundred words a day, and gradually building up writing habits.

* Use active verbs – instead of the weaker ‘The meeting will be held at seven o’clock’ write ‘The meeting’s at 7’

* When editing, delete adverbs. They often don’t add anything, I agree, and King’s argument is that they’re trying to strengthen the surrounding prose – which should be telling you the emotion as the action occurs, but isn’t, so you’re filling the gap with the adverb. Cut words that don’t add to the sense of story, character or place. He’s not arguing for sparse, empty sentences but instead for making every word do a particular job for you. If it isn’t, it needs to go, no matter how impressive you might find it.

Stephen King's office

Stephen King’s office

* Aim for “something that will linger for a little while in the Constant Reader’s mind (and heart) after he or she has closed the book and put it up on the shelf.” – that something that will make them think a little longer, want to wait a while before they pick up the next one because they don’t want to dilute what they’ve just read.

* Set yourself a writing goal and stick with it – he does 2000 but having done the maths, even 300 words a day is over 100,000 by the end of a year.

In real life we each of us regard ourselves as the main character  the protagonist  the big cheese; the camera is on us, baby. If you can bring this attitude into your fiction, you may not find it easier to create brilliant characters, but it will be harder for you to create the sort of one-dimensional dopes that populate so much fiction.

* Shut drafts in a drawer for six weeks minimum before going back to them, then read them in one sitting and see what you think. Only then should you show it to someone else – and choose those second readers carefully.

really enjoyed this book. I thought it was well-balanced, an interesting mix of the inspirational and the practical – I’d love to read something by him about editing a whole draft though; he gives sample edited pages and the final version, but the whole idea of pace and breadth of a novel is a bit intimidating at the moment.

His writing is, unsurprisingly, sparse and clean, but still retains that flavour of anecdote and down-to-earth that I like about his fiction, its reality. He does sometimes make a point of acknowledging that people, for whatever reason, dislike his novels – dislike of the commercial, suggestion that he’s not literary enough, downright jealousy – but he does so with a verbal shrug of the man who’s sold millions and, really, doesn’t need your validation any more to know he’s good. And his advice is superb. Definitely recommended.

5/5

[This book] is a permission slip: you can, you should, and if you’re brave enough to start, you will. Writing is magic, as much the water of life as any other creative art. The water is free. So drink. Drink and be filled up.