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!

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.

Writing structure: the suspension bridge

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Today, I’m mostly working on structuring the novella I’ve been writing for the past couple of months. Having just completed a second draft, where I was focused on narrative voice, really getting the writing right – finding the voice I want and making sure that it’s consistent, which is an issue as I sometimes struggle with stamina, I want to make the reader’s experience structurally just as good.

Clifton Suspension Bridge

Clifton Suspension Bridge

James Scott Bell introduced me to the idea of the three act structure in his book Writing Fiction for All You’re Worth: Strategies and Techniques for Taking Your Fiction to the Next Level . There’s a summary of this particular idea here. He’s not the only one by any means to have discussed such an idea, but he used the metaphor of a bridge, which I found really visual and easy to get hold of. From memory, his suggestion is that writing is like a bridge with supports at pivotal moments. Those supports are what propels the reader forward – in English Literature terminology, they’re the inciting incidents or the cliffhanger. Rachel Aaron calls them the ‘tree on fire’ moments (I’m paraphrasing; she suggests that the first section of your book is when you find your characters and put them in a tree – then you set the tree on fire and see what happens!).

Bridge

In terms of my story, I kind of had this in mind when I was writing but having looked at the plot/word count for each section etc., I’m surprised that the acts are pretty equal, which is fairly stunning! It feels like a well-paced story, and maybe this is part of the reason, although it wasn’t part of the original design – I didn’t write with a specific length in mind, indeed the second draft was a good 50% longer than the first.

So my task today, having divided it into sections and chapters, is to strengthen those supports, to ratchet up the tension at the end of each chapter and section and provide the reader with that ‘must turn the page’ moment. You know the one: when the choice is finish the chapter and go do something else, or finish the chapter and ‘oh, just one more…’ Because when I’ve achieved that reader experience, that’ll be very satisfying.

Planning to edit – CPA1

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The Saturday before I went away – a very nice long weekend in Whitby, beautiful sunshine, lovely hotel, good food, great company – I finished the first draft of what I’ve workingly-titled ‘CPA-1′. Finishing it before the holiday meant I had a few days’ solid break from working on it, which I find useful before editing. I like first drafts but revising and reworking is often a lot harder for me, as I find it challenging to see it as a reader rather than a writer. Putting it onto my kindle as a book really helped as I was able to get away from the desk and laptop, where I write,and avoid the ‘marking’ feeling of doing it on paper. Instead, reading in the sunshine in the yard on my kindle made it feel much more like the reading experience I was after!

Before I read it, I also went back to Rachel Aaron’s book 2k to 10k which has an interesting section on what she does and how she approaches her editing to create a ‘reader’s experience’ rather than trying to look at it as a writer.    See my post here for how that changed my writing in April. May’s been a similar story, although a few more days off for various reasons, which has hit my word count! It’s taken me about six weeks to write this story so far, mostly in the daily hour window I’ve allocated to writing fiction, with a bit more time at weekends.

I was pleasantly surprised by what I found when I re-read it. There’s a lot of work still left to do but I was pretty pleased with the story so far. It’s about two Chronology Protection Agents, who are assigned to work together at the Agency which itself is charged with protecting the timeline – what that involves is one of the major conflicts the partnership has. I’ve really enjoyed writing it, and enjoyed the re-read.

The editing process

First up – a section/scene break. While I’d written it in scenes, I did want to reorganise where I thought section breaks would be, which was easy using Scrivener as it’s just drag and drop. Each of the big post-it notes below represents a section, with three or four major scenes in them so far. Then, highlighting each scene according to its purpose so I can see where the character building/major plotline/subplots take place and whose point of view they’re in – I was surprisingly reassured that at the moment it seems pretty well balanced!

The smaller post-it notes give me three major jobs for each sections, in order of importance – a to do list, essentially – and the notes around the edge are some more generalised thoughts about what needs to happen, how characters need to come across and so on.

This is a major edit – I’d probably expect this to take most of June. There were also plenty of smaller things I  noticed as I was reading, which will come in a minor edit once I think the big issues are solved. As Aaron says, it’s almost pointless line editing when you’ve got a rewrite to do, and although it was a real struggle not to go back to my laptop and start doing that, I resisted!

Planning..the edit!

Planning..the edit!

What I like about this approach is that it’s VERY visual – easy to put together, easy for me to see what I have to do and where the major issues are, and that there is a built-in to-to list around each section. I like this way of planning and thinking, rather than making a strict list. I’ll see in the next few days how workable it is; I suspect I’ll end up putting some of it onto another sheet for more details, but for now it’s a great starting point on what to do next.