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!

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Review: The Cousin’s War series

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The Cousins’ War series by Philippa Gregory has formed a major part of my summer reading. Spoilers ahead, but mostly of the history involved, so if you know the history there won’t be much to surprise you.

It’s a five-book series focusing on the war between the House of York and the House of Lancaster, as told through the women involved as major players. If you know about the war, also known as the Wars of the Roses because of the white and red symbols of the houses, you’ll know the names of the English kings involved – Edward IV, Richard III, the princes who went into the Tower of London and disappeared, Henry VII who started the Tudor dynasty on which a lot of Gregory’s previous books are focused.  Sometimes the history can get complex, but it’s handled very deftly so that it’s never confusing.

Gregory’s very good at bringing the female perspective to these events – the women in her novels are usually very well-realised, interesting characters who simply don’t have a historical voice because they lacked official power although through their influences – on husbands, children etc – actually had incredible influence which comes through here.


The Lady of the Rivers is chronologically first, focusing on Jacquetta, whose daughter later married Edward IV. I found this one particularly interesting because of Jacquetta’s reported belief in and use of witchcraft, in particular the fact that her house believed the women were descended from the river goddess Melusina, and that fact threads through all these books in various ways. I think Jacquetta’s an interesting character, whose desire for power is often at odds with what she claims to love – her husband, her family, her home. While I think it’s undoubtable that she did love these things, she does also come across as being someone who is incredibly ambitious and if she had stayed at home with her husband, she wouldn’t have been that happy with her lot. She thrives on the intrigue and being close to power.

Next comes The White Queen, The Red Queen and The Kingmaker’s Daughter, which as a trio formed the BBC series The White Queen which was on recently.

     

What’s enjoyable about these from a reading perspective is that they cover the same time period. We see the marriage of Edward IV to Elizabeth, the ‘commoner queen’ (who wasn’t a royal marriage but a marriage of choice who, by all accounts, was genuinely in love with and loved by her husband – probably a rarity in royal marriages), through the war against the king he threw off the throne trying to regain his territory, and the continuation of the line to Edward’s brother Richard III. The White Queen focuses on Elizabeth, The Red Queen is Margaret, a lady in waiting for a lot of the novels but who is always focused on getting her son Henry Tudor into power as an alternative line, and The Kingmaker’s Daughter Anne who is daughter of Warwick (instrumental in getting Edward to the throne) and later becomes wife of Richard III. I loved that you saw the same events from different perspectives in each book, picking up different nuances and seeing how the houses saw themselves.

I enjoyed these three varyingly, though I think the least favourite was The Red Queen simply because I find Margaret a very unsympathetic character. She’s heavily featured in The White Princess too, and I disliked some of that for the same reason. Margaret’s obsession with rising her son to the throne is understandable but I find it very difficult to empathise with her religious beliefs; it was hard sometimes to know whether she genuinely believed that she and her son were destined by God for the throne of England, or whether she was using this as justification for her actions. The White Queen was probably my favourite of the three because Elizabeth is such a likable character and I loved the romance between Edward and Elizabeth, sap that I am! While other marriages are conducted for political reasons and generally don’t seem to have much affection, there’s something impressive about this couple marrying for love and retaining their loyalty to one another no matter what. In The Kingmaker’s Daughter, Anne is an interesting character because she’s thrown from one man to another constantly – her father marries her to the old Prince of Wales when King Edward won’t do as he’s told, then she marries Richard as a cry for independence and self-determination. I like this idea, but it really is the only independent action Anne ever makes and while this is probably historically accurate, it makes for a frustrating character! It’s also worth noting that although you’re seeing the same events, they don’t become repetitive because of the different influences and motivations.


The White Princess picks up after Richard III has been killed and Henry Tudor seized the throne. Elizabeth’s daughter (also called Elizabeth) was in love with Richard but is forced to marry Henry to seal the alliance between Lancaster and York in an attempt to end the civil wars. This was better again, partly because Elizabeth (2) was a sympathetic character for the most part who showed genuine development which sometimes the others lacked a little; some of the earlier characters seemed to arrive fully formed, whereas Elizabeth’s reactions to her husband and mother in law did change. Sadly, there wasn’t a point where she really came in to her own but again, I think this is historical.

With the Tudor books I always thought Gregory’s strength was in the characters who aren’t as much in the historical record – I prefer her story of Mary Boleyn (The Other Boleyn Girl) to Queen Anne, for example, and the voice of Amy Dudley in The Virgin’s Lover to Queen Elizabeth. In part this is probably because she has some more freedom to invent and those women can be a bit more individual. This is the same here, I think – I much preferred the story of Jacquetta as it threaded through all the books. I did enjoy the first Elizabeth character more as well.

 The other thing I enjoyed was how Gregory threads the myth of Melusina through the novels, when she’s focused on the Rivers household of Jacquetta and the two Elizabeths. It seems like a perfect symbol for feminine power, the female river goddess who agrees to become more or less mortal for love, provided she is allowed some authority by transforming every so often, in secret, into her female self. It’s a brilliant encapsulation of female experience in many ways, and I love that it’s apparently based on a genuine belief of the house that they were descended from this woman. It’s details like that which give novels like this a richness and symbolic resonance that I really enjoy.

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.

Review: Fear (Michael Grant)

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Fear

Fear

Despite a slight disappointment in Plague, the fourth book in this series, I read Fear straight after it – and Grant definitely got his writing mojo back!!

The FAYZ is still as deadly as ever, but this book focuses on the way the FAYZ is changing rather than the people in it. Nobody’s developing new powers except the gaiaphage, the creature that seems to have been taking advantage of the FAYZ to grow, take over and destroy. There’s an uneasy sense of peace between Perdido Beach and the lake, and the changing relationship between Sam and Caine is fascinating – they’re forced to work together and collaborate but how can they ever trust one another? There’s also some great moments for other characters such as Quinn, who started the series with potential but was left alone for quite a while in the other books.

Things that annoyed me in Plague have also changed – Astrid has grown up and learned to get on with the business of survival, whatever the cost. There’s less of the irritating phrases, too. Sadly there has crept in some of the ‘Astrid was always known as a genius’ phrasing which tends to arrive after three or four books, when a writer seems to think they need to add in helpful backstory to anyone lazy enough not to have read the first three!! Still, Grant doesn’t belabour it too much, so I can forgive him that, I guess 🙂

This book sees the FAYZ gradually going dark as the barrier between it and the outside world turns black instead of the reflection it’s been so far – and Grant starts the book in quite a surprising way – by giving us Connie Temple’s reaction to the FAYZ. Connie’s from outside the barrier, Sam and Caine’s mother, and the first voice we’ve heard from outside. It’s a brave move at this point in the game to change the dynamic so significantly, but it feels right to do it at this moment and certainly builds up the tension and conflict heading for the moment when the two must – surely – come together.

Online there’s all sorts of rumours, from the past couple of years by the look of it, about adapting this series into a film or tv show. I’m not convinced it would translate well, and I think it would be tricky for anyone trying. As YA novel, this is really being aimed at 14+, I would imagine. There is some incredible violence – whipping people to death, cutting them apart, cannibalism etc – (although ironically, and leaving me in a constant state of despair over priorities, the sex is remarkably tame and discreet). It is, however, an integral part of the series and demonstrates the violence that children (people generally) are capable of, and the way that society can disintegrate so completely. Again, it’s the Lord of the Flies only this time it’s lost its public school veneer of civilisation that Ralph tried so hard to create (I really hope at the end of Light, some army officer comes up to Sam and tries to tell him the modern American equivalent of ‘jolly good show’). Without that violence, it loses a lot of what it’s about, thematically, yet I think that violence would render it an 18, looking at the rating of The Walking Dead, for example, which strikes me as a similar level. An interesting dilemma for anyone who tries to take it on. It also raises the perennial question of age ratings on books, something I am firmly against, but I do have some sympathy for parents who are trying to protect their children and feel like they’re struggling.

A very strong book, racing through – definitely a series when you should have all the books to dive into the next one as you close the cover!

5/5

Review: Alias Grace by Margaret Atwood 4/5

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Alias Graceis the first Margaret Atwood book I’ve read – The Handmaid’s Tale is on my to-read list for

Alias Grace

Alias Grace

work, while looking at the rest of her list on Amazon, she seems like the kind of author I’d love, especially the dystopian fiction.

Aliace Grace is the story of Grace Marks, a convicted murderess in Canada who’s been in prison for nearly thirty years, and is telling her story to a doctor tasked by her supporters with finding the truth to help her obtain a pardon. Grace claims to have no memory of the murder itself, but everything around it is extremely detailed, so you do end up doubting her.

Throughout, I was trying to second guess this story – did Grace commit the double murder? Had she known about it? Did she remember it, whatever happened? I was trying to work it out all the way through; was she suffering some kind of multiple personality disorder, or was she hiding the truth, or was she genuinely unable to remember?

Grace is a very knowing narrator; she is aware that she’s telling a story and entertaining her audience, who she obviously wants to help her obtain a pardon and leave prison. There’s enough references to giving him what he wants in her narrative that an element of doubt runs through her self-representation.

I was fascinated to find out that people came to watch her in prison, like she was an exhibit in a museum or a zoo – she was a curiosity that people wanted to claim they had seen. There are ideas about female sexuality throughout and the role that played in her conviction, although I was slightly irritated by her attitude by the end which I thought was just a bit too coy. There’s also the question of Victorian femininity running through it; I’m quite familiar with British and American Victorian fiction but not Canadian and I was interested to read the small bits about immigration and settlers, as well as the notion that her supporters are trying to help her because they buy into the Victorian innocent girl idea, and whether she is that or is playing on that.

It didn’t quite reach compelling for me, but I was consistently interested, and wanted to get to the bottom of Grace’s story.

4/5

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The Fault in Our Stars

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Buy at Amazon

John Green’s The Fault in Our Stars was recommended by a sixth form student, who said reading it had changed her life. Any book that can be that influential is worth reading, so I downloaded it to my kindle as soon as I got home. It coincided with a Times article about how this ‘nerd’ had become a teen-lit favourite, and I’d watched his ted-talk about Paper Towns (the title of one of his books) and how online education has the potential to change the world (he is apparently also a prolific vlogger, having tutored his brother in maths, I think, and put all the tutorials online and continued) – a topic for my other blog, perhaps.

I liked it quite a lot; it grew on me as I read it, definitely. The protagonist, Hazel, is suffering from a severe cancer which is, for the moment, under control, and meets a fellow cancer-patient, Augustus, at a support group her mother makes her go to.  There’s a lot of potential for tragedy in this book, and Green doesn’t really pull the punches – there’s no miracles in this novel; I get the impression he’s not interested in the easy way out, but the hard questions.

A literary mind

One of the things I loved about this book was its attitude to literature; Hazel is obsessed with a book, about a girl her age who has cancer, and her urge to find out what happens after the end of the book is one of the major quests of the novel. Hazel is an incredibly literate protagonist and her narrative is filled with references to poetry and novels. Of the book with which she’s obsessed, she says:

Sometimes, you read a book and it fills you with this weird evangelical zeal, and you become convinced that the shattered world will never be put back together unless and until all living humans read the book. And then there are books like An Imperial Affliction, which you can’t tell people about, books so special and rare and yours that advertising your affection feels like a betrayal

I have a book like that – The Sparrow – which I am constantly torn between buying for everyone I know, and being reluctant to give it to them in case they don’t like it and we can’t be friends anymore. I wonder if in some way this novel also reflects Green’s own literary evangelism – there are so many literary references that I ended up highlighting lots in my kindle and going in search of the poetry – and finding some glorious things as a result.

Green also questions what a novel itself should be:

This comment, however, leads me to wonder: What do you mean by meant? Given the final futility of our struggle, is the fleeting jolt of meaning that art gives us valuable? Or is the only value in passing the time as comfortably as possible? What should a story seek to emulate, Augustus? A ringing alarm? A call to arms? A morphine drip? Of course, like all interrogation of the universe, this line of inquiry inevitably reduces us to asking what it means to be human and whether—to borrow a phrase from the angst-encumbered sixteen-year-olds you no doubt revile—there is a point to it all.

He is gutsy, certainly – I love literature that seeks to explore and challenge itself, that wants to produce something with depth and layers to be discovered. And on top of this, there is some beautiful writing where you just think: yes. I think teenage fiction should be this challenging.

As he read, I fell in love the way you fall asleep: slowly, and then all at once.

What I love about this sentence is the way that it is just something everyone can relate to, that slow nodding towards sleep where you’re still fully aware of being awake but that any moment you won’t be. That there is no ‘in between’ – you’re either asleep or awake, in love or not, but there is a moment when you just become aware that you’re on your way, and there’s nothing you can do to stop it.

So, what are the flaws?

Green makes some fairly obvious choices, but they are all rationalised and clearly explored, so they don’t feel too out of place. I found Hazel’s voice slightly irritating at first, but I suspect that is because it is very teenage. She uses ‘like’, like, a lot, and doesn’t always allow to breathe. But once you let the narrative become dialogue, it becomes much more fluent and I did find the contrast between this and the intricate literary musings quite intriguing. She reminded me of some of the students I teach, who speak in quite a straightforward, stereotypically teenage way with fillers, false starts and slang, and then will come out with a profound commentary on the nature of Fitzgerald and Elliot. Several of Green’s critics seem to think that his protagonists speak in a very unrealistic way; I disagree.

Conclusion

The novel didn’t change my life, but I did finish it very quickly because I thought it was excellent. Novels which challenge, with a thorough emotional experience, always interest me beyond the closing of the pages,and this definitely did that.

Also read:

http://metatfios.tumblr.com/ – an exploration, or at least definition, of the literary allusions in the novel

http://johngreenbooks.com/ – John Green’s website, with his vlogs

 

4/5

 

Let us go then, you and I,
When the evening is spread out against the sky
Like a patient etherised upon a table;