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!

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.

Review: From 2k to 10k by Rachel Aaron

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2k to 10k: Writing Faster, Writing Better, and Writing More of What You Love

I read this book a couple of weeks ago.

Rachel Aaron is a fantasy author who’s written a series, of fairly hefty books, and is a full time writer. This book is based on a blog post in which she explores how she went from writing 2000 words a day, as a professional full-time writer, to writing 10k a day. She’s expanded it, added some more reflective ideas, and there’s a whole second half about how she plans in detail. 

Planning is where it’s at for Rachel Aaron. That, really, is the ‘secret’ to her success – which I think is impressive. To sustain that word count day in ay out is impressive. She goes into great practical detail about how she plans her world, characters and plot. About how she plans a scene at a time before starting to write. Aaron’s really open about the numbers, which I appreciate – it’s why I liked James Scott Bell’s book as well – because she’s clear about how her word count fluctuates, but she’s proving what she’s talking about. And while she says she’s improved, she’s also honest that actually the biggest change to improve her writing life is by writing eery day, not just some days or even most days. The way to do that is simple: enjoy what you write so much that you can’t wait to get back to it. Sometimes you read a book in which everything seems obvious – but you read it at the right time and it just crystallises. There are some down sides – to be honest I don’t know how good her writing is, as I’ve not read her novels, but she’s maintaining a full time career, so she must be fairly decent. Second, there were some irritating typos that really should have been caught in the proofing.

It’s mostly the first part of the book I’ve been focusing on so far – I have an idea for a series that I’m really excited about, and sat down thinking how i could use what I’d learned in this book so far. So, I’ve been giving it a go for a week now.

In March, I wrote 5000 words. I wrote a few times a week, mostly Sunday-Tuesday, and tracked my words. I was ok, but let’s face it, at that rate it’s going to take a hell of a long time to write a novel, never mind finish the revisions.

This week, writing an hour or less a day, I’ve written 6500 words. My previous hourly rate was about 200-400 on a good day; this week I’ve regularly hit 700 in less than an hour. Whether I would be able to sustain that if I was writing for more time, I can’t say, but I think writing is like building muscles – you have to keep practicing, stretching.

That’s much better. More than that, I’m really excited about it, thinking about it all the time,a nd can’t wait to get back to writing some more.

It’s a great short book, the right note of entertaining and inspiring when you need a push in the right direction.

4/5

Review: Self-Publishing Attack!

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The full title of this book is “Self-Publishing Attack! The 5 Absolutely Unbreakable Laws for Creating Steady Income Publishing Your Own Books” and, really, what an offer! To learn the things I need to do to create a steady income writing? Awesome!

While this book is pretty awesome in what it offers – and doing it in 141 pages for £2.56 on kindle – it’s also very realistic and honest about what exactly Bell is offering. He doesn’t promise magic, and he doesn’t promise six-figure salaries. What he does suggest is the successful ways he’s found, through his own experience and knowing plenty of writers, to make a decent living. I found myself highlighting madly on my kindle, and scribbling plenty of ‘read this late’ notes.

Bell is mostly discussing what to do when you’ve completely written a book and you want to get it out there to people. He’s talking about thinking like a business, not an ‘artist’ in the airy-fairy way some people like to define artists, and the ways to make sure that you can get you product in front of people. He also does have some comment to make on how to write an excellent book that people want to read – the most important aspect.

What you won’t get here is some marketing plan based on twitter and blogging – while Bell has both of those things, he’s pretty clear that it’s the writing that counts, not the social networking, and that actually these can be a distraction from writing the best damn book you can think of and ways to improve getting it in front of an audience.

Bell covers setting goals and taking actions to meet them, writing great books that work for kindle – opening pages that feature in a downloaded sample and how to include a synopsis in that sample – ways to plot character and structure, how to get a great cover and to format your book. 

It’s incredibly helpful and practical, and the way Bell writes is excellent – honest, up-front, and encouraging. Highly recommended for anyone trying to write fiction to sell themselves.

 

5/5

From 2k to 10k – Rachel Aaron

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Rachel Aaron’s short e-book on how to increase your writing per hour is, so far, excellent. There’s lots of useful information on how to plot more successfully in advance, how to improve your hourly word count by a little more planning – and last night when I did this I did indeed nearly triple by usual word count from pitiful to half decent! 

I’m still reading this, but am about 3/4 through, and about to put into practice some of what she suggests, so will feed back on how successful it is!