Am I in it?
He leans over to see what castles of air I’m creating today.
I push him out of the way and return to my sorceress
deep in the forest, searching her way back to hope
through the black branches scratched on my page.
You are not. Why would you be?
You are here. You are not there.
He goes back to his game.
Words spill like scattered coins, rolling to their rest
Connect the dots to create a plot
Draw ideas together, chop adjectives with
A mason, I chip, reshape, polish, refine.
A reflection emerges.
A minor character’s smile.
The act of kindness in chapter two.
Jokes shared. A sage’s advice, knights’ ambitions.
He is in it.
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!
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.
With all the hassle and political complaining about teaching, it’s an oft-repeated comment that teachers have too many holidays. Any teacher who tells you the holidays aren’t a great incentive is probably not telling the truth, but equally no teacher will ever tell you that they drop their work at 3.15 Friday and don’t pick up till Monday morning at 8am! The half term holidays are a good chance to catch up on everything. They’re a great opportunity to get any remnants of marking done, and after the difficult half term we’ve just had, it’s taken me several days to clear that hurdle! It’s also a good opportunity to get some of that other list done, the ‘someday’ list that doesn’t get touched during the hectic term time when we’re busy responding to whatever is going on around us. And more importantly, perhaps, it’s an opportunity to catch up on the outside work stuff. Visiting family and friends we put off in the term because we have planning to do, to do those grown up life admin tasks that have to wait until everyone’s holidays.
This isn’t a poor me post. Quite the opposite, I think. I’m able to spend a significant portion of my holiday with family which is brilliant, and spending some time just reading, thinking. Not quite writing yet, but certainly clearing the work to do list which I feel has prevented me for some months now.
I can’t remember which productivity guru it was, but i have definitely read about the conflict between the urgent and the important, and the dangers of allowing one to crowd out the other. There is a fundamental problem in that if I turn up without a lesson planned, I have nearly thirty teenagers who are going to have a wasted hour. There will always be a day job/evening non conflict, and sadly the one that pays for my home will win out, but my goal for the next few months is still to keep at it, finishing bits of projects that have been put to one side. I’ve been reading through some making notes on what to improve, where to edit, and think I’m in a pretty good place to start doing that so watch this space!
Has been fairly crazed here so far this year! (and when does it stop being ok to think of it as ‘the new year’? I usually go with my birthday, which is coming up frighteningly soon!). January’s brought with it a LOT of hard work, including several competitions which are great to watch but involve late nights, and a never-ending pace.
Writing so far is seriously taking a back seat, which I find frustrating – and it’s not that I don’t enjoy what I’m doing, because in fact I just had an hour of marking some pretty impressive first attempts at poetry analysis, but I do find the lack of writing frustrating! one of my goals for this year is to improve my ‘ideas bank’ which is taking shape in a couple of different ways. One is to start properly recording ideas – they’re EVERYWHERE at the moment, which means they’ll never become anything, so I’ gradually gathering notes, images and ideas and putting them in one place, starting with a cool new notebook.
I’m also going to work through some of the short stories and drafts that I have on my hard drive that are unfinished because I dashed them off and left them. The Mslexia diary this year is dedicated to productivity, and one of the things they say is that unfinished work hangs over your head – it takes up the space you need to finish that new project, because you can’t move on. So, I’m going to work on finishing projects. I’ll add them to the Amazon kindle marketplace, but some of the shorter fiction will be posted here for free, so watch this space!
Two very exciting things from the last fortnight;
I booked onto an Arvon course for the summer, which I’m thrilled about. I’ve been on their mailing list for three years but not committed to it, and I’ve finally done it and, amazingly, they give teachers a grant so it’s affordable, which is wonderful. I really feel like I’m finally getting my writing confidence back, and think this will be a real boost as well, spending a week with other writers. So, I need a novel in progress to go with! My goal here is to rough a draft of the novel I’ve been toying with for years, to get down to it.
The other, even more exciting, is that my fiancé and I had an offer accepted on a house we want to buy! There’s a lot to put in place, financial institutions to pacify, surveys and all that horrendously grown-up stuff we’re gradually finding our way through, but we’re thrilled about it! Watch this space for further developments…
I wrote in an earlier post about goals and deadlines, and how important they are for maintaining focus and getting things done.
I’m well on track with this, but here’s a little update on how I’m doing so far:
Ilkley Literature festival open mic competition – I’ve applied for a place; if I get it, it’s on the 30th and I need a monologue or poem to perform
I’m well on the way with this – I’ve been watching a lot of Sarah Kay recently and am so impressed with her performance poetry, especially how she’s performing with being arrogant or self-absorbed or over the top. I watched an interview with her exploring how she got started in poetry and she commented that her first work was all angry and self-reproach – because that’s what the performance poetry she saw was like, and I think that’s what always put me off about it, but I think I have enough material there for a full scale post later!! In any case, I’m writing something that’s midway between story and poem, and definitely designing it around being a performance piece, which is a really interesting opportunity to play with language and sounds of phrases as well as the imagery of the words.
23rd September – have drafted a poem for the ILF in outline
26th September – redrafted poem
28th September – be putting finishing touches to poem
3rd October – plot outline for Mslexia sub
This has become a little messier than intended! I have written a poem, but I probably won’t be doing it at the ILF – I’ll post it here later, but think it’s not quite suitable and am writing something else. That something else may turn into the Mslexia submission, but I do have a further rough (very rough!) draft outline for a story that I think would be more suitable for the Mslexia deadline.
So overall – some tweaking when once written, something doesn’t quite fit the original spec as well as I thought it was going to, but I’m pretty happy with my writing at the moment, especially as this time’s always insanely hectic at school and it’s often hard to get much of anything at all written! Next up are the deadlines for the Mslexia submission and planning a ‘Spring’ outline, alongside trying to work out how to memorise a performance piece, something I’ve not done for a very long time…