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…
I wrote a post about goal setting and how important it is to writing and thought I’d follow up with a mini-post saying how I was getting on!
The goal for today was to have finished a draft of a poem for the Ilkley Literature Festival, assuming I get a place. If not, I’ll send it somewhere else. I have done it! Writing poetry is HARD WORK – demands all my language skills! I started with a prose poem/page of writing on a theme that’s been rattling round my head, and have been shaping it into a poem over the past week or so, until I have a draft I’m happy with at the moment. Tomorrow, work starts on redrafting for goal two!
Part of how I was going to achieve my goals is writing every day between 6.30 and 7.30. I’ve not quite managed that every day, but I think I’ve only missed two or three. Using that time effectively though is sometimes a different issue! Something to work on this week, I think 🙂
Have you got some writing goals to share? Need some encouragement? Let me know in the comments!
I love this collection – Skirrid Hill. It’s a strange combination of ideas, exploring a range of family poetry (the death of Sheers’ mother, relationships between son and father) and a lovers’ relationship. Some of those poems in particular veer from the erotic imagery of making love on the floor so hard she bears the scars of the floorboards, to the valentine’s dinner in Paris, and the heart-breaking Keyways, musing on the irony of cutting keys for the first time so you can pick up items from the other’s flat following a break-up.
I dipped in and out of the collection rather than reading straight through, and this poem struck me. I love the use of imagery that Sheers has, the use of water and weather here, the comparison of swans with ships capsizing, finally coming down to the peaceful settling of hands, so calm and soft that it’s noticed as an action already completed.
The clouds had given their all –
two days of rain and then a break
in which we walked,
the waterlogged earth
gulping for breath at our feet
as we skirted the lake, silent and apart,
until the swans came and stopped us
with a show of tipping in unison.
As if rolling weights down their bodies to their heads
they halved themselves in the dark water,
icebergs of white feather, paused before returning again
like boats righting in rough weather.
‘They mate for life’ you said as they left,
porcelain over the stilling water. I didn’t reply
but as we moved on through the afternoon light,
and folded, one over the other,
like a pair of wings settling after flight
I mentioned in my earlier post that one of the ways to help yourself get motivated and write more is in goal setting, and it seems like a good moment to write about that. I’m stuck at the moment. I finished my last major project, Balancing Act, in the middle of the summer, and I wrote a short story for the Mslexia quarterly submission, but in the week or so since that’s been finished, I’ve floundered. This frustrates me, aggravates me, because I spend several hours a week in front of my laptop not knowing what to do next. Like I said in the last post, I don’t really believe in writer’s block, I think it’s an excuse. I don’t know what to do next because I haven’t planned it and I sit at my keyboard expecting some fully-fledged story to flow like magic from my fingertips which is ludicrous because it has never happened before.
So – I need to set myself some new goals to get myself through the rest of the year, because three months is a good space of time for goal setting. It gives you enough time to accomplish something meaningful but isn’t so long that you drift off track.
Know where you want to get to.
I like Jim Rohn’s technique for this – make a list of fifty goals you want to accomplish. He encompasses everything: work, family, wealth, personal development and characteristics, hobbies, education. Do the same – it’s also a nice way of working out what’s important to you elsewhere. Then, note whether you want to achieve this in three months, six months, a year, three, five or ten. On my list is that I want to be making a regular living as an author. As a starting goal, that’s fine, but it’s too vague for a short term goal.
Smart goals (specific, measurable, achievable, rewarding, timed – although there are variations) have had a bit of a bad reputation as being ‘management speak’ simply because it’s an acronym, I think. In fact, they’re essential. If you don’t know what you’re aiming for (specific) how will you know you got there (Measurable)? If you can’t achieve something, then you’re setting yourself up for failure and disappointment –likewise if you’re trying to do it in too short a time space for you to be able to do it. And why wouldn’t you make your goals rewarding? They make sense to me.
So my writing goal for the next three months is to write two complete short stories, a poem and have started the next CPA novella. It’s a challenging one in terms of time, especially as this time at work is usually the most hectic, but I think it is achievable if I plan my time properly. The poem in particular would be rewarding, as I want to get better at writing poetry because I think more than anything it makes you truly consider language.
Plan daily habits and routines
I already try to write from 6.30-7.30pm to make sure that I give some time every day to writing. I’m going to add to this to keep planning, but move that planning to the end of the previous writing session. This should mean that when I sit at my desk at 6.30, I know exactly what I’m doing so there’s no messing about, thinking, wondering, planning. It’s done for me already.
Set interim deadlines
Goals are in ink; deadlines are in pencil
This is generally a good idea – sometimes things take longer than you thought for one reason or another (and you should always try to work out what that was so that you can avoid it next time) and it makes sense to simply extend the deadline a little rather than give up and beat yourself up about a failure.
There are some writing deadlines that are set in ink in terms of competition or submission deadlines but even then, if you miss it – finish it anyway and send it somewhere else.
- 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
- Mslexia “Troubled Minds” submission deadline – 2nd December
- Harper’s Bazaar “Spring” theme submission – 13th December or submit to the Bridgwater competition 20th January
The nice thing about this is that there’s a cushion here; the Mslexia and harper’s Bazaar are very close to one another, but if I miss the second, there’s always the Bridgewater a month later.
Break it down:
Split your goals into smaller chunks, each with their own deadline, so that you can look at one at a time rather than be intimidated by the entire project. If this was a novel I’d be planning drafts, chapters and scenes. It also means that once you’ve added them to a to-do list, you have a great opportunity to cross them off as they’re done and build your self-esteem with how much you’ve accomplished!
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
15th October – 1st draft Mslexa sub
20th October – ‘Spring’ plot outline
28th October – 2nd draft Mslexia sub
6th November – 1st draft ‘Spring’
19th November – Mslexia completed
25th November – 2nd draft ‘Spring’
27th November – post Mslexia entry
5th December – Spring completed
10th December – post Spring
Sounds ambitious, and yet manageable, because it’s in small stages that each have their own deadlines! I feel more confident and positive about it already, because I can clearly see how these things will work and how much time they each have.
I’ll keep updating the blog with how I get on, and we’ll see how closely I manage to hit these deadlines!