Friday, July 29, 2011

Day 9: Finding Focus with Theme

Remember when we talked about the importance of getting at the core of your novel?  Yeah, apparently I didn't heed my own advice because about 50% through my WIP I noticed my characters were acting inconsistently and the plot, though certainly telling a story, was missing purpose.  While digging through writerly "how-to" books and blog posts I came across the magic ingredient that, despite knowing about all along, I had failed to understand it's importance.  In a word: THEME.

The Purpose of Theme.  What is it about books like To Kill a Mockingbird, or Gone With the Wind that have English Literature PhD's still studying and dissecting them today?  Obviously marvelous writing and great characters are key, but term papers and book group discussions are most often sustained by the topic of theme.  The theme will never be directly stated, but it is the unifying idea that ties all events of the book and all decisions of the characters together.  It is what the reader takes away from the story and attempts to see in their own life or society.

So can we say that To Kill a Mockingbird is a book about racism and Gone With the Wind is a book about war?  Sure, but that wouldn't be identifying the novels' themes.  A theme is more than a one or two-word idea; it is a statement that makes clear the overarching subject of your work.  For example, one of the themes in To Kill a Mockingbird (the story has several) could be that "one's moral convictions are worth fighting for, even at the risk of being reviled" (Rosemary Goring, The Herald).  A theme example from Gone With the Wind would be how some people survive while others fail in times of catastrophes and upheaval.

Discovering Your Story's Theme.  Like the examples cited above your story will likely contain more than one theme, but there should be a central theme that takes precedence over the others found in your story.  How can you whittle through the words to find it?  With these three steps from the amazing book Writing Great Books for Young Adults, by Regina Brooks.

       1.  Pick a Topic.  The topic is essentially the one or two-word idea that we discussed above.  This is the jumping off point for discovering your story's theme.  A few examples of topic might be:
    • Love (um, definitely a personal favorite)
    • Forgiveness
    • Regret
    • Guilt.... (anyone else notice these are getting a bit depressing...)
    • Generosity (whew, that's better)
    • Kindness
    • Respect
       2.   Ask Yourself Questions.  Step back and analyze  moments in your story when this topic is evident.  A few examples of questions to ask might be, when did this topic first appear in the story?  Was it influenced by the character's past?  When must the character face off with this topic?  What has the character learned about the topic by the close of the novel?  See the way a character is shaped by a topic should help you nail down your novel's theme.

       3.   State the Theme.  The goal is to reach a concise sentence that will accurately describe your story's theme so that, when asked what your novel is about, you have a solid answer.  Your theme will not include any names of characters or settings in history.  It should be so universal that it is interchangeable regardless of time, place, or people.  This is what makes it relatable to your readers.

            There isn't necessarily a "how-to" recipe for stating the theme, but the following examples might help you understand better what it is to have a statement of theme:
    • Jealousy can be destructive.  (The Fairest)
    • Memories of friendship can last forever.  (Bridge to Terabithia)
    • There may be other people in the world like us.  (The Borrowers)
    • A human heart can be heavy with secrets.  (The Hatchet)
    • Sometimes we have to accept change even if we don't want to.  (Julie of the Wolves)
Have you struggled to find your novel's theme?  How were you able to discover it?

MY DAY 9:  I spent the day going back and forth between writing my manuscript and continuing my outline.  Thus far I feel the time spent working on the outline has paid off, as I have been able to move quickly from scene to scene without feeling stuck.  Also advantageous: I know that every scene has a meaning and a purpose and is working to further the plot or characterization.

Friday, July 22, 2011

Day 8: Balancing Your Backstory

You explored your character in depth on Day 4, likely creating such a detailed history that you are anxious to share every gritty detail of your protagonist's tortured past within the first few pages.  But hold off on that impulse.  Consider your favorite book and think of how the author goes about revealing backstory.  Are bits and pieces revealed slowly throughout the book, or does it sound like this example from Laura Whitcomb's book Novel Shortcuts?
"Hey, Stella.  Don't worry.  You dropped out of high school at fifteen, had a baby at sixteen, brought up a daughter by yourself, worked two jobs for a decade, and took night classes to get your law degree.  I'm sure you can handle a simple surprise party."
Not only does such "information dumping" sound awkward, but it takes away the readers' fun of getting to know your protagonist in pieces, much like getting to know a fellow mortal in reality.  Your reader is more likely to remain engaged if she has a nice thin line of breadcrumbs to follow, licking them up so gradually that she isn't even aware of how full her tummy (and your character) is getting.

Judicious Revelations.  
As stated in Jessica Morell's book Between the Lines,
"A constant civil war wages within a fiction writer over the how, how much, and when of slipping in backstory.  It must be cleverly inserted so that it’s unobtrusive and allows the front story to press ahead."
Essentially it is your job to reveal your backstory judiciously.  If you've had troubles with this I recommend Victoria Schmidt's suggestion in the "Write Your Novel in 30 Days" booklet, to look through your opening scene and ask yourself the following:

  • Does it lack forward momentum?
  • Is there a lot of explanation?
  • Does it leave readers wondering what the conflict is?
     "The best way to figure out if you've overdone it with the backstory is to go through your opening chapter and highlight in yellow all your descriptive words and action-related passages where the character acts, reacts or makes a decision.
     "Then go through your opening chapter again and highlight in pink all passages that convey backstory information.  These passages may explain what is going on, what happened in the past, or why things are as they are" (WRNITD pg 36).
Take a gander at the colors of your page.  Which color dominates?  If you answered pink then you have way too much backstory.  Read through all of the pink sections, taking note of which can be removed without rendering the front story indecipherable, then find scenes in Act II where the information can be added in a more interesting way.  (For some examples of conventional, but effective ways to build backstory into your novel see Rachel Ballon's article How to Weave in Backstory to Reveal Character).

The Benefits of Backstory.
Your character's life doesn't begin at the start of your novel, which means a lot of prior experiences have shaped who he is - what his fears might be, what he dreams of doing someday.  As the author with intimate knowledge of your character, you are allowed to use your understanding of said character's backstory as your compass throughout the novel.  Jessica Morrell puts it best when she says:
     "A protagonist is a person with a burning desire, and backstory reveals where this desire stems from.  It can be helpful to keep a Post-It note near your computer that briefly states your protagonist’s desire... [and use it] as your North Star... then ask yourself how you’ve proven this desire through backstory.      "Backstory also helps define your protagonist’s greatest fears, which naturally play a key role in the overall story.  Use your protagonist’s fears as a shorthand method for shaping a story line, and then turn her fear into a looming reality...  As you begin to express your protagonist’s fears through backstory, be sure you have a clear understanding of exactly what those fears are.  It can be helpful to create another Post-It that articulates [them]."
In my novel the two protagonists' personalities have been flip-flopping all over the place to accommodate my plot, but once I read those lines above I realized what I needed to do.  I sat down and dedicated myself to finding both of their fears and motivations.  As a consequence rich new histories that I hadn't seen before revealed themselves to me and my characters became even more solid and real.  It was an exciting moment and one I hope you'll have if you too have been struggling to tame your characters.

*Day by day assignments and worksheets given during the 30 day challenge come from the Writer's Digest manual "Write Your Novel in 30 Days." Click here to purchase it!

MY DAY 8: Though I had already written the inciting incident of my novel before (many times over, in fact), I changed the voice to first person and was thrilled with the results. It will make narration in the future a bit more tricky, but the protagonist feels much more accessible to me now. Of course our hero will have to have his turn to speak as well; this means having dual first-person narrators. Yeah, apparently I like to take risks and go out of my way to make my first novel writing experience as challenging as possible.

Friday, July 8, 2011

Day 7: Writing Your First Scenes

I was a little weirded out when I read the "Write Your Novel in 30 Days" calendar and saw day seven's message:  "Congratulations!  You should now be done with the first 25% of your novel."  Weirded out might be too tame a description; more like, "What the heck!?  You never even told me to start writing the first scene!"  

Despite being a fan of WYNITD, I politely request that you submit to my will and rise up in rebellion against "the (writer's digest) man."  Defy their expectations and begin your 30 day challenge today!

Ahem.  Calming down now.

DAY ONE (or seven if you just HAVE to follow the rules):  the day you begin to write!  Are you ready for this?  Ideally the previous six days have prepared you so well for this moment that you are beyond all fear of the 'staring-at-a-blank-screen-for-hours' syndrome.  You should already have your first line figured out (and likely a line or two further) and you should already have some kind of an outline prepared, however rough it may be.  Now let's talk about how to begin a story.

1. Timing.  You have only one opportunity to hook your reader and get them interested in the story.  Will they be interested watching a character going through their very ordinary morning ritual?  Does this ritual have any hint of the future problems our character will face?  If not, why would a reader waste their time when they can pick up a book that begins with a dead priest in the Louvre who has left behind a coded message in his own blood?  (I'm talking The Da Vinci Code here).

When beginning your story you want to start in medias res, or "in the middle of things."  Typically this means beginning with an "inciting incident" - an occurrence which forces a reaction from your protagonist - and NOT with a lot of backstory explaining how your character came to be a depressed, neurotic coffee shop owner (that comes later).  You want your reader to be engaged from the get go, so start with action; not necessarily a car chase scene, but whatever event it is that sets your character (and thus the story) in motion.

I could give you endless examples of wonderful inciting incidences, but you may prefer seeing a list of the kinds of story openers literary agents hate.  

2. The Proper Introduction.  Readers are a lot like baby ducks (or Jacob the werewolf, if that's more your thing).  They want to imprint on the first person they meet, which means that you, the writer, must introduce your hero/heroine as soon as possible.  Introductions don't mean revealing the birthplace and genealogy of your character, they mean revealing something about your character's personality.  Les Edgerton explains it best in his book Hooked:
"Introduce your reader to your characters by showing the characters’ reactions to the inciting incident. Those reactions reveal and define their personalities, creating a first impression as strong as any in our own lives.  Brevity is key here...  Characters are best revealed by their actions...  For instance, if you feel it important to develop your protagonist’s characterization as a skinflint, don’t give some long, drawn-out tale of him pinching pennies as a youngster, or (worse!) tell the reader he’s a miserable miser.  Instead, in your opening scene, show him doing something miserly within the context of the inciting incident scene. Show him having to transfer two handfuls of hundred-dollar bills to one hand so he can scoop the inside of the coin return of a candy machine for forgotten nickels.  Remember, you don’t have to develop the whole of his characterization in the opening—just the single most important facet—and you should do that briefly and with a telling action." 
3. Foreshadowing.  I recently watched a news clip which analyzed the public's fascination with the Casey Anthony trial and the psychologist said something very interesting.  She mentioned that the trial was "a who-done-it that felt more enjoyable because we thought we knew who-done-it."  So wait, is she saying that people WANT to be able to predict what will happen in a story?  Yes.  Obviously a story which is entirely predictable from beginning to end would be a boring read, but dropping just enough hints to keep the reader guessing will also be what keeps the reader engaged.  In your first few scenes consider foreshadowing the overarching story problem to give readers a flavor for what is to come.

Using the challenge issued by Nancy Kress in the article "Start Your Fiction Off With a Bang," I too ask that you look at your WIP and analyze the opening scenes.
"Does it start with something happening in story time to a major character, which gives us a foretaste of conflicts to come?  If so, congratulate yourself; you're off to a good start.  If not, how can you rewrite?  Some suggestions:
  • Start the story later in the plot. Pick an exciting scene that meets the four criteria, write that as your opening, and then drop back to your original opening as flashback about how things reached that exciting event.
  • Switch the order of scenes you already have. If you start with minor characters, put that scene later, and move up a scene with the protagonist. Or put your initial opening into a prologue.
  • If you started with description or exposition, move it to come after the first scene. You even may find that you don't have to explain so much once we've had some of the information demonstrated for us via action."
*Day by day assignments and worksheets given during the 30 day challenge come from the Writer's Digest manual "Write Your Novel in 30 Days."  Click here to purchase it!

MY DAY 7:  Today I started working on my actual manuscript and was really excited by the progress.  Too often I've begun my story and worked my way into the first few pages of it before finding I hated it or that something needed to be changed.  This time I hearkened to the advice in the WYNITD's booklet to "work as if," meaning to avoid going back and correcting by jotting down my ideas in a notebook.  For example, if I decide I want to change my character's profession I don't have to spend a lot of time going back and fixing every page which mentions the profession.  Instead I can make a note detailing what page I was on when the new profession idea struck me, then write the rest of the book "as if" the beginning already reflected the change.

Tuesday, July 5, 2011

Lesson Learned from Lofty Goals

Well, I finished the 30 day challenge and here's what I learned:
- Kids become cranky and much more difficult to deal with if you ignore them for 30 days (who would have thought?)
- Husbands become cranky and much more difficult to deal with if you ignore them for 30 days (I sort of anticipated this one...)
- Toilets grow an odd kind of pinkish/black ring inside them when they aren't cleaned on a regular basis.
- Frozen dinners are actually quite disgusting

Conclusion:  writing a novel in 30 days may be possible, but I'm not sure I'd recommend it.

Okay, being serious now, I really did learn a lot - most of which I'll be discussing in the rest of the "Write Your Novel in 30 Days" series, but a bit of it is worth mentioning now.  
  • Surprise, surprise, but everyone who tells you to write everyday was right.  I was amazed by how much more quickly I was able to get into my writing voice at the end of the challenge as opposed to the beginning. 
  • I really do have time to write... actually a LOT of time that had just been going to waste before.  Now that I've seen how much of it I truly have, I'm hoping I'll do a much better job of prioritizing it.
  • The internet is NOT your friend!  Each time I got the slightest bit stalled or stuck in my writing I would automatically get online to check twitter or my facebook page, which would have been fine if I had just quickly browsed around.  Instead I would read articles or start chatting and BAM!  20 minutes of productive writing time sloshed and gurgled as they spun down the internet drain.  Turn off your internet connection while you write!
  • Leaving someone else in charge of my kids was the number one way to ensure that I spent my time wisely.  Why?  Accountability.  If my friend took my kids for a couple of hours to give me some writing time I certainly don't want to report to her that I just spent the last two hours watching a great movie or chatting with a friend.  I want her to know her sacrifice was of use to me.  The same principle applied with my husband.  Whenever I went to the library and left him alone with the kids I found I was much more focused and productive because I knew I had to report back to him on my progress.  It was important that he know his efforts were very helpful to me.  Obviously doing this challenge so publicly has given me a sense of accountability, but hour-by-hour accountability is even better.
Since you are likely quite curious to know if I did indeed finish my book, I must confess I did not.  Sad, I know, but I did get halfway done which is more progress than I've ever made.  I'd call that a success. 

Do I believe that someone could finish a book in 30 days?  You bet!  For myself, I'd prefer to spread it out a bit more.  Not too much more, because I really enjoyed the sustained focus on my project, but enough that I wouldn't have to battle burnout.  (Those last few days were killers!  I had to drag each word from my brain in slow, painful succession... not really a great way to feel when working on a beloved story).  I believe that if I could commit to writing 1,000 words a day I could have my book done in 70 days and without requiring too much sacrifice from my family at all!  

What are your daily writing goals and how long do you think it would take you to write a first draft?