One Writer’s Journey

March 7, 2017

Theme: The Opposite of Preaching

Filed under: Uncategorized — suebe @ 1:08 am
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Throughout March, I am taking part in ReFoReMo or Read for Research Month.  In this picture book writing challenge, you read a wide variety of books and then read blog posts by  various authors on how to use the mentor texts to improve your work.

One of the books for last week was Jacob Grant’s Cat Knit.  Personally, as a knitter, I was immediately hooked.  That said, I do suspect that Grant has been the recipient of an unwanted sweater or three.  For those of you who aren’t familiar with the book, it tells the story of Cat and his friendship with Girl.  One day, Girl brings home a colorful new friend, Yarn. Cat quickly bonds with Yarn and their friendship grows.  But then the unthinkable happens.  Yarn becomes a snug, itchy sweater.  Cat abandons his friend outside and only then notices just how awfully cold it is.  Fortunately, Cat and Yarn are reunited although one suspects that there might be more knitting to come.

On the surface, it all looks pretty simple.  You have a story about a cat, a girl and yarn.  It is a book about knitting.  And that’s true enough but if you go a bit deeper and you’ll find the theme.

Cat Knit is also a book about friendship  and change.  One friend changes and the other friend is initially resistant and just can’t deal with it.  Fortunately, before it is too late, Cat realizes that “Warming up to something new takes time.”

Except for that last bit in parenthesis, Grant doesn’t say it.  He implies it.  He writes about it.  He hides it in a story about a cat, a girl and yarn.  Because he makes this part of the lesson covert, it is one of the themes of the book and teaches without preaching.

Don’t preach.  We hear that bit of advice all the time.  Fortunately we have Cat Knit and Jacob Grant to show us how to do it right.


November 21, 2016

Theme: Take some time to play

Filed under: Uncategorized — suebe @ 1:56 am
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theme-clustersAsk me what the theme of a book is and I’m going to stare blankly for a moment.  It doesn’t matter if it is something I am reading or something I am writing, I am a do-er.  Generally the first thing that I identify is plot.  Or character.  Theme may come into play only after a full draft has been completed.

But The Plot Whisperer plays with theme in Chapter 4.  Heck, I don’t even have a plot outline.  It all feels a little odd.  Ah, well.  What could it hurt to give it a try.

Alderson instructs Plot Whisperer readers to get out a big piece of paper and draw an oval in the center.  Do you know the theme of your book?  She doesn’t mean Family or Honor.  She wants your well-developed, well-thought-out sentence.  Don’t have it yet?  No worries.  Just start writing thematic words and phrases that have to do with your book.

As you do this, says Alderson, you are going to identify groupings of ideas.  Can you use these to develop your specific theme?

Okay, I can do this.  Not that I can bring myself to write it on paper.  My common ideas wouldn’t be grouped together.  It would be . . . gasp . . . messy.  Anyone who has ever seen my desk is probably rolling on the floor.  But in my defense, I put myself through college creating graphics for archaeological reports.  Messy graphics, even brain storming, will distract me from actually brainstorming.  I have to know an easy clean up is in sight.  So I did it in Adobe Illustrator because I could just scoot things around as needed.  And boy oh boy did I need to clean up the graphic (see the final at right).

My OCD tendencies aside, I did discover something about my theme.  My theme is the idea that Family is more than people and estate/shared belongings.  It isn’t history although it is shaped by history. It is shared values and can change over time.  What I found playing with this is that there are both Positive and Negative aspects to this theme.  Moving my character from negative to positive will not only bring about a thematic arc in my story, it will also fuel the character’s emotional arc.  Woo-hoo!   Definitely a worthwhile exercise.

Now if you’ll excuse me, I need to see what Alderson wants me to do next.



November 11, 2016

Plotting a Novel with Depth

Filed under: Uncategorized — suebe @ 1:45 am
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Plot WhispererAs I get ready to make a second attempt at plotting out my novel, I’m rereading The Plot Whisperer and The Plot Whisperer Workbook.  I’m not even past chapter 2 and I’ve already found a problem with my earlier attempts at plotting which felt confused and haphazard.  The best books are plotted at three levels — the action, the emotional arc and the theme.  I had all three — sort of.

And, that’s good, sort of.  If an editor tells you that your story feels slight, you probably have all action and no character growth.  Or your theme isn’t well developed.

I wasn’t heading into a slight plot. I was heading into a haphazard plot.  One plot point would be from the action plot.  The next might be from the emotional plot or the thematic plot.  I couldn’t get things moving forward because I had created a tangled mess.

The first step to untangling it is to understand the three plots.

Action plot.  This is the part of the plot that we most often discuss when we say plot.  The character has a goal and these are the steps that are taken to reach it.  If I had plotted the action and neglected everything else, it would have made sense but it would have been slight.  Unfortunately, I created a jumble.

Emotional plot.  I notice this one missing from a lot of adult books.  Your character needs to grow and change.  This might mean that they discover that something they believed at the beginning of the book was a lie.  Or they misunderstood something.  Or they just needed to come to a more mature understanding.  This emotional plot needs to more or less keep pace with the action plot.  I often figure this one out last, right after I figure out the theme.

Thematic plot.  Is your story about family?  Or independence?  Or hope?  Along with the arc that deals with plot and the one that deals with character emotion, you need one for theme as well.

Now that I’m thinking about them as three distinct entities, I can make sure that all three are present in my story.  They will intertwine, but now that I know to keep track of them they (hopefully) won’t again become a tangled mess.


May 9, 2016

Symbols: How to use symbolism to bolster your theme

Filed under: Uncategorized — suebe @ 1:15 am
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If you want to make me shudder mention symbolism and theme.  The pair together could easily end my love of literature.

The problem is that I am such a literal person.  I believe some people would use the term rational.  Put a vase in your story and I see a vase.  It is useful for holding flowers, maybe weighting down the corner of a map or schematic that has been rolled up.  You can also occasionally use it to clunk a bad guy in the noggin.

I am probably not going to grasp it as a symbol for the theme of motherhood or anything else.  It just isn’t how I think.

Because of this, I dread the thought of adding symbols to my own stories.  How can I add these subtle layers if it isn’t how I think?

I needed to broaden how I think about symbols.  I realized that as I read a post on DIY MFA.  In this post, the author talks about being careful about the symbols that you choose.  If you choose a symbol with an obvious meaning, you can’t choose a meaning for it in the context of your story that contradicts its cultural meaning.

The author warned writers about this because there are symbols around us all the time — the letters that you are reading are symbols.  One way signs are symbols.  Then there are peace signs, the Christian fish, the Celtic cross, and so much more.  Once I discover the themes in my story, I can start with these symbols.   For example, let’s say that the theme peace?  I could use a peace sign, a dove, or a lamb.

You can also pull something from within the story that has special meaning for the character.  Perhaps it is a necklace that she got from her mother, a woman who worked for peace.  Or it is something from the family garden where she used to sit and meditate.

Whatever symbols you choose to use, they will have to appear multiple times, growing in importance throughout the story.  Think of the Mocking Jay.  At first it is a pin.  Then it is duplicated in a subversive dress pattern.  Then it becomes a symbol for an entire movement, often used to tag buildings  in acts of defiance.

I’m not done drafting my story but as I work I’ll be looking for the symbols that will snag my readers’ attention and draw them into my theme and my story.


April 7, 2016

Themed Word Lists

Filed under: Uncategorized — suebe @ 1:20 am
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Collaboration, Collaborator, Book, Dictionary, WordsSomeone on Facebook just recommended something that looks like a really helpful resource if you ever use themed word lists.  Why would you need a themed list?  Here are some possibilities.

Motion words.  In a picture book text, I needed a variety of words to describe animal movement.  This text is super brief so the words needed to be descriptive and very specific.

Themes relating to POV characters.  Because of what my characters are interested in, I’ve needed to use specialized vocabulary when I see the world through their eyes.  This means finding words that have to do with swimming, wolves, and power.

Descriptive words.  A friend of mine wrote a book that involved treasure.  She used words associated with metal to describe various sounds throughout her book.

Any time that you are working with a theme or a character’s interest, using words that have to do with that theme or interest adds layers to your story.  You can find lists of such words at  To access the word lists, find the blue ribbon at the top of the page and mouse over “Subject Word Lists.”

I found lists for the following subjects:  Astronomy, Archaeology and Geology as well as Spelunking and Caving.  I don’t always ending up using the exact words that I find but they are usually good for nudging me along and helping me think of my own list of words.

Now, if you’ll excuse me, I have some writing to do.



August 21, 2014

Message: Work it into your plot

Filed under: Uncategorized — suebe @ 1:36 am
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The very best fictional stories have a strong message.  Some touch on loyalty or family.  Others make us think about faith or forgiveness.

Whatever the message is we have to be careful how we deliver it.  Come on too strong and your work seems preachy.  The problem with this is that if you nag from the pages of your story and no one will want to read it.  It works best when your characters discover the message for themselves in the course of the story.

Merrie Haskell did an amazing job of this in The Castle Behind Thorns.  Admittedly, I might have been impressed because of the timing.  I read this book during the unrest in Ferguson, Mo.  I’m one town over.  My sister and her family live in Ferguson.  Quite frankly, a lot of people in our community need to read a book about letting go of anger.


On the surface, this is a retelling of Sleeping Beauty.  Sand has grown up in sight of the castle but no one goes there.  In fact no one pays much attention to it.  Then one day he wakes up in the fireplace in the main hall.  Only after a merlin and the princes “wake up” does Sand begin to unravel why he is there, what caused the brambles to grow up around the castle and why they are so dangerous.

The princess was killed, more or less by accident.  Her step-mother meant to put her into a deep sleep.  She tricked a servant into administering the potion.  The brambles arose from the girl’s grave because of the hatred she had for her step-mother.  Only by letting go of these feelings could the brambles be fully dispersed.

This is a novel, so obviously there’s a lot more to it than that but this is a lesson that the author could have shoved right in the reader’s face.  Instead, the reader meets the girl and learns of the harsh treatment she suffered at the hands of this woman as no one stood up for her.  But these two women aren’t the only ones holding onto anger and hurt.  Sand must begin mending things to get to the bottom of it all, both in the girl’s life and in his own.

Readers receive the message only through the plot.  Both plot and subplot support the same message.  Added together this is much more effective than tapping a twelve year old on the shoulder and telling her to let go and quit being a pill.

How can you work the message into your own story?  Read The Castle Behind Thorns and other books that do it well to collect ideas.


September 22, 2011

Theme and the Reading Experience

Filed under: Uncategorized — suebe @ 4:49 am
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Theme will point you in the right direction for your rewrite.

Yesterday, I wrote a post about the reading experience.  In brief, what do you expect the reader to get out of your book?  Part of this experience is emotional (how do you want the reader to feel as they read and close your book?) but part of it involves theme.

As you consider what you want your reader to think about or learn from your book, you are shaping your theme.  Harry Potter is a series of  books about good vs evil and believing in yourself and your friends.  Miss Peregrine’s Home for Peculiar Children is about gifts and the responsibilities that come with them.

If, as you write the first draft of your story, you don’t know what the themes are, don’t worry.  Sometimes you need to get a draft down first.  Sometimes the theme comes together as you, the writer, explore the story and the story world.

Whatever your main theme is, this should be the area in which your character changes and grows.  Harry realizes that he really is the chosen one and that if he doesn’t go to the fight, the fight will some to him.  Jake discovers his peculiarity as well as the cost of refusing to leave the normal world and use it to help other.

Once you have a solid draft, let your story sit for a time.  Then as you read it, noodle over possible themes, because you will need to strengthen and enforce this theme throughout the course of your rewrite.  It may mean writing a new opening scene that emphasizes your character’s flaw in terms of this theme.  It may mean changing a setting or two.  But you want know what you need to fix if you haven’t identified a theme.

So, do you have any inkling what your theme is?  If not, get writing on that first draft!


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