One Writer’s Journey

August 30, 2018

Theme: Tying It All Together

Today I read two really good posts on theme.  The first, written by Becca Puglisi, reviewed a session on theme that she attended at a conference.  In her post, Puglisi discusses the difference between the theme statement and the theme topic.  Using the play Hamilton as an example, the theme statement was “You have no control over who lives, who dies and who tells your story.”  The theme topic is much broader and expressed by fewer words.  Again, for Hamilton, it would be legacy.

Puglisi goes on to explain that every character relates to this theme in some way but not in the same way.  This is what creates the tension between characters and the tension in the plot although plot events may include wars, death, and more.  The factor that ties it all together is legacy.

The second post, by Sacha Black, is all about using theme as a golden thread that ties everything in the story together.  Her examples come from Hunger Games. Although she uses different terms, I’m going to use Puglisi’s terms to simplify things here.  The theme statement is “sacrificing yourself can lead to a greater good.”  The theme topic is sacrifice.

Again, she discusses positioning the protagonist and antagonist on opposite sides of this theme.  Katniss sees the good that can be done by making personal sacrifices.  President Snow only sees the good that can be done by sacrificing others.  Instant tension.

This has me thinking about a book I just read – The Bookshop at Water’s End by Patty Callahan Henry.  Very few books generate the discussion that this did at book club and a big part of that was the theme.  Everyone is doing the best that they can at the time.  I’ve yet to come up with a single word to summarize this – persevere?  There was no protagonist vs antagonist play here largely because when someone had a problem it was more likely to be internal and self-created than with someone else.

Every character was fighting a different battle or, if they faced the same issues, dealt with them in very different ways.  And the readers?  We all have very strong opinions about this book.  And, interestingly enough, I don’t think there was a single point at which we all agreed.

I’m not sure if this is something you can bring out from the start or if it is something that you have to bring the forefront as you rework a piece.  Me?  I’m hoping its the latter as I near 6000 words on my novel.




August 15, 2018

Pitching Your Idea

Filed under: Uncategorized — suebe @ 1:26 am
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What is it that makes a pitch work?  Is it theme?  Or maybe you should show how action-packed your idea is?  I might have said either of those things a week ago before I saw this meme.

Note: I’ve blurred out the name of the movie.  If you’ve seen this meme and know the movie – patience, please.  But think about it.  Would you say that these themes work for preschoolers?  Given this pitch, I’d have to say no.  No way.  I don’t think so.

But then I saw what movie it was and I had to laugh.  This is Saving Nemo.  Really!  Reread the summary.

If Nemo had been pitched to Disney using that description, it never would have been made.  Nope.  Not that I have any clue how it was pitched, but I imagine that Nemo would have been front and center.  “It’s a story about a clown fish named Nemo who is taken from his father and has to find his way home.” Disney is, after all, focused on family.

And that’s a big part of making your pitch work.  Look at the publisher’s website.  What themes are present in book after book?  Are you looking at a publisher who is all about broadened perspectives or STEM? Then frame your pitch, where appropriate, in those terms.  If you can’t, maybe your piece isn’t right for them after all.

Your pitch is a sales tool and for it to work you have to know what the publisher or agency is buying.  Once you know that, you have an opportunity to make it work to your advantage.



July 26, 2018

Plot and subplots

Filed under: Uncategorized — suebe @ 1:30 am
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In my favorite books, plot and subplots mirror the same theme.

Now that I’ve started working on a novel, I’m finding myself paying close attention to plots and subplots in what I read.  My favorite form is when they all explore the same theme.  The main character has to find a way to accomplish a dishonorable task in an honorable way.  The main character has to get beyond the same she feels about her station in life (something she cannot control).  The main character has to learn to deal with Character X who treats her with honor – something that is, sadly, new to her.  The main character has to decide if she will dishonor another character who has dishonored her.  All of the strands are about honor.

Other books have a plot and subplots but while the same characters are involved, and the main character is always central, there is no common theme.  A murder has been committed and the main character has to catch the killer.  The main character has to reconcile her love of truth with her need to lie while undercover.  There may also be a romance subplot.

Some books feature a group of characters trying to solve a mystery with subplots that feature each individual character.  One may be trying to break away from dealing drugs.  Another is working to repair his relationship with his girlfriend.  One girl is coping with an eating disorder.

What version am I going to use?  I’m going for all of the plots and subplots mirroring the same theme. I’m exploring trust and honor.  But the book is a mystery so the strongest theme will be that crime doesn’t pay.  These are my hopes for the future.  The current draft?  If I can get my character through the mystery and the romance subplot I’ll be happy.


April 16, 2018

Theme: Telling a story to get your message across

Filed under: Uncategorized — suebe @ 2:52 am
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I love it when I’m sitting reading a stack of books from the library and I come across one that does something especially well.  Recently, I read Liz Wong’s Quackers.  It is all about a cat who loves life down at the pond with the other ducks.  Well, except for maybe the water.  And eating duck weed.  But other than that he loves being a duck.  Then along comes one of the barn cats who can’t believe that Quackers thinks he is a duck.  The other cat takes Quackers up to the barn.  Quackers loves life up at the barn.  He loves being a cat.  Except for having to lick himself clean.  But eventually he misses the ducks.  Soon he figures out that he can be both a duck and a cat.

Clearly this is a story about being different but still belonging.  But the really awesome part? Wong absolutely never says that.  Not one tine.  All Wong does is tell her story about Quackers the feline duck. It is brilliant.  Why?  Because she gets her message across without ever coming out and stating it.

Instead, she’s created a great character.  Quackers loves experiencing different things.  No matter where he is, he throws himself into life, enjoying the experience even when he doesn’t actually love every last thing about it.

She’s also created a great setting.  You have a pond full of ducks who are perfectly happy to accept and love Quackers.  And you have a barn full of cats who are also happy to let him take part in life cat-style.

Not once does she say:

  • Be who you are.
  • You can be different and still belong.
  • Your life can be filled with varied experiences.

All of those messages are in there but they would be preachy if Wong came out and said any of those things.  Instead she does what we all need to do – she tells a really great story.



June 23, 2017

Story First, Theme Second

Filed under: Uncategorized — suebe @ 1:28 am
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I’ve come across another example of a picture book that delivers a theme but does so without preaching.  If you are a picture book author, you need to read BunnyBear by Andrea J. Loney.

BunnyBear is a bear.  He can roar.  He can stomp.  He’s big and strong and furry.  But when he’s alone he likes to hop and eat strawberries. The other bears give him a hard time so he sets off to find someplace to be BunnyBear. When he sees a bunny, he follows it and scootches his way down into the warren.  It isn’t a flawless procedure and he is asked to leave by an older bunny.  But he is followed out by . . . she may look like a bunny but she is big and ferocious and has quite a roar.  She calls herself Grizzlybun.  Just to cement the lesson, BunnyBear has this to say to Grizzlybun. “You just look one way on the outside and feel another way on the inside. That’s okay.”

I don’t think you need banners and protests to know this is a book about gender fluidity but the cool thing?  It never says it.  Not once.

That makes it a great book for any kid who has ever felt like he or she did not fit in.  “What’s so great about that?” you ask.

That makes the book more marketable which, in the end, makes the book easier to sell.  If an editor or publisher doesn’t predict a strong enough interest level or see the possibility for a large enough market share, they are going to pass on your manuscript.  No matter how well written it is.

Something else that works in this books favor is the humor.  This may be a book about inclusion and being true to yourself, both serious topics, but it is also funny.  The images of BunnyBear squeezing through the runs into the warren are a hoot!  And then you have Grizzlybun looking oh so fierce as she stomps around BunnyBear.

This book puts the story before the theme of inclusion and does so in such a way that it becomes much more salable.  It is definitely a title we all need to study.


June 19, 2017

Plot and Subplot: Using One to Strengthen the Other

Filed under: Uncategorized — suebe @ 1:28 am
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Okay, this entire post is going to be littered with plot spoilers so if you haven’t read David Baldacci’s The Fix you may just want to come back later.  Although I normally listen to his work on audiobook, I took the opportunity to read this one and found a novel that uses the subplot to strengthen various points in the plot.

Let the plot spoilers begin!   You were warned.  No, seriously.  I did warn you.

Amos Decker is walking up toward the entrance to FBI headquarters when he sees a man shoot a woman in the back of the head.  Before Decker can reach the man, he shoots himself committing suicide.  From this point to the end of the book Decker and his cohorts are trying to figure out what happened.  Why did this FBI contractor kill a woman he seemingly had no connection to?  Why do it outside FBI headquarters?  Could this man have been a spy, unbeknownst to his wife and daughters?

As they gather information they come up with more and more questions.  Eventually the realize that a family member was in trouble and this gave the bad guys the leverage they needed to turn the contractor into a killer.

But the FBI makes some mistakes as they gather the information.  They make assumptions concerning the roles of men vs the roles of women.  Because of these mistakes, not everything makes sense and it takes them time to fill in the blanks.  But the mistakes that they make in the subplot (how did the bad guys get him involved) are mirrored by the mistakes that they make in the main plot (was there a connection between the murderer and his victim.

Because the same mistakes are made at both levels, it strengthens the themes and the plot points surrounding the assumptions we as a society make regarding gender roles.

Everything is layered and nuanced if you can use your plot and subplot to mirror plot points, errors, and themes.  Try it and see if your story doesn’t feel tighter and more cohesive.



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.


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