What Is Your Theme? Writer’s Diary:4

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If you don’t know your theme, get to know it. You will be asked about it, best it doesn’t come as a surprise to you – Elizabeth Jolley.

Years ago, I read the above quote from Elizabeth Jolley, and decided to pay special attention to becoming aware of my themes. I thought I knew what my overarching theme was. I thought (loftily) that my themes were the psychology of behaviour with narratives on behavioural theory.

It is often said that theme is difficult to describe, and writers are frequently unaware of just what their themes are. Theme is not story or plot. Theme is the underlying idea, concept, or philosophy in your story. Theme is not what happens in your story, but what your story is about. Theme is often not a choice, especially for fiction writers, but evolves out of a writer’s interests and passions, and, as a result, writers very often – but not always – have the same theme throughout their works.

Now that I’ve completed my third book, it has become clearly apparent that my theme is more tangible, and less lofty, than ‘psychology of behaviour’. I can now be more exact. For some reason not known to me, I write from a male POV and my theme is as simple as crazy men doing weird shit, or, men’s decent into madness.

Knowing your theme can be a useful tool in getting your story finished. If I find I’m wondering what it is I’m actually trying to say, if I’m asking the question, who is this story about? or what is this story about (questions publishers and agents want you to know about your own work) or what message am I trying to get across? Being clear on theme can help answer those questions.

Melissa Donovan says theme can be described as broadly as redemption, sacrifice, betrayal, loyalty, greed, justice, oppression, revenge, and love or they can ask questions or pit two ideas against each other: science vs. faith, good vs. evil, why are we here and what happens when we die?

When I put the question, what do you think your themes are, out to social media, writers were much more specific about their themes:

Kim Swivel: love, bigotry, class, political stupidity, Australian iconography

Anna Spargo-Ryan: Mental illness, family violence, parent-child relationships, substance use, love, loss, food.

Jade Aleesha: My most recent novel explores the power of the media and government to redefine history, and the overlooked role of women in revolution.

Caroline Hutton: Secrecy in families, letting go of old hurts, staying whole in marriage, marital expectations of boundaries vs secrets

Sarah Jansen: Abandonment, the pursuit of happiness, self-reliance, unexpected situations

Sarah Widdup: Relationships, imbalance, expectation, equilibrium

Bianca Nogrady: Family and what we would do for them (or not). Also choice … I’m fascinated by this idea that choice is generally viewed as a good thing in that it gives us a sense of control, that we can always choose between options, however bad those options are. I think there are some choices that we never want to be faced with, and in some situations we would rather have those choices taken away from us.

Eliza Henry Jones: The themes of my writing have always changed to reflect whatever it was I happened to be grappling with at that time in my life. Reading back over (very, very, very poor) novels that I wrote as a teenager is almost like reading a diary. I’ve explored issues of religion, dementia, adoption, substance abuse and parental mental illness. I think what I keep coming back to again and again, though, are themes of grief and letting go.

Fleur Ferris: Online safety, grief, consequence, religious extremism, fanaticism, misuse of power, bullying, identity, relationships/friendships/family. (Not all in the same book…OMG, it doesn’t matter. I’m so miserable!) *rushes to computer and begins writing a romantic comedy.

Robyne Young: Emotional and geographical displacement, punishment, feminism, family.

One of the benefits of knowing your theme means you can look where other writers have explored the same themes with success. Men’s decent into madness threw up the following titles, which also made me aware that, so far, I’ve only found male authors who have approached the same theme, so I’d better get to work!

One Flew over the Cuckoo’s Nest, Ken Kesey; Crime and Punishment, Fyodor Dostoyevsky; Heart of Darkness, Joseph Conrad; The Stranger, Albert Camus; Fight Club, Chuck Palahniuk; The Shining, Stephen King; King Lear, Shakespeare; Catch-22, Joseph Hellar; Lord of the Flies, William Golding; Shutter Island, Denis Lehane; Hamlet, Shakespeare.

 

 

 

 

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The fighter pilot excise of those mousy little words

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Working diligently through my current WIP, I find that I’m honing in on and attacking specific words, busting them off the page like a fighter pilot. These pesky words are triggers for me that I’m not happy with the sentence they find themselves inhabiting. Little cancer cells of a healthy body of work, they are. There’s nothing wrong with the words, they’re innocent and they have a right to be there. I just don’t like them. The list of excised words includes these mousy little culprits below. I’m interested to know if you have a similar list. Add your culprits in the comments below. There’s also a list of favourite words that I like to include in every MS just for the fun of it, words like GUSTO, but I only include them once, let’s not get carried away, and that list is for another day.

Things

Seems

Knows

Sits

Somehow

Somewhere

Something

Some

What

Goes

Go

Just

Does

Got

Is

Lychees or Peaches? with author Pamela Freeman: don’t get between Pamela and her drum kit!

 

 !cid_320F7CC6-059E-4458-9745-780E4A0B91C3@optusnet_com

 

 

1 Hard questions first: Lychees or Peaches?

Um…nectarines? Peaches if I must.

 

2 Okay, nectarines it is then (you’re such a rebel Pamela.)  If you were written about in a newspaper, what would the headline say?

Funnily enough, I received a copy of an article about me today.  The headline read:  Top Author Shares Secret With Students.  I’m okay with that one.

 

3 I wonder what that secret was – I bet it has something to do with drums – I guess we have to enroll in your novel writing course to find out! What is your favourite line from a book or movie?

This is hard…I’m a bit of a media girl. It’s likely to be a Monty Python line, like: Nobody expects the Spanish Inquisition! Or We would like: a shrubbery. I also love the first line of George Orwell’s 1984: It was a cold, clear day in April and the clocks were striking thirteen.

 

4 Which genre do you usually write in? And why do you think this is so?

This is a hard question for me as I’ve just changed genres. In the past, I’ve written mostly fantasy (plus science fiction, mystery and non-fiction).  But my most recent novel is for adults and it’s straight history, set in World War I.  It’s called A Soldier’s Wife.  I suspect I may be writing more of historical fiction – I started a few years ago, with a book about Mary MacKillop’s childhood, but it’s been growing on me. I enjoy the research, I think.  I used to do a lot of research for my day job, and I did find that when I started full-time writing I missed that element, so maybe that’s why I’ve turned to history.

 

5 Tell me a secret about yourself that nobody in the whole world knows? Go on tell me, nobody but me is listening.

I blush to admit it, but I don’t have many secrets. I talk too much for that and my husband knows me too well. Can I use one that he knows?  I have a passion for real estate.  I’m one of those people who are constantly going online to check out what’s open for inspection.  I like to ‘keep an eye on the market’ just in case – even though we have no immediate plans to move!  My husband indulges me in this.  At least it’s a cheap hobby!’

 

6 If that’s the case, Pamela, I’ll remember not to tell you any secrets!  What is your latest book about?

The last published book is a non-fiction book about how Australia changed during Mary MacKillop’s lifetime (a project book, really).  The next one coming out is the fourth Betony book, Princess Betony and the Hobgoblin.  And my current novel is the WWI book, A Soldier’s Wife, which is with the publisher at the moment.  I’m waiting to find out if they’re going to publish it.

 

7 Good luck with A Soldier’s Wife! How did you come up with the title? Did it come to fistycuffs with your editor?

Not so far, but the cover designer hasn’t got hold of it yet!  In my experience, that’s when you are most likely to be asked to change the title. In fact, I’ve changed it twice already. My first working title was 1916, which sounded like a text book; then I called it The Home Front, but I thought that sounded boring.

 

8 When you daydream about singing on The Voice (I know you do) which song do you sing and if you could have any celebrity judge in the world turn for you who would it be?

I love Joel so I would pick him.  As for songs…. so, in my daydream, I sing a lot better than I actually do, of course, so I could handle songs I couldn’t really sing… something jazzy from the 30s, maybe? There’s a Bessie Smith song I heard recently (at a Hugh Laurie concert) which is so much fun and yet so heartbreaking that I couldn’t resist it. It’s called Send me to the Lectric Chair, and it’s a woman singing to the judge, asking him to give her the death penalty because she’s killed her unfaithful lover. Sounds appalling, but it’s a hell of a song! Judge, Judge, please Mister Judge, send me to the ‘lectric chair…

They would turn, oh yes they would!

 

9  What do you really, really, really, love?

My drum kit

 

10 Can you show us a quick snap of your work desk? No tidy spic and span ones please. I won’t believe you.

 

chair

 I don’t write much at a desk.  The great advantage of writing in a chair is that it stays neater than a desk!

 

11 Lovely, lovely chair, I think you might have the secret to writer’s back health. Okay, serious stuff now: where can we purchase your latest book?

My kids’ books are available in most bookshops – or they can be ordered anywhere,  Dymocks, Booktopia, Amazon.  You won’t find Betony at Big W, because it’s a small (gorgeous) edition and they can’t shelve it, but once it’s out in paperback you’ll be able to get it there too (next year).  My adult fantasy books can be ordered also – I would recommend Pulp Fiction books if you want them quickly (0732362750)

 

Thank you for taking the time to do Lychees or Peaches, Pamela!

Pamela Freeman teaches a novel writing course at the Australian Writers’ Centre in Sydney, her next one starts in June, and I think there is still a couple of spaces if you are quick!

 

Pamela can also be found on Facebook at pamelafreemanauthor

 

 

Lychees or Peaches? With author Ian Trevaskis: why we all need a Border Collie named Peggy

Kicking off our new author interview series, Lychees or Peaches, is author, Ian Trevaskis. Let’s go Ian!

 

 

1 Hard questions first: Lychees or Peaches?

Definitely lychees

2 If you were written about in a newspaper, what would the headline say?

Acclaimed Author Admits He Made It All Up!

3 What is your favourite line from a book or movie?

“Take no prisoners!” from the movie Lawrence of Arabia

4 Which genre do you usually write in? And why do you think this is so?

Children’s picture books. Because I’ve never really grown up.

5 Tell me a secret about yourself that nobody in the whole world knows? Go on tell me, nobody but me is listening.

Back in the good old days when I was a kid I had a Border Collie called Peggy. We would often sit on the back verandah and discuss the day’s events. She was never judgemental and I could tell her all my fears and aspirations. She would occasionally nod and offer a lick. 

6 What was your latest book about?

‘Edge of the World’ brilliantly illustrated by Wayne Harris is about a fishing village near the edge of the world grieving for a mother and her children drowned at sea. Toby, the husband finds some magical silver pots in his nets and over time paints the village and brings life and hope back into their world.

7 How did you come up with the title? Did it come to fistycuffs with your editor?

Simple – the village was near the edge of the world! My editor (Donna Rawlins) and I figured that was probably an appropriate title and there were no fisticuffs, probably due to the amount of wine consumed when making the decision.

8 When you daydream about singing on The Voice (I know you do) which song do you sing and if you could have any celebrity judge in the world turn for you who would it be?

I can’t sing to save myself and I’m not prepared to kid anyone to the contrary.

9 We won’t ever force you to sing, Ian – it could result in a national disaster! What do you really, really, really, love?

Apart from my gorgeous wife and four incredibly talented children, it would have to be the complete series of ‘The Famous Five’ by Enid Blyton.

10 Can you show us a quick snap of your work desk? No tidy spic and span ones please. I won’t believe you.

This looks way too tidy, Ian. Someone needs to go in a mess it up!

11 Serious stuff now: where can we purchase your latest book?

‘Edge of the World’ can be ordered through Walker Books Australia (a paperback edition was recently released) or from any major bookstore if they don’t have it in stock.

 

Thanks for taking the time to do Lychees or Peaches, Ian!

If you’d like to find out more about the mysterious Ian and his tidy desk, he has a website here!

Crossing ethical lines: Midnight Blue and Endlessly Tall by Jane Jervis-Read

9781922057433

Midnight Blue and Endlessly Tall by Jane Jervis-Read

Xoum Publishing 2013

121 pages.

 

Jessica is a divorced and single health worker whose children have moved on with their lives, leaving her to negotiate her relationships from a distance and to grapple with a ‘hollow and sore heart’. When she becomes increasingly entangled in the life of her client her own needs allow her to go where logic might tell her she shouldn’t.

From the beginning we know we are in the hands of an author who cares about words and what lies between them. Jane Jervis-Read creates a haunting and wanting aura with her sensitive writing:

But she will already be walking out the back, screen door sighing closed behind her, slippers scuffing the concrete, spanning the distance between the kitchen and the shed. The corrugated roof casts a shadow over the entrance… But inside the shed a world awaits. From the window I watch the shadow drink her in. p2

When Jessica takes on the job as carer to Eloise we follow her tender path along a road that both she and we know she shouldn’t go down. It echoes the decisions we fail or neglect to make, or choose to ignore, that allow us to follow the heart in search of something we need. It puts the question to us that we may not like to explore, should we go to places we know we shouldn’t for the sake of cotton-balling the heart?

It meant something when Eloise pulled me in. It meant I am sad and the world is falling like leaves around me. It meant you are a warm heart next to me and your heart loves and listens where mine is hollow and sore and calling out like a wild, hungry mouth. It meant I need you…Something is starting and something is ending. I need relief from my sorrow and you are it, your hand is it, your warm heart beating beside me is it. p66

As we would in reality, Jessica questions her actions and explains them away with care:

She was crying with growing intensity. You don’t leave someone alone in that state. You don’t say, Sorry but my shift is over.’ You can’t clock off. This may be that sort of job to some people but not to me. p53

And Jervis-Read does not shy from bringing truth to the story by allowing Jessica go into this blindly. Jessica knows she goes where she should not; she knows she has blurred ethical lines:

Her thigh slid between mine. I waited. What was I thinking in this moment? I can’t remember. Only the feeling of heat, from her bath-thickened flesh…Maybe I told myself, ‘You have come this far without knowing why – what reason is there to step out now?’…How wild and misguided a life can become, but the body maintains this simple truth: the elegant curve from the waist to the hip. p 83

And nor are the characters allowed to waft away in romantic views; the story is not without the tendrils of uncertainty you might find in a relationship wrought with baggage, illness and dependency:

Eloise smirked. She leant towards me and her robe fell open at the top. ‘I’ll follow you,’ she said. ‘If you go.’  p 63

The characters are beautifully painted on the page. We feel for Jessica as she navigates the emotions left in the wake of her divorce from her husband, and the feelings of estrangement from her children that seem to open her up as they go on with their lives:

Was I a good mother to my children? I think I was. Why then did they move away? p67

And out of this we accept and forgive Jessica. Had we only had access to the facts of the story – lonely carer takes advantage of a patient overcome with sadness for the loss of her life due to mental illness, and engages in physical intimacy – we might judge and condemn Jessica. Enormous credit goes to Jane Jervis-Read for enveloping the facts in a beautiful story that leads us to understand and forgive the characters.

When Eloise sobbed that guttural sob I recognised my own voice in her throat. I recognised the sobs of my children, of my mother too. I remembered my mother weeping when my father died and how I had held her. Eloise clutched at me and pulled me in through the blankets. She cried in my arm. p53

Midnight Blue and Endlessly Tall is a beautifully written, honest and elegant tale of longing and loneliness; it turns the light on what a person will allow themselves to do to abate and caress those feelings and it tackles the questions around crossing ethical lines. Set in the university area around Carlton, Melbourne. I highly recommend you take on this novella and see how you fare.

Jane Jervis-Read and Alice Grundy from Seizure talk about her novel and novellas in general in a great audio interview here

You can purchase Jane’s book here.

Passages of Writing: At Swim-two-birds by Flann O’brien.

Book: At Swim-two-birds, Flann O’brien. First pub. 1939. This ed.Penguin Modern Classics 2001.

Why:  This is one of my all time favourite books, as with all books it’s not to everyone’s taste. I’m reading it for the second time as I always promised myself I would.

It’s the pacing and rhythm, the unique details in aid of the ‘show don’t tell’ rule, the many stories in one  (meta-fictional aspect) and as the book goes on the bizare happenings like the characters of a story who revolt against the author, that get me.

Three fifties of fosterlings could engage with handball against the wideness of his backside, which was large enough to halt the march of men through a mountain pass.

p9

I know the studying you do in your bedroom, said my uncle. Damn the studying you do in your bedroom.

I denied this.

Nature of denial: Inarticulate, of gesture.

p11

I closed my eyes, hurting slightly my right stye, and retired into the kingdom of my mind. For a time there was complete darkness and an absence of movement on the part of the cerebral mechanism.

13

There was nothing unusual in the appearance of Mr. John Furriskey but actually he had one distinction that is rarely encountered – he was born at the age of twenty-five and entered the world with a memory but without a personal experience to account for it. His teeth were well-formed but stained by tobacco, with two molars filled and a cavity threatened in the left canine.

p9

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