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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Clunky sentences? Read that stuff out loud. Writer’s Diary: 2

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The last thing I do before moving on to the next chapter to edit, is read that thing out loud — shut the door and say it loud! — It’s a piece of advice people give you but you never do, right? I started doing it b/c the couple of times I’ve had to record a short story for radio and podcasts, I found that in the act of doing so I picked up so many clunky phrases or yucky sentences. And it’s especially helpful if you’re a fan of sentences that have rhythm and feel good and are nice to listen to. After reading my stories for said radio/podcast I actually changed a lot of words and had to resubmit the written story. If you imagine, while reading, that it is for radio and therefore u need to pronounce clearly, it really hones in on those ugly words – and you never know when, in the future, you might have to read that out loud to someone, so best fix that shit now.

Writer’s Diary: 1

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(Apologies for the repost, I’m changing my theme and rearranging my blog.)

THE process an author goes through is detailed and individual. In Writer’s Diary I will dip in and note what it is that I do to create my current novel. The posts will be short and to the point, and, on the topic of writing, only. I hope it is useful to both you and me!

I’m currently working my way through a draft of ABSENCE. It’s something like the fifth or sixth draft. (when I think about it, it’s a lot more than that!) As I deleted approximately 50,000w in the last draft the MS was down to about 40k, but the essence of the story is now very clear and tight. So now I’m working my way through and expanding every idea in each chapter. I’m also working backward from C60 back to C1 so that I give every attention to the individual chapters rather than getting lost in the entire story. It’s now back up to just over 63k and I’m at C28.

The more you know…The Author-Narrator-Character Merge

 

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I’m in my happy place when I’m with a good book on writerly devices, and I love to experiment with what I have learnt and attempt to incorporate that into whatever I’m working on, just for the fun of it, but there is a downside to this, I can’t unknow things that I have learnt. I can’t write and ignore great advice, can I?

I recently read The Author-Narrator-Character Merge: Why Many First-Time Novelists Wind Up With Flat, Uninteresting Protagonists, an essay by Frederick Reiken. I definitely don’t feel like I have an uninteresting protagonist in The Neighbour, after all, people either love him or hate him, no in between, but it’s an element of writing that I don’t think I have thought about.

Reiken states that a writer will often fail to distinguish between, and keep separate, the author, the narrator, and the protagonist.

Understanding this separation is easier with first person narrative, there is the author, there is the narrator who is a character separate from the author, and there are characters in the story. In regard to third person narratives it becomes more complex. Reiken refers to psychic distance between a narrator and character- an idea put forward first by John Gardener. The division between author, narrator, and character is much more complex and there you get more into an author’s own style and the varying degrees of psychic distance, the idea of which requires more space and thought than I can dedicate here, but I urge you to seek out this article and give it a close read. Perhaps I might tease it out in another post soon.

I’m pleased to say (if you’ve read The Neighbour you’ll understand why I’m pleased :)) that I went to great lengths, many many drafts, to create a character that had nothing of me, the author, in him and the style is more what is called Free Indirect Discourse. Free Indirect Discourse has the narrator reporting the thoughts and dialogue of the character. The narrator reports all that the character does, sees and feels almost as if the narrator is the character, except she is still that third person. I feel this style gives the reader more access to the thoughts and feelings of the character and is a more engaging read.

If you are a fan of writing this way you are in good company, James Joyce, Virginia Woolf and Jane Austen were all fans of Free Indirect Discourse. But this idea of the Author-Narrator-Character Merge is an element of writing that will forever be on my mind when I’m writing, I can’t unknow it!

Shatter it with mammary power: writing with intelligence and wit.

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I recently finished reading Written on the Body by Jeanette Winterson. It’s so good to read intelligence and wit bound in one place. In the middle of a breakup scene, she is funny, descriptive, uncomfortable and sad:

I nodded, twisting the cake fork between my fingers, pushing my knees against the underside of the doll’s house table. Nothing was in proportion. My voice seemed too loud, Jacqueline too small, the woman serving donuts with mechanical efficiency parked her bosom on the glass counter and threatened to shatter it with mammary power. How she would skittle the chocolate eclairs and with a single plop drown her unwary customers in mock cream. My mother always said I’d come to a sticky end.

Truman Capote’s Violets

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Snatching her hand, he pulled her along with him, and they ran until they reached a side street muffled and sweet with trees. As they leaned together, panting, he put into her hand a bunch of violets, and she knew, quite as though she’d seen it done, that they were stolen. Summer that is shade and moss traced itself in the veins of the violet leaves, and she crushed their coolness against her check. (p.81)

I have recently written about violets, and violets that have poignant reason for being in the book, and this little violet moment in Truman Capote’s Summer Crossing is a reminder that I have missed an opportunity to slow the moment down, and bring attention to what is going on in the minds of characters – I think I might now go back to it and go a little deeper.

Up until these sentences quoted below from the book, there has been mostly action and words that move the story on, and then suddenly there are these descriptive sentences, waxing and waning and slowing down, and you just know that there is something coming, a point in the book in which everything changes, and sure enough it does. With one short sentence (that I haven’t copied here) the lives of the characters change, and without all this slowing down and going deeper that comes just prior, I think the reader would feel like it had all come way too suddenly. As it is, it’s a lovely sliding into the moment, the reader eases into it, and then, there it is, the moment we waited for. ‘…heat’s stale breath yawned in their faces…’ too good.

It was wilting out on Lexington Avenue, and especially so since they’d just left an air-conditioned theatre; with every step heat’s stale breath yawned in their faces. Starless nightfall closed down like a coffin lid, and the avenue, with its newsstands of disaster and flickering, fly buzz sounds of neon, seemed an elongated, stagnant corpse.

A roar from underground echoed through her, for she was standing on top of a subway grating: deep in the hollows below she could hear a screeching of iron wheels, and then, nearer by, there came a fiercer noise: car horns clashed, fenders bumped, tires careened! And she whirled around to see a driver cursing Clyde, who was jayhopping across the street as fast as his legs would go. (p.80)

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