Tuesday, October 21, 2008

Writing a Novel: Theme

Theme reminds me of literature classes and discussions about what certain authors meant. I wonder if those authors would agree with the meanings ascribed to their works, or if they are laughing in their graves at our foolishness.

It’s bad enough saddling classics with themes, but I have never seen the purpose of theme as it pertains fiction today. I mean, who cares? When you read Grisham or King or Cornwell, do you stop and ask yourself what the theme is? Of course not. No agent or editor who considered handling one of my books ever asked me my theme, so I have to assume they don’t care either.

Yet all the writing experts tell us we must establish a theme before we begin writing our novels.
Themes usually sound clich├ęd or silly, like “Murder doesn’t pay,” the basic theme of most murder mysteries, or “Love conquers all,” the basic theme of most romances. To a certain extent, all novels have the same underlying theme: “Who are we individually and collectively?”

Good fiction brings us closer to knowing the truth about ourselves, our place in the universe, and how we relate to others, but as a theme, it is so broad as to be almost worthless.

Although I’ve never had any use for themes, I decided to do something different and establish one for my current work in progress, a take-off on apocalyptic novels. Turns out it was simple.

All I had to do was look at the character sketch I created for the story, and I found this: “He will be forced to decide how much of his freedom he is willing to give up for safety, and how much of his safety he is willing to give up for his freedom.” Sounds like a theme to me. (And an unexpected use of my character sketch.)

Now that I have a theme, what do I do with it? When I need to figure out what my hero will do, I can refer to the theme to help me understand what he wants, what his motivations are. If I need a subplot, I can choose one that will enhance the theme. I can give relationships, especially minor ones, a greater significance by keying them into the theme. I can use it to give scenes and dialogue relevance beyond the immediate. Best of all, if the theme does what it is supposed to, it will give the story an underlying structure and resonance it would not otherwise have.

Maybe those dead writers are not laughing in their graves after all. Maybe they are high-fiving each other because we got what they were trying to say.

Monday, October 20, 2008

Writing Hurts

I started writing again a couple of weeks ago. After a year of tweaking my finished novels, entering contests, critiquing and being critiqued, I wasn't certain I'd ever be able to get back into writing again. But, according to Suzanne Francis, author of Heart of Hythea: "Writing is like riding a bike. When you fall off it hurts . . . No. Wait! I meant - you never forget how to do it!"

She is correct on both accounts. I didn't forget how to do it, and it hurts.

Writing is painful for me. I have a hard time getting the words to say what I mean; they always seem to come up short. That first night I spent four hours writing; the next morning I chucked it all in the trash. I know I'm not supposed to do it that way. All the books on writing say that it is important to get the book out of one's head and onto paper or into the computer before doing any editing, but I need to know where I am coming from and where I am going. For me, a good or at least an adequate beginning is necessary. So last night I rewrote the beginning. Not great, but it will do for now.

And I remembered why I write, despite how painful it is. I love the planning, the figuring out, the tweaking. I love having a character take up residence in my head, having it become real to me. I love creating a new world, even if - especially if - it is simply a reflection of the world that exists outside my window. I love finding the perfect word. I love having it all come together into a cohesive whole.

So now I have a reason to write. I have the beginning of my new novel. And, although I have not yet written it, I have the ending. Now I just need to figure out how to get from here to there.

I can hardly wait to see how I manage that!

Tuesday, October 14, 2008

Interesting Characters Make Interesting Stories

Interesting characters make interesting stories, not the other way around. Cardboard cutouts and comic book heroes serve the needs of many popular books today, but I want more than that for my current work. A tongue-in-cheek apocalyptic novel, it could easily dissolve into foolishness without a well-developed character to give it credibility. During my last few posts, I have been profiling this character, but he is still not fleshed out. He needs physical characteristics, though not all characters are defined by the way they look. If I remember correctly, Mark Twain never described Huckleberry Finn.

Does it matter what my character looks like? I won’t know for sure until I start writing the book, but I doubt it. He is an ordinary guy who becomes extraordinary because of all he endures. Now that I think about it, that is the basic plot of all of my books, and one I never get tired of reading or writing. I realize that to sell in this tight market, a book has to immediately capture the attention of an agent, an editor, a reader, and to do that you need more than an average guy. But I am so tired of reading about gutsy females, stone-cold business executives, leftover war heroes, beaten-down cops, bitchy/successful/beautiful/rich women, muscle-bound gunslingers, that an average guy suits me and my story just fine.

My main characters all tend to be stoic, which make them seem unbelievable or standoffish. Most people like to experience emotions vicariously, and if characters react stoically, it makes it hard for readers to identify with them. So I need a character tag: a habit or trait that helps Chip stand out from the page. It’s a simple thing, but I decided he likes candy — not just any candy, but something specific like licorice or butterscotch. He always carries a few pieces with him, and then one day not long after the world ends, he reaches into his pocket for a candy that isn’t there. This, more than anything else he has experienced, tells him that the world he knew is gone, and his stoicism slips. Does he cry? Scream? Have a temper tantrum? Throw things?

I don’t know. I guess we’ll find out after I write the book.

Friday, October 10, 2008

A Great Way to Profile a Character

The Luscher color test is a great way to profie a character. To see wat color would say about Chip, the hero of my work in progress, I took the test at http://www.colorquiz.com/.

I know enough about Chip and about colors to figure out what his choices might be. Green signifies a stable and balanced character, so that was Chip’s first choice. Blue, signifying tranquility, was his second. Brown, signifying a down-to-earth character was his third. Gray, signifying a preference for a safe, secure and balanced existence was next. Magenta, orange, and yellow were a toss-up since he didn’t particularly care for any of them, and black, signifying negativity, was his last choice.

This was the result of the test:

His Existing Situation: Uneasy and insecure in the existing situation. Needs greater security and a more affectionate environment, or a situation imposing less physical strain.

His Stress Sources: Wishes to be independent, unhampered, and free from any limitation or restriction, other than those which he imposes of himself or by his own choice and decision.

His Restrained Characteristics: Egocentric (self-conscious) and therefore quick to take offense. Wants to broaden his fields of activity and insists that his hopes and ideas are realistic. Distressed by the fear that he may be prevented from doing what he wants; needs both peaceful conditions and quiet reassurance to restore his confidence.

His Desired Objective: Needs a peaceful environment. Wants release from stress, and freedom from conflicts or disagreement. Takes pains to control the situation and its problems by proceeding cautiously. Has sensitivity of feeling and a fine eye for detail.

His Actual Problem: Does not wish to be involved in differences of opinion, contention or argument, preferring to be left in peace.

If you have been following Chip’s development, you can see that this is an interesting and accurate profile. I might have all of my characters take it, especially the minor characters who don’t need a full character sketch. Feel free to do the same.

Tuesday, October 7, 2008

Profiling a Character

To be real, a character must have strengths and weaknesses. I have been creating a profile for Chip, the hero of my work in progress, and I know some of his strengths: he is independent, can cope with adversity, has high ethical standards. The only weakness I know about so far is that he is distrustful of women, which women see as a failure to commit.

Strengths and weaknesses are arbitrary. Independence can become an inability to depend on others, an ability to cope can be seen as indifference, high ethical standards can become intransigency. Which is great for the book: the resulting misunderstandings can cause conflicts among characters and the plot or subplots to thicken.

I can already see that Chip’s high ethical standards and principles will be a driving force in the story. He is a vegetarian and an animal lover who will be forced to kill to feed those dependent on him. His independence, exemplified by a need for freedom, is also at stake. He will be forced to decide how much of his freedom he is willing to give up for safety, and how much of his safety he is willing to give up for freedom.

So far, I haven’t been able to come up with a special strength or weakness that would set Chip apart from any other character, but since plot and character are so closely related, this may not be a bad thing. It does no good to assign a special strength or weakness to a character if it is not going to be tested during the story, and I don’t want to Chip to be constrained by a particular trait before he even begins his adventures. If he needs a special strength, I will write it in when necessary. The great thing about writing is that we are not stuck with what is past. We can always go back and recreate it to answer present needs.

Wouldn’t it be interesting if life outside the pages of our novels worked that way?

Character questionaire to help you profile your character

Wednesday, October 1, 2008

Declaring October as My Novel Writing Month

Chip, the hero in my WIP (work-in-pause) has been running from a volcano for several months now while I spend my words writing articles and commenting on other people’s articles. Poor Chip is getting pooped. (Does anyone use pooped any more to mean tired? Or am I dating myself?)

November is NaNoWriMo (National Novel Writing Month); aspiring writers from all over the world pledge to write a 50,000-word novel or add 50,000 words to an existing work during those thirty days. (Had to say that silly little grade school rhyme -- thirty days has September, etc., to get the number of days correct.) I planned on doing NaNoWriMo this year to get me focused on my novel again, but then I realized if I wait another month to start, I would find other ways to procrastinate, such as promoting my books. (More Deaths Than One and A Spark of Heavenly Fire are going to be published in November.)

So, I am declaring October MyNoWriMo (My Novel Writing Month). I’ve never been able to write 1,000 words in a day let alone the 1,670 words I’d need to write to achieve my goal, but apparently the point is to let the words flow without censoring oneself, and that is what I want to learn how to do. I’m one who edits as I go, and that does tend to cut the output.

I tried to get a head start last night (I already know that I won’t be writing on Thursday because that’s when I have my live writing discussion at No Whine, Just Champagne on Gather.com and I wanted to make up for it), but I fell asleep. Makes me wonder how I ever managed to write and rewrite and edit and re-edit four novels!

Let’s hope my falling asleep isn’t a sign of things to come.

I’ll let you know what happens.

(Could I have used more parentheses?)