3 Exercises to Uncover Your Personal Life Theme

What the heck is a “personal life theme”? And why, you may ask, would I want to uncover mine? (Do note that this exercise is a bit of personal therapy.)

Aside from the general importance of self-knowledge, for a writer, understanding our life theme can guide us in choosing which books to write and how to write them. I’ve explored this before, but here’s another look at this important technique.

We all want to write books that resonate at a deep emotional level. Uncovering your personal life theme will almost certainly help you reach that level and provide the key to your next best book.

Let’s Define Personal Life Theme

We all (not only our characters) have a backstory. We all carry some baggage from our childhoods, informed by experiences we mostly would like to forget. These experiences may haunt us in the form of a wound, and Lisa Cron in STORY GENIUS has taken those human wounding experiences to character development in the form of a backstory wound. When we uncover our characters’ backstory wounds, we create characters that resonate.

Out of our personal childhood wound, we develop ideologies. For example, someone who has been brought up in a household where parents are absent physically or emotionally might deal with fears of abandonment. Someone who experienced death of a loved one at an early age may deal with fears of death and dying.

Using these ideologies in our characters creates rich characters. But finding our personal ideology – our “life theme” – will enrich all our story-crafting.

If your personal life theme involves “abandonment”, you can use that theme in different ways in each story you craft, whether it be in a story like THE RUNAWAY BUNNY or one like PAX, and it will resonate at a deep subconscious level to produce more deeply emotional stories.

3 Exercises

This exercise can be difficult and may open old wounds so please practice self-care as you delve in.

  1. In a meditative way, take yourself back to age 12. Think of a specific incident or emotional condition that you experienced or felt at that age.
  2. Write a letter to your 12-year-old self from where you are now, letting that self know that everything will be all right, and you are there to protect them.
  3. Take a break, and then come back to the triggering emotions you dealt with at that age in that moment. Those emotions will combine to show you your personal life theme.

Give yourself some peace and comfort. You’ve exposed a wound. But you’ve also given yourself a gift of self-knowledge that may guide you toward richer story-telling.

I’ll cover craft techniques like this and more in my upcoming Masterclass on Writing the Middle Grade Novel. If you are interested in learning more without committing, hit the button below.

Please keep me informed about your Masterclass!

What Brings You Joy?

For both writers, and teachers of writers, on the subject of “what do we write about and why”…

I have a wonderful coaching client, who has recently finished her first novel (a fantastic and emotionally moving story, beautifully told, about a middle school girl recovering from grief). We were talking about what she would write next, and she said, “Well, I have this thing I wrote that’s really different.”

I said, “Send me the first 30 pages.”

The pages were really, really different. Very funny, very well-written, kind of oddball, a mystery, and in a niche I won’t go into for reasons of client privilege. They were not at all like the novel she’d just finished.

My first concern was that as a debut author, readers may expect more of the same from her. My second concern was whether there was a market for this story, as it is so out of the box.

Writing To Please the Crowd

We had a conversation, this client and I, and I gave her my concerns, and asked her to think about them for a few days. And then think about any ideas she might also have that were more in line with her first book, because I knew from experience that it is hard to swerve away from one genre into another.

I’ve swerved, more than once, some times more successfully than others. My first three novels were historical YA. When I swerved into middle grade fantasy, I lost my then agent who wanted more of the same.

When I wrote my first picture book, it was hard to sell because I was known as a novelist.

When I wrote my most recent novel, Carry Me Home, it sold right away, but hasn’t found its audience because it’s contemporary and about a tough topic, and I’m known best for spooky fantasy.

I’m sure my current agent would also like more of the same, more successful middle grade fantasy books. I’m sure my readers would like more of them, too. But I’ve tried to write to please the crowd, and that doesn’t work at all.

“It Brings Me Joy”

When we write to please someone other than ourselves we write from an inauthentic place. I’ve written here before about being authentic, and I really believe that this is the key to writing great books. It’s not about the concept, or the genre, or even the smooth execution. It’s about the emotional well from which we draw ideas that are truly meaningful to us. Maybe this is what is actually meant by “write what you know”, except it’s not about what you know but what you feel.

My client gave it a few days and said she couldn’t come up with anything else she’d rather write about. She wants to work on this odd story “because it gives me joy.”

That was enough for me to say to her, “Then I’m all in.”

Write From a Place of Joy

Success in writing doesn’t always come in the form of numbers – books sold, books acquired – but in the form of what brings you joy. I still truly believe in Carry Me Home and am deeply proud of it, and have to trust that it will one day find its audience. That book, written with pure intent on a tough topic, brings me joy because I said what was in my heart.

I think that when we write, or when we teach or coach writing, we need to honor our own or the writer’s intentions and emotions and encourage ourselves and them to write from a place of joy.

So, I encourage you writers – and you teachers of writing – to ask yourselves or your students, “What brings you joy?”

I’d love to hear your answers to that question.

Interested in working on book coaching with me?

4 Ways To Make Reader/Character Connections

As Lisa Cron says in her terrific craft book Story Genius, our brains are wired for connection. People need other people; readers need characters. When we read, we are looking to make a deep emotional connection with the main character of a story.

Here are four ways – dos and don’ts – to ensure that your character makes that reader connection.

And as a reminder, if you like craft ideas like this one, sometime this spring I’ll be launching a Masterclass in Writing the Middle Grade Novel with lots of exercises and lectures. If you’re interested in learning more, click the button.

Keep Me Informed About Your Masterclass!

The Four Character Connections

  1. Do understand your main character’s desires, both internal and external.

Your main character must have an external story goal that comprises the basis for your plot. And they must have an internal story arc – a long-held, often buried, desire – that drives them emotionally through the hurdles created by the external arc. Your reader wants to know what drives your character as this lets them become emotionally involved in the character’s actions.

  1. Do make your main character active.

Your main character must be actively engaged in driving the external arc. In the first half of the story your character makes mistake after mistake, pushing against the obstacles. Around the midpoint, your main character may have a revelation which shows them the way forward, as they learn how to tackle the obstacles correctly. Your reader attaches to both the flaws/mistakes, and then to the successes of the character.

  1. Do create a backstory for your character.

This backstory is crucial to a successful character that has emotional resonance for your reader. Cron in particular emphasizes knowing the wounding event in a character’s backstory, one that drives their inability to act appropriately. Your character had a life before they stepped onto page one of your book – make sure you know what that life was like, and what event or events wounded them. Your reader will have a backstory wound; we all have one or more. We attach to characters who are wounded as well, even when we don’t precisely know what that event was.

  1. Don’t (unless you are N.K. Jemisin) create more than one main character.

This is not to say not to use multiple points of view. It just means that your reader must attach on page one to one character, and will want to follow that character throughout. Unless you have mastered epic fantasy or science fiction (and few of us will ever) stick to only one main character with one internal and external arc.

Don’t forget to let me know you might be interested in my Masterclass, and in the meantime please let me know what craft tips you’d like to hear about here.


Keep Me Informed About Your Masterclass!

8 Killer Character Questions

By that, I don’t mean your character needs to be a killer. But – what, you writers may ask, is the most important task to tackle while writing?

I’m a firm believer that without a great character, your novel will be…lost. The best plot, the most exciting premise, the most challenging adventure is nothing without a great character.

As humans we connect with others through emotion. In novels, that emotional connection comes from good character development. Here are 8 questions to ask so that you can craft stronger characters.

By the way, later this year I’m opening an online Masterclass on writing the middle grade novel. Stay informed with no commitment!

I’m interested in your Masterclass!

Whose story is this?

You need to know who your protagonist is first and foremost. And you need to know what they want, what they need, their primary flaw, etc. Here are the questions to answer:

  1. What is your character’s external desire?
  2. What does your character really want, but is buried in their subconscious – their internal lack?
  3. What does your character need in order to satisfy that internal lack or need?
  4. What is their greatest flaw, or personal weakness?
  5. What is the worst thing that can happen if your character doesn’t get what they desire, externally?
  6. What is the worst thing that can happen if your character isn’t able to satisfy their internal need?
  7. What is standing in the way of the external desire/goal?
  8. What is standing in the way of the internal lack/need?

And By Example: Harry Potter

  1. Harry Potter’s external desire is to be safe from Voldemort.
  2. His internal lack is for a family (note that before the story starts, he assumes he was abandoned. Abandonment is a huge issue generally and certainly is for Harry.)
  3. To satisfy his need for family, he has to uncover his true past and adopt the family he finds through the wizarding world.
  4. His greatest flaw is that he acts impulsively, out of a sense of aggrievement. 
  5. The worst thing that can happen externally is Voldemort kills him.
  6. The worst thing that can happen to Harry if he doesn’t find his “family” is that he is really, truly alone.
  7. Voldemort is his antagonist.
  8. Harry’s frequent impulsivity threatens his ability to keep his friends close. (He may also have trust issues stemming from his abandonment.)

Most Important Question – #2

Note that the issue of abandonment stems from Harry’s initial ignorance of his past. He doesn’t know that he comes from the wizarding world. He has no idea how he got his scar, or why strange things happen to him, or why he is living in such an abusive situation with a family who is both afraid of him and dislikes him. As you work through these questions, try to find an issue that has scope – like abandonment – and that asks deep psychological questions.

I’ll be addressing this more deeply in my next post.

More To Come

I’m planning a series of posts throughout 2022 with writing exercises like these. If you like this kind of work, keep in touch as sometime later this year I’ll be launching an online Masterclass: Writing the Middle Grade Novel, From the Ground Up. If you want more information (without committing) about this course, let me know here.

I’m interested in your Masterclass!

Happiest of Holidays!

Here in Fox land we are taking time off. My family and I are enjoying the first winter snows, and reflecting on what a couple of years it has been. We hope you stay well and safe.

In the new year I’ll be back. I plan more posts on craft than ever. And more for teachers and parents and readers, too. I you would like anything addressed in particular, please comment!

Cheers to all…

5 Books To Gift to Your Favorite Writer 

‘Tis the season…to find the perfect gift. And what better thing to buy for your favorite writer than a writing-related book that will help them on their journey? 

Here are my recommendations for books available widely, on Amazon, Bookshop(you’ll find each of these titles at this link, with the exception of Create, which you’ll find here), or your favorite local indie bookseller: 

 5 Writing Books

  1. Blueprint For a Book, Jennie Nash. This new mini-bible is a start-to-finish guide to writing your best book. Perfect for the new writer, it’s also highly recommended for the experienced writer, as Jennie walks the author through creating an Inside Outline for a novel. The I/O teaches the writer how to craft a story that uses cause and effect, and if your favorite author has ever written a novel that doesn’t use this technique, you’ll know how much they need this book.
  2. Writing Fiction, 10th Edition, Janet Burroway & Ned Stuckey-French. Because this book is big and a little pricier than some, you’ll want to gift it for sure. It’s an MFA in Writing, between the covers.With detailed examples and numerous exercises, I recommend this to all truly aspiring writers. Plus, it will keep them occupied through those cold winter nights.
  3. Create, Meera Kothand. As you know (ha!) I keep this blog active mainlybecause I love connecting with all of you. It’s not a source of income but a way to share some of the stuff I’ve learned over the years I’ve been involved in publishing. But maintaining the pace of blogging without repetition and with enthusiasm is taxing. Enter this workbook. It’s a planner, it’s a brainstorming book, it’s a way to keep track. If your favorite writer blogs – or even if they want to plan their year in some way towards marketing and advancing their career, this is a great addition to your gift stack.
  4. Marketing For Writers Who Hate Marketing, James Scott Bell. This is my new favorite read for the writers I coach or talk to who are ready to submit. Not craft, no, but a useful tome to address all those issues around the processes of submitting and publishing. It’s especially useful for the self-pubbed or indie author but I found it useful for those of us in mid list traditional publishing. We all must learn how to market – that’s just a fact. And the small tips and tidbits herein are  Consider: a writer, no matter how published, needs to cultivate an email list. This list allows your favorite writer to announce their new book to an audience already primed to read it. Gift them this one and they’ll love you for it.
  5. Story Genius, Lisa Cron. Yes, I put this on all my top # craft books lists. If your favorite writer has not yet succumbed to buying it, you can. I’m a fanatic for understanding brain science, and Lisa makes clear that it is the reader’s connection with the writer’s brain through the character’s emotions that ties us to story. Once your writer has read this one, they will craft stronger stories for sure.

Have a happy holiday with writerly joy!


Kindness in Action

Just a short post-Thanksgiving post…

I spent a part of Small Business Saturday at a charming indie bookstore – Wheatgrass Books – in Livingston, Montana (fictional setting for Carry Me Home), where kids doing community service work were busy making origami paper cranes. They were part of a donation event to send Blessing Bags with handwarmers, toothpaste, toothbrushes, etc. to the town’s Warming Center. The cranes are to go with the Bags.

Here’s a pic of the kids hard at work:


This was such a wonderful thing for me to witness, as these kids gave up part of a Saturday to consider an aspect of homelessness and the small things we can do.

And this morning I was delighted to be recording a podcast with Jed Doherty on Reading With Your Kids. Jed is thoughtful and generous, and I loved our discussion of Carry Me Home. He’s posting the podcast on December 23rd, as he thinks it is appropriate for the season. I’ll be sure and share the link.

Be well and try to enjoy this season of sharing, community, family, and joy.

Three Ways to Honor the Season

Saturday November 13th was “World Kindness Day”. It seems awfully narrow (to me, anyway) to confine kindness to a single day. I would love it if we’d at least acknowledge the season of Thanksgiving as the season of giving kindness and joy. And heaven knows we could use a lot of both in our lives.

Whether you are a teacher, librarian, or parent, I know you are looking for ways to engender generosity of spirit, kindness, and compassion in the children around you. I do think these values can be taught. I’m quietly hopeful that my book CARRY ME HOME can inspire every reader to think about those less fortunate.

Some Suggestions

Here are a few suggestions for carrying kindness forward, and modeling generosity.

#1 Often we are hesitant to speak up about issues but a well-worded “letter to the editor” of your local newspaper can go a long way to raising awareness. Homelessness and hunger are on the rise, and those who suffer them are often voiceless. We can lift our voices on their behalf. Suggest ways that your community can come together around these issues, or at least open a discussion and acknowledge that homelessness exists. Help your older students write such a letter – it’s an excellent exercise in the persuasive essay.

#2 As a creative artist, I think a lot about the different ways we can be creative and also be generous to others. Here are a couple of things you or your kids could do, depending on your skills and interests:

  • Knit hats or socks or scarves (scarves are super easy to knit) for warming shelters. Last year I noticed that a lot of knitters had left hats in places like the public library for anyone who needed one to pick up.
  • Create a work of art, write a song, choreograph a dance that encompasses the notion of community. Share with your class.
  • Create “Blessing Bags” with your church or other group and have kids donate them to a warming center.

#3 Children learn by example, and donating either goods or time to a food bank is an excellent way to model generosity. Many food banks run drives at this time of year. Get kids involved in collecting and distributing.

And Around the Thanksgiving Table…

Finally, open conversation at the Thanksgiving table by not only giving thanks for those things that we are blessed to have, but also by taking a moment to recognize that others might not be so lucky. Ask, what can we do to help?

Let’s make 2022 the World Kindness Year.

Please share your ideas for giving back, and/or fostering compassion and kindness. With my deepest thanks to all of you, my readers and followers.

Video Interview: For Fun

Just a note – the next couple of weeks are busy with events so I won’t be bothering you! But…I did a livestream interview with 3 of my Spooky Middle Grade friends and it was SO much fun.

You can catch the video here (sorry, I can’t embed) and it will tell you a lot about CARRY ME HOME, what it means to me, and how I wrote it. I thought the questions were amazing.

Enjoy, and I’ll see you again soon!

BOOdles of Fun

Yes, I know – Halloween is over. But it does feel like this Halloween was even more of a needed treat than usual, doesn’t it?

As a member of the Spooky Middle Grade authors group, I believe that kids love spooky books for good reason: learning how to be scared of things when you can control them (like knowing that this scary thing is inside a story inside a book) helps kids deal with the scary things they can’t control. Golly, we all need that. (Invisible virus, anyone?)

As a part of this group, we recently recorded a group-written short story for Halloween, which you can listen to here, on the Reading with Your Kids podcast.

A Writing Exercise for All Ages

This brought up the point, made by the podcast host, Jed Doherty, that group-written stories are a super fun writing exercise for all adults as well as kids. Here’s how ours worked:

Jed suggested we write about a kid who was “having problems with AI” (artificial intelligence). Each author was to write one page and pass it along to the next author to write the next page, and so on. The eight of us had a ton of fun coming up with the weird ideas that developed in the story.

Other Spooky Treats

I’ve recently been reading about the origins of Halloween, or as the Celts called it, Samhain. The festival of Samhain was held at the cusp of the year when the veil thinned between the living and the dead – and between light (summer) and darkness (winter). Dead ancestors were invited to partake in gifts of food.

Since I’ve written about so-called “thin places” before, I find this mythology fascinating – you can bet I’ll use it in a future book.

Finally, one of my favorite things to do when I taught was to take a few days of class to read aloud to my students. And yes – this was the 8th grade, but everyone loves to be read to, right? The year I read The Legend of Sleepy Hollow was one I’ll never forget.

You can find a lot of spooky books, ours and recommended, here.

What are your favorite things about Halloween?