Theme, or More To the Point

Confession: I think theme is the hardest thing to define when writing a story.

Often I don’t know the true story theme until I’m well into revision. What’s that you say? How can I write a novel without knowing what I’m writing about?

Great question.

Starting With Character

Honestly, I think all great stories are about the main character, their external and internal arcs, their emotional trajectory in particular (for more on that, see this post). Without seeing emotion on the page, without an understanding of what the character wants and how they set about getting it, most of us will not read on.

But every story must have a point, and as the author it’s incumbent upon me to find it, define it, and make it clear.pencil point

A few weeks ago I talked about the “Beat Sheet” in Save The Cat. Number 2 on the Beat Sheet list is “theme stated”, and it occurs on page 5 of a screenplay, which equates roughly to page 10-15 of a novel. So, if I don’t know what my story is about, how can I place that all-important theme or point on the page?

The good news is, that can come with revision. The bad news is – it must be found.

Defining the Point

I will need to know what I’m trying to say when I write a new novel, but for me, for my process, that often means getting something on the page first. Many (not all) of my ideas come from an image or a scene that pops into my head and resonates. A lot of those images arise from my subconscious and usually that means in dreams. That was true for The Charmed Children of Rookskill Castle, which was formed around the image of the chatelaine, and children in magical jeopardy during World War 2. It wasn’t until I was well into writing that I recognized the theme, which is “The power is within you”.

And I will say this: themes can usually be expressed very simply, and often by cliché – such as “There’s no place like home”, or “You can’t judge a book by its cover”.

My newest work in progress just gained its theme, which is “Be the one who stands in the way of evil.” I found it while trying to summarize the story in a short 50 word paragraph (as in book jacket content) – a great exercise I highly recommend.

Hopefully you’ll be able to judge for yourself whether I’ve made that point.

How about you? When and how do you discover your story’s theme?

Dystopia or Utopia?

Today in the news: I heard an interesting report about a gene editing technique that has allowed scientists to alter retinal cells in nearly blind volunteers, with the hope that those altered cells will reverse the genetically induced blindness.

Like you are probably thinking now, I thought, wow. Cool. A little freaky, but cool.

A few weeks ago I had my second Pfizer vaccine jab for Covid-19, which uses an mRNA gene to create antibodies to the virus, and has been shown to be over 90% effective in preventing the disease.

The Dystopian Idea

Gene altering technology is both fascinating and frightening, especially if you have an active imagination. At its best, this technology could reduce or eliminate genetically and environmentally induced illnesses. At its worst, we can imagine using gene editing for socially destructive purposes (eliminating “certain types” of genes that are “undesirable”, for example.)ARK book cover

Several years ago I wrote a YA science fiction novel about using nanotechnology to serve a similar purpose. It was super fun to write, and I decided to simply launch it on Amazon myself, since it was slightly out of my usual genre. You can find it here. While nanotech and mRNA tech are quite different, they both operate at microscopic levels. We can’t see it with the naked eye; could it be safe?

The thing is, we humans can imagine both the worst and the best outcomes of scientific breakthroughs, because we’ve seen other humans act at both extremes. But as a former scientist, married to a scientist, I truly believe that science used responsibly will save us. Take the Covid vaccine as an example, and its mRNA technology.

The Scientific Imagination

From an article in The Atlantic: “For more than 40 years, synthetic RNA couldn’t do anything useful. In 1978, Katalin Karikó was a young scientist at the Biological Research Centre in Szeged, Hungary, when she started working on the idea that it could.” Now that technology may be used to treat malaria, cancer, and multiple sclerosis, in addition to producing a life-saving vaccine against the SARS-Co-V2.

My novel ARK is, yes, dystopian, and explores the ways in which these technologies could be distorted for the worst. But I also tried to weave into the story the ways in which these technologies can save the planet, and us. I believe in science. I also believe that we must be sure it is used with oversight.

Have fun reading my dystopian novel – a pure product of imagination – while celebrating the genius of real-life science used responsibly. And let me know what you think!

A Paper Folding Project For Everyone

In my upcoming novel Carry Me Home (August 24, Simon & Schuster) my main character, Lulu, and her sister Serena and their dad live in a car. When dad disappears Lulu feels the pressure of taking care of herself and Serena, while keeping their predicament hidden.

book cover

Lulu wants her dad to return, and she wants a home, and she had just begun to find her own gifts in a new school with new friends, but things look bleak. When she learns about the Japanese belief that by making 1000 origami paper cranes a wish will come true, Lulu begins to make paper cranes, hoping for any and all of these wishes – for a home, for her dad, for a stable life in their new town – to come true.

Although China, among other cultures, also developed paper folding, it was Japan that took paper folding to the level of an art form and gave it the name “origami”. I discovered origami as a child and fell in love with it. Origami can be tricky, and takes some practice, but it’s also satisfying.

You can make all sorts of animals and objects with origami, and origami kits are available an most indie booksellers.

You can download these instructions that I pulled together from several sources – including photographs of the paper crane I made – to make your own origami crane.

I’d love to see yours if you want to share!

Guest Post: K. MacCabe on John Scalzi’s HEAD ON

When my son (pen name K. MacCabe) was very young, Star Trek, Next Generation was in syndication and playing every night right at dinner prep time. That one-hour show became his thing, and I had the peace and quiet to get ready for the evening.

Little did I know that by doing so I was raising not only a Trekkie but a devoted fan of science fiction.

Today he is my writing buddy, with a serious talent for writing, among other genres, science fiction. He’s currently on track to carve out a career as a writer, and for my part, he is a fantastic second reader and a partner in my coaching business.

I’ve invited him to come on my blog from time to time, and today he wanted to share a book review, so here he is, writing about Head On, by John Scalzi.

A science fiction thriller set in a not-so-distant future, draped in a murder mystery and confronting social issues that add to the depth of the novel overall. The book itself is straightforward in its narrative construction, but that is by no means a weakness. In fact, it uses its simplicity beautifully to tackle social issues in a manner in which sci-fi truly cover

The by-proxy technique that sci-fi is famous for allows Scalzi to discuss subjects of disenfranchisement and prejudice through Hadens, a group of people whose bodies have been damaged beyond repair by an illness that leaves their brains mostly untouched. They connect to our world through Threeps – androids, which they pilot through an internet that we can only dream of having today.

The main character is one such Haden and an FBI agent named Chris Shane, who has a tight relationship with his partner Vann (it is also a source of comic relief many a time). The dynamic adds to the entertainment and pleasure of the read and is one of the strongest points of the novel.

Head On touches on light cyberpunk and science fiction themes, though the extremes of both genres are left by the wayside. The book very much feels like a near future cop procedural that uses its light themology to enhance the elements which Scalzi wishes to discuss within its pages. For those who enjoy procedurals, cyberpunk or science fiction, this book is for you, and it should be a treat to read, even if you did not pick up its predecessor Lock In.

It should be noted, however, the book deals with adult themes such as sex and drugs: though not graphicly and does so with tact. I would not qualify Head On as YA safe, so keep it on the grownup shelf.


Writing Craft: Saving That Darn Cat

The other night I watched a movie I would never have watched, generally speaking. It was the original Fast and Furious. I’m not into cars, or gangs, or racing, or…any of that stuff. But I am into story-telling, and I was curious as to why this movie has spawned a franchise that has lasted even beyond the tragic loss of its main actor. And it led me to saving the cat.*

I’ve done a deep dive into Blake Snyder’s Save the Cat books, both the original and Save the Cat Goes to the Movies.** I’d read the original a long time ago, but have a new appreciation for Snyder’s wisdom, however formulaic it may seem at first blush.

And F&F was the perfect vehicle (ha!) for me to test this. In fact, it was rather exciting to see how well Snyder’s beats work.

Save That Cat

If you haven’t read Save the Cat, Snyder was a screenwriter (also, tragically, no longer with us) who analyzed movies and determined that every good story can be defined by “beats”. He goes way beyond the traditional three-act structure, with 15 separate beats dividing the story line.

While watching F&F, I almost jumped out of my chair when I recognized several of these beats. The Theme was Stated (beat #2) when our young hero Brian claims that he only wants to win “respect”, not money or a car or even the girl. The B Story (beat #7) shows up right on time when Brian woos the girl by taking her to dinner. The All is Lost moment (beat #11) arrives when Brian reveals to the rest of the crew that he’s really an undercover cop, and the theme of respect shows up again in the Finale (beat #14) when Brian races Dominic in a heart-pounding near-death duel, with Brian letting Dominic off the hook for his illegal activities, while Dominic shows his respect for Brian’s integrity.

Now what does this have to do with novel-writing?

You may know that I’m a proponent of a new planning method called the Inside Outline, which I’ve used and taught and coached. While I’m normally a pantser*** when it comes to drafting my novels, the Inside Outline allows me to give a general structure to my nascent story, by developing my own “beats” that are linked by cause and effect.

But I think Snyder was really onto something, even if he applied it only to screenplays, and I will suggest that adding Snyder’s beats to an Inside Outline may help novelists visualize their story. The “beats” of Save the Cat are shorthand for the way all stories are structured, from way back to Aristotle.

Plot Paradigms

Take a look at the novel plot paradigm here. (You can download this as a pdf.) Compare the beats of the plot paradigm to Snyder’s beats and you can see that, really, these are labels for the same crucial moments that must appear in any story. For example, “refusal of the call” = “argument opposed to transformation” = “debate”, right?

A plot paradigm compilation

Let me repeat that thought. The Save the Cat beats are, as are all plot points in all the old paradigms, crucial moments that must appear in any story.

I’ll be using Snyder’s beats as I develop my current work in progress. And I’ll let you know what I discover as I marry the cause and effect structure of the Inside Outline with the beat structure of Save the Cat.

Again, you can find Snyder’s two books here at my Bookshop affiliate link. Let me know if you, too, try using his beats to help structure your stories.

*”Saving the cat” is what Snyder believes a character must do at the beginning of a story in order to be “likable”. Not an actual cat, but a metaphoric cat.

**You can buy copies on Bookshop here; this is an affiliate link that benefits me, but also benefits indie booksellers.

***See more on “pantser” here.

The 1 Superpower All Writers Possess: Authenticity

I’ve been seeing the word “authenticity” everywhere lately. In webinars geared to writers, in blog posts geared to entrepreneurs, in ads for almost anything. (“Try our authentic Mexican food!”) We seem to be craving authenticity.

This isn’t surprising, really, after several years in which rumors, falsehoods, and crazy conspiracy theories dominated the airwaves, and we were all isolated from genuine social interactions.

Like almost everyone I know, except for the fact that it keeps me connected to people, I have strong negative feelings about social media. In particular, I hate thinking that I have to use social media platforms as a way to promote my work. And that every five minutes there’s a new platform that I need to join or must learn how to manipulate. Hey, let’s meet on Clubhouse! Have you made a TikTok video yet? Where’s your Instagram story? And the worst: You don’t have 10,000 followers on x. Sorry, but we’re not interested in you. The problem is, we now have a way to share, share, share, but what, exactly are we sharing?

"authentic" sign

I’ve been thinking about authenticity as it pertains to my work and life, and the writing of those I coach. What is my authentic view of the world and how does it inform the things I do every day – writing, and coaching writers? And how do we accept ourselves as we truly are, and others as they truly are, and can we be authentic without even that becoming a trite cliché?

What Is Success?

I’m a big fan of Dan Blank. He works with artists on promotion and writes often about how to market art with authenticity. In a recent blog post he discussed “that space that I think so many writers and creators get lost: that line between what we create and our identity.” Sometimes we writers feel that we have to write to the market to be successful. That romance is where to break in. That science fiction is too niche. That every YA novel must be dystopian, or feature a teen with hidden powers. Worst of all, that the writing world is some kind of competition, and that to break in means breaking someone else’s dream.

I don’t believe that success depends on following trends. True success comes from following your heart.

I’ve said this before. The best stories dig deep. Our strongest main characters are those who feel the full range of emotions, including those of failure and loss. The most compelling plots are not necessarily full of action but are most definitely full of emotional truth. The only formula for writing a successful book is writing a fully emotionally realized book, because true success in the marketplace can never be guaranteed, but true success for us as writers is when we feel the satisfaction of writing from the heart.

My Coaching Advice

Here’s my free advice to you writers, and to those of you who teach young writers: write what you feel compelled to write. Write what is in your heart. Speak your truth. Write in the genre you love, with characters who feel what you feel most strongly. Don’t worry about the latest fads, about what others are doing, about what might resonate on social media. This doesn’t mean spilling sordid details or revealing private tabloid-style trivia. It does mean giving your readers authentic characters who come alive through your honest representation of fundamental humanity. Oh, and kindness, in your characters and in your approach to your readers, is (as everywhere in life) always advised.

Be authentically you, and your readers will follow.

5 More Favorite Writing Craft Books – The Classics

Last post I featured 5 favorite writing craft books, some old and some quite new. Today I have a pile of classics. Once again, you can order from my Bookshop store through my affiliate link (I do benefit from orders through this link).

Here are five of the best:

  1. Story, by Robert McKee.

Why I love it: Comprehensive, often out-of-the-box, this book is probably on every writer’s bookshelf for the best of reasons. It contains so much information and analyzes so many aspects of storytelling that you could study it for a year.

Caveats: Story began life through the aspects of screenwriting, so sometimes McKee’s advice doesn’t seem quite pertinent to novelists. Nevertheless, highly recommended.

  1. The Writer’s Journey, by Christopher Vogler

Why I love it: If you’ve read Campbell’s classic The Hero’s Journey you already know the archetypes and mythic structures. But Vogler applies Campbell’s sometimes erudite musings to practical applications with great examples.

Caveats: Some authors get so caught up in the archetypes and mythos that they lose sight of their story. Apply this, but not too firmly.

  1. On Writing Well, by William Zinsser

Why I love it: This is an English teacher talking. Plus, my copy belonged to my mom before I inherited it, and her margin notes run through the book. That’s a classic, and nostalgic.

Caveats: Who doesn’t want to write well? Seriously, this book is for nonfiction writers, yet it contains such basic good writing principles that you should check it out.

cover of Stephen King book
  1. On Writing, by Stephen King

Why I love it: It’s Stephen King. He’s as wise about writing as he is about the creepier aspects of life.

Caveats: None.

  1. From Where You Dream, by Robert Olen Butler

Why I love it: Butler takes dreaming to another level, encouraging writers to tap the subconscious. That’s important.

Caveats: Not a lot of meaty advice, but just read King’s book for that.

Bonus Book: Save The Cat, by Blake Snyder. I’ve recently rediscovered this gem – yes, it’s written from a screenwriter’s perspective, but it’s so darn fun to read. And I love his follow-up and the templates he provides (as with Vogler, don’t get too carried away making your stories fit a model.)

There are tons of others out there, and I’ll cover them from time to time. I always like to hear your favs!!

5 of My Favorite Writing Craft Books

I have an addiction…to writing craft books. In my bookcase two entire shelves are devoted to them, easily 15% of my entire fiction/nonfiction library. I find a new one or two every year, and believe me I learn something from each. Some of my old favorites have gone out of print, sadly, but most are still available, which just goes to show that craft books age very well.

Every so often I like to share my favorites with you. So here we go with five that I love. (You can order any of these, and others I love, through my Bookshop affiliate link.)

  1. Story Genius: How To Use Brain Science to Go Beyond Outlining and Write a Riveting Novel, by Lisa Cron

Why I love it: First, I’m a nut for anything that has to do with brain science, and Cron makes a compelling case for the way that our brains process story. Second, she provides a template for thinking of character development and story arc in terms of how we process story – and can’t we all use a template?

Caveats: I’ve read the first half of this book over and over, and applied her techniques to my writing, and love them. But in the second half she makes a case for planning a novel that goes against my pantsing grain. I just don’t read past part 1.

  1. Steering The Craft: The Twenty-first Century Guide to Sailing the Sea of Story, by Ursula Le Guin

Why I love it: Who doesn’t love Le Guin?? In this simple, short book she tackles very specific issues, one per chapter, with clear explanations of what they are and how to deal with them, and includes useful exercises at the end of each chapter.

A pile of writing craft books

Just a few of my other favorites – stay tuned for the next list.

Caveats: It’s not comprehensive, but sometimes you need something this short and sweet.

  1. The Fiction Editor, The Novel, and the Novelist: A Book for Writers, Teachers, Publishers, and Anyone Else Devoted to Fiction, by Thomas McCormack

Why I love it: This little book gave me an insight into one of the core principles of story-telling, which McCormack defines as “the master-effect”, or that feeling that you can’t let go of when you’ve finished reading a great book. It’s singularly responsible for any success of The Charmed Children of Rookskill Castle.

Caveats: This is a somewhat erudite book, not for reading when you’re tired.

  1. Writing Fiction, Tenth Edition: A Guide to Narrative Craft, by Janet Burroway and Ned Stuckey-French

Why I love it: This is probably the most comprehensive craft book, ever. It’s like an MFA in paperback form. Superbly detailed explanations of craft issues, accompanied by excellent examples, and a bunch of exercises. It’s been re-issued over and over, so look for the most recent edition. You could spend a year just working through this one.

Caveats: You could spend a year just working through this one.

  1. Consider This: Moments in My Writing Life After Which Everything Was Different, by Chuck Palahniuk

Why I love it: Alternately funny, irreverent, and incisive, this book is like taking a writing workshop with someone who really knows what he’s talking about, and makes you laugh while you learn. Lots of unusual ways of looking at craft.

Caveats: Palahniuk wrote Fight Club, and sometimes you feel like that’s the book you’re reading.

Again, you can find any of these books, and others I love, here, or at your favorite indie bookseller.

Do you have a favorite you don’t see on my lists? Please share! (I’ll probably order it…) Next time, I’ll review some of my more “classic” favorites.

Final Hot Tip: The Bad Guy (Antagonist) Thinks He’s Good

We’ve reached the end of my short hot writing tips for cold nights (even though those cold nights are still with us, here in Montana at any rate). Today I want to present a final hot writing tip – about the antagonist.

Opposites Attract

Protagonists in stories need counterbalancing. They need opposing forces, obstacles, difficulties. Why? Because we all contend with difficulties in life, and the primary purpose of story is to give readers examples of forces in opposition.

Kids need to learn how to deal with the many issues they will face in life, and story is one way kids find examples to “live by”. How does Harry Potter assume an identity as a wizard, and what mistakes does he make that he needs to learn from? (Hint: he’s constantly questioning authority, which gets him into trouble; he may be right, but often goes about defending himself in an abrasive fashion; he has to live up to huge expectations, which makes him want to ignore advice, etc.)

An antagonist is a force of opposition. An antagonist can be a person (Voldemort), or nature (in Gary Paulson’s Hatchet), or society (The Hunger Games). The antagonist throws obstacles against the protagonist and we all read to see how the protagonist will handle them.

Katniss and guards

Katniss in opposition to the Capitol

How the Antagonist Thinks

By reading the above, it would be natural to assume that the antagonist is just plain bad. Evil. Snidely Whiplash, twisting his mustache. But that’s incorrect.

In the best stories, the antagonist thinks he or she is the hero. Voldemort is ridding the wizarding world of the pestilence of Muggles and oh, by the way, he was bullied as a boy. The Capitol is reminding its people that rebellion leads to punishment, and oh, by the way, rebellion leads to social disruption. (I don’t know what nature is thinking about in Hatchet, but let’s assume nature, as it does in Jurassic Park,  “will find a way”.) As such, the antagonist is not a flat cut-out, but a three-dimensional nuanced character with flaws, pitiable losses, and, yes, strengths – even if we and the protagonist come to see those strengths as demonic.

In The Artifact Hunters the antagonist feels misunderstood and wants his lost high position back, and to achieve that, he must defeat Isaac and steal Isaac’s key. In The Charmed Children of Rookskill Castle, the antagonist has been wounded in love, and believes she must find immortality and personal power by exploiting the children. Neither believes they are bad, just getting what they are entitled to receive after suffering.

So, Your Final Hot Tip

Make your antagonist nuanced. Give him or her flaws, desires, losses, even relatable strengths. Your story will be more powerful for it.

Even More Hot Writing Tips: Plot Devices

Plot. It can drive you crazy, especially if you’re a new writer. How many different ways are there to represent plot? Are there plot devices you can lean on every time?

Do you Save The Cat? Or do you take The Hero’s Journey? Do you Write From the Middle? Or do you listen to The Plot Whisperer?

I love all of the books above – seriously – and would recommend them to anyone wanting more on crafting plot. But this series is for short, quick tips so here are two hot tips I recommend incorporating into your toolbox.

Where To Put Those Pesky Flashbacks

Inevitably, you will need to recall something in your character’s past in order to help the reader understand where that character is coming from. You’ll want to put something in flashback form: a memory, a short scene, an ah-ha moment of recognition. Stephen King maintains that there should be no flashbacks before chapter 3. I think he’s (mainly) right. (Note: I have broken this rule, but not before I’d written four published novels.)

Leave the backstory flashbacks for later in the story. Try to weave them into the story as seamlessly as you can. Something relevant should trigger the flashback – an image, a feeling – because the emotional content of the flashback must be the reason to include it.

In THE ARTIFACT HUNTERS, Isaac escaped from Nazi-occupied Prague to end up in Scotland. The reader knows he feels guilty about leaving his parents behind, and that he wants to be a hero but doesn’t know if he can be one. Not until well into the book is the real reason for his fears revealed. And it’s revealed as a moment of great guilt and pain – a memory he wishes he could erase, an action he wishes he could reverse. This technique adds to the story’s mystery and allowed me to develop the emotional aspects of Isaac’s character.

The Rounding of the Story Arc

Don’t forget that a character’s internal desire – what he or she needs to “learn” or understand – must be clarified and resolved before the story’s end. The climactic scene is the place for this satisfying resolve.

Let your main character reveal what she’s learned in the climactic scene. Your main character must evolve from ignorance to understanding. The place to reveal just how far they’ve come is in the climax, that scene of highest tension, right at the precipice near the end of the story.

Kat, in THE CHARMED CHILDREN OF ROOKSKILL CASTLE, reveals her growth when she defeats the antagonist by understanding her weakness (and how it relates to Kat’s own faults), and Isaac in THE ARTIFACT HUNTERS defeats his antagonist with his recognition of the strength of friendship.

To Sum Up

  1. Layer flashbacks in late in the story – and make them relevant to your character’s emotional state.
  2. Complete the character’s internal emotional journey by creating an ah-ha moment in the story’s climax.

I hope you’re enjoying this series, as the days grow longer!