Saturday, March 30, 2013

Reflections: What is your theme?

Hi folks, I'm wrapping up my month of reflecting on theme. I have found that everything you write is connected. Every writer is digging into some universal ideas or messages that are directly connected to her experience.

I went to a workshop with Bethany Hegedus, author and teacher, a few years ago and she convinced me that the magician behind the curtain (me) is the one holding the keys to my story. Her message: understand what you are about -- mind and soul -- and you will find your theme. I also got a big wake up call from Julia Cameron and her book Finding Water.  You must learn to say the things you never say. This takes an insane amount of bravery, and I am still working on in it. At the end of the day, you must discover what you are looking for.

What is the theme of your life? What makes you howl at the moon? What turns you red hot on fire? Think about that. Write down all the words that resonate with you. Some of mine: Wisdom, peace, forgiveness, laughter, disrespect, belittlement, mockery, frustration, heaven, hope, worth ... Try making a Wordle of all your words. Post that near where you work and let it simmer. Gather together your favorite stuff: music, movies, TV shows, books, artwork, shoes, whatev. Put your treasure trove in a pile and think about it.  Add to the list the words that come to you. What does all of this speak to you?  What are you circling? Strip away all that fluff on the outside. Go close to the bone and discover your theme.

I hope these little exercises help you  draw closer to the knowledge of your theme.  Next week, I will start April Showers -- a series to water you creative soul...see you then. Meanwhile, seize the day!

Here is a doodle: "Shepherd and his sheep"

A quote for your pocket.

The soul is in the very likeness of the divine, and immortal, and intelligible, and uniform, and indissoluble, and unchangeable; and the body is in the very likeness of the human, and mortal, and unintelligible, and multiform, and dissoluble, and changeable. Plato

Saturday, March 23, 2013

Reflections: Symbolism

I'm spending the month reflecting on the the topic of theme, but I find I want to expand a little. Theme isn't like developing a plot, fleshing out characters or filling out the setting. Theme is about adding deep complex layers to storytelling. These layers must remain invisible and move readers. I've talked about theme, but another way to add abstract layers is through symbolism. This week I jumping to theme's close cousin.

Symbolism is all about tokens, emblem, signs that take on extra meaning within the confines of your work.  Red balloons, gold rings, ringing bells, blue skies, gusty winds, chicken legs, umbrellas -- you know the list of symbols is endless. I find that symbols are a good way to cut through the slog of exposition, toss it aside, and find the binding threads underneath your story.

These symbolic threads are tangled up with your theme threads. Plot, character and setting are intertwined forming a woven fabric. Symbolism and theme are pressed together forming a non-woven fabric -- a felt. Have you ever tried to cut felt with scissors? Not an easy thing. Felt is very dense; all the fibers are so tightly interlocked. In a similar way, theme and symbolism twine together forming this dense layer underpinning your story. You can pick apart plot, character and setting -- the weave is looser -- but it is much more difficult to dig into symbolism and theme of your story.

Symbolism often serves as a handy tool to ditch long narrative explanations from main characters.  Perhaps you character finds a penny the day her mother dies. She keeps this penny in her pocket as she faces the monsters threatening her life.  She pulls out that penny in quiet moments.  Instead of digging into the mother's death, the penny serves a symbol for readers, it brings your readers' thoughts into play. They assign meaning to the penny.  You are inviting them into your story.

Using symbolism means you don't have hook your reader through the nose and tell them, "Hey, the main character is suffering and pay attention." A powerful symbol will whip all kinds of thoughts up in your reader. Your reader will insert their own take on the meaning. Good books have a hidden conversation going on between the reader and the writer. Never forget that.

Look for opportunities in your work to cut down the exposition by giving some of the weight of meaning to symbolic elements. Think about thematic and symbolic elements as your write but don't dig.  Just let the weight of the story press together your elements forming that rich texture. I hope this little discussion speaks to you and gives you an idea or two.  I'll be back next week with more stuff.

Here is a doodle for you -- "Pink Bunny."

The most important thing in a work of art is that it should have a kind of focus; that is, there should be some place where all the rays meet or from which they issue. Leo Tolstoy

Saturday, March 16, 2013

Reflections: Thematic patterning

Hi, folks, I'm continuing my series on theme.  I've defined theme and then talked about "leitwortsil" which  means "leading word style",  the repetition of words and and roots to support a theme. This week I'm expanding to thematic patterning or motif.

One big way to get theme on the page and through to the reader is by repeating imagery. This is the world of types and shadows, and I have a particular love for it. Imagery involves all the senses. You might repeat a sound, a texture, a visual, or even a movement. For example, perhaps you repeat a scouring wind to evoke a sense of the emptiness of life or repeat a buzzing sound to echo your character's inability to fulfil her obligations. If you have a particularly powerful sensory scene in your WIP, consider repeating an element of that scene throughout the work to shore up what you are trying to say. How do you know which element? Go with what is provocative or feels right.

You might move beyond the senses, and repeat something organic like a sense of fatigue -- this might come out in a worn-out couch, shoes with holes in them, a character who can't get out of bed, a town dying, and bird floundering in the backyard because it's too tired to continue on its migration journey -- all images of fatigue. Upon examination of your work, you might see that you have naturally added two or three pieces to a thematic pattern, but could add a few more for effect.  Look for these opportunities to strengthen your theme.

What is important is repetition throughout your book. (If you are like me, you might find that some images are repeating across your work!) The subconscious is a part of storytelling and you must allow it to rise and spice your work with patterns. You won't always know what you are about when you are repeating an imagery. It may just give you a sense of completion. I say go with it.

There is no way I can cover everything that has to do with theme in this series but I hope that you are gleaning tidbits to help your work.  As always, seize the day. I will be back next week with more.

Here is a doodle: "Yellow stars."

A quote for your pocket.

To be what we are, and to become what we are capable of becoming, is the only end of life. Robert Lewis Stevenson.

Saturday, March 09, 2013

Reflections: Leitwortstil

Hi, folks. I'm continuing my series about theme. Last week I chatted about what theme is. This week I'm going to dig into leitwortstil. My, isn't that a swanky word. It's an even more swanky idea, especially if you want theme to pop within your work.

The word comes from Martin Buber and Franz Rosenzweig, Jewish philosophers who translated the Hebrew Bible into German the early part of the 20th century. These two guys coined leitwortstil: "Leading word style."  So what is this style all about?  Throughout a narrative the author chooses to repeat a word or the root of word. This perfectly placed repetition helps readers grasp the meaning of a story. The root, word or phrase hits with punch. Leading words catch the readers attention, and most of all create a resonating moment of thought in the reader. My total thought about leitworstil is well-placed repetition can thrum thematic chords within your work.

You can move beyond leading words and use leading clauses and sentences. A innocuous repeated phrase in STAR WARS comes to mind that packs a mighty punch; "I've got a bad feeling about this." It's written for comedic effect but it also adds thematic strength to the storytelling. I feel the waves of meaning, vibrating in that sentence -- something about the irony of existence, something about this stuff always happens to me, something about  how I knew this was the wrong way to go and yet here I am caught in the glue.

The repetition makes us laugh, but under there we think. We connect. We commiserate. The waters of meaning are stirred up. We peek behind the veil. I absolutely don't think Lucas was intentionally stirring up theme when he wrote the line. It probably just felt right, and every time it repeated it kept feeling right. I really do think our instincts, impressions, and feelings must be listened to when folding theme into the mix.

Hope this makes you think about leading words. Next week I will expand, and dig into thematic patterning. I hope you come back for more on theme.  Meanwhile, seize the day. 

The doodle this week is from my daughter Jubilee: "Handstand."


Finally a quote for your pocket.

The best and most beautiful things in the world cannot be seen or even touched - they must be felt with the heart.. Helen Keller

Saturday, March 02, 2013

Reflections: What is theme?

Hi, folks, I will spend the month of March reflecting about theme. I'm going to pick apart some things I know about it. I carry around a theme toolbox and  will talk about  my theme tools and how and when to use them. At the end of the day the topic of theme would take an entire book to unpack, and I can give you teacup worth of understanding. Hopefully, I will pour out some useful advice.

First up, I'm going to dig into what I think theme is. It's illusive and about the half of the very talented authors I know to refuse to think about it when they write. To quip Bob Dylan in his song "Gates of Eden":

At dawn my lover comes to me
And tells me of her dreams
With no attempts to shovel the glimpse
Into the ditch of what each one means

Some of my author friends feel that theme needs to be tossed into the background and grow organically out of the story. They don't try to shovel into the ditch of what they mean. This is a valid way to go.  Many authors have no idea what their theme is while writing. There is some element of theme that is very subconscious. Never forget that.

There are some misconceptions about theme out there. Here is what is not: a message, a moral or a thesis.  I run across authors occasionally who use storytelling as a platform for their messages or moralizing or pontificating. Uh, no. These folks usually think their preachy-teachy mess is theme. Uh, no. Please trust your readers to think for themselves. Write sermons, parables, or non-fiction if your grandiose ideas must be spoon-fed. Move away from the fiction. Far away. 

So here is the teacup of what I know (finally). At the end of the day theme is a complex idea. For me, it is a universal view about life and how people behave that is revealed through an an author refining characters' actions in a specific window in space and time. (I know clear as mud, but at least worth thinking about.) Theme is indirectly presented in stories. Theme invites the reader to draw his own conclusions. Theme doesn't tell the reader what to think but it does require the reader to think.  Ethos, pathos and logos -- theme turns up this stew of conviction, emotion, and understanding. It's the glue that elevates a story.

I hope that this glue permeates your books. I hope that you find the divine in all  your creative endeavors. I will be back next week with more on theme.

Now the doodle: "Yellow Blobby."

Here is a quote for your pocket.

If there were only one truth, you couldn't paint a hundred canvases on the same theme. Pablo Picasso