Tag Archives: advice for writers

Authors on Craft: Sarah Aronson on Theme

When I first began to write stories, the first advice I received (that made writing seem doable) was this: put two characters in a room. Lock the door. See what happens. This advice made writing fun, but when it came right down to it, not all that productive. I wrote lots of great lines, but not a whole lot of story.

As I continued to study craft, I began to change my ways. I still believed in discovery, but now I had feedback to respond to. I also found myself having to answer questions I had never thought about before. Things like: what does your character want? Why? What do they believe? What do they fear? This feedback stretched me. It also made me think about my role in the process. At Vermont College of Fine Arts, I wrote my thesis on what directors can teach novelists. I was looking for structure, but also something else. Let’s call it the why. The juice. The motivation.

Or in other words, theme.

Right away, I got a lot of push back—and for good reasons. Theme too soon could make a story didactic. It could interfere with the spontaneous intuition that a writer needs to discover a story. And yet, the idea would not go away. I was a writer who didn’t feel as wedded to genre as what I wanted to say.

That’s when I heard Sara Pennypacker speak at Anderson’s Book Breakfast.

In that lecture, she talked about her lofty goals for writing her glorious novel, Pax, a story with big ideas about the consequences of war. For what it’s worth, it is also a book she took many years to write, that she didn’t always feel ready to write.

But she persevered.

Because she had something to say.

At this point in the lecture, I wanted to stand up, pump my fist, and yell, “YES.” (But I didn’t. I was trying to make a good impression!)

But even now, as I write this, I can’t help wanting to use exclamation points. My best work arrives when I know what I want to say—when the spark of inspiration—either through news or an image or a song or an experience—is accompanied by purpose.

It’s also how I feel about reading. The books I remember best, the books I loved the most, the books that might have even touched my soul or changed how I saw the world all had one thing in common: a strong universal theme.

Theme is the guts of story. It’s what comes from the questions that gnaw at the subconscious. It comes from obsessions and grows out of tension that comes from asking hard questions and exploring universal ideas THAT MATTER to the writer. Theme is the lens that helps me find the passion or conflict, the connectivity and the contradictions that drive the story forward. Janet Burroway, in Writing Fiction, writes that theme involves emotion, logic, and judgment. Donald Maass, in The Fire in Fiction, says, “It is the underlying conviction that makes the words matter.”

CONVICTION. I like that word.

When we know what we want to say, we know which well to go to for more inspiration. And that is important because face it: it takes so long to write a novel. It just isn’t worth it if the concepts or questions don’t mean something important. It’s also hard to deal with feedback when you are not committed to what you want to say.
John Gardner describes my process and goal to a tee: “The writer . . . broods on every image that occurs to him, turning it over and over, puzzling it, hunting for connections, trying to figure out–before he writes, while he writes, and in the process of repeated revisions–what it is he really thinks. . . . Only when he thinks about a story in this way does he achieve not just an alternative reality or, loosely, an imitation of nature, but true, firm art–fiction as serious thought.”

More important, theme connects us to readers. To their hearts. And for good reason!

Theme can help make a story speak to many generations with multiple experiences. When we have something big to say, the reader can feel it. I believe that more than good writing, it is the story and what’s behind it—the gnawing subconscious behind the impulse to write—that connects us to our readers and gets them attached to our characters.

So, are you ready to embrace the themes that matter to you?

Make a list. Ask: what is your story about? What do you want to say? What are the themes that constantly come up in conversation…that gnaw at YOUR subconscious? What do you want your reader to think about as you are writing?
Christopher Reeve once said, “So many of our dreams at first seem impossible, then they seem improbable, and then, when we summon the will, they soon become inevitable.”

Today, summon the will. Don’t be afraid of what you want to say. Grasp it and write.

Sarah Aronson has always believed in magic–especially when it comes to writing. Her favorite things (in no particular order) include all kinds of snacks (especially chocolate), sparkly accessories, biking along Lake Michigan, working at her local soup kitchen, and reading all kinds of stories–just not the fine print! She loves working with writers at the Highlights Foundation, writers.com, or the Writing Novels for Young People Retreat at VCFA. Sarah holds an MFA in Writing for Children and Young Adults from Vermont College of Fine Arts. She lives in Evanston, Illinois. You can sign up for her weekly newsletter, Monday Motivation, on her website www.saraharonson.com. Her newest book, The Wish List, the Worst Fairy Godmother Ever, comes out from Scholastic tomorrow!




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Guest Post Regarding Writing: Editor Kendra Levin & The Hero is You

headshot2013Kendra Levin is my guest today on The Blabbermouth Blog. She is a senior editor at Viking Books at Penguin Random House, a certified life coach, an author, and a teacher. Kendra helps writers and other creative artists meet their goals and connect more deeply with their work and themselves. Kendra’s new book, The Hero Is You, goes on sale November 1st. 

5 Tips for Being Your Own Life Coach for Writers

 I’ve worked in the publishing industry since 2002 and in that time, I’ve had the pleasure and honor of working with dozens of authors and writers from seasoned bestsellers and award-winners to first-timers. But when I added “certified life coach” to the “special skills” section of my resume ten years ago, I had no idea I’d end up using coaching so much in my work as an editor at Penguin. I’ve discovered that just about every person who picks up the pen—whether professional or aspiring—could probably benefit from a little life coaching.

Here are five ways to be your own life coach.


The most fundamental act a life coach performs is being a good listener. When I listen to a client, I’m not just listening for what the person is saying on the surface level; I’m listening for the deeper agenda, what’s under the surface of the words. Listen to yourself. What are the deeper themes you might not realize you’re trying to explore in your work? What is your piece trying to be?


As a coach, it’s my job to ask clients questions that will help them investigate themselves, not necessarily make them feel happy and comfortable in the moment. So rather than asking yourself a judging question (like “What the hell am I doing with this chapter?”) try to come from a place of natural curiosity (“Wow, I wonder what’s going to happen in this chapter! How will I resolve these plot dilemmas? I’m so curious to find out what the solution will be!”).


Hold silence for yourself as a writer: when there is a question you don’t have an immediate answer to in your writing, don’t push yourself to immediately resolve it. Instead of rushing to tie up every loose end right away, hold the silence and see what bubbles up gradually.


If you find yourself feeling stuck, be willing to consider a massive change to your work or a hyper-ambitious challenge to your process. Even if you decide against it, you may renegotiate—“I won’t try to finish the manuscript this month, but I will set a more aggressive goal about finishing it in the next three months”—and in doing so, find a way to refresh your thinking about the issue.


Remember to treat yourself the way a good life coach treats a client: with compassion, respect, and boundless faith in your potential. Judging yourself helps nobody, and nor does punishing or browbeating yourself if you don’t meet your exact goals. You are not perfect and nobody expects you to be. You are a beautiful work in progress, and you are making progress all the time.

Pre-order The Hero is You at IndieBound, Barnes & Noble, and Amazon. You can find Kendra online at kendracoaching.com and @kendralevin.

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Writing Process: The Best Way to Get a Manuscript Written

goodwitchBy the power vested in me by having an online media presence, I hereby wave my magic wand and give you permission to have whatever the fuck writing process works for you.

Stop beating yourself up because you’re not one of those people who writes every day. Stop looking so smug and superior because you are one of those people. Neither way of being indicates whether you’re a good writer or not.

Let’s face it, we’re all different, with different commitments, different lifestyles, different biorhythms, etcetera. Are you a morning person? A night owl? Do you have a houseful of kids? Do you live alone? Are you 17 or 71? Coffee drinker, or tea or bourbon or almond milk or wine coolers? We’re all different.

When I’m in the midst of a writing project of my own,  I think about it all the time. But I usually only write about once during the work week (for about 4 or 5 hours, if I can) and then on the weekend (and not even every weekend). That’s the amount of time I can take from my other commitments right now. Does that mean I’m not serious about my work? No. Does that mean I’ll never succeed as a writer? No. Does that mean I’m a bad writer? No. It doesn’t mean anything. Except, that’s all the time I can allot to my writing.

Find what works for you, and do that. Don’t waste your time and energy on thinking and feeling that you should be doing it differently. Make a commitment, and stick to your commitment. That’s the end of the story. Do what works for you and don’t worry about what other writers do, or how, or how much, or whatever. You’re not them. Just keep your eyes on your own goals and commitments. Stop comparing yourself to others, or to an ideal of a writer, or to what you read once about “how to write.” It doesn’t help; it doesn’t do anything. Do your life.

If you can, I also recommend trying to enjoy it. I mean, why not, right?

Ok, I’m done ranting.

Tell me, what does your writing process look like?


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