Tag Archives: Authors on Craft

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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Authors on Craft: Lisa Papademetriou on Rhythm

A Beat of Her Own

“Rhythm underlies everything.” –Mary Oliver

I began my latest novel, Apartment 1986, with one goal in mind: I wanted to write a first-person narrator who sounded as unlike me as possible. That, it turned out, was much harder than I thought it would be. I hadn’t fully realized how internalized the beat of my own prose was. After years of trying to “write the way I talk,” I finally had to imagine a whole new pattern of speech—a brand new rhythm. And, of course, by rhythm, I’m talking about syntax. All writing speaks to the listening mind, and rhythms are foundational. Form and content are one thing. When we are trying to create an image in someone’s mind and a feeling in the heart, the image will dictate the rhythm we choose.

In-person speech is a rich mode of communication. If I were to stand before you and speak, you would see my gestures, my facial expression, you would hear the modulations in the pitch of my voice. All of these contribute to the clarity of what I am saying. If we were to communicate via phone, we would remove one layer of information. You could still “read” the pitch of and inflection in my voice, but you would not be able to see my face or gestures. The written word removes yet another level of communication, and that is why it is so important that it be clear. Anyone who has ever sent an E-mail that was taken the wrong way knows what I am talking about. This is why bad news is usually delivered in person. It’s so that the words can be conveyed, but the unspoken emotion, such as compassion, regret, caring can also be properly conveyed. As writers, our toolbox is limited to intentional grammar.

The narrator of Apartment 1986 is Callie, a middle-school girl who is feeling constrained by challenges at school and at home. She has a naturally positive outlook, but isn’t terribly sophisticated. Here, she explains why she sometimes disappears to the roof of her school, “Look, there are moments when a girl just needs a breath of air, and you can’t get it inside this stuffy school or anywhere in Manhattan when you are down on the street. The air down there isn’t air, it’s basically 80% exhaust fumes 5% heat and 5% dirt, which most of the time gets caught in your lip gloss which is ew. So if you want to breathe and maybe look at a few clouds, you have to get someplace up high.” Even from these few sentences, we get a sense of the character—and no one would ever mistake her for a 45-year-old woman. Callie’s tone is conversational, and the first two sentences ramble. But the syntax of the third sentence slows and presents itself more carefully. This is the part Callie wants the reader to understand and take seriously. The rhythm is a reflection of the progressing thoughts of the narrator, and the texture of the emotion.

Since reimagining the rhythm of Callie’s speech in Apartment 1986, I have begun to realize the intimate relationship between character and the rhythm of his or her speech. Throughout my current work in progress, I’ve made sure to experiment with writing from the first-person perspective of each of my characters, so that I have a sense of his or her internal rhythm. This has, in turn, made their dialog and interactions richer—I no longer have characters that sound similar to me or to each other.

Everyone, it turns out, marches to the beat of a unique drummer.

Lisa Papademetriou is the author of A Tale of Highly Unusual Magic (A South Asia Book Award Highly Commended Title), Apartment 1986, the Confectionately Yours series, and many other novels for middle grade and young adult readers. She serves on the faculty of the MFA program (Writing for Children and Young Adults Track) at Sierra Nevada College.

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Authors on Craft: Bill Konigsberg on Surprises

honestly-benI write for the surprises.

Now don’t get me wrong: I like the moments when it feels like I have some semblance of control over my story, and I know what I want in a scene, and it happens correctly, and the prose feels solid and evocative.

But the best is when something happens as I’m writing that surprises me. Because in my experience, those surprises are where the magic lives.

Here’s an example: In my novel HONESTLY BEN (coming from AAL Books/Scholastic, March 28th) I have two characters who are in love but struggling to admit it. One is a gay boy named Rafe. He has known he’s in love with Ben for a long time, but he also is aware that Ben isn’t gay, or doesn’t consider himself to be gay. They had a fling but it didn’t work for various reasons, and there was a lot of pain for both characters.

Now they’re trying to negotiate their feelings and their relationship, and in a scene I wrote for the middle of the book, I have them beginning to get closer, beginning to regain trust. I had them going for a late night drive to the ocean in frigid February in Massachusetts. I went into writing the scene with no real goal except for them to come away from the scene feeling more in tune with each other.

I thought they might run into the ocean naked together. Yes, that would be chilly! That was just a thought of what might happen.

Instead, as I wrote, I found Ben chasing Rafe in a joking sort of way along the hard sand.

And then: a surprise.

Ben leaps and tackles Rafe. Hard. On the sand. And they wrestle. In a serious way. I was not expecting that! I thought they’d dealt with a lot of their feelings, but it was so, so right, and I knew it as it happened. They quarrel verbally while wrestling, and when it’s done, they’re better.

That there is a surprise! As I was writing, my skin got all shivery.

There was a level, a layer, of passion that I did not understand until the tackle and wrestling appeared, and it carried me, it gave me a sense of momentum that would carry the book to its climax. Without the surprise, I simply don’t know how I would have moved forward.

Sometimes our best plans aren’t good enough, and we don’t know it. Not until a surprise appears.

And I guess my point is that when our novels take an odd turn, we have a choice. We can nix it. We can decide it doesn’t fit into our perceived ideas of what the book is, or what is going to happen. We can steer the ship rather than allowing the ship to turn on its own. That’s my prerogative.

But I tend to think that when a surprise happens, I need to have a little faith that it means something. That I should follow it, and see where it leads. Because to me, surprises are God-or-Whatever’s way of showing up and leading me somewhere.

And I’m going to follow!

konigsberg headshotBill Konigsberg is the award-winning young adult author of four novels. THE PORCUPINE OF TRUTH won the PEN Center USA Literary Award and the Stonewall Book Award in 2016; OPENLY STRAIGHT won the Sid Fleischman Award for Humor, and was a finalist for the Lambda Literary Award in 2014; His debut novel, OUT OF THE POCKET, won the Lambda Literary Award in 2009. HONESTLY BEN, available in March 2017, has already received starred reviews from Publisher’s Weekly, Booklist, and School Library Journal. Bill is Assistant Professor of Practice at The Piper Center for Creative Writing at Arizona State University. He lives in Arizona with his husband, Chuck, and their Australian Labradoodles, Mabel and Buford.

 

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