Tag Archives: writing advice

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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Writing for Kids: 5 tools for success

Join SCBWI. If you don’t know what that is, it stands for the Society of Children’s Book Writers and Illustrators. It’s the professional organization for people who write or illustrate books for children. Here’s a link to their site. They are a national organization and there are regional groups. There are two big conferences yearly (one in NY one in LA) and many regional conferences. They can help you find a critique partner. You can support and be supported by other writers. There are so many benefits to joining SCBWI I could write a whole blog post about it (but I’m not going to). The membership fee isn’t that much, for what you get back. Just do it. Join.

Write. I mean, that seems obvious, right? But it’s not. You finished your manuscript? Cool. You’re sending it to agents now? Fabulous. Perhaps your agent is sending your manuscript out to editors? Awesome. Or maybe you’re waiting for your novel to come out? Amazing. But writers write. So… write the next thing. It’s what we do. It’s just what’s next. Do it. Write the next thing.

Read. I know you have a full time job. I know you’ve got <fill in the #> kids. I understand. Really, I do. But writers need to read. Do you write picture books? You’d better be reading picture books. Like, lots of them. Are you working on a mystery? Have you read mysteries? Do you love writing for teenagers? Please tell me you’re deep into reading YAs. You think you might have a chapter book series in you? There are lots of chapter book series for you to cut your teeth on. Do it. Read, read, read.

Hang out with kids. If you’re writing for kids, you need to talk to them and listen to them. You need to hear what their concerns are and how they talk. You need to see the world through their eyes. Your writing will be better and sound more authentic if you hang out with some kids. Do it. Don’t be creepy or anything. Just find some kids and hang out.

Take a walk*. According to a recent article in Psychology Today and another in Fortune magazine, taking a walk can aid in creative thinking. Can’t figure out how to end your story? Take a walk. Fresh out of picture book ideas? Take a walk. Wondering what your main character really wants? Take a walk. Summer, Winter, Spring, Fall. Doesn’t matter. Go for a walk.

*for those physically unable to walk, take a mental break from your task at hand and go for a virtual walk.

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Authors on Craft: Jodi McKay on Voice

Let your VOICE be heard!

Discussing the concept of voice with the voices in my head.

“How can I let my voice be heard?”

“Will it make a difference?”

“What the hell is voice?”

You can nail down voice with a bit of practice and it does make a big difference in your writing, but first let’s talk about what voice is.

An Author’s Voice is writing that is unique to the writer. It allows readers to understand what type of writer you are because the the tone, word choices, rhythm, structure, the personality of the stories are consistent from book to book.

Think of Dr. Seuss’s books for a minute. They each have a similar lyrical style with silly characters, quirky words, and (for the most part) upbeat moods. His voice is loud and clear which makes his books easily recognizable. Readers who like that style will come back for more because they know they will not be disappointed and that makes a difference in a reader’s life, especially a young reader.

“I totally want to be the next Mo Willems.”

No you don’t, you want to be the next you. Sheesh, aren’t you listening? Clearly you need some practice with finding your author voice. Try these exercises:

  1. Describe your personality. How do these traits inform your writing?
  2. Ask other people to read your work to see if there are patterns in the way you write.
  3. Read a ton of books. Which ones do you like? Why? Which ones don’t you like? Why? How does your style of writing compare?
  4. Write a lot! As you are writing take a second to assess how it feels. Do you like what you are writing? Why? Do you feel good when you are writing or does it feel like work?

“I need more coffee for this.”

Fine, but then we need to move on to Character Voice.

“I’m back. Speaking of character voice, I have this character who is a real jerk. Does that mean that I’m a jerk because it’s essentially coming from me?”

Good question. Sometimes you are a jerk, but that’s not why your character is. A character’s voice is simply a view point portrayed with word choice, attitude, and rhythm. These show the character’s age, personality, beliefs, education, and feelings and makes the character believable. These do not have to be a reflection of the author.

Think of Stephen King’s, Carrie. Carrie is a 16-year-old girl whose naiveté and timid personality were a result of the unstable, overzealous, and tyrannical parenting style of her mother. Those are two disparate character voices, neither of which have anything to do with who Stephen King is as a person.

“Ooh, what if Stephen King really has telekinesis like Carrie?”

Focus, please. Again, the characters do not have to be an extension of the author. They do, however, need to be believable. The words King gave to his characters, especially that crazy-ass mother in Carrie, made them seem real and they evoked feelings that caused the reader (me) to want to keep reading. It’s important to really get to know your character before you start writing so that your story feels authentic otherwise readers will be pulled out of the story as soon as they feel like the character is unrealistic.

“You’re going to make me to do more writing exercises aren’t you?”

Here, have some chocolate and stop complaining. This is important. Getting voice down is essential to having your work stand out from the rest. It is your way of speaking to the masses and possibly creating change. You never know if one of your characters will be the catalyst for a child’s view on discrimination or a person’s willingness to change. Do the work, the readers deserve no less than the best!

Try this get-to-know-your-character chart. It’s a fun way to, um, get to know your characters.

“All right, I’m going to do it! I’m going to let my voice be heard and I’m going to listen closer to the voices of my fellow writers.”

What do you all think? How will you let your voice be heard?

13879203_10210761791699981_1471649385510257844_nJodi McKay is the author of the very voicey picture book, WHERE ARE THE WORDS (Albert A. Whitman Books, 2016), illustrated by Denise Holmes. You can find Jodi online at JodiMcKayBooks.com and @JLMcKay1

 

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