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That Much Said / Basic Tools

I think it was Faulkner who said a writer finds out what his themes are when the book is reviewed. I’m afraid I must fall into the same camp.

That Much Said:

I think it was Faulkner who said a writer finds out what his themes are when the book is reviewed. I’m afraid I must fall into the same camp.

Jenni Holm once told me (I asked how they worked) her editor read an early draft, told her what her themes were, and Jenni ran with that. It sounded good, but I wondered what I’d do if I found myself floundering. So I found a book that listed titles of childrens’ books and offered up the themes as a list. I expected something impressive, living in a war-torn country, being locked in a closet. (If you’re wondering, ask a reference librarian.) But the themes were so mundane I had to hope an editor never offered me such a work plan. I’m willing to bet Jenni’s editor had something better to offer, but I need my themes to work themselves out. Granted, it’s a feeling like wandering through the woods, wondering if I’m lost, but only if I think about it.
So I don’t think about it.

My editor Shana Corey said I write a clean story, which meant she didn’t have to excavate it from a pile of extra words, and I took that as a high compliment. I figured theme was in there somewhere or she would have mentioned that.

Discussing the general subject of work with writer/editor Susan Krawitz, still trying to get a fix on theme, or at least what other writers were thinking about it, more I was trying to get a fix on what I might do better, she said my characters didn’t change so much as they made subtle adjustments to the situation they found themselves in. She said they weren’t so much making a change as holding things together.

Nothing to argue with there; it’s been a lifelong work. Possibly a theme, but I’m not sure. So I have little to say on theme that you won’t find said better by somebody much wiser. I do think Viki King has something to offer in her book How to Write Your Movie in 21 Days. She asks you to look at each decade of your life and gives you a theme for it, your task is to do a little written soul-searching.

I was trying to get a handle on children’s books so I wrote about my life from year one to sixteen. How astonishing it is to find you can, in such a simple way, call up memories that shaped you. I recommend the exercise. I recommend her book.

Basic Tools:

There are six parts of story to bring to the work. Once a writer gets these six pieces, writing becomes much easier.

CHARACTER: Strong characters take the reader along for the ride. Sometimes the character comes with a name, sometimes you have to wait for it. Rarely will you check a book of baby names, but one book I do find helpful is The Secret Universe of Names by Roy Feinson. I find it useful for a kind of personality summary when I’m trying to figure out why one of my characters is stubbornly going off in what I think is the wrong direction. Because Morton must have something that gives us a “like me” feeling—us being writers and readers alike. Writers hate to follow breadcrumbs that lead nowhere and readers like to imagine being in the same situation themselves. According to Feinson’s system, Morton is an mrt name, truthful, talented, playful, but also maintains his composure under stress, and if I find the name Morton feels too dated, I find I could switch to Marty. . . and no, but he likes Martin. Did I mention he has leadership qualities? We care about Martin not because something awful happens to him, something awful happens to someone every day and we just change the channel. We care because of what Martin does about it. We don’t want to read about somebody who sits around and worries about things going wrong, at least not for long. We want Martin to get up and do something. In many stories, someone has just come to visit, or someone has just gone away, which has created a problem for Martin. Or maybe Martin is on the move, and there are plenty of good reasons for that. So Martin is either just leaving one place or is just arriving at another. There is a helpful second character in most stories. A friend, a foe, family, or even a missing character. That character offers Martin a push and pull, some dialogue, some shadings we might have missed if he was on the page alone. I can’t dismiss Feinson’s work. He’s already told me what I need to know about Martin. And I’m reminded the root word for education is educare, meaning ‘to lead from within,’ which is how most characters come to be. Which brings us to:

SETTING : where things happen Where did these titles happen: Holes. Hatchet. The Mixed-up Files of Mrs. Basil E. Frankweiler. Catherine, Called Birdy. getting near to baby.
Lord of the Flies. Voyage of the Frog. Snowbound. Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs. The Diary of Anne Frank. Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone. The Hobbit. Project Hail Mary. The Misadventures of Maude March. Hardly dipped a toe into the murky waters of setting and still there are settings galore. I always think of setting as a part of Martin. It will influence his voice and his actions, even if he reacts surprisingly it shows who he is, being part of what he does. Some settings are even the enemy, where this meld of character and setting becomes clearer. So far you’ve brought to the page two excellent working parts that establish the likely way in which Martin will react to what happens to him. And what always happens in a good story? Something goes wrong:

CONFLICT: Readers need to know about conflict right away. It’s one of the most important things for a writer to learn, to write about what goes wrong. Many writers want to tell stories that are pretty all the way through, like a flower garden, and I’m tempted to ask, what’s wrong with that? Except that I’m a gardener who fights cicadas, drought through nine weeks of no rain, erosion when suddenly there’s too much water at once, weeds that spring up next to plants with lookalike leaves and get a good enough start on growth that I can’t pull them out, I have to dig them out, and I need to coordinate this struggle with small territorial animals that think it’s their garden. The truth is, we don’t want to read about how well everyone gets along. And frankly, when I paint my garden, it’s the leaves with holes and flowers that have taken a beating that I want to get on the canvas. We want to read about people who get into trouble and then figure out what to do about it. We want models of nobility and courage, humility and kindness. We want to see these tested by the worst nature and humanity have to offer. Which brings us to the:

STORY QUESTION: There’s a question in every story, usually there’s more than one. A story question must be asked, not just in the first chapter but in the first situation, preferably on the first page, ideally in the first line—but let’s don’t make ourselves crazy. Because the point of the story is to answer the story question, the beginning and the ending must be connected in a way that means something to the reader. Sometimes readers know one or two of the questions. What baby are they talking about? Is Willa Jo going to come off the roof? But sometimes the questions change: Summer’s End starts with Grace wanting to have a party and Dad says she can’t spend money on new records. She has to answer the question, where will I get new records? But then Grace’s brother gets into trouble, and Dad says she can’t have a party at all. For a while, Grace’s question is, what can she do to change Dad’s mind? But it isn’t long before Grace starts to wonder what will happen to her brother? And sometimes we can read a whole book and never be able to say we know what the question is, possibly never ask what the question is—it may be that when you close the book, all you can say is, well, that’s how it turned out. Many of us read that way. If the writer has worked out the story question to its natural answer, the reader is satisfied when they close the book, the story answered its question, it delivered resolution. It might be said that reader read for theme, at least to the degree that a genre concentrates on a central concern:

THEME: is What The Story Means. If the plot is about how Harry went here and found a dead body, and he went there and found another one, theme will be the story of how he feels about this, how he copes, how he behaves. Writers don’t start out to write with a theme in mind. They start out writing about Harry and two dead bodies. Theme develops out of who the writer is, out of their attitudes toward the subject of their work. It could almost be called their opinion of Harry finding dead bodies. Writers can’t fake a theme, they can’t say here’s how I feel about this, and I’m writing it down, see? My opinion. Because in three paragraphs the story is over. Nor can they write a story without one. Because that’s how people are, they have opinions. Strangely enough, the writer’s opinion might be informed by the story they write. Their opinion might even change. When I write a story, when you write a story, how we feel about it will show up on the page like an old jelly stain that you can’t ever get out. It tells other people what kind of jelly you like. That’s theme. These pieces all link together, like a fine chain. But if a writer isn’t careful, the story can get tangled, the way a chain can. There is a way to keep the story from getting tangled. It’s called:

STRUCTURE: But it’s like a magic trick. Structure supports the story parts, but there isn’t any structure unless all the story parts are there. To get an overview of the structure, I ask myself these questions: Who tells the story? character Where does it happen? setting What incident opens the story? question What makes life hard for the characters . . . and then what makes it even worse? conflict What incident ends the story, what is the reader’s felt sense of the resolution? theme Why would theme be found in the end of the story? It’s there right at the beginning, in film it is spoken aloud so we shouldn’t be distracted. But the end is where we all give our opinion. We create a situation, explain what happens and show how it turns out badly for a time and then we work through to a resolution. It may be a happy ending or we may have to resign ourselves to a loss. But it’s the satisfying finish we wait for. That’s theme. That’s how a writer writes. They put the structure in a given order and then push or pull the story through it: here’s the beginning, the middle and the end. Structure is about moving the story forward – even flashbacks, placed carefully to offer necessary background, move the story forward.

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