Weekend Edition – The What, Why, How, and When of Your Story’s Theme

disney themesTheme is one of those slippery topics that can intimidate and paralyze a writer. It shimmers with a high-brow, literary aura that plunges many of us into a cold bath of self-doubt and uncertainty. Though definitions abound, it’s a difficult concept to nail down in practical terms. It’s like we have a vague sense that theme is an incredibly crucial element of a Good Story, and yet we can’t quite put our finger on why that is or how to bring that element into our own work.

Up-front disclaimer: I don’t know the answers to these questions. Yet. Today’s post is merely an exploration of the topic and the questions that I’ve been asking as part of my quest for understanding. I have much more to learn.

What intrigues me most about the idea of theme is that it seems to be a driving force for both writer and reader. In other words, our deep desire to express a particular theme is one the reasons we write, and our desire to consume and connect with a particular theme is one of he reasons we read.

Theme might be considered the soul of a story. It is less tangible than the premise or the plot. It is not something we construct through story structure or word craft, though both those tools help us illuminate and strengthen theme. Theme is not the flesh and bone of a story; it is the catalytic spark that brings that flesh and bone to life.

What is theme?

Let’s start our exploration with a few definitions.

From our old friend, Wikipedia:

“In contemporary literary studies, a theme is the central topic a text treats. Themes can be divided into two categories: a work’s thematic concept is what readers “think the work is about” and its thematic statement being ‘what the work says about the subject’.”

From the passionate Mr. Larry Brooks of Storyfix.com in his book, Story Engineering:

“To put it in its most simple terms, theme is what our story means ... Theme can be a broad topical arena, or it can be a specific stance on anything human beings experience in life.

Theme is the relevance of your story to life. To reality, as reflected in your fiction. Theme is love and hate, the folly of youth, the treachery of commerce, the minefield of marriage, the veracity of religion, heaven and hell, past and future, science versus nature, betrayal, friendship, loyalty, Machiavellian agenda, wealth and poverty, mercy and courage and wisdom and greed and lust and laughter.”

In his book, The Story Grid – What Good Editors Know, editor Shawn Coyne defines theme (or the “controlling idea”) this way:

“The controlling idea is the takeaway message the writer wants the reader/viewer to discover from reading or watching his Story. It’s the reason many of us want to be writers in the first place. We have something to say about the way the world is and we want others to come to see it in the same way we do.”

See what I mean about theme being less about physical mechanics and more about being the “soul” or life-giving spark of your story? Theme is not what happens in your story, it’s the driving force behind what happens. It’s the deeper “why”of your story – its purpose and meaning.

Even a cursory exploration of themes in novels will yield a wide variety of examples that range from the very broad (man vs. nature, every dog has his day, love conquers all, good vs. evil) to more specific. In The Story Grid, Coyne defines the theme, or controlling idea, of two well-known novels:

  • The Firm by John Grisham: Justice prevails when an everyman victim is more clever than the criminals.
  • The Shining by Stephen King: Narcissistic self-abuse annihilates all forms of human love.

Steven Pressfield, author of The War of Art and a client of Shawn Coyne’s, provides these helpful examples of theme on his blog:

  • The Body Snatchers by Jack Finney: Coerced manipulation of consciousness – we are all being brainwashed, and we don’t know it.
  • Network by Paddy Chayefsky: Selling your soul on every level
  • Jurassic World (multiple writers): Don’t mess with Mother Nature.
  • When Harry Met Sally by Nora Ephron: It’s impossible for a man and a woman to be friends.
  • The Imitation Game by Andrew Hodges: Sometimes it is the people whom no one imagines anything of who do the things that no one can imagine.

In his book Writing the Breakout Novel, literary agent Donald Maass refers to theme as a story’s “animating spirit” and encourages writers to become “deeply impassioned about something you believe to be true.” He acknowledges that it takes a great deal of courage to stick our necks out in support of a strong theme:

“A breakout novelist needs courage, too: the courage to say something passionately. A breakout novelist believes that what she has to say is not just worth saying, but it is something that must be said. It is a truth that the world needs to hear, an insight without which we would find ourselves diminished.”

Doesn’t that get you a little fired up? It should. And this is why theme matters as much as it does.

Why does theme matter?

The short answer: It’s the element of your story that touches readers on the deepest level.

Your theme reflects the courage of your convictions. It is an expression of what you believe in, what you are willing to fight for. It is a representation of your core truth. This is powerful stuff, and that’s why readers respond to theme the way they do.

Maass observes that novels “convey society’s underlying values,” and as such they validate those values. It’s a novel’s theme that embodies those values and makes your readers feel a stirring of their own values and beliefs.

Brooks focuses on a theme’s ability to make a reader feel something, “Theme is what makes you think, makes you feel. It is what compels readers to invest themselves in your story. It is what will make them remember it and treasure it.” Think about your favorite stories, the ones that have stuck with you over the years. What is it about those stories that makes them so memorable? It probably isn’t the details of the plot, the setting, or the specific language the author used. It’s something deeper than that. It’s the heart of the story – the theme.

It’s like Maya Angelou said, “People will forget what you said, people will forget what you did, but people will never forget how you made them feel.” Theme is what makes the reader feel. It’s the thing they won’t forget.

Theme also matters to the writer.

How much better does it feel when you really believe in what you’re writing? How much more exciting and rewarding is the writing process when you have a strong sense of purpose? Theme provides you with inspiration and it helps you maintain your momentum. As Coyne points out, the expression of theme is one of the reasons why we write in the first place. We write because we have something to say.

But understanding your theme doesn’t only have inspirational benefits. It also has very tactical ones. In his excellent post, Help! I Can’t Find my Theme!, Pressfield explains how your theme tells you who your protagonist is, who your antagonist is, what your climax is, and can even give you your title. “Theme influences and determines everything in our story,” Pressfield explains. “Mood, setting, tone of voice, narrative device. Theme tells us what clothes to put on our leading lady, what furniture to put in our hero’s house, what type of gun our villain carries strapped to his ankle.”

The question of why we write, both collectively and individually, has always fascinated me. Though worrying about the why can get in the way of the actual writing, there is also power and insight to be gained by digging into your own motivations. When we take the time to articulate the beliefs that define us, we are better able to harness the energy and passion of those beliefs so that we can translate them into the kinds of stories that make a difference in reader’s lives.

How do you find your theme?

This, of course, is the elephant in the room. Unfortunately, I haven’t yet found an answer to the question. While Brooks is adamant that a writer must be proactive about defining and commanding a story’s theme, most of the insights I’ve read on the topic acknowledge that it can be very difficult to discover and articulate your theme. In fact, it seems that it’s often the case that a writer doesn’t know the theme of a story or novel until much of it has already been written. In The Story Grid, Coyne recommends patience:

“The creative energy and hard work necessary to bring these bits to life truthfully will eventually coalesce and an “aha, that’s what this is about!” moment will come. Perhaps not even to the writer, but to the reader.

One of the most difficult skills to develop as a writer is patience. And figuring out the controlling idea/theme requires it in abundance.”

Pressfield comes right out and says that we don’t pick our themes, our themes pick us,

“What do I mean by this? I mean a story—a novel, a play, a movie, a work of narrative nonfiction—is like a dream. Its source is our unconscious, our Muse. And just as in a dream, the totality arises organically and coheres naturally. The dream/story means something already. All we have to do as writers is figure it out.”

At the other end of the spectrum, Maass offers some practical theme-finding exercises in Writing the Breakout Novel. He suggests, for example, listing out a character’s inner motivations in a particular scene. He suggests that most such lists will begin with immediate physical and emotional needs before drilling down to secondary needs (such as information, support, comfort, curiosity, etc.), and then finally the “higher motivations” like truth, justice, hope, or love. Those items at the bottom of the list are clues to your theme.

Another exercise he recommends is to pretend that government agents have seized your work in progress and thrown you in prison. Just before you’re about to be executed, a warden gives you a typewriter and ten sheets of paper. What do you write? Now imagine that the same warden rips your ten pages to shreds, leaving you with only enough space to type up one paragraph. Again – what do you write? That’s your theme.

I’ve explored similar lines of questioning myself. In Five Questions to Ask When You Don’t Know What to Write, I suggest asking yourself what and who you love as well as what you want to say. This kind of brainstorming can get you really thinking. In Embrace Your Dark Side, I explain how you can use the things that make you angry to add fire and clarity to your stories.

Whether you discover your theme serendipitously in the process of writing your story, or define it up front doesn’t really matter. What matters is that once you know what it is, you bring it to bear on every element of your story.

When do you apply your theme?

Is there a “right” time to work your theme into your story? This is another question that doesn’t seem to have a universally accepted answer.

Despite his statement about themes picking the writer instead of the other way around, Pressfield stresses that the writer must know the theme because it is the foundation of the story. He urges writers to remember Chayefsky’s Rule of Theme:

As soon as I figure out what my play is about, I type it out in one line and Scotch tape it to the front of my typewriter. After that, nothing goes into the play that is not on-theme.

Pressfield and Coyne both acknowledge that sometimes it’s the editor who has to define the theme for the writer. They have apparently experienced this scenario several times over the course of their working relationship. In those instances, when Coyne identified the theme, Pressfield could then go back and ensure that the theme was a  core and focused element in every scene.

Interestingly, identifying your theme up front and consciously writing to it in your first draft can sometimes have a detrimental affect on your story. If you focus too much on theme, you run the risk of becoming heavy-handed with your approach and coming off sounding like you’re delivering a preachy morality tale from atop your soapbox – never a recipe for success. To help mitigate this problem, Maass suggests “keeping the message out of the mouth of the author and instead conveying it through the actions of a novel’s characters.”

Brooks’ ideas about how theme can develop organically through character behavior corroborate Maass’ suggestion:

“… if you have complete control over the character arc in particular, theme can sometimes take care of itself. You don’t have to have an agenda to speak to the truth of life, you simply need to explore and illuminate through the experiences of your characters and the consequences of your choices.”

So, I guess the jury is still out about the best way to apply theme in your story. My instincts tell me that each author may need to find his or her own “best” method through trial and error, and that the method may evolve over time along with other craft skills.

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Theme – it’s a complex and sometimes contested part of the writing craft. How it’s defined, discovered, and implemented may vary greatly from writer to writer or even project to project. Every expert who writes on the topic agrees, however, that no matter how or when you discover and apply it, it’s an absolutely crucial element to story success. It’s the secret ingredient that gives your story universal appeal, staying power, and the ability to touch people’s hearts. And that, my friends, is really what this writing gig is all about, is it not?

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Jamie Lee Wallace Hi. I’m Jamie. I am a content writer and branding consultant, columnist, sometime feature writer, prolific blogger, and aspiring fiction writer. I’m a mom, a student of equestrian arts, and a nature lover. I believe in small kindnesses, daily chocolate, and happy endings. Introduce yourself on FacebookTwitter, Instagram, or Pinterest. I don’t bite … usually.
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Friday Fun – Creating Emphasis in Your Writing

Friday Fun is a group post from the writers of the NHWN blog. Each week, we’ll pose and answer a different, get-to-know-us question. We hope you’ll join in by providing your answer in the comments.

QUESTION: We recently asked you what questions you’d like answered in our Friday Fun post. Today, we’re answering the following reader question:

FriFunQuestion8

JME5670V2smCROPJamie Wallace: Hello, Faye. There are probably dozens of ways to emphasize a particular statement or detail in your writing, and which ones work for you will be a matter of personal style as well as what makes sense in the context of your work. I’m a fan of white space and short, punchy sentences. I like setting important bits off visually by literally putting space around them. For instance, I might give a five-word sentence its own paragraph, leaving blank space above and below it. I also like paring my sentences down to the fewest possible words so that there’s nothing left to cloud my meaning. Simple is often better when you’re trying to make a point, so keeping it short and sweet is a good bet.

You can also use cinematic writing to draw the reader in so that they are able to understand exactly why you are so vehement about a particular point. In your example above, you mentioned that you detest cruelty to animals. Instead of just saying that, describe a scene of cruelty and use all the descriptive powers at your disposal to make the reader see the horror and by seeing it not only understand your passion, but come to adopt it for themselves.

Deborah Lee Luskin, M. Shafer, Photo

Deborah Lee Luskin,
M. Shafer, Photo

Deborah Lee Luskin: This question goes directly to the heart of style, and each writer develops her own, so there is no “right” answer per se, just the best choices that suit the circumstances layered with your voice and personal preference.

Grammatically, “and” is one of seven coordinating conjunctions, used to link equal parts. It’s been said that “and” is one of the hardest words to use effectively. When joining two independent clauses or complicated items in a series, it can be replaced with a semi-colon; or, as Jamie suggests above, when used between two independent clauses, it can be eliminated with a period.

And white space, for emphasis.

As you can imagine, there are whole books about writing effective sentences. Coordinating conjunctions are just one tool; punctuation is another, and word order is a third – of many. You might look at The Harbrace College Handbook or similar manual of style for insights. There are also writers whose prose style can take your breath away, and there’s nothing like reading great prose to learn effective methods. A great example of tremendous writing is The Really Big One by Kathryn Schulz, for which she just won a Pulitzer.

Good luck!

Lisa_2015Lisa J. Jackson: I think Jamie and Deborah have great comments. All I can add is, I recently saw a statement  that said that when you use ‘but’ in a sentence, it negates everything that came before it.

So, “I like you, but you make me crazy.” is contradictory and it’s difficult to ascertain which part of the statement is true.

In your example, I’d keep the statements separate (maybe even different paragraphs as they are opposites) so that neither loses its importance.

Diane MacKinnon, MD, Master Certified Life CoachDiane MacKinnon: Hi Faye! I agree with all of the above advice. The only thing I can add is an element of style I’ve taken from the world of public speaking: Always put the most important part of the sentence at the end. I think, for your purposes, you could end with …”and I detest cruelty to animals.” Keep it clear and declarative. And use lots of white space, as already mentioned. Good luck!

 

The Arrogance of Belonging

Screen Shot 2016-04-27 at 9.37.01 PMI just finished listening to Elizabeth Gilbert’s book, Big Magic: Creative Living Beyond Fear, for the second time. It’s been a few months since I first listened to it and when I started it again, I thought: Why did I wait so long to listen to this book again?

Big Magic: Creative Living Beyond Fear has now joined the ranks of craft books I will read and recommend over and over again. It’s right up there with Bird by Bird: Some Instructions on Writing and Life, by Anne Lamott.

One of the topics covered in Big Magic is the idea of personal entitlement. Ms. Gilbert speaks of this as a positive attribute, rather than a negative attribute. She says we need to know we have the right to at least try to be creative.

Ms. Gilbert goes on to talk about “the arrogance of belonging,” a phrase she borrowed from the poet David Whyte, who claims that it “is an absolutely vital privilege to cultivate if you wish to interact more vividly with life.”

Ms. Gilbert states the arrogance of belonging is not about egotism or self-absorption, but it’s opposite; “it is a divine force that will actually take you out of yourself.” She states the arrogance of belonging takes us out of our self-doubt and self-protection. It is only when we are not so self-involved that we can begin to be creative.

After reading this part of Big Magic, I realized I was most creative with the people I love the most, the ones with whom I know I belong. These days I’m always making up stories and performing little scenes for my son with his Lego mini-figures or his morning Gummi vitamins. I don’t spend a lot of time worrying about how I look to him or if he thinks the scene I created is any good. All I’m thinking about is what would be fun to say or do next.

I once wrote a sonnet about cheese curls. That was for someone I didn’t worry about, either.

I also write some really funny emails, if I do say so myself. Usually to my twin sister—they are silly and often involve talking kitchenware, but I don’t worry what she’s going to think. I assume she’ll think they’re funny because I think they’re funny. There’s that arrogance of belonging Ms. Gilbert wrote about.

The trick, I think, is to try to expand that arrogance of belonging beyond our friends and family, to the audience we are trying to reach. I so often stifle myself as a writer because I’m so concerned I will come off sounding stupid or clichéd.

But writing nothing helps no one and I would like to help people with my writing. And if I can become a little less self-absorbed, a little less worried about what others might think of me, I might be able to create something really interesting—and helpful, too.

Do you have the arrogance of belonging you need to write creatively?

Diane MacKinnon, MD, Master Certified Life CoachDiane MacKinnon: is a writer, blogger, family physician, and life coach.

A Week for the Books

Wicked Cozy AuthorsI suspect this will be a week I remember for a long time, and a blog post feels like a good memory book. I hesitate about blowing my own horn, but we know one another. We touch base every couple of weeks. I hope you’ll indulge me.

Today my picture was in the Boston Globe. Twice. And not because I did something terrible. Instead, it was because I hang out with some fabulous mystery writers, and we blog together at the Wicked Cozy Authors. A reporter wanted to write a story about cozy mysteries, and someone pointed her in our direction. It is a story about the genre, and about our friendship. I can’t even pretend it isn’t a thrill.

As if this wasn’t enough for my writing week, Malice Domestic is this weekend. This is a huge fan conference that celebrates the traditional mystery. It takes place in Bethesda, Maryland. Now, I’ve been going to Malice for years. When I first went, I was barely admitting that I wanted to write a mystery aloud. In 2005 Sherry Harris sat at the same table as I did. She was moving to Massachusetts that fall, and I suggested she join Sisters in Crime New England. Cut to today, where we are both Wicked Cozies, and her third book was just released.

My first book, Just Killing Time, has been nominated for a Best First Novel Agatha. I’ve gotten to know my fellow nominees, and they are all terrific. On Saturday, either Ellen Byron, Art Taylor, Cindy Brown, Tessa Arlen or I will win the teapot. But honestly, this is a tough slate, and it is really an honor to be nominated. I know people always say that, but it is true. There were a lot of books to choose from, and I love that my debut made the short list.

Now, not all weeks in my writing life are this epic. In fact, most aren’t. All the more reason for celebrating this week. Then getting back to work on Book #3.

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J.A. Hennrikus writes short stories. Julianne Holmes writes the Clock Shop Mystery series for Berkley Prime Crime. Just Killing Time is on sale now, Clock and Dagger will be released in August.

 

What Angela James Wishes Writers Knew About the Editing process

On Saturday, May 21, 2016, the New Hampshire chapter of Romance Writers of America is welcoming Angela James to present her workshop Before You Hit Send. In previous blog posts we’ve talked about the workshop, and we’ve talked about Angela’s career as an editor. Today we’ll get to know the personal side of Angela James, and Angela will share with us what she wishes authors (and editors) knew about the editing process.

The Personal Side of Angela James

Favorite Childhood Book (she couldn’t pick one):

  • Nancy Drew mysteries – Carolyn Keene
  • Trixie Belden mysteries – Julie Campbell
  • Island of the Blue Dolphins – Scott O’Dell
  • The Last of the Really Great Wangdoodles – Julie Andrews

Relaxation and Recreation

  • james_pixIf you follow Angela on Twitter, you know her bad travel karma is epic! Despite that, she still enjoys traveling. Tops on her bucket list for travel is a European train trip. She hopes to visit Italy, France, Spain and Switzerland for a few weeks with her family when her daughter graduates from high school.
  • Angela is a huge sports fan. Football and hockey are her favorites, but in the summer she follows NASCAR and Major League Soccer as well as European football. She doesn’t watch much dramatic TV, but she’ll binge watch when she travels or use it as a distraction when she’s stressed.
  • Although she loves sports, her preferred workout is boot camp.
  • Her perfect day off involves never leaving her couch. She can read all day and someone else can do the cooking, etc.

Gastronomical Pleasures

  • Her favorite beverage is water, but she’s been known to enjoy a glass of wine or beer here and there, too.
  • She loves to make multi-step recipes like homemade spaghetti sauce from scratch.
  • Her favorite food to have prepared for her is Indian curry. No one else in her family likes it, so she only gets to order it when she’s eating out.

 What Angela James Wishes Every Author (and Editor) Knew About the Editing Process

  • Angela James holding an e book readerA good editor is not just going to fix your grammar. A good editor will help you enhance your story, your plot and your characters.
  •  A good editor can make all the difference between a reader liking your book and a reader loving your book.
  • The editor and the author work together in partnership. It’s not that either has final say; it’s that they are collaborating on the book.
  • Ego can be the one thing that really interferes with the editing process. If you go into edits full of ego, i.e. thinking “this is MY book” or “I’m the editor and *I* know best,” the editorial process is doomed to failure. Everyone involved has to go into the process with an open mind.

I hope you have enjoyed this opportunity to get to know Angela James, Executive Editor of Carina Press, and I hope you will join us Saturday May 21 at the Crowne Plaza Nashua for Before You Hit Send. Register before May 1 for a discounted rate.

I encourage you to visit one of Angela’s many spaces on the web.


Lee Laughlin is a writer, marketer, social media consumer and producer, wife, and mom, frequently all of those things at once. She blogs at Livefearlesslee.com. She writes for the Concord Monitor and her words have also appeared in a broad range of publications from community newspapers to the Boston Globe. She is currently working on her first novel, a work of contemporary, romantic fiction.

Being a Contest Judge Brings New Perspective to Submitting Work

FollowTheGuidelinesOn the flip side of being a contestant in a writing contest, I’ve also been a contest judge. I realized many of the challenges that those who run contests (and publishers) run into consistently.

First off, I admire anyone who takes the time to write and submit for a contest or publication. Whether it’s a short entry or novel-length, submitting work to be read (and judged) by someone else forces a big leap out of your comfort zone. Kudos for pushing yourself to submit!

My best advice for submitting to anyone at any time is: Make the most of your effort by following submission guidelines.

You’ve put a lot of effort into your story — you don’t want your story disqualified before anyone reads it, do you?  Of course not!

We writers are a creative sort, but one area not to express our creativity is in tweaking the physical appearance of the submission.

  • Submitting in a font other than Courier or Times New Roman; a font size larger than 12 or smaller than 10; or pages with margins smaller than 1″ all around, doesn’t work (unless explicitly asked for). Don’t do it. Always always always submit in standard format – for publication, for contests, for inquiries, for queries, for anything, really.
  • If guidelines say ‘no more than 800 words,’ make sure your submission is not more than 800 words. If in doubt, word count more often than not, does not include the title; however if you have any doubt at all, include the title in your word count!
  • If submitting a piece that requires specific words to include, or a theme to write to, make sure to include the words, or write to the theme in an obvious way.
  • If submission guidelines say to submit as text in an e-mail (versus as an attachment), then, by all that’s holy, submit in an e-mail and not as an attachment!
  • Seldom, if ever, do you want to do a special header on a submission that includes all your contact information. Name, e-mail, postal address, phone number, and other such information should be sent within an e-mail or simply typed at the top of your submission (again, depending on guidelines).

Make the most of your effort to push yourself out of your comfort zone to submit to a contest (or publisher) — make your submission count — follow the guidelines, every single time.

I’ll have a follow up post on how to handle feedback from an editor about your piece.

I wish you a great week and hope you’re thinking about submitting to a contest or publisher (if you weren’t already!)

Lisa_2015Lisa J. Jackson is an independent writer and editor who enjoys working with businesses of all sizes. She loves researching topics, interviewing experts, and helping companies tell their stories. You can connect with her on Twitter, Facebook, and LinkedIn.

Shareworthy Reading and Writing Links Apr 24

hydrangeaMy beau gave me a beautiful hydrangea plant for Easter. It arrived in full bloom with five orb-like blossoms made up of small, powder blue flowers. Because New England spring weather is so changeable, I haven’t yet planted it outside. Instead, the hardy little plant has been residing indoors, doing its best impersonation of a house plant.

Unfortunately for the hydrangea, I have a poor track record with houseplants. I’m becoming more responsible, but over the years I have been guilty of fatal neglect when it comes to regular watering. You wouldn’t think it would be that difficult to remember to water something once a week, but …

A few days ago, I noticed that my poor hydrangea was looking very sad. Its beautiful blooms had wilted and crumpled in an alarming way. I felt especially guilty since my beau happened to be there to witness the result of my carelessness. I whisked the poor plant to the kitchen sink and gave it a generous drink before intentionally diverting my beau’s attention elsewhere.

Miraculously, only a short time later, the blue flowers had completely recovered. Just a simple drink of water, and they had been fully revived. They looked as healthy and lush as ever they had. I showed the rescued plant to my beau who wasn’t as surprised as I was by its ability to come back from the brink of death. Instead, he only commented, “It wants to be a bush. Once you get it outside, you’ll be amazed at how fast it’ll grow.”

I tell you all this because the experience reminded me of how resilient our writing lives are, even in the face of adversity or neglect. Even if you’ve ignored your writing for a while and it seems to be wilting away to nothing, giving it the smallest bit of attention can bring it right back to life. And, like my hydrangea, once you give it the space it needs, you’ll be amazed at how it grows.

_jamie sig

 

 


 What I’m Reading:

book not a self-help bookThere is a particular anxiety attached to reading a book written by a friend. Even if you have admired your friend’s writing in the past, the worst-case-scenario part of your brain spontaneously conjures scenes in which you desperately try to find something nice to say about said friend’s work even though you really didn’t enjoy it. Awkward.

Luckily for me, although I am as prone to such nightmarish daydreams as the next person, no such sticky situation has materialized in real life. Apparently, all my friends are brilliant and talented writers. (Phew!)

This week, I’m delighted to share with you the debut novel of my friend YiShun Lai. If you’ve been here a while, you may recall that I shared YiShun’s story Next of Kin last fall. This spring, Shade Mountain Press released her first novel, Not a Self-Help Book – The Misadventures of Marty Wu. From the Goodreads description:

Marty Wu, compulsive reader of advice manuals, would love to come across as a poised young advertising professional. Instead she trips over her own feet and blurts out inappropriate comments. The bulk of her brain matter, she decides, consists of gerbils “spinning madly in alternating directions.” Marty hopes to someday open a boutique costume shop, but it’s hard to keep focused on her dream. First comes a spectacular career meltdown that sends her ricocheting between the stress of New York and the warmth of supportive relatives in Taiwan. Then she faces one domestic drama after another, with a formidable mother who’s impossible to please, an annoyingly successful and well- adjusted brother, and surprising family secrets that pop up just when she doesn’t want to deal with them.

I fell in love with Marty on page one. She is immediately both very real and very endearing. She is delightfully imperfect, but her imperfection never feels contrived. All the pieces fit. I know people like Marty. You know people like Marty. Though she is decades younger than I am, and much of who she is has to do with the dysfunctional relationship she has with her mother (my mom and I are best friends), I found her completely relatable.

Her story unfolds as a series of diary entries, which she pens in an attempt to cope with everything that’s happening in her life. (I won’t give any spoilers, but there’s a LOT happening.) As someone who has journaled since the age of seven, I found Lai’s “dear diary” voice is spot on. Marty’s on-page ramblings and rantings are honest, transparent, sometimes slightly self-indulgent, often incredulous, and – at all the right points in the story – illuminating. She doesn’t pull any punches. I was also impressed with the way Lai wove the narrative (including dialog) into an epistolary style novel without ever jarring me out of the story.

Not a Self-Help Book is a funny, irreverent, heartfelt story of one woman’s journey to discover what she really wants, who she is, and how she can best navigate the treacherous waters of her relationship with her mother. It’s a story about holding onto dreams, making mistakes, and what happens when we discover that things are not exactly as they seem.

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My Favorite Blog Reads for the Week:

It was school vacation week this week, plus I had a pretty full plate with client work, SO … I didn’t read nearly as many blog posts as usual, but I do have a few to share.

CRAFT

PUBLISHING & MARKETING

INSPIRATION

THE WRITING LIFE

Finally, a quote for the week:

pin come alive

Here’s to remembering to tend to your writing life so that it can flourish and grow in new and unexpected directions.  
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Jamie Lee Wallace Hi. I’m Jamie. I am a content writer and branding consultant, columnist, sometime feature writer, prolific blogger, and aspiring fiction writer. I’m a mom, a student of equestrian arts, and a nature lover. I believe in small kindnesses, daily chocolate, and happy endings. Introduce yourself on FacebookTwitter, Instagram, or Pinterest. I don’t bite … usually.
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