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.

··• )o( •··

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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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.

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.

Weekend Edition – Lean Into It

xanadu movie poster“It’s a shame they turned the lights out just as we got here,” my friend said, but I was secretly relieved. “Bend your knees and lean into it,” she advised as I lurched unsteadily onto the hardwood rink. Kids, including my daughter and her friend, zipped by close enough to cause breezes that ruffled the fabric of my shirt. The blaring music, flashing disco lights, and huge video screens were disorienting, but I was grateful in advance for the cover they would provide should my rented, 70s-style roller skates succeed in their quest to liberate themselves from underneath me.

As I inched my way around the edge of the rink, I tried to remember the last time I’d been on skates. I had to concentrate hard to remain upright, so my math was a little fuzzy, but I arrived at a figure of about eight years. It had been at a fundraiser that my friend – the same one who was offering intermittent encouragement as her graceful arcs around the rink crossed my erratic orbit – had organized to raise money for our local (and sorely underfunded) family center. Before that, the last time I’d strapped wheels onto my uncoordinated feet was back in the early 80s when the movie Xanadu inspired me (and thousands of other eleven year-old girls) to don white roller skates and beribboned barrettes in imitation of Olivia Newton John as the beguiling muse, Kira.

I smirked wryly in the dark as I mentally compared Olivia Newton John’s flight-like finesse on eight wheels to my tentative, pitching and pinwheeling progress. Lean into it, my friend had said. Never lean back, she had warned.

··• )o( •··

It took me nearly two hours to achieve a tenuous equilibrium. Though my turns around the rink featured a never-ending series of heart-stopping moments right up until I rolled off the floor to remove my skates, I had also experienced a few strides of almost graceful motion. And though I knew I was no Kira, it had felt a little like flying to me.

My friend’s advice about leaning into it had been spot on. It had been painful at first. My shins, unaccustomed to bearing the weight of my body at that particular angle, had ached. I couldn’t get comfortable in my skates or my stance. Everything I did felt awkward and ungainly. And it seemed as if each time I felt a rare moment of poise and ease, my body would betray me by tipping backwards just enough to upset my shaky balance. My focus disrupted, I’d have to flail my arms around like the wings of some ungainly and flightless bird in order to keep my feet under me.

What I discovered halfway through our afternoon skate was the stabilizing power of momentum. The hardest parts of skating were when I wasn’t moving forward. Standing still (or, attempting to stand still) was a recipe for disaster. Despite my best intentions, my feet seemed incapable of being at rest. As they slipped and slid beneath me, I quickly countered their movements in a heroic effort to stay standing. The result was a jerky little dance that made me look, if not possessed, at least not in control of my own limbs.

Starting to skate after stopping was the other especially difficult part of the process. At one point in the afternoon, everyone on the floor was drafted to participate in a game that required us to stop and start multiple times according to musical cues. After admitting to my friend that I was not capable of either stopping or standing still, I realized that I was also almost incapable of starting to skate again once I’d “sort-of stopped.” The problem was that I didn’t have any leverage. Standing there, barely balancing on my wayward skates, I instantly devolved back to the level of fear and gracelessness that had colored my first moment on the rink. It felt like starting all over again, from scratch.

The few moments of success I’d felt all occurred when I was “leaning into it” and building momentum with my movement. It was only then that I seemed able to find my balance and a certain “flow.” Even though it felt a little  scary to be moving faster, it was the momentum that steadied me. Not only did it steady me, it also gave me the confidence to push a little harder down the long sides of the rink, reach a little farther into my turns, and even stretch up out of my otherwise protectively collapsed posture.

··• )o( •··

When I realized the power of momentum to improve my skating, it dawned on me that the same advice – lean into it – applied to many other activities. Each time I slipped up and leaned back in my skates, for instance, I was instantly reminded of how it feels to be “left behind” when riding a horse. When you’re riding, you need to go with the momentum of the horse – always leaning a little forward unless you want to collect (slow down) or halt. Being “left behind” means you’ve fallen behind the forward motion of the horse and you have to move quickly to regain your balance or risk being unseated.

Staying with your horse is especially critical when you’re jumping. I’ve always joked that my jumping technique involves squeezing my eyes shut as we approach the fence, but the truth is that you have to lean into the forward momentum and trust yourself and your horse. Although I find jumping a little scary, I can’t let my fear hold me back. Instead, I have to ride even more proactively and even a little aggressively if I want a good jump.

Similarly, when I was taking trapeze classes, I quickly learned that the art of “flying” is all about momentum. There is no half way when you are leaping off a platform to swing some forty feet above the ground. You need to “jump with both feet,” as they say. If you hesitate, you’ll lose your momentum and everything falls apart, leaving you dangling. But, when you go for it and throw yourself into the swing, it really does feel like flying. The momentum carries you through the movement. At times, it feels almost like no effort at all. It’s like you’re riding on a wave of motion that pulls you through the air, and all you have to do is hang on and enjoy the ride.

··• )o( •··

“Lean into it” turns out to be good advice for writers, too. We all feel awkward when we start writing, but if we keep at it and build momentum, we can create moments of “flow” that are full of ease and joy. Writing can be scary. It can feel like jumping off the trapeze platform or riding toward a jump, but it’s in those moments of fear and doubt that we have to double down on our efforts, lean into it, and keep going.

And just like with roller skating, writing becomes especially hard when you stop and have to start again. When you lose your writing momentum, whether on a particular piece or with your writing practice in general, it can be agonizingly difficult to get yourself going again. You can feel, as I did on my skates, that you are starting all over again from scratch. A consistent writing practice that keeps your creative muscles and craft skills sharp will help you avoid those discouraging moments. It will help you build your momentum and confidence so that you feel ready to push yourself a little harder, reach a little further, and stretch more deeply into who you are as a writer.

Perhaps the most beautiful thing about momentum is the way it is born out of the smallest, simplest actions. I didn’t have to master the art of roller skating before I could create enough momentum that I started to feel a little at home in my skates. I just had to get out on the floor and push one foot in front of the other. Tiny steps. Nothing grandiose. It’s the same with riding, trapeze, or writing. All your success is built on a foundation of simple actions. It may not seem like much when you’re learning to push one skate in front of the other, stay with the motion of the horse, or take that leap of faith off the trapeze platform, but if you lean into it, those small, simple actions will take you far.

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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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Big Magic

Big Magic: Creative Living Beyond Fear.

Big Magic: Creative Living Beyond Fear.

Not many books I’ve read about writing and staying inspired have confronted the fear factor, so I was eager to read Elizabeth Gilbert’s Big Magic: Creative Living Beyond Fear. At long last, the library copy became available, and I have the book in my hands.

What I like about what I’ve read so far is that Gilbert expands creativity beyond the page and talks about “creative living . . . a life that is driven more strongly by curiosity than by fear.”

One of the things I love about being a writer is license to be curious, because while I may escape to my studio every day to face the same blank page, I’m also tasked with learning new information, meeting new people, asking questions, being curious.

Gilbert acknowledges that courage is necessary for creativity. Some days, sitting at my desk is scary and I wish with all my heart that I’d become a lawyer. Meanwhile, I have friends who are lawyers who ask me, “How do you do it?” meaning get up and go to work without someone else providing the expectations, the office and the paycheck.

Most of the time I reply, “How do you do it?” meaning pull on a suit, commute to an office, and follow instructions.

Sometimes I wish I had an office job. (pixabay)

Sometimes I wish I had an office job. (pixabay)

Sometimes I wish I had an office job just for the camaraderie, coffee breaks and photocopier. I imagine life would be easier if I had someone else telling me what to do and handing me a weekly paycheck. But these are just details, and they’re not mine.

I’ve chosen the blank page, which some days feels like standing in front of a firing squad, and some days feels like floating weightless through outer space. Most days, it’s a mixture of the two. As Gilbert says, “It seems to me that my fear and my creativity are basically conjoined twins – as evidenced by the fact that creativity cannot take a single step forward without fear marching right alongside it.”

Having established that “Bravery, means doing something scary,” Gilbert discusses the magic of inspiration and recounts the remarkable story of abandoning a novel on which she’d been working long enough to develop significant and specific portions of the characterization, plot and setting, only to discover that Ann Pachett was just starting a book with similar characterization, plot and setting.

There's no limit on creativity. (pixabay)

There’s no limit on creativity. (pixabay)

What I like about this story is not so much Gilbert’s explanation of inspiration floating around until someone catches it, but her refutation that 1) creativity demands suffering, and 2) the amount of inspiration and creativity in the universe is limited. Both these ideas are commonplace – and untrue.

Where I write joyfully when I overcome fear. www.deborahleeluskin.com

Where I write joyfully when I overcome fear.
http://www.deborahleeluskin.com

It is entirely possible to be creative and joyful! In fact, being creative brings joy to the maker and the receiver(s) of creation, whether it be the cooking of a good meal or the writing of a good story. We live in an expanding universe – there’s no limit on creativity. Gilbert writes, “The guardians of high culture will try to convince you that the arts belong only to a chosen few, but they are wrong and they are also annoying.”

Reading that sentence was Big Magic for me, so I closed the book and returned gleefully to my desk.

 

Into the Wilderness, is an award-winning love story set in Vermont in 1964.

Into the Wilderness, is Luskin’s award-winning love story set in Vermont in 1964.

Deborah Lee Luskin blogs weekly at Living in Place.

Motivate Yourself by Submitting to a Writing Contest

Today’s post is as much for me as it is for you. You see, I’ve been quite lethargic about writing fiction lately, as my business has been so pleasantly busy that I don’t have time to write for fun.

I put don’t have time in italics, since, we all know that we make time for what is important to us. I do have time. I have the same amount of time as everyone else and if I truly want to write fiction, I will find a way.EnterWritingContests

Today’s post is my self-motivation for finding that way.

Submitting to contests is a great way to be inspired to write, to actually write, and to actually submit. I’ve done it. I know it’s always fun and challenging and a unique way to get the must to come out and play.

My all-time-favorite contests are the quarterly 24-hour contests by WritersWeekly.com, where you register in advance (this is for the July 9 contest) and pay the modest $5 fee, then on the date of the contest, you receive the writing prompt, the word count, and the guidelines. You have 24 hours to write, polish, and submit a short story.

It’s up to you if you want to pay a fee or not. $5 is the most I’ve ever been willing to part with to enter a contest, but there are all types of contests available.

Here are some contest lists to get you started

I hope you try a writing contest, or two, to shake off cobwebs, exercise the muse, or to have some plain old fun for no other reason than you want to!

Deadlines are a great incentive in themselves, but you could win a prize (money, publication, or some type of gift), improve your writing and editing skills, and even give your self-confidence a boost — which is where I’m at.

Feel free to share your thoughts on contests, and if you have a favorite, please share!

(I’ll talk about contests from a judge’s perspective next week.)

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.

Weekend Edition – The Secret Truth About Writing

Morgan Freeman as God in Bruce Almighty, 2003

Morgan Freeman as God in Bruce Almighty, 2003

In the summer of 2007 my fourteen-year marriage was limping toward what would turn out to be a less-than-amicable divorce. I split my days between denial, mild panic attacks, and desperately trying to figure out what I would do to support myself and my three-year-old daughter. At the same time, my paternal grandmother passed away. After months of being in and out of rehab for various illnesses related to diabetes, she spent the end of her life in a hospice facility. I was there the day she died. We were not close, but she was the first family member I’d lost since I’d been grown-up enough to really understand what was happening. Only a few, brief hours before she passed, my Korean grandmother had gripped my hand in hers and told me earnestly that she was ready to take charge of her life now.

In the midst of all these big, traumatic events in my little world, Steve Jobs unveiled the first iPhone. The release of a shiny new piece of technology may not seem, at first glance, to have much to do with death and divorce; but that sleek device captured my imagination and quickly became the focus of a not entirely rational obsession.

With so many aspects of my life spinning out of control, the iPhone seemed to be an almost magical key to the life of order and control that I so desperately wanted.

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On the day of the release, my daughter and I queued up outside the local Apple store along with hundreds of other shoppers who were eager to get their hands on this technological wonder. It took us three hours to gain entry into the bustling, white-on-white interior where Apple staff were delivering beautifully packaged new iPhones into the hands of customers who were as anxious and excited as expectant  parents.

Luckily for me, my mom and dad arrived to entertain my daughter just as she was beginning to lose patience with my constant admonitions about touching things and standing still. As my parents whisked her off to a less constrained environment, I finally took receipt of my own embossed box and the device that I was certain would give me all the tools I needed to organize, manage, and reinvent my life. I was ready, like my recently deceased grandmother, to take charge.

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My ex-husband will tell you that I’m a control freak, though – from where I’m standing – my “managerial” tendencies pale in comparison to those of his current wife. I will admit, however, to having Type-A personality traits and maybe even a touch of OCD. These characteristics make me more susceptible than the average person to the allure of devices, software, and procedural practices that promise superhuman speed and efficiency. I have been known to swoon upon discovering a new piece of software or iPhone app. As a writer, I sometimes worry that my fascination with technology and systems might compromise my creative spark; but I’ve also come to accept that this is who I am.

As you’ve probably already guessed, that first iPhone did not give me the ability to effortlessly transform my life into a well-ordered, Zen-like existence. Neither did any of next three iPhones that I purchased.  Nevertheless, my love for Apple’s crown jewel remains undiminished. I’ve just had to learn to temper my expectations. Now that I’ve been around the block a few times, I have a more realistic sense of what an iPhone can and cannot do to improve my life.

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I’m starting to learn a similar lesson about writing.

For all it’s creative and inspirational glory, writing is, at it’s core, an act of control. As writers, we create worlds, characters, and the plots that send our characters careening through our worlds on adventures of love and discovery, triumph and tragedy. We manipulate words into sentences and sentences into stories, controlling what our readers see, hear, smell, and feel. Writers are, in a sense, the gods of our own realities.

Writing is also a way to exert control over our own lives and emotions. The process of writing grounds us, offering solace and comfort through the ritual of regular practice and the relief of cathartic release. Writing gives us a set of powerful tools with which we can plumb the depths of our own feelings, attempt to make some sense of the world around us, and even reshape perceptions – ours and those of others.

Ultimately, writing is a bid not only for control of the here and now, but also for a certain kind of immortality. Like any artist, the writer seeks to create something that will live on after its creator is long gone. It’s not enough, apparently, to control the creation of alternate realities, our emotions, and perceptions. Writing also strives to control time itself by allowing the author’s voice to time travel across years or even centuries to whisper its story into the hearts and minds of new readers living in another era.

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I don’t pass any judgments on the controlling nature of writing. It is neither good nor bad; it just is. Mostly, it makes me laugh to think how long it’s taken me to figure this truth out.

I’m also learning to laugh at the futility of any effort to control life. I’m finally old enough to realize that even if we do everything we’re supposed to, life always gets the last word. There are no guarantees. There are no silver bullets. There are, however, plenty of plot twists. Even the best laid plans can go awry, and even the perfectly planned story can turn out differently than you expected.

I haven’t yet fully grasped the nature of the relationship between life and writing. I don’t know if I ever will, and that’s okay. For now, I’m just grateful that writing is such an important part of my life. Though I can acknowledge that the control it gives me is only an illusion, I can’t think of a worthier or more lovely illusion to pursue.

A story can cast a spell, but writing is not a magic wand. Words have undeniable power, but they are only a reflection of life, not the real thing. If you can recognize the distinction and still write with joy and enthusiasm, you’re on the right track.

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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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