Writer’s Weekend Edition – NaNoWriMo Week 1 – Embracing the Crazy

diving-cloudsLast Wednesday, I dove into the NaNoWriMo fray a day late and 1,667 words behind. I set up my author page on the NaNoWriMo site and opened a Scrivener doc for my project. Today, I’m five days in and 6,829 words behind; but I’m okay with that.

You want to know why?

First, because I went into this knowing full well that I may not have a 50,000-word “win” in me this year. Accepting that reality from the get go took some of the pressure off.

Second, because just saying, “Yes!” to the NaNo challenge seems to have flipped some kind of creative switch in my brain. It’s like part of my mind has been asleep for a while, but is now waking up and ready to rumble. I didn’t plan on doing NaNoWriMo this year, so I didn’t do any prep in October; but now that I’ve thrown myself into the middle of things, my brain seems more than happy to churn out ideas.

Finally, because I’ve discovered a new and super helpful resource as a result of my flailing attempts to get my story organized quickly and effectively. I’ve actually been following K.M. Weiland  for a while and even own her book, Structuring Your Novel; but I hadn’t yet plugged into her excellent podcast, Helping Writers Become Authors.

If you’re trying to get your NaNo novel together late, or if you’d just like some smart, actionable, step-by-step advice on how to get your head around your story, I just listened to and LOVED these three podcasts from Weiland:

Over the weekend, I’ll also be listening to:

I was thrilled when I listened to the 2nd and 3rd episodes in this NaNoWriMo series because they provided me with some specifics and structure that I could apply to what my gut was telling me to do: Ask questions about your story.

I also loved that Weiland makes outlining sounds FUN … and that her podcast site includes full transcripts of her podcasts so that you have a written version to refer to. Brilliant!

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I’m not saying that I’m going to completely derail my NaNoWriMo writing efforts like I did back in 2012 when I blamed Larry Brooks for my #NaNoFail. Though I have long realized I am a dyed-in-the-wool plotter (vs. a panster), I’m not going to let that truth give me an easy excuse to give up. Not this time. This time, I’m going to work on my outlining and story structure WHILE I am simultaneously writing whatever my little heart desires – random scenes, character sketches, backstories, etc.

I may not come out of this with a novel draft or even with 50,000 mostly random words, but that doesn’t mean that I can’t put some words down. The experts say that with writing, you learn by doing. So – I’m going to do some writing. Right Now!

PS – If you’re also crazy enough to play along with NaNoWriMo this year, please look me up and, if you’re so inclined, add me as a buddy and drop me a line. 🙂 

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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.

Photo Credit: MY2200 Flickr via Compfight cc

This post originally appeared on the Live to Write – Write to Live blog.
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Writer’s Weekend Edition – Bring on the Love

eb-white-love-stone-heartToday’s post is short and to the point … partly because what I want to say is, at least at first, pretty darn simple; and partly because I’m due to my daughter’s volleyball tournament in exactly thirty-one minutes.

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Are you ever overwhelmed by feelings of love? I don’t mean feelings of love for your partner, parent, child, friend, or dog (though those are lovely, too). I mean feeling love for the whole of existence, for – as Douglas Adams put it – “life, the universe, and everything.” Have you ever been going along through your day, more or less minding your own business, when suddenly you found yourself close to tears or to laughing out loud because the world is suddenly almost unbearably beautiful?

This doesn’t happen to me all the time (I’m not crazy), but on occasion I am struck with an unexpected opening of my heart that seems to be trying to reassure me that everything is going to be ok. I don’t think of these moments as religious or even, strictly speaking, spiritual. In fact, they give the impression of having a kind of grounded simplicity that is more akin to nature than to any philosophy or other manmade framework. To quote Adams again, there’s a line in one of his books that goes something like, “Oh, well, that’s alright then,” which always makes me smile because it gives me the feeling that we’re all in this together and we will work it out.

There is a lot of craziness in the world. Cruelty, tragedy, and meanness abound. The hype of this insane election has driven us all to the brink and left us peering down into a very impressive abyss. But, in the midst of all this, we can still experience moments of love and wonder and awe. We can still find joy and hope and magic.

Why does any of this matter to you as a writer? It matters because, as a writer, you have the power to transform these moments into art. You have the opportunity to translate these fleeting glimpses of we-don’t-know-what into stories that other people can read, and thus share a tiny bit of your moment of love.

That matters. So, what love are you going to share today?

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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.

This post originally appeared on the Live to Write – Write to Live blog.
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Writer’s Weekend Edition: A Question of Purpose

Who is behind your words?

Who is behind your words? Image by Katie Lion

In last week’s round-up of favorite blog posts, I shared a piece by Steven Pressfield that posed the question, “What kind of writer are you?”

Pressfield shared an epiphany he had about his writing career while struggling to find common ground between the stories he wanted to write and the box office hits his movie studio clients wanted him to churn out. The conflict between his own aspirations and those of his employers caused him to take a good, hard look at his identity as a writer:

In other words, for the first time in my twenty-plus year writing life, I found myself confronting the questions, “What kind of writer am I? Why am I doing this? How do I define success as a writer?”

Am I a writer for hire?

Am I a genre writer?

What kind of writer am I?

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I have not yet come to a point in my own writing journey where I can clearly and definitively label myself as any particular kind of writer.  Honestly, I’m not sure I should want to. I’m a blogger and a columnist, a copywriter and a developer of marketing messages. I’m also an aspiring fiction writer who constantly berates herself for her inability to make more time for that particular pursuit. I’m also a writer simply by dint of my lifelong journaling practice, which I started at the age of seven.

Defining the “what” of my writing life has always seemed less important to me than defining the “why.” Digging into why I write is a topic that I return to again and again. I have written countless entries in my personal diaries and journals, and I have also written on the topic here, and here, and here (and probably elsewhere, but I can’t recall).

But now I wondering if “Why?” is the wrong question to ask.

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What if, instead of asking what kind of writer you are, or why you’re writing, you asked yourself who you’re writing for?

Who?

Because – here’s the thing – I can guarantee that you aren’t writing into a void. Even if no one else ever reads what you write, you’re writing for someone.

That someone might be an individual, or it might be a group of people. It might be your mother or father, a long-lost love, or your child. You might be writing for people who have experienced a loss or trauma similar to one you have endured. You might be writing for people who feel alone. You might be writing for immigrants. You might be writing for people who need a source of hope, or people who believe in right vs. might, or people who search for magic in the world … just like you do.

You might be writing for you.

You might be writing for your younger self, telling the stories that would have made a difference in your life, had you read them when you were a child or a young adult.

You might be writing for the person you are today. Giving yourself a pep talk or the chance to reflect or a simple diversion from the trials of life.

You might be writing for the person you keep hidden from the world, or the person you know you could be if you could only find the passion or the courage or the joy.

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So, ask yourself – who are you writing for?

And then ask yourself why you’re writing for that person or group of people. Are you trying to make them laugh, smile, or cry? Are you trying to show them something new, change their minds, prove to them that they matter? Are you trying to inspire or humble?

And that will help you understand what kind of writer you are.

Start with “who,” and the rest will fall into place.

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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.

This post originally appeared on the Live to Write – Write to Live blog.
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Photo Credit: Katie Lion Flickr via Compfight cc

Writer’s Weekend Edition – The Power of Story in the “Real” World

alice-in-battle

Alice: Another character embracing the great responsibility that accompanies her great power.

About a month ago, I published a piece here called, Remember. The World Runs on Stories.  It was mostly a note of encouragement to writers who felt that their pursuit of the writing craft was either a waste of time or a selfish indulgence … or, perhaps, both.

But, there’s another aspect to the idea of stories running the world that’s been nagging at me.

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My daughter was home sick from school on Thursday, and we watched the 2002 Spiderman movie starring Tobey Maguire and Kirsten Dunst. One of the most quotable lines from that movie is when young Peter Parker’s uncle tells the emerging superhero that, “With great power comes great responsibility.”

It’s a great line.

While it’s reported to have made its pop culture debut in the Spiderman comic back in 1962, the origins of the quote go much farther back in history. Some researchers  cite similar phrases showing up throughout history: in 1793 at the French National Convention; in 1817 at the UK House of Commons; in 1854 in a text published by Reverend John Cumming, a Minister of the Scottish National Church, and so on.

Clearly, this isn’t a new concept.

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A while back, a Livingston Taylor song inspired me to write a piece called It’s Good to Be the Writer. The funny, little song about an author arguing with his protagonist over the storyline highlights the power an author ultimately has over the creation of worlds, characters, and plots. Writers are, in a way, like the gods of our own realities.

But, what we sometimes forget is that the worlds we create can develop lives outside the confines of their reality. In fact, that’s their purpose, isn’t it?

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While some may argue that certain stories are nothing more than “pure entertainment,” I’m not sure I believe that. Stories are the writer’s thoughts, ideas, and beliefs packaged up into a format that is entertaining; but the fact that the format – whether written, audio, or visual – is entertaining does not strip a story of its meaning.

When I read Mario Vargas Llosa’s Letters to a Young Novelist, I was intrigued by the idea expressed in this quote from the book:

What is the origin of this early inclination, the source of the literary vocation, for inventing beings and stories? The answer, I think, is rebellion. I’m convinced that those who immerse themselves in the lucubration of lives different from their own demonstrate indirectly their rejection and criticism of life as it is, of the real world, and manifest their desire to substitute for it the creations of their imaginations and dreams.

Rebellion? Interesting.

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I have always been especially drawn to and enchanted by works in the “speculative fiction” genre – science fiction, fantasy, alternative history, surrealism, and magical surrealism. While many relegate these kinds of stories to that “pure entertainment” category, they are, in fact, some of the most influential and persistent narratives in our culture.

Storytellers working in these genres have an unparalleled ability to explore alternate realities and possibilities, spinning tales off in unexpected directions in pursuit of a particular line of reasoning or “What if?” scenario. These writers can push characters and storylines beyond the boundaries imposed by “real” life, and yet their fantastical stories often put us in closer touch with what’s happening in this world, right now. And, often, their works turn out to be startlingly prophetic.

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As writers, we are responsible for the stories that we put into the world.

I’m not, by any means, advocating for a world full of morality tales. I’m saying that writers need to be aware that each story they create becomes part of the fabric of reality. Stories are not exactly inanimate. When a reader’s mind encounters a story, a chemical reaction takes place that changes both reader and story. We cannot consume any story without internalizing some aspect of it … hero, villain, belief, possibility.

The stories we internalize color our reality, throwing shadows of themselves across our experience on both a conscious and subconscious level. Some stories offer wish fulfillment, others serve as cautionary tales. Some stories give us courage and motivate us to step more fully into our potential. Some stories make us slow down and rethink the reality we’ve come to take for granted. Some stories help us cope with pain and fear through laughter, acceptance, and shared experience. Some stories provide forgiveness, others hold us accountable.

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It doesn’t matter if you write for an audience of one or a readership that spans continents. Your stories make a difference. Just by writing them, you change yourself, and the effects of that change ripple out from you into the world via every interaction you have with others. And when you share your stories, the effects expand exponentially as each reader takes a little piece of your world view and incorporates some aspect of it into their own.

The world really does run on stories, and each one has the power to change the world. Remember that when you’re writing and when you share your writing with others. There is great power in words and stories. Wield the power wisely. Take responsibility.

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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.

This post originally appeared on the Live to Write – Write to Live blog.
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Writer’s Weekend Resources – Reading and Writing Links

Autumn Vignette: And in the faerie bower they slept amidst petals of every hue and dewdrops that shone like jewels.

Autumn Vignette: And in the faerie bower they slept amidst petals of every hue and dewdrops that shone like jewels.

Hello, and happy third day of fall!

I’m keeping today’s post pretty short since it’s my birthday today, and I’m trying to spend as little time as possible behind the keyboard. I told all my clients in advance that I was going to be unavailable this weekend. (I’ve had a summer’s worth of working Saturdays and Sundays, and even freelancers deserve a break once in a while.)

Instead of working, I will be part of the volunteer team that is putting together our town’s annual “Ipswich Illumination” night. I think this is the third year we’ve held this autumn festival, and it’s become one of my favorite local events. Usually, we have bonfires floating on the river; but, because of the drought, our fire chief very sensibly decided to ix-nay the floating fires. As a replacement, we’ll be using paper lanterns lit with a non-flammable light source.  So, on Saturday morning our volunteer brigade will be spending several hours hauling eighty specially assembled inner tube rigs out into the low tide muck where we will anchor them with bricks. Hopefully – if all goes well – when the sun goes down, we’ll have eighty paper lanterns glowing softly as they bob on the surface of the river on their rubber rafts. Should be quite a sight.

I look forward to being back into my usual groove next weekend. Until then, I hope you enjoy the links below. Have fun exploring & I’ll “see” you next weekend!

_jamie sig

 

 


 Books I’m Reading:

book-androids-dreamI love when a book surprises me.

Such was the case with The Android’s Dream, which I just finished listening to on Audible as read by Wil Wheaton. (Yes, that Wil Wheaton.) I had never heard of the book’s author – one John Scalzi – before, which may or may not be a terrible oversight seeing as the man has (according to his brief biography) won many awards (including the Hugo and the Locus), worked as a TV consultant and a video game writer, and also been the president of the Science Fiction and Fantasy Writers of America (for three  years). Wow. Busy guy.

I picked up The Android’s Dream because it was on sale and the Audible write-up was intriguing:

A human diplomat creates an interstellar incident when he kills an alien diplomat in a most unusual way. To avoid war, Earth’s government must find an equally unusual object: A type of sheep (“The Android’s Dream”), used in the alien race’s coronation ceremony.

To find the sheep, the government turns to Harry Creek, ex-cop, war hero and hacker extraordinaire, who with the help of Brian Javna, a childhood friend turned artificial intelligence, scours the earth looking for the rare creature. And they find it, in the unknowing form of Robin Baker, pet store owner, whose genes contain traces of the sheep DNA. But there are others with plans for the sheep as well: Mercenaries employed by the military. Adherents of a secret religion based on the writings of a 21st century science-fiction author. And alien races, eager to start a revolution on their home world and a war on Earth.

To keep our planet from being enslaved, Harry will have to pull off the greatest diplomatic coup in history, a grand gambit that will take him from the halls of power to the lava-strewn battlefields of alien worlds. There’s only one chance to get it right, to save the life of Robin Baker – and to protect the future of humanity.

Sounds fun, right?

It totally was.

This book has a lot going on: political intrigue, alien coups, snappy dialog, technological geekiness, convoluted subterfuge, spiritual quests, epic fights, and enough snarky and from-the-hip one liners to keep a smirk on my face for the whole 10+ hours of listening. Several times, I found myself making comparisons to the works of Douglas Adams and Kurt Vonnegut. Yep. I went there.

The Android’s Dream may not be everyone’s cup of tea. There is a LOT of swearing. (I mean, a LOT.) There is also a fair amount of exposition in which the narrator provides somewhat opinionated backstory or general explanation about how such-and-such a thing works. Interestingly, while most schools of writing will warn you to steer clear of exposition, I found some of these passages to be very entertaining … even laugh-out-loud funny. There is also plenty of violence.

That said, this is also a book that made me feel kind of warm and fuzzy. Weird, I know, but true.

If you’re intrigued, but unsure, you can read the first chapter of the book for free on Scalzi’s website here. Love to hear what you think!

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My Favorite Blog Reads for the Week:

CRAFT

PUBLISHING & MARKETING

INSPIRATION

THE WRITING LIFE

Sundry Links and Articles:

I have been enjoying the “micro” reads on Jenny Maloney’s blog, Place for the Stolen.  According to her About page, she has sworn to write 365 “Little Stories” in 2016. Lucky us! Here are two of my recent favorites:

little-story-1

little-story-2

Finally, a quote for the week:

pin-storytelling-alice-walker

Here’s to celebrations, changing seasons, and telling stories – big ones and little ones. 
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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.

This post originally appeared on the Live to Write – Write to Live blog.
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Writer’s Weekend Edition – A Crisis of [Writing] Faith

Photo by R. Keith Clontz

Photo by R. Keith Clontz

There’s obviously something going on with me and my writing.

You only have to scan my latest posts to see what I mean:

And, if we go back a little farther, starting at the end of 2015, my selected archive is a string of somewhat angsty, slightly rebellious, occasionally forlorn posts:

Holy crap. I haven’t exactly been a ray of sunshine, have I? (Which is weird because I am actually one of the most optimistic – sometimes annoyingly so – people I know.) Honestly, I knew something was up, but listing those posts out like that … whoa. I have to admit that even I’m a little dismayed at the story arc that’s showing up.

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Maybe it’s good to confront these themes of doubt and fear and an apparent need for permission. As ugly as they are, they are obviously a part of my writing journey. I love writing, but it is clearly not a walk through a rainbow-bedecked, unicorn-infested woodland. I am not tripping down a sunlight-dappled path, picking daisies and trilling cheerful tunes that attract bluebirds and butterflies to my outstretched fingertips.

Neither, however, am I walking through a tangled forest of doom and foreboding. There is no dark past or traumatic event that hangs over me like a curse. I have no deep-seated emotional scars or daily crises to drive my purpose and shape my words. I am not on a mission for catharsis (at least, not that I know of).

Instead, I’m just a “regular” person leading a “normal” life. And somehow, that feels like a liability to my creative work.

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I have no insights or answers to offer up today.

Despite the weekend deadlines hanging over my head today, I took a few moments this morning to sip a hot, cinnamon chai down at my favorite coffee shop. From my seat at the corner table, I watched people coming and going. I wondered about their lives and their dreams and their creative journeys. I tried,  once again, to sort out my thoughts about my own creative life – what it is, what I want it to be, and where it’s headed. All I could come up with is this rather random list of questions:

  • Am I having a crisis of writing faith? Have I been blindly pursuing writing because it’s been a part of my identity for so long?
  • Is the medium really the message, or am I missing my message?
  • Is writing What I Do, or is it how I process and share What I Do? (And, are those two options really all that different?)
  • What is the purpose of a life? (Oh yeah – I went there.)
  • Am I overthinking this? Am I taking myself WAY too seriously?
  • Is the unexamined life really not worth living (Thanks, Socrates, for that brain twister) … or, is ignorance bliss?
  • What do I really want to say? Do I have anything to say?

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While this inner battle has clearly been brewing in my head for a long, long time, it was a post from Dan Blank (Double down, with vigor) that was the catalyst for me putting these scary thoughts out into the world. So, thanks, Dan.

I hate the thought of being a whiner or being self-indulgent. But, I also live in dread that I will reach the end of my days only to realize that I missed my path and wasted all my precious time. I worry that I’m not being “authentic.” I worry that I’m basing all my decisions on fear and caution. As Dan said in his post, you need to focus on what you want as if you’re drowning. Forget best practices. Forget the safe and the boring ways of doing things. Go ahead and make “the biggest ruckus you could possibly make.”

Maybe that’s the answer. Even though (knock on wood), life is good, it feels like I’m drowning sometimes. Life is like that for a lot of people, even the regular ones who lead normal lives.

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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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Photo Credit: R. Keith Clontz via Compfight cc

Weekend Writing Ruminations and Links – The Odd Thing About Time

crows-timeTime flies, she said.

But where does it go? he asked.

In circles mostly, she answered.

I wish I knew more about time. I wish I understood quantum physics and theories of time relativity. Maybe then I would have power over time.

One of my recurring childhood fantasies involved a magic pocket watch that could stop time. I dearly wanted to be able to freeze time and bring the whole world to a halt so that I could catch my breath. I was fascinated with the idea of never running out of time, of being able to “have it all” because there was always enough time to do everything.

I could have used that watch this summer. I feel like this was the summer that wasn’t. My time was eaten up by projects that ripped hours from my days and swallowed them whole, making no distinction between weekdays and weekends. If only I’d had that watch, I could have stopped the world long enough to finish my work and still had time to indulge in the simple pleasures of summer irresponsibility.

But, I don’t have the watch. And neither do you. All we have, you and I, is the same twenty-four hours as everyone else and the very real power to decide how we spend them.

_jamie sig

 

 


 What I’m Reading:

book-many-selves-k-northI have just finished listening to the astonishing debut of author Emma Geen. I wish I could remember who first told me about the novel, The Many Selves of Katherine North, because I would like to send that person a thank you note.

The reviews on this book use words like exhilarating, horrifying, compelling, and riveting to describe the story of a girl named Kit who is a phenomenaut – someone whose consciousness is projected into the bodies of lab-grown animals for research purposes. Readers quoted on her website refer to the book as a “literary thriller,” “spine-chilling science fiction,” and a “compulsively readable sci-fi thriller,” but I like Havi Carel’s description best, “Geen weaves together philosophy and science fiction to create a magical, intelligent and intense novel.”

I was initially drawn to this book because I was intrigued by the idea of humans being able to project themselves into the lives of other animals, and I was not disappointed. While Geen’s disclaimer at the end of the book makes it clear that she is not a zoologist, she is nonetheless able to transfix her readers with the way she describes life as other creatures: fox, spider, whale, eagle, tiger. Her immersion into these other lives goes beyond the physical perceptions and sensations. When Kit slips into another body, she also slips into another set of emotions and impulses. It was a fascinating and thought-provoking shift in perspective.

While I was definitely carried along by the story (even becoming so caught up in the last few chapters that I abandoned my Friday afternoon deadlines and surrendered to a half hour of dedicated listening in the middle of the day), as a writer, I was also impressed by Geen’s prowess with both structure and language. Though I already own the audio version of this book (which was, by the way, beautifully narrated by Katy Sobey), I may end up purchasing a hard copy of the book. I want to be able to leaf through the pages so I can better understand the way Geen built the story, and there are probably (no lie) hundreds of passages that I’d end up underlining for future reference. 

Kit’s narrative bounces back and forth between two timelines – present and past – that eventually converge. To add to the complexity, much of the story takes place while Kit is projecting as other animals. Despite all this bouncing around in time and place and body, the story hangs together in a way that’s easy to follow. Geen does an excellent job of creating a pattern of rhythm and context that makes it easy for the reader (even one who is listening as I was) to stay in-step with the story.

And then there is Geen’s use of language. Had I been reading this as a print book, I would have had to keep a pencil with me at all times so I could make notes in the margins on every other page.  In Geen’s hands, something as simple as describing looking out onto the day turns into poetry, “I wake to the sky flashing lilac. Thunder follows soon after, a sound like the foundations of Heaven grinding loose. The silvered gleam of rain and vegetation writhes against the dark.”

Coming back to theme, I once again have to agree with Havi Carel’s assessment that this book is as much about philosophy as it is about science fiction. Or, perhaps, the two are so closely related as to be much the same thing. At any rate, I found this book to be a powerful catalyst for musings on what it means to be human, how we define self, the relationship between humans and animals, the relationships between humans, and how we perceive our lives. As deep as Geen dives into these waters, taking us along for the ride, it’s clear to see that there are depths still waiting to be explored. The Many Selves of Katherine North is an invitation to sink a little further into the darkness in search of the light.

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My Favorite Blog Reads for the Week:

CRAFT

PUBLISHING & MARKETING

INSPIRATION

THE WRITING LIFE

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Photo by Gina Easley

Photo by Gina Easley

Being so busy with deadlines means that I haven’t had much time for curling up with novel-length reads. (Hence, my liberal use of audio books to feed my story habit.) I can usually manage, however, to carve out a few minutes for shorter pieces; and have been known to bribe myself to the finish line on a piece of client work with the promise of a short story or an essay.

This week, I very happily returned to one of my favorite online stomping grounds, Full Grown People, and had the pleasure of reading Machines We Dream Into by Randy Osborne. This brief piece touches on themes of aging, art, and human interaction. If you have a few minutes, I recommend it.

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Sundry Links and Articles:

emotion-wordsI came across this quirky post, 23 Emotions People Feel But Can’t Explain. on either Twitter or Facebook, and although I can’t verify that these are real words (the list looks like it covers a variety of languages), I absolutely loved this collection of emotions.

My favorites:

Sonder: The realization that each passerby has a life as vivid and complex as your own

Vellichor: The strange wistfulness of used bookshops

Chrysalism: The amniotic tranquility of being indoors during a thunderstorm

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On a related note, there was this little gem that I initially saw on Facebook, but ultimately tracked back to a tumblr site called Red Blood, Black Ink, written by someone named Raquel. I just loved this piece. It’s a feeling I’ve felt countless times in my life.

I don’t know, my favorite was always witch weather. That moment that in a gust of wind or in the rumbling sky or at the edge of a fog bank where suddenly, you feel different. A restlessness, a sense of longing for a place that does not exist. I don’t know if anyone else has felt the electric tense changing of that moment. It calls the magic to your skin. For a moment, you feel ancient and powerful and lonely, as if you forgot something important. Witch weather. For some reason, in that wild instant: you remember you are alive, and that means some part of you belongs to the everlasting.

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Finally, a quote for the week:

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Here’s to making the best use of each hour you have – reading, writing, dreaming. 
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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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Photo Credit: h.koppdelaney via Compfight cc

Weekend Edition – Change In The Air: The Evolution of a Writing Life

typewriter royalThe writing life is never static. Each day brings new stories, new words, and new connections forged through the sharing of those stories and words. Through writing, we communicate more intimately and authentically with our own hearts and minds, with others, and with the world. Exploring life through writing exposes us to new thoughts, ideas, and perspectives. And, if we give ourselves over to the journey, there is, as the saying goes, never a dull moment. We learn and grow and evolve.

But despite the naturally diverse and fluid character of the writing life, we do still – at times – have to shake things up. Well, I suppose we don’t have to, but our creative lives are enhanced when we step beyond our comfort zone into unfamiliar territory.

I am feeling just such an urge.

This isn’t an impulse brought on by the intoxicating influence of spring. (Though, who could fault me for swooning into a state of optimistic exhilaration, given the recent spate of gorgeous days we’ve had?) It’s a shift that’s been building for a good, long while through many seasons. I still can’t see the exact shape of what lies ahead, but I sense that it’s time for me to acknowledge that I’m approaching a fork in the road.

Earlier this year, I mused publicly about where my writing life is going, and I have been mulling the question over almost obsessively since then. Not to be morbid, but lately I have been somewhat inundated with reminders that we are not, in fact, immortal … that life is, as the cliché tells us, short … that there are only so many hours in a day … and that, to paraphrase Camus, your life is the sum of the choices you make about how you spend each minute.

As I came to my desk to write today’s Weekend Edition, my mind was whirling with internal questions about how I’m spending my minutes at the keyboard and whether the choices I’m making will take me where I ultimately want to go.

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We published our first weekend edition here on Live to Write – Write to Live more than three years ago on March 2, 2013. Over the next four months, we published twenty-seven installments using a group format in which we each shared tidbits about what we w had read and written that week. In July of that year, I took the reins on our weekend missives and the format evolved to include a short essay, book reviews, a curated list of “shareworthy” blog posts from around the web, and an inspirational quote. This format persisted for 133 posts and carried through until the end of last year.

Over those 133 posts, the word counts of the essay portion of the “Saturday Edition” had climbed steadily. I didn’t do this intentionally; it just kind of happened on its own. 500 words grew to 1000 and eventually some pieces were running as long as 2500 words or more. At the beginning of this year, I broke the essays away from the “shareworthy” items and began publishing the two pieces separately – my random musings on Saturdays and the book reviews, curated resources, and other fun links on Sundays.

In all, there are nearly 200 posts in our Weekend Edition collection. That’s a lot of posts and a lot of words. Even counting only the posts published since I started writing short (and then long) essays, they probably represent somewhere between 180,000 and 250,000 words. It’s almost impossible to consider that kind of word count without asking yourself Pandora’s Box questions like, “What’s it all for?” and “Where is this going?”

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Which, brings me to today’s post.

I tend to steer clear of the words “never” and “always,” but (if I were the betting type) I’d put good money down on the odds that I’ll be blogging until the end of my days. It’s been almost nine years since I published my first post back in 2007, and I’ve kept the practice faithfully (and joyfully) since then via multiple blogs and platforms. Like journaling, blogging has become a core element of my writer’s life. It’s not going anywhere any time soon.

But, as I mature both as a human being and a writer, I’m feeling a strong desire to step back and take stock of the journey so far. I am curious to retrace my steps, revisit the terrain I’ve crossed, and take a moment to appreciate how far I’ve come. I cannot help but think that such reflection will help me see the way ahead more clearly.

Perusing the weekend edition posts, I am overwhelmed with gratitude for the opportunity I’ve had to put my naked (often only half-formed) thoughts out into the world and to have them embraced so graciously by you. Your kindness, generosity, encouragement, and thoughtfulness gives me more support than you’ll ever know and inspires me to explore topics more deeply and from different perspectives. In a way, this whole series feels like a first draft or a dress rehearsal for whatever comes next, and – truly – I could not have dreamed up a more wonderful audience.

I think, however, that it’s time for an intermission.

I’m not going to disappear completely. (My blogging habit is too deeply ingrained to be abandoned entirely, even for a short period of time.) I’m just going to give myself some breathing room and headspace. It’s time for me to follow some of my own advice, to “walk the walk,” as they say.

My current plan is to continue publishing “regular posts” every other week, and “shareworthy” posts – with their links to all kinds of reading and writing goodness around the web – on Sundays; but I’m going to take a break from Saturdays for a while. I want to explore what happens if I dedicate those hours each week to other writing projects, things I’ve been thinking about for such a long time and which deserve some time and space and the chance to unfurl.

Once I’ve discovered what’s next on the journey, I hope you’ll come along with me to share the adventure. Until then, I look forward to Sundays sharing insights and resources with you and to engaging in craft and business conversations in my other bi-weekly posts. Thanks being such an important and inspiring force in this part of my writing life. You’re the best.

_jamie sig

 

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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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Weekend Edition – Of Writing and Riding, Stories and Horses

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Me (in the front) and my sister (hanging on in back) on Cricket. I’m a happy girl. Sis – not so much.

I don’t have a conscious memory of my first time on a pony, but I do have a photo. In the blue-tinted picture, I am three-and-a-half years old and sitting astride a shaggy, black steed named Cricket. I’m sporting a red bandana, and the look on my face says it all – this is love. My younger sister is perched behind me wearing a bright yellow sweatshirt and a much less enthusiastic expression.

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Me and “Little Joe.” He was my pony for a whole summer. What a lucky girl. (And, check my cool bell bottoms, Dorothy Hamill haircut, and flashy red socks!)

As I grew older, my love of horses grew with me. By the time I was twelve, I was taking riding lessons. I even got to have a pony live at my house for the summer. “Little Joe,” as he was called, was anything but. Fat and full of attitude, his favorite pastimes included pinning me against the side of the barn, doing a military crawl under the paddock fence (in order to get to the “greener grass” on the other side), and orchestrating midnight escapes that resulted in my whole family running up and down our long driveway in our pajamas, trying desperately to coax the naughty pony back to his stall with carrots and buckets of grain.

When I was in my early thirties, I took up riding again. As an adult, I developed a whole new appreciation for the equestrian arts. My younger self had been caught up in the romance and adventure of riding a horse – but my older self became fascinated with the nuances of communication and cooperation that are the true foundation of good riding.

About a year-and-a-half ago, I mounted up again after nearly twelve years out of the saddle. I had started my daughter on lessons, and being around the barn proved too much of a temptation for me.  Though I was a little nervous about my first lesson in a long time, the rangy thoroughbred I was paired with (Traveler, who has since moved on to the big pasture in the sky) turned out to be very accommodating. More importantly, once I’d settled into the saddle,  all my years of riding came right back to me.

Horsemanship is called an “art” for a reason. Though it requires a great deal of athleticism – strength, balance, agility, and flexibility – it’s more about developing an intuitive “feel” and building a relationship with your horse. The most advanced riders make the act appear effortless, but there is actually a subtle and unceasing dialog that takes place between horse and rider. It’s about pushing past fear so you can experience moments of flow when it feels like you and the horse are one. In this way, riding has a lot in common with writing.

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Seeing Past the Romance and Embracing the Hard Work

Falling in love with horses is easy, especially when you’re a pre-teen girl who already loves animals. The idea of riding is full of romance. In our daydreams, riding is easy. You imagine flying bareback along a stretch of pristine, sun-kissed shoreline – the wind in your hair and the sound of hoofbeats pounding in the sand. The idyllic experience is full of harmony and ease and a kind of magic. Or, maybe, like I used to do when I was a kid, you imagine that you have a one-of-a-kind connection to horses that gives you special abilities when it comes to taming the wilder ones. Oh, how many times I wished I could be like Alec from The Black Stallion.

Writers often fall under a similar spell. We swoon over the idea of writing and all the trappings of the writing life – vintage typewriters, cool software, beautiful notebooks, well-stocked libraries, and cozy writing nooks. We are enamored with the image of The Writer as artiste. Instead of daydreaming about galloping along the beach, we picture ourselves scribbling in a Moleskine notebook as we stroll along the Seine, keyboarding our third bestseller from the corner seat in a chic coffee shop, or accepting accolades (and hefty commission checks) for our breakout novel.

There is nothing wrong with enjoying the romance of either riding or writing. I’m all grown up, and I still daydream about communing with wild horses and sequestering myself in a room of my own to write to my heart’s content. Romance and daydreams are healthy and helpful. They keep us always falling in love and inspire us to keep going even when the going gets tough.

But, whether you’re getting a leg up into the saddle or into a story, you have to realize that romance will only take you so far. Just thinking about riding will not make you a good rider. Likewise, just thinking about writing will not make you a good writer. At some point, you have to step beyond your romantic notions and get your hands dirty. Your budding romance must blossom into true love if it’s going to survive the long, hard road ahead.

Because, make no mistake, both riding and writing demand a lot of hard work. There are no shortcuts to mastery in either pursuit, and there’s a lot less glitz and glamour than you might assume. When I come home from a lesson at the barn, I’m covered in dirt, sweat, and horsehair. I smell like manure, have dust from the riding ring up my nose and in my eyes, and I’m tired and sore from head to toe. But, it’s a good tired. I may be exhausted, but I’m also exhilarated. I feel grounded and accomplished.

I feel much the same after a good writing session (sans the dirt and horsehair). Instead of  working up a sweat wrangling a 1500-lb horse around the ring, I tax my braincells wrestling words onto the page in a messy and imperfect process that is anything but romantic. In both cases, I have to love the hard work of actually doing the thing as much as I love the idea of doing it.

Committing to Consistent Practice

On a related note, both riding and writing require consistent practice. My daughter rides as well, and we are both the kind of students who show up no matter what. Rain, snow, excessive heat, bone-chilling cold – we’re there. Only the most extreme weather or illness keeps us from our lessons.

Whether you’re trying to master horsemanship or storytelling, you will learn faster the more you practice. While I’m not 100% sold on Malcolm Gladwell’s 10,000-hour rule, I do believe that the more you do anything, the better you’ll get at it. It’s just common sense. You get more comfortable, gain more experience, and learn from past mistakes. You also start to dull the edge of any fears you might have.

Getting Over Your Fear

As a child, I was a mostly fearless rider and, come to think of it, writer. I had few preconceived ideas about how things were “supposed” to be, and I didn’t fully grasp the consequences that might befall me if I did something wrong. I also, I think, benefitted from a youthful ability to deny that anything bad would ever happen to me.

Lots of things can go wrong when you’re in the saddle. Horses can spook or shy at pretty much anything including unexpected sights, sounds, and even scents. When frightened, they might jump sideways, rear up on their hind legs, or bolt and take off at a gallop. Apart from reacting to their own fear, sometimes horses just don’t feel like cooperating. You might, for instance, be on your approach to jump a fence and suddenly your mount decides they don’t feel like jumping and slams on the brakes. If you’re not prepared for such an eventuality, you risk being thrown right over your horse’s neck. Other times, you might just lose your balance and, through no fault of your mount’s, tumble to the ground.

Clearly, there’s a lot to fear.

With writing, the fear is less about bodily harm and more about vulnerability. As writers, we fear being ridiculed, called out as frauds, or exposed by what we share. We are afraid that we’re doing it wrong, that no one will care, and that everyone will see us fail. We worry that we’re not getting better, were never any good, and will never be published. These fears don’t involve bumps, bruises, or broken bones, but they are at least as scary.

With both horses and words, the best way (the only way!) to push past your fear is just to get up in the saddle and do the thing  you’re afraid of. Gallop that horse, jump that fence, publish that blog post, submit that story. You will never talk yourself out of your fears. You have to work your way past them by facing them again and again until you eventually realize that not only are your worst fears rarely realized, even when they are it’s never as bad as you imagined it would be.

I’ve fallen off many different horses over the years. I’ve fallen off while jumping and while walking around the ring after a lesson. I’ve been stepped on and bitten, crushed against fences, and nearly kicked. And you know what? I survived. In my writing life, I’ve been critiqued cruelly, told I’m not a “Real Writer,” and fired. And you know what? I survived.

Whether you’re riding or writing, making mistakes is part of the process. It’s like the old cliché says – When you fall off your horse, you’ve got to dust yourself off and get right back in the saddle. Same thing with writing. Never let an unkind word or a rejection keep you from picking up your pen or hitting the keyboard. Just get back in there and keep wrangling those words.

Learning the Language

In riding, you use your “aids” – hand, seat, weight, and voice – to communicate with your horse. These are the foundational elements of the language of horsemanship. A good ride depends on your ability to use your aids effectively both individually, and in hundreds of complex and subtle combinations. This is how you “talk” to your horse and give instructions about speed, direction, bend, flexion, and position.

In a way, riding really is like learning to speak a new language. I never cease to be amazed at the complexity and depth of the “conversation” that I can have with a horse simply by shifting my weight, changing my leg position, or altering my grip on the reins. With enough practice, the transitions become more fluid and the communication becomes more efficient and effective. It also becomes more beautiful to experience and to watch. Ultimately, neither horse nor rider is “in charge.” We are partners, collaborating and cooperating. We support each other – the horse supports me with its strength and back, I support the horse with my guidance, leg, and hand. We complement each other, each relying on the other’s strengths to attain our shared goal.

You cannot expect to ride well if you don’t spend time learning how to use the aids that allow you to converse with your mount. These are the basics. They seem so simple as to be almost negligible, but they are the core of everything else you do when on horseback. The most advanced riders in the world use the same exact set of tools as the beginner. The difference is in how they are applied.

It is the same with writing. We all have the same words to work with. We all learn the same foundational tenet of grammar and usage. We all have access to the same set of basic instructions on story structure, characterization, plot, tension, conflict, etc. The tools are the same for each and every writer, the difference between a first-time author and a literary master is only in the skill and experience with which those tools are applied.

Take the time to learn the language. Understand that even the most complex story can still be broken down into those basic, foundational parts. It’s like watching a flawless dressage performance in which horse and rider appear to float through their movements, and understanding that even that level of perfection is created using the same basic tools as any other horse and rider. It’s both humbling and inspiring.

Finding Your Balance

Balance is critical in riding. You must find a point of equilibrium from which you can not only maintain your own position, but can also influence your horse’s. You need to be firmly seated so that you can use all your aids to communicate effectively. If you are out of balance and  send conflicting messages, your horse will become confused and even frustrated. For instance, if you’re using your leg to urge the horse forward, but your lack of balance causes you to simultaneously pull back on the reins, your poor horse literally won’t know whether he’s coming or going. The result: you’ll get nowhere, fast.

Balance is also an important component of writing and of the writing life. In the craft, you must learn to find your balance in your story so that you can tell it well. You must learn to balance forward momentum with tension and balance one character against another. You must also learn to balance your writing with the rest of your life – family, partner, parents, work, friends, other interests and obligations. You must learn to balance your schedule so that you have time and space for everything, and you must learn to balance and ground yourself in your writing practice despite the many distractions that will come into your day.

Balance is, as they say, a verb more than it is a noun. In both riding and writing, balance is something you do, not something you acquire. Whether you are talking about being in the saddle or nurturing your writer’s life, things are always shifting. You need to be able to shift with them in order to keep your seat under you.

Listening to Your “Muse”

Riding is, though it may not look it, a very active pursuit. The rider is never on auto-pilot and neither is the horse. They are always communicating. They are always listening to one another. A good horse and rider team can “read” each other without even trying. They are always observing each other and responding to each other. The balance is always shifting, back and forth.

Despite the precision with which horse and rider can communicate via the aids, there will always be a certain mystery that exists in the relationship. Anyone who has ridden for a long time will tell you that there is something more at play in a good ride than the physical aids. Over time, horse and rider establish another line of communication, something less tangible but just as powerful. It’s almost as if, on some level, they become one, the boundaries between their intention and their movements dissolving. All the hard work that the team has put in transforms into what appears to be an effortless dance.

So it can be with writing, when you find yourself in a state of creative flow that takes you out of your head, so to speak, and in which you almost “become” the story you are writing. In these moments, when the words come easily and almost unbidden, you are reaping the reward of all your long hours of practice and perseverance. This may feel like magic, but it’s really just you tapping into your own creative genius via all the work you’ve put into pushing past your fears, learning the language, practicing, and finding your balance.

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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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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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