Monday, September 24, 2007

What's It All About?

Remember your 9th grade English teachers harping on the subject of theme? "What's the point of the story, boys and girls? What is the author trying to tell us?" As annoying those persistent questions could be, encouraging us to discover the central idea of what we were reading was vital to insuring our understanding and appreciation of the work.

As writers, it's even more crucial to know what we're trying to say in our stories and essays. Why should the reader care about this? What's it all about?

"Theme is some kind of unifying idea in a story," writes Terry Bain, in her article "Theme: So What's Your Story Really About?" (Gotham Writers Workshop Guide to Writing Fiction) It is a "container to hold all the elements of your story in place."

The best news is that theme needn't be a lofty principle or message - in fact, that's probably the last thing you want. The writer, particularly the fiction writer, shouldn't worry about solving the worlds problems in their tales. It's enough to "shine your flashlight on some aspect of life and let the reader see what's there," Bain continues. "Not every aspect. Some aspect."

For instance, I've been working on a short story about a couple who find their relationship in jeopardy because of the young man's intense attachment to his dead mother's dog. I could have set out to preach about the importance of setting healthy boundaries with parents, or even the necessity of dog training. But, in terms of a basic theme, I've settled on "relationships" as the "container" who focus my story around. Everyone deals with relationships with parents, significant others, and, yes, pets. My story is built around this aspect of life on several levels, so there is something for everyone to relate to.

Bain advises us not to set out writing our stories with theme in mind. Write a draft first, and then study it to see what emerges as a theme. Often, ideas for theme will emerge as you are writing this draft. If not, as you reread it, begin looking at your characters actions, to see whether they imply any universal truths, or whether there is a dominant social context to the story. Try to simplify the story into a few words ~ how would you answer the question "what is your story about?"

Once you have determined your theme, you can revise the story to insure that all its elements relate to that general aspect. As you review your plot and characters with theme in mind, you'll be able to see where the theme could be enhanced and find ways to illuminate it. Knowing the theme provides a deeper focus for revision, and helps sharpen your direction for the story.

Best of all, unlike Freshman English class, this time there is no right or wrong answer. Identifying the theme of your story is up to you, the writer, to decide.

Sunday, September 23, 2007

Seven Deadly Sins

Tagged! Michele, Writing the Cyber Highway, has challenged me to identify seven things that make blog readers cringe.

I confess~the role of critic scares me just a little. I hesitate to set standards for others, particularly when I don't consider myself any kind of expert. However, during my blog hopping of the past 18 months, I have become aware of certain blog "attributes" that are off-putting.
  • Clutter. I don't like "stuff" everywhere in my house, and I don't like it all over the page;
  • Tiny type. My eyes are getting old - I need bigger letters!
  • Overly long posts. My brain is getting old too. Keep things short and sweet;
  • Wordiness. As William Zinsser advised us so well in his classic treatise On Writing Well-"Strip every sentence to its cleanest components" and "simplify";
  • Straying from the subject. Stick to one topic per post. Write another post to deal with separate subjects;
  • Lack of punctuation. Forgoing capital letters, sentence structure and paragraphing does not make you a more creative writer, it simply makes your writing more difficult to read;
  • Commenting without linking. If you leave a comment, please leave a link to your blog so I can return the visit.

There. Most of these observations relate to basic rules of good writing. For me, they are the least appealing qualities in weblog writing.

Cruise down the cyber highway to Michele's to see what she has identified as her seven deadly blogging sins.

If you'd like to play, consider yourself tagged!

Monday, September 17, 2007

Writer's Words

"There is a gap in understanding between me and our friends and acquaintances. I cannot quite understand a life without books and music and study and pictures and a driving passion. And they, on the other hand, can't understand why I have to write, why I am a writer. When, for instance, I say to someone that I have to get home to work, the assumption is that I mean housecleaning or ironing, not writing a book. I'm very kindly permitted to be a writer but not to take time in pursuing my trade. Nor can they understand the importance of music, or why an hour with a Mozart sonata at the piano is not wasted time but time spent on a real value. Or really listening, without talking, to music. Or going for a walk simply to see the beauty around one, or the real importance of a view from a window." Two Part Invention, the Story of a Marriage, Madeleine L'Engle

Monday, September 10, 2007

This Week in Writing-Talking it Up

This week's exercise is from the Gotham Writer's Workshop Fiction Writing Guide. In "Diaglogue: Talking it Up," Allison Amend discusses the way dialogue can reveal relationships between characters, and offers this exercise:
Jessica, a somewhat stuffy university professor, stops at a gas station in some backwater place. As she fills her tank, Alvin, the attendant, approaches her. He is an undeducated sort (though not dim) and being both bored and friendly, wants to chat. Jessica would rather not chat, but she also doesn't want to alienate Alvin, because she would like directions to a nearby restaurant that won't be too greasy or too ghastly. Write a scene between Jessica and Alvin, using dialogue, tags, and stage directions. The main goal is to capture the flavor of these two people through how they speak.

"You're wastin' money puttin' that high test gasoline in yer car."

"Excuse me?" Jessica turned her head slightly to see where the rude remark had come from.

"That engine will run just fine on reg'lar," Alvin answered, removing his stained baseball cap with its faded Mobil One insignia, and returning it to his head in one swift, well-rehearsed gesture.

"Thank you very much, sir," Jessica said, "but I'm just following the directons in the owners manual."

"Suit yourself then. I was just tryin' to save you some dough."

Jessica peered at Alvin over the tops of her Ray Ban's, taking in the baggy jeans settled low around his waist and slopping into pools of denim over the top of each tennis shoe.

"Do I look like I need to 'save dough?'" she asked.

Alvin grinned a little sheepishly. "I reckon not," he agreed, his eyes appraising her black leather jacket, high heeled pumps, and lingering most appreciatively on the sleek BMW convertible.

"I jes' thought a little friendly advice might be appreciated."

"I'm quite well acquainted with the needs of my car," Jessica answered, replacing the nozzle into the pump with a resounding thunk. "However," she went on, removing her sunglasses and giving Alvin the full benefit of her deep-set black eyes, "I could use directions to the nearest decent restaurant."
Alvin paused a moment before he replied. "That would be Kate's Kitchen, straight on down this road about four miles. Best homemade beef stew and cherry pie outside of your mama's dining room."

Not exactly Andiamo's on Fifth, Jessica thought, but apparently it would have to do.

"Thanks," she said, replacing her sunglasses and pulling open the driver's door. "I'll give it a try."

"You won't be sorry," Alvin assured her. "Drive safe, now, y'hear?"

Friday, September 7, 2007

Booking Through Thursday

This Week's Question at Booking Through Thursday:

Okay, so the other day, a friend was commenting on my monthly reading list and asked when I found the time to read. In the ensuing discussion, she described herself as a “goldilocks” when it comes to reading–she needs to have everything juuuuuust right to be able to focus. This caught my attention because, first, I thought that was a charming way of describing the condition, but, two, while we’ve talked about our reading habits, this is an interesting wrinkle. I’d never really thought about it that way.

So, this is my question to you–are you a Goldilocks kind of reader?
Do you need the light just right, the background noise just so loud but not too loud, the chair just right, the distractions at a minimum?
Or can you open a book at any time and dip right in, whether it’s for twenty seconds, while waiting for the kettle to boil, or indefinitely, like while waiting interminably at the hospital–as long as the book is open in front of your nose, you’re happy to read?

A Goldilocks reader I am not, although I find the definition rather endearing. Books are as much a part of my life as food and drink, and I'm perfectly content to indulge my palate anywhere, any time, with no preamble or formal preparation.

As a child, I was likely the talk of the neighborhood, wandering along the familiar route to elementary school with my nose stuck between the covers of a book. And though I don't read while driving, I keep a book of short stories and essays in the car to peruse while waiting in traffic jams or at the drive through.

Reading is the last thing I do at night, the book often falling with a thud on my face because I couldn't relinquish it before falling asleep. And reading is the first thing I do in the morning, propped up in bed with a comforting blanket wrapped around my shoulders and a steaming mug of coffee on the table beside me.

I read while waiting in the doctor's or dentist's, while waiting for the teakettle to boil or the coffee to drip, while standing in line, while eating my lunch (or dinner if I'm alone).

I read when I'm happy, with a joyous abandon, and I read when I'm miserable, to distract me from suffering.

I read on planes and trains, in the car when I'm a passenger, in hotel lobbies and airport terminals.

And yes, I read in the bathroom, albeit mostly in the tub, whilst sunken neck deep in fragant bubbles.

I just read.

Sunday, September 2, 2007

Write Stuff Short Story Contest

Behind The Mask

“How many times have I told you not to wear that idiotic mask to the table?"

From behind hollow latex eye sockets, Jenna could see her mother's slender fingers tipped in deep crimson reaching toward her face. Reflexively, Jenna raised her small hands to protect herself, but not before her mother snatched the mask from her forehead and dashed it to the floor.

Jenna shivered, recalling the dangerous feeling of exposure that caused her to shrink within her 10-year old self, lower her eyes, and try to become as small as possible. Her eyes fixed on the translucent china plate before her, resting on her grandmother's Irish linen tablecloth. She reached for her fork as slowly and silently as possible.

"Not that one!" came her mother's razor sharp cry, the one Jenna tried to avoid whenever possible. "The large fork is for your meal, the small one on the farthest left for your salad. Why can't you learn that?"

Jenna longed for the mask to protect her from the cold disdain in her mother's stare. She had chosen the Cleopatra mask that day, the dark beauty of this ancient queen the perfect counterpart to her mother's white blonde hair and icy expression. The masks had so often saved her, even though her mother either complained bitterly about them or, depending on the number of Gin and Tonic's she had consumed, angrily ripped them from Jenna's face.

"One of these days, missy, you'll come home and all those ugly faces you hide behind will be gone, gobbled up by the big green garbage truck,” she would threaten, stalking off into the den to refill her glass.

Jenna quaked at the thought of Cinderella, Scarlet O'Hara, even Wonder Woman (who wasn't actually a favorite) being crushed and shredded in the jaws of the huge waste disposal truck roaming the back alley behind their house. Somehow, though, she had felt sure her mother wouldn't carry out this threat. As much as she complained about the different faces Jenna wore, they were easier for her to look at than Jenna's real face, the one that people always said looked just like her father’s, with its smoky dark eyes and olive skin.

Sitting at her own table, some 20 years later, Jenna picked at the small salad before her. Perhaps if her father hadn't disappeared before she was born, things would have been different for her and her mother, she thought, as she had so many times before. But Jenna had grown up relying on the safety she felt behind the mask, protected from the contempt of a woman who should have loved her most, hoping one of the persona she chose each day would be the one her mother would find acceptable, even pleasing.

Jenna rose from her seat and scraped the remains of her salad into the garbage. Her small apartment was silent, save for the ticking of the clock which told her she had dawdled too long, lost in those memories of unhappier times. She had promised her mother she would visit today, although she was certain the woman had lost all concept of time, along with most of her other faculties, her brain ravished by years of alcohol and now dementia. Stopping to button her coat, Jenna glanced at her reflection in the mirror that hung beside her front door.

Yes, she thought, quite satisfied with what she saw, it was a good day for Cleopatra.

~go here to read other entries in the Write Stuff story contest