It’s called a theme

Red and green are traditional Christmas colours, and they’re my favourite. I’m not sure why I bother to experiment with others, because eventually I always come back to some variation of red and green. For a few years we had two trees. One always had a random collection of family heirloom ornaments hung alongside homemade ones and whatever lights we weren’t using on the other tree.

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The other tree had a ‘theme’. For a few years one of our daughters had a collection of musical ornaments, with a garland of notes on a wired staff to create a musical-themed tree. There have been our all white years, when we’ve decorated from our collection of snowflakes, snowballs, and white frosted pinecones.

This year we’re back to red and green again… mostly red, with a little gold and a few frosted snowflakes displayed against the evergreen Fraser (or is it a Douglas?) Fir branches. Yes, the tree is up, the earliest it’s probably ever been, but so far that’s the extent of my Christmas preparations.

My hubby dutifully brought all eight of our Christmas-marked bins up from the basement and I picked through them, choosing what we’d use for this year’s theme. I suspect I gave it more thought than I do when I’m writing and trying to settle on a theme for my stories.

Theme isn’t easy to define… at least, not for me. It’s one of those story crafting experiences that is more  intuitive than planned. In his book, Story EngineeringLarry Brooks says:

“You intuitively know what [a good book or movie] was about, and usually on two levels: it was about the plot…and, in a different experiential context, it was about what the story means… the theme…. Theme is what our story means. How it relates to reality and life in general. What is says about life and the infinite roster of issues, facets, challenges and experiences it presents.”

That sounds reasonable, but ask me what my theme IS, and I’m back to square one! Ha!

How would you describe ‘theme’ in fiction? Is the definition as elusive for you as it is for me?

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Can writing fiction change reality?

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Anger hurts. Anger reacts and retaliates. Anger consumes like fire among tinder.

Anger rages in so many parts of our world. Wars and political uprisings, invasions, murder and brutality spill from one country to another and onto our own city streets. An ostrich approach is tempting except we know anger won’t disappear just because we shield our eyes from it. In fact, if we’re not paying attention it can overtake us like a wildfire.

There is an ad for Amnesty International on television right now, showing three hooligans beating a young man. As they raise rifles to shoot him, they discover the eyes of the camera recording the incident and, conscious of being seen, lower their weapons and walk away. The caption suggests public awareness makes a difference. But does it make enough of a difference?

Awareness is a first step, but awareness that doesn’t result in action is ineffective. Without action there won’t be change.  And that completes the circle, because without change there is more frustration, more anger.

Like smoldering peat, creeping subsurface after a fire, the underlying causes of anger are hard to extinguish.

Helplessness is infuriating. Sometimes I wish for the days of ignorance, where television and newspapers didn’t invade my life with images and information reflecting hate. Did all the publicity perpetuate it, or has it always existed but without such widespread recognition?

Works of non-fiction document the truth that surrounds us. Fiction creates worlds where truth becomes whatever we want it to be. Sometimes I am asked why I choose to write fiction, and the only answer I can verbalize is that I want to create a happily ever after. I wish it for everyone but can only make it happen for my characters. That’s better than nothing.

What motivates the kind of stories you choose to write?

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Getting In the Mood

Candlelight and soft music? I don’t think so! Then again, if I were writing in the Romance genre perhaps those are exactly the props I’d use to get into a scene-writing mood.

When it comes to finding story ideas we all have our distinctive sources. For me, a single image repeatedly appears in my mind, usually of a person in a particular setting. There is nothing else. No action. No plot. I begin to wonder who this person is, what’s happening and why. As the character’s state of mind is revealed the beginning of a story emerges and I write the first scene.

That’s how it starts. From that point I either keep writing ‘from the seat of my pants’, without knowing where the story will go, or I do a bit of basic planning, jotting down several key ideas that will guide me in a specific direction.

Sometimes before I even start writing I’ve seen and explored that mental image so many times the character has become familiar. Other times I get to know the person as the story develops. In either case my imagination begins creating a setting complete with meaningful props. That’s when I dig out my old magazines and catalogues, grab scissors and glue, and begin making a story collage.

My collages always begin with a picture that resembles my mental image of the main character. Beyond that it’s a random process during which I collect a hodgepodge of clippings. It’s an ongoing process throughout the writing of the first draft. I stick the clippings onto card, adding others as the story moves ahead. Usually I end up with anywhere from two to four cards which I slip into plastic sleeves and clip into my research binder.

During a current critique of my w.i.p. I was reminded that leaving cards in the binder doesn’t serve me very well unless it’s close at hand for frequent reference. Today I have the collage cards out to help me get back into the mood to improve a tiny slice of romance writing. There is no candlelight and soft music, just the picture of an ornate gold Celtic cross.

Do you use props to help get into a specific mood for writing a scene? What are they?

Lying My Way to an Award

Fiction writing is all about creating stories out of nothing. No, on second thought, that’s not entirely true. It’s about creating stories that evolve from a seed of reality… some small truth that evokes an idea, a possibility, that the writer’s brain can’t wait to develop into a plot.

Recently Joylene Butler nominated me for LESA’S BALD FACED LIAR CREATIVE WRITER BLOGGER AWARD. At first I wasn’t sure whether to be honoured or insulted, but knowing Joylene’s good heart I’ve decided she meant it as a compliment and I sincerely thank her for it.

One of the conditions attached to this award is that I must post seven facts about myself, six of which are lies and one that is true. I must be a very honest person (or a poor fiction writer) because it’s taken me ages to come up with these facts, but here goes:

  1. My family loves camping and we’ve had a succession of eight different recreational vehicles (tent trailer, two travel trailers, two motorhomes, one fifth wheel and two campers) in which we’ve travelled on every major highway in Canada and the USA.
  2. I’m a natural brunette and have never dyed or bleached my hair. It’s liberally sprinkled with grey now, but I won’t be changing that anytime soon.
  3. Snakes and mice don’t scare me. I’ve worn a 9’ python draped across my shoulders and have the rattle chopped from a 3’ rattlesnake that was looking to eat my dogs for lunch.
  4. Acting fascinates me almost as much as writing and I once played a small part in a movie that debuted at the Toronto Film Festival and went on to be listed as #6 in Time Magazine’s ten top movies of 2000.
  5. While visiting my daughter in the Yukon one February I got to watch the start of the 1,000 mile Yukon Quest dog sled race between Whitehorse, Yukon and Fairbanks, Alaska.
  6. I once drove a stock car during preliminary time trials at the Digney Speedway in Burnaby, BC. The speedway was built by Andy Digney for the post-WWII midget racing boom and evolved to be a stock car track. It closed at the end of the 1958 season. Does that age me, or what?
  7. Speed exhilarates me and I love riding the roller coaster at Playland in Vancouver. I attend the Pacific National Exhibition every summer and always take in at least a couple rides on the 50+ year old wooden structure.

Okay, that’s the list. One of the above statements is cross-my-heart absolutely  accurate — but here’s where it gets tricky. Remember what I said about creative stories evolving from a seed of truth? Well, the six “bald faced lies” all contain some truth. I’ll leave it to you to figure out which one is totally true. I’ll do a follow-up post on Friday and reveal all.

The rules also say I’m supposed to nominate seven other lying-through-their-teeth bloggers, but I’m at a loss. I think I’m safest to stay within the family (who can you treat the worst but loving family members?) and will nominate just one:

Sorry, Shari, but I think you’re a great and imaginative fiction writer and I’m curious to see what whoppers you can come up with.  🙂

Is it Outlining or Plotting?

Sometimes I get hung up on semantics. “Plotting versus pantsing” is a popular topic of discussion among writers.  Writing by the seat of my pants got me through my first two novels, and with a germ of an idea in mind it’s how I write most of my articles. During revisions of my second novel I had an idea for a third one and quickly wrote my way through its first chapter. Then I decided to give outlining a try.

It’s not working. Not only is it not working, it’s dampening my enthusiasm for the story.

Here’s where semantics come into play. My outline is attempting to touch on all the basic plot points that will take the story from beginning to end. So am I outlining or plotting? I don’t really know.

Whatever it’s called, I’ve drifted back to my earlier revisions and left the new idea to gather dust in the closet. That’s not a bad thing, of course. Novel #2 really needed a major overhaul so I’m glad to be able to focus on it without the distraction of #3. But there’s a still-earlier sort-of memoir that’s beckoning for attention now, too. I’m beginning to see signs of avoidance here and suspect it’s all because of this dratted outline-plotting thing.

Relating it to painting offers a slightly different perspective. With a scene in mind I begin by laying out a basic composition, but I don’t choose all the colours before I put brush to canvas. If I did, it would seem too much like a paint-by-number effort. I know the end result would lack the emotional element I desire and, knowing that, I would put the brush back down.

How would you define outlining versus plotting? In your writing have you found a balance between flying blind and working with a view in mind?

Whose Story Is It Anyway?

Authors get asked all the time about the source of their ideas and there’s never a simple explanation. A fragment of conversation, a fleeting glimpse of the unconventional, an unexpected sequence of events, and suddenly the writer’s mind is asking, “What if…?”

 

The idea won’t be original. There are basic themes that have regularly reappeared throughout literary history. It’s a given that whatever one chooses to write about has probably already been written by someone else.  What will make the story unique is not the idea but how it is developed by a particular author.

 

In his first contribution to the “Writer Unboxed” blog, Donald Maass says, “Originality can come only from what you bring of yourself to your story. In other words, originality is not a function of your novel; it is a quality in you.”

 

There is no better way to say it.


Imagination at Work

“The world of reality has its limits; the world of imagination is boundless.”

[Jean-Jacques Rousseau]

Imagination is a fascinating phenomenon. With it the writer’s mind creates people who don’t exist, places that have never been, events that didn’t happen, and somehow combines them to create a world that readers accept as real.

 

Indulging in mental wool gathering is a necessary prelude to writing. Staring at people in public places, talking to ones’ self, wandering in apparent aimlessness – these are often signs of the creative process in action. Of course they can also be signs of a rude schizophrenic person who is genuinely lost.

 

Should you encounter me displaying an unusually vague state of mind please inquire if I’m plotting my next novel before making a psychiatrist’s appointment for me.