On theme

Theme vs main idea.JPG

I’ve been reading about writing. I don’t know why I do it. It only makes me think, and question – and no good can come that.

One thing I’ve never really got to grips with in the idea of a theme. What’s your writing really all about, when you get down to it? I’ve always constructed a story through character, setting and – perhaps especially – mood. I’ve never used an overall, over-arching ‘concept’ to keep my writing focussed.

But I’m always interested in learning and if there’s something I could use to make myself a better writer then it’s past time to bring it in.

A theme is the controlling idea of your story: a bold statement that sums up what the novel is truly about. It takes message of the final act and then qualifies it. Examples (stolen from Robert McKee’s Story):

  • ‘Justice prevails when the protagonist is more violent than the criminal’ – Dirty Harry
  • ‘Justice prevails when the protagonist is more clever than the criminal’ – the Columbo TV series
  • ‘Hatred destroys us when we fear the opposite sex’- Dangerous Liaisons

Seems simple, doesn’t it? Your big idea at the front (‘justice prevails…’) and then the qualifier that makes your work unique. Well. I don’t know about you but I’ve not found it so straightforward. I’ve got things like:

  • Chivalry: ‘States collapse when internet loyalties transcend national boundaries’
  • Night Shift: ‘Survival can only be achieved when inner unity is gained’
  • Oneiromancer: ‘Justice prevails when your heroes’ will is more than the enemy’s’

The idea is that you write the first draft, work out what the story is about, and then rewrite with this idea in the forefront of your mind: or come up with the idea first. Whichever you choose, this is supposed to help you keep your story focussed, to not get sidetracked.

But this whole thing is taken from advice to screenwriters, not novelists. Does it really help people like me? Does it not just reduce the whole thing beneath usefulness? A single sentence can’t convey the richness of a story. Maintenance of aim – yes, I can see how determining your theme would help focus the mind and stop too many side-tracks. But all my novels have multiple foci and are about more than a single sentence can carry.

Take Chivalry as an example. The theme could easily be any of the following:

  • Tragedy unfolds as a father realises just how dangerous his daughter is
  • Madness will destroy if it can’t be channelled
  • Honour can only be achieved when maturity is gained

Which is right? Could these threads be tied into a single sentence – and is it worth even trying? Do we worry about subplots?

Theme. Complex, contradictory, contrary. I’d welcome your opinions as I’m yet to be convinced that it’s worth the mental effort.

And also, just to prove that nothing is simple, I took the image above from a blog on teaching that explains that main idea and theme are, in fact two wholly different things. The theme, then, of this post? Clearly it’s one of ignorance and stupidity.

Rob out.

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On being interesting

Interesting
Part of writing is selling yourself and part of selling yourself is being interesting. This is not easy. Not for me, at least.

Should you have the great fortune to be picked up by an agent or somehow manage to inveigle a publishing contract you become a commodity. The publishing industry needs a package, an angle, a way to attract attention to your work. That might just be you.

You won’t immediately be dispatched to do interviews with the great and the good. Journalism is an overstretched industry and most interviews you see are self-written: the tired journo will give it the once-over, maybe cut a few key sentences and shove it in, a way of filling up a column that otherwise she’d have to think about. Here, done and gone.

Occasionally, though, your life will chime into the zeitgeist. Said tired journo will be struggling to fill her pages and something you mentioned as an aside will strike her as worthy of deeper exploration. Maybe you’ll get that elusive personal chat (sometimes in person, sometimes via Skype or telephone) and what you said on the spur of the moment will be unpicked, stretched, your viscera unravelled in front of you.

This is good. This is what you (or at least your backers) want. It’s your job to think of something you’ve done, seen or been that might attract attention – no matter if you wanted to talk about it; no matter if you’re forced to examine some aspect of yourself you wish was left so far in the back of the closet that it might as well be in Narnia.

More likely you – as a newbie writer – will be mining the ‘local interest’ seam. It’s not the Times Literary Supplement you’ll be aiming for, it’ll be the parish magazine. Think about all the places you’ve lived, all the great bookshops you’ve frequented, the library in which you were raised: that’s your target market.

Example: my parents used to take me to Bingley library every week, until I was old enough to go on my own, and until I was old enough to go to Bradford Central Library on my own. Thus I’d be looking to the local Telegraph and Argus for publicity. They’d find me a lot more interesting than the Shetland Advertiser, especially as I just made that up.

Note that people are interested in people, not work. Unless your story is truly fascinating, a hot-button-clickbait-zeitgeist-relevant-to-everyone-world-shaker, it’s you, not your work, that sells.

Everyone is interesting. I’ve never yet met a single person who hasn’t at least one good tale to tell. And if you’re reading this then you’ve got something I’d love to hear about, be it your achievements, your ambitions or your frustrations. Not yet had the moment to do what you really want to do? The story of why you want to do that one thing, or your reasons why you haven’t yet done it – well, the key word there is ‘story’.

Think of it this way: if you were in a novel, what would you accentuate of your own life? What would you hide? What would people want to read about you?

And then forget all that. Because all people really want to know about is where you grew up.

A pathetic failure

pathos

You’re pathetic. Yes, I went there. Because it’s true. You certainly appeal to my emotions.

Pathetic, as I’m sure you know, comes from pathos. Pathos, along with ethos and logos, was one of the three main points of rhetorical speaking. I don’t want to go into great detail about their roots and definitions (let me instead point you to this website, which has good examples) but to look at pathos in particular.

I want to do this for two reasons. The first is to point out how pathetic modern politicians are: I mean seriously, Trump (and almost all politicians these days) used nothing but pathos in his speeches. You can agree with him or you can disagree, but learning rhetoric at least helps you recognise the tricks of the trade. Maybe Clinton wasn’t pathetic enough. A pathetic failure.

The second reason is to look at the role of pathos in writing. It’s there in every single (competent) thing you read; in every movie too. Because without pathos you have something flat and uninteresting; you have no reason to care about any of the characters or what they’re trying to achieve.

If you know anything of screenwriting (and maybe even if you don’t) you’ll have come across a concept known as ‘saving the cat.’ This is a moment of charity early on in the film designed to make you care for the protagonist – especially important in an antihero, who might otherwise be hard to root for. It could be a five second flash of our chap giving money to a worthy cause or calling his dear old Mom or – indeed – saving a cat from a fire.

This is pathos. This is direct, unalloyed, unhidden pathos. It is directly and unashamedly trying to influence us – the reader, the viewer, the listener – and tell us how we should feel. It’s subconscious and it’s terribly powerful. We are manipulated into feeling the way the writer wants us to feel.

This is not a bad thing. We, as readers, are willing participants in this game. If you’ve ever read a book and said, ‘but yeah, I just didn’t really care for the characters,’ that’s a pathetic failure. And what appeals to one reader won’t necessarily appeal to another.

The other big area of the pathetic in fiction comes towards the end: there is the ‘whisper of death’ moment around two-thirds of the way through. This is the moment at which your characters are traditionally at their lowest ebb. They are defeated, they are despairing, they are ready to quit. Sometimes the death is literal, sometimes not. Here the pathos isn’t just in the nearness of defeat but in the way the protagonist picks herself up, dusts herself down and gets ready to take up the blade again.

And then there’s the climax – or, rather, the denouement. This is where tragedy or triumph is brought home, where our characters learn to live – or not – with the consequences of the story. Happily-ever-after? With loss and heartbreak? It depends on the type of novel.

Oneiromancer uses pathos quite overtly. I have heartbreak twice: it’s there simply because it feels right in my story – but, at the same time, I’m well aware of what I’m doing. And I’m aware that I’m playing it up for a specific purpose. I want to make my readers sad, that I want them to feel. I want them to admire my characters for picking themselves up and bearing the scars with pride. It’s a difficult balance. I want these moments to matter to my readers. I want my characters’ tears feel real.

But the flipside of pathos is schmaltz. It’s fairytale. It’s unrealistic and unconvincing and, at its worst, it has the writer’s fingerprints all over it. That’s the basis of the contract: we will buy anything we read if it’s true to the story. But the moment we start to feel manipulated we kick back and reject the work.

So be pathetic. Use pathos to manipulate your readers; make them weep and make them whoop and holler. Just remember that one man’s pathos is another’s pathetic. You’re walking over a shark-pit on a buttered plank with a box of kittens in one hand and a hand-grenade in the other. Find your moments and make them count.

And watch those politicians carefully. It’s worth knowing how you’re being manipulated.

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If you’re interested in reading further, check out Thank You For Arguing by Jay Heinrichs. I came across it years ago and keep meaning to read it again. Also Save The Cat! by Blake Snyder: the over-use of exclamation marks irritates me, but it’s part of the screenwriter’s (and all writers’) essential toolkit.

Why write Urban Fantasy?

uf2

Pigeon-holing: isn’t it wonderful? Like it or not, Oneiromancer will be classed as urban fantasy. But why should you write (and read) urban fantasy? Without further ado, let me present you with ten reasons why this genre is great:

It’s all about duality

Above and below. Light and dark. Familiar and strange. Urban fantasy has, by its very nature, a state of duality. Every realm (and many of the characters) has two faces: the one we all see every day and the hidden underbelly. There’s always more than meets the eye.

It supports multiple themes

Urban fantasy isn’t a genre as much as a setting, and that setting is open to so many different lines of enquiry. Oneiromancer is essentially an adventure with tiny hints of police procedural, but it could equally have been a literary novel of identity, a romance (there’s plenty of UF-erotica out there if you look hard enough), a horror, a comedy. You can be satirical and subversive; you can make serious points about our political system or you can simply escape this mundane existence. The setting is free and easy, and the author has so much room to play.

It’s subversive

Or it can be. You can take any common object and give it a new function: graffiti can be an alien language; fire hydrants can contain an ectoplasmic suppressant; phone-boxes can become portals. Modern life is littered with things we’ve become blind to. What if speed cameras were actually the first line in our defence against paranormal creatures? Take an everyday object and make it weird. Because why not?

It’s wish-fulfilment

Who doesn’t want to be different? Urban fantasy allows us to be special, to see beneath the surface. We might not like what we find there but we’re privileged to get a glimpse behind the curtain

It’s easy

Relatively easy, at least. Writing history or science-fiction requires us to work, to either research or invent whole new technologies. We also need to find the language to explain things without writing sentences such as ‘As you know, the televiewer allows us to converse with our colony on the moon with only a few seconds’ delay.’ Urban fantasy exists in the modern world and, as such, the reader knows what an i-Pad is. Only the weird needs work

You can have great diversity

A problem with historical fiction how you explore the role of women. Do you keep them in the margins? Or do you break the era’s gender-norms to give a modern heroine? There are, of course, ways round this but they require work and I’m a lazy, lazy man. Similarly, I’ve read pieces both bemoaning the lack of ethnic diversity in historical fiction, and pieces complaining about ‘tokenism’ (although ethnic diversity was probably a lot more advanced than some people realise; if you can have a Barbary ape in Iron Age Ireland you can have a few non-white people around in the middle ages). Urban fantasy can be as tolerant (or bigoted) as we want. We can have kick-ass heroines, we can have a multiplicity of races, we can have LGBT+ and disabilities to our heart’s content.

There are some great authors to follow

No two people will agree on the origins of urban fantasy. It’s a young genre and the rules aren’t yet established. Does Douglas Adams’ ‘Dirk Gently’ books count as urban fantasy? Neil Gaiman has a good claim to be its greatest populist – Neverwhere had a huge influence on many people, myself included – and Ben Aaronovich has picked up the baton and run with it. We’ve got Jim Butcher’s ‘Dresden Files’. There are self-published works aplenty. There’s inspiration wherever we look; and we’re free to mash-up any other elements we want

There are no rules

As I said, it’s a young genre. You can play the game you want to play. The tropes that sometimes seem to have overwhelmed crime, for example, or high fantasy don’t yet exist in urban fantasy. It’s up to you to forge your own path. It’s new, free and unlimited. And exciting

It doesn’t have to be ‘urban’

‘The prerequisite is that they must be primarily set in a city’ says Wikipedia. What rot. In fact, I disagree with much of the Wikipedia UF entry. I see UF as defined by a state of ‘real world meets The Other’-ness. It’s the beneath the surface-ness that shapes the genre. Don’t let anyone tell you otherwise.

And, with that in mind, can I just coin the phrase ‘rurban fantasy’?

Because urban fantasy fits my story

At the end of the day I’m writing an urban fantasy because Oneiromancer wants to be one. I didn’t sit down and say ‘right, time to write an urban fantasy’. I had a story. I wanted to write it. Really that’s all that matters. It soon became apparent that this was the hole in which the pigeon fitted.

Recursion

A prince falls in love with a commoner
They met because he was forced from his family by a civil war
The civil war started because the council couldn’t agree on the succession
The council couldn’t agree because it was formed of houses who hated each other
They hated each other because their grandparents had a blood-feud
They had a blood-feud because a daughter broke off an engagement with a rival’s son

DTRH

A farmer finds a crown in a bog
The crown was thrown there by a defeated monarch
The monarch was defeated by a usurper and fled to a monastery
The monastery was founded by the widowed sister of a noble house
The sister was accused of dominating her husband
The husband had a secret love with the head of his warband

A fleet sets out from a space-station to launch one last desperate attack
The space-station is the last holding of a once-proud empire
The empire is reduced because its homeland was destroyed when it hit a moonlet
The moonlet was induced into the planet’s orbit by a secret cabal
The cabal was formed in response to the empire’s expansion
The empire was expanding in response to outside aggression

Where do you start these stories? What sort of story will you tell? How much background do you provide? Surely not all of it – not in detail, and not all at once. How much do you, as author, need to know? None of the ‘first tier’ statements are the beginning; you could trace causation right back to the Big Bang if you were so minded.

The universe dissolves into heat-death and a grey soup of atoms is all that remains
The last stars turn supernova
The surviving life-forms flee into another universe
Entropy is inevitable
The stars coalesce and ignite; planets find their orbits; the first stirrings of life arise
A God-Machine creates the Big Bang

perfect-laughter-Down-the-Rabbit-Hole-2-855x1024

There is no right answer. You start the story at the moment of fascination for you, the author. You write the story you want to write; you give the detail you think is relevant and interesting. You add detail subtly, drip-feed backstory. But you must remember that there’s always history. You never start at the very beginning because that’s impossible; there is no beginning.

Your characters don’t walk in vacuum. The world you create – be it a world purely of your own imagination or one taken from the world outside your window – has come in the way you depict because everyone and everything has a past. Why is the villain so twisted? Who created the magic sword (and why)? Who built that castle on that hill (and are we talking about a monarch or a mason)?

The readers don’t necessarily need the answers. You have to choose what’s important, what’s interesting and what your readers need to know.

And you can rely on your audience to tell you if you’ve got it wrong.

A page is a playground

A page is a playground, a wonderland. There’s nothing quite like the feeling of letting the fingers roam where they will – in a non-innuendic sense, of course – and creating something new and free and unique to you.

Dust

I’ve been writing for some years now and maybe the surprise is that it’s taken me this long to realise this. Maybe it’s a consequence of writing this blog; I have a new outlet for my scrawls-in-the-dirt; I’ve freed myself to create words and to trust my voice. But I’m noticing it in my real writing too.

I’m midway through my major structural rewrite – or at least the first structural rewrite – of Oneiromancer. This involves hacking at the tangled undergrowth of words with the blunt machete of confusion. It means cutting and saving sections separately, writing new linking scenes, then shoving the first lot of words back in a totally different part of the manuscript – which of course involves considerable rewrites as dead characters come back to life, previously vigorous people have gone for a little lie down, and all that was no longer is.

It also involves writing whole new scenes. What fun! What joy! To stretch back, kick off one’s metaphorical boots and dig out the dog-eared Slippers of Creation. This is playtime. There is no pressure. There’s plenty of time to worry about whether the words are any good or whether you’re hitting precisely the right notes. You know the whole novel’s going to be reassessed later – both by yourself and, hopefully, by those mythical outside influences: writing colleagues, tutors, professional editors or, in my case, parents.

I’ve done edits like this before but this is possibly the first time I’ve felt this sense of freedom. The reason for this? I think it boils down to confidence. Somehow, over the course of the last year and without me even noticing, I seem to have found some self-assurance from somewhere. It’s not that my work has improved but that I’ve stopped caring so much about the quality. That is to say (because I can’t let such a bold statement go unqualified) that I know the quality will come. Not in this edit: this is about getting the story right. But over the course of future drafts.

So for now I am building castles in the sand. I am playing in the mud. I am waving my wand in the wrong direction (again in a non-innuendic sense. Get your mind out of the dirt, you mucky person). Some – maybe a lot – of what I’m doing will be cut, deleted, or moved. So what? Mistakes are the first step to success. Some scenes will have to be shortened; some will need to be expanded. The only thing that’s limiting me is my own impatience: at some point I want to send this manuscript out to agents; at some point I want to start a new project.

But the future will take care of itself. Right now it’s time to lie back and enjoy the feeling of dirt beneath my fingernails.

Slave to the grind

Right. A weekend away has occurred. Now it’s time to recalibrate the brain for writing: to shake my senses back into the realms of the unreal and ineffable. In other words it’s time to work out what the hell I’m doing with this novel.

For those what don’t know, I got my feedback on Oneiromancer back from my betas a few weeks ago. It was the usual mix of great criticism: helpful, horrible, headscratching harumphery.  And, as usual, it leaves me temporarily lost for a plan. Or, rather, it leaves me with questions that I can easily answer but, in the answering, raises a whole phalanx of follow-on questions with no easy solution.

My problems are specifically those of the cut-and-paste variety. I’ve determined that I’ve got to move a batch of scenes, which I can do without too much difficulty. But every move not only leads to continuity errors – relatively easily solved – but also leave notes hanging that need resolving; chords missing a key tone and begging for resolution.

Scribble

A section of my scene-by-scene guide with notes detailing my rapid descent into madness

What’s exorcising me at the moment is the need to prolong a character’s life. It was widely agreed that I’d killed one particular character too soon; that she still had a purpose that I’d not fulfilled. I’m sure my betas are right. And so I’m acting on that…

Except that, because I always saw her dying here, I’m not sure what to do with her there. I don’t know what information she can provide because in my mind she’d served her function. Actually moving the crucial incident is straightforward; knowing what to do with her in the interim is a pain in the bum.

It’s one of those issues where the writer knows too much. I need to freeze my thoughts at the point at which the original story is set to change. I need to establish what the characters actually know in that moment, what their aims are and where they see themselves going. Essentially I need to forget two-thirds of the story I wrote and replan from there.

But how can that be done? I know too much; I can’t self-lobotomise – except via alcohol, which is a science too imprecise for my needs. I’ve planned the story out, and whilst I know alterations are necessary my mind isn’t the most flexible. The thoughts are burnt into my mind like great welts, throbbing and fresh and raw.

This is where writing is an effort. This is where I need to focus, to reappraise, to assess. To think.

I also have to keep in mind that I’m doing this because I want to write a good story. I want to write the best novel I possibly can. This is why I asked for people outside my mind to read it, to comment and to tell me what doesn’t work. To not act on their advice might be easier but it gets me nowhere. Ultimately the only person I’d disappoint would be myself.

So it’s back to the editorium with me. I have the masterscript all printed and ready. I have a scene-by-scene guide ready to be scribbled upon. The only thing missing is a brain that has answers, and those are in short supply.

Writing is not a glamorous pursuit. It isn’t the lone genius scribbling in his garret, churning out words of wonder with a bottle of absinthe and a few cats for company. It’s staring and scratching and swearing and always, always, working. Without any prospect of success – however defined – at the end.

It’s times like this that define you. To be a writer is to embrace the hard times, to own them and, ultimately, to enjoy them as much as you do the initial fire of creation. Only then will you be able to produce something the world will embrace.