Monday, October 26, 2009

ROUNDTABLE: Starting with the Basement

As a teacher, I loved introducing my students to Jane Yolen's books, especially "Owl Moon," a story rich in figurative language and evocative illustrations. After story circle, I would send my students back to their seats to write their own "Owl Moon" stories about outings with people they loved.

Imagine my delight when I discovered Jane Yolen had written a book for writers--Take Joy, A writer's Guide to Loving the Craft.

Okay, so it's not a new book (published in 2006), but it's new to me!

The book is full of practical insights into writing that do indeed re-spark affection for a craft that's keeping me indoors on a perfectly fabulous fall day. And with a deadline looming, some affection is truly needed.

Yolen likens developing theme for a novel to building the basement of a home during a Rocky Mountain winter. The ground must be warmed with heaters and fans to allow for digging. And
by the time the ground is artificially thawed, chances are the snow is flying. The holidays draw nigh. The price of lumber goes up. The contractor tightens the schedule, works on Saturdays, bribes the subcontractors to come at all.

However..."A story does not begin with the impulse to build a basement."

And so, most stories do not begin with the theme either. I've started with titles, characters, and a snippet of an idea. Never theme.

Oddly enough, once a story is started--and that can mean in the first through third draft--the foundation must be strengthened.

To find your theme, ask yourself what your story is about. It's that simple. The answer may seem boring, but if you've built a home, the foundation while critical, was probably ho-hum. Here are the themes of my stories:

A young widow must choose to live well after her husband dies.
A young woman (same widow, next book) learns to trust God in the midst of "storms."
A young woman (same widow, newly married) must commit to her new life while honoring her old life.
A mother and daughter come-of-age during turbulent times.
A mother seeks forgiveness and reconciliation with a grown son.

These are NOT pitch statements (Not one of these books would have sold!) and neither is a theme.

Once the draft is finished (whichever you choose), it's time to comb through and make sure that everything aligns itself with the foundation/theme with care that you haven't beaten your reader over the head with said theme.

Be subtle, yet consistent.


When thinking of theme, the line from A Christmas Story comes back to me when Ralphie's teacher announces to the class, "I want you to write...a theme." All the kids groan, but Ralphie lights up! He knows exactly what he wants - a Red Rider BB gun with a compass in the stock and this thing which tells time. I wish my characters were so focused. It would be so much easier to pin down the theme if only I knew what they wanted.

Sometimes I start with what I imagine my characters want, only to discover that a bigger, better theme has risen from the building materials. I start out with a root cellar with bare walls and a door and expand it, digging away the hillside and framing the open space. I also have to make sure the story and theme are in proper balance by not building an 8 bedroom mansion on the foundation of a summer cottage. If the theme is out of proportion to the story, it may not support such a heavy treatment, or if the theme is weighty, the 'house' must not disappoint.
Here are the themes for my stories:
A mother moves beyond tragedy to win the heart of her estranged daughter.
A woman overcomes the past in order to help a young woman close to her.

I'm married to a man who's been a builder since he was 21 years old. I've been on a lot of his job sites, and even helped him stand the first wall of the home we live in, so I know a bit about foundations. I love the quote from Jane Yolen, "A story does not begin with the impulse to build a basement." So true, and like Patti, I've never started a novel with a theme in mind. Instead, I've started most with a "what if ...?" My WIP began with a "what if ...?" followed closely by the working title, the significance of which is woven through the story.
The theme, for me, always arises from my "what if ...?" What if a woman discovers that everything she thought she knew about her marriage turns out to be a lie? The theme that emerged from that "what if ...?" A woman faces hard truths to move beyond her husband's infidelity. Or, what if a woman who chose not to have children decides to help her best friend have a child when the friend is unable to conceive on her own? Extreme friendship knows no bounds.
But I have to confess, themes aren't always so easy for me to identify, even in my own books. I find it difficult to reduce three or four hundred pages of story to one line. But really, discovering theme is part of the pleasure of reading -- or writing -- for me. Never, during the course of reading a novel do I think, "Ah, so this is the theme," but once I close the final page I like for the theme to settle over my mind like a gentle snow. No hail storms for me, thank you very much. I know, that's a terrible mix of metaphors -- foundations and hailstorms -- but you get the point. I don't want to be bludgeoned with theme. I want to reach my own conclusions, as I think most readers do. And it's very likely my conclusions might differ from yours, because everyone reads a book with a different life experience, and that will always affect the impact of the story on the reader.

Theme? We're supposed to think about theme? I have to confess that I'm plot and agenda driven. I want to tell a good story. I want someone to take action, to think differently after reading what I write.

I want to create a world that someone won't forget and that will stand like a boulder in the road of their thoughts -- that will require them now to negotiate with, or climb over, or intentionally and inconveniently walk around every time they think about a congruent situation.

I may start with a controlling image, or I may have a nagging question about "how things work in the real world," but my thinking about theme doesn't come out in sentences. I must be theme-defective.

My hand is up. I confess. I'm a theme junkie. I stuffed Talking to the Dead with themes that interest me - themes I see in life around me, some I wrestle with myself, and none of which I have answers for. I guess I build my house upside down, but themes come first for me.
I'm a concepts person. I never understood math; numbers refuse to speak to me, the turn their spiny backs to me and tilt their fractions in the air. But algebra? Ooooo baby. Loved it. Give me theoretical conceptualization any day of the week.

In addition to the overt themes of a young widow fearing her sanity because she hears the voice of her dead husband, I explored themes such as:

The Waiting Room - Kate spends a fair amount of time waiting in reception areas, lobbies, foyers, and waiting rooms. Each waiting room experience marks a new phase of her journey. There are many meanings and conversations readers could have about the waiting rooms.

Obsession - the ultimate anti-love emotion is obsession. The theme of obsession runs through the book and is expressed in different character's action. It's a dark theme, but it fascinates me.

Idolatry - Hand in glove with obsession is idolatry. Kate had idols, Kevin did, so did Heather and Donna. This was a theme nearly as strong as the main theme.

Emotional vs. Rational Responses - There is a tension in the book between the emotional and the rational. Neither one comes out a clear winner - but there is a discussion that can be found in the book about balancing the two in a third arena.

Somatic Experience of Emotions - Kate's feelings were overwhelmingly strong. All emotion is felt somewhere in the body as well as in the mind.

These are some of the themes in the book. I told you, I'm a theme junkie. And the way I understand theme is, I guess, different than that of my amazing blog mates. But that's okay, it all works out in the end.

How about you? What themes do you like to explore in your reading? Your writing? Are there themes you find yourself going back to time and again? Or do you enjoy a buffet of themes, never the same morsel twice? Have you found a sure fire way of identifying the themes in works you love or are writing? We're all ears.


Nicole said...

Being a seat-of-the-pants writer, the theme is like in the already built basement. Waiting. Quietly. Knowing everything will makes its way down there periodically as the story is constructed. Content to be useful and necessary but out of the way--even though easily accessible.

Kristen Torres-Toro said...

I'm like you, Bonnie. I LOVE themes. I'm more of a panster than a plotter, so often I find at the end of a first draft several themes that I didn't plan on. That's such a delight! But there's usually one theme I know about from the beginning. I can't start writing without one.

My favorite theme is restoration. I love light in the place of darkness, the picture of a life completely devastated made new through the power of God. It's what makes me keep writing, keep reading... keep breathing.

Diane Marie Shaw said...

Patti, Thanks for the reference to Jane Yolen's book, Take Joy. I am going to check it out from the library. I am always looking for good books on writing.

Aisley Crosse said...

Take Joy, sounds like an interesting book, I like the idea of themes, and now I recognize that it is one thing I've stopped thinking about. I'm currently reworking the original draft into a second and doing massive rewrites, it sounds like I better start considering theme, if I don't I'll have to rewrite all over again!

Carla Gade said...

I love your roundtable discussions, ladies! This was great. I am a theme writer too, and a panster. The foundation of the story can really keep you grounded.

Anonymous said...

We so appreciate the comments you leave. We love this group we're all becoming a part of.