Tuesday, January 28, 2014

Musing on theme

What makes a book really stick with me? Of all the story components, I think theme is the "stickiest" one. A good book must have memorable characters, good pacing and interesting plot, but theme is what gets me thinking, even after the story is over. Many books will also stick with me because they surprised me with some unexpected twist, but often it's only the surprise that sticks with me... theme goes much deeper.

Theme is how the story relates to reality and life in general; it can present a view of an issue, or better yet, it can present multiple views of an issue, and consequences of choices related to that issue. One of my favorite books, The Archived by Victoria Schwab, explores what it means to live a lie, coupled with what it would mean to have access to the living memories of dead loved ones. (The sequel, The Unbound, comes out today!)

Another favorite is The Help, by Katheryn Stockett, which gives three perspectives on racism from three different main characters. These Broken Stars, by Amie Kaufman and Meagan Spooner, has a subtle theme of having preconceived notions about other people based on their background, and the roles we force ourselves to play to be accepted by others.
 The story has to pierce the heart of the reader. A great story is always relevant to life on a personal level… for the reader.  (Larry Brooks: Theme Simplified
The path toward thematic richness in a story isn’t persuasion, but the exposure of consequences that tweak the emotions. That gets the reader thinking and feeling. (Larry Brooks: The Thing About Theme)
I believe storytelling is one of the most useful tools we have for achieving meaning (Ursula K. LeGuin: A message on messages
From the writing side, about how to write theme, I found this comment interesting:
I think it was Ray Bradbury who said something along the lines of, You can’t consciously write the theme, it has to develop on an unconscious level or it feels forced.
I've found that's true in my writing. I can't start out with a theme that's important to me and write a story about. Instead I write a story about an idea, image, or scene that resonates with me, and as the story expands, some themes sneak in (and some sneak back out again) and it isn't until the rough draft is nearly done that I even start to recognize the theme (or that it's missing).
You don’t need to solve the issue for humanity, or recruit anyone to a point of view… just explore it, allow your characters to navigate the core story from within this microcosm and all its nuances and influences.
Larry Brooks' blog, StoryFix, is a wonderful source of information about theme (and concept, that's a whole other curiosity I might muse on next week). Here's something else from his blog that helped me understand theme better:
Think of a song lyric. Something serious and weighty.  The first one that pops into your head.  Got one?  Got several? It’s important to notice that the lyric that came to mind has remained with you over time.  Maybe a long time.  Which means there’s something about it that resonates with you. Your lyric is perhaps the gateway for a story that needs to be told.  And because it was you who remembered it, perhaps you might be the ideal writer to tell it (Larry Brooks: Finding and leading with theme)

So even before I was finished reading this paragraph the first time, a song lyric was in my head, and the theme that once had resonated so strongly to me... and still does. It's the lyrics from Shimmer by Shawn Mullins, and it goes to a story I rough-drafted back in 2008/2009 and have since put on the back-burner to simmer some more (Raining Toward Heaven). Don't know if I'm ready to start working on this again, but I am definitely making note here of how the theme (found in those lyrics) I need to explore more in that story.

What book has a theme that really stuck with you?

Thursday, January 23, 2014

A girl guarding a prince

Defy, by Sara B. Larson, is a young adult fantasy just released January 7, 2014. 

Alexa Hollen is a fighter. Forced to disguise herself as a boy and serve in the king's army, Alex uses her quick wit and fierce sword-fighting skills to earn a spot on the elite prince's guard. But when a powerful sorcerer sneaks into the palace in the dead of night, even Alex, who is virtually unbeatable, can't prevent him from abducting her, her fellow guard and friend Rylan, and Prince Damian, taking them through the treacherous wilds of the jungle and deep into enemy territory.

I'm a softie for books where the captain of the guard falls in love for the lady he's guarding (like Crown of Embers by Rae Carson); and that was my favorite part of this book: in delightful reversal, Alexa falls in love with the prince she's sworn to guard. The whole girl-as-a-guard thing was genuine. There were other parts of the book that didn't work for me, but those have been covered by many other reviewers. But this part definitely worked.


The ending also really stood out to me. It broke the mold and it made me sad and thrilled at the same time. I was wondering how Alexa would be changed by the story - I wasn't sure where her character arc was arcing, until the very end.  I wish I could say more about it without spoiling the ending, because this is actually something that begs for more discussion (and obviously, for a sequel, to see how Alexa deals with the huge change in her life). I may need to revisit this book again in another year or so when it won't be spoilery to discuss the ending. 

I received a digital copy of this book via NetGalley for my honest review.   



Tuesday, January 21, 2014

Top Ten Things on my reading wishlist

There are only a few times a year I really get into Twitter, and my #1 favorite hashtag is #RBWL (reader/blogger wish list), where readers share what kinds of stories they'd like to read. For a reader AND a writer, like me, it's like a great big idea brainstorming session.  Here's more information about #RBWL.

Top Ten Tuesday is an original feature/weekly meme created at The Broke and the Bookish blog with a different top ten list theme (all related to books) every Tuesday (see the full list here).

10.  Classic stories retold with a twist - like set in the future, instead of the past, or in a different setting, from a teenage perspective.  We've had plenty of Jane Austen book retellings... now give me Little Women retellings, Tarzan retellings, Jules Verne retellings...
9. Similarly, give me myth retellings and mythical creatures from all different cultures.  I have a personal fascination for Hungarian myths, but I'd love to learn more about Russian myths, Australian, Indonesian, Patagonian.... even urban myths! Give me mythical creatures that we don't already know: like duendes (Latin American) vodnik (Slovakian), encantado (Brazilian), leshy (eastern European)

8.  Religion vs. Relationship
Religion is fraught with peril because it stirs up strong feelings. Handled deftly (not all one-sided, not heavy-handed), I love this sort of tension: in contemporary settings, historical, and multi-cultural. 

7.  Family adventures
The whole family having an adventure together? Sisters, brothers, parents, even a grand parent or crazy aunt or two? This sounds so RARE and INTERESTING.  Here's two good examples:


6. Extreme settings like deserts and rainforests and cloudforests or combinations thereof. I want a book set on the Skeleton coast of Africa, or the Atcama desert of South America, or - I just discovered this term - a paleodesert! 



5. Unique love shapes and tangles
The standard girl-boy-boy love triangle has been overdone, but there could be so much more creative combinations!


4. Historical/contemporary parallels
Contemporary books with historical ties via old diaries, science fiction time twisty ties between present and past, like Doomsday Book by Connie Willis.

3. Historical fantasy
I love history, and I love fantasy. Put them together, and I just thrum with happiness. Closely related to that is high fantasy that closely mirrors real cultures and history. 


2. Space opera
I've been finding some great space books lately, like These Broken Stars by Amie Kaufman and Linked by Imogen Howson. But I want MOOOOORRRRRRRREEEEEE!!!!! 


1.5.  Mysterious and magical books and libraries
I've talked about this before, lots (here and here). More than books containing a secret or clue or spell... magical books that comes alive, that write themselves, or books that erase themselves or change their contents... whose characters or settings can come to life

1. Compelling, strong-but-flawed female heroes with unconventional strengths (not conventional weapons) 

Bonus:  Famous stories retold from a different point of view


What's on your reading wishlist?


Tuesday, January 14, 2014

On Crime and Punishment and why Wikipedia should be outlawed

Crime and Punishment by Futago-Kawail
on Deviant Art
I have this love/hate relationship with Wikipedia. I use Wikipedia to look up small esoteric details all the time necessary both for my paid job (map making) and my unpaid job (writing), and in the process get lost in it, devouring information and following links until I'm dizzy. Part of me wishes they'd lighten up their rules a little when it comes to writing style. Yes, it's an encyclopedia, but wouldn't it be fun if you could have a version with a little voice? Or a comments section? A "Like" button? And couldn't they hide the "plot" section of their entries for fiction works under spoiler tags?

Because Crime and Punishment, by Fyodor Dostoyevsky, has been forever ruined for me by Wikipedia. But to be honest, it's my fault.

One of my unofficial goals the past few year is reading at least one great classic a year. Last year I chose Crime and Punishment. I'd heard it was a story that would haunt you, a brave and terrifying journey into the mystery of the human nature. I've been wanting to read it for years but was a little daunted by it, too. I mean, with a title like that? I knew it wasn't going to be easy, but it would be oh, so worth it. Like Anna Karenina, oh my. 

I struggled all year to read it. The beginning is very, very bleak. I won't go into details because the last thing I want to do is scare people off, because I still deeply believe this is a great book and very worth reading. But for me, personally, the beginning was just too bleak.  So with 2013 nearing its end and me still only about 80 pages in, I knew I wouldn't be able to finish it.

So then I made a very grave mistake. I gave into temptation and read the Wikipedia summary of the plot. And then I cried. Because I realized what an AMAZING story this is (not to mention a stunning love story!!!), and I feel I robbed myself of the genuine discovery of it.  And thus I try to blame Wikipedia for putting the full plot out there to spoil any unsuspecting soul who happens upon it, but in reality of course I can only blame myself for giving into the temptation. 

Anybody have a recommendation for a classic for me to read this year? I promise I'll finish it this time around instead of letting Wikipedia spoil it for me! 

Wednesday, January 8, 2014

Insecure Writer: resolutions make me uneasy

The first Wednesday of the month
 is time for Insecure Writers
 Support Group, hosted
by Alex Cavanaugh and his
excellent team. 
Click here for a list
of all the participants and to join in.
The title of this post is completely ironic, because just yesterday I listed 6 reading goals for 2014. The only kind of resolutions that don't make me anxious and uneasy are reading goals, because reading comes so easy (too easy) for me. Okay, if it were good to have a resolution to eat chocolate everyday, that would be another easy one for me.

But yearly writing goals or resolutions? Those scare me. Too hard. Too confining, for some reason. However I do love participating in NaNoWriMo, which has the frightful goal of writing 50,000 words in one month. And sometimes I join other short term challenges for writing or revising. Maybe the key to achieving goals is doing them with other people? And going for short term goals helps, too.  Anything over a month is too scary for me. 

Another thing that I'm insecure about is transitioning to a new writing project. I've been working for two years exclusively on this one manuscript, Star Tripped, and I need to stop fretting over it, keep querying it, and start working on something else. I have other projects that I'm excited to start, but what worries me is that this one will keep sneaking back into the limelight. "Oh, just fix this one last thing." Which then spawns the idea for another change. I like to focus on one manuscript at a time. I want one thing to be all wrapped up and nice and neat before I move to the next, but creative work doesn't usually wrap up nice and neat. 

Which do you like better, yearly goals or short term goals? 


Tuesday, January 7, 2014

New Year's Resolutions, no problem

No problem? Hah. I suck at keeping New Year's resolutions. Except in one area - reading! I love to set goals with reading because they're not hard to keep, for me. And the wonderful team of bloggers at the Broke and the Bookish always have a Bookish Resolutions theme going on for their first Top Ten meme of the New Year.

A few of my bookish resolutions:
 (I'll have a separate post on writing resolutions tomorrow for Insecure Writer's Support Group).

1. Read at least 52 books in 2014, one book a week. This is my fourth year setting this goal, and I've always succeeded with this one easily. Guys, I could set this so much higher, I would love to read far more than merely one book a week average, but I have too many other responsibilities, not to mention writing, and some kids and a husband that would like me to surface from the pages or laptop once in a while and communicate with them. So this is actually a resolution NOT to go overboard with reading.

2. Read at least 2 classics. Okay, this one might be a little harder. In the past I've coasted through classics like Anna Karenina and Jane Eyre. But in 2013 I had a classics conundrum. I picked Crime and Punishment, and it took me all year to slowly wade through the first 80 pages of this book, because the beginning was so bleak.  I finally gave up in November, realizing I was running out of time, and switched to Robinson Crusoe, and was able to enjoy that one quite a bit more. (But I have a lot more to say about Crime and Punishment. It's an amazing book, but that's a whole other post).

3. Read at least 12 debuts (first books by new previously unpublished authors).  This one might be a little hard, too. So far I've only seen a few debuts that I'm really keen on, like Beholden by Martina Boone, Alienated by Melissa Landers, The Actual and Truthful Adventures of Becky Thatcher by Jessica Lawson (that's Becky Thatcher from Adventures of Tom Sawyer!!! - tell me it won't be fun to get her perspective on Tom's shenanigans!), and Elusion by Claudia Gabel and.... well so far that's all. Last year was SOOOO amazing with debuts, such as Pivot Point and Parallel and These Broken Stars and lots of others. 2014 is going to have to work hard to catch up!

4. Read at least 2 science fiction classics and 2 more recent Nebula or Hugo winners. This is separate from the non-science-fiction classics mentioned in #2. I've heard that the mentors at the famous Clarion workshop for science fiction and fantasy writers are horrified by hopeful science fiction writers who are unread and uneducated in the classics in their chosen genre. I've only read 8 of the SF classics (plus a couple more recent Nebula winners) so I have a long way to go.

5. Read at least two Printz winners or Printz honors (the most prestigious award for young adult lit). So far I've read the The Book Thief, Speak, A Northern Light, Shipbreaker, and Code Name Verity.

6. Read at least three Newberry winners or honors (the most prestigious award for middle grade kidlit).

And... that's enough I think!!! I'm starting to scare myself. But then, I think of how much easier these will be compared to OTHER kinds of resolutions...!

What are your thoughts on resolutions this year?


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