I got such nice responses from today’s newsletter, I’m posting it here! Thank you!!!!
Neither a lofty degree of intelligence nor imagination nor both together go to the making of genius. Love, love, love, that is the soul of genius.
-Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart
This weekend, Sara Pennypacker talked about her new novel, Pax, and the lofty goals she has for this book. It is a story with big ideas about the consequences of war. It is also a book she took many years to write, that she didn’t always feel ready to write.
But she persevered.
She believed in the story.
She had something to say. And she was determined to get it right.
This is my favorite kind of “story behind the story,” because it rings true for so many writers I know. Yes, when we receive an idea, either through news or an image or a song or an experience, we feel the need to write. We often don’t feel ready. We often AREN’T ready. But if we have big dreams and diligence and luck….then we can do it.
I also believe that too often we shy away from those big ideas. We equate THEME with lessons. With didactic writing. With no.
So today, let’s say YES to theme. Let’s think about how a strong theme makes a book better.
I bet that the books you remember best, the books you loved the most, the books that might have even touched your soul or changed how you saw the world all had one thing in common: a strong universal theme. In our quest to write unputdownable, unforgettable novels, at some point, we need to think about the ideas that are important to us–the themes that mean a lot to us–the emotions that we feel deeply. We have to take the risk and write what is personally important to us.
Remember: I am not talking about message. Or moral. I’m not suggesting that you should shape your story to offer a lesson. Lessons and morals and warnings are not what STORY is about.
As Sara reminded us: STORY IS THE BOSS.
And theme is something else. Something BIGGERand BOLDER.
For me, theme can encompass every aspect of the craft of writing for children and young adults. Character, plot, details, setting . . . no matter where we start, we inevitably come back to theme and the intimate connection a book and its heart. Theme grows out of tension that comes from asking hard questions and exploring universal ideas.
You know the questions. What does my character want?? Need? Fear? Do when she is scared? What is missing in this world? What wound needs to be healed? What has happened to these people that makes them act the way they do?
What is important for ME to think about? What do I think about all the time anyway?
For me, THEME is the guts of story. It is the passion or conflict, the connectivity and the contradictions that drive the story forward. Janet Burroway, in Writing Fiction, writes that theme involves emotion, logic, and judgment. Donald Maass, in The Fire in Fiction, says, “It is the underlying conviction that makes the words matter.” When a writer crafts with a strong theme, every decision makes sense.
Theme comes from the questions that gnaw at the subconscious. It comes from obsessions. Theme comes from the ideas the writer encounters that simply don’t make sense. And then it comes from taking this inspiration and doing hard work and self-discovery. And if you’re wondering, that is exactly what makes writing satisfying. Face it: it takes so long to write a novel. It just isn’t worth it if the concepts or questions don’t mean something important.
John Gardner describes my process and goal to a tee: “The writer . . . broods on every image that occurs to him, turning it over and over, puzzling it, hunting for connections, trying to figure out–before he writes, while he writes, and in the process of repeated revisions–what it is he really thinks. . . . Only when he thinks about a story in this way does he achieve not just an alternative reality or, loosely, an imitation of nature, but true, firm art–fiction as serious thought.”
Are you ready to stretch??? To think big??????
What is your book about? What is it that you want to say? What are the themes that constantly come up in conversation…that gnaw at YOUR subconscious?
Think BIG! Be lofty! Write it down and stick it on your wall. As you continue to write and revise, remember that your readers need books that address big ideas. These ideas, whether sad, funny, full of action, or all about thought, are JUST what our readers want. They are consequential. They are unputdownable!
Now…..have a great writing week!