The Three Dirty Birds are talking Theme today, Chapter 12 from James Scott Bell’s Revision and Self-Editing for Publication.
Kate: I never pay attention to the theme until I’m in something like my third round of revisions. I don’t usually have a clue until then. And some of my stories never seem to develop one.
Zoe: I’m antsy until I know what the theme is. I never know going into a story what it will be, and like you, it takes me a couple drafts to see it. Up until I do, the story feels kind of shallow and surface-y: things happen, so what? I am always relieved when I’ve figured out the what and can build on it and deepen the story. My endings don’t begin to approach resonance until I’ve figured it out.
Ana: I never know what the theme is going to be when I start a story either. But I don’t particularly worry about it. It always seems to emerge naturally at some point… and inspire a lot of rewrites in the second draft. I do think I usually have some idea by the end of the first draft.
Kate: Maybe that’s my problem now, is that I haven’t come up with a theme for some of the stuff I’m working on.
Zoe: When Bell said “Look to the characters, and what they’re fighting for,” it hit a chord with me, because that’s part of the restlessness I feel when I’m still trying to tease out the theme. I know what the characters are doing, and I know the surface reasons they’re fighting, but I’m trying to get underneath that. What are they really fighting for?
Ana: This is what I’m currently struggling with in the story I just started rough drafting / outlining. I usually know my characters’ motivations and such at least to some degree before I start writing, but this time, MC2 isn’t giving me enough to go on, and that makes the whole thing infinitely harder.
Kate: I really need to get the first draft done before I know my characters well enough to pick out what their underlying motivations are. Glynn was a hard one to figure out in some ways, and the more I poke and prod at him, the more clearly the theme of that story comes to me. But I’ll freely admit the weresquirrel has me baffled.
Zoe: I liked his suggestion of freewriting your character waxing about his philosophy. I may try that.
Ana: I tried the one where he said to write about a character telling you what makes them angry.
Zoe: Was it helpful?
Ana: To some degree. I tried it with the elusive MC2. It gave me a new direction to look in, but I don’t know if I’ll use it yet.
Zoe: I think I may try all the exercises in this chapter today. I need help with the book I’m working on, which has way too much potential to be just a surface-y story about a funhouse. So I’m starting to feel that hand-wavy “I’m lost!” feeling again.
Kate: You’re still only in first draft with it, though, aren’t you?
Zoe: Yes, but feeling especially sensitive about it because of the subject matter. So it won’t hurt to spend some time freewriting with the characters today.
Ana: Zoe’s playing with her imaginary friends today!
Kate: It’s never a waste of time to hang out with your characters off-screen.
Zoe: I can always tell when I’m hitting potholes because instead of spending time with the imaginary friends in the story I’m writing, I’m meeting new imaginary friends in nice, safe stories I’ll never bother writing.
Ana: My brain does this annoying thing where it turns to thinking about characters of stories ALREADY TOLD.
Zoe: Oh, that would drive me crazy. Those characters need to stay in their boxes!
Ana: It does drive me crazy sometimes. I get these ideas for super cool scenes for stories that I can’t work on anymore. It probably contributes to the paranoia I’m currently experiencing as I head into edits for my latest story. (I think I may drive my editor insane with my cat-attitude about changing or not changing scenes.)
Kate: Lol. It’s a good thing our editors are patient. 🙂 My old characters have a bad habit of sitting down and saying, “Did I ever tell you about…” And then off I go, with a sequel, or an in-between-quel.
Zoe: I wish my characters were better at sequel stuff. They just want to hang out in nice, safe, Already Written land. I’m dreading starting book two of the trilogy I’m working on.
Ana: I have almost an entire plot mapped out in my head for a potential sequel to Lab Rat’s Love that I’m probably never going to write. I think my brain just likes to play in safe, familiar places when life’s being stressful.
Zoe: All I have is a main, vague arc and a bunch of scenes that may or may not have anything to do with the actual story. #grumpywriter
Kate: I like having a main, vague arc, and a bunch of scenes. But that’s how I write anyway. (By the way, Scrivener seems to be much better suited to how I write than LSB. I think I’m getting a divorce…)
Zoe: Oh good! Scrivener is really flexible. I just wish I enjoyed the actual writing screen as much as I enjoy Word. (Well, that and I always forget how to do formatting and styles and things whenever I come back to Scrivener.)
Ana: I have to admit I don’t know how to use styles in any program. I know some basic formatting in Libre Office for school work, but that’s about it.
Kate: I’m still on the learning curve for that. The writing screen is a bit of something, isn’t it? Haven’t quite decided if I like it, but it’s okay. The organizational factor is the best, though.
Zoe: The thing that bothers me most with the writing screen is that a 12pt font in Word is bigger than the same font in the same pt size in Scrivener, on my screen. I can’t get it zoomed to the right size either. As far as styles go, omg they save my life. When it comes time to format for print or ebook, having the styles already set is so nice. (Even just doing a manuscript for submission, it saves time.)
Ana: That’s good to know about the pt size. I was worrying about my eye-sight. When I format a ms for submission all I really do is export to rtf and change the font to 12pt TNR. At least LI doesn’t ask for more, luckily. I use the indents Scrivener puts naturally. We don’t have them in German, so I never learned how to play with them.
Zoe: The other thing about using styles in Word is it lets me navigate the document by chapter titles in the sidebar. (Which of course Scrivener lets you do without styles. But…I’m generally using Word, unless I jump to Scrivener to get unstuck with a new view.)
Kate: I’m still a noob. I just open it up and get going. Sometimes.
Zoe: Other times you play Candy Crush?
Ana: Did anyone else feel that in the part about Resonance he points out the importance of it, but doesn’t really give any pointers on how to create it? I’m actually in the process of rewriting the ending lines to the story I just got accepted to work on just this. (Though I have a good idea how to do it, this section fell kind of flat for me.)
Zoe: He did say to write alternative endings, but I agree; the section felt a bit short and lacking, perhaps because it’s a topic I’d really like to read more on. (Also, I think he attempted to show us a clue by wrapping it up with a description of the Chinese tapestry…but it didn’t carry a lot of resonance for me. Seemed gimmicky.)
Kate: I didn’t get a lot out of that section. It was like he was promising something, and then I opened the box and there was nothing inside. I liked the metaphor part, but felt it hung too heavily on religion.
Zoe: Yes, I wasn’t sure why it was about “Fiction that draws from the well of a religious tradition,” as if nothing else could rely on metaphors, motifs, and symbols.
Ana: I actually use a Shinto talisman as symbol in my story! But it’s not religious at all.
Zoe: (Do we want to know what your characters are doing with that talisman?)
Ana: (I can assure you it is not in any way banana-shaped.)
Kate: I use colour a lot, or plants that have specific associations. Shapes, etc. It’s not all religious.
Zoe: I use holes in the book I recently sent off to the editor. (Not that kind of holes.)
Kate: Lol. The second exercise looks useful. I may do that with a couple of my characters.
Ana: Yeah, I’ve thought about doing that one.
Zoe: I’m definitely doing that one today. (If I get my audiobook proofing finished. It’s tough to listen to an audiobook all at once!)
Ana: Yay, audiobook!
Kate: I’m excited for your audiobook.
Zoe: I am too! But also…looking forward to when this is over. It’s a little exhausting. (Though I’m sure it’s not nearly as exhausting for me as it has been for my narrator/producer.)
Kate: I’ll bet. But so worth it in the end.