Week 9 Report: Theme

[Many apologies for the lateness of this post. This was the week of Fall Break at Ball State, and so things got a little confused. My bad! –Cathy]

By: Heather Hood

The theme for last week within the fishbowl was…you guessed it theme!  Before I go into what theme is and how you can apply it to your own writing style, I want to discuss something we did differently in class last week. No, no it’s nothing bad. Actually it was relatively fun. So what is this not bad, relatively fun thing we did in class?  Well, we flipped our class.

flipped-classroom-short1

What do you mean you flipped your class? Flipping means instead of having the usual lecture in class, our teacher, Cathy Day, recorded a screencast about the week’s unit on theme and had us watch it on our own time. So what did we do in class then? We worked on homework for the class and if we had any questions, we could just ask Cathy, who was right there working with us.

So, my fellow bowlmates, how well did this work for you? I know I personally felt more concentrated on the Reverse Storyboard Project we had due this week. I’m not afraid to admit I am a procrastinator, especially on bigger projects, so it was nice to be in that small, studious atmosphere. And I know I personally loved the screencast for this week unit of theme because I found it easier for me to take notes and listen to what was being said. Did any of you feel that we missed out on anything by flipping? If you are not inside the fishbowl, would this have been something/is something you wish your class or school did or would do?

I should stop talking about flipped classrooms and get down to business and discuss want you really want to know about… theme!

What is Theme?

The main idea you should remember about theme is that a theme is about an author trying to say something that is important to them. It’s an author’s thought on a subject. So if you want to know the theme of something you are reading, ask yourself what or tell yourself that an author is saying? What is the piece about? Every piece is saying something.

Searching for a Theme

Cathy gave the fishbowl a great example of creating a piece of art out of a block of marble, like Michelangelo did with his sculpture David. Every piece starts off as a square, bland piece of marble. It’s there, waiting, but nothing screams of great things to come out of it by itself. A sculptor has to be willing enough to step in front of the marble block, see what is lying in wait, and make it. Here, Michelangelo states it better:

“Every block of stone has a statue inside of it and it is the task of the sculptor to discover it.”

As the artist, all you have to do is find the right block of marble, and the right piece and the theme will be waiting for you.

How can you supply a Theme in your work?

The best way to do that is to use what you have available to you: your narrative tools. You can show a theme through these elements, but try to do so in an organic way that is doesn’t seem deliberate but is:

  • choice of characters
  • a character’s actions
  • a character’s dialogue
  • setting
  • reoccurring patterns

If you want the readers to know something is important, Carol Bly suggests telling the readers three times. She calls it the Rule of Three because, each time something important is introduced, the reader will have a different reaction.

  • The first mention would go unnoticed because the importance, or theme, probably blends in with what’s around it.
  • The second mention would resonate with the reader like a memory and they would start to ask questions about the piece.
  • By the third mention, things start to click into place and readers see a pattern being established in the piece within the beginning, middle and end.

Developing a Theme

Donald Maass suggests five ways you could go about developing a theme in his book Writing the Breakout Novel.

  • Consider alternate endings and outcomes. Explore through questions or scenarios how the ending of your novel could be or how different a scene could have come out.
  • Give your characters parallel problems. Explore another character and how they would handle the same (or opposite) problem as your protagonist. Is their resolve better?
  • Use foils. Use a contrasting character to highlight your protagonist’s qualities or use more characters to represent more choices (think of character delineation).
  • Can your character’s problem speak to louder problems?  Create their problem so that you can expand off of it to create an even larger problem until maybe there is no larger problem. Theme can come from doing this.
  • Create a backwards antagonist. Explore the world of the antagonist and its minions. See how they are right and if the way they do things could work just as well as the protagonist’s ways. Just have fun with it.

Takeaways

  • Write what you feel and what you want and a theme will develop.
  • Have fun and enjoy what you write. Passion can make a theme stronger.
  • The theme is already there, you just have to mold it and display it so others can see it.
  • The Rule of Three is helpful when writing!

What I learned/ Figured Out This Week

One of the biggest things I’ve learned is that a theme doesn’t always jump out of nowhere and knock you on the head and say, “Hey! I’m right here!” For some people that may happen and that is great, I wish I was more like them.  For me and some others, theme doesn’t show itself so easily. And that’s fine too, because eventually it will be easier to identify. But there is always a theme to take from and to put into a piece, even if you think there is none. I’ll leave you with this…interesting image to try to remember theme:

hamburger-27az1pl

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When and how students write

Adam Gulla maximized his word count by
“counting” journaling each week.

Here’s a post over at my blog The Big Thing about the students who drafted the most words in my class during Spring 2013: Adam Gulla and Veronica Sipe.

 
 

Here’s a sneak peek:

I found this great article the other day, “Seven Effing Great Ways to Build Your Writing Routine.”  The author encourages us to find our writing “sweet spots” in order to maximize our daily/weekly output.

Consider the following questions:

  • How long does your typical writing session tend to last?
  • How frequently do you sit down to write?
  • On average, how many words do you write per session?
  • At what time of the day do you do your writing?

The Stalling Queen…and then her subjects

Logan A. Mason
 Pants           
+
SIR (Issac Newton)

=
Le moi.
 

Yes, I am a Pantser.  I’ve been writing “by the seat of my pants” for as long as I can remember.  This method of writing has its pro’s and con’s of course,  from the exhilaration of not knowing what will come next for your character to being like, “I have no idea where this is going and could turn out to not make any sense, whatsoever, crap.”
HOWEVER.
I may or may not have two different distinct personalities inside me.  And by may or may not,  I mean may.  And by two, I mean at least five.  This however, if it concerns you, has nothing to do with multiple-personality disorder.  I am completely aware of all the different parts of me and why they come out at certain times.  This helps tremendously with my characters.  Even tremendously, in life.   I am very open-minded due to all these different view-points.  This is what has drawn me to act.  To read.  To write.  The more I learn about who I am, all of me, and what I can accomplish with them, the more I write with a continued passion and understanding of who the heck these characters are and what they will become. 
SO THE POINT that I am getting at is the different persona’s inside all have different agendas.  And about four of them are Pantsers, and one of them is a Plotter.  All the Pantsers make me late to class. Or work.  They make me put off homework, cooking food, doing laundry, cleaning my room.  They make me write slow, then write fast, all the time not knowing what is going to happen next.  Writing by gut, emotion, drive of a feeling.  And then of course, the one PLOTTER inside will be like, “HEY!”   And then suddenly I will make a list for that day and a block of time and finish my homework beforehand, have multiple batches of cookies baked and fresh, fold all my clothes, clean every inch of the house, and then write out a good four pages of solid plot. 
I suppose this makes me 4/5th’s crazy, 1/5th sane.  My dominant sides love the crazy, adore the process of making things up, and revel in the dreams.   And then the little control freak inside me will pop out once in a while and clean up the messes, organize the words, and straighten out the paragraphs.
And So, beginning to write a novel has led me to question all the parts of me and which path would be best to take.   I hope at least my Plotter will be up for many more future visits this semester.  Pantsers…settle down.

    
The sides tend to argue. Oy Vey!  

My pants are more like booty shorts

Alisha Layman

Let’s just begin by putting this out there: I love outlining. I work as a tutor and some of the first things that I tell people who need study tips are MAKE OUTLINES! OUTLINE YOUR NOTES! OUTLINE YOUR LIFE! OUTLINES FOR EVERYONE!!

So now that that’s out in the open, I guess it’s safe to say that when it comes to writing, I’m totally a plotter.  I can sit on an idea for weeks (if we’re being conservative) just planning out who the characters are, certain scenes, etc.  I can’t even begin writing until I have at least a few scenes in my head.  I like having some kind of outline of events for my novel.

Now, this doesn’t necessarily mean that I plan and plot in a nice, neat order. Take a look at the image to the right. Most of the time, this is how I do my outlining. I’ll get an idea for about three-fourths of the way through and have that scene totally worked out.  And then I’ll come up with a beginning.  And then the ending. And then something right around the middle.  And when I’ve come up with several scenes that are spread randomly throughout the novel, I finally begin to write.

When I plot and write like this, I realize that I have a tiny bit of pantser in me.  Looking back at the image above, when I get to the inevitable Point of Question Marks between Idea Number 2 and Idea Number 4, I try to just wing it.  So the lead just got transported back in time, but she hasn’t reached the scene where she is tried for witchcraft? Well maybe she could meet a bushy-bearded man named James Garfield?

Because of my plotting nature, this point, the Point of Question Marks, can become the Moment Where I Experience Writer’s Block that thing where I can’t come up with any more ideas.

This is just one of the little notebooks I do my plotting in

There’s no such thing as writer’s block. That was invented by people in California who couldn’t write.
Terry Pratchett

This isn’t always the case; sometimes I come up with the best ideas off the top of my head. That’s why I don’t see myself as a strict plotter. I don’t plot out the whole novel; I come up with various scenes throughout the novel and then fill in as I go. Yeah, sometimes I get stuck because I’m not as good at pantsing as I am plotting. But I’d rather have a little bit of mystery waiting for me when I begin writing, rather than have the whole novel ready in my head before I even write a word.  As James Scott Bell explains in his book Plot and Structure, plotters run the risk of lacking spontaneity, which the pantsers have in abundance. I don’t want my writing to become boring. So while I may be an outlining freak, I still have some pants. My pants are just more like booty shorts.


Redefining Writing

James Gartner

        I had finished two drafts of novels before I took my first creative writing class.  People still argue about teaching writing, and some believe that writing is something that can’t be taught.  They should try and read those ancient drafts and see what they think then.  Of course, I’m sure that more things than merely education have contributed to my writing.  I did write far more regularly back in those days, but then, everything was more regular then.

This book is very helpful whether you’re
a pantser or a plotter.

     Needless to say, I had never heard of “pantsers” and “plotters” when first I started writing.  I just did what I felt like doing, usually starting off just writing and making stuff up as I went, and maybe outlining a few things later on.  I used to picture my story as a kind of movie then, and I still do sometimes.  I’m a very visual person and I’m studying film as well as writing.  As I write more, I tend to see things a little differently.  Pantsing seemed to work out all right, but then I’d go back and look at my work and find all kinds of problems.  But what trouble is that?  It was just a draft, after all.  Yet every time I plugged one hole, something else opened up.
       So, ninety pages into a new draft of a new novel, one I’m considering working on for this class, I decided to start fresh and try and build a solid foundation before I begin to write.  I’m trying to be more organized.  But I’m young, and I’ve always found trial and error to be effective if time consuming, so I’m trying something and seeing how it goes.
       I think that’s also some of where I get blocked up when I’m trying to write.  As I’m looking ahead, I’m thinking I’ll probably do lots of different outlines.  Just let things go and see where they end up, then shuffle some things around and start again.  Eventually my outlines will look like one of those choose your own story books probably, but it’s an experiment.
       In my last blog post I talked about being a binge writer.  That typically goes with being a pantser.  And honestly even if I have outlined something, the details of the scenes come as I write, at least so far.  Sometimes that takes me in different directions from where I had plotted, but I’m pretty flexible.  The problem with writing a novel is that sometimes it takes a long time to figure out that you’re wrong.

Redefined implies that there is nothing more to do.
Perhaps a better slogan would be “Redefining Education,”
but maybe that was already taken.

       So I’m still searching to improve the way I go about writing long projects.  Who knows if I’ll ever be satisfied.  I don’t always stick to a certain path, even if it works.  Most of the excitement is in the experiment, in the search.  There always might be something better (which, by the way, is particularly frustrating when writing because I’m never really satisfied).  I don’t think anyone is too old to keep learning.  Then again, I’m young, so that’s easy for me to say.
       Perhaps I should have put this disclaimer toward the top, but if you came here looking for advice, you’ll find that I’m still figuring things out myself.  Check out the other posts on #amnoveling and you may find what you’re looking for.  In addition to Plot & Structure, James Scott Bell also has a blog.
   


Black or White? Um… Grey?

by Gaoly Thao

No Outline People or Outline People? If I had to choose which one I was, I would have to say I’m in between the two, but my radar is probably leaning towards the “No Outline People” more than the “Outline People” If I think about it really hard and look back at my writing style, I would be more of a NOP than an OP. It’s surprising because I like to be organized and write down my schedule or what I need to do for the day. However, when I am writing, I don’t really plan out my story or plot and just write whatever that comes to mind. I may have a few notes as to what I want to happen or something, but I just wing it. Is that bad? 


Well, James Scott Bell mentions in Plot and Structure, “Some fresh writing, yes. but where is the cohesion? Some brilliant word gems flash, but they may be scattered over a plotless desert”(153). I felt like a bat hit me. I tumbled over, slamming my hand on the ground and started laughing after I read that sentence. He hit it right on the mark. It is true that I don’t plot or outline my story and just write it out, but some of those scenes become useless, or I don’t even know why I wrote them. In the first place Also, I sometimes write scenes that are very similar to existing ones, which frustrates me.  It makes me think, well, what was I thinking? So I was shocked to see that it is true and I should do something to fix it, which Bell does mention in that chapter of how to improve or change your ways of writing your story. I find his points really useful and I think it will help improve my writing, which I am really looking forward to.
Some of the points that Bell mentions, that I think that are useful, are “Set yourself a writing quota,” “One day per week, record your plot journey,” “The David Morrell Method,” and “The Borg Outline.”
“Set yourself a writing quota” (156)
            When I began writing, I never had a set quota for my stories. Whenever I felt like writing, I just began to write, or when ideas came to mind, I quickly grabbed a piece of paper/ notebook and jot down those ideas. When my professors told me I should set a quota for writing or write everyday, I thought, “Huh? What a great idea. I’ll do that.” …Obviously I didn’t and I’m still stuck with not writing everyday. So I stuck up on my cork board a piece of paper that would inspire me to write… that didn’t work as well. (shakes head) I guess I need something to push me until I get this idea wrapped around my head and do it. The idea about not leaving your desk until you finish your quota got me. Also, the idea of writing right after you just woke up struck me. I think I will try it out and see how it will result as. I’ll start slowly and work my way up. Hopefully I’ll be able to write about 1,000 words a day, but I’ll start with 500 words or so…
“One day per week, record your plot journey” (157)
            This idea never occurred to me. I thought about plotting out what will happen in my story, but this idea of writing out what I wrote for the past week, was like a light bulb going off. I think it is a fantastic idea and I think it will really help me plot out my story. Plus it let’s me keep on writing and it’ll help me summarize what I wrote. It will be notes I can refer to later if needed.
 
“The David Morrell Method” (165)
            I have no idea who this David Morrell guy is, until Bell mentioned him. Bell said he liked Morrell’s Lessons From a Lifetime of Writing. When Bell described how Morrell you dive into your story and understand it fully by asking yourself questions. It intrigues me and I think I will try this method as well. I think by asking myself questions about why I’m writing this story will give me a whole new insight of my story.
“The Borg Outline” (166)
            I have to say, this method/outline is really long. It seems like it is time consuming and will need to be worked on for hours and hours or days and days. Most of the points Bell made, were very helpful, but I think that if I wasn’t so busy with school, and I just had to focus on writing my story, I would be able to do The Borg Outline. Plus, I’m not entirely or a pure OP, so this idea will be floating for a while until I get everything settled.
As a writer, I still need to work and develop my writing skills. I love writing and hope I can do it for the rest of my life. I think being in between a NOP and an OP provides great possibilities if I keep on working on my writing. Being GREY might not be such a bad idea.


Thinking in Movies (and then writing)

by Tom Carreras

When I was a child, I wanted to be an author and illustrator. I was really into writing my own stories and drawing the characters that inhabited my imagination so that others could see. For some tragic reason, once I hit 7th grade, my writing desire all but vanished, and I didn’t write any stories until my senior year of high school, where I wrote a short story (16 pages) for my philosophy class. I loved it, writing by the seat of my pants (and procrastinating a bit to boot!) and loving it. Earlier in high school, probably around my junior year (and crescendo-ing into college), I became extremely interested in film. My personal film collection grew to be ridiculously large, I started to learn the names of too many films, directors, actors, actresses, and screenwriters (and other film trivia pursuit info), and I watched movies. Many, many movies.

So many movies…

All of this is to get to my writing method. Since becoming (after some flippy-flopping) a Creative Writing major at the start of my sophomore year, I have noticed that a lot of the way I like to write is in my mind. I enjoy thinking about scenes from stories I am developing – imagining them as live action films.

This mind-filming process of mine is typically coupled with plot outlining. I do like the surprises and changes that can come about from pantsing; however, I typically like having some sort of outline down, if anything so I can visualize more of my story in my head. I have not really used sticky notes or note cards much before for story-plotting purposes. I prefer just writing plot points in short paragraphs.

In planning out the novel for this class, I already have a feeling that there is going to be an exciting mixture of pantsing going on. I think that a balance of the two makes for a lot of fun – it gives me direction yet leaves room for exploration and improvisation.

Here’s to a well-plantsed novel!