Message and Themes; What Are You Trying To Say?

When I was at school, English Literature was always my favourite subject. I was a total book-worm who dreamed of becoming an author, so you can kind of see why I adored English Literature. Reading books, talking about books and writing about books was my idea of heaven. Having said that, there was always one part of the subject that annoyed me at times. When analysing a text, the teacher would often ask us to think about what message the author was trying to get across. It was a question akin to the equally confusing one; what are the themes of the novel? I remember thinking, I bet the author didn’t know there was a message or a theme, or that we would try to work one out. I always considered that Shakespeare, Bronte and Steinbeck just wrote books because they had great ideas, great characters, and could string some pretty awesome sentences together.

But English Lit demands we find the messages and the themes, and yes, when you pick apart a text and analyse it within a classroom setting, you do tend to find them. But were they intended? I suppose I’m asking, did the author write the book with a theme or a message in mind? Or is it the reader who later determines what the potential messages are? I mean, did Steinbeck write Of Mice and Men because he had something to say about society or human nature? When I was a kid, I thought not. But it turns out I was wrong;

In every bit of honest writing in the world there is a base theme. Try to understand men, if you understand each other you will be kind to each other. Knowing a man well never leads to hate and nearly always leads to love. There are shorter means, many of them. There is writing promoting social change, writing punishing injustice, writing in celebration of heroism, but always that base theme. Try to understand each other.

John Steinbeck in his 1938 journal entry
I remember trying to distinguish the themes of the novel when I was at school. What seemed so obvious to the teacher, had to be pointed out to us. I haven’t read the book since then, but it is on my to-read list as part of a reading challenge I’m undertaking, where one of the books has to be one I read in school. But I think I will see things differently now.
Why? Because I am approaching my fourth decade and I’ve seen enough of life, love, people and society to know that Of Mice and Men is not ‘just a story’ as I once mistakenly believed. It’s a book about dreams and aspirations, loneliness and solitude and the author had plenty to say about all of these things. I am now the writer I hoped I would be, and writing books is a fascinating process, which involves the seed of an idea germinating into an intricate plot full of characters who become real to you and set up camp in your head. But more than that, writing is about what you want to say to the world.
I’ve been thinking about this a lot lately after I received feedback from a beta on my still unfinished novel Elliot Pie’s Guide To Human Nature. One of the things she picked up on was the messages or themes of the book, and in particular, her observation that some of the characters had views very similar to my own. She felt this at times made the narrative somewhat preachy, or at least, it was in danger of heading in that direction.
I had to stop and think about what she meant. None of the characters are me, or based on me, or anyone I know. I plucked them up out of the thin air to build around the character and story of Elliot, who I really did know and believe in.
However, I have to admit that unintentionally, or at least sub-consciously, bits and pieces of the writer and the writer’s viewpoints seep into the writing. I knew what this book was about, and I knew from the beginning what I was trying to say, so as you can see, I have come a long way from my previous scepticism that books did not contain deliberate messages. On the contrary, I have had something to say in all of my books, and I think it very much depends on what is going on in my life at that time. For this book in particular, Elliot and his mother are like the two sides of me. One side is heartbroken and terrified about the state of our world and wants to withdraw from it all, while the other side is perpetually hopeful and joyful, determined to the best in everything.
So is this a good thing or a bad thing? I think my beta was right to point out the danger of appearing preachy in the narrative. I certainly don’t want my books to come across that way. I have to be sure it is the character’s viewpoint being explored, not the author’s. I have to be conscious of what is being portrayed as ‘right’ or ‘wrong.’ So at the moment, I am going through the book again, with the beta’s notes beside me. Sometimes it just needs a tweak, some words rearranged or deleted. Sometimes I don’t need to do anything because I think the character truly believes in what they are saying, and in doing so is remaining true to character.
This brings me to another question, though. Do people pick up books looking for messages or themes? Do most readers notice them, even if they are supposed to be there? I suspect that what one reader picks up as a message or theme, is very different to anothers. Do readers want to be spoken to in this way? I don’t think many people pick up a book looking for clarity or persuasion. I think they pick up books looking for stories. And stories involve people and their messy human lives, and messy human lives contain messages, whether intentional or not. Because they are written by one person, created by one person, and whether they were totally aware of it or not at the time, that person had something to say.
So, what do you think? As a reader, do you choose a book because of the message it seems to be conveying? Do you notice the themes of a novel as you are reading it, or do they become obvious to you afterward? Do you ever feel like the writer is trying to tell you something about the world or about life? Does this every feel like you are being preached to?
And what about you writers? Do you know what you are trying to say before you start to write the book, or does the message reveal itself to you in time? Are you aware of any themes in your book, and again, are these intentional? Do you ever worry that you are trying too hard to get a message across?
Please feel free to join in the conversation!

Changing Perspective

Last week I explained how my beta readers have shaped the direction of my next novel Elliot Pie’s Guide To Human Nature. (Beta Readers: How and Why? I mentioned how some of the issues that have been addressed thanks to my betas were pace, showing rather than telling and point of view. So today I thought I would talk a bit about point of view and perspective in storytelling.

It’s a subject that can prove quite divisive. I know I was shocked the first time I realised not everyone loves first person viewpoint! Apparently, some people really despise it! Obviously, it has its limitations. Here are some of the disadvantages of climbing entirely inside the head of just one character;

  • you only get the viewpoint and opinions of one character
  • this can limit the amount of information and back story the reader receives
  • other viewpoints are neglected, including the potential scenes between other characters when the narrator is not present
  • it gives the story one voice, the narrative voice of the character telling the story which can be a bit restrictive
  • if the reader dislikes or does not connect well to the first person viewpoint, it can really deter them from the book
  • it’s a very personal way to tell the story, and can impose biased and subjective viewpoints which may grate on the reader
  • it runs the risk of becoming boring and/or repetitive
  • there is a danger of relying too much on ‘telling’ rather than ‘showing’

Now I am not ashamed to admit that I LOVE first person. I think this may have something to do with how obsessed I get with characters. It’s character over plot for me all the way, hence why The Catcher In The Rye is still my favourite book ever. If I like a character, I don’t mind being inside their head one bit. Anyway, these are the reasons I think first person can be a really effective way to tell a story;

  • it allows the reader to fully connect with the protagonist/narrator
  • it’s much easier to gain sympathy and empathy from the reader
  • easier to construct a consistent style and voice
  • can make it easier to explain/justify a characters motivations and behaviour
  • can be much more emotional, drawing the reader in
  • it brings a vivid sense of immediacy to the story
  • done well, can be extremely powerful

But how do you know which is the best perspective for your story? There is also alternating points of view, which can be done in first or third person. Then there is the authorial third POV where the narrator is the all seeing eye of everything and everyone.

I think every author has their preferred perspective to use, but it is important to think about the story being told and what will best suit its needs. I know for a fact I am way too tempted to use first person. I did so with The Mess Of Me; a YA drama written in a tell-all, confessional diary style. We climb inside Lou’s head and never get to see through the eyes of any of the other characters. I could have explored third person, and jumped from character to character, but there was a reason I didn’t. As well as being about body issues, family drama and first love, The Mess Of Me is a story about those people we sometimes have in our lives, yet do not really know. eg Travis, Leon and Marrianne, for Lou are all deeply involved in her life and the drama of the story, yet are all as good as strangers. The story needed to revolve around her mind set and emotions in order to get this across. So it just had to be first person.

The Boy With The Thorn In His Side was a different matter. I originally wrote and rewrote this story in third person. Yep, you got every character’s viewpoints, and there are a lot of characters! The action jumped around all over the place. But it didn’t work. I didn’t feel close enough to my two main characters, protagonist Danny and antagonist Howard, and the more I rewrote it and got into their mindsets the more I realised that this was their story. Truly, this book is about their warped and dangerous relationship. So I changed it to first and boy did it work then. I must have worked with a constant smile on my face! You see I knew them both so well by this point that it was a piece of cake to climb into their heads and write from their POV. I used alternating POV from both characters in the first person. You get to examine their twisted relationship from both their views. This is a fantastic way to make first person narrative more interesting and varied.

With the sequel, This Is The Day, I wrote it in third person to begin with and then again switched it to first, but this time using alternating perspective from five characters. This was fun to do because I got to really explore the motivations of the characters who were introduced in the first book. And I think it worked; it was the best way to put the story together.

So, as you can see, there was a growing tendency and fondness to using first person narrative. I had found my comfort zone and made myself extremely comfortable! I forced myself to break out of this warm little zone with This Is Nowhere. (And I would strongly recommend forcing yourself to break away from the familiar every now and then.) Third person. It had to be. But with the chapters zipping back and forth from the past to the present. However, I still stuck to one point of view, Jake’s. This was not intentional at the time but now I can see why it makes sense. Jake’s story is the unpicking of two mysteries; what happened to his mother in 1996 and who he is. The other characters didn’t really need a say in this, although their behaviour and secrets helped pave the way for the climax where Jake discovers the truth about everything. I also think this was the best way to tell the story. Third person worked with jumping between time frames, as we got to see the young Jake and how his mind worked then, helping us to understand the person he was in the present. Other characters perspectives would have made this way too muddled and complicated.

Tree Of Rebels. Uh oh, I was back to the first person again. You see my problem? I really do like that comfort zone!! This book is still awaiting a final rewrite so I will not pass judgement on it yet as there is still work to be done and decisions to be made, but at the moment is feels right to leave it in first person.

Which brings us up to the two latest works. The unexpected rewriting of Elliot Pie, and the quickly thrashed out first draft of A Song For Bill Robinson.

Before I started writing Elliot Pie, I knew it would be written in the first person viewpoint. I think this was because he had been in my head for so long by that time, I knew him inside out, knew what he thought and felt, and how he looked upon the world. It was scarily easily to climb inside his mind and allow him to tell his story. But there are lots of other characters of importance in this story, and there was no way Elliot could know everything about them. I had to switch to third person whenever an adult character stepped into the plot. There was no real intention to do this; it just sort of happened. So, all of Elliot’s chapters were in first person, present tense. Very YA. Very Catcher In The Rye. And all of the adult’s were in third person, past tense. Which felt very grown up and evolved. It actually surprised me how smoothly writing that way became, especially as I had sunk so deeply into the first person comfort zone.

I was initially happy with this, and thought, that although different and challenging, it worked. I told myself it was good to try something a little bit different!A little bit brave.

While Elliot Pie was with another beta reader, I thrashed out a first draft of a YA drama called A Song For Bill Robinson. This is based on a book I wrote but never finished aged sixteen. It was written in third person back then, so it seemed apt to write it again this way. I was also feeling confident after the third person narrrative in Elliot Pie had gone so well and become so enjoyable. Third person, multiple viewpoints worked best for this latest book because again, there are so many characters and so much going on, it really would not work in first person. And also, a bit like with Jake in This Is Nowhere, I didn’t really want to climb into these people’s heads. I felt a bit of distance was needed.

When I received final feedback from betas on Elliot Pie, there were several issues, some of which I discussed in last week’s post and some of which I will probably mention another day. But what dawned on me more and more as I went through them, was how many of them could be solved by changing Elliot’s narrative to third person. Which is what I am currently doing. Just to see how it works.

So far, it’s working. It suddenly feels more adult (it is to be aimed at adults) and I do feel relieved to be out of his head. It gives me as an author a whole new perspective on the story, on his character, and on the best way to tell this story. I noticed there were many problems with writing his parts in first person. For instance, he was rambling too much, daydreaming, going off on tangents, all of which slowed the pace down, and may have proved dull for some readers. However, writing his parts in first person initially have helped me truly understand his character, which I really hope shines through when it is all completed.

The moral of the story today is this; sometimes as a writer you want to tell a story in a certain way, for whatever reason. But sometimes, you have to stand back, take a look and admit that it may not be the best way to tell it. This may concern other things, such as structure and pace, but if your story is not working out the way you hoped, maybe changing the narrative perspective is worth considering.

 

Beta Readers; How and Why?

Several months ago I was convinced that my new novel, Elliot Pie’s Guide To Human Nature was ready. I sent it to a tried and trusted beta reader who very patiently and kindly informed me that it really wasn’t. I listened, realised she was right, and tackled it again. And again. And…well, you know how it goes. Finally, a few more months down the line, I thought, okay, this is it, I’m happy, really happy! I’d addressed all of her concerns and it was definitely a much better book. I then sent it to another beta reader, quite arrogantly expecting her to gush with excitement about how ready it was. She didn’t. It wasn’t. Repeating these things to my husband, he asked a very important question. How do I know the beta readers are right?

This is an excellent question and one worth addressing. But first of all what should you look for in beta readers and why do you even need them?

You need them because you are far too close and subjectively involved in your marvellous work of art to see its flaws. It is very difficult for an author who is in love with their story, to be able to see where the pace is too slow, or the information repetitive. You may not realise how much of you and your beliefs and opinions are seeping into the book. You may not realise that there is too much dialogue, or not enough. It is your baby, your child, your masterpiece. Yes, your relationship with it is up and down. You love it and then you hate it. You are filled with self-doubt one moment, only to be surging with confidence the next. Either way, you need beta readers to bring your down to earth. You need them to tell you what is good about the book and what is not so good about the book. Of course, you don’t have to accept their advice, and you certainly don’t have to act on it, but to release a book or submit it to publishers without using beta readers would be, in my opinion, insane.

So, what should you look for in a beta reader? I think this is quite a personal thing and may also depend on your genre of writing, but here are the things I look for and require in my beta readers.

  • they need to have already read my work and connected with it
  • they need to be somewhat connected to me and my life, and have some knowledge of my beliefs etc
  • they need to be highly educated, or at least way better at grammar than I am!
  • they need to be an avid reader, someone who consumes books like an addiction
  • they need to be open to most genres, not snobbish or narrow-minded
  • they need to be breathtakingly honest and not scared to offend
  • they need to be able to understand how a book could be made better
  • they need to be prepared to read the book at least twice and make notes

What sort of things should a beta reader be looking out for when reading your work? Well, again this is very personal, but I will explain the way I often approach it. With Elliot Pie, I wrote the book quite naturally, just letting it flow as you do with a clumsy first draft, worrying about the finer details later. I finished the very first messy draft just over a year ago, and I honestly didn’t think it would need too much more work! This goes to show how blind you can be about your own writing. I did a few more drafts before sending it to the first beta. At this point I was looking for opinions on the plot and the actual story and on the characters. Did they work? Were they real enough etc? What about the structure of the plot and the flow of the narration?

What I got back was very interesting and resulted in me changing a lot of the chapters around. The beta had loved the characters (yay!) and the story but she found the pace too slow in the middle of the book and she guessed the ending. Not too big a problem, as it’s not supposed to be a real twist at the end or anything, but she did help me work out ways I could knock the readers off course a bit. She was also right about the pace. It was too slow in the middle and lots of it needed to go.

Job done. I attacked the book again, and again and again. Each time I went through it, I cut bits out, added bits, fleshed the characters out more, and wrote lists as I went which consisted of the things I still needed to do when this draft was done. I considered my work done when the lists ended. As far as I was concerned I could do no more. Yes it would need some more proofreading and a few more read throughs, but I was happy. More than happy.

I sent it to the second beta reader as she is my biggest critic and I knew she would be intensely honest. There was no way she would hold back if there was anything about it she thought could be better. We ended up having several Skype chats while she went through her very detailed notes on the novel. I made lists, nodded and listened. The more she talked, the more I realised how right she was, and the more I felt my own subconcious misgivings becoming unearthed. Everything she said about the book was true. I had written it in both first and third person. A bit of a challenge, yes, but that was just the way the story presented itself to me in the first draft and so I went with it and ended up sticking with it. This meant that all of Elliot’s, (the 12-year-old protagonist) perspective is in the first person. We are entirely inside his head. And in my opinion, that’s a wonderful place to be. I find him interesting and funny and amusing, you see. Of course I do, I created him! But would the reader think the same? Or would they find the narrative repetitive as he talked them through his little world? Was I telling them far too much detail when a lot of it could be shown rather than told, or omitted altogether?

I sat and nodded grimly and knew that my beta was right. I had climbed inside his head and got lost there. I was way too close and way too involved. I loved him too much but I needed to get back out and get some distance. I suggested changing his view to third person and the beta had thought the same thing. The more we thrashed it out, the more I realised how many problems this would solve. I actually began to get excited. There were other issues too, aside from POV, but I won’t go into them now as they will probably pop up in another blog post.

We talked about how I’d had a similar problem with The Boy With The Thorn In His Side. (Again, this is where history, friendship and connection aid the beta/writer relationship) Originally written in the third person, from all the characters point of view, it was eventually rewritten into the first person, and from two points of view. At the time I was both terrified and excited to take this machete to my work, to slice it up and stitch it back together again, to tell the story in a totally different way. I knew I would lose tons of scenes and perspectives and dialogue and this saddened me beyond belief. But it worked.

With Elliot I have the same problem but in reverse. I need to lose the first person, get some distance from Elliot and tell the story in a different way. There is a lot of work to be done, but the groundwork is all there. The second beta also loved the actual story, the plot and the characters and found the pace just right.

I am so glad I gave it to her to dissect. But back to the original question? How do I know she is right? How do I know either of them are right? I know because as soon as they voiced their opinions, I knew I had been thinking the same thing all along. All they did was confirm what I already knew deep down inside. I just didn’t want to admit it to myself, because admitting it meant even more work, even more drafts, even more editing and proofreading, and it means the other books that are on hold waiting for this one to be done have to keep waiting and waiting and cramming my mind and driving me insane! I wanted the book to be ready so badly I had convinced myself it was.

But I can’t let a book go until I am sure it is the best it can be, and in my case, my betas are there to help me get to that point. I can’t thank them enough for the time and effort they invest in me and my books. I trust them implicitly and I know I am extremely lucky to have them.

But what about you? Do you use beta readers and if so how did you find them? What do you look for in a beta? Have they ever felt differently to you about a book being ready for release? How have they helped your books reach their full potential? Have they ever been totally wrong? Please feel free to comment and share!

 

It’s Not Done…Until It’s Done!

I often get asked how I know when the book I’m working on is finished. If you’ve been following my struggles with The Tree of Rebels, you will know that I have now lost count of the amount of drafts I’ve done of this book. It’s got to be up to ten, at least! The same applies to The Boy With The Thorn In His Side. There were so many rewrites and drafts of that book that I lost count completely, but at a guess, I would say it easily passed twenty.

This is not true of all my books however. I think there were five or six drafts of The Mess Of Me, only three of Bird People and Other Stories, and probably around five or six for both This Is The Day and This Is Nowhere. For some reasons, those books were just all kind of done by the third draft, and just needed proofreading and polishing after that.

So, how does a writer know when they are done?

yuno

Well, I sort of have a system. If you can call it that.

I’ll explain it using my current work in progress, Elliot Pie’s Guide To Human Nature. As you may already know, Elliot Pie has been written almost alongside The Tree Of Rebels, with me jumping back and forth between the two novels. If one was with beta readers, then I was working on the other one. If I needed a break from one, then it was the other one I’d stick with. Well, it now looks increasingly likely that Elliot Pie will jump past The Tree Of Rebels and become the next release. This is because I’ve decided to stick with it until it is done, and stop jumping between the two books. I also feel it is very close to being finished, much closer than The Tree Of Rebels, which requires a bigger rewrite, with added storylines.

But back to Elliot Pie. How do I know I’m nearly finished? Why is it likely to have a  lot less drafts/rewrites than other books? And how will I know for sure when it is truly ready?

It works a bit like this;

The first draft; ugly, clumsy, galloping, mad, hungry and glorious. An outpouring of ideas with a basic sequence of events, a strong theme, developed characters, all held together by an accompanying notebook of notes, dialogue, bios and so on. While writing, I constantly added items to a list in the notebook; things to add, (extra scenes or dialogue) things to question, research, embellish and so on, or things to reword or cut out. In other words, things to sort out on the second draft!

The second draft; in this case, a read through with a few minor corrections here and there with my list to help me. I was actually surprised by how happy I was with the first draft and at the time, figured I only needed to polish up spelling, grammar and maybe cut out a few bits here and there.

Beta readers; feeling exceptionally brave and over-confident, I made the unusual decision to send it out to two trusted beta readers at second draft. I wouldn’t normally do this so soon, but there were two important things I needed to get their opinions on before I proceeded. One, the tenses change. Elliot is written in first person POV and everything is in the present tense. The adults of the story are written in third person POV and past tense. Don’t ask me why. No decision was made! It just happened this way and I liked it. A lot. Luckily the readers didn’t actually noticed the tenses, but they did have feedback on other issues, such as the middle part dragging and certain bits feeling repetitive.

Third draft; scary, self-conscious, tail between legs, unsure what to do or how to do it. Slowly I came to terms with the critique offered and realised how true it was. I did a lot of cutting out, rearranging and rewriting. I also made a list as I went through, plus I was already using the list I’d made from the readers comments. Things got ticked off the list as I went, so I knew I had answered various questions, or researched particular parts in more detail. By the time I got to the end, I had a new list. I still hadn’t set up a timeline, and one was needed, due to the main character’s disappearance at the end of the novel. What day and time was he last seen and so on?

Fourth draft; list in hand, questions in mind, I tackled it again. Obviously I was correcting typos, spelling and grammar issues as I went through, as well as removing repetitive phrases or words. I had things to add and things to change, for example, I realised too many of the characters were only children, so I had to add a sibling here and there. I also added the timeline and made a list of the exact times and dates the events took place. I needed to exaggerate certain things, leading the reader a particular way, for example, making certain characters darker than they had been. I also added a new scene to the ending and rewrote the first chapter, tightening it all up and hopefully creating more impact. In fact sharpening things up and cutting things out went on a lot!

Fifth draft; (where I am now) another read through, this time on my Kindle. It’s amazing how many more things you pick up on when reading in a different format. Spelling and grammar for example are far more noticeable on an ereader! I’m making another list as I go through, advising myself to reword certain parts, cut out words here and there etc. In fact, quite a lot of my notes this time around involve just cutting words out that do not need to be there as they add nothing to the scene. There is also a separate list above my correction list, which I add to any time something springs to mind. So, for example, while out with the dogs today I realised that a certain object needed to be found and mentioned in a certain scene, as it would add impact and credibility. So far I have seven items on this list; things to add to dialogue and events, things I simply thought of while going about my daily business.

Sixth draft; I will go back to the laptop with this current list in hand, and go through the manuscript methodically correcting the issues, cutting out the words, adding the things I’ve thought of, and so on.

If by the time I get to the end of this draft, there is yet another list on the way, then I will know a seventh draft is needed. Of course there will also be an even more thorough grammar and spelling check, and a proofreading, which will involve sending it back to Kindle to pick up errors.
patience.jpg

So basically, I’ll know the book is as good as I can get it when there are no more things being added to the list! When the list is ticked off and stays ticked off, it will be done. But it also more than that. I have to have the right feeling about it. And as I have mentioned before in other posts, I have yet to have that feeling with The Tree Of Rebels, hence it being held back for now.

I have to feel completely happy, completely satisfied, not just about grammar and typos, but about the actual story. Are all the characters doing what I need them to do? Are they fully alive and realised? Could they walk off the page and into my house to converse with me about anything? Is the beginning interesting and powerful enough? Does it raise questions and curiosity? Is the middle doing its job; developing the story, but keeping a steady pace, keeping the reader coming back for more, making promises? And does the ending satisfy, as well as tie things up if need be? More importantly than all of this, does this book make me smile? When I read it, what is my face doing? I’m pleased to say that at this stage, it is making me smile a lot, and I simply cannot wait to share it with you. I hope all the hard work will be worth it and that you will fall in love with Elliot as much as I have!

Now, over to you! Please feel free to comment and share! Do you ever worry that your book will never get to see the light of day? How many drafts is too many? How do you know when it’s done?