Wednesday, 30 March 2011

Working on 'theme'

Once I’d finished delving into my characters, it was time to think about theme. I’ve been reading a few books on the subject recently (as I’ve been discussing in the comments section of the last post) as I’m starting to see how theme is the glue that holds the story into a cohesive whole. This is not to say that my books so far haven’t had themes, because I think a theme grows out of the author’s viewpoint and the characters’ journeys. But I want to have a bit more conscious input on my theme, rather than feeling it’s a fuzzy entity somewhere out there in the ether that I occasionally manage to grab onto and pin down.

Currently I’m reading Inside Story: The Power Of The Transformational Arc by Dara Marks, and the last book I found really interesting on the subject was The Moral Premise by Stanley D. Williams. I wrote a post about the book for the Pink Heart Society last year, so for a slightly more in depth look, with an example from Titanic, go here.

By 'moral' premise Williams doesn't mean something preachy or judgemental, merely that what others have referred to as the 'theme' or the 'controlling idea' of the story taps into universal values - things like friendship, courage, honour, freedom, generosity or unconditional love - qualities we'd all like to see more of in our world and in our lives.

The moral premise is not just closely linked to the 'inner story'; it is the inner story - what your book is really about. I had already worked out before I read The Moral Premise that the theme of a successful story was closely tied to the protagonist's emotional journey, but this book helped me collect my thoughts on this matter, expanded on them, and filled in some of the missing pieces of the jigsaw puzzle.

So...what is the Moral Premise?

Stan Williams simply says it is a statement of truth about the protagonist's psychological predicament (what I think of as inner conflict).

This truth is often presented to a protagonist in various ways throughout His or her story, but there is usually one moment when it is most clear - what Williams calls the 'moment of grace'. At this point, the main character has a choice to make. They can either accept the truth presented to them - which will normally lead to change for the better, meaning a happy ending, or they can reject that truth and suffer the consequences!

So…how does this have any bearing for the ballerina and the action man?

For the last book, and now this one, I followed a set of steps outlined in ‘The Moral Premise’ to help me tap into my theme and make sure I was keeping things consistent.

1. Determine the controlling virtue of your story.

I was asked to write a story based on a fairy tale, and I chose Hans Christian Anderson’s The Little Mermaid. I wanted protagonists from two very different worlds and a heroine with a longing to escape hers and live in his – hence my frustrated ballerina. After I thought hard about my heroine (see here for my character-mining expedition for Allegra), I realised that what Allegra really needed was to take charge of her own life. She needed to feel free.

‘The Little Mermaid’ – controlling virtue: freedom

  • Freedom to choose one's own destiny
  • Freedom to speak and express one's opinion

2. Determine the controlling vice of your story.

This is always going to be the flipside of the virtue – what character flaw/negative issue my protagonist is dealing with. But I wanted to be specific about it. Allegra feels trapped and helpless, but she allows herself to be controlled, especially by her father.

‘The Little Mermaid’ – controlling vice: captivity/suppression

  • Not being in control of one's life.
  • Suppressing emotion and ideas.
  • Staying silent instead of speaking out.

3. Define the moral premise of your story:

A double-sided statement on the truth of the protagonist’s psychological predicament. The moral premise of The Little Mermaid is:

Allowing oneself to be held captive, by oneself or others, leads to frustration and isolation. Embracing freedom, and all that means, leads to creativity, connection and love.

But this post is getting a little long, so I’ll stop here and elaborate on how I apply this to the structure of the story in another post!

Sunday, 27 March 2011

Fearless Finn turns out to be a wuss

After delving into my heroine's character, I turned my attention to my hero. About time too, really, because so far he's just been a bit of sketchy idea in my mind. I thought I'd worked out who he was, but it turned out I'd only scratched the surface and kidded myself I'd dug a pit.


Finn McLeod is an all-out action man and survival expert, who likes nothing better than discovering new things about this wonderful planet we're all stuck on. He says he likes adventure, that he likes going into uncharted territory. He's lying, of course. Oh, he loves the great outdoors all right, but when it comes to human relationships, Finn likes to play it safe.

Here are Finn's five questions (see here for an explanation):

What is my hero's longing?
  • He longs for connection.

What is my character's wound?
  • He was an army brat who was always moving. It was great fun and he saw lots of the world, which fuelled his thirst for travel and exploration, but he learnt that it hurt to get attached to places and people.
  • Learned not to put down deep roots, because they got ripped out of the ground and that was painful. He keeps his roots wide, but shallow. However, this means there isn't the same depth of satisfaction in his life. He keeps looking for more adventure, thinking the farther he spreads his roots the more fulfilled he will be, when actually what he needs is to go deeper.

What is my character's fear?

  • Fear of not being connected to anyone or anything, of too much empty space in his life.
  • Just don't ask him to rely on one person completely. That's a little too connected for itchy-feet Finn.

What is your character's identity?

  • Intrepid explorer and emotional tourist.
  • He's got a wide circle of friends and acquaintances - people love his happy-go-lucky nature - but he doesn't actually let anyone close, even though they all might feel as if they're his best friend.
  • His thirst for exploration comes from a need to feel connected to the world he lives in. He doesn't just travel widely, but he's become an expert on certain types of habitat.
  • However, he has neglected to explore human relationships with the same thoroughness. While he despises people who never leave their TV sets, or only do day-trips and package holidays, he is guilty of the same superficiality in his emotional life. When it comes to relationships, Finn is just a tourist.

What is my character's essence?
  • A man who is not afraid to put down deep and lasting roots. A man who can choose to stay in one place, and who can find the same thrill from discovering new things about the woman he loves every day for the rest of his life.

Which leads me to Finn's lessons:

What will my character have to learn to make the journey from IDENTITY to ESSENCE?

  • To own up to the fact that, although he is totally free, there are areas in his life that he chooses not to venture into, because he is scared of what he might find there.
  • Finn is a man who loves everything new, everything wild and unexplored, but he's going to have to learn the joy that can be found in cultivating things, because that is what long-term relationships require.
  • Freedom is a gift that he has not been using wisely.

Friday, 25 March 2011

Allegra's journey

I'm continuing to blog about my writing process and what I do when I hit a slump and just don't feel like writing any more - what I do when the story seems to have lost its magic (and there are always several places in the course of writing a book where I feel this way).

Yesterday I prised myself away from the keyboard and got out my pen and paper. There's something very freeing about doing that. I often write large chunks of my first draft longhand instead of typing, because I feel less constrained creatively when I have a pen in my hand and I'm free to scribble and cross out and not keep to neat rows and lines.

Sometimes, when I want to brainstorm, I do the same. I often get a large(ish) art pad (A3 size) and write my character's name on it, and then start scibbling down all the things I know about them. They can often end up looking very messy, with scrawled writing in different colours at different angles, and arrows all over the place, connecting thoughts and ideas. Here's what Allegra's page looks like at present (see left).

Quite neat, isn't it?
(Don't worry, I'm sure I'll messy it up nicely as the days go by.) But that's quite fitting for Allegra, actually. Let me tell you a little bit about her:

My heroine for the current book (Allegra) was a 'baby ballerina' - a child prodigy who was thrust into the limelight early, but her talent has isolated her and set her apart from other people. Ballet is a world where the choreographer reigns supreme. Dancers aren't asked to collaborate in the creative process much; they are just told what to do. They are the vehicle for another's vision. And Allegra's early start in her career meant that her father has had a very firm hand on her life, especially as her mother died when she was eleven. He is her mentor and her worst critic, her manager and her parent - a very cluttered and complicated relationship.

Once I knew all this about her, I asked her the five questions (see my last post).

What is my character's longing?

  • Allegra longs to feel free, both in terms of exploring the big, wide world, but also she craves inner freedom.
  • She wants to escape.

What is my character's wound?
  • She's a child prodigy, and as such, she's never had a normal life. She's had a very sheltered existence, very focussed towards one goal.
  • She has her life directed for her. On stage by the choreographer; off-stage by her father and the demands of her career. Has very little personal freedom.

What is my character's fear?

  • That she will never be free, that someone will always hold her destiny in their hand and superimpose their will over hers.
  • BUT she's also secretly scared of all that freedom. Too much room, too many possibilities. While her life stays on its stagnant little track, she might moan, but it's safe. She doesn't have to take responsibility for her mistakes and choices, because someone else has always been at the reigns - it's their fault. With freedom will come the opportunity to succeed spectacularly, but the flipside of that is that she opportunity to fail spectacularly will also be there - something that won't sit easily with the former child prodigy.

What is your character's identity?
  • Dutiful ballerina. She does what she's told, because there is no point in expressing her opinion - her choreographer isn't interested in what she thinks or wants; he just wants her to do as he says. She is the blank canvas for another to paint their vision on.
  • A mute, who always keeps her wishes silent. She never expresses her desires, because in her world, there is no use. She has no control over her life. She has also learned to keep herself strictly under control - and she will find this her greatest obstacle to inner freedom. She will be her own worst enemy, because that inbred sense of control if going to make it very difficult for her to LET GO.

What is your character's essence?

  • Woman (not just a ballet dancer) who is free inside - Free to live. Free to love. Free to make her own choices.
  • She won't mind taking on board other people's ideas and suggestions when she feels free inside, because they won't threaten her sense of self (and this will make her a better artist).

Once you know your character's identity and true nature, you have the beginning and end points of the emotional journey they must take - their character arc. So, once I have that worked out, I ask myself one further question:

What will my character have to learn to make the journey from IDENTITY to ESSENCE?

  • To speak up for herself, articulate her feelings and desires.
  • To take responsibility for her life and make her own choices (not easy at first).
  • To let go of the resentment that's been building up inside her, that sense of rage at being caged by other people and robbed of her freedom (even though she has allowed them to do it).
  • To find the courage to use the freedom she claims she wants. Not to 'escape' again, back into her gilded cage when the going gets tough, but to face her fears.
  • To not use her new-found freedom to impose her will upon others - she has to learn to respect other people's freedom as well.

Now, I feel as if I've got something a little more concrete to work with. Hero next...

Thursday, 24 March 2011

Inspiration and Royal Weddings

Well, after I blogged yesterday I kept digging deep into my characters - or character mining, as I'm starting to refer to it. More detailed posts are to follow, but I'm out of my writing rut already and the ideas are popping like popcorn. (Love it when this happens!)

I find that beating the writing doldrums isn't so much about getting the words on the page perfect (I haven't even
looked at my manuscript in the last two days), but about getting my head in the right place. I was feeling unenthusiastic about my story, and when I feel like that I feel as if I'm trying to write through treacle. No, wait. Treacle isn't the right sort of substance - too sticky, too sweet. Porridge or semolina is more like it. Sludgey. Grey. Slighty uninspiring, although you know it's good for you.

After a day of character mining I'm feeling mentally energised about my story. All I have to do now is organise those ideas that have been a-popping and words will start to fly. It might have seemed stupid to stop writing and mess around with character charts and questions, but I know that I will now make much faster progress than if I hadn't. And who wants 500 porridge-like words when they can have 1000 bright, zippy, zingy ones? Not me.

And just to cheer me up even further, I've discovered that Three Weddings And A Baby is part of M&Bs new Royal Wedding collection. Yay!

Wednesday, 23 March 2011

Beginnings are the worst

Sometimes I love starting a new book. Sometimes I hate it. Right now, I definitely hate it.

The strange this is that I love my ballet dancer heroine, I love my action-man hero and I love the story premise. Somehow all this potential magic is just not making its way onto the page. Bleugh. I should add that I'm at the end of Act One - a place where I inevitably end up in the doldrums and ask myself why I'm writing this book and where the heck am I going to go next with it. If I'm a long way from my deadline, I may even avoid writing altogether. Procrastination abounds.

Unfortunately, I don't have that luxury this time around, so I decided to blog instead.
With a purpose, of course...

Anyway, since I'm desperate, I thought I'd blog about what I do to get myself kick-started when the muse has left the building. What normally works is if I dig a bit deeper into my story, which really means digging deeper into my characters, since they are the ones driving it. I also need to collect my multitudinous thoughts and organise them into something resembling a plan. Cue my ever-helpful plot board:

My plot board has had various incarnations, but the current layout seems to give me maximum space for splattering all my ideas at it. More on that in another post, maybe.

So how am I planning to refocus myself? Firstly, I'm going to sit down with my hero and heroine and ask them Michael Hauge's five questions. This is always a good starting point for me, as it helps me narrow down all the ideas I've been having about these people and focus them in one direction. Some ideas may be chucked; some ideas will magically come togehter with other ones to add depth and extra layers to my characters. Until I do this, I never know which ideas are the duds and which are the really useful ones.

Enough rambling, Fiona. Just post the questions already!

  1. What is your character's longing? (I tend to think of this as their 'inner' goal).
  2. What is your character's wound? (What event(s) in their past have shaped who they are today?)
  3. What is your character's fear? (Basically, the fear stems from the wound. Makes sense, really. If you've ever been hurt badly, either physically or emotionally, you tend to make a priority of not getting hurt the same way again).
  4. What is your character's identity? (What is the false front they present to the world? Who have they become to protect themselves from the fear of the wound?)
  5. What is your character's essence? (Michael Hauge asks "Who are they underneath? Who are they really?" I also tend to think of it in terms of who this person has the potential to be, if they would just quit hiding behind that false front and face the fear.)
And once I've done that, I'm going to think about my story's theme and how that's going to affect my characters emotional arcs. But I've wittered on enough for now. It's probably time to stop blogging and start writing. Maybe I'll even come and post the results of my character probing here too!

Oh, and I've decided I need a new soundtrack to listen to as I write too. Busy, busy day...
(This may sound frivolous, but really it isn't. The right songs to get my creative juices flowing, that drag me into the story world of the current book, can make all the difference!)

Tuesday, 8 March 2011

RNA Pure Passion Awards 2011

Yesterday was one of those 'glam' writing days. The very few and far between kind of writing days. Jogging bottoms not present. Make-up definitely needed!

I went the the RNA's annual Pure Passion Awards. A new venue this year - One Whitehall Place, which is connected to the Royal Horseguards Hotel on the Embankment. It's a beautiful building, inside and out, and I've always thought it looks like a rather French fairytale castle:

It has the most amazing oval marble staircase too:

Before the awards ceremony proper there was a champagne reception in the Reading & Writing room, with wonderful views across Whitehall Gardens to the Thames. It's a wonderfully ostentatious bit of Victorian interior design, complete with sparkling chandeliers, tiled columns and a vast mural:

We sipped champagne and chatted, surrounded by tables stacked high with the shortlisted books:

Here's Love Story of the Year shortlisted author Abby Green with fellow M&B author Heidi Rice:

At 4.30pm we moved through to the Gladstone Library, where the awards were going to be presented. More chadeliers. More beautiful tiled pillars. And the library of one's dreams, with a staircase leading up to an upper level with even more books. (Well, actually, the books are replicas, but we don't want to mention that and spoil the fantasy, do we?)

Rather than doing a long spiel I thought I'd let my pictures do the talking for me. Presenting the awards this year was Timothy Bentwick, better known as David Archer from the much-adored BBC radio drama The Archers:

And the award winners are...

Lifetime achievement awards went to both Penny Jordan and Josephine Cox:

The winner of the Love Story of the Year was Louise Allen for The Piratical Miss Ravenshurst:

Elizabeth Chadwick won the Historical Novel Prize with To Defy A King:

The Romantic Comedy Prize was won by Jill Mansel for Take A Chance On Me:

And, finally, the Romantic Novel of the Year was The Last Letter From Your Lover by Jojo Moyes - a very popular win, it seemed!

A very exciting and glamorous afternoon, it has to be said. Even a trip to the Ladies was an experience! I nipped out after the awards had been presented and found the room I was looking for at the top of a narrow spiral staircase. I opened the door and said, very loudly, "Oh, my goodness!" I kid you not, the floorspace of this place was bigger than the whole ground floor of my house.

You can tell I don't get out much if I get all excited about football pitch-sized washrooms and little towels you throw in a laundry hamper instead of air blowers, can't you?

And then it was time to socilaise some more and then wend my way home. I'll leave you with a view over the Thames from the Reading & Writing Room (and, no, that's not the mother ship decending over London on the left of the picture; it's just a reflection of one of the chandeliers).