Wednesday, September 26, 2012

The Whys and Wherefores--Post by Jennifer Erin Valent




Breaking from my usual I 8 Wednesdays to feature author, Jennifer Erin Valent. I’ve appreciated connecting with Jennifer online. It’s wonderful to engage with an author who demonstrates such devoted attention to craft and a keen ability to invoke questions in me about how I’d handle certain situations. I love how she makes me think!

I’m excited to share with you her thoughts on theme today…

From the time we’re kids we have an obsession with why. Why can’t I stick that up my nose? Why do I have to study geometry? Why didn’t I get that job? Why am I here? Why does cheesecake go straight to my hips?

That sort of need for a reason makes up a huge part of our humanity. We like to have explanations for the things that happen to us, for what we do, for what others do.

So if you say you want to write a novel, I’ll ask the obvious. “Why?”

Is it an overactive imagination? A passion for story? An addiction to words and how they’re put together? All good… all things that can make you the writer you’ve always wanted to be. But these things can also be distractions, and if you’re anything like me, all that creativity spilling out over the keyboard can make for a muddled mess.

That’s where a theme can be very handy.

Wikipedia defines theme as “the central topic, subject, or concept the author is trying to point out.” I love this definition because it’s active. It tells us that a story has a specific purpose and that the author’s job is to develop that purpose throughout.

To my way of thinking, theme can help a writer with two things:

Story Creation
I don’t necessarily know the theme of a novel as soon as I start to construct it. Oftentimes, I start with the characters and setting and develop my ideas for the main plot with their help before I ever touch on theme. But it was a different situation all around with my current work-in-progress. This time I was struggling to leave behind characters I had been with throughout an entire trilogy. I had no idea how to continue to write in the same vein with completely new characters and settings. So I settled on the theme as my starting point. What impact did I want to make with this tale? Who did I want to speak to and why? Did it have to do with friendship? Justice? Redemption? By the time I had figured out the core of what I hoped to achieve, I had people and places and words flooding my brain.

Story Flow
When it comes to keeping the plot flowing forward at the right pace, theme can keep us accountable. It’s easy for me to wander down rabbit trails when I write… and that’s not to say it’s always a bad thing. Discovering different avenues as I work can take me deeper into plot development (even if it amounts to some killer editing sessions in the future!) But it really is important to make sure that the events I create continue along a clear path and have some purpose in the overall storyline, even if it’s simply to advance the characters in order to bring them to my desired conclusion.

Now, clearly, every crumb of a story cannot be directly related to theme or else we’d end up with a textbook. A novel needs shading and nuance. It can’t be one note. But all of those words and phrases and events should take readers by the hand and lead them down one winding but continuous path towards that feeling of fulfillment when they turn the last page.

So when you sit down to write, before you dive head first into the pool of imagination and whimsy, try asking yourself why. Look inside your soul before you look inside your mind. And once you’ve determined your reason for writing – whether you want to change the world or just make it smile – stick to it! String that purpose throughout your story like paper dolls.

Leave those readers wondering why they shouldn’t turn back to page one and start the journey all over again.

Jennifer's Bio:
Jennifer Erin Valent is the award-winning author of Fireflies in December and its sequels Cottonwood Whispers and Catching Moondrops. She lives in central Virginia where she has worked as a nanny for nearly twenty years. A lifelong resident of the South, her surroundings help to color the scenes and characters she writes. To find out more visit her website at jennifervalent.com




20 comments:

  1. Wendy, thanks for hosting Jennifer! I love this concept--especially since I'm preparing to start writing a new book.

    Jennifer, why does cheesecake go straight to my hips?? Why can't it go to the chest? Life's mysteries...I've been thinking about theme a lot too, and I love how you explored this. Thanks!

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. I appreciate how Jennifer's point can help so much with character motivation and the psychology of a novel (one of my favorite aspects of the writing process).

      Delete
  2. Jill, maybe it has to do with gravity. We should eat upside down!

    So glad you enjoyed the post. Wishing you all sorts of wonderful moments as your get started on your latest novel!

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. Ah ha, eating upside down. Brilliant!

      Love having you here today, Jennifer!

      Delete
    2. Really thrilled to be here, Wendy!

      Delete
  3. Hi Jennifer! This was a great post. I find a lot of my themes or even ideas for a novel comes from asking "why" in scripture! I admit, I never wanted to put anything up my nose. LOL :)

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. Mary Demuth answered a huge scriptural why for me in her post today in regards to something I've been going through. The Bible is loaded with inspiration--for stories, for life.

      Delete
  4. Ok, but did you ever think about sampling paste? :)Thank you for stopping by, Jessica. I'm so happy to be part of Wendy's blog today! And yes, I completely concur - Scripture is the perfect basis for theme. It's packed full of truths that can sustain amazing stories. For that matter, it's packed full of amazing stories!

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. And I love that the people God chose to highlight are almost as messed up as me. Gives me hope.

      Delete
    2. Just goes to show you the Lord will use anyone who's willing... and that we can't do it without Him!

      Delete
  5. Sometimes I'm not aware of my own themes until someone else pointed them out. Great post Jennifer.

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. Or sometimes for me I'll slap myself upside the head and say, "That was what that was about."

      Delete
  6. Thank you, Patti! It does seem that creativity hits the pages so fast sometimes, we don't even realize where we're headed, and then all of a sudden... voila! The direction seems so clear. Love those 'aha' moments!

    ReplyDelete
  7. What an awesome post that gets to the whole crux of who we are as writers. Thanks for sharing, Jennifer, and for hosting, Wendy!

    I'm in the planning stages of a new novel and recently had an aha moment as to what the theme is. And it ties across multiple characters' spiritual arcs. Yes, I got more than a little giddy. :)

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. I'm all for ice cream even though my stomach gets mad when I eat it.

      And across multiple characters' spiritual arcs is gold. Good stuff, Sarah.

      Delete
  8. Giddy moments are some of the best! There are so many different aspects to writing a novel that when they suddenly seem tied together in a perfect way, it's reason for us to do a happy dance... and then eat some ice cream. With toppings. ;) Thanks for reading, Sarah!

    ReplyDelete
  9. Great discussion of theme, Jennifer. This is an area I want to explore more fully, and you've given me some wonderful ideas.

    ReplyDelete
  10. Fantastic, Keli, thank you! Wishing you happy writing!

    ReplyDelete
  11. I've never written a novel, but I love to write. I'm actually not great with grammar (honestly, I had to Google how to spell "grammer"). When I sit down to write in the future, I will ask myself, why? What is the "theme" I desire to get across to my readers? Thanks for sharing Jennifer!

    ReplyDelete
  12. I have to say, I am highly spell check dependent! And I used to be a pretty good speller before the computer started butting in. :) Point is, even though the computer can make us dependent on it in some ways, it can also be a big help with all the technical stuff, whether we're learning more or just getting a cheat sheet from spell check, etc. It's that love of writing we can't get from books or computer programs. Whatever the Lord leads you to do with your writing, I truly hope you continue to enjoy it all!

    ReplyDelete