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Punching Up That Theme

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Holes - Louis Sachar - YA Books - theme - writing tips - Novel Conclusions - Christi Gerstle

Louis Sachar’s Holes via Google Images

So you’ve gotten past the first draft, perhaps past the fifth draft, and you’re starting to hone in on bigger picture ideas like theme.  But what are the themes in your story?  And how do you make sure they don’t come across as forced morals?

Since I have trouble with this in my writing, I thought we could examine how the experts have done it.  In this case, those experts are JK Rowling and Louis Sachar.  Both Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone and Holes explore the theme of the importance of true friendship, and both of these books do it in a way that is real, warm, and absorbing, despite some crazy circumstances.

In Louis Sachar’s Holes, our “cursed” protagonist Stanley Yelnats has gotten himself into quite a pickle.  Accused of a crime he didn’t commit, he’s sent to a juvenile detention camp in the middle of the desert with a bunch of much less innocent delinquents.  Stanley makes friends with another outcast, a kid named Zero.  Inevitably, they get into some much more serious trouble (I won’t spoil it too much here), and they end up saving each other’s lives.  For the first time in as long as he can remember, Stanley has a real friend.  When he and Zero are still mired in craziness, Stanley is the happiest he’s ever been because he has someone he can depend on:

As Stanley stared at the glittering night sky, he thought there was no place he would rather be.  He was glad Zero put the shoes on the parked car.  He was glad they fell from the overpass and hit him on the head.

With some fantastic showing instead of telling, Sachar explores this theme of the importance of true friendship without getting preachy.  We know, through Sachar’s spare, straightforward storytelling, that Stanley and Zero needed each other.  The theme is an integral part of the plot, and it gives the story depth.

Rowling explores this same theme in Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone (or Philosopher’s Stone), the first book in the series.  She knew (though we as readers did not) that the friendship between Harry, Ron, and Hermione had to hold strong for an entire series and had to ring true.

Harry winning their friendship.  JK Rowling was so adamant about the importance of this scene that she had to convince her editor it was worth keeping.  On her old website, she explained, “Hermione is so very annoying in the early part of Philosopher’s Stone that I really felt it needed something (literally) huge to bring her together with Harry and Ron.”

What can we learn from these expert authors?  What questions can we ask ourselves while revising?

  • Which themes exist already in my story?
  • Which of these themes is most integral to my plot?
  • What can I do to make this idea clearer?

What do you all think?  How do you approach theme when writing?

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The Art of Naming Your Characters

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Katniss - Hunger Games - Novel Conclusions - Writing Blog - Christi Gerstle

Katniss via Google Images

What are the most important things to remember when naming your characters?

Recently, io9 talked about character names that should be banned, and and it got me thinking about naming characters in general.  I don’t necessarily agree that you should never use the name Katherine (as the author suggests, among other things), but I do think that there are important things that need to be taken into consideration so as not to distract the reader from the story.  Whenever the reader gets pulled out of the story by something jarring (like an ill-fitting character name), they are more likely to put that book down.  And the reader putting your book down is bad, right?  I thought so, too.

Every writer has their own opinion about naming characters in their stories, but I personally subscribe to the screenwriter method.  This method is pretty clearly outlined in William M. Akers’ Your Screenplay Sucks: 100 ways to make it great (crazy title, awesome book – I highly recommend it for anyone writing any type of fiction).  One of the main tenets of this method is trying your best to not give characters names that start with the same letter or rhyme.  This can be easily accomplished by listing the letters A to Z and not using more than one name for each letter (and if you have more than 26 main characters, that’s a whole different issue).

You can also go a little further and give characters names that mean something, that say something about their character.  Dickens and Shakespeare were big on this.  In more recent years, JK Rowling gave quite a few of her Harry Potter characters Latinate names that hinted something (for example, Dumbledore comes from the Latin word for “bumblebee”), and many of her characters were named after stars/characters from mythology (Sirius, Bellatrix, Regulus, Merope, etc.).  Frequently her nods at mythology related directly to the character, as in the case of Remus Lupin being a werewolf (Remus, in mythology, was one of the twins who founded Rome and was raised by a wolf).  You’ve got to be careful with this, though, or you might fall into accidental parody territory, which would generally be bad times.

One thing that really bugs me is popular names that are spelled in crazy irritating ways, like Kaiyleigh, Ashli, Jaydenn, Jessikah (aaahhh, I can’t even write any more of these horrible names), unless of course your characters actually live in a trailer park.  If you must name your character a popular current name, for goodness sake, please spell it in a way that doesn’t burn your readers’ retinas (Kailey, Ashley, Jaden, Jessica, etc.).

Some science fiction and fantasy books can get away with unusual names, like Game of Thrones or Hunger Games, but even then, it’s helpful to keep the names as pronounceable as possible.  In Game of Thrones, we can all pronounce Cersei, Sansa, and Tyrion even though we’ve never seen those names before.  In Hunger Games, Katniss, Peeta, and Prim are all names that we can pronounce.  Capiche?

What tips and tricks do you use when naming characters?  Or do you just use names that “feel right”?

The 10 Most Read Books in the World

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Happy 2013!!!  Today is the first day of Lucky 13.  Are you excited?  I can’t hardly wait!

I thought this would be a good time to start out the new year with a super fun infographic from Business Insider, The Top Ten Most Read Books in the World:

Most Read Books - Novel Conclusions - writing blog

Top 10 Most Read Books Infographic, via Business Insider

I’ve read at least part of every book on this list except for Mao’s little red book (and I think it’s fairly safe to assume I can continue on just fine without reading that little Communism handbook).  2 things struck me about this list:

1.  These books are dramatically different.  This is great as it means that there’s lots of room at the top!  As a reading public, we aren’t stuck inside any one genre — we read lots of different things.

2.  Some of these books are relatively recent, which means that this list is ever-changing.  In a few years, your book could be on the list!

Have you read any of these “most read” books?  Which were your favorites?

P.S. Speaking of the new year, there’s a great new year’s resolutions post over at bottledworder.

Dreaming of Endless Books

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Ever after library - Novel Conclusions - writing blog

Ever after. Imagine the library down the hall. Courtesy of Google Images.

Earlier today, I was chatting with my better half, Beau, and I mentioned how I would love to have a library in our future house (which does not exist yet).  He didn’t quite see eye to eye with me on this one:

ME:  Can we have a library in our house someday?

BEAU:  We already have a library.

ME:  What are you talking about?

BEAU:  If a library is a room full of books, Library #1 is our living room.  Library #2, the bedroom.  Library #3, the office.

ME:  (dreamily) It would be all tall, gorgeous shelves full of books with comfy overstuffed chairs.

BEAU:  And maybe the bathroom is Library #4.

ME:  Hmph.  Not what I meant, punk.

This got me thinking about beautiful libraries.  I love libraries, and beautiful libraries are even better.  The first one that popped into my my is the gorgeous library at the monastery in the movie Ever After.  I can’t find a picture of that exact library, but it is multiple floors and open to the working area where the monks are making new copies of the books (this Cinderella movie is set hundreds of years ago).  Danielle, our Cinderella, lights up as she tells the story of falling in love with the book Utopia by Sir Thomas More.

Harry Potter Hogwarts Library - Novel Conclusions - writing blog

Hogwarts Library. Courtesy of Google Images.

The omnipresent library of the Harry Potter books (and movies) also deserves a nod.  Major props go to JK Rowling for working the library into every book in the series.  Harry’s good buddy Hermione manages to find out something important from a book that moves the plot forward in every story in the series; the library is practically a character in the books.

Beauty and the Beast library - Novel Conclusions - writing blog

Belle in the town book shop. Courtesy of Google Images.

There are also a couple of fantastic libraries in Disney’s Beauty and the Beast (side note: I can’t believe this movie is more than 20 years old).  As a kid, the fact that Belle adored reading made me love her more.  Who could forget the charming town book shop or the luxurious library at the Beast’s mansion?

For some real-life beautiful libraries, check out this slideshow of twelve stunning libraries.  Which libraries (real or imagined) do you think of when you think of libraries?

Setting as Character

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Novel Conclusions - Setting as Character - Harry Potter example

courtesy of bn.com

In some novels, the setting works only as a backdrop, a starting-off point, but in others, the setting brings the story to life.

I can still remember the pervasive, dark heaviness of the jungle throughout the entirety of Joseph Conrad’s Heart of Darkness.  The impassiveness and mystery of the jungle makes the characters jumpy and also reflects Kurtz’s descent into madness.

James Dashner’s Maze Runner uses his setting, the Glade, both as an antagonist and as a puzzle to find out why the boys are there.  The mystery of the Glade itself helps build the tone of the book.

In JK Rowling‘s Harry Potter series, the grounds and buildings at Hogwarts School play a pivotal role in almost every book in the series.  The secrets of the castle — and who is in possession of those secrets — build, one upon the other, from Book 1 all the way through Book 7, though I won’t spoil the how.  We know from our first steps inside the castle that it will be important to the story:

The entrance hall was so big you could have fit the whole of the Dursleys’ house in it.  The stone walls were lit with flaming torches like the ones at Gringotts, the ceiling was too high to make out, and a magnificent marble staircase facing them led to the upper floors.

What can we as writers take from these examples?  In each of these books, the author deftly weaves the setting into the plot so that the story could not happen without the place it’s set in.  Each of these stories would be dramatically different if they were set in different locations.  Imagine Heart of Darkness in Paris or Harry Potter in Kansas — completely different.

Is your setting integral to the plot?  Does your story change dramatically if you change the location?  Why have you chosen a certain place (or places) to be your main setting?  How does your setting give depth to your story?  Each of these questions can give you another way to look at your setting and how to adjust it or change it entirely.

What’s your take on settings?

P.S. Check out an alternate take on the same topic here.

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