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ARCHIVES OF March, 2016

Writing Wednesdays

Writing Wednesdays

Analyze Your Novel Like a Dream

By Steven Pressfield | Published: March 30, 2016

 

 

“Help, I can’t find my theme!” We talked about this a couple of weeks ago.

Freud: our secret weapon to find our theme.

Freud: our secret weapon to find our theme.

What if you discover yourself in this situation:

You’re three-quarters of the way through your novel (or maybe you finished it three weeks ago) and somebody asks you, “What’s it about? What’s the theme?” — and you find yourself staring blankly.

How do you identify your theme if you still don’t know it even after you’ve finished the book?

(Trust me, I’ve been there too. More than once.)

Here’s one way: think of your book as a dream.

I mean really. Imagine it’s a dream that you had last night and now you’re trying to interpret it, to find out what it means.

This is not as crazy as it sounds.

Consider: Stories seize us. They pour out of us. We’re writing them but we don’t really know where all this stuff is coming from. We can’t even articulate why this particular tale has taken hold of us so powerfully.

In other words, just like a dream.

Stories structure themselves. Characters appear. They speak, they clash, they love. Events take place. Somehow a cohesive narrative unfolds.

Just like a dream.

Where is our story coming from? Our unconscious, our Muse, the unplumbed depths of our secret heart.

Just like a dream.

So let’s analyze it like a dream.

[Key resource if you don’t have it already: Inner Work by Robert Johnson. Indispensable for interpretation of dreams.]

Okay, our intention in analyzing our book/dream is to identify the theme. We’re going to work backwards. We’re going to start with the characters and let them lead us back to the theme.

We’re going to use the following storytelling principle:

 

Every character must represent an aspect of the theme.

 

Are you skeptical? Do you think this idea is a little too wonky? Will our story, which has spilled out of our guts entirely on instinct, really cohere around a theme even though we have no idea what that theme is? Will the characters really reflect aspects of the theme, even though we’ve never given this concept a moment’s thought—and certainly never wrote a word with this idea in mind?

Yes and yes.

Again our story is coming from the same source as our dreams. Why wouldn’t it follow the same rules?

Okay.

How do we analyze a dream?

Two rules:

1) The language of dreams is symbolism. When our dog or our spouse appears to us in a dream, they are not them specifically. Rather, they represent something. They are symbols of something.

To find out what they represent we ask ourselves, “What associations do I have to my dog? My spouse?” We may write out a list of fifty. One will ring a bell. “Ah, Rover in the dream stands for loyalty!”

2) Everything in the dream is an aspect of ourselves. Including Rover. Including our spouse.

Ready? Let’s do a Freud number on the novel we’ve just finished.

Our novel is about Queen Boudica. the warrior monarch of ancient Britannia. In our story the brilliant but vulnerable Boudica fights one war against France and three more against Norman invaders, she takes two lovers (twin brothers, both Vikings), she is overthrown in a rebellion, imprisoned, almost beheaded, she escapes, etc.

Colorful characters surround her. Her Merlin-like mentor Aylward, her bastard son Ethelbert, her rival sister Gwyneth the Proud, her Irish wolfhound Byblos, blah blah etc. [I’m making all this up by the way, except Boudica.]

Boudica, Warrior Queen of ancient Britannia.

Boudica, Warrior Queen of ancient Britannia.

Let’s start with Aylward.

What does he represent? What is he a symbol of? (Remember, this doughty sage and wizard will infallibly represent an aspect of the theme.)

What about Ethelbert? Gwyneth? The noble wolfhound Byblos?

I know it sounds crazy but this exercise works.

It’s pretty amazing that it does work, actually. Think about what it means: that our unconscious, our Muse is producing spontaneously through us and without our conscious participation not just a story, but a story that has critical meaning for the evolution of our soul — and a story that, in fact, may be saving our own life and our sanity without us even realizing it.

But back to Queen Boudica.

We’re interpreting our book as if it were a dream and suddenly we realize, “OMG, the story is about self-belief! Every character, including Byblos the Irish wolfhound, is either pro or con to Boudica’s belief in herself as sovereign of the kingdom. And even Byblos’ name [which means “book”] is central to that theme, though we had no clue whatsoever as were creating this animal and naming him.”

The last character we’ll analyze is our protagonist, Boudica herself. (Remember the protagonist embodies the theme.) Why, we ask ourselves, did we pick Boudica as our hero? What aspect of ourselves does she represent? “Holy catfish, it is self-belief! Why her? Because, being a woman, she had two strikes against her in the roles of warrior and ruler. And she overcame them by conquering not just her external foes, but her internal doubts.”

Our theme.

We’ve got it now.

Suddenly we see the whole book through a new and brilliant lens. “Ah,” we say, “we need to cut that passage about the Viking raid. Great as it is, it’s not on-theme. And Boudica’s term of imprisonment needs to be much more about her internal struggle. Maybe she should even have a breakthrough dream while she’s there in the dungeon!”

When Shawn reads this post, he’s going to say, “Hey! This is exactly what I do as an editor! This is precisely how I break down a story to figure out its theme.”

And he’ll be absolutely right.

Analyze your story as if it were a dream. The exercise will lead you back to the theme. And the theme will be the key to tweaking, reconfiguring, and really empowering the story.

[And for sure get Robert Johnson’s book, Inner Work. Way worth it.]

(more…)

Posted in Writing Wednesdays
11 Comments

What It Takes

What It Takes

How To Pitch, Part II

By Callie Oettinger | Published: March 25, 2016

I left a few pieces out of my last post, “How to Pitch.” What follows is a round-up of items that should have made a showing in that first round.

Research the Individual You’re Pitching

Check the individual’s status. A few years ago I managed a history web site. Three years after the gig ended, publicists were still sending me books — and I’m still receiving e-mail pitches.

When you research that individual, make sure they’re still doing what you think they’re doing. Don’t rely on the Internet. Pick up the phone. The receptionists at news outlets won’t always put you through to the person, but often they will confirm if the person is on staff, as well as the bureau and address of the building in which they work.

Know the Outlet

This past week I spoke with a publicist who asked if Steve would write a review of her client’s book and run it on Steve’s site. Her messaging made it clear that she hadn’t broken through the surface of Steve’s site. Had she gone deep, she would have known that reviews aren’t a part of the site.

Watch Your Word Count

My friend Denise McKee, always advises to KISS (Keep It Simple Stupid). Along these lines, Michael Thompson shared the following within the comments section of my last post:

My dad was in intelligence for the military for 30 years and a war strategy instructor for another 20. The best advice he ever received was when he just starting out and had to present in front of the big wigs and the biggest wig stopped him and said “you have one minute to tell me why I am here and one minute to tell me why I should stay.”

This is the version of the elevator pitches authors are advised to create — an explanation of their project that is short enough to be given within one elevator ride (between two floors, not between floor one and the top of a skyscraper). The minute Michael’s father mentioned is generous. Olympic athletes break records in a matter of seconds. What can you do in the same amount of time?

Don’t Name Drop, But Do Name Drop

Telling me you know God isn’t going to get me to watch your new movie, but if you tell me you know my mom . . . That’s a game-changer.

This is another one Michael Thompson reminded me I’d forgotten to include in the first post:

Another great piece of advice that I have used successfully when trying to meet new people is “My name is Michael. I think we have some friends/contacts in common.” Try walking around from that question. Of course you need to have a few contacts in common, but if it is for an elevator pitch you should already know about the people you are seeking out.

He’s right. If you have a personal connection, you’ll automatically have bonus time. But, you better make sure the connection is strong and appropriate. Telling a former-playboy-turned-born again-straight-edge politician that you’re friends with Lucifer, too, won’t likely help your cause. (more…)

Posted in What It Takes
28 Comments

Writing Wednesdays

Writing Wednesdays

The Hero Embodies the Theme

By Steven Pressfield | Published: March 23, 2016

 

We’re now eight posts into our series on Theme. I confess I have the queasy feeling that our concept remains slippery and elusive. So let’s attack it from a different angle—from the idea that the protagonist embodies the theme.

Jennifer Lawrence embodies the theme in "Joy"

Jennifer Lawrence embodies the theme in “Joy”

Rocky.

The theme is “A bum can become a champ if he’s just given the chance.”

See how the character of Rocky embodies that?

Casablanca.

Theme: “It’s better to act for the greater good than for our own selfish ends.”

Bogie’s character, Rick Blaine, embodies the clash between self-interest and self-sacrifice. When he acts in the climax, his actions become the direct statement of the theme.

Pick any book or movie–Joy, The Martian, The Great Gatsby, Moby Dick, Crime and Punishment, all the way back to the Iliad and the story of David in the Bible. Every hero will embody the theme.

This is, again, why theme is so important—and why knowing what our theme is is so helpful to us as writers as we struggle through the structuring of our story.

Lemme go out on a limb and describe my own process in this regard for an historical novel I wrote called The Virtues of War.

The subject of The Virtues of War is Alexander the Great’s conquests. Note I say subject, not theme.

Like every writer, I write by instinct. I follow the Muse. Scenes come to me. A story starts to take shape. In addition, working with historical material, like Alexander’s real life in this case, I have certain scenes and events from history that I know I can use if I choose to.

But from the very first, I’m asking myself, “What is the theme? What is this story about?”

Why am I asking this?

Because once I know the theme, I will know the climax, or at least its emotional structure. I’ll know the climax because I know as a principle of storytelling that the hero and the villain must clash in the climax over the issue of the theme (just like Rocky and Apollo Creed fight it out in the ring [the antagonist is really not Creed, it’s Rocky’s self-sabotaging belief that he is a bum and will always remain so] and Bogie and his conscience clash in the silence of his saloonkeeper’s soul).

But back to Alexander the Great. As I’m starting to structure The Virtues of War, I have a massive swath of material to work with—battles, court intrigues, conquests, family dynamics. I can’t use it all. I have to narrow it.

What, I ask myself, is this freaking thing about?

(A sidebar but a critical one: the book came to me as two sentences that popped into my head and seized me totally.

 

I have always been a soldier. I have known no other life.

 

In other words, the Muse. The story waits there, like a dream, embedded in those two sentences. I had no idea who was speaking those sentences, what they meant, or where they would lead. I tried on various characters. Was it X? Y? Finally, I’m not sure how, I concluded it was Alexander.)

Okay. What next?

I start to rough-in a story in my head. But with every potential scenario I’m asking myself, “What is this about? What’s the theme?”

Why does Alexander use the word “soldier?” Why not “king?” Or “world conqueror?”

Why does he say “always?” Clearly he means “from birth,” or even before.

I decided that the theme was the morality (or immorality) of conquest.

The question the book would ask would be, “Is it wrong to bring war to other nations and to conquer them?”

But Alexander’s words “soldier” and “always” added a second moral dimension.

Is the vocation of soldiering honorable? Are there such things as warrior virtues, for instance courage, loyalty, self-sacrifice, adherence to a code of honor, capacity to endure adversity, etc. For me, the answer to these questions is yes.

How, then, do we reconcile these soldierly virtues with the reality of conquest? Can it be “right” to invade other nations’ homelands, to deprive them of their liberty, their pride, their sense of worth?

This is how a writer thinks. This is how he or she attacks a subject.

I decide I will not tell Alexander’s story from cradle to grave, including all the stuff of his biography that we’ve heard over and over.

I will build the story entirely around the theme. I will cut everything else.

I will identify an antagonist and that antagonist will represent the counter-theme.

I will find a climax that turns around the issue of the theme.

I will have every supporting character represent a different aspect of the theme.

Yes, the structuring of the story worked exactly this way. It was architecture. It was design.

Here’s one example out of many:

The real-life Alexander had a number of generals surrounding him. Many were his friends from childhood. Virtually every one of Alexander’s commanders was a giant in his own right–Ptolemy, Seleucus, Craterus, Hephaestion, Parmenio, Coenus, Perdiccas, to name just the leading ones.

I pushed all but two to the background. I made the pair I chose (Craterus and Hephaestion) represent aspects of the theme.

They became like angel and devil on Alexander’s shoulders. Craterus embodied one aspect of the theme (“Conquest is honorable; it is the ultimate end of the soldier’s calling”); Hephaestion represented the other (“Past a certain point, war becomes a crime, and we soldiers become criminals.”)

Alexander, the protagonist, was stuck in the middle, on the horns of the theme.

The book’s structure is a lot more complicated than that, but you get the gist—theme determines who the protagonist is, who the antagonist is, what events will constitute the narrative, what the climax will be, and what issue the final clash between protagonist and antagonist will be about. In other words, theme determines everything and is present in everything.

Let me finish this post with a sidebar of a sidebar. (I may be violating my own rule here by appending a notion that is not “on theme” for this post.)

Here it is:

Though I as a writer was consciously and deliberately employing the idea of theme and its corollaries to structure The Virtues of War, the story itself and the characters were coming from an entirely different source. I very much had the feeling that the Muse (or my unconscious or whatever) was feeding me this story. I felt like a detective, trying to tease it out. I was following clues. I was being led.

 

I have always been a soldier. I have known no other life.

 

Those two sentences (that I could in no way claim as coming from “me”) gave me protagonist, theme, tone of voice, point of view—and, by deduction, antagonist, supporting characters, overall story shape, and climax.

As each character or scene appeared, I felt like I was following a trail of bread crumbs. The lantern by whose gleam I tracked them was the idea of theme.

When a character arose I asked myself, “What aspect of the theme does he or she represent?”

One quick example and I’ll finish.

A true historical king named Porus fought a great battle with Alexander in India. I made him the book’s physical antagonist. (Alexander’s inner antagonist was inside his own head.) I had Porus confront Alexander, in a face to face parley, over the issue of the theme.

The theme, remember, is the morality (or immorality) of conquest, specifically for a commander of genuine honor, who believes in and adheres to the virtues of war. Why, Porus asks Alexander, have you and your army crossed half the earth to bring war to my people, who have never harmed you? Are you a king or a devil? How do you justify your life and what you have done?

Forgive me for citing my own work. I’m not doing it for reasons of ego, I promise.

The point is to demonstrate how a writer, in the midst of shaping a work that is “coming to him” over weeks and months from his Muse, employs the concept of theme to organize the narrative, to determine what to keep and what to cut, and to decide how it all fits together.

Theme.

It’s the key to everything.

 

(more…)

Posted in Writing Wednesdays
22 Comments
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