Friday, March 23, 2018

Weaving Theme Into Your Story

Shannon Dittemore is the author of the Angel Eyes novels. She has an overactive imagination and a passion for truth. Her lifelong journey to combine the two is responsible for a stint at Portland Bible College, performances with local theater companies, and an affinity for mentoring teen writers. Since 2013, Shannon has taught mentoring tracks at a local school where she provides junior high and high school students with an introduction to writing and the publishing industry. For more about Shan, check out her website, Facebook, Twitter, Instagram and Pinterest

Today, Jill and I (and author Paul Regnier) are kicking off our Teen Writers Track at Mount Hermon Christian Writers Conference! We are so excited and hope to see some of you today. If you ARE there (here?), please say "hello!"

This week, we're picking up where we left off last Friday. We were talking about theme and how we can dig it out of our stories. Assuming we've pinpointed a few of our themes, I want to give you five simple ways to weave theme into your story.


William Shakespeare uses a lot of imagery to reinforce his themes in his tragedy, Hamlet. One of the themes he vigorously explores is the idea that the world is a decaying garden. Throughout the play, various characters and actions and dialogue reinforce Hamlet's early observation: "'Tis an unweeded garden that grows to seed. Things rank and gross in nature possess it merely."


As you create your world, consider which elements will reinforce the message of your story. In Disney's Beauty and the Beast, they do this so well with the Beast's castle. While it suffers beneath the curse, the castle is dark and gloomy, Gothic even. It is perpetually winter, a cold and numbing place to be. But when the curse is broken! Spring again! Sunlight and happy colors everywhere. The world itself helps us see the message of the story.

Character/Creature Traits

I've talked about this before, recently even. But as you create your characters, consider their traits and how their own make-up and journey contribute to the ideas you want conveyed. In Broken Wings, I created the Sabres, a rank of angel, after I had completed my first draft. Their creation highlights the idea of worship as warfare: " . . . it's his wings that so separate him from any other angel I've seen . . . Where I expect to see rows and rows of snowy white feathers, one blade lies on top of another--thousands of them--sharp and glistening silver . . . they rub one against the other, trembling, sending music far and wide."

Common or Repeated Sentiment

Consider the scenes that make up your story. Do they share a repeated sentiment? When you read them individually, are the various characters sharing a common feeling? One of my favorite historical fiction writers is Kate Morton. In several (maybe all) of her books, certainly in The Distant Hours, she introduces several generations of women. In each mother-daughter relationship, there is a reluctance for the daughter to view her mother as having a life before she was born. It's a relationship, an idea, a real-life stumbling block many people can relate to, and she doesn't sermonize about it; she simply shows you the commonality of this belief and then she shows you just how wrong it is.

Similar Takeaways from Individual Scenes

In the WWII novel, The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society, the authors tell the entire story as letters to and from a variety of characters. It's delightful and they've done well to capture each voice uniquely and with varying points of view on similar moments. But as different as each character is, a theme begins to emerge. In a letter from Dawsey to Juliet, he says, "But sometimes I think of {the author} Charles Lamb and marvel that a man born in 1775 enabled me to make two such friends as you and Christian."

Dawsey is a farmer on the isle of Guernsey. Juliet is an author in London. And Christian? A Nazi soldier stationed at Guernsey as part of an occupying force. With every letter we read, we understand what Dawsey says so plainly. Love of the written word connects people from all different walks of life.

Tell me, do you have a difficult time weaving theme into your stories? Do you have a favorite method for doing so? Which of the above ideas would you like to give a try?

Wednesday, March 21, 2018

Brainstorming Problems Away: When Travel Interrupts the Work Schedule

Jill Williamson is a chocolate loving, daydreaming, creator of kingdoms. She writes weird books in lots of weird genres like fantasy (Blood of Kings and Kinsman Chronicles), science fiction (Replication), and dystopian (The Safe Lands trilogy). She has a podcast/vlog at You can also find Jill on InstagramFacebookTwitterPinterest, or on her author website. Tagboth (Tag for short) is a goldhorn dragon from Belfaylinn, a hidden fantasy realm on the western end of the Sargasso Sea. Jill is working on the first book of this tale for this year's Grow an Author series.

Today I am on the road, driving from the Portland, Oregon area to Shannon Dittemore's home near Sacramento, California so that she and I and our friend Paul Regnier can teach a teen track at the Mount Hermon Christian Writers' Conference! Arghphth! So. Excited.

I am looking forward to a great week, hanging out with writer friends and teen writers. My favorite!

When on the road like this, I can't blog. I can't do much work at all. (Though I am toying around with using a blue tooth ear piece to record myself talking. I'm going to see if it's possible for me to audibly write a little during this super long road trip. If I succeed, I shall report back.) What I can do, however, is think. There is plenty of time for thinking while on the road. In fact, it's a great time for brainstorming away major story problems. So that's what I'm doing today. I'm going to think, think, think, just like Winnie the Pooh. And if that isn't enough to do the trick, I will think, think, think all the way home again too. And by the time I'm back from this great adventure, I will have figured out the answers to some important problems with my story.

That means, before I left, I needed to prepare my list of problems so that I would have them handy while on the road. So I wrote in a notebook the following:

Onyx Eyes:
-How exactly does my new idea for traveling through the Thin Places work?

-Think through the disease that takes over Drake due to his bond with the dragon. Also, does the dragon get the same disease? Does it affect only the physical body or the mind as well?

-I have five chapters in part three with no story planned. Figure out what is going to happen in those five chapters!

-Figure out who Kaitlyn's parents were and what they witnessed. Where they are now.

-Explore Kaitlyn-as-bard angle. Could be a bard is more than music.

-Where is the real Quinn?

-Why was the fake Quinn still in Kaitlyn's home if he was supposed to be guarding the princess?

I have taken this list with me on the road. When I have worked through some of it, and when I stop for gas or lunch (because writing and driving don't mix!), I'll write down any notes I came up with so I won't forget my genius ideas. Then when I am home next week, I'll be ready to start writing.

Whoo hoo!

Do you have any tips for brainstorming your way out of problems? Share in the comments.

Monday, March 19, 2018

10 Tricks For Rocking Your First Draft

Stephanie Morrill is the creator of and the author of several young adult novels, including the historical mystery, The Lost Girl of Astor Street (Blink/HarperCollins). Despite loving cloche hats and drop-waist dresses, Stephanie would have been a terrible flapper because she can’t do the Charleston and looks awful with bobbed hair. She and her near-constant ponytail live in Kansas City with her husband and three kids. You can connect with her on FacebookTwitterPinterest, Instagram, and sign up for free books on her author website.

For several months now, my posts have been about get ready to write the first draft. Researching, brainstorming, character musing, identifying where to start the book, that kind of thing.

Most of the time, once I've gone through all these steps, I'm feeling ready to dive into my first draft. Occasionally, though, I have caught myself researching a bit longer than necessary, or doing something else to stall the actual writing piece of the process. Part of this, I feel, is my perfectionist tendencies. The story still feels perfect in my mind at this point, and I know it's about to become not-perfect, because first drafts never are.

Here are some techniques and mental tricks I've learned along the way that have helped me push through my first draft. I hope they'll help you too!

"All I'm doing is typing words into a document. That's not scary."

Some projects incite more fear in my heart than others. Like The Lost Girl of Astor Street, which was my first foray with a historical or a mystery.

When I'm feeling scared, I have to remind myself that I'm just typing. I'm not skydiving or publicly dancing, I'm just typing. 

Embrace Your Pace

I know there's a big push to write faster. Word sprints, word wars, #1k1hr, 5k-in-a-day events, NaNoWriMo, and all kinds of books about increasing your word count. 

There's nothing wrong with any of these. If word sprints work for you, great! Do them! If you find great tips from blog posts or books about how to write faster, that's wonderful. If you love participating in NaNoWriMo, definitely keep doing that.

But not all of us write fast, AND THAT'S OKAY. When Roseanna and I are on writing retreats, she "beats me" every day on word count. She just writes faster than I do. There's no right or wrong pace for a first draft. 

Write A Useful But Imperfect Draft

Writing "bad" first drafts is a topic I've covered a few times on Go Teen Writers, because it's part of my process. If you struggle with your internal editorthat voice that tells you the sentence isn't right and you should sit there until you figure it out ... or maybe just scrap the whole thing and start overthen I really encourage you to try this tactic. It works for lots of writers.

But it doesn't work for all writers. Here's one Roseanna wrote for us a few years ago about her process where she edits as she goes. Click here to read, "How To Edit As You Write Your First Draft."

Set Aside Time To Go Deep

Last year, I read Deep Work by Cal Newport and found it really helpful. We are so used to having multiple tabs open in our browsers, responding to notifications on our phones, or feeling like we need to be everywhere on social media. Even when we know that isn't true, it's easy to slip into bad habits because that's the way our world works.

Cal Newport says this about Deep Work and why it's important.

"Deep work is the ability to focus without distraction on a cognitively demanding task. It's a skill that allows you to quickly master complicated information and produce better results in less time. Deep work will make you better at what you do and provide the sense of true fulfillment that comes from craftsmanship. In short, deep work is like a super power in our increasingly competitive twenty-first century economy. And yet, most people have lost the ability to go deep-spending their days instead in a frantic blur of e-mail and social media, not even realizing there's a better way."

Reading Deep Work gave me the tools I needed to mentally prioritize writing or editing time. Jill Williamson also talked about it in her article, "10 Ways To Increase Your Productivity."

Separate Storytelling and Writing

I used to find myself frequently stalling out when writing scenes. I knew what was supposed to happen, but I would still just stare at the screen.

Eventually I found Rachel Aaron's 2k to 10k book (or here's the blog post that details her process.) One technique she talked about was how instead of diving into the scene, she instead began to write out a short description of what was going to happen for the scene. Just taking five-ish minutes to do this seemed to unlock the right words for her.

This is now a regular part of my process, because I found it works well for me too! K.M. Weiland has talked on her blog about how writing and storytelling are actually two different skills, and I think that's why this works. Since I've thought through the storytelling piece, I'm now free to concentrate on finding the right words.

Discover the best balance of structure and freedom for you.

Something else that has greatly improved my first drafts is understanding more about story structure. Some writers work best with very detailed outlines, and others with no outline at all. Most fall somewhere in-between.

Finding the balance that's best for you will take time and practice, but understanding story structure basics can really help you to build stronger first drafts.

Consistency Matters

I wrote about this last year in my post Three Rules For Creating Art That Matters. You aren't always going to feel like sitting down and writing, but if you want to get through your first draft, it's really important to push yourself in this area. Maybe writing every day isn't for you, but try to write as consistently as you can.

Keep your door closed

In On Writing, Stephen King says, "If you're a beginner ... let me urge that you take your story through at least two drafts; the one you do with the study door closed and the one you do with it open."

I am SO in favor of this. I write best when I know that nobody is going to see it before I've had the chance to clean it up. I've talked about that in my post, "Writing Advice Examined: Should You Write Like No One Is Watching?"

Reward yourself

Writing a novel is a long process. And unless you're writing it for a class, no one else is really paying attention to what you're doing. No one is going to make you write or tell you "good job!" when you found just the right hook for that chapter ending.

You know who is responsible for "keeping up morale" as you get through the novel? YOU! You are your own boss. You must find whatever carrots you can hang in front of you to get yourself to The End. Find rewards for small things, like finishing another chapter, as well as big things, like finishing your first draft.

Stop reading this and go write.

Seriously. That book isn't going to write itself. Get off-line and go write. Don't even procrastinate by leaving a comment, just go!

Friday, March 16, 2018

Discovering Your Theme

Shannon Dittemore is the author of the Angel Eyes novels. She has an overactive imagination and a passion for truth. Her lifelong journey to combine the two is responsible for a stint at Portland Bible College, performances with local theater companies, and an affinity for mentoring teen writers. Since 2013, Shannon has taught mentoring tracks at a local school where she provides junior high and high school students with an introduction to writing and the publishing industry. For more about Shan, check out her website, Facebook, Twitter, Instagram and Pinterest

It's Fri-YAY! I hope you're ready for a little chat on craft before you head off to celebrate a week well-lived.

Last Friday, we talked about how I organize the things I've learned about my story during my early discovery writing sessions, and then we moved on to how I write a synopsis just for me so that I can use it as an outline.

Now that I've written a working synopsis, it's time to get back to the business of first-drafting. But before I do that, I want to scour my synopsis for clues to point me in the right thematic direction.

Together with setting, character (point of view), plot, and style, theme is considered one of the key elements of fiction writing. It can be defined this way:

Sometimes a work has more than one theme. Sometimes a work has one major theme and several minor themes. Sometimes a work's theme is clear and sometimes it's harder to dig out.

As an author, the hardest theme to get a hold of is often the one for the book you're currently writing. Here are some thoughts that may help you.

Sometimes a theme arrives with the story idea: Once you've seen, you can't unsee

 My debut novel, Angel Eyes, was basically the result of an idea that took the shape of a theme very early on. When this happens, it's a gift. It can direct your storytelling from beginning to end.





Sometimes a theme comes to you as you draft: Worship is warfare


The second book in my trilogy, Broken Wings, was harder. I had several guiding ideas, but the theme of worship is warfare didn't come to me until I'd first-drafted the final few scenes. At that point, a light flickered on in my tired brain and I knew how I wanted to rebuild one of my newer ranks of angel and how I wanted to restructure some of my character arcs. It was a fantastic moment, but one that took a lot of faith to get to. Until that moment I couldn't adequately answer the question, "What are you writing about?"



Sometimes, especially in series writing, the theme of a book is inevitable: Choosing not to see comes with its own bondage


By the time I got to Dark Halo, I knew what I needed to tackle. The conversation about seeing the invisible--the conversation that I'd started in book one--was still missing an important element. It was time to introduce a new question: What happens if you choose to close your eyes to everything you've seen?

But, sometimes, especially when you're early on in your career, figuring out if you have larger themes to explore can be difficult. You may have to dig a bit. Some questions to ask yourself:

Does your main character believe a lie? What is it?

Search your working synopsis. Search your opening scenes. See if you can find anything to point you to a lie your protagonist might believe. Early in JM Barrie's Peter Pan, Peter says to Wendy, "It was because I heard Mother and Father talking about what I was to be when I became a man. I don't ever want to be a man. I want always to be a little boy and to have fun."

The lie here is clear: Peter believes that if he grows up to be a man he won't have any fun. This lie becomes the lynch pin for a theme Barrie explores throughout the book.

Is there a task only your hero can accomplish? 

Scour that working synopsis, friends. Let your brain run wild. Is there something crucial a character in your book offers? It doesn't always have to be the protagonist. Sometimes another character is the true hero. In CS Lewis's The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe, Aslan tells Lucy and Susan, " . . . when a willing victim who had committed no treachery was killed in a traitor's stead, the Table would crack and Death itself started moving backward."
The ability of an innocent king to take the punishment for a treacherous subject is, at its core, a classic redemption story and this act provides us a crucial and powerful theme. The entirety of the book builds toward this moment. I wonder how early on CS Lewis identified this action?

What are YOU, the author, trying to say?

Is there an idea you want to convey with this story? Maybe:
-No one is beyond redemption
-Life is frail
-Comfort keeps us from our destiny
-We need others
-War makes monsters of us all
-Even a small light shatters the darkness
-Power corrupts
-Love is worth fighting for

All of these things are noble, worthy themes. As you write, look for different ways to highlight these ideals and provide either a question for your readers to ponder, a message, a moral, or an idea to chew on as a takeaway from your work.

Next week, we'll return to this topic and I'll give you some things to think about as you carefully, light-handedly work theme into your story.

Today, tell me, have you been able to identify a theme in your current work? What is it? How did you discover that theme?

Wednesday, March 14, 2018

How to Use Headings in Microsoft Word to Organize Your Novel

Jill Williamson is a chocolate loving, daydreaming, creator of kingdoms. She writes weird books in lots of weird genres like fantasy (Blood of Kings and Kinsman Chronicles), science fiction (Replication), and dystopian (The Safe Lands trilogy). She has a podcast/vlog at You can also find Jill on InstagramFacebookTwitterPinterest, or on her author website. Tagboth (Tag for short) is a goldhorn dragon from Belfaylinn, a hidden fantasy realm on the western end of the Sargasso Sea. Jill is working on the first book of this tale for this year's Grow an Author series.

When I gear up to write a first draft, whether I'm starting from scratch or doing a rewrite, I like to organize my Word file. I do this because being organized sets me up for success. In the case of Onyx Eyes, I'm doing a bit of a rewrite, but since I only ever wrote out the first few chapters, I don't have to rearrange an entire first draft, I just need to create new chapters for the whole book. As always, doing this doesn't mean the story will stay like this. Later on, I very likely might end up deleting a chapter or adding several. Who knows? But doing this really helps me get ready to write a full novel. Here is now I tackle such a project.

First, I open my story file. Then I need to open the navigation sidebar. To find it, click on the "View" tab, then click the little box that says "Navigation Pane," which is in the left center of the toolbar under the "Ruler" and "Gridlines" boxes. Here is an image to help you find it:

Once you select that box, the navigation sidebar will open to the left of your document. If you have already created headings in your document, those will show up in a list. If they don't, make sure you click on the word "Headings" under the search box. Mine looks like this:

And since that is very small, here is a much closer look at my navigation sidebar. See how the word "Headings" is dark blue? That's because I clicked on it. You can also click on "Pages" or "Results" if you want to look at your pages or the results of a word search.

As you can see, I divided my story into chapters, then I divided the chapters of my story into parts, with part two starting between chapters six and seven. I did this by starting each new chapter or part page on a new page break. Then I wrote the chapter number, or "Part Two: Idaho" or whatever the case, selected the text, then chose a heading style. For the part pages, that title is all I'll ever write on those pages. But with the chapter pages, I will write the book after the chapter titles. The words of the book don't show up in the navigation sidebar because I did not choose a special heading for them. The text for your book should be "normal," which it likely is already by default. (FYI, in the image above, Part Three: Idaho has already changed to Part Three: Kenmare. And who knows? It all might change again.)

Heading styles are what enable the text to show up in the headings list on the navigation sidebar. I put my part three between chapters twelve and thirteen since that will be my midpoint, then I put my part four between chapters eighteen and nineteen. You don't have to have parts in your book, but I wanted them for this story.

If you don't have any headings showing up and don't know how to make them, it's pretty simple. You type out one or more words, select them, then click on the "Home" tab and choose a heading from the selections on the right side of the toolbar, like this:

If you use headings and subheadings, your list will stack, like an outline. It's pretty handy. Play around with it until you get a good feel for how it works.

Once I've reorganized my book file, I can copy and paste sections of my first draft so that everything is in the right place. Then I use my outline to write my plans into each chapter. If I've done a major rewrite, I will use my storyboard cards to go through each chapter and write any notes into that chapter so that when I come to it in my rewrite, all my notes are right there waiting to remind me what to write or change. I might type these notes into the document itself at the start of the chapter, or I might put them in a comment so they don't affect my word count. Once I've added in all my notes or instructions, I'm ready to write. Or rewrite. Being organized like this makes writing a lot easier.

Do you organize your document file before you start writing? Share in the comments.