Writing queries becomes easier using themes

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Theme is among the most mysterious and powerful elements of storytelling. In the classic pyramid of writing skills from the Iowa Writer’s Workshop, theme stands at the pinnacle. Theme is represented by symbols in that pyramid, the icons such as candles in a story about being lost. Even though it’s at the top of that diagram, theme is the nuclear reactor, the molten magma of your story. It’s also got another superpower. Theme, and knowing yours, makes writing your queries easier.

If you’re just writing for the first time on a story, book, or script, theme will be lurking under the surface. Your motivations for your characters are your primary concerns in early drafts. The needs and conflicts of the characters drive your plot.  Remember that plot is about events, and story is about yours characters and how they change. When you consider what each character needs, you may find the needs can align around a bigger idea. Freedom. Justice. Redemption. That sort of thing. Some characters oppose the theme to provide conflict, too.

The Da Vinci Code is about the power of knowledge versus the power of the Church. The Great Gatsby is about the American dream and how it fails. Your theme can be downbeat as well as uplifting. Lonesome Dove is about the power of friendship and it can push a man across a new frontier of his life.

The gift that theme gives to query is better focus. In a good query letter you have to sum up your story relentlessly. What’s the book about? You begin the task of answering by writing a synopsis. Then it becomes a paragraph. Finally, it’s tight enough to state in a single sentence. It’s hard to do, but you’re the best person to find your theme. You’ve lived with the story longer than anyone. You knew what you meant to convey with your book. Not the telling part; that’s plot. You want to convey a feeling, because the feeling is central to unlocking the meaning of the story.

Theme usually emerges later in the creation process. It’s almost like you have to write a draft all the way through to understand what you were meaning to show with the story. Theme then becomes a good tool to polish and pare down and redirect a story.

Answer these questions to discover a theme under the surface of your storytelling.

  1. What stories are you drawn to the most? What issues do you struggle with in your own heart?
  2. Why do you feel compelled to tell this story?
  3. What is this story about if what happens is…

Your characters’ voices will sound clearest when you listen for theme. Let them report on the theme. Write what they’ll ask about their challenge.


Honest advice about agents

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For the writer who wants to market finished work, the Web offers a great blog on the world of literary agents. Writer’s Digest Books produces the Guide to Literary Agents, which has a free corresponding blog:


There’s good writing advice on the blog, too. The latest article is by an writer who gives advice about the ratio of scene to sequel in your book (if it’s fiction). Remember, scene is action and dialogue between characters, while sequel is the writing that follows or precedes, where the characters consider and deal with what has just happened, then make a choice on how to continue the pursuit of what they want.

The advice on ratio is from Candy Davis, who’s got an article in the 2008 edition, soon to hit bookshelves and Amazon:

” … Your book’s unique proportion of scenes and sequels should produce a characteristic rhythm an agent can easily recognize as the perfect pulse for the work: staccato for quick-paced action genre, more legato for a genre that focuses on internal process. Running too many scenes together allows no space for the character to evaluate his progress.

Each scene should begin and end with a hook, and should capture a complete and meaningful ‘story event.’ Keep scene length appropriate to your genre, and never longer than necessary to cover the episode. Cut mundane interactions, placeholder dialogue and extraneous background information. A sequel generally follows a major plot point, steps up the stakes and turns the story in a new direction. Allow the character a moment to evaluate past mistakes, realize a previously overlooked or rejected option, and take the first step toward a new and more desperate plan.

The blog also has an article near the top (as of today, July 9) that gives a few suggestions on how to locate the agent who sold a book you admire or just finished.

I’ve had something to say about scene and sequel myself on this blog, last year.

That 10 percent that matters to you

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In Narrative Design, Madison Smartt Bell discusses the dilemma of workshop writing classes. He also talks about their antidote, the writing group where the inner creativity process becomes the focus of the meeting. That’s a lot like the work in our Writer’s Workshop: the majority of what we do together is generative work, reinforced by positive response. You create things while you are at our table, on the couches, out under the fans in the cabana.

Bell has respect for the classic workshops like those led in Iowa and other capitals of critique. But he said that after watching the group-think pull so many stories into mediocrity on subsequent drafts,

I opened my second-semester workshop at Iowa with remarks along these lines: Assume that when your work is being discussed, about 90 percent of what you hear will be useless to you and irrelevant to what you have done. Learn to listen carefully and to discriminate what’s useful to you from what’s not. Remember the relevant part and ignore the rest. If even one person understands what you intended to be understood, then you can say you have succeeded.

Don’t try to please the group. Don’t try to please the leader of the group, or the teacher. The person you have to please is yourself. Your job is to become the best judge of your own work. If you do become a professional writer at some point, you’ll need that skill more than ever before.