Theme Vs. Plot

The theme is the thing.
Not that plot is not important–without plot, your novel is a jellyfish, no bones, no skeleton, no internal structure to give it shape and structure and hold it erect. Character-driven novels can be wonderful, but those totally devoid of plot are very difficult to pull off. At the risk of sounding contradictory, I think well developed characters are likely the most important element in a good novel–but that’s another blog.
Plot is what happens in a novel, and it’s much to do with the novel’s conflict, how the main character and others go about struggling with and resolving the conflict/problem: coming to a –we hope–victorious, or at least, bitter-sweet conclusion. (I hold with the late, great Madeleine L’Engle who said, if I may paraphrase, that a writer should always leave at least a glimmer of hope at the end of a YA novel. Adult readers can deal with a totally tragic ending, younger readers don’t have the experience as yet to cope–they need some optimism in a book’s conclusion to carry into their own life challenges.)
I’m sure you know the basics of plot and conflict: the main character must resolve the problem him or herself instead of an adult or an act of blind fate coming in at the last moment to make all things right, and so forth.
But that’s still not theme. Theme is the basic and overall idea that hangs behind the whole novel, that guides the momentum behind the character’s growth and change, his/her struggle with conflict, reaction to the setting, reaction to other characters, and more. Other writers have commented that theme comes from the characters’ issues–or perhaps, I might add, their issues develop partly from the theme.–and the theme grows from the writer’s heart. It’s possible you might write using a theme you don’t believe in, but I don’t really see how.

In the YA manuscript I’m working on now, working title: An Ounce of Courage, the protagonist has been relocated, after the death of his military father and much against his will, into a small isolated village from a much more cosmopolitan setting. His immediate conflict is being beset by the local high school bully. His bigger conflict is that he’s afraid he’ll never live up to his hero dad.

(My dad always said,’ Stick up for the little guy.’

My dad wasn’t on the bus.)

The theme, though, has to do with the nature of courage and the process of becoming a man, a journey every male teen has to make.  You might wonder why a woman is writing this book? The short answer, the story wouldn’t leave me alone until I started to write it.  Longer one: My writing has never been restricted to characters of one gender. : ) I do have a younger brother and a son, and now three grandsons, two growing old enough to begin this process. And perhaps sometimes a little distance is a good thing. . . And I am an army brat, so the backdrop of the story is one I’m very familiar with. There is a girl in the book, too, who is an important character, and she also has challenges to face and decisions to make. Courage is not just a question for boys–or men.

I feel every word and every page of this manuscript deeply, whatever the gender of the protagonist, because the theme matters. . . now my job as a writer is to make sure the reader does, too.

images-4Cheryl Zach is the author of Hearts Divided, Book 1 of the 4 book Civil War YA series, Southern Angels, and many other YA and MG novels.

PRESENTING: AN INTERVIEW WITH MAVEN CHERYL ZACH

tn

CHERYL ZACH, AUTHOR OF SOUTHERN ANGELS

1. How much research did you do and how deep did you have to dig to make the Southern Angels series feel authentic? What was your best source of information? What was the hardest information to find?

I did a great deal of research for the 4 book YA Civil War series, Southern Angels. All in all, I spent three years researching and writing the four books. I did as much primary research as possible. That means info from sources who lived during the time period of the books and who wrote letters, newspaper stories, private journals or diaries, and they give the best look at the time period. The only downside is that you have to take into account that everyone will have his/her own bias. Three people who knew Lincoln would have three different opinions of his characters, for example. I did also use secondary sources, i.e., history books about the Civil War where the authors have done their own research and gathered it together into a book such as The Civil War in Virginia, and so on. These authors will use footnotes to show their sources, which helps me judge the value and accuracy of their material. Although my books are fiction and more concerned with romance and relationships, and what happened on the homefront–where women and girls had a challenging time during a war happening all around them–I still wanted the background to be accurate.

2. What made you decide to reissue the series yourself and did you find the self-publishing path difficult?

I decided to reissue these books because I think they are among the best of my young adult novels, and because I put so much effort and time into them and I hated that they were out of print and unavailable. In particular, the fourth book was never printed by the New York publisher who originally put out the books–loooong story there, basically that I lost my editor who moved to another publishing house and thus lost any support–and I had many unhappy readers who never found the final book in the series. I wrote an earlier column on doing it yourself–I had some problems early on, but it wasn’t too hard overall.

3. Why did you choose to write the books as a series rather than as one long novel?

I wrote four medium length books because I showcased four girls, to give as many views of the conflict as possible. Elizabeth is from a wealthy Virginia plantation but has a domineering, cold-hearted father. She originally supports the South, but falls in love with a Yankee soldier and changes her views on the war and on slavery. Victorine is a Creole beauty from New Orleans who is a die hard Confederate, though she also becomes more enlightened about the evils of slavery. When New Orleans falls to Yankee rule under General ‘Beast’ Butler, she is almost thrown into prison. She will reject the man her father has chosen for her to marry in order to make her own choice. Hannah is enslaved, grows up alongside Elizabeth on the Stafford plantation. She aides other slaves to escape on the Underground Railroad. Though she has sworn never to marry while she is still a slave and her children could be torn away from her, she falls in love with a free man of color (some did exist in the larger Southern towns) and eventually makes the dangerous race toward freedom herself. And last, Rosamund, the Tennessee girl, lives under Yankee rule after Grant has taken the Tennessee valley. She has one brother in the Northern army and one brother who supports the South. Although her family has never owned slaves and she supports the Union cause, she finds it hard to live under a conquering army, especially when despite herself, she falls in love with a dashing vagabond Confederate soldier. The four books cover the conflict from the first cannon fire upon Fort Sumter (three of the girls are attending a boarding school in Charleston, SC.) to the end, when weary soldiers finally make the journey home. And all along, the girls grow and mature and learn that they can make a difference, each in her own way. And love may survive, despite the peril and uncertainty of war.

4. What do you want readers to discover and take away from reading about the civil war? What makes this period of history fascinating to you?

The biggest theme of the books is that what an individual does, the actions a girl/woman takes, does matter, and that you can make a difference.
The Civil War itself, parts of the country fighting against other parts, was an exercise in tragedy and futility, something we might remember.

5. Does this series fit into the school curriculum and at what grade level? Will you be doing a study guide when the series is complete or will there be a separate one for each novel?

I am putting a study guide on my website, http://www.cherylzach.com,/ which would be helpful to teachers, home schoolers, and reading groups. Schools study the Civil War, depending on the state, often in 4th or 5th grade, again in middle school, and in the junior year of high school. These books are rated 6.5 in reading level, but good students usually read above their grade level, and as a former high school teacher myself, before I stopped to write full time, I know the difference in reading levels between middle school and high school is actually pretty small. As for the interest level–well, I’ve had letters and emails from readers from pre-teen to adult!

6. How long will readers have to wait for the next three books?

All four books are now available, in ebook and trade paperback, from amazon.com, barnesandnoble.com, and other retailers. Hearts Divided is Elizabeth’s story, taking her from Charleston to Virgina and back to Charleston. Winds of Change sees Victorine home to New Orleans and then farther afield. A Dream of Freedom gives us Hannah’s tale and finishes Elizabeth’s love story, and Last Rebellion takes us to Tennessee and Rosamund, last of the girls to find her true love, and gives us final glimpses of all four girls

7. What one bit of advice would you offer writers who want to write historical fiction?

Finally, my advice for a would-be historical writer: history is a wonderful tool for the imagination. With so much going on, you never want for ideas. You need to do your research in order to make the background and settings accurate, but beware of allowing the research to slow down or stop your story–keep the pace fast and stay focused on your main characters–even if George Washington did sleep here!

D.I.Y.–With Help!

For the last several years, I’ve been saying/thinking that I wanted to reissue some OP (out of print) Young Adult books, to make them available to readers once again. Finally, after finishing a new YA ms, I decided that it was time to make good on the promise to myself. Years ago I published what was to be a 4 book Civil War YA series called Southern Angels, about four Southern girls who live through, and make a difference, during the Civil War.

I put three years of my life into researching and writing these books (they were to be accurate enough historically to be useful in schools)  and then they were, I felt, badly mishandled by their big NY publisher. I lost my editor (she was hired by another publishing house) and all support before the books were all out, and the 4th book wasn’t even printed, tho I had written it and it had been advertised. I heard a lot of complaints at the time, and still occasionally, from people who couldn’t find the final book. So I’ve always wanted to see these books back in print. (I’m doing this more for personal satisfaction than in the expectation of making tons of $, BTW.) The books received good reviews and I found them in public and school libraries, and they should likely have been published in hardcover, not mass market, where they made it to few store shelves, as marketing picked up the indifference of the editorial staff. I was crushed.

I am a total newbie to indie publishing. I will soon finish, I hope, the process for getting out ebooks and paperbacks, and boy, have I learned a lot.

First, the cover. It took me three tries to get a cover designer. Another writer gave me a name of a good cover person, which I checked out online–her website had some great looking covers, and she agreed to do the four covers at a reasonable price. She gave herself deadlines, but missed them all. Finally told me, after being out of touch for several weeks, that she had health issues and couldn’t, after all, do the work. I wished her well and was sorry to lose her. Later, I realized that I had undoubtably increased her stress by asking for almost impossible demands as I did not understand the process–more on that in a sec. The second website I admired, the cover d. said she couldn’t take any new clients, she had enough repeat customers to keep her busy. Aiiig. The third person said on her website she would only take a few new clients, but fortunately did decide to take the job, after showing me some stock cover shots to make sure I would be happy with the costumes she could find, as, she said, right now Regency and Victorian are the most popular historical eras and therefore the easiest to find costumes for, Civil War not so much. I was ok with what she found, and we agreed to go ahead as I liked her work a lot.

So, first lesson. I knew from prior experience that large publishers hire models, dress them in appropriate costumes (for romance, anyhow, or YA, and other genres, too) and make sure they resemble the characters in the book–or, that’s the theory. A pro photographer does a photo shoot, then either the photo itself (in middle grade or sometimes YA) is used, or an artist is hired to make a painting, often acrylic, and the cover comes from that. This process costs thousands of $.

Obviously, an indie publisher/author can’t afford this kind of money. So, a cover designer working with indie’s uses stock model shots from companies who handle just that–photos of models and objects already taken. Legit designers buy these shots, as close as possible to what you want, use computer programs to change hair and dress color and perhaps manipulate shots somewhat–I’m not an IT person so can’t tell you how much can be done. They also put in a landscape or suitable background, they choose fonts and sizes of letters for titles, etc. and put it all together in well balanced and artistically pleasing arrangement for a good cover. Some covers don’t have people in them, of course, sometimes a clever idea is used, instead. You can look up examples of all of this in websites on line.

Some writers who publish ebooks do the covers themselves. I was quite sure I didn’t have that much artistic sense, and the one thing that often gives away a self-pubbed book is an amateurish looking cover. Sadly, people DO judge books by their covers. So I knew that I wanted someone good to do my covers, even tho it would cost money. (Prices vary hugely.) Many designers do predesigned covers which are cheaper and will work for some books: romance, mystery, women’s fiction, etc. I have 4 books in a series, so I had special requirements, and that wouldn’t work for me. I’m pleased with the progress of the first cover, think it’s going to look really good, and when it’s done will try to put it up here.  (PS I tried several times to put up the cover, but the file is too big, so sorry.  I will try to put it on my website, but not sure if I will have the same problem, will try to get around it somehow, even if I have to make a copy of a copy…  And I assume Amazon will have it in a short time.) I actually think it’s better than the original Big Company cover.)

Next, I’ll go to the company I choose and get the book put together, I’m doing both an ebook and a paperback of each book in the series.  These books were PAL books to start with, so they will remain so, if you’re familiar with SCBWI classifications. (BTW, I thought I would have to retype all 4 books, but a reader who emailed me–yes, looking for book 4– told me I could buy an external computer drive to hook up to my current laptop that would take the hard disks that I had had the book ms backed up on when the original computer, several computers back, on which I wrote these books, died suddenly. I was able to find three of the four disks, so only had to retype one, whew. I am revising the ms slightly as I go, can’t help myself! I do hope to have all four books: Hearts Divided, Winds of Change, A Dream of Freedom, and Last Rebellion, out by March, the first, Hearts Divided, in Feb.  (You can also scan hard copy into a file, if you have the right technology, or pay someone else to do it.)

The cover is likely the most expensive part of the process, tho you may also want to buy an ISBN, unless you get that from your distribution service, and that can be done. The friends I spoke to recommended d2d, (Draft2Digital) over Smashwords for ebooks, and CreateSpace, which is Amazon, for paperbacks, although Ingram also has a paperback program. I will let you know what I think when I get that far.

Onward into the future!

Inquiring Minds Want to Know

By Laurie Lazzaro Knowlton

images

Over the past two decades I have been asked 4 universal questions by people interested in writing for children. I’d like to share the answers with you.

1. “What can I do to get published?” The answer is:
A. Do your homework.
You need to read, read, read. Read all the HOW TO books you can get your hands on. A few suggestions:
Ann Whitford Paul’s, WRITING PICTURE BOOKS
Barbara Sueling’s, HOW TO WRITE A CHILDREN’S BOOK AND GET IT PUBLISHED,
Harold D. Underdown’s, THE COMPLETE IDIOT’S GUIDE TO PUBLISHING CHILDREN’S BOOKS
Lee Wyndham’s, WRITING FOR CHILDREN AND TEENAGERS.

B. You need to read books in the genre that you would like to write.
Study the character’s development. What is his motivation?
What is standing in the main character’s way keeping him from accomplishing his goal? Identify the tension tools used to build the plot.
What did the author do to get the reader into the setting?

C. Attend conferences and workshops. Check your local Society of Children’s Book Writers and Illustrators group. They usually offer conferences, workshops, and critique groups in your area. National SCBWI also offers two conferences every year. One conference is held in California in August and a second conference is offered in New York either in January or February. You can locate the information on the web: www.SCBWI.org

2. “Do I need an agent?” I do not believe you need an agent. You can research possible publishers through the CHILDREN’S WRITERS MARKET. First look to see if the publishing house is accepting unsolicited manuscripts. (This means that they are open to un-agented manuscripts.) Second, see if they are accepting manuscripts in your genre.
After finding a publishing house is open and that looks like it might work for your genre and theme of your story, then research the publishing house on the internet.
Become familiar with the editors. Check to see if they have a blog. This will help you find out: What else has the editor published? What is her passion? What type of book is on his wish list?
Make a list of possible publishers and begin sending your manuscript out. Some publishers require that you submit only to them. This is called an exclusive submission. Other publishers will allow simultaneous submissions.
Always make sure you keep a record of where you have submitted your manuscript. Record the date you submitted the manuscript and if it is returned. If you are lucky enough to get a personal note from an editor, send a thank you note. If they made a suggestion to improve your story, get to work!

3. “How do I submit?” When you finish your manuscript it is important to have it critiqued by your peers or a professional. There are many authors and editors that offer critique services. Check your local SCBWI to see if there are members who have open critique groups or offer critiquing.
Make sure your manuscript is perfect. Check grammar, spelling, and punctuation. When your manuscript is ready, you will need to write a cover letter.

Use a regular business letter set up. Your letter should be short.
Dear Editor’s Name,
I have enclosed my xxx word picture book: NAME OF BOOK.
Then add some information about your writing history: Example: I am a former librarian and a member of the SCBWI and I participate in the local (NAME OF STATE) chapter. I have been published in the regional newspaper. Close the letter with a thank you for time and consideration.

An Example of proper manuscript format:

Your name.
Address,
City, State, Zip
Phone number
E-mail address Word Count

Center your title half way down the page.
by
Your Name

    Then begin your manuscript. It needs to be indented for every new paragraph.

Your manuscript should be double spaced.
You will need a header starting on the second page. Your header should include your name, the name of your manuscript on the left side and the page number on the right side. Every succeeding page should have the header on the top.
Many publishers request a SASE (Self addressed stamped envelope) so they can return your manuscript. Others say they will recycle the manuscripts so you do not need to send a SASE.

4. “Do I need an illustrator?” The answer is, no. Publishers have a “stable” of illustrators that they prefer to use. They know their illustrators are professionals: Their work is consistent and produced on time.
Let the publisher worry about the look of the book while you do everything you can to produce a quality manuscript. Once you and your editor have polished your manuscript. Start planning on having a book launch!

I hope these answers help you to get your work ready for publication! Good luck with your writing.

How Writers Learn From Reading

cropped-Bigstock_24054800.jpg   by Judy Enderle

Being a writer changes the way you read. First you read a book to enjoy the story. Then you reread the book to figure out how: how did the author work the magic that kept you turning the pages?

On your second time through treat the book like a class in writing. Look for:

● what happened on that all-important first page.

● when were you aware of the problem and the conflict.

● why you cared about the main character. And if you didn’t care, what made you keep reading anyway?

● what important character traits helped to make the plot work. How were these traits shown?

● the roles secondary characters played. Why was each one important to the story?

● what the author did to put you inside the main character’s head.

● what made you “see” the setting. What part did the setting play in the story?

● how the plot built. How did each page, each paragraph, each chapter move the story forward?

● how the author created tension and conflict.

● surprises. Was there any foreshadowing of these surprises?

● the way the main character solved the problem. How did the main character change? How did the author show both and when?

● the balance between dialogue and description.

● the kind of sentence structure the author used. When were sentences longer? When shorter? And why did the language and word choices fit the story?

● chapter titles. How did they suit what happened in the chapters?

● the book title. Did it draw you in and represent the book well?

Writers never stop learning with so many great books available written by authors who show you “how” on each page.