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

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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!

To Outline or Not to Outline, That is the Question. . .

by Cheryl Zach

With due apologies to Will….
Some writers call it jumping into the mist–that is, you have the idea and you just leap into the writing, with no outline to guide you. Other writers pale in horror at the prospect of starting a book with no concept of where they or their characters are going. When I took a decade off from writing for teens and children to create historical romantic adventure for grownups, the first few books (penned as Nicole Byrd) were written with my daughter, Michelle Nicole. (Later she felt overwhelmed by life and small babies–hers–and I went on as Nicole Byrd by myself, with good wishes all around.) We had similar writing habits–except for plotting.
I have the kind of brain that jumps from point c to point g, then maybe back to f and on to p. That used to drive Michelle bananas; she wanted to go from c to d to e to f, much more logical, I admit. But my brain wouldn’t work that way, probably why I’m not a plotter, but a pantser–another nickname for ‘flying by the seat of your pants.’
I do know where my characters are at the start and where I expect them to end up (once even that changed, and I had to call my editor and explain meekly that–honest to goodness–my main characters wouldn’t do what I wanted them to, and the book was going to end differently than I had expected.  However, that book, RUNAWAY, became an award-winning YA novel.) I know the conflict that faces each character, I know their backgrounds and motivations. From there, it’s a matter of following my characters and seeing where they lead me.
Right now, I’m working on a YA novel, and the middle is frustrating me because I’m a little unsure of where it’s going. That’s the problem when you don’t outline–but as I said, it’s not really a choice. Some writers profit by having a chapter by chapter outline, and they relish its security and guidance. Some writing books will tell you a plot outline is totally necessary. But some authors just don’t work their best from an outline, if they can make one at all. (Yes, from long practice I can fake a synopsis for my editor when I need to. But trusted editors understand me well enough to know the story will take its own direction.)
For me, the most important thing is knowing my characters inside and out, knowing where they’re coming from and what conflict/problem they are facing. Then I just watch to see what action they will take to overcome the obstacles, and how they will grow in the process.
In this book I knew my main character had to end up in Egypt but wasn’t totally sure why. She has a big problem–her mother has been abducted, and now her whole family is in danger. (Always ramp up the conflict, heighten the peril as the story progresses.) How is my MC going to rescue her mother and defeat the Baddies? I’m not yet sure, but I can’t wait to find out–it’s sure to be exciting!
Stay tuned, and good luck with your own plotting, whether you outline or not. : )

CONFERENCE MUSINGS

I’m back from the Society of Children’s Book Writers and Illustrators Conference in Los Angeles, as usual a terrific conference, and slowly getting over the brain overload–normal– and slightly sprained ankle–not normal–that I acquired during the week..

The good news this year is that everyone from Simon & Schuster Vice-President and Publisher Justine Chanda, who spoke about ‘The State of The State of the Industry,’ to Deborah Halverson, who gave the annual market report, (available to all SCBWI members), to various editors and agents, all agreed that children and teen publishing is in great shape, which cheered conference participants immensely.

Young adult fiction is still going strong, with the exception of dystopian novels, which are generally believed to have passed their peak.  (Personally, I never liked them that much to begin with, although some good books have come out of the trend.) Self publishing continues to be more accepted, although those who do it are urged to do it well, with careful attention to editing and book design.

One of the most interesting comments I heard, several times, was the agreement that YA novels are getting a lot of cross-over; that is, that many adults as well as teens are reading them.  No wonder, then, that so many YA novels have graced this last year’s best-seller lists. Someone, I forget who, put up a quote from TV comic Stephen Colbert, that said something like:  YA novels are regular novels that people actually read!

There were many good keynotes and many, many good workshops–I wish I could have attended twice as many as I did.  There was an editors’ panel, one composed of agents, and one with marketing and sales people.  Add that to seeing old friends and making new ones, and it was a very productive week.  (Have to come clean:  I’m on the SCBWI Board and have been a member for over 20 years, so not exactly unprejudiced, here. : )

I think most of us came home with renewed enthusiasm to get back to work. So excuse me while I switch to the WIP.

Cheryl

PS During the Board meeting, the dispute between Amazon and Hachette Book Group was discussed, and a statement will be released about that, soon.

BEWARE THE FEAST

thanksgivingturkey     by Judith Ross Enderle

No, this isn’t a warning about eating too much of those Thanksgiving fixings. Nor is it a cautionary tale about overindulgence during the December holidays. Everyone knows the repercussions from eating too (burp) much.

This is about the repercussions from feeding your characters too much. Yup, it’s possible. Too much TLC at the table can create havoc and ruin a good plot.

How? Stop to eat and you can kill the tension in your story. And it happens more than you realize, especially in early drafts. It’s fun to write those scenes when family comes together at the table to share food and news. How about the sensory description you can create, when your plot drifts toward an opportunity to gather information at a roadside inn over victuals served before a warm fire? Or maybe your main character chooses to spread a blanket beneath a tree at the park and dive into that picnic basket lush with all manner of wonderful nibbles. Food scenes are sooooo tempting, so yummy.

Avoid temptation! For, while all the yummy noshing is going on, your story conflict has stopped. Sure you can introduce a food fight, but how long can that last. And what about that grand build up to this point, the villain hot on your main character’s trail, the jeopardy lurking around the next corner? All forgotten over a hearty meal and mundane conversation, with the major action now the lifting of a fork or hand from plate to mouth.

Those of us who are mothers are the worst offenders. Don’t let your main character get hurt! Plus it’s tradition to comfort with food. We want to nurture our characters, too.

But in a story that needs to keep the pages turning as conflict builds and the main character heads toward facing his/her nemesis, skip the meals. Let your characters go hungry. They can eat after the story is over. Because, if they stop to eat, there may be no story.

Now take a writing break, enjoy your holiday meals with friends and family. Then, when celebrating is over, get back to writing. And remember, DON’T FEED YOUR CHARACTERS!

From all the Mavens, we wish you much merry, huge happy, and many joyous holidays, followed by superb inspiration and well-earned success in the coming year.

Love Your Characters, but Not Too Much!

I had been stuck on the sequel to my YA novel Runaway Storm for a long time. I couldn’t figure out what the problem was, but I knew something wasn’t clicking. After completing almost an entire draft, I had decided the story was too edgy and dark. It had drifted far from the fun boys-against-the-wilderness coming of age storyline into a drug-addled world of abandonment.  No! No! I could not let this happen to my beloved main character David. I threw away about half of the manuscript and re-plotted. After all, what kind of a disenchanted adult would David grow up to be if he lived through so much horror? I slashed the darkness through the pages until it was only ankle deep. No steep mountains, no black bat-filled caves or murky oceans.  And I had succeeded. David would grow up without worry lines etched deeply into his young face. He would indeed be a very fine young man… just not a man of very good character. Oops, I mean, he just didn’t make a very good character anymore. In loving him so much, I had made him unlovable. By taking away all the challenges and dangers, I stopped worrying about him. (Ah, Mom relaxes.)  But as a book character, I had made him bland and uninteresting. A pretty flat character that even I couldn’t care about, so no reader would care either.

It was time to re-examine my intentions. I was now a good mother and a lousy writer. But wait had my worlds merged? Was it truly reality that had intruded into my story and my character? Aha! That was the key. Subconsciously, I think I had transferred my own teenage son into my character. How could I let anything bad happen to either of them? And where is a good “Writing therapist” when you need one?

Fortunately, I was able to figure it out. I had to separate the “real boy” from the character. I had to jump back into David’s head and I had to let him fall off a cliff and struggle to climb back up.  I had to remember that the darker and harder the challenges, the stronger my character would become.

Although I do not want my son to suffer quite so many challenges, I do know that fiction and reality run parallel. Both teenagers, real and imagined, have to grow through their own experiences and learning to fix their own problems, as painful as that can be for both mothers and writers.

When secondary characters don’t behave

Cheryl Zach

As the White Rabbit famously said, “I’m late, I’m late, I’m late!”

And I know it, I’m so sorry.  I’m moving, (you don’t want to know.  Think boxes, boxes and more boxes.)  The whole family has a stomach bug–you for sure don’t want to know details about that!  And when I’ve had the rare spare moment, I’ve added a few lines to the WorkInProgress, pounding out scenes and editing dialogue and making notes for future chapters.

The good news is–there actually IS a WIP.  Despite all best intentions, life sometimes takes over, even before the chaos of the move, and for a time, I couldn’t connect with the writing side of my brain.  Sometime, I will write about that–it’s too much for even a blog, though, I think.  But I can’t tell you what a relief it was for the ideas to begin to flow again…..whew!

And when I pushed everything else away and had to decide which book idea to work on, it was a Young Adult I had put aside some time ago when I got hung up over the problem of Bad Language, which I thought might set off all the censors and cause trouble with schools.  I had this drug dealer, you see, who was swearing every other word.

But this is the book, the story, the main character who is calling to me, so I pulled it out and took another look.  And I discovered that, although, yes, his swear words are still a problem–right now, I think the four letter words are just going to have to fall where they may–the much bigger problem is–he’s a total stereotype.  And I’ve taught students in my writing classes about avoiding this pot hole!  Teacher, listen to your own lesson!

Okay, I admit I don’t know that many drug dealers.  I don’t know any drug dealers–but that’s no excuse.  I do know how to create characters, even minor, foul-mouthed characters that nonetheless play an important, even vital role in the story.  They have to be individual, with their own storyline, their own background, needs, experiences.  Even though the readers will never glimpse most of this, the author will know, and it will make the character real, make him rise off the page.

So  I went back to square one and a much more satisfying character evolved. . . And now my story is humming along, and I can focus again on my main character–who is not, as you might be thinking–hooked on drugs.  It’s a lot more complicated than that.  This novel is about a girl from a rough part of town, yes, (not that drug dealers aren’t found in ritzy subdivisions, too!) but it’s mostly about identity–something I’ve played with before.  (RUNAWAY, Berkley, which won a RWA Rita award in the YA category.) I always tell my writing students that YA novels are by definition coming of age novels, but they also involve a teen figuring out who he/she is.  How much is environment/experience, how much of the real you are you born with, how much can you change–if you choose to, wish to?  Parents sometimes wonder this as they watch their children grow up, but what do teens think/feel when they hit a defining moment or a traumatic experience?

Oh, I can’t wait to jump back into this novel and share these exciting/poignant/heart-rending hours with my teen as Jude makes life or death choices.   So–see you later, fellow writers, and good writing!

Cheryl