Wednesday, June 10, 2015

Taking it to the Next Level!

Want to kick your novels up a notch? Elevate them to greater heights?

Who doesn’t, right?

Is there some elusive action or element you are overlooking?

Have you considered the THEME of your novel(s)?

No I’m not referring to that tune that sounds in your head every time you put pen to paper or click a key.

It’s curious but if you compare the ‘classic’ novels we all know with many of the latest being written by people trying to break into the business of writing, one of the factors that is often missing in the newer novels is Theme.

So just what is this elusive ingredient, and how can I get some?

If you think of your book(s) as something you have built from scratch, you may recognise the following schematic, which is especially true of book series:

A common book series structure


Now there are several different types of ‘cement’ required to hold this structure together. Obviously, a good tale is important, as is a set of interesting characters. Unfortunately, and again, this is essential for a series of books, you need more. The ‘glue’ that is required comes in two complementary flavours: an overall story arc (or arcs – no reason why there can’t be more than one in a series) and a theme which runs through all the books in the series.

It’s all about connectivity, you see, and the relationship between all that happens at the micro and macro levels with the overall story arc. Our individual tales, be they plots or sub-plots; the character’s actions and reactions, nay their growth and evolution during the series is marked by the theme you chose.

This is getting heavy, so let’s take a break and have a cuppa:

Some themes used frequently in novels
These are but a few of the possibilities. Now, be honest, did you consciously choose a theme for your last book? Is whatever happens in its pages consistent with that theme? Will your readers be aware of the theme you chose as they follow the events you describe?

Let’s try to make this a little simpler with an example. I don’t wish to annoy any fellow writers by dissecting their work, so I’ll annoy myself and analyse my ‘the CULL’ series to show you how I applied a theme to the wee beastie.

Now, you may know this series didn’t start off as such (if you are interested in the story I recommend reading this wonderful interview by Merry Citarella for Jaquo Magazine http://jaquo.com/an-interview-with-author-eric-j-gates/). Did I sit down prior to penning my prose and produce an outline based around a particular theme? No, I did not! Hypocrite, you cry! I shall explain. The original, stand-alone novel, now book 1, did have a theme, that of Acceptance and Overcoming Adversity (yes, you can use more than one, just don’t get too complicated.) Yet when the first book evolved into a second, I realised I needed something ‘stronger’ to carry the tale where I wanted it to go. I went over the original, now entitled ‘the CULL – Bloodline’, and saw the solution had been waiting in the wings for me to recognise its existence. The theme was Change.

My next step, long before starting the writing of book 2, was to explore this theme a little more. So I started to jot down how Change could manifest, and how these manifestations could be related to or influenced by one another. I came up with this (not the very rough, pencilled scribble I actually drew in my notebook, but a nice pretty version for this article):

the CHANGE theme diagram
So I had an exploded spaghetti of a diagram with more arrows than Custer’s Last Stand, yet what use was it? How could all these intriguing words and suspected connections be applied to my project?

Well to arrive at the answer, I went back to basics.

I write THRILLERS – you know, those books that make your heart beat faster as you flick the pages, stay up way past your intended bedtime to read ‘just one more chapter’, and are the cause of your food and drink going cold or forgetting to pick up the kids after school – yes, Thrillers! Any writer of thrillers worth his salt will tell you about the three magic ingredients that (not just) thriller novels need: Conflict, Action and Suspense.

Going back to my spaghetti scribble I immediately saw that each arrow offered at least two of the three as plot-points. For example, Amy Bree’s change – her evolution during the four books of the series published thus far, whilst arguably it has not been the most dramatic change in the novels (Katie Lindon, the other protagonist must take first prize for that), it has been the most complex and challenging. Just follow the diagram as I talk you through a little of what I used.

Amy started as a young FBI agent with a brilliant IQ and a unique mind ideally suited to problem solving. She wanted to be a field agent, however, so she could apply her incisive puzzle resolution skills to capturing serial killers. But no; somewhere along the line someone gave her the FBI equivalent of a SAT (aptitude) test and she was assigned to a backroom geek role as a support agent. Cubicled! (not a word in the OED but, these days, maybe it should be!). Of course frustration set in, which lay the groundwork for her jumping at the chance to team up with another geek and go half-cocked at catching a serial killer without any support or official backing! And, of course, everything imaginable that could go wrong, did! Murphy’s Law had a field day! She got booted from the Feds and told never to return. Enter a mysterious priest, whom we learn works for the Vatican Intelligence Service and has some hold over the Vice President. Faster than you can say ‘Eidetic Memory’, she’s teamed up with sixty-two-year old, ex-NSA super-spook Katie Lindon back in the FBI’s own HQ building. But now, she’s not in the FBI, but in a covert unit of Homeland Security, and her new partner will take no naysaying from the FBI Deputy Director about what they do and who’s in their team. Experiencing this empowers Amy whilst at the same time makes her start to doubt if it is what she really wants.

And that’s just the first ten or so chapters of book 1, in a nutshell.

Amy (look at the CHANGE diagram please) has gone from being a defined Individual, member of a Group, where her own Sense of Self is at odds with what she does; is given new Friends and Allies (a slippery one in the form of Cancelli, the Vatican priest, and a solid one, who will fail her in a BIG way at the end of book one, Katie) and a new job apparently doing what she wanted all along. She Rationalises the odd way this all came about, suppressing her inevitable questions (remember she’s OCD analytical), and allows Katie’s actions to Legitimise her own, even when she knows these will cross the big red lines she respects as a Federal Agent.

All in all, pretty complex for one character in the first novel of a series, and a superb basis for what’s to come. Bucket-loads of opportunity for Conflict, Action and Suspense. Now, apply the diagram to all the other characters (Katie, of course, Cancelli, Enrique, Tadhg Griffin and, from book 2 onward, Miach, Jennifer Craven, Cardinal Moretti and even Bombeni). Imagine how the ‘diagrams’ for each of these characters would forcibly interact to provoke even more Conflict, Action and Suspense. I was amazed at the possibilities; so much so, I wrote book 2 (Bloodstone) and 3 (Blood Feud) back-to-back!

But… there was more to be distilled from applying my theme…

Theme doesn’t just manifest in the characters and their actions but in the tale itself.

Let’s do another example, this time skipping ahead to the fourth book which has just appeared (Blood Demon). I had planned to load this book with so many ‘I didn’t see that coming’ moments that applying CHANGE was guaranteed. Yet my diagram served up another interesting application.

In all ‘the CULL’ novels there are stand-alone stories which enable a reader to pick up the books in any order and quickly enjoy the trials and tribulations challenging my protagonists and antagonists (and some who you are never quite sure which side they are on). Obviously, the BEST way to read the series is to follow the advice of the King of Hearts from ‘Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland’ – “Begin at the beginning, and go on till you come to the end: then stop” (That last bit’s important!)

In book 4 (Blood Demon) while Katie is still in Rome tracking down the mysterious murderer of one of her colleagues, Young Amy is stateside and finds herself dumped in the middle of a deadly investigation: someone is killing off people in the Witness Protection Program! She’s on her own, even SANTA, Katie’s unique (and evolving – more change, and yes, I applied the diagram here too) artificial intelligence computer software who’s the third member of the core team, is ignoring her (!) and she’s back to where she started – using just her wits to solve a problem that’s stumped the Department of Justice and Marshals Service investigators for months.

Note what we have: the Individual, Amy again, who’s no longer in the Group, and deprived of her Technology, using her abstract knowledge of Technology and Social Interaction to resolve the murders. (I won’t say more so as to avoid spoilers). Yes, the diagram gave me a plot! …as well as provided plenty of opportunity for Amy to evolve on her own, something she’s only had the opportunity to do at the end of book 1, although we don’t really find out about what she did until later in the series.

Yes, and yet you say you’re stuck for ideas, or blocked from developing a storyline!

Grab yourself a THEME, fellow scribe; play with it a little, and be AMAZED!

Now a wee word of warning.

Themes are not a soapbox. Of course, you have you own pet hates and personal beliefs but using a theme to thrust these down the throats of your readers is insulting their intelligence.

A summary, methinks!

To find the cement you need to build a solid structure in either a stand-alone one-off, or a series, there are two steps:

IDENTIFY (What is your story about, on all levels? Why should the reader care? Why do you, the writer, want to tell this? The answers should give you a shortlist of possible themes and help avoid soapboxing.)


CHOOSE (Pick a theme that offers the greatest potential for your objectives, one you, personally, are comfortable with, and apply it at all levels – overall arc, plot and sub-plot, character development etc. Remember, you are writing for your readers, writing to entertain and challenge them, not provide material exclusively for a book club meeting, though if you treat the theme’s application correctly, they’ll love you for it!).         

Amazon Link for book 1 - only 99 cents/pence

From the author of the critically acclaimed 'Outsourced
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