My novel is out and here’s an interview I did with author J.E. MCDonald. Is it for you? Read to find out.
Do you remember those high school literature test questions about the novel or story you read for class? Perhaps the most daunting one was, “What was the theme?” You knew what happened and who did it, where it took place and how it ended. But the theme? The “aboutness”? It’s not always easy pick out.
Likewise, you can write the first draft of your story and then sit back and wonder: what’s this really about at its core? Most authors start out with a nebulous idea of the theme of their tale. Yet, rewarding fiction has a theme without shouting about it.
So, what is a theme and how do authors work with theme?
In “Notes on Novel Structure” Douglas Glover says,”Theme as a general usable statement of the author’s belief about the world and human nature. A theme is usable if it incorporates a statement of human desire and a further statement about how the world works to thwart or interfere with that desire.”
John Gardner, one of the best authors to write from a monster’s point of view, gave this sage advice in The Art of Fiction, “Theme, it should be noticed, is not imposed on the story but evoked from within it—initially an intuitive but finally an intellectual act on the part of the writer. The writer muses on the story idea to determine …why it seems worth telling to achieve art—fiction as serious thought.
You don’t start out with a theme necessarily but one will bubble to the surface. How can you as an author determine what your theme is?
•What is my story about? Can I think of a word or idea—like forgiveness, innocence, power, struggle, love, betrayal—that might sum up the story’s “theme?
•Why should readers care about this story? What does it offer them that touches on universal experience?
•What does the story have to say about the central idea?
•What attitudes or judgments does it hint at? What is it saying about how the world works?
Few authors begin with the solid theme. Most begin with a character, a setting, a plot.
One thing I grapple with is helping my publisher convey the spirit of my books. They deal with serious themes–struggle against authority and science for good vs evil. But they poke fun at the absurdity of them.
I’m pleased about the icons in the newer versions of my novels because they are cute and help convey theme.
For example, Mixed In is about autonomy–scientific, cultural, and reproductive. Here’s the icon:
Lost in Waste is about work and consequences of scientific expansion without responsibility to the environment. It’s about greed, pig sh** and pollution and the overcoming power of love.
Wrinkles in Spacetime is about identity–scientific and personal– across time, space, and society.
A theme helps hold a story together, but does it matter if a reader catches the theme? I once had a student who claimed you couldn’t go wrong in Poetry Class by saying the theme of a poem was either sex or death. Another time, I thought the poem Stopping by the Woods on a Snowy Evening was about a busy person taking a moment to see nature’s beauty but the teacher claimed it was about suicide. Clearly, a theme doesn’t need to hit the reader over the head, be noticed by the reader, or agreed upon by different people. Readers can make their own themes, which is some of the beauty and mystery of great literature. But if you, the author, write towards theme, it will help focus your work of art.
As I ramp up getting ready for the release of Wrinkles in Spacetime, I’m having a prize giveaway over on Facebook. Do you ever go there? Here’s the link:
I’d like to thank Amy Hassinger for being an excellent teacher in a workshop about writing towards theme.
One of the very weirdest things about being an author is spending a year or more writing a novel and not being sure anyone will want to publish it or read it. You’ve got to wonder why a person would ever do such a thing.
Telling a story seems to be part of being human. Our brain edits our experiences to create logical interactions for future reference. We think of ourselves as a hero in our own narrative and one reason to write is to share what we have experienced so others can learn from our mistakes and successes. One reason to read is to learn about the world from the safety of your own chair.
Story is the language of experience. To be honest, being older and an author is not a bad thing. You’ve overcome a lot. But anyone with an experience can share it in a story. Tales of love, adventure, and triumph or defeat evolved to help us explore our own mind and the minds of others. Story is a dress rehearsal for the future that might come. (Mine in particular take this direction.) Stories introduce us to issues we might face someday and the outcomes of various strategies comfortably at home. Stories allow us to explore life and its complexities, to understand yourself and others. Stories help us feel less alone. They can also foster social relationships and give us a window on cultures, promote civic responsibility, and share information. https://education.uic.edu/profiles/rebecca-woodard/
Most importantly, stories entertain. Being entertaining has always been one of my life goals. I started out as a kid writing tiny books for my siblings. Most of them ended with everyone dying. Endings are hard.
One of the fun parts of being an author is watching your book come to life in the hands of skilled professionals. Here’s a peak at the novel coming out this month, Wrinkles in Spacetime.
In celebration of my upcoming release, I’ll be writing about the author life this month and how you, too, can enjoy it and get started on it yourself, if you haven’t already.
Octavia Butler wrote one of my favorite short stories, Bloodchild, about insect-like aliens which use humans as hosts for their eggs. Each human, most often a male, is united with an alien in a form of marriage. The human is totally dependent on the alien for survival. If the alien doesn’t removed the maggots once they hatch, the human will be eaten alive!
Butler, a black woman who spent most of her life on the west coast, did not see Bloodchild as a tale of slavery. It was about botflies. But many readers will relate to the social hierarchy of the story and the stress which comes from being the one who must do the dangerous task of childbearing.
Butler wrote fourteen books and was known for lean, calm prose touching on social issues. As I fine tune my latest book, nearly two years in the making, I’m reflecting on her advice to aspiring writers.
- Read. Read about writing, read fiction, read non-fiction, listen to audio books. “Ponder use of language, the sounds of words, conflict, characterization, plottings, and the multitude of ideas…”
- “Take classes and go to Writer’s Workshops. …you need other people to let you know whether you’re communicating…in ways that area accessible and entertaining” and “as compelling as you can make them.”
- Vocabulary and grammar are your tools. Make sure you can use them effectively.
- “Revise your writing until it’s as good as you can make it.”
- Submit your work and learn from your rejections.
- “Forget inspiration Habit is more dependable.” Forget talent. You can learn to improve your work. Forget imagination. “You have all the imagination you need.”
- The thing you must do to be an author is persist. Stick with it. Persist.
Butler was not a flowery writer. Her writing won’t knock you off the page. What will is her observations and ideas. At times, I struggle with my Midwestern taciturn prose. Butler is evidence of the power of the ideas behind the words. Take her advice. Persist.
Write what you care about.
Do not ramble.
Keep it simple.
Free write but then have the guts to cut. Vonnegut said, “Kill your darlings.” Although this has been misinterpreted to mean including murder and sacrificing main characters in order to generate emotion, what he really meant was to avoid being so in love with your own words that you can’t trim your prose. Kill your conceit.
Say what you mean to say.
A writer is foremost a teacher. Make sure the reader can learn a little useless tidbit here and there.
Pity the Reader: Don’t be boring. Stick with one point of view. Don’t hold back information for the sake of surprise. Take out deadwood such as boring exposition. Keep readers turning pages.
Sound like yourself, even if it’s Midwestern speech aka “a band saw cutting galvanized tin.”
Remember, you’re in the entertainment business.
Writing is difficult .”You have to sit there. It’s physically uncomfortable, it’s physically bad for someone to sit that long, it’s socially bad for a person to be alone so much. The working conditions are really bad. “
These are some of Kurt’s many observations and words of wisdom from a new compilation Pity The Reader, On Writing With Style. I’d characterize this book as being more an emotional support book and collection of inspirational reminders than a beginner’s guide on how to write a novel. However, a movated beginner would glean much wisdom from it.
For teaching beginners, I use Wired For Story. which covers the basics of storytelling. For more serious beginners I use, Writing Fiction, which could be a self-study course and is focused on craft. Pity The Reader is the book I’d use for an advanced course–if I ever get to teach one. It’s been described as “illuminating”, “a love song for the writing life,” and “a breeze to read.” For the moment, I’ll use it as therapy, and so should we all.
The cover for Lost in Waste was in a contest for books published by independent/small publishers.
Once my second novel clearly identified the theme and tenor of the series, Book One got a cover make over. It looks less romantic, doesn’t it?
Likewise, the cover of my first novel, a Victorian romanic satire, was simplified over time, as shown below,
When I started out writing novels, I wasn’t sure of my path as an author. As this becomes more established, so do my covers.
What do experts say makes a good cover? Most will say it should be something simple and easy to take in right away with a clear focal point and an easy to read font. It needs to give a quick, big picture overview of what the book is about and catch attention.
Here are some all time great covers.
I didn’t have much to do with designing the cover but it’s been a well-received one. I asked City Owl CEO, Tina Moss, what makes a good cover. She replied as follows:
“The biggest thing with covers is to see the what’s working in the genre. What are readers gravitating toward? Covers like trends change. And some of the top indie authors will actually change their covers yearly or more often. I don’t think that’s necessarily correct as you want to create a brand and not chase trends. But having a brand that aligns with consistency in the genre is key.
For example, your author name should be the same font on your cover, your website, your social media headers, your business cards, your swag, etc. The cover is a tool for marketing and branding.”
Following my CEO’s advice, I attempted to match fonts for this site with my books. How did I do?
Lost in Waste is launched. It’s for sale here. If you do Facebook, I’m having a “party” with giveaways here. Comment for a chance to win. Facebook doesn’t allow competition and winners will be selected randomly.
Writing my first novel six years ago was a supreme struggle. I’d written and published short stories but never a novel. Who should be the focus? What should happen? How do I write a dialogue tag? And what is the theme? Every novel I ever read showed me what should be done, but none said the same thing. Because unlike science, there are numerous answers to any question in the arts.
I wrote two versions of Natural Attraction. The science romance version and the paranormal version. The romance was picked up and published as Natural Attraction. My first publisher told me to start a blog and get social media accounts, because writing is a business. I’ve been in this novel business for five years. Social media’s become a crowded place.
I like writing books. I love being edited and working with an editor to make a book the best it can be. Promoting my own books is much less fun. I can see why there is a whiskey called Writer’s Tears. I understand how the arts have a high suicide rate, just below that of people in the construction and building trades. There’s no sure way to know how successful a book will be. Or what even defines success.
One year, I got a rejection for that first novel on my birthday. I faced the same struggles many female authors do with virtually the same comments as a writer who submitted under a male and female name and found much more success as a male. For example, my main characters aren’t emotional enough or maybe are too stereotypical. The thing about rejection is, it’s not you getting rejected–it’s your characters, who for a short while, were more real to you than you were. You hurt for them. You let them down.
A writer can learn from rejection. An encouraging rejection from Harlequin Romance explained why a novel was not a true romance–because it highlighted the time and place of the characters. After that, I embraced the milieu novel. I moved forward.
People enjoy binging these days and series are popular. Mixed In is the first book in the Unstable States Series. It’s on sale for a short time right here.
Lost in Waste continues the same dystopia a short time later. It’s my fourth novel and I wrote it painfully slowly. However, I like how it turned out. How did I get my ideas? I watched news and social media, even though I kind of hate a lot of it. I listened to people and what events they were discussing. I don’t base characters on people I know but I do base them on what people are talking about. In Iowa, the topic is water pollution. Our water is so polluted, my city had to put in a reverse osmosis treatment plant. I read books. For Lost in Waste, a friend loaned me her anthropology books and we discussed topics. I went to a workshop. I wrote a little bit every day.
Mixed In is being featured on Manybooks. As part of the promotion, I gave an author interview. Being a teacher, I like author interviews. I explain or possibly defend myself. I don’t really like my photo taken. I feel as if it’s a visual interrogation. And female writers are judged on their looks. Having sensuous lips is apparently a reason for people to buy your books. I had a nice photo for my last book but needed an update. I went with a photo which, in the words of a friend, “made me look as if I could cause some trouble.”
Here’s the interview:
- Please give us a short introduction to what Mixed In is about. Catrina moves to an authoritarian city-state to pursue her dream job as a scientist. A chance meeting and deep involvement with rebellious bar owner Ulysses has her questioning the value of science to humanity. But it’s what she’ll need to save him.
2. What inspired you to write about someone who moves into an authoritarian society? Along with several other scientists, I was visited by the governor at my workplace. She spoke about Iowa needing more scientists in purely economic terms without any recognition of the joy of science, its optimism, and its commitment to making life better for as many people as possible. From my perspective, she was basically saying she supported science because it could make more money for the super-rich and that was to be its focus. I found it chilling but inspirational. I developed a fictional society ruled by a profit-driven family.
3. Tell us more about Catrina. What makes her so special? Catrina carries the optimism of science and its love of problem-solving to the extreme. No problem is too big for her. She solves problems she maybe shouldn’t. She’s a little naïve. If you’re longing for a protagonist with a can-do spirit, like Nancy Drew, Sherlock Holmes, or Hermione, you’ll love her.
4. In Cochtonville, just about anything that is fun is outlawed – why did you create the story this way? Many people have told me that they think it has something to do with my hometown which is pretty buttoned up. That might have been a part of it. I envisioned a joyless place where there’s nothing to do but go to work and eat ham—and even that gets ruined. I based this on the Comstock Act of 1873 which declared many things to be lewd. I like to have mild sex scenes in my novels to help Mr. Comstock roll in his grave.
5. Even though your characters live in a strange society, readers found them relatable and real. How did you pull this off? I think we all can relate to the tension between private life and work life, to the complexities of love, and to being an outsider.
6. Besides writing, what other secret skills do you have? I’m small and walk quietly so I can sneak up on people. Since I’m a chemist, I can make potions. And my last name rhymes with Frankenstein.
7. This is the first book in a series. Can it be read as a standalone? How do the other books in the series tie in with this one? Yes, it and other books in the series can be standalone. The location is the same but the events and characters don’t depend on the other books. The series can be classified as Milieu, place-based. In each book, different people are fighting a similar battle.
8. Among the wealth of characters in Mixed In, who was the most difficult to create? The male lead, Ulysses. He’s not the best choice for Catrina, he’s made questionable decisions, but I needed him to be likable.
9. What are you working on right now? I’ve just finished up the second book in the series, Lost in Waste, about falling in love with a GMO man.
10. Where can our readers discover more of your work or interact with you? Mixed In is Amazon exclusive right now so they can find me there. I have a blog https://catherinehaustein.com/. I’m on Facebook at https://www.facebook.com/sciwords/ I’d love to hear from them!
Fortunately, being a teacher has a low sorrow rate. Which is why I won’t quit my day job. This way, I won’t have to get plastic surgery to give myself those sensuous lips I might need to make a living as an author. And instead of my photo, here are my dogs waiting patiently for me to finish this blog and get out into the real world and play.
Cali Van Winkle doesn’t plan to find romance in her life. After all, normal men are practically an endangered species after that last chemical spill. So when she spots genetically modified men while she’s on assignment to clean up a sewage lagoon, she vows to make the best of it. Thus began the first scene I wrote for Lost in Waste, which you can purchase here. (ebook only for now.)
I wrote this scene back in 2017. I wasn’t sure where to go with it. I made progress at the Iowa Summer Writing Festival that year. At the week long workshop style course, I developed the character of NezLeigh, an abandoned pre-teen with a potty mouth and a genetic defect–very small eyes. I based this on a sad reality, although I gave NezLeigh ability to see in the dark and to create clothes and rope from plastic bags. I got some laughs when I read aloud to my festival class, so I kept going.
I expanded the relationship between Cali and the GMO man, Remmer, who’d been genetically modified but botched. Using Crispr gene editing as inspiration, I envisioned him as one of many CrispEr men, with the E standing for erotic. No, it’s not an erotic novel; he and his fellow Crispers are meant to be an enticement for women to get them to conform and work harder. Thus, I watched plenty of male stripper videos and Magic Mike as I crafted it. And from there, it grew, little by little, with the help of my English major daughter, into an 89,000 word novel. How long did it take? Nearly a year and a half.
This was my second novel in my Unstable States series, in which Iowa has turned into an authoritarian nightmare known as Cochtonia. However, there was no guarantee the second book would be accepted, nor did I promise I’d write a series. Despite this, the idea stuck with me and I persisted. Some have said that the authoritarian society emotionally resembles my own home town. I didn’t intend this but obviously, it must have influenced me. I didn’t finish Lost in Waste and submit it to the publisher, City Owl Press, until December 2018! Fortunately, I received a contract for publication soon after.
My next half year was spent working with my editor, Christie. She encouraged me to develop a Style Sheet to keep track of the series so there would be consistency going forward. It turned out to be 14 pages long.
Christie was incredibly encouraging. I tend to write “brief”–I don’t want to be boring– and she was able to tease expansion and elaboration from me. I most certainly need other readers who are willing to critique. One major change she wanted was a new opening. For a moment I was stumped but after a trip to Petoskey, Michigan and some relaxing stone finding and polishing, it came to me.
She also suffered through having to proof read me. Thank-you, Christie.
Next came another proof reading. I admire anyone with the eye and patience to do this! When I wrote my first novel, I hired both a copy editor and a proof reader. Lost in Waste was my first venture into trusting my publisher to help me with this.
In October, City Owl artists and editors created the cover. We knocked around a title for the work. My grandkids loved Lost In Space and I wanted to be sure to have one that hinted at comedy. This is how I got the final title.
And now, at last, it’s almost here. Am I nervous? Yes. While grief flows from us with sad universality, and love is a hormone regulated experience we share, comedy, like plastic, isn’t a natural thing.
A satire is dangerous, too. A satire expresses frustration with the status quo. Satire is intended to expose our foolishness by deploying humor. It exposes and criticizes foolishness by being foolish. For example, Iowa has enacted a ban on banning plastic bags. Thus, you will find plenty of them blowing in the wind in Lost in Waste.
Satire intends to improve humanity by criticizing its follies and foibles. A writer in a satire uses fictional characters, which stand for real people, to expose and condemn their corruption.” It can’t be a middle of the road experience. It has to take a stand. Most comedy writers use a pseudonym because of the dangers comedy writing involve. In the words of famous satirist Johnathan Swift “Satire is a sort of glass, wherein beholders do generally discover everybody’s face but their own. Which is the chief reason for that kind reception it meets with in the world, and that so very few are offended with it.” It must “claim no right to absolute truth or goodness.”
Thus, I hope, you will identify with and be appalled by the “out group” in Cochtonia, with the life in the oppressive nation of Cochtonia, and even with a few of the decisions the “good” characters make. Yes, satire can exploit stereotypes and will have some. I use stereotypes for the authority figures. As in Mixed In, there is a ridiculous boss who thinks highly of himself and demands far too much. Do I personally have a boss I hate? Absolutely not. But most can relate to the sense that they are working harder and sacrificing more and getting less glory than others around them.
Why can’t I stop writing comedy? Because, if I don’t laugh, I might cry. Also, I don’t want to “kill my darlings.” I won’t shock you by killing off the main character or even a dog even though I do parody a scene from The Bear.
If you find much about society, including yourself, absurd and unpredictable, you might enjoy escaping into a satire. You’ll be glad you don’t live in the nation of Cochtonia. Then again, maybe you do.
There is no beauty without strangeness. Thus wrote the author of The Telltale Heart, a short story about a man who kills his housemate because he doesn’t like his eye. Edgar Allen Poe‘s short stories are still memorable today for their exquisite strangeness. Why does strangeness have such enduring appeal? You don’t learn much from “typical.” It’s not interesting. Flawed characters are memorable because we can relate to them. Strange characters stand out in a crowd of normality. As Janet Burroway points out in her latest text, Writing Fiction, “My advice, then, is to labor in the range of the peculiar. If you set out to write a typical character, you may end up with a vague or dull or windy one.”
I prefer a dash of strange, a dose of metaphor, and a strong flavor of subtext in my fiction. Writing while strange might not garner an author acclaim, but it’s a way to write unforgettable fiction. Short stories are a great venue for instant quirkiness. If you need a quick dose of inspirational strange, here are few of my favorite strange short stories:
The Pukey by Nigel Dennis–a sexualized, vomiting pet is a metaphor for television in this sci-fi classic.
St. Lucy’s Home for Girl’s Raised by Wolves by Karen Russell--how do you assimilate into a normal, human society if your parents are wolves?
The Perfect Match by Ken Liu –after a predictably pleasant date, Sal’s quirky neighbor convinces him to buck the system
Gross Anatomy by Kodi Scheer--a medical student learns more than she plans to when her cadaver follows her around and talks to her.
I’m looking for suggestions. What are some of your favorite strange stories?
My first published novel will soon be out of print! The publisher, a small one, decided to close because of declining e-book profits. Ebooks have been good money makers for small and independently published books. They offer a better percentage payback for authors. They are low risk and low-cost alternatives to print books. At one time, a third of all readers bought them. But sales continue to drop. And I understand it. I haven’t read from my Kindle in months. Reading from a screen is not relaxing for me.
It’s not visual fatigue that is making ebooks less popular. Ebooks do not cause more eyestrain, especially if they are not read for over twenty minutes at a time and if you do not wear corrective lenses (although this is still being debated.) They may cause head and neck problems and most people find that glasses made for general use do not work with computers. This is because electronic print is not as crisp or clear as those created with ink and paper. E-reading many cause dry eyes as people do not blink as much when reading from an electronic page.
There’s a reason that people don’t enjoy e-books. Reading from “plasma” is different neurologically from reading on print. Screen reading is superficial and less deep. Your eyes jerk more. Your brain reads less completely. It’s skimming. It affects you. You become “cognitively impatient.” When you search for answers, you will tend to grab onto the simplest one, not the one that fits the data or information the best. You don’t dig in.
People don’t relish the page as they used to due to cognitive impatience. Novelists have adapted by writing “quick reads”–page turners– that are easy to follow and understand. Sometimes, this writing is formulaic. Critics say it is not “internal” enough and moves too quickly. Supporters of the new, fast style say that these books are fun and exciting and less about the boring psychological struggles of rich, white people. I aspire to write in the middle in a niche form known as upmarket. You can see from my critics that I at times get blasted from both sides. However, it seems that “real” readers are rebelling not against the form but in the way it is presented. They demand print books. And yet, when an author submits a book for consideration, it’s understandably electronic, creating a gap between writing for print and getting your book in print.
This I find that cognitive impatience gets in the way when I grade on-line. I’m okay for the first few papers and then, suddenly, I can’t take it all in. This is why when I grade a short story or research paper, I always print off a copy and write on it. Yes, I know that I can use many programs to allow me to comment on student papers electronically. It isn’t as deep. I write comments on their papers. Sometimes my students say that reading handwriting reminds them of their grandparents. I see this as a good thing.
The same thing is true when I write novels. I compose electronically but I must read paper, and over and over, as I polish the manuscript. Does this create a disconnect with readers? Who should I write for–print lovers or e-book fans? My latest book has sold more ebooks than print.
The situation is even murkier for professors. Print books are expensive and students use them for a limited time. They must be shipped and if students don’t order them promptly or if the books are backordered, they can miss many assignments. E-books are cheaper, easier to get, and create less waste. However, I once had my students purchase an electronic lab manual, the only manual that came with our text, and they had a terrible time following the instructions. Now, I write and self-publish my own print manual and stress writing, on paper, a solid conclusion based on data for their lab reports.
There is also a mild debate about e-books in grade school. These can engage students, although some studies say that students have lower comprehension with e-books. Things such as flipping the pages of a book help with a tactile sensation that promotes understanding. My students tell me that unless they travel by air, they prefer print books. They agree that even the feel and smell of books is part of the experience. One says, “A sign of a good purse is how many books you can fit into it.”
Another concern is that although blue light from computer screens is safe for adults, it may damage the eyes of children. Blue light creates alertness which is probably why we love screens. Blue light before bed can mess up our sleep cycles and cause daytime sleepiness and poor performance in school.
There’s a downside to print books. Paper books carry a danger–they can house mold, mildew, dust, bacteria, and particulates–these are associated with health problems in librarians! Some library books have been found to contain bed bugs and traces of cocaine. You can remove mold and mildew from old books. You can prevent bed bug transfer by heating book bags in your clothes dryer. And bacteria can only live in a book for a few days.
There is one old book you must avoid. Green books older than the 1850s–those with covers and green print in pages–can contain arsenic. Do not buy or keep these books.
It’s a good idea to periodically cull old books from your shelves for the health reasons outlined above. You can always store your favorite classics on your e-reader. My great-grandfather’s book ( shown above) is worth about $15 at most. It made me cough when I opened it. I’m not sure I can part with it just yet because it’s one of the only things I have of him.
As for brains maxed out on high tech reading, neuroscientists recommend a two week respite from-e-reading to help your brain recover. So if you need a break, go ahead, get that big purse or backpack–large enough for two weeks of print reading and take it along on your next vacation.
Here’s a link to the print version of Wolves and Deer.
Prefer e-book? Here’s an excerpt and link for that.
Would you rather read a futuristic novel? Click here for Mixed In.