The Goat Children, by Jordan Elizabeth, is a journey into the world of dementia, as a seventeen year old cares for her aging grandmother out of love. The flashbacks are endearing, allowing readers to understand the relationship between grandmother and granddaughter better. It is a touching story which will tug at the heartstrings of its readers.
It was a pleasure to review this book, and a pleasant surprise to read this venture outside the steampunk genre for Jordan Elizabeth. The Goat Children is a well-crafted tale about a young girl and her struggles to take care of her grandmother in order to allow her to remain in her home, a tale many families with elderly member may relate well to. I can say, from almost twenty years’ experience as a senior caregiver, Jordan’s portrayal of dementia is accurate and realistic, and she handles the subject truthfully, yet with sensitivity.
The Goat Children are products of her grandmother’s dementia… or are they? No spoilers here. All I will say about the ending is that I didn’t see it coming and perhaps I was a little bit shocked by it at first, yet it was the perfect ending for this story.
I recommend The Goat Children and give it four quills.
Kaye Lynne Booth does honest book reviews on Writing to be Read, and she never charges for them. Have a book you’d like reviewed? Contact Kaye at kayebooth(at)yahoo(dot)com.
I asked Robin to do a post on theme for last week’s Writing Memo, as a compliment to my post here. She did a great job of explaining what theme is and how to bring it out in your story. She talked about how to identify your theme, how to bring your theme out in your writing and how multiple themes can be, and often are, woven into a single story. After reading her post, it sounded so easy.
One of the most difficult parts of writing, for me, is determining what my story’s theme is. The theme is what your story or screenplay is really about, and it isn’t always obvious. Often you really have to think about the story as a whole and look for the underlying theme. Or at least, I do.
Die Hard is a story about a man, John McClane, (Bruce Willis), trying to save his marriage, but when her office party is taken hostage, it becomes a story about survival – survival of the good guys, as well as survival of the marraige. (Yes, I see the irony in the fact that Robin and I both chose to use Die Hard in our examples.) Survival is what the story is really about.
Lethal Weapon may be a buddy cop movie about the two cops getting the bad guys, but Roger Murtaugh, (Danny Glover), is struggling with aging and his approaching retirement, and his partner, Martin Riggs, (Mel Gibson), is struggling with the loss of his wife and certain suicidal urges. Dealing with aging and the end of life is what the movie is really about. But the underlying theme is not always easy to pick up on under all the shoot ’em up, good guy – bad guy stuff.
While pursuing my screenwriting emphasis for my M.F.A., one of the things that I was taught was how to breakdown the structure of a movie into different parts, or beats. My professor and screenwriting advisor, J.S. Mayank, had us use the structure model presented in the Save the Cat books by Blake Snyder. Professor Mayank had us watch a lot of movies and read a whole lot of screenplays and break their structures down, and one of the things I learned from this, is that in almost every movie, one of the characters states the theme in their dialog, usually by page five. As a general rule, it’s true. And if you can figure out what the movie is really about, you can put your finger on which line of dialog that is, however, that’s not always an easy thing to do.
For one thing, the line of dialog that states the theme usually doesn’t do it outright. To do so would make the dialog feel forced, untrue to what the character would say. For instance, the line that states the theme in Lethal Weapon is, “Your beard is getting gray. It makes you look old.” Coming from Roger Murtaugh’s daughter, as his family serves his 50th Birthday Cake while he takes a bath works well, but it doesn’t come out and say, “You’re getting ready to retire and your life is coming to an end. How are you going to deal with it?” It’s said and gone, and most viewers probably didn’t even catch that it was the theme stated unless they were looking for it.
These exercises in screenwriting were very helpful to me, but they required that I view movies in a whole new way. (We did a similar thing in my genre fiction classes, dissecting different novels to see what methods the authors used to portray their stories and how effective they are. And when you critique as you read, it’s a lot different than just reading to enjoy the story.) Most people watch movies for entertainment, right? I always had. But when you are doing structure analysis, you have to concentrate more on how it’s put together than you do on what happens in the story. And to figure out what the theme is, you have to watch, or read in the case of screenplays, with a philosophical eye to discover what the story is really about.
That’s where I had problems, especially when I was watching the actual movie, rather than reading the screenplay. I always sat down to watch a movie and immediately immersed myself in the story. Before I knew it, I would look up and realize the first five pages of script must be long past and I had failed to identify the line of dialog in which the theme was stated. It was the thing with reading screenplays. I found myself reading and re-reading those first five pages, searching desperately for the line that would tell me what the whole movie was about. I didn’t understand how I could be expected to pick out a line of dialog that stated what the movie was really about before I’d read the entire screenplay. And the sad thing is, I was no better at picking out theme in my own writing and writing a line of dialog to state it.
Here’s where I digress from Robin. You cannot decide what you want your theme to be and then write a story to fit. At least, I can’t. It won’t work. For me, theme must evolve from the story naturally, not the other way around.
When I decided to write, Bonnie, my screenplay for my thesis, I thought I was writing a story about two young kids who chose to live on the wrong side of the law in order to cope with the circumstances of living in the depression. But Bonnie is different than other renditions of the Bonnie and Clyde story, because it is told from Bonnie’s perspective, and before I had finished it, I found that what it is really about is Bonnie’s love for Clyde. Their love is my underlying theme. Just as love is the underlying theme in a story about a huge ocean liner that hit an iceberg and sank into the ocean, sending most of the passengers to their deaths. And just as it worked for James Cameron, when he wrote Titanic, I think it works for Bonnie. Love is what it is really about, the underlying theme.
The point here is, I didn’t set out to write a story about a young girl’s amazing love. That is what evolved from my story about a young couple’s choice to embark on a life of crime. Love was Bonnie’s motivation. Undying love was my theme and I didn’t even know it until I was more than halfway through writing the screenplay. This is why I say theme is the most difficult part of writing for me, whether I’m writing a novel or a screenplay.
But, I still say writing to the theme is more difficult. The theme must emerge naturally from the story, whether you’re writing for the page or the screen. If I just write the story, being true to my characters, the theme will come to the surface of its own accord. But, that’s me. Obviously, it’s different for Robin, who likes to identify her theme before she begins the story and finds ways to bring the theme out. Which comes first for you?
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Godling and Other Paint Stories, by Jeff Bowles, is a collection of six short stories all thematically tied together by a very thin thread of paint, or more specifically, colors. In the ingenious mind behind these stories, it probably doesn’t seem far-fetched that paints would be self-aware, or that dogs could evolve into thinking talking animals with human-looking lips, but your average reader will take a look at these stories and say, “Wow!” But one thing these stories will make readers do, is ponder possibilities, because frankly, as an author with a God-thing going on, Bowles conceives of some really heavy concepts, the kind that really make you think.
The collection starts out with Godling, a science fiction tale of a God machine, which gave up its humanity for love, and may, or may not, be able to reunite to become whole once more. (With short stories, you really can’t have spoiler alerts, because they give away the whole thing, so you’ll have to read the story to find out what happens.)
Next is Traffic Patterns, a tale of a sentient traffic light that is granted godhood, for a time. And, Making Paint as a Means of Impermanence is filled with some truly disturbing images of how an attempt to gain immortality turns into an ever renewing ritual to maintain an impermeable existence. Wild Dogs of Buffalo is a canine Godfather, excuse me, I meant Dog Father. Anyway, I love it. It’s a truly entertaining read.
God, the Little Artist – An artist’s heaven. This is not the first time that author Bowles has killed God off in his stories. The main character is Mr. Williams. As in Robin? That’s what I kept picturing in my mind as I read this story. Robin Williams talking to the large baby God whose time is running out, as if perhaps God ages backward. When I’d finished, all I could think was Robin Williams as God. Now that’s scary. But, maybe it’s just me. (No spoiler alerts. Again read the story.)
Dr. Julianus Techt’s 5 Easy Steps to Building a Better You is an instruction manual on how to sell your soul in order to improve on God’s handiwork, which is you. Only Jeff Bowles would create such a story. As you read these stories, when you come to this last, do not… I repeat, DO NOT try this at home.
Godling and Other Paint Stories will be released on Amazon on September 25th, 2016. I highly recommend you grab a copy. Overall, this collection of short stories are all easy, enjoyable reads, which will give reader’s brains lots of food for thought. They are strange and unusual, but Jeff’s writing talent is such that it doesn’t take much to suspend your disbelief. I give Godling and Other Paint Stories five quills.
Kaye Lynne Booth does honest book reviews on Writing to be Read, and she never charges for them. Have a book you’d like reviewed? Contact Kaye at kayebooth(at)yahoo(dot)com.
Through all my conversations with other writers, I’ve learned that there seems to be two camps of people when it comes to naming characters, places, and things in stories. One group thinks that the names don’t matter, while the other spends hours finding just the right meaning for each name in their world. Personally, I think it depends on the story, as well as whatever it is you are naming. I do believe main characters should have names that mean something, or at the very least, ‘fit’ the character’s story, but I don’t think everything in your story has to have deeper meaning. If you want to give the people, places, and things you name in your story special meaning, there are several ways you can go about it.
One of the main things I do look at when I am naming something is the origin of the name. What country is the name originally from? What language is it? Is it predominant in a specific religion, or culture? These kinds of details can help you pick names that have more history behind them to help with whatever you are naming. If you have a character that you want to have an Irish background, then a name with a touch of Irish history would be perfect. It doesn’t have to be a historical or cliché name, but it is an option. Another option is to research popular names in Ireland and pick one that way instead. You may end up with a name that isn’t classically Irish, but it will still have a connection to Ireland.
The point of this kind of research for the names you give in your stories is that it creates a built in history for what you are naming. Without telling the reader, you are hinting at where your character might come from and what their family connections are. Now of course people in real life are often given names with no connection to their roots, and you can use this in your story as well if you want, but by making a deliberate choice to either use the name or not you are making every element of your story count. So be deliberate, and if you decide to go against your characters origins, then make that part of the story as well even if it’s a minor part.
Something else you can use to your advantage when naming a character, place, or thing in a novel are known preconceptions about the name you use. For example, if you use a name from a myth, many people will recognize it and have certain ideas about that character. Zeus is a mighty god with great power, who also happens to be a bit of a player, and a character named Zeus might be suspected of having some of those traits. There are all sorts of fables and legends out there from every different culture and time period, and even if you use one that doesn’t have meaning to the majority of the population it will still help deepen your character. The point is that it is another layer for a reader to find, and the ones that do will love the touch.
Beyond past myths, you can also use names from modern pop culture and such. Big names like Kanye or Justin are well known enough that they also have immediate pre-conceptions to them. Maybe in another 20 years they won’t have the same impact on your readers as pop culture changes, but for modern readers you can use names like those to paint a picture of who your character is. Big public names have personas around them, and if you’re writing a character with a similar attitude you can use those pre-existing ideas to help nudge your reader in a certain direction before they know anything else about your character.
One of the final elements you can use when naming things in your stories is symbolism. There are all sorts of names and words that have deeper meaning beyond them besides the word itself. Most names have some alternate meaning to them when you research the original language they came from. These sorts of meanings can be used to speak to the type of person your character is going to be. If you have a surprisingly brave character, then choosing a name that secretly means bravery could be a subtle nod to readers who know that. These are the kind of details that won’t change anything in the story for the most part, but they can add another layer of meaning to your story. It can be especially useful when naming objects in fantasy worlds.
No matter your take on naming in stories, it’s important to consider what the minor details of naming can do for your story. The small touches can often give a story the extra boost to make it something special. As a reader, I know I enjoy the small details that I discover later on about a story, such as deeper meanings in names, and it only makes me enjoy the story more. If you do go the special naming route, however, I find it works best if you don’t go too obvious with the symbolism in the name. You want it to be a small touch, not a neon sign in your audience’s face. Ultimately, if you find a special name is something that will add to your story, then use it, if not, then don’t. It’s your story, so you have to decide what benefits it the most. Trust your instincts and you’ll be fine.
Sometimes when it comes to writing, the hardest thing to overcome is the simplest. One such example of this is to overcome the intimidation of a blank page and to simply get started. Those first moments when you sit down in front of the page and tell yourself you’re going to write can be huge, and overwhelming. All sorts of thoughts can pass through your head that make putting the first words down on the page near impossible. Am I good enough? Do I have anything to say? How do I do this? Will anyone want to read it? Etc. These kinds of thoughts can stop your writing in its tracks before you even begin. Knowing how to overcome the blank page can be vital, and while there isn’t a method that works for everyone, there are several things that I find work well.
Free Write First
One of the easiest ways I find to get into writing is to simply allow myself to free write for a while. Even if I have a specific story idea in mind, I will sometimes think of my character or my setting and just write whatever comes to mind. It doesn’t always flow in a pretty way, or even make sense, but it does allow me to explore the characters or setting without restrictions and it gets me writing. Once I start putting words on the page, focusing them becomes easier. I also find that just getting started on the act of writing makes some of the tension around writing dissipate. So however you do it, get started by freewriting and getting words on the page. Even if you have to start by writing about your day or something, see where the freewriting takes you. Once you no longer have a blank page, it’s easier to focus on creating something cohesive that you can turn into a story.
Copy Someone Else
This is a method that has been around for a while, and was even used in the movie Finding Forrester. When you are just getting started writing and struggling, try grabbing a random book and copying down the first paragraph of it. As you are writing, let your mind wander, and when you’re comfortable, stop copying and start making it your own. Sometimes using someone else’s work to get you started writing can help you transition into your own work. Just remember to go back once you finish and to change the beginning so it is no longer copying the original author’s work. The key to this is that it gets words on the page, and in making what you write your own.
Make A Rough Outline
When I have a specific story idea in mind, but am struggling to get started, I find that writing down 3-5 bullet points of where I want the immediate section of story I’m working on to go helps. Usually I will do this when I start each chapter. I grab a piece of paper and jot down the 3-5 key moments of the chapter that form the arc of it, then when I write I have “goals” to write toward. It’s just enough outlining to keep the story focused while I’m writing, but not so much that people who hate outlining will feel like they’ve over planned anything.
It works for me because I prefer abbreviated outlines, and it allows me to discover how the characters get from one big moment to the next as I write. So take a few moments to create a small arc for what you want to write, and then let yourself write to those points. It’ll help you visualize what you’re planning to write, and it’ll give you points in the story to write toward. Just try not to make your bullet points too broad, or you can end up feeling lost as to where to start again.
Try a Different Medium
One of the last things I try when I’m struggling to write is to switch mediums. Sometimes I find that I just can’t write a certain story at the computer, and instead I end up writing with a notepad and pen. It seems silly, but just switching mediums like that can actually help get you started. Sometimes I think the notepad works better than the computer when I’m struggling because the notepad feels less permanent and professional. I’m just jotting down ideas! Not writing for real! Which isn’t true at all, but it feels that way. So allow yourself to try a different medium and see if it changes anything. At the very least, switching to something like a notepad where you can do things by hand can allow you to doodle and jot ideas to brainstorm while you are working on getting to the real writing. Which can be just as productive.
The final thing to remember if you are stuck on the white page is that you don’t have to start by writing right away. If writing simply isn’t working, trying outlining or researching or brainstorming for your story. If you do those things, you’ll still be working on your story in some way, and maybe it’ll help you feel more confident so you can get started. Just remember, at some point you have to stop doing these things and get to the writing, so don’t procrastinate too long!
Writers are problem solvers. That’s what we do. Solve problems. It doesn’t matter whether you’re fleshing out a plotline for your latest novel or working up a beat sheet for a screenplay, our job is to figure out how to avoid or circumvent any obstacles that prevent your characters from reaching their goals. Of course, we also create some of the obstacles on purpose, because that is another thing that we do. We put our main characters through hell.
But, that’s not all. I’m also talking about things like faulty logic, which makes it impossible for your characters to do something you need them to do in the story, or things that don’t make sense or pull the reader out of the story, or when there’s too big of a stretch, too much disbelief to be suspended. These are the hurdles we, as writers, must overcome to not just tell the story, but to tell the story well.
Problem solving. That’s what creating story comes down to, and it’s our job, as story creators, to shape the story to make sense, have plausibility and flow smoothly. It’s our job to think through plot lines and make the story work by our clever crafting of words. It’s our job to make sure each character completes their personal story arc, and ensure that the main story arc flows through to the desired conclusion. It’s our job to help the main characters face their fears, overcome their fatal flaws and conquer any obstacles we throw at them along the way. And, it’s our job to be sure the story is believable and makes sense.
Does a story have to have eloquent language? No, although some do. Does it have to have a happy ending? Only if it is a romance. Does it have to make us laugh? If it’s a comedy, but humor is allowed in almost every genre.
There are things a story does have to have. Every story does have to have a beginning, middle and end. At least the main story arc and those of your main characters must be completed, moving the story along and showing character growth and transformation.
A story does have to have a certain logic to it, and it has to have characters who are relatable enough to make your audience care. There are ways to do both, and so much more, if you know how to write a well-crafted story. Robin Conley has made some great suggestions on how to make your audience care in her Weekly Writing Memo, each Wednesday, (or Thursday), here on Writing to be Read.
So, the next time you’re applying for a writing gig, be sure to put down problem solver as one of your many impressive skills. You won’t be lying. Creating Story = Problem Solving.
Keepers of the Forest, by James McNally has a good plot and interesting characters. When Chris is chosen by Crispus Attuck Brown to be the Chosen One, a summer spent with Scott and Chris’ aunt and uncle takes an unexpected turn, and Chris’ swim instructor, Brian is the only who realizes something is amiss. Brian must find a way to save the two brothers and foil Brown’s evil plot to destroy the world.
Brian is a young man who is afraid of commitment and perhaps drinks a little too much. He befriends a young boy, Chris, who is a sweet kid that falls into unfortunate circumstance and becomes the victim of an evil plot. Other players on the good guy’s team are Chris’s older brother, Scott, an angry teen who works through his own issues and story arc, and Brian’s bartender friend, Nancy who has her stuff together and acts as support for Brian as he works through his personal issues and becomes the hero. One of the most colorful characters unfortunately, has only a supporting role and isn’t really involved in any of the action. Nancy’s aunt, Leah, the balding swim instructor with cancer is a strong character, and I would have liked to see more of her.
The villain, Crispus Attuck Brown is an interesting chap, who believes he can bring about the second coming of the Dryad, and he’s gathering the Keepers of the Forest to that end. I think if we’d seen more of how bad he is sooner, it would’ve helped us to fear him more. At his side is an ex-hooker named Sherry, who is a misguided pawn in Brown’s game until she removes the blinders and realizes what is really going on around her. The big guy, Mason, is the muscle for the operation. He is feared because of his size, but is shown to have a soft heart. The crew is rounded out by two gay ex-cons, Ted and Vincent, who are cold blooded killers, who kill because they like it and almost seem more to be feared than Brown.
I had a couple of problems with Keepers of the Forest. First, McNally does a bit of head hopping, which makes it confusing to the reader as to whose P.O.V. we are in at times. And second, the characters all have such clear insight into their own motivations that they can self-analyze and express exactly what they are feeling and their motivations verbally. There isn’t a lot of subtext, and real people just don’t do that.
The other thing that just didn’t sit quite right with me, was the fact that the good guys save the day, but they are lead to the solution by Sherry, after she comes to the realization that her beliefs in Brown are faulty. Brian becomes a passive protagonist, in a way, because although he has a part in saving the boys, the rescue is led by a member of the opposing side, turned defector and he just does what he is told. For me, all the characters have the potential to be really great characters, but most of them fall short of what they could be.
I give Keepers of the Forest three quills.