Thursday, 27 September 2018

A THESIS, A THESIS, MY KINGDOM FOR A THESIS

Hello, Dear Readers! Happy Thursday - the weekend is almost here, and it's time for a writing post (Le Gasp! I know it's been a while).

Lately I've really been enjoying the videos of a writer and vlogger called Rachael Stephen. Her plotting methods are so methodical and meticulous, and so different to mine, that I find them fascinating. They offer all kinds of new insights into how to visualise all the moving parts of a story. My favourite recent video of hers is this:
In which she posits that it's very important for a writer to know - and be able to articulate! - their underlying theme in any work, because if you don't KNOW what you're trying to say then you can easily end up saying something else entirely.

Now a lot of Rachael's plotting stuff boggles my mind, but this felt super right and comfy to me straight away. Theme is vital to my writing process. I need spend a lot of time figuring this out before I can get anywhere with my plot. In fact, I always feel that the plot (a series of events logically following on from each other, involving my main character or characters) is basically there to give me an opportunity to illustrate my theme. That's the point of the thing.

The more I thought about that, the more I realised that this is incredibly similar to something I say to my students here at York St. John ALL. THE. DAMN. TIME.

Students come to me with all kinds of problems, and nearly always this leads to me asking them: "What are you trying to say here? What is your point? What is the message that you want your reader to take away from your work?"

As a result of this, last year I came up with this theory that the ideal structure of an essay - and an essay section, and even a paragraph within an essay - is an upside down triangle.

At the beginning, the widest part of the upside down triangle, you state your thesis, your theme - or in a small unit of writing, like a paragraph, offer a topic sentence that states what you are about to discuss. This is quite open and general. Then you move slowly through a process of providing evidence which gives more background, illustrating your thesis, getting more and more specific all the time until you reach the point of that triangle: the point of the work itself, or of the paragraph.

This is where you offer your unique interpretation or analysis of the evidence you have provided and show how it all leads back to your point, thesis or message.

That's key. Everything must always be relevant to your point. Everything must always be driving down towards the ultimate meaning of the piece of writing, proving your thesis, convincing your reader of that message. If it doesn't do this? It shouldn't be in the essay.

Et voila!

Click to embiggen

I show a variation of this diagram to my students and we highlight the different parts of the triangle - I, D, E and A - different colours, then seek out each of the different parts in each paragraph of their essay. Once we start highlighting the work itself, it immediately becomes clear if they've got a flowing argument that runs smoothly from identifying their thesis/point, to adding detail, definition and background, to illustrating with evidence, references and quites, to analysing the significance of everything they've said to their overall thesis. Often a great argument is weakened because they hid their A in the middle, or failed to offer any I, or didn't back up the I and A with enough D and E.

it works!

After watching Rachel's video I realised that when writing fiction, you need to turn this triangle upside down.

Instead of starting out with a general statement, you begin with the specific - moving through the personal outwards to the universal. The pointy bit of the triangle is where you hook the reader on the very personal, specific stakes of your story's theme, by showing main character in their beginning - unfulfilled - state.

Then you launch into action, using specific events that affect the main character as evidence of what can happen if they don't change, don't learn the thesis.

Then you broaden the scope of the story, extrapolating outward, propelling the plot onwards with ripple effects caused by the character's attempts to learn and change on their world, the people they know, their environment.

Finally - maybe in the final, resolving scene, or maybe in the very last line - you attempt to turn that mirror back on the reader to show how this individual journey that you have depicted actually applies to them and to their real world, too. This is that stunning final image or thought that leave the reader thoughtful and wondering as they close the book.

Like so!

Clicky clicky!
I'm not 100% happy with this at the moment, if I'm honest - the descriptions in each part of the triangle don't really get at what I mean the way I want them to. But I still think this could be very useful, especially for people writing short fiction, where your theme is more or less everything, so I decided to share it anyway. I might be back with a tweaked version in the next couple of weeks!

What do you think of the IDEA triangle, muffins? Useful? Sound off in the comments :)

Thursday, 20 September 2018

STUFF ABOUT SELKIE BOOK

Hello, hello, helloooo, Dear Readers! Happy AUTUMN! Happy warm drinks, snuggly jumpers, crisp frosty mornings and copper and gold leaves! I know none of those things are much in evidence right now, but after suffering through the nightmare swamp summer I AM READY.

I'm back at my Fellowship at the vibrant York St. John University for another year (thank you Royal Literary Fund!) but now that I've finished the first draft of selkie book - and despite beginning-of-term madness and fact that the computer in my office here is the slowest one I have worked on since the days of Windows Vista - I really am going to *try* to be a more regular blogger in the coming months. I've missed you guys.

Speaking of selkie book - here is the post I promised with more details about this story. I have to be a leeetle bit tight-lipped about it because I wrote this book on spec (it doesn't have a contract yet) and it is currently with my editor, who hopefully is thinking many deep and important thoughts about it. But even though I have to be a grown-up and everything (gah! why?) I do think it should be OK to share some generalised goodies with you all.

First up here's my Pinterest inspiration board for the book. Fun fact! This is named 'TSM' because the first working title for this book was The Shell Maiden.

Pinterest boards can be weird because they're a form of brainstorming, and not everything you pin actually influences the book at all - some of it ends up going nowhere and having nothing to do with where you eventually take the story and characters. But I think that's part of what makes them interesting. However, since I'm trying to give you a sense of this book, I'm going to pick out some of my favourite pins - ones that did influence the story - for you here.

My version of this character has dark eyes, though...




 



These are my mental images of three of the main characters and also some of the main settings for the book

And here's the Spotify Playlist



The other thing I listened to a lot while writing this was the amazing Blue Planet 2 soundtrack by Hans Zimmer, which is here.

Finally, under the cut there's a sneaky snippet from the beginning of the book, which I really hope my agent will not be cross at me for sharing...

Sunday, 9 September 2018

TEMPESTS & SLAUGHTER BY TAMORA PIERCE - MY REVIEW

Hello, muffins! Long time no read. I hope you've all had a wonderful *cough* four months since I posted last. If you're inferring from the fact that I'm posting again that the first draft of Selkie Book is finally (finally FINALLY) finished you are a very clever muffin indeed - and you are correct!

WHOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOO!!!!!!!!!!!!!!

95,000 words, 322 pages, bucketloads of snow, some ships, some icebergs, some bears, some rather more unusual creatures, a sprinkling of moon magic, and a warm, gooey centre of intersectional Feminism - oh my! My tenth novel since becoming a published writer. Let's hope it finds a home and I can share it with you... soon-ish. I may post a snippet and some other stuff next week, if the spirit moves me.

In the meantime, though, a book review!

The legend begins.

In the ancient halls of the Imperial University of Carthak, a young man has begun his journey to becoming one of most powerful mages the realm has ever known. Arram Draper is the youngest student in his class and has the Gift of unlimited potential for greatness . . . and of attracting danger.

At his side are his two best friends: clever Varice, a girl too often-overlooked, and Ozorne, the ‘leftover prince’ with secret ambitions. Together, these three forge a bond that will one day shape kingdoms. But as Ozorne inches closer to the throne and Varice grows closer to Arram's heart, Arram realizes that one day – soon – he will have to decide where his loyalties truly lie.

In the Numair Chronicles, fans of Tamora Pierce will be rewarded with the never-before-told story of how Numair Salmalín came to Tortall. Newcomers will discover an unforgettable fantasy adventure where a kingdom's future rests on the shoulders of a boy with unimaginable gifts and a talent for making deadly enemies.


NOTE: This is as close to spoiler free as I can make it and still maintain coherency; anyone who's read the Immortals Quartet or the Protector of the Small books ought to be just fine. If you're a Pierce newbie, it'll depend on your personal tolerance for hints. You've been warned, my lovelies.

A few weeks ago I was lucky enough to get a copy of TEMPESTS & SLAUGHTER on NetGalley - Tamora Pierce's latest young adult book, set in her famous Tortall fantasy universe.

Obviously I was ecstatic since, as longtime Dear Readers know, Tamora Pierce's Song of the Lioness Quartet is the reason I'm a young adult novelist. Ms Pierce is *that* influential. And for those of us who worship her as she deserves, it feels like about a decade since her last full-length novel release (in reality, MASTIFF, the final book of the Beka Cooper Trilogy, her last series set in Tortall, came out in 2011).

But TEMPESTS & SLAUGHTER was giving me a slightly conflicted feeling because it's the first book of the Numair Chronicles - a prequel trilogy about the early life of one of her beloved characters from her Immortals Quartet, Numair Salmalin, otherwise known as Arram Draper.

Why the conflict? Because Arram/Numair's early life is actually covered pretty thoroughly in books I've already read (and re-read and re-read again). He is the second most prominent character of the Immortals Quartet - which is probably my second favourite of all Ms Pierce's Tortall series - and his history is a pivotal part of the plot. The books tell us where he grew up, what he did and who his best friends were, as well as just how those relationships developed. It's a central part of the plot.

I don't have any objection to getting more depth and information about Numair! I love Numair! But I did have kind of squinky feeling about heading into a whole new series of books where I needed to invest myself in the characters and the plot when I knew, going in, exactly how it was all going to turn out. How it would end. I worried I just wouldn't be able to get into any of it, that it would feel hollow, or inevitable. More like a collection of Easter Eggs than a real story.

Well, I shouldn't have worried. Tamora Pierce's exceptional strength as a storyteller has always been her ability to create the most beautifully realised, well-rounded characters - and then build relationships between them on the page which allow them to evolve and develop in direct relation to each other in all these unexpected, simply unforgettable ways. It's miraculous. And as a result, this book sucked me in from the very first page.

Compared to many of her works it's not a high action epic, though there is plenty of incident within it, ranging from training mishaps caused by Arram, whose power is simply too great for someone so young to fully control, through unexpected encounters with animal gods, all the way up to an attempted slave revolt. Arram even gets an unusual animal companion in classic Pierce style.

But this isn't a book that's about plot. It's a book deeply rooted in relationships, in watching relationships change and grow - and the relationship between Varice, Ozorne and Arram was so unexpectedly sincere and joyful that I couldn't put the book down. It didn't seem hollow. It seemed multi-faceted and nuanced and fascinating and, honestly, my heart broke a little bit for all of them. My knowledge of all these people's eventual fates only added depth and poignancy.

Meeting younger and less hardened versions of other such significant characters as Tristan, Chioke, Princess Mahira, and Lindhall, and having the chance to see the beginning of Ozorne's rise as well as the beginning of his descent was merely the icing on that compelling cake.

Which is a good thing, because this book ends just when things are rising to a point of high tension. Arram has made a fateful decision about his future, feelings between two of the central trio of friends have finally been declared, and Ozorne is beginning to display not only signs of the violent instability which will later have such disastrous consequences for Carthak and the whole world, but also a kind of burgeoning ambition that makes me suddenly re-evaluate his motives throughout the book. Arram is still Arram - he hasn't picked out his rather more ostentatious mage name yet - and he's still a mere student at the university, along with Varice and Ozorne.

I was stunned when I realised the book ended there. It felt, to put it mildly, a bit abrupt. But on thinking about it, I know why the writer chose to finish at that point: in a strange way, the events which finish the book are the beginning of the end for Arram's life as he has known it. The next book, surely, will chart his final examinations at the university - the acknowledgment that the odd young Draper boy is, in fact, the most powerful magic user in Carthak - as well as Ozorne's rise to the throne of Carthak. And anyone who's read the Immortals knows how that goes.

This book was the idealistic dream of three friends who only wanted to be together, to learn magic, and to live in peace far from the violence and machinations of the court of Carthak. I suspect that the next book will be a crashing and non-stop battle with reality for Arram, including that world-altering event Pierce fans know is coming and both dread and anticipate.

I HOPE so, anyway, because the part of the story that has always interested me most is Numair's escape, his arrival and early years in Tortall, and his eventual meeting with the influential people there which leads to all the events of the Immortals Quartet. For those events to be done justice, they really want a whole book. And, even knowing how it all turns out? I definitely want to read it RIGHT NOW.

If you're a Pierce fan, let me know how you feel about this book in the comments! Otherwise, tell me what you'd like to see in a post about selkie book (aesthetics? Playlist? Snippets?) and I'm more likely to put something together for next week :)
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