Call Me Ishmael. Or Call Me Easy.

I was browsing through Paste Magazine, one of my favorite websites, when I happened across this article about a website named “Call Me Ishmael.” I couldn’t get the Ishmael website to work, but the idea behind it is intriguing. There is a telephone number that you can call and leave a voice mail about a book that particularly affected you, and how and why it did so. The person running the website transcribes at least one message per week and posts it to the website. That is the idea, anyway. Again, I couldn’t access the website; hopefully that is simply due to increased traffic due to the Paste article. I love the concept, however. It’s kind of a “Post Secret” or “Whisper” on a somewhat smaller scale for readers.

Everyone had great fun a couple of weeks ago discussing Kindle Unlimited, and while we aren’t done with that yet I thought maybe we’d dial things down a notch as we head into summer’s warmest month and present our own, modest, one-day-only version of Call Me Ismael without resorting to voice mail, since a lot of people don’t use it any more, anyway. What book(s) changed your life? How? And why?

I have two: LOOK HOMEWARD, ANGEL by Thomas Wolfe and ON THE ROAD by Jack Kerouac. I read LOOK HOMEWARD, ANGEL and was immediately swept up into the magic of words. I decided moments after reading the first chapter that I wanted to spend my life writing, in one form or another, and to a greater or lesser degree I have done that. ON THE ROAD gave me wanderlust. There are few things better in God’s world than getting into an automobile and driving for several hundred miles at a stretch to a destination that you love or have you yet to love. In what I fear is the initial manifestation of the onset of dementia, I have recently been haunted with the thought of jumping on board a Spyder RT (yes, the irony is not lost on me) and tooling down to New Orleans, then across I-10 to Houston and beyond. So far I have talked myself out of it. So far. If I succumb, please blame Kerouac and my lifelong friend William D. Plant III, the gent who shoved both books into my hand and who also happens to be one of this and last century’s best unpublished authors.

Enough about me and what I may or may not do and why.  To yank things back on track: what book changed your life? How? And why?

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Do You Know What You Want to Say?

by James Scott Bell
@jamesscottbell


“If you want to send a message, try Western Union.” – Samuel Goldwyn
Do you send a message in your fiction? Nothing wrong with that. You can’t read Atlas Shruggedor On The Road or To Kill A Mockingbird without picking up that the writers had something on their minds that drove them in the writing. And each of those books still sell tens of thousands of copies per year.
But good old Sam Goldwyn knew that if you get too didactic, the story suffers. You have to let the characters live and breathe and act like real people in response to the story elements. You don’t want to manipulate them so much that the reader thinks you’ve moved from storytelling to sermonizing.
Still, at the end of any book or story, an author will have left something for the reader to think about. It can’t be helped. That’s the nature of story.
Which bring us to Theme.  Theme (or as I call it, Meaning) is the “big idea.” It is what emerges once the central conflict is resolved. The famous writing teacher William Foster-Harris believed that all great stories could be explained in a “moral formula,” the struggle between sets of values:
Value 1 vs. Value 2 => Outcome.
You plug in your values thus:
            Love vs. Ambition => Love.
In other words, the value of love overcomes in the struggle against ambition. If one were writing a tragedy, the outcome would be the opposite, with ambition winning, but at the cost of lost love.
Writing teacher Lajos Egri posed a similar idea in The Art of Dramatic Writing. He called it the “Premise.” It is expressed in a moral formula as well, as in Justice overcomes deceit.
The question today, writer, is whether you are being intentional about your theme.
Not all writers know their theme when they start writing. They have characters and a plot idea, and they let the writing unfold as it will. They may not think about theme at all. They may simply write about characters involved in the struggle of the plot, knowing that struggle will eventually end. Most of the time that’s how I approach it in my own writing. But I do, at some point, identify what it is my emerging story is trying to say—because, of course, it’s really mein there somewhere.
But even writers who say they never think about theme end up saying something. It can’t be helped. All stories have meaning, whether the author is purposeful about it or not. Why? Because readers are wired for it. We are always looking for meaning, trying to make sense of the world. Indeed, one of the reasons we have storytellers is to help our fellow creatures through the mythical dark forest, otherwise known as life.
Perhaps, then, it would be wise to be a little more conscious of your theme. Whether you start out with one or find it along the way, try to identify the unifying message. Then you can go back in the revision process and weave symbols, metaphors and thematic dialogue into the tale.
It also helps to know your theme in case you get questions. I wrote a short story that stoked some controversy among a section of my reader base. I got a few emails, and one consternated face-to-face query, asking why I wrote such a disturbing and eerie tale.  
I responded that I was actually trying to write a profoundly moral tale. One that had a very clear meaning (to me, at least). I shaped the plot precisely to be disturbing (think Twilight Zone or Alfred Hitchcock Presents)  because the theme would not be as powerfully presented otherwise.
I would be very interested in seeing if you find the meaning I intended. That’s why I’ve made the story, “Autumnal,” free on Kindle today through Wednesday. I’d love it if you got it, read it, and told me via Twitter what you think the meaning is. Use #Autumnal for the discussion.
As for you, dear author, talk about this in the comments: Do you know what you want to say when you start a story? Are you a “theme-first” kind of writer? Or do you prefer to let the characters duke it out and leave it at that?

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