Wednesday, October 3, 2012

Using Story to Tell the Truth

by Stephanie Morrill

I had a whole topic planned for today, but then I went to the Florence and the Machine concert on Monday night and my plans completely changed.

One of my favorite Florence and the Machine songs is Heartlines, partly because I love this line in it:

In order to get to the heart of things
sometimes you have to cut through.

As is apt to happen when you experience live music, those words washed over me afresh on Monday night. That as a writer, the "cutting through" is part of my job.

I'm not the type of writer who plans a theme ahead of time. When I'm working on a book, the way it feels to me is that there's a story wrapped around a core issue, and that I have to keep drilling deeper into the characters and plot, I have to keep "cutting through," in order to find that truth that needs sharing.

Sometimes writers - especially writers who have a debut about to release - tell me they're worried about getting bad reviews, or they're worried readers won't like a particularly controversial element of their plot. It's something I get nervous about too. I'm a people pleaser. I want people to like me. It's tough to read reviews that rip apart how I handled an issue, and I won't lie and tell you I'm tough about it - I cry.  And then I mope. And then, days later, I slowly ease my way back into writing.

But something I'm trying to remind myself is that my goal in telling the story is not to please everyone (thank God, because it's impossible) but to tell the truth. And sometimes the truth is hard to stomach, and sometimes it's going to make people mad because they don't want their worldview being messed with. And not only is it okay if they get mad about what I have to say, it might even be a good thing.

Right now I'm editing a book that makes me a touch nervous because my main character has extremely overprotective parents. Even though it's a YA book, one of the truths I've discovered in this story is how damaging it is to parent your children out of fear rather than out of faith and trust. During the first draft process, I emailed Roseanna and said, "I had no idea I had this much to say about overprotective parents!"

Is it going to earn me some 1 and 2 star reviews? Possibly. But to me it's the truth, and that makes it non-negotiable.

What is the truth or core issue in your story? And did you plan it ahead of time, or did you discover it along with your characters?

And if you're curious about the rest of Heartlines by Florence and the Machine, this is a video of it being sung live:

40 comments:

  1. . . .Alright, I might get a little jealous of the fact that you got to see Florence + The Machine in concert.

    Okay, I'm good now.

    This is an excellent article! And that's just something I've been thinking about recently (it's so funny how all the recent posts have been of things I've been thinking of lately). I've been on and off worried about some of the themes I'm starting to see in my WIP and I hate making people upset. I've been having to convince myself that I'm just writing things the way I see it and people can just deal with that, but it's easier said than done. People might get mad, but maybe I'll make them think. Thank you so much for this post!

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. The concert was way cool, Kelsey. If you get a chance to see her, you totally should. The strength of her voice is simply amazing.

      Delete
  2. This is something I struggle with, too, and sometimes it takes a lot of reminding myself that God has called me to share His truth. Not everyone will welcome it, but I'll know it's truth, and hopefully others will be able to see truth in what I write.

    My current work doesn't deal outright with any hot-button issues, but the message I hope to convey about the tough stuff is woven into the story. As I revise, I'm looking for ways to achieve the right balance between being straightforward and showing the message in such a way as to leave the readers thinking about it for themselves.

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. Yup. I agree! :) Basically the same deal with me.

      Delete
    2. That's a tough balance, Anna, but the effect is worth it!

      Delete
  3. Great post, thanks so much for sharing!

    For me, I knew what a theme was and I knew I wanted one, but I didn't really think about it in terms of my WIP until I was done. When I re-read back over my book, I realized that the theme had been growing along with my characters, and I'd discovered it about the same time they were learning what it meant.
    Which was kind cool, to be honest. :P

    ReplyDelete
  4. Okay, so like yesterday's post...I really needed to hear this. Actually, just recently, I wrote a short story telling the truth about something. It was for someone specific, and I have yet to see how that went over. And knowing this person, it may be a while...sigh! I hate waiting :D

    Anyway, thanks for sharing. :)

    Oh, wait! I almost forgot xD I checked out the first two books in your series at the library Monday evening. I read the first one (the entire thing!) on Monday (I...ahem. Might have stayed up too long. :D), and the second one (again, the entire thing) on Tuesday. Now I have to wait on an interlibrary loan, because there are no copies of book 3 anywhere in the county! *gasp* So, congratulations! If I read a book that long in the course of about 5 hours, almost non-stop...that means it's an awesome book :)

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. Oh, thank you, Amanda! I'm so glad you've enjoyed them :)

      Delete
  5. Great post, Stephanie! Such a great reminder that we can't please everyone and that can't be our ultimate goal. Our goal should be to tell the truth!

    It's so easy to forget that. I think all of us have some of that "people-pleaser" in us. We want people to like our work!

    For me, I guess it varies. Some books I go into knowing what the theme is going to be. Other books, including the one I'm working on at the moment, I've been slowly discovering the "truth" as I dig deeper and deeper into my characters and the storyworld.

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. I'm curious; when you know the theme ahead of time, does it evolve as the book progresses? I've had a couple that I thought I knew my theme, and then I veered in a different direction than I anticipated. But I know many writers are better at predicting their theme than I am :)

      Delete
    2. Yes, even when I have a theme at the beginning, it still definitely evolves as the story grows. I'm a hybrid pantser/plotter, and still trying to figure out the best way for me to write! :) It's always a learning process!

      Delete
    3. I think it's good to keep evolving in how we write. Keeps us from getting stale, you know?

      Delete
  6. Shocking confession: I'd never heard of Florence + The Machine. (Stephanie is now laughing and saying, "Of course you didn't, because she didn't live 200 years ago...") But she has a harpist on stage with her. She is therefore AWESOME. ;-)

    As for themes--yep. I'm like you, I don't often have a solid theme idea. Or I have one, but it shifts and changes. Or my awesome critique partner points out after reading the proposal that it REALLY should be XYZ, which is then so obvious I wonder how I missed it. ;-) But yeah, that can be scary, especially when you know you're going to get bad reviews on it.

    I'm anticipating a few comments from readers over my next one because my heroine purposefully deceives everyone, and that's posited as good and necessary for a greater cause. I know well there are many, many people who hold that it's NEVER okay to lie, so...should be interesting. Though let it be noted that my editor never even commented on that, LOL.

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. Really, what's not to like about a rocker chick who has a harp and baby grand on stage at her concerts and who's named something like Florence? I'm super impressed by that :)

      Your heroine purposefully deceiving others didn't bother me at all. But I'm a novelist and I lie for a living, so....

      Delete
    2. Exactly! But I've read quite a few CBA novels with a theme of "honesty is the best policy--no compromises, ever," so . . . we shall see. =)

      And there was a baby grand there too??? I am totally in love now.

      Delete
    3. I'm pretty sure there was. I'm possibly merging her and Muse :)

      Delete
    4. Roseanna, sometimes I feel like CBA wants to take out some of the hardest, murkiest truths.

      This is totally random but one of the strangest things anyone has ever said to me is "don't you look like a little harpist, you coloring, your mannerisms, your tone of voice, I just see you sitting and strumming.". I laughed and thought "what does that mean?"

      Delete
    5. Oh, that's hilarious, Tonya! I think it's a compliment. I always picture harpists being very graceful.

      Delete
    6. Definitely a compliment, I agree with Stephanie. =) And Stephanie, you need to bring some CDs with you in March and introduce me to these people. Because obviously if they're using baby grands and harps, they are worthy of my notice. ;-)

      Tonya, those murky truths can be hard to know how to handle well! But we have to write where we're led, no matter what the critics might say. Tough as that is...

      Delete
    7. I could make a character that's a harpist, lol! Actually I was contemplating a dancer or some kind of performer in my current idea

      Delete
  7. You really have me thinking this morning. I have a few sparks that I'm really interested in, they kind of are themes and I've been trying to them develop into a story. There's one that's the closest to my heart and what I'm going through right now and since I lost my last story I thought maybe I should work on this other theme since it's cutting through. Thinking if I write a good fiction story illustrating what I know I need to learn, I'll learn. The concept is good, I know it's good and that says something knowing the amount of insecurity I have in my ideas and writing. Composting and fleshing it out is not coming along the way I thought it would. Could I be forcing too much around the theme? It's something to chew on!

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. Sounds like it might be time to just start writing and see how things shape up. Before I can figure out much of my story, I typically need to write a chapter or two.

      Delete
    2. I may have to. I have the set up. But it's getting to the end of act 1 & through act 2 that's not feeling right. I think some people would look at it and say it's cruel but isn't that what you're supposed to do to your characters? And I need to make her more active bc a lot of it is what's happened to her, she didnt cause the situation,

      Delete
  8. I'm so nervous about receiving bad reviews on my debut novel "Purple Moon". Especially since I'm a teenager. The people who don't support teen authors may be even more critical in their reviews.

    However, when the time comes, I'm going to have to remind myself that not everyone will love the story. Or even my writing for that matter. But I shouldn't get all worked up over one negative comment--rather, I should focus on the positive ones. The people who will "get" my story and enjoy it are the ones I wrote the book for. Frankly, I didn't write it for the people who won't enjoy it. Everyone has their own opinion.

    That's crazy that you're writing a novel about overprotective parents. My current WIP has to do with the same issue. My main character is extremely sheltered because of something that happened in her past. This is something that so many Christian teens experience, however it's way too overlooked in our culture. I believe it's something that needs to be handled way more seriously than it has been.

    Love this post!

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. Great thing to think about, there: that we don't write for the people who won't enjoy it, but the ones who will. I shall be remembering that. :)

      Delete
    2. Oh, how funny, Tessa! I agree - it's an issue that needs discussing. We'd love to have you on Go Teen Writers when your book releases :)

      Delete
  9. All of your articles are so helpful. Thank you :) You've helped me grow a lot and I often recommend people to this site.

    My current WIP is a sequel to my last story. This one is about celebrities, friends, a dating couple. The main characters deal with what other people think of them, drinking, cheating, growing discontent with what you have, and pride. I wasn't intending for it to be sad, but it sort of exploded into this story about so many different things that people struggle with.

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. I'm so touched that you recommend us - thank you!

      I can sympathize. I felt like that happened to me with the Skylar books, where they became heavier than I intended. That can happen when we're telling the truth. So long as it's not heavy/sad/dark just for the sake of being heavy/sad/dark, I think you're good.

      Delete
  10. Florence was an acquired taste for me. I only started listening to more of her music than what I did because because I wanted more writing music and her lyrics don't distract me. But yeah, I like her a lot.

    And that is true Stephanie, about not letting what other people will think bother you. I write mostly fantasy, and I know certain people will judge it before they read it. That's just how fantasy is. I try not to let it bother me. Those people who judge my genre aren't my target audience.
    And YES, people getting mad about what you've wrote is a good thing. :)

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. Lol, just realized what I posted wasn't about theme lol. Oh well. :P

      Delete
    2. I'm happy to have you post regardless :)

      That's true - people definitely have prejudices against certain genres. I like what Stephen King says about "write what you were given." He says he was given a love of graveyards and other dark stuff (don't remember the specific quote). And you were given fantasy - therefore you should embrace it and write with freedom.

      Delete
  11. This article was just in time for me!I'm writing about something tat i think may be a hot button topic. The Noevel I've just stared is focused on a girl who is left with her father that she has never even met.In the story her mother not only comes back 6 years later but wants to pursue custody(bear with me, I actually dont know how that all works legally. I'm stil doing some research)Anyways, my main character literaly despises her mom and has nothing but animosityfor her. I was actualy worried because I didn't want people to get upset by my views on the subect. I know there are people out there who get left and are reconnected with parents or whatever and may get either offended or just disagree with some points.
    Anyways, thanks to the article, any doubts that I had are gone! I'm definitey going to keep writing it the way it is. There's always going to be someone who disagrees but then there will also be people who might really enjoy my book.Since I'm definitey a people pleaser, I foget that a lot.

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. I'm so glad this felt liberating to you, Kim!

      Delete
  12. Right now I'm planning out my NaNo, a Beauty and the Beast retelling, and I guess I'm kind of in the middle with story/theme. I know I wanted my story to have a 'verse theme' that ties to one Bible verse, like my last story, and that I didn't want to use the whole true love's kiss thing. (Too cliche, really, new Disney movies and Once Upon a Time episodes excepted.) I ended up with two separate but complete themes that actually work great for the whole story: (1) the truth shall set you free (which eventually resolves the outer conflict and is the broader story theme for all the characters and the plot) and (2) facing your fear (which resolves the inner conflict and is the personal theme for the main character).

    Yeah, I feel kind of awesome for having themes that work well through the whole book and actually make sense for the entire plot. :D

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. You ARE awesome, Emily! And you're giving yourself so much time to plan for NaNo - I'm impressed! Can't wait to watch your progress through the month :)

      Delete
  13. Hey Mrs. Morrill,
    This really spoke to me :) I'm writing an extremely controversial topic book (religious views, bullying, discrimination) that I plan (well, I HOPE) to publish one day as my debut novel - however, I am also a people pleaser and I'm scared of offending. I've had to just tell myself that people will be offended no matter what, and I loved reading in your post that writers need to get to the core truth in their books. Thanks for that advice; I know where to go in my novel now! Right down to the core, universal truth...the theme of my book; there is strength in faith.
    I'll seek strength in my faith to finish my book! Off to write now :)

    ReplyDelete
  14. From Amo Libros:
    Sometimes, like right now, I get really worried my theme isn't right, or that the one I'm using isn't the right one...I want to write for God, to right something He will use, but I'm so worried...what if I get it wrong? Or what if it turns into something I don't really like? I don't know what to do, and my writing is getting smothered...
    Am I overthinking this, letting my perfectionist tendencies get in the way of what God wants me to do, and stopping me from enjoying what should be a joyful process? And do you have any suggestions as to what I could do to stop overthinking/worrying and to get back on track with my novel again?

    ReplyDelete
  15. You went to a Florence + the Machine concert? You're so lucky! And you have excellent taste in music ;)

    This post is so true. Changing what you want to write to please others isn't the best idea - and after all, you can't please everyone. There will always be people who disagree with you no matter what.

    ReplyDelete
  16. It maybe my generation (?), but I have to apologize ... I've never heard of Florence + the Machine, but having a piano and harp in the concert is just remarkable. Must have been a great experience. I'll have to check out my local WalMart.

    This post was very helpful to me. Thanks Stephanie. I do have a theme, and perhaps I have been too focused on my vision instead of where the story will take me. In the end I anticipate 80 different characters over several books ... as they come and go. In a communal/community ... based on artists residencies.

    With a covert Christian background.

    As always, your posts are very helpful and motivational!

    ReplyDelete

Home