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Have you ever written a metaphor or simile that you knew was cliche (bright as the sun, hot as Hades, weather for ducks) and yet you couldn’t think of how to turn it into something fresh? I have. And I when I read a fresh metaphor, I sometimes pause, turning it over in my mind, appreciating the ability of authors who can come up with such appropriate – and sometimes stunning – figures of speech. How do they do it? How can I do it? I think I may have discovered a way, thanks to a weekend spent at Vermont College of Fine Arts.


I just returned from my MFA graduating class’s 10th reunion at the VCFA alumni mini-residency. We were treated not only to the joy of seeing one another and catching up in person but also to talks and workshops given by guest agents, editors, and authors. One was the poet Nikki Grimes, who presented two marvelous sessions, complete with writing exercises.

Because Nikki is a poet, she has a beautiful, lyrical way with words and encouraged those of us who write prose to come to our writing with an eye toward the poetic. Here’s one suggestion she made for creating new metaphors and avoiding cliches:

“Close your eyes and think of a word. [the word or concept you want to express in metaphor] Hold it closely, but give yourself permission to play with it, and as you do, sift that word through your senses, and think about all of the possibilities of that word. What does that word taste like, sound like, look like, feel like, and smell like? When you’re done, open your eyes, and write . . . about that word using poetic tools like metaphor, similes, alliteration, repetition . . . to describe that word for someone who has never experienced that word.”

This exercise made me realize that when I’m stuck on a cliche, I rarely stop and give concentrated effort to finding a fresh metaphor. I try this and that and often hit on something, but to taste the word, smell the word . . . I would never have thought of that.

The key to creating fresh metaphor and simile,” she said, “lies in your story itself – setting, environment, character – draw from the particulars of the story.” Now I have done this. It only makes sense. In other words, if you’re writing about a girl who helps her grandmother bake, she might say the day was “as hot as Grandma’s oven during the holidays.”

Too often we opt for the functional prose and throw away opportunities to make our prose sing,” said Nikki. “Get out of your own head and allow the artist inside you to come out and play. . . . Give yourself permission to play. You have no idea what you’re capable of as a writer until you do.

So sift your words through your senses. Get out of your head and play. Find out what you’re capable of.

Happy Writing!

You can read my weekly inspiration blog and the stories behind the stories here.


IMG_5604Last week I asked my Facebook followers: If you could sit down with me over coffee (or tea or wine), what is the one question (any subject) you would ask me? One of my writer friends responded: “How do you write for YAs without ‘talking down’ to them?”

The key is not to write for YAs but to write from the YA perspective. That may sound like quibbling over prepositions, but the distinction is a crucial one. For and from reflect mindsets that guide not only how and what we write but also how we are received (and whether we’re received at all). Personally I prefer to leave out the preposition altogether and just say I write YA.

Now I admit that writing “for” anyone has a nice feel; it’s like creating a gift for readers. Even my master’s degree is in Writing for Children and Young Adults. But remember the first time you got a gift you didn’t want? I recall the excitement of opening an enticingly wrapped gift only to get a sinking feeling when I saw that the shirt inside was something I would never wear. Color, fabric, even design were all wrong. I smiled, of course, and said thanks but never wore the shirt. I don’t want my YA novels to be like that gift. So instead of writing for, I have to write from.

Write from what?

1. Write from a teen point of view.
If the main character is an adult remembering what happened as a teenager, it’s not YA, because the telling of the story is filtered through the adult’s experience-filled point of view. In YA the teen is the relatively inexperienced protagonist, and the story is immediate. The only filter is his or her own mind. Even in a historical YA, the events happen in the teen protagonist’s present or recent past. And if the novel is told in multiple points of view, all viewpoints are generally (though not always) teen POVs. (The Book Thief by Marcus Zusak is one example of an exception. ‘Death’ narrates, but the protagonist is a teen; the story is immediate and hers.)

2. Write from emotional truth.
A good novel rings true emotionally; a good YA novel rings true to the intensity of teen emotions. Writing YA requires tapping into universal emotions and recalling how intensely we felt them as teens when experiences began skewing less into the childhood realm and more into the adult realm. Remember? So much was new, happening for the first time, and we could magnify small events way out of proportion. We may now have settled, more or less, into adulthood, but we have the same basic emotions. We just have to access them and remember their teen-spiked intensity.

3. Write from the search for identity.
I love this crowd sourced definition of YA from a Publishers Weekly Shelftalker article “The Ultimate YA Definition?“: “If youth was measured by a clock, and the end were to occur when both hands struck twelve, then YA stories are those that take place between 11:59 and a couple seconds after midnight. They end when the protagonist has a foot – or maybe just a toe – planted on both sides of the innocence/experience fence.” YA novels are, naturally, coming-of-age stories. In adolescence the teen’s main task is to move from dependence to independence, to become a person in his or her own right, to form a personal identity: Who am I? What do I stand for? What do I believe in? These are the big questions we grapple with at any age, but in adolescence they’re front and center.

4. Write from a place of hope.
Novels for adults can end in despair; YA novels should end with at least a kernel of hope. Even if the book deals with dark issues, at the end, “There’s a sense that it’s worth waking up tomorrow,” says author Kathryn Reiss.

5. Write from the story inside you.
Ultimately the best advice is to first tell the story that burns inside you, and then see if it belongs on the adult shelf or the YA shelf. Rainbow Rowell is an author of adult novels who wrote the award-winning Eleanor & Park thinking it was an adult book. Why did her publisher categorize it as YA? Because “the novel actually saw the world through their (teen) eyes,” says Nolan Feeney in “The 8 Habits of Highly Successful Young-Adult Fiction Authors.” He quotes Rowell herself as saying, “The perspective was so firmly rooted inside of these teenagers. You’re not looking back or looking down.”

So that’s the key: not looking down at teens, not talking down to teens, not writing to teach them something, but simply writing a good story from their point of view, their world, their emotions.

Happy Reading! Happy Writing!

P.S. Your turn: If you could sit down with me over coffee (or tea or wine) . . . what one question (any subject) would you ask me?

© 2014 Karyn Henley. All rights reserved. Photo courtesy morguefile.com

IMG_0445Nights are warm enough now for me to sleep with my bedside window open. Which I love. I fall asleep to the shushing of wind through leaves and the call of a distant train. I wake to a symphony of birdsong. These details of life fill the well of my spirit and often find their way into my writing.

Our world is designed to provide us with details in abundance. Kind of a good news/bad news thing for writers. Good, because details ground our stories in reality and make them believable. Bad because sometimes the abundance of detail around us keeps us from really noticing. Info-bits jump up and down, wave their arms, and sing, “Look at me! I’m the important detail!” We’re in danger of leapfrogging from one voice to another, from blinking cursor to flashy link, ever on the move, never settling in to actually notice.

My neighborhood is beautiful and quiet and in full bloom now. On one of the first warm sunny days of the season, I glanced up from my writing to see a couple of women walking down the street. My first thought was, “Excellent day for a walk. I’m so glad they’re taking advantage of it and enjoying the beauty.” Then I realized that both of them were texting as they walked, not seeing the newly leafed tulip poplar or the scatter of violets across the lawn. Then my neighbor, a young mother, returned home from an errand with her preschooler. As she climbed the stairs with him in tow, she wasn’t there. She was texting. Close encounters of the electronic kind.

So I wondered: these days do we notice only what we’re told to notice? Only what we’ve signed up to notice? Only what the algorithms think we want to notice – if you liked this, you might like that? No new flavors? Are we entrenching? Avoiding life from a different point of view? That might work for a lot of people but not for writers. “…writers are forever looking for the surprising revelation – not for reinforcement of collective wisdom,” says Carol Bly.

A writer needs to have a deep stock of “elements essential to the emotional moment.” (David Gerrold) Those elements are fashioned from a variety of details stored within us, treasures gathered when we notice our world: woodpecker taps that sound like ellipses punctuating the air; the swollen, overly sweet smell of rotting oranges; dogwood blossoms the color of old lace, a Miss Haversham white. And the people . . . “Everyone is walking around as an advertisement for who he or she is . . . ,” says Anne Lamott. We only have to be open to these details. The muse polishes these gems and hands them back to us as we write.

But first we must notice – really notice – the world around us. Lamott says, “Try walking around with a child who’s going, ‘Wow, wow! Look at that . . .’ I think this is how we are supposed to be in the world – present and in awe.” But it’s not just for the sake of writing that we need to cultivate the art of noticing. It’s the secret, according to William Morris: “The true secret of happiness lies in taking a genuine interest in all the details of daily life.”

So I wish for you that secret.

As always, Happy Reading! Happy Writing!

Text and photo © 2014 Karyn Henley. All rights reserved.

OTRAS (4)Sometimes my fellow writers and I bemoan the fact that we can no longer read simply for the fun of reading. Not that reading isn’t fun. It is. But we can’t help noticing and evaluating the choices other writers make. We think, “Wow. I wish I could write like that,” or “I wish I had thought of that premise,” or “Ouch. Note to self: avoid that mistake.” John Gardner in On Becoming a Novelist says a writer “reads the way a young architect looks at a building, or a medical student watches an operation, both devotedly, hoping to learn from a master . . .”

Here’s what I try to gain from reading:

1. A sense of what’s “out there.”
I try to read bestsellers and award winners (they aren’t necessarily the same) and novels that get good reviews or catch my interest. In general I note what’s popular, what’s unique, what ideas seem overdone or underdone. In other words, I try to get a sense of “what questions are really interesting and what ones aren’t worth bothering with . . .” (John Gardner)

2. A jump-start when I’m stumped.
Another writer’s “dream world and dance of language come bursting into the mind, and one’s own capacity for dreaming and playing with words comes unstuck.” (Gardner again)

3. Help in solving problems in my own writing.
At one point I was unsure about how to craft a scene, so I was hyper-aware of how other writers did it. Sandra Scofield in The Scene Book devotes an entire chapter to “Reading for Story and Scene” and suggests that when we read, we ask, “How does the writer enter the story or scene?” and “What creates the story’s pulse?” and “How does the author handle dialogue?” I’m always curious to see how writers deal with scenes in which several characters are involved, especially when most of them have dialogue. That’s tricky. Changing point of view is another tricky skill, so I’m alert for how writers change POV, and I’m aware of when it doesn’t work. Learning what not to do is just as valuable as learning what to do.

4. A springboard for my own new ideas.
I read with my mind and heart open to serendipitous connections between what I’m reading and what I’m writing at the moment. I don’t always find a connection, but sometimes reading helps me turn an unexpected corner in my own writing or twist a thread of my own plot. I’m not talking about stealing or copying but about using reading as a springboard so that my muse leaps from what I’m reading to land on a different idea, something unique that fits what I need.

5. Inspiration.
I swoon for smooth, beautiful writing. Elizabeth Berg says, “Write like you tie your shoes. Don’t think about it, just do it.” Which must be how she does it, because her writing is a joy to read – as is Amanda Coplin’s in The Orchardist. And Lois McMaster Bujold‘s fantasy voice is so rich and musical, I want to jump in and swim in it. A good story well told, no matter what genre, leaves me with a sense of deep joy and the hope that maybe someday I can write like that. Which brings me to:

6. Mastery.
In The Art of Fiction, John Gardner says, “in order to achieve mastery [the student writer] must read widely and deeply . . .” No matter how many books I write, I’ll always be a student of the many writers whose art I admire.

7. Insight.
I also hope a novel touches me on a level deeper than I can analyze. Whether we’re writers or not, maybe the most important question we can ask after reading is one that Timothy Spurgin poses in The Art of Reading: “How has this story exposed me to myself?” (Not a bad question for writers to ask of our own writing.)

8. Enjoyment.
And, yes, I do read simply for escape and enjoyment, even though I can’t help pausing now and then to shake my head and ask, “How could the writer get away with that?” or, more pleasantly, to smile with wonder and say, “Amazing. Look how the writer did that!” So . . .

Happy Reading! Happy Writing!

© 2014 Karyn Henley. All rights reserved. Photo courtesy morguefile.com

file000519366845Balmy summer night, clear starry sky, a short downhill walk from the campus of Vermont College of Fine Arts into downtown Montpelier – small groups of students from the master’s program in writing for children and young adults strolled around town. One night our groups bumped into each other on the steps of the capitol building, some of us with coffee from Capitol Grounds, others with ice cream from Ben and Jerry’s (me). Tobin Anderson, one of the faculty, was with us, and we were all joking and laughing, and he asked us something like, “Do you see certain themes popping up again and again in your writing?” Now in some circles, that question would have shut down the party. For us as writers, it spiked our punch.

My previous blog explored theme from the perspectives of several skilled writers. This blog deals with a caveat: Writing with a theme in mind can be dangerous to your story’s health. I once agreed to critique a novel for a friend who had written his story “to teach young people that . . . ” His novel had become his vehicle for sending a message – frankly, a message no one would want to read even if it had been well written.

“If you want to send a message, use a telegram.” Or “text” in today’s world. That quote is most often attributed to Samuel Goldwyn, but whoever said it was talking about movies. The best movies are never made in order to send a message to the audience. They’re made to entertain. The same goes for novels. That doesn’t mean audiences and readers don’t come away inspired, encouraged, or enlightened, maybe even in life-changing ways. It does mean that the entertainment was rich enough to touch their emotions.

So yes, it’s helpful for a writer to know her theme, even to write with it in mind. But “Unchecked, theme is a bully, a know-it-all. And no one likes to be told what to do,” says Lisa Cron in Wired for Story. “Besides, did you ever go into a bookstore saying to yourself, What I’d really like is a book about survival and how catastrophes bring out the gumption in some and not in others? . . . Or What I’m so in the mood for is a book that is a metaphor for Latin America?” Cron goes on to point out novels with those exact themes: Gone with the Wind and One Hundred Years of Solitude. Neither of which preaches its themes. In fact, readers find several themes in each of those books, none overtly messaged. Readers don’t choose those books for their themes.

For a writer, the difference between theme as bully or friend is the difference between forcing the story to convey a truth and allowing the truth to rise naturally from the story. The bully is didactic: the author makes characters say or do certain things to get a point across. The story usually comes from the mind and avoids deep heart issues, so it feels strained, not natural. It comes off stiff. The message sticks out like a word in red ink on a black and white page. It glares. It’s preachy. And no one wants to be preached at.

But the truth is, you have something to say. You have beliefs. You have opinions. You have viewpoints. All good writers do. So trust the process. If you write from the heart, themes will rise like cream to the top. You may not even be aware of your own themes until you tap into the depths of your heart. You may discover that beliefs you thought you held (mind level) are simply not what you truly believe (heart level). So allowing themes to grow out of a story organically is as much a process of discovery for the writer as for the reader.

There’s nothing wrong with starting with a theme in mind, but if you’re true to story, you’ll hold it with a loose hand. Then read through your rough draft and see what you really wrote. As I said in my previous blog, you can go back in revisions and tweak the story so that those themes you discover echo throughout.

The upshot is: readers don’t want themes screamed in their faces or banged over their heads. They’d rather catch the echoes of theme as they read and then hold on to the themes that resonate with them. After all, our favorite books are the ones in which we catch echoes of our own lives, which means that the author may not even see the theme(s) we readers catch. That’s one thing I love about writing and reading. It is intensely personal, all the way from the level of genre preference down to the intimate tug of an emotional scene.

Meanwhile, back on the steps of the capitol building in Montpelier, that night I was so new to novel writing that I had never really thought about recurring themes, and I had only an inkling of an idea of what mine might be. Eight years later when I had two published novels, I still didn’t know. But now I can look back on the growing body of my work and actually see themes that emerge over and over again. No matter what I write, it seems I circle back to certain themes. I won’t scream them in your face or bang them over your head. Not even here. But if you read my novels and listen closely, you may hear an echo or two.

Happy Reading! Happy Writing!

© 2014 Karyn Henley. All rights reserved. Photo courtesy morguefile.com

file000921414970“Every author has his own way of looking at life. And every author demonstrates it with every story,” says writer David Gerrold. What’s your theme? “is a question every writer should ask: ‘Just why am I writing? What am I saying?”

So what exactly is Theme?

Theme may sound like the grand ballroom of story, and in a way it is. But it’s also “incredibly simple,” says Lisa Cron, author of Wired for Story. Theme is the story’s point. It answers the question, “What does this story say about human nature?”

Robert McKee in Story points out that “Story is a metaphor for life.” He says, “Each tale you create says to the audience: ‘I believe life is like this.” He concludes, “Write only what you believe.” Theme grows out of that belief; “it names a story’s root or central idea.”

Nancy Lamb in The Writer’s Guide to Crafting Stories for Children says theme is transcendent, like the “might of friendship, the transforming power of love, the untapped courage to do what’s right . . . Lots of books have more than one theme,” which “has multiple dimensions and is developed in multiple ways.”

Karl Iglesias in Writing for Emotional Impact says, “Theme is what makes your story universal, and thus emotionally significant.” So “most scenes, characters, dialogue, and images should ideally be a reflection of your theme.”

Which comes first: the story or the theme?

Cron suggests that instead of asking “What’s my theme?” ask, “What’s my point?” Because the point “is what your story is saying, specifically – and that’s what you need to sharpen before you begin writing. You can never get from the universal (aka the theme) to the specific (aka the story itself). Only through the very specific can you reveal a universal truth.” Her rule of thumb is: “Narrative gives birth to theme, not the other way around.”

According to Michael Hauge in Writing Screenplays that Sell, “Theme is the universal statement about the human condition. It’s the writer’s way of saying, ‘This is how to be a better human being.'” He cautions against trying to impose a theme on your story. Instead first develop character motivation, conflict, and plot and “then see what underlying principles come to light.”

So exactly how does a writer discover the theme in a story?

Jane Yolen asks this exact question in Take Joy. “How do you find your theme? You must ask yourself what your story is about. . . . Themes are like old adages: Too many cooks spoil the broth. Don’t count your chickens before they hatch. True even through trite. . . . A trick I use is to write the flap copy for the book in my head as if I were the editor. A line or two that sells the story to the reading public.”

Blake Snyder in Save the Cat points out, “The hero is usually the one who carries the theme . . .” That’s because the hero has the most to lose. She’s the one who grows the most emotionally during the story.

Christopher Vogler gets more specific about how in The Writer’s Journey: “The theme of a story is an underlying statement or assumption about an aspect of life . . . The real theme of the piece may not emerge or announce itself until you have worked with the story for a while, but sooner or later you must become aware of it.” To find your theme, he says ask, “What is the story really about? If you had to boil down its essence to a single word or phrase, what would it be? What single idea or quality is it about? Love? Trust? Betrayal? Vanity? . . . What are you trying to say? Is your theme ‘Love conquers all,’ ‘You can’t cheat an honest man,’ . . . or ‘Money is the root of all evil?'”

So once you discover your theme, then what?

Yolen advises, “Once you have figured out the theme, go back through the story and make sure your characters are truly acting in a way that emphasizes it. But don’t over-do. Being subtle about your characters’ relationship to the theme is actually better than banging your reader over the head with it.”

“Knowing the theme is essential to making the final choices in dialogue, action, and set dressing that turn a story into a coherent design,” says Vogler.

When you know your theme, says Hauge, then “in successive drafts, you can lay in situations, action, description, and dialogue that strengthen the arc and theme you have discovered in your own story.

So theme is your story’s point, and “Your story’s point is your guiding star,” says Cron. It’s “the yardstick by which you can gauge the meaning of everything that happens, and so keep your story on course.”

Happy Reading! Happy Writing!

© 2014 Karyn Henley. All rights reserved. Photo courtesy morguefile.com


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