K.M. Weiland lives in make-believe worlds, talks to imaginary friends, and survives primarily on chocolate truffles and espresso. She is the award-winning and internationally-published author of Outlining Your Novel, Structuring Your Novel, and Creating Character Arcs. She writes historical and speculative fiction and mentors authors on her award-winning website Helping Writers Become Authors.
K.M. just released her latest book on craft, Writing Your Story’s Theme. Here she discusses the book and the advice she has for new writers working to perfect their skills.
1. Talk a little about Writing Your Story’s Theme. What motivated you to write it and what do you hope authors will gain from it?
In contemplating what writing-craft book I wanted to publish next, I felt like theme was the obvious expansion and next step from the books I’ve already shared on story structure and character arcs. Theme is so inherent in both these subjects and is, in fact, actualized through a proper use of both, and yet it isn’t often drawn to the forefront and discussed in a concrete and practicable way.
2. Theme is the very essence of any story, yet you believe authors too often view it as more of an afterthought. Why do you think this is so?
Foundationally, I believe it is because theme is inherently such an abstract concept. As a result, we have something of a tradition in which writing instructors and masters guide us to avoid consciously implementing theme because they don’t have a clear understanding of how theme emerges within stories. It seems a very nebulous, almost numinous, process. And it is. But story theory has given us clear approaches to both story structure and character arc—and within this process of harmonizing plot and character, we can see how theme itself emerges in a holistic and resonant way. It remains numinous, but becomes less nebulous.
3. You’ve created a number of guides to help authors improve their writing. Where does Writing Your Story’s Theme fit in among the others?
As I said, I feel like it is a natural sequel to the previous guides. I hope it stands alone, but because it builds upon the principles and terms I discuss in Structuring Your Novel and especially Creating Character Arcs, it would be my recommendation to start with those books. They lead right into Writing Your Story’s Theme. (And if you’re only going to read one of the books, I recommend Creating Character Arcs. Once you’re creating solid character arcs, then you’re almost certainly going to be creating solid story structure and theme as well.)
4. Over the years you’ve taught about so many intricate aspects of the writing craft. What are just a few of the most common mistakes new writers make?
For every way there is to do something right, there are many more ways to do it wrong (hence my blog series Most Common Writing Mistakes). The “biggest” mistakes are those that endanger the experience of the entire story:
- Improper structure (especially as it concerns weak or nonexistent major plot points—which should fall at the 25%, 50%, and 75% marks).
- Unlikable characters (usually the result of poor or unclear motivations or flat personalities)
- Weak voice (which usually comes down to bland, personality-less styles and/or too much telling instead of showing)
Those are the major things any author has to ace in a story, but I also see a lot of prevalent basic mistakes on a smaller level. Things like:
- Poor cause and effect in character actions/reactions.
- Passive writing style that utilizes “telling” verbs (such as “he saw” or “he felt”) and passive constructions (such as sentences beginning with “there”).
- Common stylistic mistakes.
- Vague writing (don’t say something was “about five inches,” just say it was “five inches”).
- Too many characters.
And so on.
5. Many writers struggle to improve their skills because they aren’t receptive to constructive criticism. What would your advice be to a writer who is still grappling with this?
My long-term critique partner Linda Yezak once said that, as a writer, you have to “put your ego in your back pocket and sit on it.” More practically, my first bit of advice would be to not to share the story until you’ve finished it. Your insecurities and your “preciousness” about a story will be much more vulnerable before the story is finished. I never share anything I write until the first draft is finished and edited several times, until I feel the story is as good as I make it on my own. This means I’m much less defensive about criticisms when I do send it out.
After that, who says you have to accept criticism? Only you. If you want the story to improve, then learning to benefit from objective feedback (and to distinguish the good from the bad) is crucial. But if you’re happy with the story the way it is, there’s nothing wrong with that—as long as you realize it may never go any farther. The willingness to accept constructive criticism is ultimately a matter of how badly you want the story to succeed with a larger audience. Every author must seriously consider their own personal goals for a story and their own personal idea of success.
6. Where can readers learn more about you and your work?