Tag: awards

Two Honors Classes Prove the Truth about Theme

Two classes of fifteen juniors in high school read the same story and come up with completely different themes for the story. What truth about theme could this possibly prove?

Read on if you haven’t already guesses the answer. (Or scroll to the end if you’re THAT person.)

As an author, I think about theme. I don’t generally think about theme when I’m first drafting a story. At least not in the concrete way English teachers try to teach it.

Since I prefer reading plot driven stories, those are the kind I generally write. Of course, they involve interesting and relatable (I hope) characters who will change, learn and/or grow by the time the plot culminates.

During my rewriting phase is when I ask myself, “What do I want readers to take away from this story?” For me, that is the essence of theme. In the language arts classroom, theme was said to be “the central idea or meaning of a story.”

Doesn’t my definition sound like something a person would actually say? (Could be because I said it.)

On this particular Wednesday, I read the short story “Love in LA” by Dagoberto Gilb (an award winning short story author) to (or with) two different classes of 11th-grade students (mostly girls, by the way).

Jake rear-ends a cute, young babe with his ‘58 Buick. Her brand new (‘93) Toyota doesn’t fare so well. You might think this is a story about these two hitting it off and ending up in love, but this is “Love in L(os) A(ngeles)” so that’s not what happens at all. Instead, she tries to get the information she needs to get her car fixed while Jake tries to get her phone number.

First Period

The lesson for the day was a Socratic Seminar around this story. As the substitute teacher, I was the facilitator, and I had to insert a few more ideas during this class period. It was before 9am, so most teenagers lack full cognitive functioning.

I read the first paragraph (the longest one in the story) and one of the students read the rest. She had a difficult time keeping her eye rolls at bay in some areas. Jake fancies himself to be quite the charmer, but even his target realizes he’s more of a con man.

The first and last paragraphs refer to freedom in contrast to the sticky situation in Los Angeles at that moment, a traffic jam.

After more than 40 minutes of discussing Gilb’s methods of characterization and what the title had to do with the story, the students were asked to write what they believed the theme was. It was like pulling teeth to get someone to have the courage to share theirs.

                    “Freedom doesn’t come without a price.”

Examples from the text supported this idea. Since the first and last paragraphs reiterated the pursuit of freedom as Jake’s main goal, it seemed like a good bet that could have been the “central idea or meaning of the story.”

Fourth Period

This group of all girls came in, energized from the lunch break they’d just had. They were chatty, but not disrespectful and happy to discuss the literature at hand.

After I read the story to them, that is.

This class judged Jake to me having a mid-life crisis (while first period thought he couldn’t have been older than 35). They saw his reliable, old classic car as a symbol for his “old life” as a younger man. His flirtations with a girl they felt was maybe 22 were really his attempt to return to “the good old days.”

In fact, the word freedom was never mentioned until, at the end of class bell, when I told the class what theme first period came up with. And I could hardly contain my grin.

“Sometimes dreams are beyond reach.”

“Sometimes it’s too late to go back to what once was.”

“If you want to reach a goal, you need to do more than dream about it.”

All of these were themes the students tossed around toward the end of our discussion. Furthermore, the evidence they cited in the text supported these as the central idea of the story.

The Truth about Theme

Theme in literature might not be subjective (since the text must prove it) but it is open to interpretation.


At the end of that second great discussion, I wished for Gilb’s phone number or email address. I wanted to ask him if one (or all) of these themes where indeed the meaning he intended to convey with this short story.

Not that it matters. The students had already proven what I’ve always know to be true:
Theme is the meaning the reader gleans from the story.

Yep, it’s not about the author’s intentions at all. Sometimes, readers might discover the truth an author buried in plain sight within a text. Other times, their personal experiences and worldview might glean unintended ideas and meanings.

The long introduction to theme in the lesson plans said, “Although readers may differ in their interpretations of a story that does not mean that any interpretation is valid.” They support this by saying that the statement of theme “should be responsive to the details of the story.” Meaning a reader’s experiences can’t outweigh the actual statements of the text.

One of the girls in the second class said, “Well, that line shoots down my idea.” This when I read one sentence from the text which stated the opposite of what she was sure the author intended to say.

Which of these themes was the one Gilb intended? Or did he have an entirely different meaning behind the writing?

Truthfully, themes are an amazing way to concentrate analysis on a text. However, even in a short tale, there is the possibility that readers will have a takeaway that the writer never intended. Conversely, they might not “get” the point the author hoped to convey.

Is it true that theme is open to interpretation (and thus subject to misinterpretation)?

A Tale of Two Conferences: Comparison Ahead

Willamette Writer’s Conference and Oregon Christian Writer’s Conference are two local writer’s conferences. I attended Willamette Writers in 2014 and 2015. In 2015, I considered attending the OCW Conference instead, but I didn’t have much Christian nonfiction at the time, and that is what the majority of agents and editors were looking to buy.
In 2016, I didn’t attend the conference. I invested the money in an online Scrivener class, several online workshops and to hire a professional to help me find and streamline my brand.
This year, I had the God-given project weighing on me. I knew I wouldn’t get any peace until I consented to write the personal narrative heavy book on dealing with grief.
My brain reminded me about OCW Conference with one simple formula:

Nonfiction + Christian = What You’re Writing

Both conferences had value. Both helped me improve my craft and gain more confidence about my writing.

What’s The Same (Similar)

These two conferences are both for writers and publishing professionals. However, the sponsoring groups represent different segments of the author/publishing world.
Because OCW is an organization of and for Christian writers, the markets they speak to are limited to those publishers with the Christian Book Association. WW is a broader organization that would include Christian writers but not cater to them.
Many aspects were the same:

  • Pre-conference workshop with a publishing professional for an extra charge
  • Numerous sessions addressing various publishing topics
  • Agents and editors available to hear pitches
  • Advance manuscript critiquing services
  • Bookstore
  • Author book signings
  • An Awards program and ceremony

Let me mention that the pitches and critiques at WW Conference cost an additional fee. When I attended, it was $15 per pitching appointment and $40 for a manuscript critique.
The manuscript critique at WW Conference was more thorough and included a 15-minute appointment with the cirtiquer. The manuscript submission program at OCW Conference was presented more as a query and the responses didn’t include markup on every page, just an overview of what was good and what needed work. It might include a 15-minute appointment, at the critiquer’s discretion.

What’s Different

The biggest difference I noticed was the cost. The overall cost of these conferences is about the same. However, with OCW two lunches and two dinners are included in the price. All pitching appointments are also included. There is a $5 per submission handling fee for the manuscript submissions.
At WW, you pay additional for meals, or you plan to eat elsewhere.
Both of these include late night sessions, but I don’t recall feeling tempted to stay over at WW to attend the classes. Those sessions were exactly why I forked out $225 extra for a hotel room at OCW.
However, I sat with the OCW president during the awards dinner and found out a shocking truth. OCW doesn’t pass along the “sticker price” of the conference to conferees. If it did, it would be more expensive than WW.

Instead, they use the entrance fees from the writing contest to offset the difference.

Why would they do this? They don’t want to price the conference out of range for new or struggling writers.
I hope they appreciate it as much as I do. But still, it’s not good business sense. They could pull out the meals (make them extra) and that would make them break even.
The other big differences:

  • The friendliness of the attendees
  • The availability of presenters to answer questions and continue discussions after sessions
  • The 30-minute mentor appointment

Meeting with memoirist Bo Stern for thirty minutes was the second part of the conference that made all the emotional turmoil of rejections and introvert post-conference burnout endurable. She looked at my proposal. She answered every question I presented to her.
Most of all, she was compassionate when I broke down discussing the painful subject matter of my book.
I decided against pitching it to other agents because I knew I would break down again. I didn’t want any “pity requests.” Those would have raised my hopes further so they could be dashed more violently when the rejections came.
What other questions do you have about these two conferences? What else would you like to know about attending writer’s conferences?

My Overall Recommendation

I have to stay with my original assessment. Each conference is aimed at different audiences.
If you’re writing Christian nonfiction, OCW Conference is the place for you. There are workshops, mentors, editors and writers there to help you find your path to publication. If you have a book proposal, there are agents there who want you to pitch to them.
If you’re transitioning between genres, it’s best to look at the individual workshops being offered. Which ones will meet your current needs? Which ones offer information that crosses the boundaries between genres?

  • If you want to talk to professional writers without paying an exorbitant fee: OCW
  • You’re looking for a manuscript critique: OCW (unless your content is totally without Christian worldview)
  • You have general market fiction or nonfiction ready to shop to agents and editors: WW
  • You’d rather have short sessions on a variety of topics than a block of time devoted to a single thing: WW

Do you have specific questions about either conference? Have you attended either conference? If so, would you share your perspective on it?

 

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