Sumerian Kings and the Birth of Divine Privilege

The quest for immortality is a theme for much of Sumerian literature, best illustrated in the epic of Gilgamesh, but present in many forms in other texts. Immortality has always been a human obsession, of course. What interests me about Sumerian culture is what it reveals about the human mind at the onset of civilization, and in this particular blog, when and how began the notion of a “king” (or “queen”) as an entity with divine powers with a birthright to rule.

When and why did humans begin to entertain the notion that some humans are more special than others and entitled to have life and death power over the lives of others? While most of us take the idea of royalty for granted, the shift that historically took place from showing respect and obedience to those whose leadership was earned, and ascribing a “divine right to rule” to kings as a birthright, with all the accompanying petty privileges that come along with that birthright, is not quite so obvious, at least not to me.

I do not yet have an answer, but some clues can be found in Sumerian culture. The ideas discussed in this blog are extracted from a scholarly article by Gebhard J. Selz titled “THE TABLET WITH HEAVENLY WRITING’ OR HOW TO BECOME A STAR.”

Selz makes a persuasive case that the interests that third millennium Sumerians took in astronomy also reflected the Sumerian people’s beliefs that the cosmos (the stars, the constellations, etc.) was a “tablet” upon which the gods wrote not just their decrees but also the destiny of especially worthy people. Unlike tablets of clay, the sky tablet was indestructible. Therefore, to have one’s deeds written in the cosmos would ensure an immortal presence in the recorded history of the heavens.

The different stars and their arrangements in a constellation were presumed to be the gods’ equivalent of the Sumerian people’s cuneiform writing. That some tablets were made of lapis lazuli with specks of pyrite may suggest an attempt to symbolize or emulate the blue of the heavens and the sparkle of stars of that permanent written record that is the cosmos.

Aware of their mortality and fearing being forgotten, kings aspired to become stars, and/or to have their deeds recorded in the cosmos. This explains why the sign to indicate divinity (dingir) was a star appearing before the name, and why some mortal kings took on that designation after their death. As Selz puts it, “‘becoming a star’ means therefore that these kings became part of the divine cosmic world order.”

Similar to the beliefs of the ancient Egyptians, funerary rituals for at least some Sumerian kings involved a journey from earth to heaven, with ceremonies that involved sailed “heavenly” boats, or ritualistically releasing a caged bird. Presumably, upon death, with the blessings of the gods, third-millennium kings had the opportunity to become astral bodies while simultaneously living out eternity as ghosts in the underworld.

Entering one’s name into the permanent record of the gods in the form of a star would naturally lead to a strong and uncontested cultural association with privilege and with divine power. It’s easy to see how only kings or extremely influential people would have the means to make such involved post-mortuary arrangements, moreover. The leap that kingship took from respected and honored leader to divinely-appointed ruler with nearly limitless power over others becomes a bit clearer in this light.

Winter Sale – Free Shipping on After Life as a Human

Hey there, just wanted to let everyone know that as part of a Winter Sale, my publisher, Rain Chain Press, is offering FREE SHIPPING on my book, After Life as a Human.

Advance Praise for After Life as a Human

“In Laura Valeri’s new and beautifully-written collection of linked essays, she transports us to Dog Island, a remote paradise-of-sorts, seeking solitude and peace amid the undisturbed flora and fauna.  Braiding lyrical travelogue and Dillard-esque meditation, and filtered through interrogations into history and mythology, After Life as a Human becomes a profound engagement of the rapaciousness of late-stage capitalism, and the delicacy of a natural world threatened by industry and climate change.  Valeri’s powers of observation and environmental responsibility are on full display, and they accumulate here into a Walden for the 21st century.”

-Matthew Gavin Frank, author of Flight of the Diamond Smugglers: A Tale of Pigeons, Obsession, and Greed Along Coastal South Africa

“Looking for refuge where people “let down by the rat race could get some quiet time for reflection,” Laura Valeri and her husband Joel rent a cottage on remote, primeval Dog Island, home to ten humans and two dogs. With a journalist’s observational skills and the heart of a poet, she paints a stark and lovely portrait of a Gulf Coast wilderness few of us will ever see. The story engrosses us with funny accounts of pelicans, the “street kids” of seabirds. It stuns us with a litany of devastating storms. It touches us with an aching meditation on the death of a loon. After Life as a Human is a timely, vital contemplation of the mutability of the wild and our own frail impermanence.”

James Lough – author of This Ain’t No Holiday Inn

“Laura Valeri is writing about one of my favorite places on earth, the wild and deeply storied Gulf Coast of Florida. Here she describes — in scenic, confident, and refreshingly honest prose — falling in love with a place that is on the front lines of the climate crisis. The book is at once about love, grief, and the transformation that happens when one’s heart opens to wildness.”

Janisse Ray – author of Ecology of a Cracker Childhood

“This compact and lyrical book allows the reader to join Valeri on a remote getaway to Dog Island, a personal journey that highlights the fragility and enduring impact of the coast as its future shifts before our eyes.” 

Sonya Huber – author of Pain Woman Takes Your Keys

Reading Backward (to trick my brain)

Writers read, all the time. People who want to write should start by reading. There is no better way to learn than to read.

I’ve met many people who love writing but say that they don’t love reading. I admit it: at one point, this would have been me. I discovered, however, that there were three factors that were preventing me from enjoying reading, which is what I am sharing here, and what I share with my students.

The three factors were: 1. I had severe astigmatism, beyond what contact lenses can correct, and what most glasses can only address at a functional level, which made reading, especially small print books, an onerous effort of energy and concentration; 2. The only books I had been exposed to as a teen were books that were assigned for school, some which I enjoyed but most that I did not, leading to my associating the reading with grades, assignments, and the headache I’d get for trying to read the small print; 3. Most importantly, I have ADHD, which went undiagnosed until just recently, and which compounded problems 1 and 2.

Now I read a lot. I am a very slow reader, but also a very careful reader. So, while I may not “devour” books like some people I know, I read all the time.

So, what changed?

  1. Technology: Many people I speak to say that they prefer to read in print. I’m not one of those. Since the invention of the Kindle, my reading has skyrocketed in quantity and quality. I make the print as large as children’s books (my husband makes fun of me for that), and I zip through 500-page tomes like I’m going through a bag of chips.
  2. Wisdom & Flexibility: I wanted to tell stories and I knew that I could not do it if I didn’t also read stories. I soon realized that I had a “taste” and that I could read outside of what I was assigned in school. I’m a finicky reader even to this day, but I have expanded my reading to include the highly literary to the so-called “commercial”: I feel comfortable in both camps and everywhere in between.
  3. Method: As I said, I was not officially diagnosed with ADHD until just recently. I was informally diagnosed a few years ago, by a hearing doctor who figured out that I could not “hear” what people said if I was in a crowd not because there was anything wrong with my hearing but because my brain was not wired to process simultaneous conversations. However, I was not treated for this issue until just last year. The lines doctors gave me: “you’ve made it this far without pharmaceuticals, so why start now?” Of course, doing without also meant that what took my colleagues an hour to complete, it took me three or four, and more disadvantages than I care to enumerate, but I did develop some methods on my own to help me cope with the problem of a brain that hates to pay attention and/or that pays too much attention to one thing and one thing only.

Here are my weird methods for reading if you suffer from ADHD:

  1. Skip to the last page (but go back to read the rest later). This may seem counterintuitive but if I start to worry that the lovers will never see each other again or that the killer may never be caught, I cannot focus on my reading. I read the last page of a book – and only the last page – where I usually get enough clues (e.g. name of a character, meaning he/she is not dead at the end) to relax and enjoy the story without rushing. I can then enjoy the details, including the language, Weirdly, for me, if I know how it ends, I can relax and enjoy every word, and every nuanced moment. I also like to “guess” as I read, how we get to that last page, so I do this even if the book I’m reading doesn’t have a mystery or other suspenseful element.
  2. Read backward. This works only with short pieces. If I’m reading and I get that ADHD sensation of impatience, which is something like feeling extremely hot and itchy and unable to make the lines stop moving, then I go to the last paragraph and I read that. Then I move up to the one to the last, etc. until I meet up again with the paragraph that I abandoned one or two pages into. I don’t know why this works for me, but it does. Maybe it’s because I am forced to guess how the pieces fit together, and maybe that challenge is enough to switch my brain mode from “let’s look at everything that is in this room except this thing you are doing right now” to “let’s look at this thing and at this thing only.” I don’t know. When I tell people I read backward they think it’s weird and start to back away slowly, but on any given day, I read at least six or seven “short” stories, essays, journal articles, etc. outside of the grading I do for my schoolwork, and this method helps me stay focused, absorb the material, and keep going. It’s not all the time, of course, only when I am having a particularly difficult day, but it does help.

Why Would You Even Want to Be a Writer?

When I first started teaching creative writing, most of my students had the impression that publishing a novel would immediately lead to instant fame and money, and that it would be easy to become a world-famous novelist. The toughest part about teaching back then was to lower their expectations and to balance the bummer pecuniary reality of writing creatively with the upside of it: that writing can be a lot of fun.

These days the attitude is completely reversed. While the myth persists that writing creatively is easy, most of my students do not look at writing as a viable career at all. Intro creative writing classes still fill, but most of my students are merely curious, interested in exploring a different way to write. They are not at all interested in writing book-length works. We continue in extreme perceptions, however. Those who do major in writing find themselves constantly having to justify their choice, even though writing skills are the most sought after in this market’s economy.

To be clear: there are lots of jobs for writers. Lots. It’s just that those jobs are likely not going to be about writing novels or short stories and poems.

If you’re already an author, it’s likely that you know how difficult it is today not just to “break” into the industry, but also to stay in the industry, once you’ve published that first book, especially if that first one wasn’t a bestseller. Even writers whose books sell relatively well don’t earn enough to live off their writing alone, at least none that I know, and I know a lot of writers. While the J.K. Rowlings of the world are getting rarer, most writers have traditionally relied on academic careers to keep them afloat, but those positions are also becoming ever more rare and difficult to obtain due to budget cuts to education and an emphasis on STEM. They also don’t pay very well and though rewarding in other ways, they often can make overwhelming demands on a writer’s time and creative energy, in many cases, significantly slowing down a writer’s creative output.

So why be a writer at all?

I address this question with my students. They pay tuition or even if they’re on financial aid, they make sacrifices to stay in school and juggle work and family, so they deserve an honest answer. As I said, there are lots of jobs for writers, and if you can learn to write creatively, the skills that you pick up in a creative writing class will apply across the board to every type of writing you will ever do. I have written quite a lot of different things. Nothing exhausts me and exhilarates me as much as writing creative works. Nothing challenges the mind quite in the same way – and that challenge is tough training that will repay with skillsets. However, job skills cannot be the only reason to write creatively, at least not for the long term.

When I talk to my students about that state of “flow” that I sometimes get into, particularly when I’m writing a longer work, they look at me like I’m discussing Voodoo or religious ecstasy and screw their faces with skepticism. Some of them have experienced it, and that’s why they’re in my class in the first place, but some of them have not. Not yet. They don’t believe me when I tell them it’s like falling in love.

One of the most satisfying moments in my teaching is when I meet one of my formerly skeptical students in the hallway midsemester, and they are wondering around, their eyes unfocused, involved in their own intense mindstream. They slow to an amble when they recognize me, and without greeting they say something to the effect of, “All I care about is my novel, now. I don’t want to do anything else. I just want to write.”

It’s not like that all the time, of course. There are times when writing feels like it’s laying bricks. I also know friends who have published many books with reputable publishers who lose that sense of flow. On the phone, I find myself having to remind them: “If you’re not having fun anymore, then why do it?”

Usually something is getting in their way: their agent is making too many demands; their editor’s vision and sense of aesthetics do not match their own. And then of course, there are bad reviews and internet trolls, making writers feel like the months or even years they spent inside a cramped office, sacrificing time with their family or more lucrative opportunities to support themselves was all just so they could be humiliated publicly by strangers.

The challenges that writers encounter professionally can really obstruct that sense of personal satisfaction, wonder, and discovery that made them become writers in the first place.

But for as long as there is that hope that the “flow” may surprise us today as we sit at our “job” – for as long as there is the possibility that I will look up from my desk and realize that twelve hours have passed and I’ve forgotten to eat and brush my teeth, but I feel like I’ve just emerged from having been underwater, exploring Atlantis, I will continue to want to be a writer. I believe it is so for my friends as well. Many of us are writers because, well, because it’s what gives us purpose. What else would we do?

Back on the Blog

I’ve taken a long hiatus from blogging, and I also have a new website, which is part of the reason I have not been “present” on my blog – I wanted to figure out whether I wanted to keep the site as it is or even keep it at all. I also wanted to try a different look.

I have such limited time to write that I often do not prioritize blogging enough. Nonetheless, I am making a promise to myself to blog more, in the hope of interesting those who are still subscribed (thank you!) and to keep in touch with readers of my books for those “behind the scene” glimpses that I think some may enjoy.

Some news: my new book about Dog Island is in press with an independent Florida publisher. COVID19 has thrown a wrench into the publication date, which was supposed to be this past March of 2020. Right now, things are a bit in limbo, but it’s coming soon. The Italian version of the book is still going strong.

I’m reposting some pictures of the island that I took when I went back in 2018, years from my initial visit. We did not stay in the same house as the first time, and it was after hurricane Michael had devastated the island, but long enough after the cleanup that we were able to experience the same pristine Dog Island I remembered from 2016.

Enjoy.

#GIVEAWAY- Interview – Review – The Dead Still Here by Laura Valeri

Thanks to Author’s Guide for posting a review of my book and give away.

Source: #GIVEAWAY- Interview – Review – The Dead Still Here by Laura Valeri

#GIVEAWAY- Interview – Review – The Dead Still Here by Laura Valeri

Folks who know me know I love indie authors and when ever I get the chance to promote one I do. Fans of short stories be prepared to be wowed by this talented wordsmith. Laura’s publicist, Author/Guide is sponsoring a #Giveaway of an autographed copy, details below.
Enjoy!

ISBN-13: 978-1622881802

Publisher: Stephen F. Austin University Press

Release Date: 6-5-2018

Length: 120pp

Buy It: Amazon/B&N/IndieBound

ADD TO: GOODREADS

Overview:

Mapping stories set in Europe and America, The Dead Still Here skillfully paces through eleven short stories about friends-with-benefits typed relationships, vicious divorces and thievery, the loss of a child, the loss of a mother, and the Coast Guard and the Navy rescuing refugees from a bad storm at sea. Laura Valeri writes one single breathtaking sentence about sex, Dear John emails, and Christmas presents in “Liabilities of a Love Misguided” and vividly recreates that sharp sense of self-consciousness in “What They Know.” Along with characters that are irrevocably locked in their heads, Valeri includes a guide on how to take medication in “Prescription for Life,” which subtly points to the other hallucinatory narratives. This collection is at once provocative and lucid, and it offers various angles of characters looking for a relationship to hold.

Giveaway is for one autographed copy of

The Dead Still Here

US ONLY

Please Use Rafflecopter form to enter

Good Luck!

My Review:

The Dead Still Here

Laura Valeri

The Dead Still Here is a collection of twelve powerful short stories, every one about connections, relationships and love but not the happily ever after kind running the gamut from unnerving to scary and heartbreaking to bitter. The characters are all originals some frightening some fearful some neurotic, some realistic and some illogical. Featuring husbands and wives, parents and children, friends, lovers and strangers about loss, addiction, obsession, delusion and faith. All brutally honest and personal to this masterfully shrewd author who uses her incredibly inventive voice to tell these tales with hints of Edgar Allan Poe, Ray Bradbury and Tennessee Williams. Short story fans will find no better than this small but mighty book.

My Interview with Laura:

Laura welcome to The Reading Frenzy.

Tell my readers about The Dead Still here.
Thank you, I’m glad to be here.

The Dead Still Here is my latest collection of short stories. I wrote the stories over a period of several years, and every story had a different inspiration behind it, but if I had to say what connects every piece in the collection it’s that in some way or another each one examines a different aspect of how people engage with the past, how the people, things, and situations we leave behind stay with us. For some of the stories the past that hangs over the characters is people they’ve lost, family members that are no longer in their lives, but for others it’s more complicated, it’s about changes in their lives or in their health, or in their sense of self, some new situation that somehow challenges how they are used to processing life.  Some of the stories are fun, though – there are surprises in there, unexpected turns, and a little humor.

You know that Chinese curse, “may you live in interesting times.” Well, we definitely live in interesting times, what with the technological advances that have happened in just the last few decades, but also with all the politics, the refugee crisis, terrorism, climate change — all that hovering over our heads every minute of the day. I think about how fast our sense of “normal” changes from year to year, sometimes from month to month, and I do think a lot about how different my parents’ world was, and then their parents’ — and because I teach, I can compare that to my students’ world.  When I was doing the final edits for this book,  I came across an article about a village in Indonesia where the people dig up the corpses of their dead every few years or so. They dress them up with new clothes, make them a big dinner, even take their corpses for a walk, then sit them in a room to talk, catch up with the family. At first I thought, this is crazy, but then it made me think about the difficulties we have in the west when it comes to paying heed to the past, honoring where we come from, or even accepting death and acknowledging our connection to the dead. It may sound crazy to have tea with your great great grandfather who passed away two decades ago, but maybe it’s crazier to do what we do, to bury our dead and move on as if their presence doesn’t still pervade everything that we think and do from day to day. To pretend that all that’s in the past can stay in the past — maybe that’s a modern western delusion. The characters in my stories have to face changes that they can’t control, and past losses that still create situations for them in their present circumstances.  So that’s how I came up with the title. It seemed fitting.

I read your story on your website, what a tale! You could write a memoir and it would be stranger than fiction. From a twelve-year-old Italian immigrant who suffered bullies and bias to a Lowcountry college professor. 

Wow, just Wow!

It’s a shame that your pen had to become a sword against bigotry but it sounds like it also saved you.

Was there one event or incident that put you on the writing path?

More on Author’s Guide: click on the link for more: #GIVEAWAY- Interview – Review – The Dead Still Here by Laura Valeri

#GIVEAWAY- Interview – Review – The Dead Still Here by Laura Valeri

Thanks to Author’s Guide for posting a review of my book and give away.

Source: #GIVEAWAY- Interview – Review – The Dead Still Here by Laura Valeri

#GIVEAWAY- Interview – Review – The Dead Still Here by Laura Valeri

Folks who know me know I love indie authors and when ever I get the chance to promote one I do. Fans of short stories be prepared to be wowed by this talented wordsmith. Laura’s publicist, Author/Guide is sponsoring a #Giveaway of an autographed copy, details below.
Enjoy!

ISBN-13: 978-1622881802
Publisher: 
Stephen F. Austin University Press
Release Date: 6-5-2018
Length: 120pp
Buy It: Amazon/B&N/IndieBound


ADD TO: GOODREADS

Overview:

Mapping stories set in Europe and America, The Dead Still Here skillfully paces through eleven short stories about friends-with-benefits typed relationships, vicious divorces and thievery, the loss of a child, the loss of a mother, and the Coast Guard and the Navy rescuing refugees from a bad storm at sea. Laura Valeri writes one single breathtaking sentence about sex, Dear John emails, and Christmas presents in “Liabilities of a Love Misguided” and vividly recreates that sharp sense of self-consciousness in “What They Know.” Along with characters that are irrevocably locked in their heads, Valeri includes a guide on how to take medication in “Prescription for Life,” which subtly points to the other hallucinatory narratives. This collection is at once provocative and lucid, and it offers various angles of characters looking for a relationship to hold.

Giveaway is for one autographed copy of
The Dead Still Here
US ONLY
Please Use Rafflecopter form to enter
Good Luck!

My Review:

The Dead Still Here
Laura Valeri

The Dead Still Here is a collection of twelve powerful short stories, every one about connections, relationships and love but not the happily ever after kind running the gamut from unnerving to scary and heartbreaking to bitter. The characters are all originals some frightening some fearful some neurotic, some realistic and some illogical. Featuring husbands and wives, parents and children, friends, lovers and strangers about loss, addiction, obsession, delusion and faith. All brutally honest and personal to this masterfully shrewd author who uses her incredibly inventive voice to tell these tales with hints of Edgar Allan Poe, Ray Bradbury and Tennessee Williams. Short story fans will find no better than this small but mighty book.

My Interview with Laura:

Laura welcome to The Reading Frenzy.

Tell my readers about The Dead Still here.
Thank you, I’m glad to be here.

The Dead Still Here is my latest collection of short stories. I wrote the stories over a period of several years, and every story had a different inspiration behind it, but if I had to say what connects every piece in the collection it’s that in some way or another each one examines a different aspect of how people engage with the past, how the people, things, and situations we leave behind stay with us. For some of the stories the past that hangs over the characters is people they’ve lost, family members that are no longer in their lives, but for others it’s more complicated, it’s about changes in their lives or in their health, or in their sense of self, some new situation that somehow challenges how they are used to processing life.  Some of the stories are fun, though – there are surprises in there, unexpected turns, and a little humor.

You know that Chinese curse, “may you live in interesting times.” Well, we definitely live in interesting times, what with the technological advances that have happened in just the last few decades, but also with all the politics, the refugee crisis, terrorism, climate change — all that hovering over our heads every minute of the day. I think about how fast our sense of “normal” changes from year to year, sometimes from month to month, and I do think a lot about how different my parents’ world was, and then their parents’ — and because I teach, I can compare that to my students’ world.  When I was doing the final edits for this book,  I came across an article about a village in Indonesia where the people dig up the corpses of their dead every few years or so. They dress them up with new clothes, make them a big dinner, even take their corpses for a walk, then sit them in a room to talk, catch up with the family. At first I thought, this is crazy, but then it made me think about the difficulties we have in the west when it comes to paying heed to the past, honoring where we come from, or even accepting death and acknowledging our connection to the dead. It may sound crazy to have tea with your great great grandfather who passed away two decades ago, but maybe it’s crazier to do what we do, to bury our dead and move on as if their presence doesn’t still pervade everything that we think and do from day to day. To pretend that all that’s in the past can stay in the past — maybe that’s a modern western delusion. The characters in my stories have to face changes that they can’t control, and past losses that still create situations for them in their present circumstances.  So that’s how I came up with the title. It seemed fitting.

I read your story on your website, what a tale! You could write a memoir and it would be stranger than fiction. From a twelve-year-old Italian immigrant who suffered bullies and bias to a Lowcountry college professor. 
Wow, just Wow!

It’s a shame that your pen had to become a sword against bigotry but it sounds like it also saved you.

Was there one event or incident that put you on the writing path?

More on Author’s Guide: click on the link for more: #GIVEAWAY- Interview – Review – The Dead Still Here by Laura Valeri

What Kind of (Fiction) Writer Are You?

I wrote this for a textbook in progress, as a preamble to start a discussion on plot, and I’m not sure I want to include it. So here I am posting this, hoping whomever reads it can leave me feedback and let me know what they think. Did you learn something? Is this obvious? Too verbose? Disagree with some assertions? Love any kind of advice you have.

What kind of writer are you?

 

Premise First:

What’s Your Story About?

For premise-first writers, the answer will be something like, “It’s about a world where people are pressured to commit suicide once they reach the age of 37,” or, “It’s about a world ruled by cats,” “about a people struggling under an insane dictatorship,” or “about a family falling apart.”

How do you define Premise?

A premise is the situation which generates a story. When you hear any one of those story ideas, you could imagine a number of different exciting stories taking place.  In a world ruled by cats, you may write about an Alpha cat losing his nerve in a particularly gruesome mouse hunt and becoming the Zeta cat, or you may decide to tell a story about a domestic cat who seduces the daughter of a very important street cat, who doesn’t think the house pet worthy of his daughter and tries to get it killed. A premise is the world, the madness, the problem or the dysfunction that gives rise to a story or plot, and it is absolutely essential to begin building a plot and story, but a premise is a wide open field, it is a starting point for a plot, one that can present many alluring possibilities, although it’s not yet a plot.

What this says about you:

Premise is one of the great jewels of story brainstorming, and writers who are premise-driven are highly imaginative and innovative.

Writers who think premise first have an advantage over other writers in that they begin with compelling situations that often stimulate exciting and innovative plots, but a premise will only take a writer so far in determining a plot or story.

Many talented premise-driven writers can easily craft a story out of a premise, but some of those just starting out often have a hard time making the difficult transition between premise and story.  Premise-driven writers still have a lot of work to do before they get to plot.  They will have to move beyond the world-building phase, or the staging phase of their ideas into far more complex and concrete situations.

The risk of planning a story around a premise is that a writer may get stuck in world-building or situation (“the great war” or “the world ruled by cats”) enamored by the possibilities an interesting world can present, but unable to focus on one character’s journey that best exploits the premise and best gifts the reader a larger sense of meaning.  If you are a premise-first writer, congratulations. You are highly imaginative and able to explore places and ideas others cannot even conceive.

However, don’t get overconfident: make sure that you know how to best represent your premise through a character and a solid plot. You may have a tendency to avoid committing to any one story, or else you may often change your mind, starting something new before you’ve completed the last project. Be aware of the need to move into specifics as you allow your mind to explore.

 

Theme First:

What’s Your Story About?

For theme-driven writer, the answer will sound something like, “it’s about forgiveness,” “it’s about love conquers all,” or “it’s about how family comes first,” or “its about the evils of dictatorships/military/dogma/etc….”

How do you define theme?

Themes are the unifying, underlying, overall guiding principle of the story, the cornerstone value or moral question upon which the characters test themselves and meet their triumphs or failures.  It is important that a story develop a theme: without a theme, a story runs the risk of being only an anecdote, an interesting situation that we might tell each other to pass the time.  Theme is what makes a story valuable; it is that feeling of having gained something after having invested time and effort into reading it.  As you write your story, a theme or themes may emerge naturally, as theme tend to be the reason we think about a story to begin with.

Notwithstanding, it is important to remember that theme is not the same as plot.  Relying on theme to approach a story idea may lead the writer to be unable to progress from very generic intentions into specific ideas.  Often, it is better to think of a plot first, then to adapt the plot into a theme, as we shall see.

What this says about you:

If you are a theme-first type of writer, you have big ideas, the kind that have earned accomplished writers prizes and recognition.  Theme-first writers are writers able to change the world through their words. They are not afraid of exploring complex moral situations or illustrating current social or political dysfunctions through fiction.

Themes don’t explain what the story is about, however. What they do is emphasize what a reader may end up taking away after reading the story.  Writers who default to theme are often stimulated by an abstract idea: their first spark of inspiration comes from a generic value that they would like to explore or exalt through a story, but in confusing theme with story and plot, they may be unable to translate their intentions to a narrative.

Learn to transform each of those large, abstract concepts by transferring them to specific people in specific situations and you may very well have an important writing career ahead of you.

 

Structure First:

What’s Your Story About?

Some writers will begin to think about a story in terms of how it is organized on the page. Some example of this would be the writer who says, “I will be telling a story about a dog’s service training as told or seen from a dog’s point of view,” or the writer who says, “I’m writing a romance that will start from the end of the romance and move backwards in time, chapter by chapter.”

How do you define Structure?

Structure is the overall design of a story, the way in which the work is presented to the reader. Structure is extraordinarily important to plot, as structure is what enables the reader to understand the plot, but structure is also definitely subordinate to plot, and must be considered only after a writer has at least a somewhat solid idea of what the plot of her story will be about.

What this says about you:

Writers who being to contemplate story through structure tend to be ambitious and driven, but they also set up for themselves tremendously high stakes, often putting the cart before the horses. They are trying to determine how a story will be laid out before they know what their story will be about.  It’s a little like laying out the plans for a building before knowing if it will be a library or a residence, a workout place or a school theatre. A solid structure will need to take into consideration what aspects of a story need to be emphasized, and when things like twists, clues and character-determining scenes must be presented.  The risk of envisioning a story through its structure is that the work may end up becoming a gimmick to elevate a technique over content.

If you’re a structure-first writer, you will most likely write complex narratives of the kind that will let readers think about how you pulled it off long after they have completed reading your work, but you must learn to first prioritize plot and content in order to best serve your talents.

 

Action First:

What’s your story about?

When asked to describe what they’re working on, action-driven writers will go into great particulars similar to this: “Alhak is an orphan boy who weighs 149 lbs and is 6.2 feet tall and has blue eyes and red hair and a birthmark on his chin and is the last in a lineage of ancient warrior, but was abandoned and doesn’t know it. One day he wakes up in a prison without knowing how he got there and has to fight a big dragon which he can do because he knows a very little known type of fighting called kug-tau, a type of fighting that only X-class warriors know, but he dreams about learning kug-tau and wakes up in prison and he fights the dragon and puts out the beast’s eyes, but those eyes give the stable boy magic powers, so he breaks out of the underground cave by hypnotizing the guards with the dragons’ eyes…”

How do you define Action?

Simply stated, action is what a character does: it’s the battle scene, the love scene, the rape and pillage scene, the he-sad-she-said dialog and the slap in the face that follows. Action is easily confused with plot because every plot has to have action.  However, action in itself is only a part of the equation of elements that makes up a fully-realized plot.

What this says about you:

If theme-driven writers are able to envision the big picture, action-driven writers are the opposite: they are great with the details, able to visualize every last facial expression, item of clothing and tone of voice in a narrative.

Action-first writers have several advantages: they are often prolific and immersive, able to render eye-popping details, emotional moments, and exciting dramatic action, but when they begin to dream a story, they should be less reliant on the specifics, and try to push themselves beyond, to the big picture, to the character’s internal journey and his/her change in the end.

The risk of working on action before having an idea of plot is to be stuck on a flat line of exciting dramatic moments that, nonetheless, lead nowhere.  These types of writers may end up writing hundreds and hundreds of pages, only to realize belatedly that their story has no objective: it starts out exciting and full of energy, but it soon becomes an endless stream of drama-pact scenes that leads to no conclusion, and no resolution.

Like playing a video game, the writer has fallen in love with specific moments of action, but, though they may envision temporary twists and drama-pact moments, they are unable to make each of those actions lead to any real climax or meaning.

 

Story First:

What’s your story about?

Story-driven writers, when asked what they are working on, may say something like, “I’m writing about a kid who survives a cult,” or, “it’s about the rise to fame of the cartoonist who first invented the Simpsons.” Notice that these answers are both specific and vague: we get a definitive sense of what the subject of the writing will be, but we don’t necessarily see very clearly how it would play out.

How do you define Story?

Story is one of the trickiest literary to explain with relations to plot, and the most confusing, as it must be explained in terms of plot in order for it to be understood as different from it.  We will go into more details in the next section about how story differs from plot, and how plot hinges on but also differs from the other elements of theme, premise, structure, and action, but, for the time being, we distinguish between a story-first writer and a plot-first writer by hazarding this simple definition of plot vs. story: story is about what happens, whereas plot is the “angle” the writer takes on what happens, a slant that emphasize whichever aspect of the story the writer finds most important or fascinating.  Often the angle is often directly related to the main character, to something that the writer finds most compelling about him or her.

What this says about you:

Like “theme-first” writers, the “story-first” writers are writers who often envision the “big picture” of a narrative, imagining, for instance, the broad course of a life lived, or the evolution of a particular historical event.  This kind of writer has the instinct to start from the actual heart of what their writing will show, the experience that will dominate the narrative, although they may lack at first the specific approach that will organize the story into a flowing narrative.

Story-first writers have a very good innate sense of how narratives are born: they have a tendency to begin by doing a lot of research on the subject and may even have a general chronology of their protagonist’s life, filled with significant events and pivotal moments. Story-first writers are often organized and visionary. They are not afraid to take on large subjects.  If they run any risk by putting story-first is that they may end up having a difficult time writing focused narratives. They may have a tendency to digress, or to emphasize too many important details, to let their story run on in too many directions, or to focus too much on research and not enough on an exciting rising and falling narrative arc.

Story-first writers are very similar to Plot-First writers. They are able to envision enough detail to see the purpose and end of their story, to know what they will need to focus on.  Story-first writers have to learn to develop an angle that will enable them to let their narratives become more than just reports and elevate them into originality and freshness.  More specifically, they will need to focus on their character’s arc, also known as the character’s internal journey, as that will determine the focus or slant that the story will take.

 

Character First: 

What’s your story about?

I often begin thinking about a story by thinking about a certain type of character that intrigues me, either because I don’t understand how he or she could be that way, or because I am attracted to the kind of lifestyle choices that character is capable of making.  My story ideas will usually sound something like this: “It’s about a man who keeps on running away from the consequences of his actions, solving every problem by moving to another city,” or “It’s about a woman who lets her romantic fantasies and her loneliness obfuscate the real nature of the men she draws into her life.”

How do you define Character?

The question should not be so much how we define character as how we define it in contrast to story and plot. Starting with a character feels natural to many writers, as characters, after all, are central to all stories: they are the reason we want to read in the first place, and theirs are the actions and choices that push the story forward.  It is healthy and advisable for every writer to begin any plot quest with a close study of their protagonist, since whatever action takes place in your story will largely depend on your character’s personality, desires, and motivations. Notice, however, that the story ideas exemplified above are still quite a distance away from being plots: the story of a man who literary runs from his consequences could take shape in an innumerable ways.  He could have left behind a pregnant girl, or run away from his family when he found out his wife had cancer, or from his job when he was caught stealing, or he could be about a soldier who defected. Moreover, what happens after he runs away? Will the story continue on with the man running from one situation to another forever?

What this says about you:

Thinking in “character-first” bodes well because plot and character are so closely intertwined as to be nearly indistinguishable: it is usually a character’s flaw and his or her need to address or confront that flaw that drives a plot, but character, while being plot’s major component, needs to be matched with conflict and action before there can be plot.

Character-first driven writers understand instinctually the role that a character’s psychological makeup plays on the action of a story. The advantage of a character-first writer is that they are likely to write profound narratives that ring true whether they are set in our everyday world or on Mars in 2035.

Some writers, however, become too obsessed with their characters and are unable to move past their interior explorations, creating scene after scene that highlights the characters’ personality, flaws, desires, etc. but flat-lining the narrative to reach no satisfying denouement and conclusion. The risk they run is allowing the exploration of the character’s interior spaces to overrun their stories, creating compelling character sketches rather than fully realized plots.

 

Plot First:

What is your story about?

If the answer to the question sounds something like, “A man whose fifth marriage has just fallen apart sets on a mission to reconnect with each of his past wives, intent on finding the answer to his failure in relationships,” or something like, “after the death of her child, a woman makes an unusual connection with an eccentric widow next door who teaches her about healing and hope,” – if that is how you would answer a question about your story in progress, then you are instinctively a plot-first writer.

How do you define Plot?

The 20th century novelist E.M. Forster once exemplified the difference between plot and story with the following two pithy lines:

Story: “The king died, and then the queen died.”

Plot: “The king died, and then the queen died of grief.”

The difference between the first and second line is that the second line gives us an “angle’ from which to approach the story, a motivation for one of the two great dramatic events that will color how the reader will experience the story.  Plot then is how the story unfolds in terms of character motivations and desires, and it explains and organizes a story in terms of causality.

Notice that each of the ideas expressed in answer to “what’s your story about?” helps the reader visualize not only a premise or situation and a character with a problem, but also a likely trajectory for how the story will unfold. It suggests a movement from problem (failure of a marriage, death of a child) to resolution (gained inner wisdom, healing through friendship). Each answer even suggests a theme and structure. It certainly does reveal some of the most basic traits of the protagonist: we are likely dealing with a self-sabotaging but charming and seductive bad boy in the first (one does not lure five would-be brides to church without possessing considerable charm), and a grief-stricken insulated woman in the next (if the eccentric widow is her best bet for healing, it’s likely the woman has sealed herself off from family and from authentic, close friendships).

What this says about you:

The beauty of a plot-first writing approach is that, if one does it right, that first simple sentence defining a story idea will do the hard work of laying out a blueprint, leaving the writer to have fun with the details and avoid that familiar terror of a blank page that so many other writers endure, even if they spend hours and hours fantasizing in details about their story.

If you’re a plot-first writer you probably don’t even need to be reading this: chances are, you’re already off finishing your umpteenth short story or novel.  You will have the easiest road ahead of you than any of those other types of writers.

If you’re not a plot-first person, however, don’t worry. You’re not alone.  Many writers struggle with plot: that’s why the market is saturated with how-to books on how to plot, with less than half as many titles concerning character and other important aspect of writing fiction.  Even the respected literary writer Virginia Wolf sometimes despaired of her inability to write forward-moving plots, though she could mine the subtleties and cruel contradictions of the human condition with ease.

 

** This blog post had an error in the plot section concerning E.M. Forster that has since been corrected. Oct. 8, 2017.