Sunday, May 30, 2021

Recurring Themes…the heart of a story


You again?
After writing a dozen books or so, you start to see the recurrent patterns in your work.

 More than those bothersome repetitive “justs,” “smiles,” and “looks” we strive to weed out in our editing process, there are core issues and themes that pop up over and over—the deep connection to which we have a harder time letting go. 

Since our writing (and our unique writer's voice) is always a reflection of who we are as humans, and informed by our life experiences and world view, this isn’t surprising. The funny part is that it took me years to even notice that all my books, at their heart, had a redemptive quality—a search for forgiveness and a second chance.

In Savage Cinderella, the main character, Brinn, was a kidnap victim who escaped her captor of two years as a child. But fearing the man would find her, believing her parents were dead, and feeling abandoned by the world,  she remains hidden and isolated in the mountains of North Georgia for the next eight years, surviving more or less on her own. When she’s discovered by a young nature photographer, they form a connection, and she must decide if taking a risk will lead to a second chance at the life that had been stolen from her.

On Thin Ice tells the story of Penny, a seventeen-year-old figure skater whose mom is dying of cancer. In her efforts to escape the pain and deny this reality, Penny lies about her age to an older boy and the consequences are life changing. Following the death of her mother, Penny finds out a family secret that sends her reeling, and holds a secret of her own that nearly ruins her life. But after losing everything, Penny comes away with a gift of new hope and a second chance to do the right thing.

Heaven is for Heroes is full of redemptive themes, as are every one of my other novels and novellas. I laugh about it as I write this post, because I suspect every story I write will possess that theme in some form. It’s who I am at my core. Someone who believes deeply that no matter our imperfections, errors in judgement, dumb mistakes, and bad choices, there is always an opportunity to do better and be better by choosing that next right action.

Ultimately, that’s what drew me to writing YA lit. I had a message for my seventeen-year-old self, burning in my heart. My stories are about healing the wounded hearts of every teenaged girl facing abuse, trauma, teen pregnancy, eating disorders or addictions. Whatever the problem, there is a solution, and you will find it by taking that next right step. By reaching out to those who care, and asking for help. By doing the hard work of learning and growing. Eventually, you will get to a place where you’ll know who you are and who you want to be. That's the road to happily ever after. 

...a message I would have loved to have heard at that tender age when my life was spinning out of control, and a message I have come to fully embrace forty years later.

Having read several of my fellow author's posts this month, and reflecting on my own writing and its recurrent themes, I'm spurred to wonder if the reason we as writers sometimes hit a "dry spell" where we feel we've "written our best work", or feel we're "in a rut" with our stories, is because we're ready to move on to a new theme, a new message, or even a completely different genre. I know I'm not the same person I was fifteen years ago when I began this process. I have certainly evolved as a person, and I've done a lot of work healing from those old wounds of my youth, so why should it be a surprise if I need to find new avenues of self-expression that better reflect who I am today? 

Now, all I have to figure out is exactly who I am, and what stories I still need to tell...

Someone needs a new pot!

Have you felt like this? What did you do about it?



Saturday, May 29, 2021

Why Mess With Perfection? (Brian Katcher)


When DEACON LOCKE came out, an author friend commented that it was another Brian Katcher plot: awkward guy falls for flawed girl. I took umbrage with that, especially because I think he may have been right.

Book 1: Nerdy guy falls for girl with disfigured face

Book 2: Awkward athlete falls for transgender girl.

Book 3: Nerdy guy falls for overweight girl.

Book 4: Nerdy guy and nerdy girl fall for each other.

Book 5: Awkward guy falls for Muslim girl.

Personally, I don't find any of those girls to be 'flawed,' especially that last one. But maybe society does. When it comes down to it, my male heroes are always either nerds (Leon, Sherman, and Zak) or have crippling self-esteem problems (Logan and Deacon).

I guess if you had to do a list of Brian Katcher tropes they would be as follow:

*The main character is handsome, but comically unaware of this.

*The female love interest is either not conventionally attractive (Melody and Charlie) or does not fit society's version of what an alluring woman should be (Sage, Ana, and Soraya).

Also, the main character ends up visiting someone in a mental hospital, and my charming leading man gets pistol whipped. Ive lost count of the number of teen romances I've written where my hero gets clubbed with the butt of a revolver. 

So maybe I am in a rut. Fortunately, My newest (and unpublished) books have completely different romantic situations:

*Disabled guy falls for insane girl.

*Awkward guy falls for handsome guy, awkward girl falls for attractive girl.

*Awkward guy falls for attractive girl.

*Awkward guy falls for transgender girl (but totally different from the other book!).

*Handsome guy falls for awkward girl, while his awkward cousin falls for attractive girl.

Wow. I am in a rut. Time to bring in the sexy vampires.


Friday, May 28, 2021

Painting Sunsets: Hopeful Stories of Loss by Dean Gloster


               When I was twenty, my mother finally finished her decade-long quest to drink herself to death.  I’m not completely over it. I’ve even written about it here before.

               My mom raised me to believe I could accomplish anything I put my mind to. That complicated things, because—as part of the mysterious way roles and tasks are handed out in dysfunctional families—I’d decided in adolescence that it was my job, as a parentified child, to keep Mom from dying from her beverage of choice. Spoiler alert: That’s not actually how alcoholism works: The alcoholic has to decide to stop drinking. It’s not up for a group vote.

               So the theme I return to, in my stories, is death, and whether it’s possible to save someone. Sometimes it isn’t. My debut YA novel, Dessert First, is a voice-driven tear-jerker about smart, funny 16-year-old Kat Monroe, who donates her bone marrow to save her younger brother from his leukemia relapse, and what it does to her when the transplant doesn’t seem to be working.

               My current YA novel in revisions, Just Deal, is about a boy dealing with grief after his mother’s death and then finding out that he and his friends must try to save the world.

               I have a YA short story coming out in the next Spoon Knife anthology, “Death’s Adopted Daughter” about the meeting between a teenage girl and Death at the shore of the river Lethe. (And whether she can save herself. Or, it turns out, save Death.)

               I’ve got another novel and a novella going and they’re also both in some way—surprise—about death and whether it’s possible to save someone.

               As writers, we’re not completely in charge of what story ideas show up. My muse, I suppose, favors melodies in the Aeolian mode—with a hint of haunting loss. But I believe if there’s a core of personal emotion in the story, the writer who clutches the raw power of that emotional third rail can transmit some of the energy to readers and move them.

               These aren’t easy stories to tell, about flawed, sometimes dying people and how love and hope and limited skills can’t always make things okay. I used to be a stand-up comic, but even including lots of humor—which I do—doesn’t make those stories go down easily.

               That’s one reason I work so hard at craft. I believe the mantra of trust the reader in the sense of trusting them to get it and in resisting—mostly—the urge to over-explain. But we shouldn't trust readers to keep reading, if we haven’t done our part, by including lots of reasons to keep turning the page. So I try to beguile with voice, humor, suspense, mysteries, vulnerability, inviting opening sentences, compelling end-of-chapter page turns, high stakes, careful scene construction, and everything else I can think of. (Including, you know, too many subplots.)

               I’m a craft geek. Something of a desperate craft geek, because I love my characters and their voices and want them to get out into the world.

               My mother always wanted to be a writer, but the relentless self-critical aspect (this isn’t good enough yet—how do I make it better?) was too debilitating.

               But now I’m putting in the time. I work hard at writing, because I want to honor my characters’ stories, not have them die voiceless like my mother.

               Which is a theme I find worth writing about.

Dean Gloster has an MFA in writing for children and young adults from Vermont College of Fine Arts.  He is a former stand-up comedian and a former law clerk at the U.S. Supreme Court.  School Library Journal called his YA novel DESSERT FIRST “a sweet, sorrowful, and simply divine debut novel that teens will be sinking their teeth into. This wonderful story…will be a hit with fans of John Green's The Fault in Our Stars and Jesse Andrews's Me and Earl and the Dying Girl.” His current novel is about two funny brothers who have to team up with their friend Claire to save the world. It has his usual story novel ingredients: Death, humor, the question of whether it’s possible to save someone, a love interest to root for, dysfunctional parenting, and an off-kilter sensibility, including a mergers and acquisitions lawyer dad who is missing 54 percent of his soul.

Tuesday, May 25, 2021

Getting to the core of stories (or self-help via writing:)

    This month’s theme is returning to the core of stories - again and again - through our work. I do this. I know I do. I return to themes I’m still trying to understand or process. Good writing, I think, explores questions, rather than providing answers. As writers, we come to the table with a whole array of experiences. We’ve all lived through so much, regardless of our journeys, just surviving until this point. We've seen and/or experienced loss, pain, injustice, disappointment, victory, defeat, fairness, and unfairness... 

    Writing provides an outlet to explore those nagging questions and/or unhealed parts of ourselves, and we can do that by giving such burdens to fictitious people.

    Often in my work, my core themes provide the groundwork for stories that seem bigger or more sensational than the themes themselves, i.e. getting trapped inside an abandoned amusement park and having to relive one's nightmare in order to get out (the Enter the Dark House series). The theme in those two books, for me, is really about reliving a real-life nightmare. At what point does the horror we inflict upon ourselves (by not being able to let go of or process whatever plagues us) become bigger than make-believe horror?

    Similarly, in Jane Anonymous, one might think the core of the story is a young woman’s experience of being abducted and held captive, but for me the story is really about a loss of innocence: believing that all is well and wonderful in the world, and then finding out that it isn’t. The rug is pulled out from under her, so to speak. 

    The core themes in my books explore guilt, loss, abandonment, chance and coincidence, the kindness of strangers, and one’s believability and likeability having lived through trauma (The Last Secret You’ll Ever Keep). I stage these themes at “haunted houses” and dress them up in creepy costumes, using mood lighting and eerie sound effects. But at the stories’ core, there’s just me, at my computer, trying to figure stuff out.   


Monday, May 24, 2021

The Stories That Speak To Us (Brenda Hiatt)

 This month we’re blogging about our “core stories” — those themes or tropes that particularly resonate with us, and that we return to time and time again in our writing. Some writers continually revisit such themes as, “There’s no place like home,” or “Broken families can be healed,” or tropes like “Amnesia,” or “Twins” or “Reunions/Second chance at love.” Of course, before I could write about this topic, I was forced to examine what recurring themes or tropes have turned up in my own books over the years. It wasn’t as hard as I thought it might be. As is probably true for many of us, the same sorts of stories I tend to seek out as a reader also call to me as a writer. 

And what might those be? I’d have to say that the one overriding theme in all of my books is: “Love conquers all.” Or at least, “Love makes everything better.” As for story tropes I go back to again and again, my biggie has got to be “Secrets” and especially “Secret Identities.” 

As both reader and writer, I just love that rising tension as we (the reader and story characters) make their way closer and closer to The Big Reveal. When I think back to my favorite moments in my favorite books over my lifetime as a reader, nearly all of them involve some huge revelation that takes the characters (and often the reader) completely by surprise. Because I enjoy that so much, I almost always build moments like that into my own books. In fact, I wrote an entire historical romance series around the idea of secret identities (The Saint of Seven Dials series) and had
great fun doing it. Similarly, every single book in my Starstruck series has at least one and often several Big Reveal moments. 

Now that I’m past the halfway point of the book I’m currently writing in that series, I’m eagerly looking forward to writing that moment for my latest two main characters. Hee hee! 

What do you, as a reader (or a writer) gravitate to in the stories you read and/or tell? Let me know in the comments! 

Sunday, May 23, 2021

What's Your Story? By Christine Gunderson

This month we’re talking about “core stories,” and this concept applies not just to writers, but to everyone who loves stories, whether you’re an avid reader, or a compulsive Netflix binger.


In essence, a “core story” is the story you come back to, over and over again, in the books you choose to read, the books you choose to write, the tv shows and movies you choose to watch, or all three.


I first learned about this concept at a writer’s workshop. The presenter was both psychologist and a best-selling author and she pointed out that some topics are interesting because they are hard wired into the human psyche. 


The list of topics will be familiar to anyone who’s ever binged a TV series or stayed up way past their bedtime reading a book. As a species, we cannot resist the following subjects: gossip, secrets, wealth, status, war, relationships, love, sex, murder, fame, power and survival. 


These topics have been around since humans started living together in caves thousands of years ago. While gnawing on a mastodon bone, a caveman leaned forward, lowered his voice and said, “You didn’t hear it from me, but the guy who lives in that really big cave next to the antelope trail discovered something he calls ‘fire.’”


Paying attention to these things helped us survive and thrive in human societies. Thousands of years later, we still choose stories that cater to our favorite human topics. 


If you find wealth, status, love and relationships interesting, you might be reading regency romances or watching Bridgerton. If murder and secrets are your thing, you might be reading Steig Larsson or watching a lot of Law and Order: SVU.


The next question is why do you like these topics? That’s harder to answer.


In the writing workshop I mentioned earlier, we each made a list of the books and movies we love most. Then we identified some common elements. 


I learned that while I may look like a suburban mother of three with a purse filled with orthodontist appointment cards and a wardrobe from Talbots, in my heart I am actually Michonne from The Walking Dead. Or possibly a Shield Maiden. Or maybe both, depending on the severity of the enemy threat. Post-apocalyptic landscapes are my happy place. Promise me the breakdown of civilization and I will buy the book and see the movie. 


But when it comes to writing, my core story is different. An editor friend pointed out that every book I’ve written is about freedom.


This was news to me, but I eventually realized she was right. My message is always somehow the same: we cannot be happy unless we have the freedom to be who we really are. 


I still don’t know why I write about this. And maybe that’s why I keep writing about it. Maybe that’s why we go back to the same books and movies over and over again. We’re looking for the answer to a question that only we can ask. And like our primordial ancestors, we’re pretty sure that answer is hidden somewhere in a story.




Christine Gunderson is writer who lives outside Washington, D.C. with her husband, children and Star the Wonder dog. When not writing, she’s sailing, playing Star Wars trivia, re-reading Persuasion, or unloading the dishwasher. You can reach her at


Friday, May 21, 2021

Love Again, Again (Holly Schindler)

I'm a sucker for a good love story. I'm especially a sucker for second-time-around love stories. I recently released Play It Again, the sequel to my YA Playing Hurt--a story that sees the main characters coming back into each other's lives four years after their initial summer romance. 

Play It Again asks if the heat of first love can be found again--and made into something permanent, something that can last through every season of the year. 

Second-time-around love stories also show up in my adult work, primarily in some of my Christmas stuff. The romantic in me has no problem being swept away by the idea that love once--deep, true love--is love always. 

It is, in many ways, something of a naive idea, really. 

Maybe it's the temporary nature of the world--we throw away appliances and electronics rather than fix them. We buy furniture with the idea that it will be tossed rather than passed down. Maybe I gravitate toward the notion that love is something that can't be taken out in a black plastic bag, dragged to the curb. I like the idea that love is the one thing that isn't transitory, ephemeral.

I like the idea that love once is love always.  

Thursday, May 13, 2021

Of Core Values, Seeds & Cycles (Jodi Moore)

Last week, I met with one of my critique groups through Zoom. As always, they offered fantastic suggestions and encouragement to launch me into the revision process on a new manuscript. One of the group members started off by saying, “This is such a Jodi story.”


Of course, this made me smile. Every creative seeks to find their ‘voice’. Something that distinguishes it from other voices. Even if I’m not familiar with a specific song, I can always recognize the unique brilliance of David Bowie.


Since I’m no David Bowie, it also gave me pause. What is a 'Jodi story'? I’d like to think every story I write is from my heart. From my ‘core’. But what does that mean?


I’ve written both funny and poignant stories. Tales filled with long, lyrical sentences, others with short, choppy ones. Some rhyming, some prose. What one thing was central to all of these?


It hit me as I carved up an apple for lunch. The core was filled with seeds. Powerful little nuggets that develop into trees, that in turn, produce more fruit and more seeds. Tiny grains promoting existence. Growth. Hope. The cycle of life.


“That’s it!” my brain yelled in its best Charlie Brown impression.


My ‘core’ is also made up of the seeds I want to spread into the world. My mission is to use my voice to empower others to find, value and use their own.


A few years ago, I received this lovely letter after a school visit:



In a very literal sense, I inspired this young lady to believe in her own voice. Her words brought tears to my eyes. They still do.


What’s more, her voice inspired me to continue to use my voice to spread the seeds of empowerment. See how this works?


It’s like a life cycle, and when cycles connect, amazing things blossom. Which actually circles back to the theme of my new picture book manuscript. You know, the one my critique partner said was a 'Jodi story.'


Mind blown.

Monday, May 10, 2021

Core Incident by Sydney Salter

In high school I worked very briefly as a delivery driver for the Cake & Flower Shoppe in Reno, Nevada. In the morning I delivered pies to casino cafes. In the afternoon I backed the van into a thick metal post, rendering the sliding door useless only minutes before a wedding delivery.

We packed all the flowers and the large tiered cake into the van through the front doors and drove to the outdoor wedding venue. I felt terrible about denting the van door, and wanted to be helpful, so I finished setting up the cake by myself, placing the layers onto the plastic columns. I ran off to help carry flowers.

We returned to find the cake on the ground: balls of frosting and grass. 

I was immediately fired. 

All these years later, I still feel terrible about ruining that wedding cake. The scene showed up in My Big Nose And Other Natural Disasters, and I wrecked another wedding cake in Not A Doctor Logan's Divorce Book. I visited my old boss after My Big Nose came out. We were both a little surprised about how young we'd been back then--she'd been in her early 20s and maybe that's why she hired a 17-year-old delivery driver. She sure remembered me though, even though I had only been employed for a few hours! 

Writing helps us work through various traumas, right? 

Thursday, May 6, 2021

Déjà Vu All Over Again (Mary Strand)

I’ve always loved baseball great Yogi Berra’s many not-quite-malapropisms (and who ever gets to use that word, right?), and my title for this blog is one of my favorites of his. It’s also the name of a song by John Fogerty, but Yogi was there first.

This month at YA Outside the Lines we’re all about our core stories, or themes we return to as writers over and over in our novels.

I would rather blog about Yogi Berra. Or baseball. Or, even better, basketball. Or music. Or the new guitar I totally deserve. Or WHATEVER.

For someone who analyzes the bejeezus out of pretty much everything, I’m actually not a fan of analyzing my writing. I’m good with writing, good with revising, even better with HAVING written or revised. But analyze it?

Could we talk Yogi Berra? Or maybe, MUCH better yet, Chris Hemsworth?

In an online (writers’) voice class I took 15 years ago, we had to pour our little hearts out in front of eight or 10 other writers about every detail of our lives, practically since birth. At the end of the six-week class, we analyzed what made us tick. More precisely, what made our books tick.

I just dug out those emails and writings. Yeah, I tended to dodge the questions asked of us. Here’s a favorite:

            Q: If you could only write ONE book in your life, what book would it be?

            A: The one that wins the Pulitzer. I don’t care what it is.

Imagine having someone like me in your class. 😊

At the time I was writing adult fiction, but I switched to YA as a result of that voice class. (The ENTIRE class said I talked and acted like a 17-year-old. As if!) But I ultimately said that I wrote about real-life situations that people can identify with, and that I tended to write about smart, successful women (or, now, teenage girls) who have problems, but they face them. Eventually.

I think that’s still true. It’s my core story. I don’t like to write about whiny people, especially as protagonists. (At a recent writers’ conference I attended, an agent asked why my 15-year-old heroine wasn’t whiny or sarcastic or even obnoxious to her parents, “the way 15-year-olds all are.” Yeah, no. At age 15, I wasn’t. My heroines aren’t, either.)

Even people who have problems (and we all do) can be smart, strong, and tough, which often makes them APPEAR invincible and fearless to those around them, even their best friends. As a result they’re pretty hard to get to know. In my books, they’re also athletic (almost without exception) and they’re probably funny, because humor helps you get through hard times even more than a pint of Ben & Jerry’s does. But I will note that many pints of Ben & Jerry’s have been consumed in the pages of my books. Cool cars often appear, too, because girls like me love cars.

In short, I write novels about myself. Over and over and over again. And yep: my characters and I are pretty hard to get to know. But we deserve happy endings, too.

And now it is.

Mary Strand is the author of Pride, Prejudice, and Push-Up Bras and three other novels in the Bennet Sisters YA series. You can find out more about her at