August 13, 2014

Writing Club Wednesdays: Guest Post by Jaye Robin Brown

Assigning A One (Two or Three) Word Theme

My critique partners tell me I’m a writer of “the feels.” My editor says characterization is my thing. And, you know, I’m okay with both of these. I’ve always liked books that make me cheer on the people between their pages. Plot I figure out as I go.

But for me to keep on track with plot and character arcs, I have to keep on track with what my novel’s about. I’ve found a little trick that is immensely helpful. The one word theme.

Sometimes I’ll know this word before I even begin the story. Sometimes it takes a first draft and a revision before the theme surfaces (total pantser, yo).

In No Place To Fall the word was LONGING. Throughout the entire novel, Amber is infused with this want: to travel, to sing, to be the best daughter, the best sister, the best aunt. It’s a palpable ache that carries through the whole story and, I hope, really makes you root for her to fulfill her dreams.

In my current WIP, which I should be able to tell you more about soon, I ended up needing three words. POWER is the main word, but FAMILY and BLOOD are tied up pretty tightly in there as well.

So how do I use these words? I make a Wordle (, print it out, and hang it above my writing desk. This also gives me a chance to add in some supporting words, feelings, items, moments that are strong in my story. How Wordle works (if by some slim chance there are one or two of you who’ve never played with it), is you enter words and it creates a word cloud. You want your theme word to be the largest word, so enter it six or seven times, then enter your other words one to three times; the frequency of the words determines the size they are on the page. For No Place To Fall, I ended up with something like this: 

How does it help? Anytime I’ve been away from the manuscript for a while or really, at the start of each writing session, I spend a second or two looking at the Wordle and try to put myself back into the feeling of that one word. When I wrote Amber, I tried to fill myself with that feeling of intense longing for more that she has. That way, her words were true and the story stayed close to theme. It also gives me a concise response when people say “What’s your story about?” Contemporaries are not the easiest elevator pitch stories, so my response is often something like, “It’s a coming of age story about longing, dreams, singing, family, mistakes, lies, and truth.” Then I can tell a bit more about the actual plot line.

So try it out, can you come up with one word that drives your story?

Jaye Robin Brown, or Jro to her friends, lives and writes in the mountains north of Asheville, North Carolina.  She is fond of horses, dogs, the absurd and the ironic. When not writing, you can find her in the art room of the high school where she teaches.

Her debut young adult novel, NO PLACE TO FALL, comes out in the fall of 2014 from Harper Teen. It's about dreams, singing, friendship, love, betrayal, family, and mistakes. It's also a love song to small town girls and mountain music, both of which shape the area that Jaye now calls home. 


Amber Vaughn is a good girl. She sings solos at church, babysits her nephew after school, and spends every Friday night hanging out at her best friend Devon’s house. It’s only when Amber goes exploring in the woods near her home, singing camp songs with the hikers she meets on the Appalachian Trail, that she feels free—and when the bigger world feels just a little bit more in reach.

When Amber learns about an audition at the North Carolina School of the Arts, she decides that her dream—to sing on bigger stages—could also be her ticket to a new life. Devon’s older (and unavailable) brother, Will, helps Amber prepare for her one chance to try out for the hypercompetitive arts school. But the more time Will and Amber spend together, the more complicated their relationship becomes . . . and Amber starts to wonder if she’s such a good girl, after all.

Then, in an afternoon, the bottom drops out of her family’s world—and Amber is faced with an impossible choice between her promise as an artist and the people she loves. Amber always thought she knew what a good girl would do. But between “right” and “wrong,” there’s a whole world of possibilities.


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