I recently finished a novel. It was a love novel, one of those ones you write because you love the subject or something about it. I love meta-fiction – it’s a meta-fiction novel.
But now that I have finished, what next? I’m now writing another novel, this one may be a series, but we will see.
I’ve come to realise that I missed the love I have for writing and words and sentences. I lost that lovin’ feeling with the publication of my novel, The Neighbour. I got all wound up in the expectations that I put on myself to promote on social media.
But I’ve wound all that back and loving writing again. What do I love? I love that every sentence is an opportunity to convey meaning – and that is simply it. I love sentences.
I love my chair, the blank page, and sentences.
If you don’t know your theme, get to know it. You will be asked about it, best it doesn’t come as a surprise to you – Elizabeth Jolley.
Years ago, I read the above quote from Elizabeth Jolley, and decided to pay special attention to becoming aware of my themes. I thought I knew what my overarching theme was. I thought (loftily) that my themes were the psychology of behaviour with narratives on behavioural theory.
It is often said that theme is difficult to describe, and writers are frequently unaware of just what their themes are. Theme is not story or plot. Theme is the underlying idea, concept, or philosophy in your story. Theme is not what happens in your story, but what your story is about. Theme is often not a choice, especially for fiction writers, but evolves out of a writer’s interests and passions, and, as a result, writers very often – but not always – have the same theme throughout their works.
Now that I’ve completed my third book, it has become clearly apparent that my theme is more tangible, and less lofty, than ‘psychology of behaviour’. I can now be more exact. For some reason not known to me, I write from a male POV and my theme is as simple as crazy men doing weird shit, or, men’s decent into madness.
Knowing your theme can be a useful tool in getting your story finished. If I find I’m wondering what it is I’m actually trying to say, if I’m asking the question, who is this story about? or what is this story about (questions publishers and agents want you to know about your own work) or what message am I trying to get across? Being clear on theme can help answer those questions.
Melissa Donovan says theme can be described as broadly as redemption, sacrifice, betrayal, loyalty, greed, justice, oppression, revenge, and love or they can ask questions or pit two ideas against each other: science vs. faith, good vs. evil, why are we here and what happens when we die?
When I put the question, what do you think your themes are, out to social media, writers were much more specific about their themes:
Kim Swivel: love, bigotry, class, political stupidity, Australian iconography
Anna Spargo-Ryan: Mental illness, family violence, parent-child relationships, substance use, love, loss, food.
Jade Aleesha: My most recent novel explores the power of the media and government to redefine history, and the overlooked role of women in revolution.
Caroline Hutton: Secrecy in families, letting go of old hurts, staying whole in marriage, marital expectations of boundaries vs secrets
Sarah Jansen: Abandonment, the pursuit of happiness, self-reliance, unexpected situations
Sarah Widdup: Relationships, imbalance, expectation, equilibrium
Bianca Nogrady: Family and what we would do for them (or not). Also choice … I’m fascinated by this idea that choice is generally viewed as a good thing in that it gives us a sense of control, that we can always choose between options, however bad those options are. I think there are some choices that we never want to be faced with, and in some situations we would rather have those choices taken away from us.
Eliza Henry Jones: The themes of my writing have always changed to reflect whatever it was I happened to be grappling with at that time in my life. Reading back over (very, very, very poor) novels that I wrote as a teenager is almost like reading a diary. I’ve explored issues of religion, dementia, adoption, substance abuse and parental mental illness. I think what I keep coming back to again and again, though, are themes of grief and letting go.
Fleur Ferris: Online safety, grief, consequence, religious extremism, fanaticism, misuse of power, bullying, identity, relationships/friendships/family. (Not all in the same book…OMG, it doesn’t matter. I’m so miserable!) *rushes to computer and begins writing a romantic comedy.
Robyne Young: Emotional and geographical displacement, punishment, feminism, family.
One of the benefits of knowing your theme means you can look where other writers have explored the same themes with success. Men’s decent into madness threw up the following titles, which also made me aware that, so far, I’ve only found male authors who have approached the same theme, so I’d better get to work!
One Flew over the Cuckoo’s Nest, Ken Kesey; Crime and Punishment, Fyodor Dostoyevsky; Heart of Darkness, Joseph Conrad; The Stranger, Albert Camus; Fight Club, Chuck Palahniuk; The Shining, Stephen King; King Lear, Shakespeare; Catch-22, Joseph Hellar; Lord of the Flies, William Golding; Shutter Island, Denis Lehane; Hamlet, Shakespeare.
The last thing I do before moving on to the next chapter to edit, is read that thing out loud — shut the door and say it loud! — It’s a piece of advice people give you but you never do, right? I started doing it b/c the couple of times I’ve had to record a short story for radio and podcasts, I found that in the act of doing so I picked up so many clunky phrases or yucky sentences. And it’s especially helpful if you’re a fan of sentences that have rhythm and feel good and are nice to listen to. After reading my stories for said radio/podcast I actually changed a lot of words and had to resubmit the written story. If you imagine, while reading, that it is for radio and therefore u need to pronounce clearly, it really hones in on those ugly words – and you never know when, in the future, you might have to read that out loud to someone, so best fix that shit now.
(Apologies for the repost, I’m changing my theme and rearranging my blog.)
THE process an author goes through is detailed and individual. In Writer’s Diary I will dip in and note what it is that I do to create my current novel. The posts will be short and to the point, and, on the topic of writing, only. I hope it is useful to both you and me!
I’m currently working my way through a draft of ABSENCE. It’s something like the fifth or sixth draft. (when I think about it, it’s a lot more than that!) As I deleted approximately 50,000w in the last draft the MS was down to about 40k, but the essence of the story is now very clear and tight. So now I’m working my way through and expanding every idea in each chapter. I’m also working backward from C60 back to C1 so that I give every attention to the individual chapters rather than getting lost in the entire story. It’s now back up to just over 63k and I’m at C28.
When I’m working on something, I like to read from any of my favourite books to put my brain in the right frame of mind. You know, slow it down a bit and find a rhythm. I pick up a book and open to any page and read. Today’s read was from Steven Carroll’s The Time We Have Taken pg 132 (Fourth Estate paperback 2007)
You can see the influence from one of Steven Carroll’s favourite authors, Proust, in the long sentences, the rhythm, and the use of the senses.
The smell of previous-night’s-beer is unmistakable. And with the whiff of old beer she is simultaneously seeing Vic falling through the front door, stumbling through the house, and that old familiar feeling of wretchedness is upon her once again, and the memory of that wretched madness that swelled her heart to the point of exploding all those years ago is now more than a memory. It’s a smell. And smells make things happen all over again. And she knows she doesn’t want these memories again, but knows they won’t go till the smell does. Then she sees further signs of disruption, even as she’s dwelling on this business of smell and weight and love and why it had to be like that. For she has entered Michael’s old bedroom, which has changed little since he left, and noticed immediately that the bed has been disturbed. Slept in. And with the observation comes an involuntary shiver. A half-hearted attempt has been made to make it, a quilt thrown over the bed almost contemptuously. Brazenly. And as this strangers perfume– which she knows to be a common, cheap scent that young girls these days go for — as this strangers perfume mingles with the sight of the shabbily remade bed, the word ‘tart’ comes to her again. And she is convinced that Michael has not only sneaked back into the house when she was not there like some creature with guilt written all over his face, he has dragged a tart back into their house, her house, with him. And she knows straight away that this is not the act of her Michael, upon whom she rested the weight of the love she was left with (when Vic couldn’t carry it any more), her Michael who had always told her that her dresses were just right when the street sneered. No, it wasn’t him, but some other Michael with a tart in his ear.