In which I think about Theme

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Yesterday I was reminded, via a twitter conversation with the very awesome Joanna Cannon, of an exercise from a Julie Cohen writing course Joanna and I attended years ago. The exercise was simply this: ‘Tell me what your novel is about in one word.’ To which the response is inevitably, ‘Well, er, there’s sort of this woman.. and she meets this… well actually, no, but sort of and then….’ And which point Julie makes her special displeased face and repeats, ‘In one word.’ And the student goes, ‘Errrr…’ which is at least one word, but isn’t terribly descriptive of what the book is about.

But it’s a lesson that’s stayed with me. I still try to think about what the book I’m working on is about IN ONE WORD, and I generally manage to work it out. The Christmas Kisses series are all about Identity in one way or another.  Sweet Nothing is about Romance, which might sound obvious because it’s a romantic-comedy, but I don’t just mean that the book is a romance; I mean that’s it actually about Romance. It’s about whether romance is the same as love, and whether you can have one without the other, and what romance actually is or should be. Midsummer Dreams is about Fear. It’s about fear of being alone, fear of letting people down, fear of taking a risk, fear of trying to be a better person, and the way that all of those fears can paralyze people and whether/how they can be overcome.

And I think that knowing that is really useful. It’s invaluable when you come to edit and revise a book. Knowing what your story’s theme is, gives you a point around which to focus your character arcs and plots and sub-plots. If you have a thread that feels disjointed from the whole you can ask yourself how it relates to that theme, and if it doesn’t, you might well have discovered the source of your problem.

But for me, a theme isn’t something that I consciously choose. It’s something that emerges from the process of writing the book. My current novel-in-progress has been my current novel-in-progress for about three years. There are reasons that it’s taken so long, and they are twofold. Firstly, the book isn’t a rom-com, and I’d just started writing it just before I signed my first contract with Choc Lit. Having signed a contract for a rom-com the onus was on me to write something else in the same genre, and so over the three years that this book has been on the go, I’ve also written another full-length novel and three novellas. That’s really bound to slow your progress a little bit.

The second reason the novel-in-progress has been in progress for so long was that I did a stupid stupid thing. I decided what it was about (in one word) before I started. And I got it wrong. Cue two and a half years of trying to bend a story to a theme that wasn’t right. When I eventually stepped back and realised, ‘Oh this isn’t about loss. It’s about parenthood’ I also realised that I now knew how to finish the book. I ssuddenly saw the point of a character that my heart was telling me to keep, but had nothing to do with the theme I thought was writing about. I saw how the sub-plots could be strengthened and linked back to my main character’s arc. The novel that’s been about two months off being finished for about a year and a half, might now genuinely be about two months off being finished.

And there you go – those are my thoughts on ‘theme.’ It’s definitely helpful to know what yours is, but I think it’s something you discover rather than something you consciously invent.

So here endeth the lesson. If you like me wittering about about How To Do Writing then you might be interested in the workshops I have coming up where I will be helping people sort out their novels-in-progress in all manner of interesting and creative ways.


6 thoughts on “In which I think about Theme

    Evonne Wareham said:
    November 5, 2015 at 9:48 am

    I’m always nervous about theme – because of that straight jacket effect. But they creep up on you when you’re not looking. Had a thought this morning about a work not in progress and realised it was another layer about names and identity. Which is what the book has been telling me it is about. And murder and revenge, and whether you can fall back in love. Stuff like that.


    rosrendleRos Rendle said:
    November 5, 2015 at 11:19 am

    Wise and succinct. Thanks. X


    Detty Tyler said:
    November 5, 2015 at 5:39 pm

    Excellent post Alison. One word for my work in progress could be perception, although I could think of a couple more if I’m honest! 😉


    lmsprott said:
    November 5, 2015 at 6:18 pm

    I need to think about this for my work in process to give it a focus. Thanks for that.


    morgenbailey said:
    September 28, 2016 at 1:55 pm

    Reblogged this on MorgEn Bailey – Creative Writing Guru and commented:
    An oldie but a goodie… on the topic of themes (no, not how a blog looks but how we categorise our novels).


    Micki Peluso said:
    September 28, 2016 at 8:20 pm

    I always go blank with that question since my book is layered with so many different themes that to choose one is nearly impossible, The best I can say is ‘love, loss and survival–two over–so I guess I’d have to pick one of these three. But like you I don’t think it’s a fair question since many books are about many things and cannot be narrowed down to one. Even the premise, similar to theme cannot be.easily be put into one word.


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