In which I think about Theme

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.

The downsides of writing too much too fast (or why I don’t do NaNo).

Tuesday is the 1st November, and, as such, marks the start of NaNoWriMo (National Novel Writing Month – although it’s actually totally international). NaNo is a fixture in many a writer’s calendar. The idea is that you commit to writing 50000 words during the month of November. It’s all about getting the words out, and it has become a valuable annual kick up the butt for many  writers. Some, such as Julia Crouch, have even gone on to get published with books they started during NaNo.

NaNo can be great. As a creative writing teacher, I get bored out of my brain from hearing, “I’d love to write a book but…” NaNo gets rid of the fatal ‘but’ and forces you to just get on with it. 50000 words in 30 days is 1667 words per day, or somewhere near the 2400 mark if you allow yourself weekends off. 50000 words still isn’t  a full-length novel (although it’s not far off one of the shorter formats, such as a Mills and Boon romance), but it’s an awful lot of white paper that you’ve killed off and an excellent starting point.

But I don’t do NaNo. Here’s why; it’s because I know I can write 2-2500 words per day. I’ve done it before. I wrote an 80000 word first draft of my current work-in-progress in jut under 8 weeks, writing 2000+ words per day Monday-Friday. I didn’t go back and correct. I didn’t edit as I went along. I just got the first draft out and onto the screen. I didn’t allow myself to leave the computer until at least 2000 words were done, and I did them every single weekday, whether I felt like it or not.

And that draft was terrible. Really truly terrible. Sure – there were odd sparkles of diamond amongst the manure but overall it was Not Good. And that will be true of most people’s 50000 NaNo words too. It’s not necessarily a problem. Editing and rewriting are a massive part, probably the main part, of writing a novel. I suspect that most writers’ actual first drafts are never seen by another living soul. The thing they call a “first draft” and send to critique partners or editors has had at least one vigorous tidy up before it’s deemed fit for other human beings to take a look.

But for me, where I feel I need to develop my writing is not in the area of just getting going and banging the words out. It’s in banging better words out. That’s why I’ve decided to write my second novel more slowly, to read back yesterday’s writing before I start todays, to make obvious revisions as I go along, to plan the outline of my plot and my different character’s transitions a bit more clearly. The first draft will still be terrible, but I’m hoping it will be marginally less terrible and feel a little tighter and more rounded.

So if you struggle to get started with your writing and maintain your motivation, then NaNo can be a brilliant spur. You can use the target to force yourself to get your words done every day. And it’s only a month so if the housework slides or you miss some overtime or your sleep patterns go out the window or you eat a lot more takeaway than is good for you then the sky won’t fall in. The only caveat is to remember that what you have at the end isn’t a novel. It might be a strong starting place for a novel, but you’ll need to find your own ways to maintain the motivation through the months of rewriting ahead.

For me getting the words out isn’t my particular writing problem. So, for my novel-writing at least, I’m trying a new mantra. Write less. Write slower. Write better. What do you thnk?