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.

In which I go on a writing retreat and it is all rather lovely

I got home last night from a two night writing retreat in deepest Devon. I’m rather proud of that sentence. While my publisher was busily winning Publisher of the Year, at the 2013 Festival of Romance (just had to get that in – yay Choc Lit!), I was on a retreat. Going on a ‘writing retreat’ really does sound like something that other, better, more grown-up writers would do. Proper writers with lots of writerly jewellery and a penchant for scarves and overusing the word ‘Darling,’ darling.

However, somehow I managed to slip under the radar and got allowed into to Retreats For You, on a tutored retreat with most excellent writer and Queen of the writing tutors, Julie Cohen. Retreats For You is an utterly brilliant place, run by Deborah Dooley and her partner, Bob. It provides a perfect little bubble in which to just do writing, with no distractions beyond the possibility of going out for a little stomp around the Devon countryside or wandering into the kitchen and snaffling another piece of flapjack. So my weekend was all open fires and literary thoughts…lounge-150x150

while, Engineer Boy stayed home and built these:

Now I need to buy more books

Apparently, these are just to store the insane number of books, I already own, rather than an excuse to buy tonnes more. We shall see…

Anyway, back to the retreat – Julie provided a counterpoint to all the lovely, comforting, warmth that Deborah offers, with her usual tough love approach to writing critique. Julie is not the right writing tutor for you, if you want to be patted on the head and told that everything you’ve written is brilliant. If you want to make the sodding book actually work and get written, she’s bloody marvellous though.

I’m in the early stages (about 25k in) of novel 2 at the moment, with novel 1 scheduled to launch into the world in the next few weeks. And I won’t lie. I’ve been struggling. Writing your second novel is an odd process. You know so much more than you did when you started novel 1, but that additional knowledge can be paralysing. It means that you see all of the problems as you’re writing them, so, rather than just bashing out a shoddy first draft which you can revise later, you get caught up trying to fix the problems as you go along and end up not really progressing at all.

Sometimes what you need at that point is a fresh pair of eyes to look at you sternly, and remind you to keep it simple and try not to actively turn your protagonist into an entirely unsympathetic psychopath. With novel 1, I can pinpoint the moment when it shifted from being an idea, into being a potential book. It was a conversation in a tutorial with my university tutor, Deb Catesby, where we talked about characterisation ideas. It sounds like a very minor point, but that was the point at which I decided that Ben, the hero, would be a mathematician. That decision defines how Ben sees the world, which defines how he interacts with the heroine, Trix, and how she then responds to him. It also gives the book it’s theme: Nothing & Everything (or for the maths-minded amongst you Zero & Infinity).

I think (although it’s too soon to be sure) that I had the equivalent of that conversation this weekend. Julie helped me to work out what my protagonist’s fundamental character needs are. Before that conversation I knew what the plot required her to do, but I hadn’t got clear why she behaves in the way that she does. Without that why, it’s almost impossible to give her the emotional depth she needs to make the reader empathise with her situation and behaviour.

Writing is a generally very solitary endeavour. That is part of the reason that we value organisations like the Romantic Novelists’ Association, that give us chances to change out of our pyjamas and interact with real people, so highly. It’s also part of the reason that we get so addicted to twitter and facebook. It makes a nice change from only talking with made up people. Sometimes though, you need to step away from your laptop and find a fresh brain to bounce ideas off, and you need that to be a person who’ll tell you honestly if they think you’re going the wrong way.

So, in summary, hurrah for Deborah Dooley and Retreats For You. Hurrah for really good writing tutors – Julie and Deb. And now, hurrah for getting one’s head down, stopping procrastinating, and just writing the bloody book.