Thursday, January 8, 2009

Theme With Starting

At the end of a particularly comprehensive critique of a book I wrote, an editor left this comment (I'm paraphrasing here):

Oh yes, and now that I've torn your ego out and made you once again wish you had gone into nuclear physics, I had another thought: What is your theme? I looked, sincerely, and I couldn't find it. As the great writing teacher Somebody said, "All great writing begins with theme." So after you're done sobbing, but before you begin drinking, and WHILE you're rewriting, I want you to think about theme. I hope your revision is worthy of a thousand high-school English lit  theses! Toodles for now!

Of all the comments, this was the most difficult to handle. Theme? Um, does having fun count? What about, "Look! I'm clever!" Or the old standby, "I'm leaving it up to my reader to glean their own meaning, because I must stay true to my art!"

Fast forward two years and two books. Last night, I spent a few hours with my nose buried in the Diamond Sutra. This ancient Buddhist book is about sudden enlightenment. And yes, I can use a little sudden enlightenment, but what I was really doing was looking for inspiration. I'm currently working on a new project -- a big one, a THEMATIC one -- and I've spent four months now working on almost nothing but theme. At this point, I've asked the main character only one real question: what do I want to teach you about the world, my young and scaly friend? 

This might sound all ass-backward, and maybe it is. This is an ongoing experiment for me. My plan is to first develop the philosophy, then build the world and its rules, and then put the events into motion. In a way, I'm hoping this story emerges from the murk of my own worldly confusion, and maybe I will learn something along the way. 



Jude Hardin said...

I disagree with that editor. Whenever someone makes a blanket statement like that about writing, it's best to run in the other direction shouting, "Fire!"

Some good writing might start with theme, but my guess is that most does not. My guess is that most good writing starts with Story, and that themes sometimes sprout organically along the way.

Whatever the case, one certainly doesn't want to fall into overt allegory or didacticism, and those are some of the pitfalls when starting with theme, I think.

Mark Terry said...

Yeah, I'm with Jude. I don't think you should START with them. I do think that after your first draft it might be time to look at what you wrote and say, "Uh, is there a theme?"

Once you find it, then in your rewrite you should reinforce it.

But I'm a little iffy about starting with a theme, because that suggests you're starting with some message you're sending, rather than having a story to tell or characters to study.

But then again, editors aren't knocking down doors asking for my manuscripts, so what do I know?

LurkerMonkey said...

Here's the actual quote from the rewrite letter:

The great writer and writing teacher John Gardner said you should always start with your theme. That’s your touch point. It gives you something to reach for and something to rein you in, to remind you what the story is really about.

I always thought like you guys do: starting with theme can only lead to preachy, moralistic stories that are organized around messages rather than character and action, etc. Open head, dump in lesson, close head.

But I'm beginning to wonder, perhaps rethink, that position. Here's why ...

The great books are often theme oriented. Melville didn't sit down to write a book about a whale, or Dickens to write about an old miser, or even Fitzgerald to write about a murder. I think these books endured because the writer said, "I want to write a book about the nature of evil and obsession" or whatever. And, of course, I'll never speak badly about overt allegory. I'm too fond of Lord of the Flies, the Life of Pi, and Animal Farm to go there.

I dunno. Maybe I'm wrong. Maybe this editor is wrong. But it feels, well, right. Books entertain, but the best of them go beyond that. Is it so wrong to first wonder what we want to say, and then write a story that says it? Is there any better way?

Jude Hardin said...

If it feels right then it is right, Jon. I'm just not sure I could work that way.

And I'm convinced that intellectuals and academics sometimes assign themes where none were originally intended.

Hemingway said, "The old man was just an old man, and the fish was just a fish."

For what it's worth.

The thing is, to me, if you write honestly and from the heart, themes emerge subconsciously; and those, to me, are the most delightful.

LurkerMonkey said...

Yeah, Tolkein also loudly despised allegory -- even though his books are loaded with symbolism, unintentional or not.

You're right on the last point, of course. Write something you believe in, and hopefully the rest falls into place.

spyscribbler said...

There are some stories I've started without knowing what I want to say, but in general, my philosophy is that if I don't know what I'm trying to say, then how will I know which story/which aspect of the story/how to tell the story?

Sometimes this theme is nothing grand. Sometimes it's just the emotional arc of a character... but then, it's hard to have an emotional arc and not have that arc saying something, you know?

So I can't say I write more than half a chapter before I find the character's emotional arc, and then I put it right up front on the first page.

spyscribbler said...

(The beginning of the arc, that is, which typically demonstrates the theme.)

Heck, why does this sound all complicated when I write it? I pants. Really. LOL!

Amy Nathan said...

I think you write from your gut and your heart. You have a theme in mind perhaps, but the real one - the true theme - emerges with time. A theme is a great thing for an amusement park, I bet they start with a theme - you know - everything Disney - let's build a THEME park. It also works with parties. I love themed parties, don't you?

Books? I think it is the effect of the work, not its impetus.

Mark Terry said...

Well, which honest to God brings me to my most basic rule of writing, what, because the world desperately needs my input:

Mark's First Rule of Writing: Whatever Works.

Erica Orloff said...

Hi Guys:
I disagree with (most of) you.

Because I am familiar with the book in question and the editor and this whole thing, I think it's hard to pull that one sentence out and make a comment. But I will say this, particularly in YA, but probably for any book, if you finish it and nothing resonates thematically, and it was all plot and dialogue and you don't end with a sense of wonder of . . . ah ha, this was really powerful . . . then I think sometimes it's a meh.

I have a post up, and I know Jude will diasgree . . . but I think his comment really speaks to what I wrote about today. This editor who wrote this to Jon is one of the most respected voices in the industry. You cannot just dismiss out of hand and say "run" while clinging firmly to "my story works just fine, this is simply the wrong editor." You also can't spend your life chasing for beta readers who will find the charm in your book and again, cling tightly to the ones who say "Wonderful, page-turner" and dismiss out of hand anyone else as "they don't get it." Her statement wasn't a blanket statement. It was about the CORE and soul of the book.

I think the book he has now--which may sell and may not--is emotionally resonant. And no, you don't want to get preachy. But then again, if you are a writer worth your salt, you can START, like Jon says, with a theme as your touchstone and NOT get preachy--that's what makes certain books timeless classics. In the hands of lesser writers, it does become pathetically preachy . . . but with a gifted writer, it's just there in the ethers.

And what Mark says . . . yeah. Whatever works. But I don't think anyone does themselves any favors by clinging to what they believe works. Openness very often means growth.


Merry Monteleone said...

I'm really glad Erica pointed this out. I'm a pantser, when I write. I tried to do it the organized way, by writing out the pitch and all that... it didn't work for me. But I do think the idea of sitting down and thinking about theme first sounds interesting. Are you going to update after the novel's complete and let us know how it worked for you?

sex scenes at starbucks said...

I think the people and the story come to me first, but I spend a great deal of time asking myself what it means to me.

The point of crossing over to preachy is when an author starts insisting, via the story, that this is the Theme, damn it, and if you don't get it, or if you took something else from it, then you're a stupid numbskull who wouldn't know a...


I've had this happen, a lot. I've never been accused of lacking a theme, but I've also thought many times: Aw shit, they didn't get it.

My point is: writers should work out the theme for themselves. But don't insist that every reader will take the same thing from your story. My favorite interplay is not that between me and my words, but that between readers and my words.

LurkerMonkey said...


I'll update ... But hopefully, it will be exceedingly obvious that I got it right!

LurkerMonkey said...


That's a great point ... and one I've been working on myself as I go through this. I think it's good to explore a theme, to raise different sides of it, to handle it for a while, to stretch it. Inevitably, this means that people will take different things from the book, because they'll individually relate to the different characters and viewpoints. That said, though, at least in shorter books, I still think it's wise to organize it around a central idea, and from the main character's POV, definitively resolve the conflict in a way that supports your basic message/idea. People may disagree with it, but at least they can recognize it.

I don't even know if that makes any sense :)

Dube said...

Sounds like the entire critique was really biting. How did you react to it when you first received it?

LurkerMonkey said...


In all fairness, I was being kind of hyperbolic in my original blog entry. How did I react to this rewrite letter? Gratefully. This wasn't a paid critique by a professional editor, but part of a revision process with an acquiring editor. Her letter was actually very gracious, even as it was comprehensive and insightful. I learned more from this editor in one year, more quickly, than anyone else had ever taught me about writing. So, you know, there was an initial moment when I thought, "I can't do this." But it wasn't long before I cleared my head and got back to work.

Jude Hardin said... should always start with your theme.

You know, the extreme irony of this debate is that I'm pretty sure John Gardner never said any such thing. I've been looking through my copy of The Art of Fiction, and Gardner's philosophy is actually the same Stephen King's: that fiction should start with plotting, with Story, and that themes should be exploited in subsequent drafts.

But Mark's advice is still the best: whatever works.

LurkerMonkey said...

Hmm ... but is that really ironic?

Zoe Winters said...

I'm just troubled that your main character is scaly. That might not be the most important part though. :P

LurkerMonkey said...

Ha ha. No, it's not a case of psoriasis. It's actually pretty important.