Jeff O'Handley

The Doubting Writer Finds His Voice

A Thought On Theme, Or What It’s All About

Here I am at five in the morning, posting because I can’t sleep, not sleeping because I picked up a cold with a really bad sore throat over the weekend. Here I am also writing about my writing for the first time in forever! My apologies for all the rants lately, and thanks for sticking around.

One of the unexpected discoveries of my birthday bash/reunion weekend last month was that one of my old friends is/was working on a novel of his own. This came up when someone asked me, “How’s the writing going?” and the almost-inevitable follow-up, “What do you write?” This second is a question that I stumble badly with, as I think I’ve mentioned before. After stammering my way through a plot summary and trying to find a way to define it (“It’s not a genre, but it’s not quite literary, but blah, blah, blah”), my friend mentioned his novel, something he started working on a few yeas back when he was commuting via train. He said his novel was currently 400 manuscript pages, that he expected it to top out around 800 (!) when he was finally done–and then he would cut it from there. The problem for him, he said, is that he is no longer commuting, so he’s not really writing.

At this point, he gave us a good, solid plot summary (and it sounded pretty interesting, I have to say) and then talked about what the book is actually about–“It’s about personal responsibility,” he said, and then some more that I don’t quite remember, but he was very clear, and I was very jealous because I still find it extremely difficult to talk about what I write without feeling overly self-conscious and a little pretentious. And, there is a certain degree of mushiness in  there. He’s writing a book  that’s themed around personal responsibility–what is my theme?

Well, as it turns out, there are themes that run through my writing. Looking back over the manuscripts I’ve completed–and even the one I didn’t really finish (my first NaNo) and the one I haven’t really started yet, I can see a couple of themes running through. The trend is for main characters who are–or feel like–outsiders. They’re trying to find acceptance, trying to find their place in the world, whether that world be within the confines of society at large, a small, somewhat insular town, or their own family. It’s not, I suppose an uncommon theme, and maybe I can drill down a little deeper and define it even more than that, but maybe it will be enough, and the next time someone asks, I’ll be able to answer without sounding like a fool.

Editing to ADD: Critique Time Over at Carrie’s! Submit your query for a chance to be critiqued! Great opportunity!

5 Responses

  1. I think a lot of us probably don't realise we have themes until we step back and look at what we've done. I totally get the feeling awkward when asked about my writing – I never have a clear answer either!

  2. I'm like a deer in the headlights when someone asks about my writing too. I manage to choke out "Horror…about a killer clown." which is generic enough that I feel they'll get it. Theme runs through all my stories, but I think it's important not to be too messagy in the book and not just blurt out your theme to casual questioners. It should be something they infer if they read it, not pounded over the head with. (Although people's own world view often leads them to interpret your theme in their own way, which isn't necessarily yours). So don't sweat telling them the details or the theme, just find a cool hook that they can relate to, and give them that. 🙂

  3. I do, Donna. I guess I just have to practice more!
    -Nick–Interesting enough, I will think fairly early on of some theme I want for the story, but I had never really noticed any sort of pattern before, that there was something bigger connecting my various tales other than that I was the one writing them.
    -Jemi–imagine yourself being interviewed by someone–it might help!
    -Lexa–Does 'killer clown' send them running away? Or do they say, "Oh, like Stephen King?" or something? I agree, I try not to be too message-y; that's no fun. And you're right, people will often read all kinds of things into stories (I remember how English teachers would constantly tell us what the other intended, and what the theme was. I always wondered if how they knew if the author *really* meant that or not).

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