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Finding Your Theme

Finish Your Book in Three Drafts (3D), the third book in the Book Architecture trilogy, came accompanied by a wealth of writing know-how in the form of 9 bonus PDFs. We are opening up the vault for the first time and publishing them here: one blog at a time. Behold, PDF #6.

In Finish Your Book in Three Drafts (3D), I recommended four ways of finding your theme. What follows here is a hybrid of these strategies that I designed for a workshop setting originally but that can be applied to your work as it stands right now.

Although I definitely recommend doing theme work while preparing to write your method draft, it can be done at any time, and more than once. Each iteration gets you closer to the heart of something that is always changing before it gets fixed in the form of a finished book.

Step 1. Write a four-sentence description of what your book is about. You might use the top four of your series sentences in a top-down order of importance, or you might just use your presence and your instinct.

When we did this exercise in class, my student Kimberly reflected on her work-in-progress and wrote the following:

This is not a theme so much as it is an elevator pitch—you know, that brief speech you are supposed to have prepared in case you ever run into a literary agent and have exactly one minute to pitch your book.

That is for the external world. A theme, on the other hand, is for you, to help you bring your book to the next level by rearranging the key components around the one thing that holds your work together.

As such, you can probably take out the who, the where, and the when from your theme-in–progress…after all, you already know them. See if you can focus instead on the what, the how, and the why, when you complete the next step.

Step 2. Reduce your four-sentence description to a two-sentence description of what your book is about.

This is a bit like reducing a sauce over medium-high heat. You don’t want to damage any of the ingredients, but you have to end up with less.

When Kimberly combined and eliminated her theme material, she came up with the following two sentences:


This is close, but there is still too much going on here. While the last three actions—“finding hope,” “accepting the past,” and “choosing a future”—are all obviously related, each could be the theme of a book.

Step 3. Reduce your two-sentence description to a one-sentence description of what your book is about. Kimberly chose hers by circling it in her notebook:

“Choosing a future” is rich enough that it implies other necessary actions; it is internally wound in a way that provokes both curiosity and identification in the reader. “I want to read about that,” someone might say. “That affects me today.”

“Choosing a future” is short as far as themes go; you know from 3D that a theme can be as long as twenty-eight words or longer. The shortest a theme can be, however, is two words: a subject and a verb. If you just have a subject, like “Madness” or “Adultery,” you might proliferate your manuscript with associations, but you will get distracted and confused without a direction to travel in.

One of my students once told me the theme of her novel was “Conformity.” Her story looked at three generations of Germans: the first succumbed to the Nazi regime; the next violently rejected anyone who was a part of their nation’s darkest era; and the third tried to navigate a path between generations at such odds with each other.

It wasn’t until my student announced, “Conformity corrodes,” that the subject could be limited, or at least bounded, and the verb could operate through all of the major actions of her book. Having a subject and a verb is akin to having a topic and an angle at the same time. Of course, a theme can be much longer than two words, as evidenced by the variety presented in 3D and the next PDF (PDF #7 – stay tuned!). But it has to be short enough that you can remember it when you are at your desk and you get a new idea. By holding the theme in mind, you can then ask, “How does this idea apply?”

Seven Themes from Well-Known Narratives

Finish Your Book in Three Drafts (3D), the third book in the Book Architecture trilogy, came accompanied by a wealth of writing know-how in the form of 9 bonus PDFs. We are opening up the vault for the first time and publishing them here: one blog at a time. Behold, PDF #7.

Sometimes I get asked if I think that every great work of narrative has a single theme that sustains it. In other words, does a book have to be about one thing in order to be great?

The answer is no, of course. I am suggesting your book can only be about one thing because of the helpfulness such a construction brings, not because it is some hard-and-fast rule. I suggest a theme because it can give you a mantra to focus your mind.

There was a period of my life when I was into reading Russian novels. I loved Fyodor Dostoevsky’s The Brothers Karamazov. In fact, it saved my life one summer when I was working my most menial of waiting-tables jobs. That said, structurally that book is a mess. It seems to repeat entirely 200 pages; I’m not sure it was even edited.

If you take Leo Tolstoy’s novel Anna Karenina, on the other hand, the theme is present on the first page. In fact, it is the very first line:

Theme #1:

“Happy families are all alike; every unhappy family is unhappy in its own way.”

Tolstoy then goes on to give us 800+ pages, but if we ever forget what this book is about, we can go back to page one and refresh ourselves.

Sometimes the theme comes at the end of a work instead. J. K. Rowling’s theme for the entire Harry Potter series comes in the seventh and final volume; imagine writing a theme not just for one book but for seven books all in the same sentence:

Theme #2:

“Where your treasure is, there will your heart be also.”

With a series that spans more than 4,000 pages and has such a large and devoted following, I can’t imagine that a single person out there would disagree with me. That’s a joke. Nonetheless, we will press on, and I will present Potter scholar C.S. Plocher’s rationale for the above theme she chose:

“The biggest theme in the Harry Potter series is the fight between good and evil. Snape plays a big part in that theme because we’re not sure for most of the series if he’s a good guy or a bad guy. Rowling puts a twist on the classic ‘good and evil’ when we find out in the end that Snape is fighting for the good guys but not really for the right reason. Snape loved Harry’s mother and he felt responsible for her death, so he became a double agent for the good side even though he’s ‘spiteful’ and ‘a bully’ (Rowling’s words). Rowling summed up the whole idea in the last book in her series when she wrote on a tombstone, ‘Where your treasure is, there will your heart be also.’


I’m not sure if that’s what you were looking for?”

That’s what we’re looking for, all right. Your theme can be stated as a maxim, moral, or message, all of which have different shades of expression. Rowling’s theme is what I would call a maxim. We find an example of moral in Hans Christian Andersen’s short story “The Ugly Duckling.”

Theme #3:

“It does not matter in the least having been born in a duckyard, if only you come out of a swan’s egg.”

It’s a moral because it has a more specific value system assigned to it. Something in between a maxim and a moral is a message. A message is never fully expressed, except through a variety of examples that all add up to something larger than the sum of its parts. In Don Freeman’s children’s book Corduroy, the message is an anti-materialist screed about what’s really important in life. That’s my reading of all the iterations of the I’ve Always Wanted series [for more, see chapter one of Book Architecture (BA)]. The fifth iteration in this series reads:

Theme #4

“I know I’ve always wanted a home.”

A message can exist within one series or at the crossroads of several different series; if it is the latter, it will likely need to be stated a few different ways, as Joseph Heller does in his novel Catch-22:

Theme #5

“Immoral logic seemed to be confounding him at every turn.”
“There just doesn’t seem to be any logic to this system of rewards and punishment.” (If you’ve ever seen the film version of Catch-22, you will either love it or hate it, but I think it does a good job of presenting this theme to the viewer. The movie was based on a 450-page book, so what more do you want?)

When narratives are written specifically for film, it is easier to write the theme directly into one of the character’s speeches so that it becomes memorable, since a screenplay is usually fewer than 30,000 words. That’s what Aaron Sorkin did in The Social Network when Eduardo says:

Theme #6

“See, in a world where social structure was everything, that (the ability to invite— or not invite—friends to join Facebook) was the thing.”

Every chance I get, I praise this film for the way even the tangential scenes all relate to series and contribute to the theme of Exclusivity. (For more, see chapter four of BA).

And now we have arrived at my favorite of the seven themes I chose to include in this PDF/blog. It comes from the film Slumdog Millionaire.

Theme #7

“What the hell can a slumdog possibly know?”

Why is it my favorite? For one thing, its elegance is straightforward. For another, it indicates not only the Inspector’s character but also the attitude of millions of people regarding India’s caste system. But best of all, it also directs the main action of the film (what I have called the central series) and gives us the beginning, the middle, and the end.

All in eight words. No pressure.

How To Set Up A Book Tour: Part I – Preparation

Thanks to Where Writers Win for posting this on their blog on July 19, 2016

“There’s only one thing more frightening than being asked to do a book tour, and that’s not being asked to do a book tour.” —Gerald Petievich

This is the first of a three-part series on setting up your own author tour. I almost included the word “offline” in the title because so many tours these days are blog tours where the author participates in question & answer sessions, contributes guest blogs, or publishes an excerpt…and never has to leave his or her seat.

For the publication of my most recent book on writing, Finish Your Book in Three Drafts: How to Write a Book, Revise a Book and Complete a Book While You Still Love It, I did all of these things, and I had a terrific experience with each one. But I also like to leave my desk. So here we won’t be talking about the safe, comfortable online tour, but a road trip tour, a spotlight on stage, face-to-face book tour.

And you don’t need someone else to set this tour up for you. Since the publication of my first book, Blueprint Your Bestseller: Organize and Revise Any manuscript with the Book Architecture Method, in January of 2013, I’ve been on tour throughout North America. I have covered over 75,000 miles and just completed Tour Spot #72, setting up every venue appearance myself.

You may still be skeptical. That’s okay. Throughout this series, I’ll invite you to ask critical questions such as:

  • Who is paying for all of this?
  • How many books do you sell on average?
  • Isn’t this a lot of work?

In exchange, I’ll ask you to be honest about some of the questions that you might prefer to leave unspoken, like:

  • What if I’m terrified to present my work in front of other people?
  • How would I even begin to set up an author tour?
  • What if no one shows up?

And let us see if we agree on one thing before we begin. Magic happens in front of other people that could never be replicated online, with benefits for both the audience and the performer.

Your Launch Kit

Let’s break up the steps to prepare for your book tour in order to prevent overwhelm, and start with the Launch Kit, which includes:

  • author bio: long & short
  • book description (elevator pitch): long & short
  • headshot!
  • notable blurbs/endorsements
  • presentation or workshop description

Author Bio

I like to have two versions, one that is 200 words long, and one that is 100 words and retains the highlights. Actually, I have (19) bios, but that is not ideal. Bio maintenance isn’t something anybody wants to do, like updating your LinkedIn profile when you’re not looking for a job. But knocking these two versions out and the outset can make your life much easier.

Book Description

Just like the Author Bio you should have this in two versions, a longer one that can function as a press release of, say, 600 words, and a shorter one of 200 words that can be taken from your back cover copy.


If you are in the writing game for any degree of personal glory you will probably relish having this done. I know I did. But I have also seen a painfully shy author get beautiful photos done because the people taking her photo liked her book. This is not a self-indulgent step you should talk yourself out of doing. Also for this item, I would hire a professional ($). Note: throughout this series I will identify the amount of money you are likely to spend by the number of dollar signs present.

Notable blurbs or endorsements

This can strike fear into one’s heart, because everything is relative. You never know if the people you know are “big” enough. For Finish Your Book in Three Drafts I solved this by simply going to three people who I knew really understood and appreciated my work. Two of them were published authors in my genre and one of them was an award-winning coach…but you still may not have heard their names (yet!). I went to them for a different reason than their name recognition though. I chose them because of what they would say.

In my opinion, that is the most impactful part of a blurb or testimonial. Whenever someone says something good about you that is called a “third-party recommendation.” Any blurb will have that covered, and then people go on to see what your recommenders had to say. Okay, maybe if I had landed Anne Lamott for my cover page, the needle would have flickered a little more. But as my old editor at Penguin used to tell me, “Blurbs don’t sell books.”

Presentation or Workshop Description

You will need to have a description of your presentation. And before that, you will need to actually have a presentation. Don’t just show up and rely on the skill of your host (or expect that there will be a host) or the good graces of your audience to come loving you and wanting just to ask softball questions. Have something to say; have a beginning, middle, and end; and know who might like to attend.

Also, keep your options open. Be flexible about length, format or content. Communicate that willingness to meet a venue part-way, and they will love you forever.

Customizing Your Outreach

The best thing about creating your launch kit is that you can combine these elements into any of the following, with even basic design skills:

  • sales sheets
  • flyers
  • posters

You can also hire a graphic designer ($$) to do some of this work for you. Click here to see a sample of a sales sheet that we put together at Book Architecture, so no $, besides salary. You can also send a fully designed poster to a venue to print for you before your arrival (no $). It can be the same poster as last time, just with a few changes to the venue, date/time, and other relevant information which can vary, like whether there is an admission charge.

Your Boilerplate Outreach Email

Now we have climbed to the pinnacle of your preparation efforts: the outreach email. Fortunately, we can build on everything you’ve already done, so you are already there. I have put the purpose at the beginning of each paragraph in bold, and followed the sample writing with some additional observations in ALL CAPS.

I hope this email finds you well!

connection: As a veteran of the Bay Area where I lived for 5 years in the previous decade I know that if you want to bring an event to writers, aspiring and accomplished both, in the East Bay you start and end at (name and address omitted). And thus I am getting in touch to see if we might partner on an event. On Tuesday, July 29th I will be on a West Coast leg of my book tour. SH: YOU GOTTA ASK. REMEMBER VENUES ARE LOOKING FOR CONTENT.

book description: My book, Blueprint Your Bestseller: Organize and Revise any Manuscript with the Book Architecture Method came out from Penguin/Perigee and has been getting raves from both readers and reviewers, including being chosen as one of the best books on writing for 2013 by The Writer Magazine.

event: My multimedia presentation on revision is totally unique, featuring a series of stop-motion animations to demonstrate some common aspects with which writers struggle. You can see some of the highlights in this two minute video: Welcome. SH: WE’LL TALK ABOUT TOUR TRAILERS IN THE NEXT INSTALLMENT OF THIS SERIES.

notable social proof: In 2013, I completed (20) stops on the first year of my two year North American tour. Some highlights include solo presentations at the Writer’s Digest Conference in NYC and the Tucson Festival of Books, and standing-room-only workshops in San Diego, Boston, and Taos, NM. The tour is now rolling strong into its second year. More information about it (and about my work in general) can be found on my website: www.bookarchitecture.com/tour.

what you’ll do: As I mentioned in the first graph I have plenty of “peeps” SH: NOTE CASUAL SLANG who will want to turn out to see me at (Name and address omitted). In addition, I will gladly work with you to determine which newspapers (especially arts sections), listings, local blogs, patches, and writing groups (including genre groups), colleges and universities, libraries and other organizations with listserves I should contact – and follow-up exhaustively. My turn-outs have been routinely excellent, and attendees leave inspired and rededicated to their craft.

attachments and be polite: I have attached a press kit (READ: LAUNCH KIT) to this email. Can you let me know what other information you might need?

Looking forward to the possibility!

I sent this email to the best store in my genre in the entire Bay Area. I actually used to dream of being in their Writing Reference section. Their answer came back in four hours. Sure. Love to have you.

In other cases I received a no, or no answer. In the next installment in this series we’ll go over uncovering leads and locating venues in more detail. The theme: If you don’t hear no every now and then, you’re not trying hard enough.

Pitching the Indie-Published Book Tour

One word on independently, or self-published, books. This is changing so quickly (just last month, Barnes & Noble announced they would begin carrying self-published books), that my advice may already be out of date. So I will just say, it can be a dance.

Being independently published should not be a deal breaker, if you can demonstrate enough other professionalism and enthusiasm. And always make sure that your book is bookstore friendly: i.e, you offer a 55% discount, not 40%; your books are returnable; and they are available via a major distributor such as IngramSpark and not exclusively on Amazon’s Createspace. Perigee/Penguin published my first book, and my company (Book Architecture, LLC) published my second and third books. I saw no change in the number or quality of venues who wanted to work with me. In fact, the tour has only grown in the stature of opportunities.

More Mantras!

Believe It field Unsplash

Finish Your Book in Three Drafts provides these and more mantras to help writers with whatever draft they’re in. For the second, or “method draft”, it’s all about change.

Sometimes Isolate Unsplash

Or not changing.

The second draft is re-visioning your manuscript, and Finish Your Book in Three Drafts gives you the tools you need to take the best parts of your book up a level.

To help you ASAP, here is a package of free screen savers of the book’s Draft Two Mantras.  You can download them: HERE. And if you’re a technoklutz like me, you can get the instructions for how to install them: HERE.