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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?”

Personal Essay Writing

It takes a certain kind of organization to make money and develop its people in equal measure. The national PR agency, InkHouse, recently created Hindsight 2020, a book of essays written by the team about moments of consciousness that opened them up to new points of view. According to CEO, Beth Monaghan, such moments of clarity are important in PR because new connections are the essence of stories that allow someone else’s experience to exist next to our own. That is the very job of PR, to bring people and ideas together.

As the coach and developmental editor for Hindsight, I oriented prospective writers to the judging criteria. This criteria would be used to select the top 20 entries for inclusion in the book—and eventually the top three winners as well. Each essay was scored in four categories, with a maximum amount of 25 points per category: VOICE, STRUCTURE, PROFICIENCY, and IMPACT.

VOICE, or: How well the writer’s unique voice comes through in content and expression.

  • Since this was a work setting, the first thing to tackle was how comfortable authors felt to liberate their voice. Wasn’t this work, after all? How close did they want to allow their co-workers to get? I encouraged them, wherever appropriate, to get personal. This was the kind of workplace in which people really did want to get to know each other, and not just use inside information to seize a weakness and climb past someone else on the corporate ladder.
  • Trying too hard is an inherent turnoff for audiences in both PR and in essay writing, so I tried to steer writers away from trying to impress. At the same time, it wouldn’t do to go to the opposite pole and try to shock anybody on purpose, to put the chip on the shoulder on full display.
  • Rather, they were encouraged to consider who their true audience members were. Was there one person at work who got them? Who can you tell your truth to? Who raises your frequency? Who calls you to account? Who loves you at your best?
  • Because see, here’s the thing: There is no such thing as voice in the abstract—there is only tone of voice. Or to put it another way, you don’t look for your voice; you find your audience. And then the tone you take to ring some bells for them, that is what delivers a great sentence. And another one…

STRUCTURE, or: How well the piece evolves around its theme, balances digressions, and creates links and repetitions.

  • For readers of this blog, it will come as no surprise that I recommend honing in on one’s theme as the key to structure. The overarching theme of Hindsight was a moment of clarity that opened the author up to another point of view, a new perspective, or a new curiosity. It could be a historical event, a moment in their life, or their work. Writers then chose a personalized embodiment of that theme.
  • When presented with such a topic, you may have more than one possibility floating around your head. If that was the case, I recommended trying out several possibilities—and being honest about which one really had your heart and mind. Where the writing goes, the writer needs to go after it.
  • Once a moment of clarity was chosen, it was examined; when examined, it was seen to be actually a series of moments. Scenes, if you will. I ran through the five definitions of scene to help generate first draft material, select second draft material and hone third draft material.
  • Finally, we discussed placing those scenes in either chronological or narrative order. We took it as a matter of aesthetic faith that there was a perfect order for one’s chosen scenes that would best relate a moment of clarity that had stayed with its author.

PROFICIENCY: Or, Proper sentence and narrative structure; capable handling of facts and research where necessary.

  • Since we were exploring writing within a public relations environment, it was important to place the essay in the wider context of the world. Such “data” could include findings from a study, a quote from an expert, or statistics that would bring in a degree of objectivity.
  • We didn’t cover topics like grammar or consistency of stylistic usage, but we did touch on how to use the drafting process to bring out clarity in their work. Earlier drafts sometimes can only ask a question that the later drafts will answer. Working on an essay five times will make it stronger than working on it once. That sort of thing.

IMPACT: Or, Effect on the reader in terms of opens up a new point of view/curiosity.

  • I loved this criteria for judging. At the same time, an author will never know that. Or rather, the only way to assess what topic and approach will move others is to assume if it really relates to you, it will relate to us.
  • The question then becomes: What’s in it for me? Which topic, which aspect of that topic will lead to greater self-knowledge? What are you still trying to understand? If you ask yourself a key question, readers may ask it of themselves.
  • To get the answer, of course, you have to open yourself up. You have to allow yourself to be changed. What space do you want to move into? Where is the energy coming from that needs to be liberated? Or to put it another way, in order to make something interesting to other people, you may have to scare the shit out of yourself first.

Brainstorming Your Book’s Support Materials

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 #9.

If we want to attract the attention of a literary agent who will take our manuscript to larger publishers or if we want to approach a smaller publisher on our own, we have some more work to do. If you are writing non-fiction, you will need a book proposal and a query letter; if you are writing fiction, you will need a query letter (and possibly a synopsis). Generating these documents does not need to be a dreaded exercise. Instead, you can use the process to learn more about your own work, which will help you hone it through subsequent revisions, and also be of practical use in your book’s press release, back cover, web copy, and other promotional literature.

I know this won’t shock you, but I think the best way to write your book’s support materials is through a three-draft process. For the first draft, the messy draft, all I recommend doing is answering questions. It is in that spirit then, that we will proceed.

Non-Fiction Book Proposal

The traditional non-fiction book proposal has six sections. You may see numbers that fluctuate from that slightly, but that is because some sources recommend combining certain sections and exploding others. In this PDF we will focus only on the first four: The Overview/About the Audience, About the Author, Marketing & Promotion, and Competitive Titles. After that you will want to present your material in both highly synopsized form in a Proposed Table of Contents and in full-blown fashion in your best Sample Chapters.

Overview/About the Audience

(Length: 2-4 pages, longer if incorporating sample material up front)

Some agents recommend separating these two sections from each other as well as starting with a writing sample—something dramatic that draws people in, either one medium-length story or more short snippets that demonstrate what makes your work unique. I suggest that we combine all of these approaches in the same section and that we make sure to answer these questions:

Uniqueness

  • What is the hook of this book?
  • What does your book do that no other books do?
  • What is the title and does it reflect the book’s uniqueness?
  • What is the subtitle and how does it tell the rest of the story?
  • What passages in your book represent this uniqueness most succinctly?

Audience

  • How would you define the audience?
  • How do you know them?
  • How do they think?
  • What results can they expect to get from this book?
  • What do they see as their problem or goal?
  • How would you like your book to affect the lives of your readers?
  • How would you describe the tone of voice you use to reach these readers?

Marketplace

  • What is the genre of your book?
  • Where would it be housed in a bookstore, or what would people search for online?

You can think about your Overview as your “Highlights of Qualifications,” for those of you who have been on the job search lately or are in charge of interviewing candidates. It’s not the worst thing in the world to repeat yourself either, both in the Overview and in the sections that are to follow. If you’ve read Finish Your Book in Three Drafts (3D), you know how I feel about repetitions (with variation!).

About the Author

(Length: 1-2 pages)

Literary agents and smaller publishers want to know about you—and not just the fact that you’re not psychotic. This is the section to tell us about you, both from the perspective of the traditional CV and who you really (also?) are.

CV

  • What are your largest accomplishments in the field in which you are writing?
  • What awards have you received?
  • What have you written and where has it been published?
  • What degrees do you hold?
  • Where have you been recognized as an expert in your field?

(Also) You

  • What makes you unique?
  • How did you get into this line of work?
  • Where does your interest in this area come from within yourself, or when did you realize you had empathy with people who read about this topic?

Marketing & Promotion

(Length: 1-3 pages)

Having defined your audience in the Overview, in this section you will talk about how you plan to reach them. Numbers are key here; I spoke with an agent recently who said the only thing that really matters is your book’s concept and your platform. By platform, she meant how many people you currently reach. Numbers, in other words.

Scope of Activities

  • When it comes to the active promotion of your book, where will you be putting your attentions?
  • Are there conferences where you can speak and support your book?
  • Are there organizations that might buy your book in bulk?
  • Could your book be taught?
  • How much time do you have to devote to the promotion of your book, and how naturally do these efforts dovetail with your current position?
  • What media outlets are currently waiting to help you publicize your book?
  • Where are your current contacts?

Numbers

  • How many people visit your website monthly?
  • How many followers do you have on Facebook (or friends depending on whether you have a personal or professional page), Twitter or Instagram?
  • How many connections do you have on LinkedIn, or followers if you use their publishing platform?
  • How many subscribers are there on your email newsletter list?
  • What about the organizations who will get the word out about your book—what are their numbers?

In this section, you can also speak to the valuable lessons you have learned from the promotion of your other works or your career in general—either about your audience or yourself—that might inform your promotional effort. Clips that showcase you as an expert in your field are great—ones that show you as mediagenic are even better. Some people get crazy with color, images, and live links here; others stick with plain text. Right now we’re just trying to figure out which direction your most magnetic and connected side faces.

Competitive Titles

(Length: 2-3 pages)

The way I usually approach this section is to begin with one opening paragraph about your book. This is followed by 3-5 individual entries on the other top books in your field, and possibly a brief conclusion (or if your opener to this section is strong enough, you may have covered everything already).

Opener

  • What is your book about, really?
  • How might you compare it to other books on the subject in terms of style, content, and/or voice?
  • How does it fit in with what’s out there?

Individual Books

  • What are the top-selling books in the genre your book belongs to (as identified in the Overview), and/or what are the emblematic books in this genre that everybody knows?
  • What works well about these particular books?
  • What has changed in the world or about your subject since these particular books were published?
  • What part of your subject do these particular books not cover (that yours does)?

We have to be careful not to put other books down too much in this section—it will be the same publishing house editors who are reviewing your proposal that purchased these other books! Depending on your genre, I think it is useful to note that readers often don’t have just one book in the fields of writing reference, say, or business memoir— therefore you can shade this discussion toward how your book complements the others and present its publication as a kind of win-win. I have even gone so far as to sometimes retitle this section, “Comparative Titles,” in that light.

Query Letter

The query letter to literary agents or smaller publishers is often broken down into three paragraphs, which are presented in the following order:

  • The Hook
  • The Book
  • The Cook (the author)

Okay, the cook is kind of stupid… but it rhymes. You can consult the Overview section of the non-fiction book proposal above for help brainstorming your hook, except, instead of writing 2-4 pages, try to write one paragraph. Likewise, if you need inspiration for how to describe yourself (the cook, final wince) you can look in the About the Author section.

For how to describe your book, I recommend you consult PDF #6. It walks you through how to generate a four-sentence statement of what your book is about, which you can use as your elevator pitch here in the middle paragraph.

I know there are people who don’t agree with me, but I think when you approach a literary agent with both a query letter and a non-fiction book proposal, it’s okay to repeat yourself in both documents. Readers don’t pick up 100 percent of what you are putting down. Especially if the next time they see something, you are varying it, putting a spin on it; I think that’s just sound argument making. We’ll see if it works!

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.