“What’s your theme?”
I scrunched up my face, pursing my lips. “Um…” I paused, trying to find words. Wat-R-Werdz? I’m tongue-tied, not exactly sure how to answer. How does one put years’ worth of thought and consideration, writing, rewriting, and labor into a simple phrase?
He probably thought I would answer “stuff and things”- my catch phrase for describing the thin1gs I don’t feel like writing. Like how to get characters from one room to the next in a chapter. The boring stuff. The tedious details that make up 75% of any book because characters can’t live in the exciting scenes in every moment. Sometimes they simply have to do stuff and things in between all the really exciting bits. It takes skill to weave the stuff and things into a chapter and make it fluid.
Sometimes it feels like coming up with book blurbs, summaries, and all the other bits and bobs of marketing are also like writing stuff and things.
But I digress. He’d just asked me my theme. I’m sure it’s a question he’s asked hundreds of writers he’s met with. It’s probably the first question he asks when trying to get to know writers. But the thing is, I’d already developed my theme. In fact, I sent it to him. It was in front of him on the single page summary he’d requested from me:
Wisdom and meaning prevail when the courageous and unapologetic seeker of truth pushes beyond status quo and questions what is before her, finally accepting that truth isn’t hard to find, it’s hard to embrace.
That’s the theme I’d worked up through a lot of sweat, toil, and tears. Okay, maybe not tears, and maybe not sweat, but definitely toil. I’d learned a lot about creating themes from my study of Shawn Coyne’s Story Grid method. So I knew exactly what he meant and why a theme is important. In fact, I can’t really write anything without a theme. I need to know why I’m writing something, because the things I write need meaning. So this is the heart of why his question perplexed me. I’d already given him my theme. So what was he really after?
“My theme for the Empyrion novels was simple. Evil carries its own destruction. That was it. A theme doesn’t have to be long. In fact, it shouldn’t be. It doesn’t even have to be a full sentence.”
So I got to thinking more, and while the longer theme statement works, I realized I needed an “elevator pitch,” a phrase I can say quickly when someone on an elevator asks me why my book matters and I only have three floors to explain it.
Now that I’ve thought on it a bit, I already know my elevator theme, and it’s hidden in my long version: Truth is not hard to find, it’s hard to embrace.
This was one of the many insights I gained from my conversation with author Stephen Lawhead over Zoom this past Saturday morning. I’d found a comfortable place in the basement, behind a closed door where I could have what he’d referred to as a short meeting (it turned out to be a long one, though I certainly am not complaining). It was scheduled for 9 a.m., and as I waited for him to join me in his personal meeting room on Zoom, I sat patiently reading a book I’d pulled off the shelf from behind me. An anthology of essays called The Nazi Revolution: Problems in European Civilization. You know, the kind of book an average person might pick up to read on a bright February Saturday morning. Right? Isn’t that normal? Anyone? Anyway…
But let me take you back a few months to where this all started. It was a November day, and my phone rang. It was my sister, and she called to tell me she needed to spoil my Christmas present by telling me what it was, even if it was a month early. She recently supported author Stephen Lawhead by investing in a Kickstarter campaign he’d run to fund the publication of an enhanced version of his first novel, Dream Thief. I had supported it as well, but I had only purchased a small package. But my sister went all in, purchasing a package which involved one-on-one manuscript review and a couple of consultation sessions with Lawhead himself. She decided to gift the consultations to me.
I was floored. Stephen Lawhead has been one of the most influential writers on my own writing journey, affecting not only the kinds of stories that appeal to me as a reader, but also shaping my intellectual curiosity through much of my formative years. The first novel I read of his was a fantasy, In the Hall of the Dragon King. Next came The Song of Albion trilogy, which caused me to fall in love with mythic Britain. I’ve pre-ordered and purchased every single one of his books ever since. I’ve even been told by multiple readers that my writing style mimics his. And I honestly couldn’t receive higher praise. One of these people was none other than Sharon Kay Penman herself after she’d read Byzantium and made the immediate comparison.
So I got to work and prepared his requested one-page summary, including my approach to writing, and the first 20 pages of my manuscript. I explained that my primary goal for his input was getting help to establish setting. I knew the story I was trying to tell, but felt like I hadn’t adequately painted a picture of the world Nuri (my main character) lived in.
A few months passed, and last week he contacted me, asking for a quick meeting to get things rolling. You’ve already read how our conversation started off almost immediately.
We talked about theme for a bit, but then he moved into a conversation about the orientation of the writer, how the writer is meant to stay out of the way of the story. Writing is more of a performance art than anything else. The writer gets into the role of the character and merely reports what she sees, writes down the movie that plays in her head. I’ve actually always written this way, so I just kept nodding in total agreement with him.
For example, he told me of the time he and his wife, Alice, saw Jeremy Brett- who played the formidable Sherlock Holmes in the Granada TV series from 1984 to 1994- in a play in London based on his Holmes character. After the performance was finished, the actors came out on stage and answered questions from the audience. All of them, except for Brett, interacted with the audience as themselves. Brett, however, maintained the persona of Holmes. This initially struck Lawhead as arrogant. Didn’t he have enough respect for his audience to be real with them? It was only later, Lawhead says, that he realized Brett had intentionally stayed in character because it would take too long for him to descend into the persona for the next performance.
(I think Jeremy Brett is the BEST ever to play Sherlock Holmes. Prove me wrong.)
All of this brought him around to discussing my manuscript. Being as gentle as possible, he explained that as he read my story, he had a hard time finding an anchor to grab on to. I had to work to wrap my mind around what he meant by that. But once I understood, the lightbulb went on, and I realized he was getting at the heart of the problem I’d noticed on my own but couldn’t articulate.
“Stories succeed when written on the slant,” he said. “And you are hitting it on the nose.” The theme I had been operating from was too straight on in my storytelling, and my setting was suffering. “Try finding an alternate setting that will help bring the story alive, giving the reader an immediate anchor to draw them in.”
We dove into that more, tossing around ideas that had already begun to spin in my head. And of course, if I go into that bit of the discussion, I’ll give too much away. Suffice it to say, I’m going to rewrite the book again.
I’ve already written three full drafts of this 100,000-word book, but I’m about to do it again. And this time, with a completely new invented setting. And it will involve doing some research. Yes, it feels daunting. That’s a lot of writing and a lot of words. But at the end of the day, I want the book to mean something. So if that means writing it over and over until I get it right, I’m happy to do so. I’m writing what John Garner calls “true fiction,” not “toy fiction,” and writing true fiction takes time.
When we ended our Zoom session an hour later, I felt like I was flying on a cloud. My project has a renewed sense of vigor and purpose. I can see the entire thing much more clearly, and now I have a good sense of where I’m going with it. Not just the theme. That hasn’t changed in essence. But now I can see the movie in my mind.
Now I only need to capture the movie, put it into words, and report what I see so you, the reader, can join me on the journey.
I’ll get back with him again in the future, so he can see the progress I’ve made, and I’m sure that I’ll be very excited to share how his help has hugely impacted me. Oh, and we may very well get together for coffee and a chit chat the next time he’s in Minneapolis.
“Think not of turning away… consider only turning from image to object, stepping from shadow into light, exchanging slavery for freedom.”—Stephen Lawhead, Taliesin