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Themes and schemes

Julie Cohen, whose blog I’ve mentioned before, had an interesting post the other day about the importance of understanding your book’s theme. Not as in ‘it’s about a woman who runs a sweet shop and meets a bank robber’ but the deeper theme – maybe identity, or regrets, or honesty or all of the above.

I think this is so important. Very often, I’ve heard writers describe their story in purely plot terms – ‘It’s about a man who goes around collecting statues of elephants’ – or in ways that are rather abstract – ‘it’s about our fascination with celebrity’. Hearing this doesn’t always want to make me want to read it. But if you get an inkling of the emotional heart of the story it’s very different. That’s what pulls you in.

If you don’t know what your theme is, you’re probably not alone. I recently wrote a post on how I only found out what my first book’s theme really was once I’d finished several drafts. I always knew that it was about a girl who lacks confidence, and who gains it in the course of the story, and who learns to tell Mr Right from Mr Run a Mile. But only in the rewrites did I discover how important that was and how to foreground it more, and that there were other themes waiting to be brought out: the difference between reality and romance, and also the fear of not being loved and how you face that fear. Plus also some funny stuff about mishaps with a bikini and getting drunk with film stars.

With my second book, which I’m working on now, I feel I’ve got the opposite problem. The top-line description is that it’s about a girl who goes back in time to fix a relationship that she messed up. I know what my themes are – basically it’s about wanting to change the past, and it’s also about learning to be yourself, and how to distinguish the things you CAN and should change in life and those you can’t. But I’m finding it very hard, on a plot level, to figure out what happens when and how to organise the book (not surprising I suppose when you throw time-travel into the mix). Someone somewhere described writing as a process of problem-solving and that’s what I’m doing right now. So if you’re doing the same thing, I feel your pain and you’re not alone!

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