Just Keep Going: Finally Getting to My Theme

He’s making me boil my novel down to One Thing. Your novel needs to be about One Thing, he tells me! I fight it. It can’t be just about One Thing! There is a complex and nuanced web of interwoven themes about human nature that… that… Okay. Fine. I can rail at his written page as much as I want, but I will not escape that inner tug that tells me what I stubbornly don’t want to believe. He’s right. My novel can only be about One Thing – what he calls the “theme” and what the rest of us could call the “moral of the story”. It’s the punchy answer to the question, “What’s your novel about?”

Fighting It

Your book can only be about one thing, and you have to be able to say what that one thing is. (Stuart Horowitz, p. 73, Blueprint Your Bestseller)

All of the reasons why I couldn’t possibly distill my novel into one trite-sounding statement crowd around me and sweat all over my notes. First of all, it’s just too much work. I have 250 scenes that blossom into sixteen half-articulated series (what the rest of us would call “themes”). You’re telling me that I have to sum up each of these series into one sentence, prioritize the sixteen sentences, squeeze the sixteen into eight, then four, then two, and then one? Right. The World Cup is over, buddy.

Here’s what I have so far:

1. Fear. Survival, insecurity
2. Love. The Power of Love – Love. Neglect versus Attention/lack of love
3. Unintended consequences. Two-edgedness of technology
4. Power. Ugly truth about the world/Things are bigger than us

And so on to sixteen series. Twenty if you count the characters. Yes, I’ve a very long way to go.

What’s more, when I finally summarize a series, it just sounds so… so corny. Take this one, for example:

Love and respect. People create monsters when it they treat others badly, but when people treat others with love and respect, good things happen.

What fortune cookie did I just break open?

And I’m getting antsy. I haven’t begun editing anything yet. The method promised me a revision. I haven’t corrected a calculation error, fixed a misspelling, or added a single comma anywhere on my manuscript. I know they’re there. But all I’ve been doing is going through an entire glue stick pasting paper onto index cards, re-reading scenes to figure out if they’re key scenes or not, and naming series. Mr. Horowitz also promised me a reorganization. But I haven’t rearranged any scenes and I’m halfway through the method.

I want to revise my novel already!

Stuck at arts and crafts stage.
Manuscript, all cut up. Stuck at arts and crafts stage.

Slogging Through

Then I remember why I’m doing this whole exercise and I keep on going. The journey will be long and difficult no matter which path I take. But, Mr. Horowitz says, “at least with this method, you can be confident that you are working towards something substantially stronger than your current draft.” (p. 60). Am I falling fool to self-help madness?

I don’t think so – it makes sense to me.

The NaNoWriMo 2013 experience was a stream of consciousness spilling out onto blank pages. It was riding ahead full speed without looking back.

At this stage, I can:
A. Jump right in to shove, coax and cajole ideas into place. Squeeze sentences in, slash at sections and transfer thoughts.
B. Take the time to understand exactly what I was trying to say. To stop and understand my novel first before I try to shape it.
C. Quit. Stop.

Deep inside, I know I need to understand where I’m trying to go before I can get there. Doing (A) would be like trying to get over a mountain without a destination, much less a map. Picking (C) would be so easy. I’ve already lost a month. But (C) is a cop-out. It would end my writing career because writers write. Letter (B), then, is definitely the best answer.

So I kick away the fear that blocks my path. The fear of that mountain of scenes and the fear of finding out what lies at the heart of all of it. I gather the growing pile of research and notes and details inside which I had been hiding for a month into a big sack and sling it on my back. All of the innumerable shiny distractions and excuses fall behind me. Serendipitous words of encouragement that kind souls leave out at the end of July help me along.

We’re going somewhere, guys, and we need to go right now.

As uncomfortable as I am, I squirm through synthesis, hackneyed phrases, clumsy construction and run-on sentences. I trudge mud-laden towards discovering what my One Thing is. I have no idea whether I’m doing any of this correctly and I highly doubt that I can get to that One Thing, but I slog through anyway.

After an indeterminate amount of time, I stop and sit slack-jawed at my computer. In a list of sixteen one-sentence series sum-ups, I’m starting to see the point of my story. In a forest of rayguns and forcefields and other such compound words, I’m starting to see some fundamental truths towards which each scene is trying to push. Where my brain is trying to take my readers. Obvious things I need to add and subtract from my manuscript begin whispering along my neurons.

I also realize that what stares back at me is a list of many of my fundamental beliefs articulated on a page. My worldview on Word.

That last epiphany is rather disturbing, so I put it in my back pocket, pick my hiking stick back up and keep on moving – iteration after awkward iteration.


At around midnight, I stop. There she is. The top of the mountain. I look up and realize that I’m face to face with my novel’s One Thing:

Treat others as if they were monsters and that’s what we get – monsters.

I can have a complex and nuanced tapestry of series, but they must all point to this one theme.

Finally, armed with this understanding, I can start bushwhacking my way down the other side of the mountain towards finally reorganizing and revising my novel. I can descend in the comfort that yes, I am going somewhere worthwhile, and that I now know where that somewhere is.

And I wouldn’t have gotten here if I hadn’t kicked my ass out from the bush under which I had been hiding for a month, quaking at the idea of boiling my novel down to only One Thing.

I know it’s hard, but put your head back on and just keep going.

(Yes – that’s this post’s One Thing.)

4 thoughts on “Just Keep Going: Finally Getting to My Theme

    1. I am wondering the same thing! For the purposes of this rewrite, I’m experimenting – forcing myself to believe for a moment. Maybe at the very deep heart of it, a novel MUST be about just one thing, but it doesn’t preclude writing about other things that get to that One Thing. At any rate, we’ll see how this experiment goes… I’m actually finding it kind of fun (and useful) having to focus on that One Thing while editing.

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