The Rewrite, again

Back at the beginning of the month, a pair of (anonymous) questions regarding craft came in: How much of a biography do you give secondary characters before introducing them into a novel? And, Do you write around themes, or do the themes emerge as you tell yourself the story?

Both of these boil down to the rewrite process. The rough-and-tumble of a first draft sees the introduction of all kinds of ideas and all sorts of characters. It’s the preliminary sketch period, when broad lines are drawn and details are a little sparse. In other words, I’m not sure what is a secondary character or what the themes are until I can see the shape of the entire book, beginning to end, and judge what it is and what it needs.

Some secondary characters are only there to advance the flow of action, like rocks in a Japanese stream: It’s best to have interesting shapes, but they can’t be too dominant because their role is part of the flow, not central feature. Sometimes this means paring down their more interesting qualities in order to let them fade a bit.

Other times something sharp and quirky is needed, and even though a character is of little importance in the ultimate scheme of things, the flow needs a quick jog in order to keep the reader’s attention.

Similarly with themes. Although I have to admit, I’m not exactly positive what the themes are in a book. I know some of the ideas I’m trying to work with—for example, in THE GAME I was playing up the parallel between the 1920s and now when it comes to the political quagmire of Afghanistan and northern India, as I shaped O JERUSALEM around the clear link between the actions of the British Mandate and the mess in Israel today. I suppose those parallels are thematic. But what is the theme of WITH CHILD? That some kids are hugely screwed by society, yet manage to survive intact? So? That hardly seems worth writing an entire novel in order to say.

I’d be curious to know what people see as the themes in some of my books, and perhaps I could respond to those.

Comments

  1. I agree that themes are tricky, and I’m actually adverse to books where the “theme” is so evident it kicks you in the teeth. I think that it’s right to have underlying ideas that the novel can play with and address, but some of my favorite authors have disappointed me by suddenly writing a preachy “theme” novel. Some of YOUR themes? (Or maybe ideas?) I love the depth and complexity in your novels: it’s a mystery, but here I am thinking and revelling in theological ideas, history, the nature of true companionship and love, loss, guilt, healing, adventure, risk. With your absorbing narratives you cover all of these and more. Please don’t start writing on themes!

  2. L. Crampton, LAc says:

    Having just yesterday finished reading KIM, I’m hugely aware of the value of that remarkable book and of your THE GAME, in providing stories that allow us to see in the mirror of life and history what the consequences of current choices may be. But, the beauty lies in themes that rise from the people, the place, the time . . . and just happen to be magnificently relevant to ours. Although I see the value of ‘themes’ in non-fiction, I’ve never been able to approach the notion of consciously incorporating themes in my fiction writing without stumbling all over the place and barking my shins on the cart containing the themes as I go. Whatever you’re doing, keep it up!

  3. I’ve always enjoyed what I, at least, perceive as themes of self, individuality, and how people who are, in some sense, outsiders fit into their communities at various levels. I don’t know if that makes any sense at all — and maybe it’s something I’m reading into the novels — but I appreciate it nonetheless 🙂

    For what it’s worth, I thought With Child had a strong theme of “family” running through it: the families we’re born to and the ones we create; how those bonds can be built, stretched, twisted, broken, and/or strengthened; and how those changes ramify through the webs of relationship that connect us all. Just my take . . .

  4. I agree with Naomi. Please don’t become a preachy novelist. Let the themes just happen naturally as they develop with the story. Amen.

  5. I suppose feminism would be an underlying theme in all of your novels, since there is always at least one strong female character besides Russell per book.

    BEEK, MREG, and LOCK all form a sort of psychological heroic journey for Russell, moving from a naive youth to a somewhat jaded adult.

    While I’m on the subject, I also loved the theme of the Holy Fool in “To Play the Fool.” I”m an compulsive quote collector, so I was fascinated by the idea of communicating only in quotes.

    Many of your novels don’t have themes so much as moods. (I’m thinking in terms of symphony movements, for some reason.) The MOOR, for example, practically drips off the page.

  6. In my opinion, the underlying theme in all of your work is Survival of the Least Fit. All of the characters who really ought to call it a day survive, and, more often than not, learn to thrive after overcoming an obstacle (usually, it seems to me, themselves).

    Since I cheated by asking three questions in one month, I will leave you alone until November.

    Thanks for answering.

  7. riobonito says:

    I don’t think this really comes under the heading of theme, but one of the things I love about your books, are the physical challenges that the characters face, being cold, wet, uncomfortable and just in general worn out, and then the relief….the good night’s sleep, the rich cup of coffee, a wonderful meal, I love reading about how good a cup of coffee tastes or the cleansing of tea, on a tongue that is wooly from to much drink the night before. Your ability to bring these conditions to reality are engaging and satisfying, which is a great compliment, as one reads about the travails of said characters, one is feeling their pain, and then their joy when these comforts present themselves.

  8. Anonymous says:

    Laurie, I am thinking of you during your husband’s illness and hoping that things are easier for you now. Or soon.

    I have read and re-read your books, all of them, and your writing is a constant companion in my life, your books old friends on my shelves.

    My very best to you today and always,
    Kate McKinnon

  9. I confess I have not given much thought to the themes in your books. Having read your Mary Russell series primarily–and recently reread O Jersualem (which I LOVE) and Justice Hall with the unforgettable characters of Mahmoud and Ali Hazr–I am struck by the theme/philosophy/value of individuality in your works. Individuality and being true to oneself/being oneself truthfully. If that makes any sense.

    BTW: Kate McKinnon’s comment is lovely. Ditto.

    Roxanne

  10. “A Darker Place” has that whole ‘transformative’ theme- cult-like alchemist wanna-bes, and main characters- alike.

    Writers seem to approach themes differently- some use visual qualities, some use personal characteristics, or events that parallel, etc. Can there be a wrong way to go about a theme? Can it come about unconsciously on the author’s behalf? Must a theme exist for a book to be good/interesting/poignant/etc?

  11. I was going to come post this comment today anyway, before I saw that you had blogged about “theme,” but I can tie it into your question. I’ve been reading the Mary Russell novels this summer, and my favourite so far has been Justice Hall, which has a very clear theme of (obviously), justice. Beautifully expressed in the character of Gabriel and in the use of the verse from Amos.

    I cried when I read the Afterword to that novel, because after introducing the story of a soldier “shot at dawn” in fiction you then told a little about the real-life situation behind that story. This morning when I opened my web browser, the first news item that caught my eye was the news that the 306 soldiers executed for desertion and cowardice in WWI are finally going to be granted pardons. Justice Hall was the first thing I thought of … so in that case you did a wonderful job of tying a fictional story into a real-life injustice that has finally been, if not redressed, at least acknowledged.

  12. peameander says:

    hi laurie and friends,
    and apologies for being off topic…. and in case what i am about to do is against your rules here.
    i’ve been reading the mary russel books since the beginning, reading and re reading. my daughter is now 20, and we have both enjoyed your writings…. and folly and the martinelli books. if there are others, we would read them if we only knew…..

    recently i re read “keeping watch” which seems as pro peace and anti war as any written words could possibly be.

    i am posting an “invitation to contribute” from my friend and neighbor who is organizing a celebration for the international peace day in september.

    i went to the web site to find an email address to try to forward the invitation to laurie.

    this is an exciting project, and letters are arriving daily from around the world. the letters will be a major part of the exhibit, and the opening of the letters will occur after the minute of silence.
    again, my apologies if this type of posting activity violates the rules of your on line forum.

    now that i have found your spot, i will enjoy reading and joining the discussion

    penelope

    From: thepeacelibrary@aol.com
    To: melinda@booboorecords.com
    Sent: Sunday, July 23, 2006 11:31 AM
    Subject: Fwd: Peace Day!

    Dear Friend-

    You are invited to join a peace project. Sit down for a moment and think about a peaceful world, what does that look like? What can we do to make changes? Where do we begin? Please take a little more time to write down your ideas.

    This project is part of a worldwide Peace Day celebration. In 1983 the United Nations declared September 21 the International Day of Peace (www.internationaldayofpeace.org.) Peace Day gatherings are being planned all over the world in support of a single day of global cease-fire, and in the hope of a future without the violence of war.

    The Peace Library (www.thepeacelibrary.org), based in San Luis Obispo, California, and ARTS Obispo, SLO County Arts Council are sponsoring an art installation in the new ARTS Space Obispo gallery in honor of this important day – September 21, 2006. The installation will be composed of your ideas in letter-form, creating an international chorus for peace.

    Email this invitation to friends and family, including those in other countries. Ask them to invite their friends and families to join the project. It is our hope to create a forum for positive change, a dialogue shared by all who wish to be a part of a global movement for peace.

    Please:

    – All letters received by September 7, 2006 will be included.
    – Write the letter in your own handwriting if possible, if not, typed is fine, or email thepeacelibrary@aol.com. No response is too short or too long.
    – Write the letter in your own language, part or all of it could be translated into English if you like.
    – Include in the letter the country of origin.
    – Send or email a picture of yourself and/or your family and friends
    – Use interesting paper, perhaps something commonly used in your community, and attractive stamps on the envelope
    – Ask everyone you know to send a letter.
    – Send the letters to…

    The Peace Library
    17100 Walnut
    Atascadero, California 93422

    Thank you,
    The Peace Library and friends

  13. Anonymous says:

    laurie,

    your theme seems to me to be the truth of humanity, messy and complex, and gloriously capable, of everything from saint hood to purest unadulterated evil….

    different facets of the human repetoir highlighted by different settings and challenges for your characters

    there is not a thing i’ve read of yours that doesn’t ring true. i believe that in “fiction” is where we can find the truest commentary on people/human nature/and the outcomes which are likely to follow various actions policies etc.

    thus, fiction can be a powerful tool for cultural change, and political action. it is story telling that transmits culture to the next generation.

    that (by sending them to a pointless war) a government is capable of commiting atrocities against its own youngsters is an idea presented in keeping watch. thank you for that

    the competent woman is a character your work is presenting as reasonable. thank you for that,

    and i love the way you tell it.

    i can’t believe i really can “talk” directly to you! i’ve loved your work for years, and appreciated that my daughter had mary russell right there to share life with.

    thanks for that too

    penelope

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